On the day that Chinese astronauts were photographed in the China Daily relaxing in deckchairs on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, with their vacated return-to-earth capsule from the recently completed Shenzhou IX space mission in the background, it seems appropriate for the Accidental Bus Driver to dust off the cobwebs of his cuttings books and show you what the country was like in 1979.
Yes, I was there.
What an ingloriously pompous and arrogant thing to say, you will undoubtedly be muttering, but I cannot describe quite what a magical place it was to visit.
It was on a school trip. In hindsight a very adventurous school trip. Mao Zedong had been dead for less than three years. Deng Xiaoping had only taken over the reins of power seven months before in December 1978. The United States had only just diplomatically recognised the People's Republic of China and Deng had visited President Jimmy Carter in the White House. One of the invited guests was Richard Nixon who had begun the thaw in diplomacy between the two nations.
So it was extraordinary times. A relatively unknown and unvisited country by Westerners. We felt like priviledged pioneers. From the moment I landed, I adored the place. The people, the food, the culture, just everything about China. It is the sort of place which either grabs you or doesn't. I have met several businessmen who have been there and were disappointed with the food because there was no Sweet & Sour Pork, Lemon Chicken or Chop Suey on the menu. But you takes yer chance.....
My camera broke and I was left with a pisspot poor backup - a Kodak Instamatic. The photos, as in the one above of a lanky seventeen year old Da Biedze (Big Nose - as the Chinese call Westerners) propping up an ancient tree, are a little grainy. There are however plenty of ephemera which show a country struggling to emerge from a violent and extreme Communist philosophy.
No one could have forseen quite how fast China would grow. In thirty odd years from some overpopulated backwater to superpower.
The next few posts will try and give you a flavour of a wonderful place. There will, of course be a little about transport and buses. But it may not be your cup of tea. As the Chinese say: