I’ve been to Beijing twice now. The first time I went there, I was just 11 years old, and it had just opened up to tourism. I don’t remember a hellova lot from my trip to Europe and China in 1986, but actually I do have a few memories of visiting Beijing, which was a stopover on the way back. It was very different than it was today.
1986 is actually before the events in Tiananmen Square, to put it all into context. We stayed at the Sheraton in Beijing, and I remember a pool with no water and being quite high up. I don’t think there were many hotels that accepted foreigners back in 1986.
Photowise, it just so happens that my Dad has been recently going through all his old photos (slides actually as that’s what he used to shoot on) and he has scanned in photos from the 1986 trip. They’ve come up amazingly well, without that ‘dated’ look, which in some ways is good and in others is disappointing I guess. So it’s a good opportunity to compare them to my recent trip.
So, in 2017 I actually went to the two main places we visited in 1986. That would be the Forbidden City and the Great Wall of China. The Forbidden City has been maintained, and looks in really good nick these days, but I don’t remember it being any different from last time. In 2017 I was on a tour that took in the Forbidden City and the Wall in the same day. I don’t recommend it at all! But when you are strapped for time, sometimes you make a sacrifice or two that you didn’t really want to make.
So as a kid, I got to see a lot more of the Forbidden Palace as this time we really raced through it from pavilion to pavilion grabbing snaps as we went. Last time I remember exploring it more, although I can’t say I remember that much. In 2017 we started as soon as the thing opened, avoiding the major crowds which are to day pretty incredible. In 2016 the Forbidden City actually received over 16 million visitors!
What didn’t happen to me in 2017 was constant photo requests. Apparently back in 1986 being foreign kids, my brother and I were subjects of wonder. Everyone wanted our photograph! Well, this is what I have been told and I do remember this vaguely, but my Dad has produced a whole bunch of photos of us with Chinese families and parents.
The Great Wall experience was definitely busier than last time. And darned hot. I looked at my Dad’s photos and tried to match the bits of wall up – see what you think! Around the wall there are chairlifts and restaurants and souvenir shops for the tourists, which I certainly don’t remember back in 1986, and the clearest difference is the number of people climbing the wall, and their demographics. In 1986 there were far far fewer, and almost all of them were actually Chinese. Also, we could take a gondola up to the Wall, I don’t remember that from 1986!
And I think that’s where the big difference is today – China’s attractions for the foreign tourist are what they were 30 plus years ago, however, now they are set up for the tourist. They needed to sort that out I guess, the Olympics were held in Beijing in 2008 which meant better infrastructure and accessibility was needed. Which means, on the downside, that things are more expensive and I guess more ‘touristy’. Still, China seems to love tourism, local tourism as much if not probably more than international tourism.
People are different and the place is so much more modern. On the trip to the Wall we saw a farmer riding a tractor like so. Didn’t see a similar sight inn 2017. Also, clothes are much more modern and colourful today as compared to what was generally worn in 1986. So many people on bikes back in 1986 too – and still today, but also a lot more cars on the road. I didn’t visit the zoo this time around – but I do remember the pandas from 1986. I hope they are living in less bare surrounds today!
As a final point of comparison, I was amazed to find my parents actually found tickets to the Forbidden City – The Palace Museum, and these strange mementos of the Great Wall that curiously declare ‘I have mounted The Great Wall’. An interesting choice of words.
Have you ever returned to a place many many years after you previously did? How did the memories stack up? Please comment – and May the Journey Never End!