When travel was still a novelty (2): China 1986

Man with pushcart
Pushcart in Beijing, anno 1986. Images Harry and Ursula

"The difference between now and then is unimaginable.” That was the 80's perspective of China of a Dutch traveller at the time. His experiences of a time when long journeys were still considered far away and a novelty, provide us with a travel time capsule, and this is his story. 


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 all the possibilities that service could offer. For example, there was only a glass of water in the small fridge in the room.

The difference with today is incomprehensible

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.

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 farm animals. 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. 

Man walking along Great Wall of China
Harry walking along Great Wall of China
Woman on bicycle among other cyclists in China
Ursula blending in with the locals

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.


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.

Man arriving in China at airport
When travel was still special: Arriving in China

Go here for another 80s travel story by the same writer:

When travel was still a novelty (1): India, 1986

Man and woman walking hand in hand in a street
Harry and Ursula, Spain

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.


Panorama of autumn woods and sky

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