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Trailblazers: crossing into China as a Lonely Planet writer in the 1980s

Our Trailblazers series sees Lonely Planet's guidebook writers reflect on past adventures, reminisce a little, and compare their experiences past and present. Here, our Melbourne-based writer Steve Waters recalls his time researching in China, when the country was starting to emerge from isolationism.

A table is set up on the side of the street and is covered in flat bread. A woman is looking at the bread on display while a child plays in the background and two young boys are on their bikes in the foreground. The stall is set up in front of a building with several windows.
Uighur flat bread stall, Kashgar, Xinjiang, China, Oct 88 © Steve Waters / Lonely Planet

Mostly remembered for bad hair, terrible music and the fall of European communism, the 1980s also witnessed China cast aside its Maoist blinkers and take the first, tentative steps towards a market economy. With the 70s overland hippie trail shutdown by the Soviet-Afghan War, independent travellers began trickling north to the Middle Kingdom. The breakup of the Soviet Union soon followed, neighbouring borders reopened, and almost overnight the ancient silk-route pathways across Central Asia were re-established. Once again, all roads led to China.

China’s historical isolation was in part due to its constraining geographical boundaries – impenetrable mountain ranges, inhospitable deserts, impassable rivers and pirate-laden seas. Nowhere is raw geography more evident than the border with Pakistan along the jagged Karakoram Range, in wild-western Xinjiang

The Karakoram Highway: 1988 to 1997

A woman stands in front of the Khunjerab Pass. An ornately decorated entrance straddles the snow-covered road. Two cars are behind her, one stopped under the entrance and one just the far side of it. People are standing around both vehicles in heavy clothing.
Steve's travel companion Vicky at the top of the 4700m Khunjerab Pass, China - Pakistan border 1988. © Steve Waters / Lonely Planet

Vicky was having trouble breathing. We’d left the warmth of the Pakistani 4WD at the top of the ice-covered, 4700m Khunjerab Pass, to photograph the kitsch, dragon-topped Chinese welcome arch. After long days spent on dodgy local transport, hurtling maniacally along an ever more-crumbling road perched precariously above raging torrents, and rounding treacherous blind corners laden with landslides, we were lucky to be here. Our ears were ringing, either from the sudden altitude gain or the days of incessant, distorted Urdu music. The torturous switchback down the Pass of Blood to the Pakistani border village of Sost lay behind us. Only opened to tourists in 1986, there was no better route at the time for aspiring overland travellers. We snapped our pics, wound on our film, and didn’t tarry - China awaited!

A bus is stopped on a remote road on the left of the picture. People are standing around taking pictures on the rocky ground to the right. Snow capped mountains loom in the back of the photo and the sky is blue and cloudless.
Steve and Vicky at Tianchi, Xinjiang 1988 © Steve Waters / Lonely Planet

The Chinese border post at Pirali, a concrete bunker a few kilometres from the top of the pass, provided our first taste of Chinese bureaucracy, when they charged us for their immigration forms. We were also obliged to buy FECs.

Foreign Exchange Certificates were the official tourist money used for most hotels, transport and foreign goods. Renminbi (RMB), (literally people's money) was used for food and everything else. Officially 1 FEC = 1 RMB but there was a raging black market offering more lucrative rates. Travellers tried all sorts of tricks to pay for things in RMB while the black marketeers tried all sorts of tricks on the travellers – the golden rule: always count the RMB yourself before handing over the cash.

After Pirali, our now-Chinese bus hit a pothole and lost the back window while our oblivious driver killed the engine and coasted in breezy freefall all the way down to Tashkurgan at 3100m, a bleak Silk Road outpost. The obligatory Transport Hotel (TH) — buses didn’t travel overnight in Xinjiang then — had one 40-bed dormitory and two squalid toilets. 

Three photos: clockwise from above: Wuzhou - Canton Ferry, numerous people crowded in and lying down in 1988; Steve and a friend on an express train to Chengdu; Steve in 4th Class on the Yangtze River somewhere between Wuhu and Chongqing, Dec 1990
Clockwise: Wuzhou - Canton Ferry, 1988; Steve and a friend on an express train to Chengdu; Steve in 4th Class on the Yangtze River somewhere between Wuhu and Chongqing, Dec 1990 © Steve Waters / Lonely Planet

Chinese people dealt with long journeys by alternatively sleeping and eating.  Any refuse – cigarettes, peanut shells, sunflower seeds, tea leaves, spit, vomit or baby piss went straight onto the floor, regardless of whether you were on a bus, train or boat (beware the bottom bunk!). Everyone smoked in China in the 80s. On one forgettable slow boat trip up the Yangtze River in the middle of winter, we alternated between asphyxiating in the smoke filled 4th class dormitory awash with the above refuse, and freezing to death outside. Attempts to self-anaesthetise by sculling bottles of sweet Chinese wine, sealing 'Help – please rescue!' notes into the empties before flinging them over the side, invariably failed.

Steve and another person sit in a narrow part of a train by a doorway. They have bags around them and look uncomfortable. Ice is visible on the edge of the door.
A deeply uncomfortable seat, somewhere between Emei Shan and Jinjiang. Note the ice on the edge of the door © Steve Waters / Lonely Planet

The incredible scenery of southern Xinjiang unfolded the next day, the mammoth peaks of Muztagh-Ata (7509m) and Kongur Shan (7649m) dwarfed the road, and Kyrghiz nomads and Bactrian camels lounged by Kara Kul. Fabled Kashgar, with its colourful, inscrutable Uighurs (still in the majority), was less of a culture shock than the Han Chinese-dominated cities yet to come, with their drab, Mao-jacketed staring squads, obstructive ticket sellers and outwardly hostile hotel staff. In Kashgar, it was the tourists who gawked, travelling in packs and wielding zoom lenses like targeting lasers around the already popular Sunday Market.

As perfectly final as a Russian nyet, méi yǒu was the first phrase every traveller learnt. Applied equally to a request for a room, a beer or a bus ticket to Lhasa, it roughly translated as 'don’t have', though was more commonly understood as 'no, not now, not for you, not ever'. Learning numbers and key phrases in Mandarin was a necessity, for while a ticket request for jīn tiān (today) might provoke a méi yǒu, one for ming tiān (tomorrow) might not. Restaurants were easier; you simply walked into the kitchen and pointed at ingredients.

A scene of the heavily crowded market area. A Chinese woman in a blue jumper and hat, and black apron, stands in the foreground staring at the camera.
Naxi market, Old Town, Lijiang, Yunnan © Steve Waters / Lonely Planet

To be fair, life in the 80s for the average Chinese person wasn’t easy. The excesses of the Cultural Revolution were still a recent memory, there was almost no middle class, and they had to fight for everything or miss out. If westerners found buying travel tickets an ordeal, the Chinese had to deal with it every day. Internal tourism was not encouraged and strangely attired foreigners with no understanding of the language or local customs were indeed a curiosity. Personal space was unknown and nobody had a problem with staring - at foreigners, or at each other. A year later, in a small town in Xishuangbanna I witnessed a crowd of people gathered outside a building, staring in the window. A student explained – a woman inside was giving birth. 

We stood in the freezing Kashgar gloom at 4am, wondering if our bus was running on official Beijing or local Xinjiang (2hrs behind) time. The bus left when it was full four hours later with the wind howling through the glassless door. Alternatively frozen then sandblasted, it took us three days to cross the Taklamaklan Desert, weathering constant breakdowns, overnighting in spartan THs, and arriving in Turpan magnificently dust-covered. 

A fisherman detangles his nets on the banks of a river. He's wearing an overcoat and a black cap. The sky is blue and scattered with white clouds and the other bank of the river is in the background of the image. Hilly peaks frame the river. Two boats are moored on the bank next to the fisherman.
Bai fisherman, Erhai Lake, Dali, Yunnan © Steve Waters / Lonely Planet

Crossing the Kazakh border nine years later, after weeks travelling through bleak Central Asian ‘stans still recovering from their collective communist hangovers, we found that FECs, Mao-suits and Transport Hotels had been replaced by thriving private enterprise, day-glo nylon fashions and sleeper buses. A rapidly expanding economy fuelled a growing middle class. Internet cafes were everywhere.  After months of grey, greasy mutton, Chinese food was a taste sensation. The Taklamaklan was still an adventure (even sleeper buses broke down) though no longer a three day epic. Alas, the kitsch dragon arch on the Khunjerab Pass was gone. 

Days on a hard-sleeper train brought us to Beijing, in the 80s a sleepy city of massive grey Soviet-era buildings and wide avenues serenaded by bicycle bells. Narrow hutongs (alleys) led to informal markets, hidden temples and calligraphy shops, while the whole city lay cloaked in a charcoal burner funk. Private vehicle ownership was non-existent and foreigners could only stay in several designated hotels; the infamous Qiao Yuan was the budget favourite. Fast-forward ten years and the hutongs and bicycles were already disappearing, making way for futuristic hotels, shopping malls and a concentrically expanding ring-road system catering for a newly-insatiable appetite for cars.  By the time the Olympics reached Beijing in 2008 the city had a word-class subway system and world-class air pollution and traffic congestion.

(Clockwise) Chinese Immigration checkpoint at Shenzhen, 1988; Uighur flat bread stall, Kashgar, Xinjiang, 1988; The author settling the bill at the legendary Pete’s cafe, Lijiang 1989
(Clockwise) Chinese Immigration checkpoint at Shenzhen, 1988; Uighur flat bread stall, Kashgar, Xinjiang, 1988; The author settling the bill at the legendary Pete’s cafe, Lijiang 1989 © Steve Waters / Lonely Planet

Every trip I made to Beijing between 1999 and 2011 astounded me more, with the city’s progress from dour Maoist past to world-leading 21st-century megacity. While it was once easy to distinguish 'Overseas Chinese' from mainlanders by simply looking at their clothes, by the end of the millennium the latest fashions and mobile phones were just as prevalent on Wangfujing as they were in Causeway Bay or Tokyo. English was more widely spoken, and the people far more friendly, helpful, affluent and relaxed.

Yunnan had a laid back reputation among travellers, due to its milder climate and large number of ethnic minorities. Dali’s old town, on Erhai Lake in the Bai Autonomous Region, was a favourite hangout to eat wok-pizza and explore the neighbouring villages. Under the gaze of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, picture postcard Lijiang was home to the matriarchal Naxi and close to the forbidden Zhongdian route to Tibet. Every traveller purchased a piece of Dali tie-dye or Naxi calligraphy. However, by the late 90s, growing internal tourism markedly changed the once tranquil, picturesque villages as new airports, hotels and shopping malls rapidly proliferated. 

An old passport page showing Chinese double-entry visa stamps
Chinese double-entry visa for 1997 Central Asian trip, Khunjerab Pass revisited © Steve Waters / Lonely Planet

We took a sporting route from banana pancake capital Yangshuo (already a backpacker magnet) by bus to Wuzhou (with writhing sacks bound for Canton’s markets) then overnight ferry to Guangzhou. At the train station, the lucky got jīn tiān reservations for Shenzhen, the rest just stormed on-board anyway. We now exercised our perfected méi yǒu ruthlessly. Thankfully it was a non-stop express. Clearing Shenzhen customs, we crossed the bridge to Hong Kong’s sparkling Lo Wu KCR station. The KCR trains were spotless; nobody was coughing, spitting, staring or shelling peanuts onto the floor. Someone remarked 'wow, it’s not like China'. This effect soon wore off after paying a fortune for a mouldy room in Kowloon’s notorious Chunking Mansions, beer was 10x more expensive than on the mainland, and the only place we could afford to eat was McDonalds. We almost missed the staring. 

To follow your own road to China, check out Lonely Planet’s China Travel Guide

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