20 Summer Days In China by Betty Blunden (1974)

19 August

Breakfast at seven o'clock and a 5 km ride in our bus to the centre of Peking, the Tien An Min Square, which is absolutely enormous. Our first visit was to the Great Hall of the People. The main auditorium is huge, seating 10,000 people with 500 people on the stage. This is the place where the National Congress sits. Then we walked through a series of rooms, each decorated by a different Province. The furniture was made with local materials, as well as the furnishings, floor coverings, curtains or blinds, pictures and scrolls, and a few special ornaments. I remember particularly the Kwantung room (we had just visited the province) where bamboo was the main natural resource. The screens over the windows were woven of the finest imaginable bamboo. All the rooms were simple and restful, pleasingly austere and in perfect taste. The more public areas were very simple in design with good use of timber, square marble columns, timber floors with absolutely huge red Chinese carpets. The Banquet Room seats 5,000 people and is served by two kitchens. The whole enormous building was built by the people in 1 think ten months. We walked around the Tien An Min for a while. Many Chinese were doing the same, and a crowd had collected around a large white umbrella where a photographer was taking pictures. The bus then drove us to the Friendship Store, a four storey department store near the foreign Embassies. It is used by the embassies and tourists. The ground floor had food, and fruit and vegetables. 1 bought large bags of apples and peaches. Fruit was the treasure that I was always hunting .Then we wandered around and up the stairs. On the top floor were the art things, lots of tourist goods and some very good jewellery. I bought the Baroque pearl that Le had asked me to get for her. Then I saw some jade pieces. As part of my study preparation for the trip I had read two books on Chinese Art so I recognized some jade pi-discs. I had not planned to do any shopping for myself early in the trip but wait until we returned to Peking. But these pieces of jade I found unbearably seductive. Not having enough Chinese money on me I raced around to see if I could borrow the money from one of our group. Paddle and Ruth were able to lend it to me, and I made my purchase. Paddle and Ruth were the oldest members of the group, retired farmers from Port Fairy. They were a gentle and charming couple, and life-long socialists. And they were loved by every one of us.

Back into the bus and we were driven to the Underground. The first section of the Peking Underground has been functioning quite a few years but it looks as fresh as if it were opened last week. We saw big excavations where extensions are being constructed. The train we caught was fairly crowded and we travelled about half a dozen stations. Our bus was waiting for us again. Always clockwork organization. Back to the hotel for lunch and a half hour rest. Our afternoon outing was to the Summer Palace. Many Chinese families were spending the afternoon there too. Our entry price was fixed up by the travel service.

The other visitors were charged 5c, about 1.5c in our money. We walked in through a great entrance hall. The gardens were thronged, but so extensive that they were not overcrowded. Two ‘pleasure boats’ were waiting for our party. It was an extremely hot day but pleasant on the water. The boats had canopies for shade, a table down, the centre, and many bottles of soft drink for us. Lots of people were swimming -the in the lake and families or couples were in row boats. We were told that the cost of hiring a row boat was 10c an hour, Chinese cents. Our boats were sent through the water by an oarsman standing

in the stern and pushing an oar from side to side. Slow progress but quiet and restful. The lakes and gardens are very beautiful. The gardens were established eight hundred ears ago and they, with the buildings along the shores of the lake were kept in perfect order for the ruling emperors. Early in this century foreign invading troops sacked and burnt the Summer Palace. The last Empress later raised money to build a navy, changed her mind and rebuilt the Summer Palace with the funds. A ‘folly’ built by the Empress is a large, two storey marble ‘boat’, ‘moored’ to the shore of the lake. We left our boats here, inspected the marble ‘boat’ (based on Mississippi paddle boat) which is really very ugly, and possibly thought so by the Chinese authorities as it was not kept in the impeccable condition that the Palace buildings were. We walked through some palaces, along with the sightseeing Chinese people. The rooms were lined with cases of objets d'art, but most of them seemed to have been made in the Victorian style, an extravagant use of gold, pearls and precious stones, very skilful workmanship but the result not to my liking. We then returned to the entrance gate, walking along the shore of the lake under the most superbly decorated covered way. A long walk, but a joy, looking at these rich, traditional decorations that were scenes from Chinese history and legends. They were all in perfect repair.

When we assembled at the entrance our interpreters told us to hurry. If we were quick we could visit the Zoo on our way back to the hotel. This was a beautiful surprise. We had not been told in case we were too long in the Palace. On the flight up to Peking Miss Chi had done the rounds and asked everyone if there was something special that they wanted to see. I put in a request to see a Panda. There was a family of four. Mother and father in one cage lolling back, eating bamboo. They are quite large bears but very appealing. The adjoining cage had two young bears, also lolling back in the heat, eating bamboo. They moved around a bit and delighted us all. It was fairly dark in the Panda House and the cages had double fronts of wire, so I doubt if anyone got a good picture. I had used all my film earlier and the whole roll was a failure anyway, so that was a big disappointment; not to get a picture of the Pandas.

The crowds I saw in China were mostly of young people, young to middle aged as well as the many children. But at the Summer Palace I saw a very old man with a long, thin white beard which had been traditional for the very old. And a small black cap. He walked slowly and was in the care of some teenagers. Later, on the Great Wall I saw a very old lady with bound feet, the only bound feet I saw during my trip. She was also being looked after by young people. When I asked Marje why we paw so few old people she said, ‘It is too hot, Betty. Wouldn’t you be inside on a day like this if you were very old?’.

My diary reports for the evening meal at the hotel, ‘Salad as hors d'oeuvre, cucumber, tomato, egg and tongue. We all crave fruit and salad. Nice little sweet mince pies a new addition.'

We left the Friendship Hotel at 9.30 that night to 90 to the railway station for our journey to Talien, on the coast in the Province of Liaoning. We were going to the highly industrialised area, rich in iron ore, coal and oil shale that had been fought over by the Russians and Japanese for the first half of this century. It was better known to me as Manchkuo, the Japanese colony. It combined many interesting things for us to see and a slightly cooler climate for that time of the year. Not much cooler, but a bit.

In anticipating China, knowing of the immense population I had expected to see an ‘ant hill’. Not so. It is wide, cultivated spaces and the cities seem less crowded than ours. But at the railway station I saw my first really big crowd. There seemed to be thousands and thousands of people waiting in a great square outside the station. Waiting for their trains. PIA men, families with children curled up asleep on the luggage. The railway station buildings were the usual solid, spacious, ‘town hall’ type of architecture. With escalators. An enormously long train and a carriage was reserved for our group. Four to each compartment. 1 shared with Charlotte, and Rose Andrew from Canberra. Her husband was a retired UN agricultural scientist. They had lived in Ceylon and Brazil. Rose was English. Our fourth was Norma Millard, a widow from Lake Boga in Northern Victoria. As she told me in one of our long talks, Norma had trained as a mothercraft nurse and received her political education in the thirties on the Yarra Bank. Norma was Socialist all through.

I noted in my diary the homey furnishings in our compartment. The window was hung with velvet and lace curtains. The small table under the window was covered with a cloth and had a small potted plant, reading lamp, four cups with lids, tea caddy and large thermos of hot water. There were four comfortable bunks and an electric fan that was turned on all night. Our mattresses were slip covered in white cotton and we slept under towelling covers. The pillow-slips were embroidered, the designs combining traditional branches of blossom with symbols of industrial progress, electric pylons, bridges etc. The floor of the compartment as well as the corridor was covered with rich dark red Chinese carpeting. I slept pretty well for six hours and every time I turned in my bunk there was a train thundering in the other direction. It must be one of the busiest lines in the world. The thermometer in our compartment showed 90 F. as we went to sleep and was still 90 when we woke next morning.