1987/1988 was a strange year, indeed! Perestroika was going on in Russia, and while they aimed for political reforms, the ongoing economic reforms in China had already yielded more results. We did not discuss politics with our East German classmates, but who would have thought that the Berlin Wall would come down only a bit more than a year later? While the student protests in Beijing would be crushed mercilessly?
In this environment of change I experienced an amazing year of my life that has shaped me more than I will ever know. Although I did not pursue a career in or related to China I don’t regret or want to have missed spending this year there, during this time.
So, as most hard-core backpackers, I settled down in an infamous but cheap hotel in the South of downtown Beijing. During the four weeks I stayed there I met countless students and tourists that I had met all around Chine in the past year. I was very happy to meet the Swiss-Israeli couple again, with whom I had shared so much time in Xinjiang and Tibet.
I went to see „the sights“. I went souvenir and book shopping on Liulichang. I enjoyed Northern Chinese food. Beijing is so different from Shanghai, as all the major historic sites are here.
Unfortunately, I got into a rain shower, and my camera was soaked, so I lost most of the pictures I took in Beijing. This is what is left:
After returning to Shanghai the semester was over. I had to plan my trip back home, pack up my new and existing possessions, and, at some point, leave!
I remember packing at least eight heavy packages of books, bringing them to the International Post Office in central Shanghai, and shipping to my parents‘ address. They all arrived before me, by the way.
So I decided to take the Transmongolian Railway instead of flying: Beijing – Ulan Bator – Moskow, and from there on to Berlin (East), crossing over to Berlin (West), and then to my parents in South-West Germany.
There was a kind of „graduation ceremony“ from the uni, and I was reprimanded before for not attending classes, but got the „graduation certificate“ any way.
From the entries in my diary I can see that these last days and weeks in Shanghai were quite melancholic: The feeling that something „big“ was over!
I made random trips to downtown Shanghai to take some „last pictures“ of the place that had become so familiar.
The Wang family got my bicycle. And then I packed the backpack I had arrived with 10 months earlier, and took a train to Beijing…
It was May. The weather was once again nice and warm. Getting hot again, soon. I did not really have anything meaningful to study at Fudan. I had a legit and valid student ID card, with which I could buy tickets for „Chinese prices“ for trains etc. This huge and amazing country was waiting to be explored. But shy little me would never have even started a big trip on my own. Nevertheless, I seemed to have been talking about travel plans a lot, because one day a fellow German student approached me. He had heard that I might be planning a trip to Xinjiang. He, himself, always had the dream of seeing Tibet. But due to „unrests“ in the area Tibet was closed for foreigners. So, would I mind if he joined me?
And so, after a minimal amount of planning, we bought train tickets to the „Wild West“ of China! Heading for Kashgar on the Silk Road! The ultimate adventure for the country boy I was.
And off we went …
We planned a four-week trip. But at our destination we learned from other backpackers that there was one legal way to get into Tibet. I checked my finances: Could I afford extending my trip for another few weeks?
I have documented these trips to Xinjang and Tibet already. Therefore, I have linked these existing blogs in the overview table of contents.
Back in Shanghai, the Wang family took me on a day trip to one of the „Little Venices“ near Shanghai. There are several picturesque villages with canals and old buildings near Shanghai, Zhouzhuang being the most famous of them. Unfortunately I did not write down the name when I was there. Maybe a reader can help me?
When I got back to Shanghai after the winter break there was a huge hepatitis epidemic going on at that time, with reportedly more than 300,000 cases. The embassies organized inoculations for their citizens – I still have the vaccine instruction leaflet.
One morning I woke up with a piercing pain in my right ear. It was getting worse – not better. So I had to go to the hospital, at a time when everyone was advised to keep away from others as much as possible. Especially from where sick people were. Two fellow students went with me – I wouldn’t have made it alone. I was diagnosed with otitis media, and got antibiotics and a hydrogen peroxide solution for my ear.
It took more than two weeks until I felt better and could join classes again.
As to the classes: After the initial assessment I had been placed in the highest language course, which I somehow passed. This meant that for the second semester there were no more language courses for me, and I was allowed to go to a couple of lectures at the computer science department on the Chinese campus. I joined a programming lecture, and another one about AI. According to my diary I must have enjoyed the programming course – until I couldn’t go anymore, as a result of my sickness. The other course was a disaster though: The professor spoke a dialect. I didn’t understand a word.
I managed to get a train ticket in Guilin. The train, comimg from Eastern China, was delayed for more that five hours, and we had to spend half the night in a windy, cold waiting room at the railway station.
Kunming is called The City of Eternal Spring. It is far in the South of China, but very high, and therefore it is about 20 °C there all year round. I do not remember much. I took a bus to Dali on the Erhai lake.
Happy, warm and sunny days, after Guilin in the rain!
But it was time to carry on: Chongqing on the Changjiang (Yangzi river) was my next destination. I planned to take a boat from there, all the way down the river, back to Shanghai.
The weather in Guilin was miserable! It was raining all the time, I remember well the slobbery, sludgy dirt roads and the water puddles. My shoes and socks and pants were soaked with mud. I was wet and miserable all the time.
I took the bus to Yangshuo the next day. Yangshuo was not the smug tourist destination in 1988 that it is now, instead it was a backpackers‘ paradise, with inexpensive rooms, dorm rooms, cafés and restaurants catering for the backpacking tourists who traveled the galaxy for less than ten Altair dollars a day. In January, it was wet and miserable there, anyway…
Of course, I rented a bike to see the famous Moon Hill, with a crescent-shaped hole in its peak.
I am not sure whether it was on this trip to the Moon Hill, to be honest, as I went back two or three more times in the coming decades. Anyway: On top of the Moon hill was an old farmer lady, selling bags of mandarin oranges for the outrageous price of 6 kuai to tourists. I told her in Chinese that that was waaaay too expensive, but she told me that she was buying them on the market for 5 kuai, and she had to make some money as well. She was able to sell quite a lot of her produce, nevertheless. I planned to stay until sunset to take some pictures, and soon the old lady and I were alone on the mountain. She liked the fact that for once she could communicate with a gao bizi, a foreigner, and so we chatted a bit. Then she offered me to sell me a bag of Juzi for one kuai, instead of six, which was ok. We chatted on for a bit, and when she left, she confesed to me that the Juzi grew on the tree in her garden, so she didn’t pay for them at all in the first place.
I was a bit nervous on how to get out of Guilin, and on to my next destination, as pre-ordering train tickets was not possible at that time, and I didn’t want to spend a couple of nights in an unheated „hard seater“ category train coach with live chicken and sacks of rice. So I returned to Guilin the next day.
My next destination: Kunming in Yunnan province, also known as „The City of Eternal Spring“.