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China in 1982: The country had slowly started opening up
In the summer of 1982, I was put on a professional course conducted by the Universal Postal Union (UPU) in Delhi, China/Philippines, Japan and Thailand. I had fellow participants from Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Thailand and Indonesia. The course ran for eight weeks in Delhi after which our group was to spend four weeks in Peoples' Republic of China (PRoC), two weeks in Japan and another couple of weeks in Thailand.

In August 1982 we were all set to leave for Beijing. A little delay in ticketing prevented us to fly via Hong Kong as the flights were heavily booked. China was just opening up and there was a rush of westerners to see the land that was considered mysterious, veiled off, as it were, by a bamboo curtain.

There was no direct flight from India to China. The closest was a linkage from Karachi which was on the route of China Airline’s flight from Tirana in Albania to Beijing via Addis Ababa. The Airline used to fly to only friendly countries. While Pakistan was a friendly country Albania and Ethiopia, like China, were communist “revisionists” at that point of time.

Thirty years ago China, unlike today, was not flush with US dollars. It used to be short of the stuff– in fact, very short. It had, therefore, sealed a deal with the UPU that it would take care of us all and the allowances that were due to us would be paid to it in dollars.

The Chinese Administration would advance to us a small amount of 15 yuans per day in the local currency (especially printed for foreigners) for out-of-pocket expenses. In the event, I was not advanced any hard currency before departure. What was advanced to me by the Delhi UNDP was a travellers’ cheque of measly $40.

One August morning we flew to Karachi but I had no visa for Pakistan. In fact, I couldn’t have had one as my official passport was not even endorsed for Pakistan (as also for South Africa and Israel). At the Karachi immigration my passport and that of the Bangladeshi were promptly put in a locked box to be collected before departure. The result was that both of us could not go into the arrival area. We had to loiter around in the veranda without even drinking-water, leave alone snacks or cold drinks. There was no vendor around anyway.

Thankfully, the China Airline flight arrived on time and the cabin crew served dinner soon after take-off. That put to rest my hunger. It was rather late when we finished the dinner but Chinese passengers were chattering away. They seemed like a talkative lot.

The Australian consultant, Pat Kearney, told me there were no seats available even on this flight too and the Chinese Administration had off-loaded seven Chinese at Karachi to accommodate us. Rather unusual, but the Chinese Administration could take such extraordinary measures without anybody protesting. The flight was over the Himalayas and after nine hours or so in the air we touched down at Beijing around six in the morning.

The Airport was nothing much, though, it was certainly better than what we had then in Bombay and Delhi- but not like the new massive one they have got now. It was here that I came across for the first time the automated walkway which saves the passengers the effort at least for some distances of walking and lugging the baggage.

These have since become common at bigger airports in India. They now even have a name- 'travellator' (to rhyme with escalator?) The formalities were completed in a jiffy because of the rep of the Chinese Administration and soon we were on a rather narrow road to Beijing in an air-conditioned Toyota minibus.

We were put up at the Beijing Hotel – a fairly old hotel, a contemporary of Taj Mahal Palace of Bombay. Like the one in Bombay, it had an old block and modern-looking newer block. Its construction had commenced in 1900 and was completed in 1915. It had hosted many distinguished people from Sun Yat Sen, Ho Chi Minh, to Nikita Khrushchev and Richard Nixon. I was allotted a room in the older block with that typical old-world charm. The Chinese aesthetics made it more welcoming and hospitable. Located close to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square we were all very comfortably placed.

Only, we could not have walked on to these well-known places on our own any time of our choosing. Foreigners, as we were told, needed to be escorted. Only certain areas of the country were at that time open to foreigners. For instance, in our four weeks in the country we were to visit Beijing, Xian, Nanjing, Soochow, Hangchow and Shanghai- a tourist circuit that was initially opened for foreigners in late 1970s and early 80s. We were to do the same circuit and escorted right through to several tourist sites in the six cities.

A little before eight on the second morning an interpreter arrived to pick us up and take to the headquarters. Roads were largely empty with no motor vehicles but there were lots of bicycles and electric trolley buses. Signs of China opening up could be discerned from billboards of famous Japanese firms like Hitachi, National, Citizen Watches and so on.

The Chinese working hours are long-  from 8.00 AM to 12 noon and from 2 PM to 6.00 PM with a lunch break of two hours for all the six days of the week. The first day in office was as usual – speeches of welcome and the response by the consultant. The top bosses of Chinese Postal Administration seemed to have made it a point to be present. But they all were an informal lot. All wearing light grey bush shirts, they were somewhat surprised to see us all in suits and ties.

As soon as the formalities were over they gestured to us to pull out the ties and things. It was indeed uncomfortable wearing a tie in that humid heat. Beijing in August can be uncomfortably warm. A bit of refreshments followed and then the Course commenced with visits to field units in Beijing.

To be continued...

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