20 Summer Days In China by Betty Blunden (1974)

20 August

Our journey was 900 miles and was to take 17 hours. The morning was hot and cloudless. The toilets at each end of our carriage were clean and quite adequate. Towels were provided and a quick wash set us up for the day. “The view from the train is vast. Crops of maize and sorghum as far as the eye can see. Hills on the horizon, occasionally a range of mountains. Villages are compact, neat and far apart. Some houses have thatched roofs but mostly they are tiled. The railway stations invariably neat. Breakfast in the dining car — eggs, bread, jam, coffee and an apple from my own store’. The compartment had been straightened when we returned, and fresh hot water put in the thermos. We drank great quantities of tea during the day. And we talked and looked out of the windows. Too much to see to want to read. I joined Kay in the corridor, nose glued to the window. “I know what you are trying to do. Printing it all on your memory so you will never forget”. “Yes” she said. Just then we passed a half constructed bridge spanning a river. The scaffolding was of bamboo and the bridge had reached the half way mark. Right on top of the scaffolding a red flag was flying. “Well, we'll never forget that”.

Recorded Chinese music had been piped throughout our compartment since breakfast time. Beautifully oriental and the perfect background to our thoughts and conversation. Suddenly we were all aware of a particularly charming flute song. It was identified as ‘The shepherds flute song’ and many of us were able to buy the recording when we returned to Peking.

The train stopped for fifteen minutes at Shenyang (once Mukden) and we all got out and walked along the platform. Huge crowds. Children astonished at our looks. Obviously they had seen few if any European faces before. My diary notes “Man carrying two bags. One full of leeks, the other zippered up with the heads of two ducks peeping out. Shenyang a huge industrial town but still many trees planted everywhere. Crops planted beside the railway lines. We see chimneys for the first time. They burn coal and wood in the winter. For lunch, chicken with the head still on! Shrimps, Banana soft drink”. (There were many other things for us to eat but at this stage I was recording only unusual items). The memory of the journey is of the immense cultivated fields, and intense talk and discussions in our compartments. Our group is moving around a lot and the interpreters move from one group to another. Miss Chi spends a long time with our four. We astonish her with our answers to her questions about the life of young people in Australia. The thought of girls having babies outside marriage staggers her. ‘But is it legal?’ She talks a bit about herself. She is 22 but will not consider marriage until she is at least 25. She is reluctant to admit she has a special boy friend, but already Rose has found that out. She was a red guard during the Cultural Revolution then continued with her schooling. Ours is the first group for whom she has acted as interpreter. Her family are peasants and she goes home for holidays. All the interpreters will go into the country twice a year to help with the harvest. Students finish middle school at 17 then spend two years either in a factory or in the country in a commune. The wages for an 18 year old are 24 yuan a month. (The yuan is worth 2.7 dollars). Full wages for an ordinary worker were from 30 to 60 yuan a month a manager would get 120 yuan a month. Our quick conversion of dividing one yuan by three was useful only when we wished to

to buy something and wanted a rough idea of how many dollars we were spending. It is not possible to compare a Chinese worker’s wages with an Australian’s as prices in China are so much lower. The rent for a house is a few yuan a month.

We arrived at our destination, Talien, once known as Darien, at 5.30 pm. “Huge crowds again on the platform. We were ushered into our waiting bus to drive out to our hotel. Talien is shabbier than the other cities we have seen but the trees lining the streets give their usual charm. There are more PIA men than we have seen before and as the bus passes, the people in the street stop and wave and clap their hands in welcome. This is the first occasion when we have been greeted with smiles and clapping hands and we are thrilled and clap our hands in response. There are many children playing on the footpaths and their excitement and smiles and hand claps provide an incredibly warm welcome. Talien is built on a saddle between the ocean and the Pohai Sea. Our hotel is some distance from the city and the drive is through delightful hilly country planted with acacia. Not many houses. The hotel is called Tung Shan, East Hill, is surrounded by trees and has a beautiful view of the ocean. We are received by Comrade Sun of the Talien Branch of the China Travel Service in one of the hotel reception rooms. He apologises for the ‘unfavourable environment’ and explains that their priority has been with the defence installations. Since 1894 this peninsular has been attacked and occupied by both Russian and Japanese Imperialists who treated the locals as serfs. (Our Chinese hosts always referred to their aggressors as Imperialists and never as the Russian or Japanese people). In the briefest historical summary Comrade Sun referred to the Russian occupation in 1894 and the sacking of Port Arthur a town on the southernmost point of the peninsular, by the Japanese Imperialists in 1904. Of the 2,500 population, 36 survived. The reasons for their priority being defence installations were abundantly clear. But the warmth of the welcome given us so spontaneously by the people in the streets and then by the officials of the China Travel Service more than compensated for any lack of luxury. The hot water occasionally ran cold but as the weather was extremely warm a cold plunge bath was no hardship. And to see sides-to-middle sheets on my very wide mosquito-netted bed was just like ‘old times’. I've done it myself more times than I care to remember. As usual the view from our bedroom was superb. We could see right down a lush green valley to the sea.

The new appearances on the dining table that night included an unusual salad, cold tongue, chicken and zucchini done in batter. ‘Delicious’.

We were invited to go that night to an acrobatic performance given by the students of the local Arts and Music School. Any child with an outstanding talent goes to a school where it can be properly developed. The theatre was in the grounds of the hotel, a short bus drive. As usual we were about ten

Minutes late leaving the hotel. When we arrived at the theatre the audience, consisting almost entirely of PIA men was standing and as we walked down the aisle to our VIP chairs they clapped us. We clapped our greetings and sat down. A comfortable chair each, a table with soft drinks and glass, a cold damp towel to wipe our hands and a fan! One couldn’t help remembering the ‘unfavourable environment’. The performers were between eight and fifteen years old. The show was being put on especially for us and we could only assume that the rows of PIA men were there to help fill the theatre and make us feel more at ease. As they were stationed in the area near both the school and hotel they must have seen the young acrobats performing often. But it was a wonderful night. The performers were obviously excited and gave a most joyful performance. Their expertise was minimally short of the professional company we had seen in Kwangchow and their youth more than made up for it. The orchestra, too, was composed of students from the same school and it was astonishingly good. The sets were more simple than in Kwangchow but equally effective. We had an absolutely wonderful night, and as the PLA men stood and clapped as we left the theatre 1 was hoping desperately that it had been fun for them too.