China and India 1986: When travelling was still a novelty

Written by  Harry van Iperen
China and India 1986: When travelling was still a novelty Pushcart in Beijing, 1986, images by Harry and Ursula

In this article, we look through the eyes and the perspective of an avid Dutch traveller, Harry van Iperen, who travelled through India and China with his wife Ursula in the 1980s and wrote about it at the time. Their experiences from then reveal a kind of time capsule of travel: They provide a snapshot, an image of travel when long journeys were still considered far away, a novelty, and not something we took for granted yet.


China, 1986: The difference with today is incomprehensible

It wasn't until the death of Mao Zedong [Editor: Mao is known as China's Communist Dictator] in 1976 that tourism took off in China. But when my wife and I were in China in 1986, it was clear that there was still a lot of room for improvement.

At our first hotel in Canton we were met by a dozen bowing staff, who, due to the past communist era, were still learning about the all the possibilities of service. For example, there was only a glass of water in the small fridge in the room.

Harry along a desolate Chinese Wall, China 1986

Group travel

When we were there, there was no such thing as free travel yet. You had to apply for a visa separately for each city you wanted to visit. Most visitors travelled in groups, which were transported from one hotel to another. Usually with a stop at one of the state shops where only foreign currency could be paid, so that it ended up in the state treasury and not with the population. For that reason you were also obliged to buy Foreign Exchange banknotes with which you could pay outside the hotels.

There wasn't much to pay for anyway, you hardly came across any shops. Even rarer were restaurants outside the hotels. And if you came across one, it was one that only offered boiled eggs, chicken feet, snakes, fried grasshoppers or all kinds of intestines. We began to long for 'our Chinese' in Amsterdam. We did not come across any markets either, street sales were strictly prohibited. We regularly saw people quickly pack up their simple trade and run away because the police arrived.

Ursula on the bike: When in Rome...

Not travelling with a group meant problems. Only the guides accompanying the groups spoke German or English; once you got outside the hotels the only language spoken was Chinese. There was hardly any car traffic. The bikes we rented cost us ten dollars the first time we rented them through one of the guides. A day later we were able to rent them for a dollar.

Although you were officially not allowed to leave the city without a guide, we went out on our own. We noticed immediately that we saw very few livestock. Nor were there any dogs or cats. We heard one of the guides nearby give an explanation for this. It had only been ten years since a terrible famine struck China, which left more than 40 million people dead. Every animal was eaten and so was the bark of the trees.

We began to long for 'our Chinese' in Amsterdam"

A very special dinner

While I'm on the subject of food, I want to describe another very special meal. One evening when we wanted to eat at the restaurant in our hotel, we were approached by the manager. He heard us talking in a foreign language, and asked in English where we were from. When I replied, "From Holland," he started patting me on the shoulder, and said, very enthusiastically: "Ollanda verry verry coot!!!" After we were seated and I wanted to order, the man said in broken English, “No problem Sir, you wait. For Ollanda coot verry coot,” and again, before I could ask what the man meant by that, he walked away. He returned shortly afterwards with two bottles of water and two large bottles of beer, which he set on the table in front of us. Again I made an attempt to order, but the man again walked away and returned moments later with two waiters, each carrying a tray loaded with dishes that were put on our table.

We didn't understand, nor were we given an opportunity to ask why this was happening. We just started eating and it was, to be honest, one of the best meals we've had in China. Our surprise did not end there. Despite my insistence, I was not allowed to pay. “No pay Sir. Ollanda coot, verry verry coot, Ollanda pays,” I was told. We suspected that the man had family in the Netherlands, who may have sent him money for years and that he now wanted to give something in return. In any case we never found out.

How it all looked: Small shop in China

How it all looked back then: Afterthought on China

Anyone who sees the many skyscrapers and the hectic traffic in the major cities of China on TV today, cannot believe what it looked like then. There was hardly any car traffic, most of the cars that did drive there were military vehicles. The streets were full of rickshaws bicycle taxis and bikers. In Shanghai and Beijing there were hardly any buildings higher than four floors. But in the past thirty-five years, China has built more skyscrapers than the rest of the world. Now there are the very latest trains, which travel at an enormous speed through the country and there are five-lane highways, overcrowded with expensive Bolide-type cars that end up in many kilometres of traffic jams. And where the cars do drive, they actually do not get there faster than the rickshaws.

And compared to the things you were able to buy back then, the difference between then and today is unimaginable. So much is now being produced in China that a hundred incomprehensibly large container ships take sail every day, delivering their production all over the world.

India: Insanely captivating, deadly exhausting and unforgettable

A bus trip through South India: Impressions of two 50+ backpackers in South India, 1986

We just got back from a trip through South India, and everyone asks: 'How was it?' How can you explain what it was like there, if the questioner him or herself has never been to India? Still, I want to give it a try. Picture the Kalverstraat in Amsterdam or the Lijnbaan in Rotterdam. As far as I'm concerned, it could also be the Spui in The Hague. In any case, a busy shopping street, on a Saturday afternoon just before Christmas. Terribly busy, you might say. Ha ha, don't make me laugh.

Terribly busy, you might say. Ha ha, don't make me laugh"

An ordinary street in India

In our minds, we are now going to make it an 'ordinary street in India,' somewhere here in Mamallapuram [Editor: a historic city in the South Indian state of Tamil Nad]. After having had a battalion of tanks drive around there for a week, in order to obtain the right type of road surface, we convert all the shops into cubicles of one by two metres with firewood. We leave the front of the booths open. We put a small thatched roof on top of each one, and on top of that a huge billboard painted in bright colours, preferably with something like New, Hall or Imperium on it, not to mention In & Export.

And then we stuff those cubicles with bananas in the colours yellow, green, brown and red, and large glass jars full of bright red and yellow sweets. Here and there we put rickety wooden stalls or carts in the middle of the street, loaded with pineapples, apples and coconuts. 

Although the picture is far from complete, let's leave it at this for a while and move on to street traffic. Here you have to imagine in a street of 150 meters long: About twenty approximately thirty-year-old buses, sixty taxis of the 1950 model, eighty scooter taxis, hundreds of bicycles, scooters and mopeds and twenty ox carts. Now add about fifty stray cows, a few donkeys and horses, two camels, an elephant, countless goats and a handful of monkeys.

Are you still there?

The more the merrier: A bus trip in India

The more the merrier

Before we send this mob out onto the street, let's take a bicycle taxi for a few rupees to the bus station from where our bus will depart. Both the first and second stations you will arrive at are usually the wrong one. After half an hour we arrive at the right bus station, a three-minute walk from our starting point. Now for half an hour we have to search for the right counter, where with a bit of luck, after an hour of waiting, we can get a few tickets for reserved places in a bus that leaves in three days. According to the tickets with a 'Superdeluxe Express' bus.

The words 'super deluxe' means that there are a few things on the bus that we hardly dare to call seats. The bus company calls it, in some cases, airplane seats. If I was ever offered a lift from an airline that flies over the Sahara with seats like that, I think I'll walk.

The word 'express' mean that you are guaranteed to get there faster than with an ox cart. I think the shock absorbers have already been removed from underneath. If not, they have not been usable for at least ten years. The springs have been doubled, because no sane Indian believes in the number of passengers allowed in the front of the bus, because the motto is always: The more the merrier. Windows are not usually present. If they are, then you have to be careful. It is best not to touch them. Trying to slide them open or closed means you'll probably be left with the window in your hand, and the wooden frame somewhere on the ground. As long as it hasn't disappeared through any of the holes in the floor.

No problem!!! In India, just place the window next to you, or under your airplane seat and continue to look outside.

“If I was ever offered a lift from an airline that flies over the Sahara with seats like that, I think I'll walk"


In addition to these luxury buses, there are also special tourist buses, the so-called video coaches. Not only is it difficult to find out from where and at what time they leave, these is something else going on with this kind of transport. Once you find yourself reasonably comfortable, reclined in your airplane seat, a sound will hit, the kind that a jumbo jet wouldn't be ashamed of. From six large loudspeakers it is being attempted with something called music, to surpass the cacophony of sounds from the street. And they succeed magnificently. After a ride in such a bus I was always left somewhat disturbed.

In any case, noise is quite normal in India. This, along with the bad roads, the state of the buses and the crowds, makes travelling in India a deadly tiring affair. A great resilience is therefore one of the most important qualities that an India-goer must possess.

But anyway, on the day of departure we are in the 'super deluxe' bus one hour before departure, otherwise the reserved seat is no longer reserved. Outside it is forty degrees Celsius, inside it is slightly warmer. We drink a very, very sweet lemonade for a few rupees, or if we're lucky, a cooled bottle of mineral water, which is six times as expensive. Anyway, we have something to drink.

As almost always, the driver gets in, very late, who, like the conductor, does not speak English, so that sometimes we only knew for sure at the end of the ride whether we had been on the right bus. The driver begins to check his metre gauges. Why he does this is still a mystery to me, because none of the dozens of buses we rode in had a single gauge working. Anyway, at least he's starting to look. I guess it's good for something. Then he yanks on a wire somewhere under the steering wheel, after which the bus starts to vibrate and shake at its seams. A mighty noise fills the bus. The driver starts to shift gears with even more noise. One hand on the steering wheel, the other on the horn. From now on there will be as little shifting gears as possible, because shifting means letting go of the horn and that is a mortal sin in India. And then a miracle happens! Something happens that I cannot explain.

Something happens that I cannot explain"

An inexplicable miracle

Now you have to remember again all those buses, carts, taxis, cyclists and animals and let them run free among the thousands of people who walk through the Kalverstraat, or your imagined version of a busy shopping street. Everything is now swarming, trying to make as much noise as possible, and that's what the bus we're on, is driving directly into. The fact that the bus can start driving is already a miracle, but the greatest miracle is that it also continues to drive. You can believe me or not, but it actually happens. In an ordinary Amsterdam Kalverstraat there would be deaths, or the bus would be stuck within minutes.

“The fact that the bus can start driving is already a miracle, but the greatest miracle is that it also continues to drive"

Being able to take things in

But here in India, when a bus starts driving it continues to drive. You won't hear me say it's going fast, but the advantage of driving slowly is that you get time to take in everything there is to see on the street. And that is something unimaginable. With bulging eyes and open mouths, we often sat in a daze watching the circus in the street. What to say about a high-wheeled ox cart, piled high with coconuts.

Or an elephant that is doing its business thirty centimetres away from your window, so that you don't have to miss the smell. Cows that continue to move, unfazed, hoof by hoof, across the road, or, better yet, that decide to lie down in the middle of the road. A herd of goats that suddenly comes out of a side street in the middle of the city.

There are no words for it

We would sit and watch in awe as the driver continued to drive and, not to forget, continued to honk the horn. To our amazement, a whirlpool of hairy goat bodies would form on both sides of the bus that, without a single goat hair being hurt, would just flow back together just behind the bus. It is impossible to describe this pandemonium. The written or spoken word falls short for that. You need all your senses.

Can you imagine, for example, that a couple of stray pigs want to walk into the premises of the V&D [Editor: A large Dutch department store] and the owner, Mr. Vroom, or Mr. Dreesman chases them out again, without worrying about anything, with a simple wave of the hand? The gentlemen do not complain, do not call the police, do not set up an anti-pig association and do not request the municipal council to appoint a committee to combat unwanted pig visits.

“It is impossible to describe this pandemonium. The written or spoken word falls short for that. You need all your senses"

Outside the city

The cityscape in India is insanely captivating, deadly exhausting and unforgettable. But let's see what it's like out of town. The bus leaves houses, slums and shacks behind. On the road it gets quieter and quieter. Some buses, a few antique trucks and some cyclists remain. Donkeys and ox carts join in. Unfortunately, the road surface remains bad for a while and the bus seems to be getting even worse, but the landscape is beautiful. Green, silky rice paddies punctuated by small pools where ebony-coloured buffalo bathe in silence. All this surrounded by sky-high palm trees, mighty rivers, jagged mountains. Sleepy villages where small groups of women in brightly coloured saris are stood talking. Little naked children waving at us. And then just somewhere in the middle of the landscape a beautiful temple, where we keep asking ourselves: How did they ever make it? The same goes for the dazzling Maharaja palaces.

Meanwhile, the bus shakes and bounces imperturbably from one panorama to the next. When the bus driver, despite a clear vision of oncoming traffic, continues to drive on the wrong side of the road, right until half a second before the barely avoidable collision, my wife suddenly remembered all kinds of prayers from her Roman-Catholic religious youth. I used to join her on the Indian night rides. In those moments, I just couldn't imagine ever being able to report on our travel experiences again.

But let me stick with the ride I'm taking with you in my mind. For the sake of convenience, we are on our way from [the Dutch cities] Amsterdam to Maastricht. Because when I tell you that we are on our way from Mahabalpuram to another ancient city in the same state, Tiruchirappalli (make sure you hold your tongue) it tells you nothing and it won't help you imagine how long the drive will take. If you leave Amsterdam for Maastricht at about nine o'clock in the morning, then you will be sitting on the Vrijthof quare in Maastricht for a coffee with a large piece of local Limburg pie at about one o'clock. Unfortunately, in India you would be, if all goes well, approximately in Den Bosch, and certainly not behind a large piece of Limburg pie.

Can you still follow me? Then let's move on.

Our bus regularly stops at one of the many bus stations, where thousands and thousands of people are sitting very patiently, or more often lying on the floor, waiting. When their bus finally arrives, all patience suddenly runs out and the passengers all want to get in at the same time. This means that they are not going to take into account that passengers have to get off first. So, things get urgent. Keeping in mind that only the first can get a seat. The rest often have to stand for hours or hang against each other. Anyway, we stop for the thirtieth time, and the bus driver gestures to us that he is going to eat before we continue, and we understand that we have to do the same.

“Green, silky rice paddies punctuated by small pools where ebony-coloured buffalo bathe in silence"

We stick to bananas

The restaurant is immediately packed. How could it be any other way, in a country where 900,000,000 inhabitants almost all travel by bus. Although we are often quite hungry, we can never get ourselves to eat in such restaurants. Palm leaves are laid out on the front tables. A few children then slap on a bit of rice, after which a number of other children deposit various indefinable mashes next to it. Now it is a matter of mixing and consuming all this with the fingers of the right hand, which I would certainly have considered a mighty way of eating when I was young. But the left hand is never used for eating, because it is supposed to be used instead of paper during every sanitary stop. We stick to bananas and apples on such occasions, catching up in the evenings in the hotels where generally good food was available. Especially on the coast where we could feast on a large plate of grilled shrimp or a freshly prepared fish.

As long as we get there

If the bus does not break down during the rest of the journey, and everything else goes well, we arrive at our destination at about ten o'clock in the evening. Everyone gets out or comes off the roof and tries to get to their luggage. Following that, a number of scooter taxi drivers will start a seriously tough fight. Every one of the drivers tries to get you in his taxi. All the rickety vehicles are each equipped with a meter, but as soon as a tourist gets in they are chronically broken. The drivers adamantly refuse to use them, and a ride that normally would cost five rupees will probably be offered for fifty. We offer to pay twenty, eventually it will be thirty. We know we're being 'taken for a ride,' but we're usually so incredibly tired, dirty, and hungry that we don't care, as long as we get to our hotel as soon as possible. Every now and then the scooter driver will be singing behind his wheel the whole way, so we are not left in any doubt that he has been screwing with us. On the other hand, if the agreed fare was below his expectations, he will turn it into a kind of death ride, dodging buses and taxis to the millimetre and ultimately dropping us at the wrong hotel.

Shopping street in India

Some afterthoughts on India

This report could come across as negative, but we certainly did not experience India that way. I would call it realistic, in the sense that travelling through India triggers something in you. Not just physically, but especially mentally. We often said to each other: 'Us Dutch, we like to moan, but we should look more often at life in these kinds of countries. To help us realise what kind of welfare state we actually live in.' In any case, India was an unforgettable experience for us that we would not have liked to have missed. And that's why we will definitely go there again. The piece of experience described by me, of course, only sheds light on a very small part of life in India. How all those millions of people live, work and experience their life and religion is extremely complex. To gain some insight into this, a stay of a few years is not enough, let alone a few months.

Harry and Ursula in Spain, 2016

About the author

Dutch writer Harry van Iperen lives in Spain with his wife Ursula, where for almost 30 years they have been committed to the fate of animals that end up in the country's many shelters. The proceeds of a book called Bas that Harry wrote went to local shelters. After writing these travel reports in 1990, he has often returned to India with a backpack from the south to Nepal in the north.

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