last bus in china

It had been a busy four days in Hong Kong after an interesting landing at Kai Tak Airport. There was only one approach to Kai Tak, up Victoria Harbor, turn north east across the Kowloon Peninsula towards Kowloon Peak with its blinking red light and make a sharp ninety degree turn over Mong Kok. The plane flew just above the streets of Kowloon, between the tall apartment buildings with their protruding bamboo poles holding the day’s laundry, and the wing tip almost touched the laundry as the plane dropped suddenly in its final turn onto the runway. The pilot had the aircraft lined up perfectly and down onto the short runway before applying maximum reverse thrust to stop before ending up in the bay. This time there was no “go around.”

At nine o’clock next morning I appeared at Alpha House on Nathan Road, walked up the narrow stairs to the first floor of the old building and entered a room with a small sign that said “China Travel Service (H.K.) Ltd.” After presentation of my official invitation to the 31st Chinese Export Commodities (Spring) Fair, my passport and payment for the visa and train tickets, I was handed a ticket for the journey to Guangzhou. I had expected to wait for several days before a seat on the train was available. Now I had four days to explore Hong Kong and buy the essential supplies for my first trip to China.

The list of “essentials,” compiled with the help of some members of the Foreign Correspondents Club, included medicines, insect repellant, soap, shampoo, toilet paper, Kleenex tissues, towels, instant coffee, biscuits, cheese, crackers, ketchup, canned sardines and other food items, film, tonic and soda water, a bottle of gin and a bottle of scotch whiskey. I found it all in a small supermarket underneath the Ocean Terminal near Star House. The customs limit for China was two bottles of alcohol with no specified size so the supermarket sold one-gallon jars of scotch, brandy and gin. A tailor at the Ambassador Hotel quickly made some short-sleeved shirts and light cotton pants; and at Marks and Spencer, in the Ocean Terminal, I bought books, magazines and additional underwear. The small short-wave radio, tape recorder, music tapes and another bag to carry the essentials were found in the narrow streets off Nathan Road.

On Friday, two days before the journey to China, I was entertained on board the boat of an expatriate American executive. Like many expats living in Hong Kong the boat had long-range fuel tanks and was stocked with canned food and bottled water for an emergency escape “when China reclaimed the Colony.” We cruised around the islands of Hong Kong, swimming off the back of the boat, buying fresh crabs from local fishermen and making a hole in the San Miguel beer and Gordon’s Gin supplies. I underestimated the strength of the sun and was careless in applying sunscreen so at the end of the day I was suffering sunburn to most parts of the body. The Chinese probably thought all Australians came in that one color.

It was April 1972 and travel to Guangzhou was by train from Hong Kong. Directions on the service coupon, issued by China Travel Service, listed the train departure time as 8:38am with check-in at the Kowloon-Canton Railway Station (KCR) at 7:30am. It usually was a quick walk from the hotel to the station, on the tip of the Kowloon Peninsula near the Star Ferry and Ocean Terminal. The old station is no longer there, demolished to make way for development along the waterfront and only the clock tower remains as a reminder of the past.

From the hotel I struggled along Canton Road, Salisbury Road and the two hundred yards to the station with a heavy suitcase loaded with life’s essentials, a second bag with clothes and a briefcase. It was 7:20am when I arrived but already it was hot and humid. The station was crowded with foreigners heading for Guangzhou and local travelers going home to the New Territories from work or the all-night bars in Wanchai and Kowloon. After checking the bags, I watched a strange mixture of people heading for the station, striding confidently along followed by hotel porters wheeling heavy cabin trunks. They were the “old China hands” who arrived just before departure time. Other early morning travelers arrived on the Star Ferries, with wonderful names like Celestial Star, Evening Star and Morning Star, from Central, Wanchai and Causeway Bay, and from nearby Kowloon hotels. Some were accompanied by hotel porters with exotic hotel names on their caps, Mandarin, Excelsior, Furama, Peninsula, Miramar, Repulse Bay, Ambassador and Imperial. Young, attractive and well-groomed Western women accompanied a few of the European traders, some traveling all the way from Europe and others selected from escort agencies in Hong Kong and Australia.

Travel Documents for Entry into China
Travel Documents for Entry into China

The Kowloon-Canton Railway (KCR East) was punctual and the train for Lowu departed on time at 8:38am. Starting slowly and following the waterfront beside Salisbury Road the train gathered speed as it passed through Hung Hom, Mong Kok and out into the New Territories. It made a number of stops before arriving at Lowu punctually at ten o’clock.

The service coupon, issued by China Travel, covered the railway ticket, baggage transfer from Lowu to Shenzhen (Shum Chun) and lunch at the Shenzhen Station. I did not have a confirmed return reservation as the date would be determined by the Chinese Government. My plan was to stay in Guangzhou for two weeks and travel to Beijing for a week if the visit was approved. Along with the ticket we were issued a pink ribbon, to be worn at all times, with the number of the Fair (31), another number for identification (1344) and Chinese characters that I could not read. Most of us forgot to wear the ribbon once we arrived in China.

A leaflet provided by China Travel Service advised: due to Hong Kong’s peculiar environment and for your safety check the contents of all baggage, remove anything put in there by unknown persons and properly lock it before leaving the hotel. All exposed undeveloped film and articles of value were to be declared at the Customs on entry into China. My interpretation of articles of value turned out to be very different to those of the Chinese customs officials who inspected and recorded the details of everything I carried.

Hong Kong Railway Station – 1972
Hong Kong Railway Station – 1972

We arrived at Lowu and left the train by climbing down from the carriages onto the side of the railway tracks. Officials organized us into single file to walk beside the railway tracks across the Shenzhen River Bridge into China, an unexpected but perhaps symbolic entry into the People’s Republic. We stopped at the end of the bridge to hand over our passports and other travel documents, the passports to be returned when we left China. Giving up my passport caused some anxiety as it created a dependency on the Chinese authorities for my identity. I became number 1344. Uniformed soldiers pushed the baggage trolleys along the railway tracks across the river into China and carried the bags into a large customs hall at Shenzhen Railway Station. For the next four hours we shuffled from room to room, filling in forms, listing all items of value to ensure they were taken out of China when we left, and having our baggage inspected. Details of all money, jewelry, watches, cameras, tape recorders, calculators, radios and slide rules were checked and their serial numbers recorded on the forms. I carried Pound Sterling traveler’s checks and cash, mostly Hong Kong dollars, as US and Australian dollars and credit cards were not accepted in China. All of the money was recorded by the Chinese customs officials. The baggage search was thorough and I was not questioned on my two bottles of alcohol. The officials were patient, polite and persistent while they thoroughly searched our bags. They did not speak English so there were no difficult questions.

An acceptable lunch, including a bottle of warm Tsing Tau beer, was served in a large hall while we waited for the train to Guangzhou. We were given copies of The Little Red Book (published in 1972 by the Foreign Language Press, Peking) and various other propaganda magazines, instructed to wear our pink identity ribbons and handed reserved seat tickets for the train. There were large posters on the walls urging us to learn from the achievements of some remote commune or factory; and loud martial music was played over speakers in every room and outside the station. The songs were promoting the achievements of Chairman Mao who smiled down on us from huge paintings on the walls.

Border Crossing Lowu-Shenzhen – 1972
Border Crossing Lowu-Shenzhen – 1972

An unlocked polished timber and glass cabinet full of unusual items attracted my attention. The cabinet was full of empty cigarette packs, match boxes, after shave bottles, Kodak film canisters, old pens and pencils, broken sunglasses, used toothpaste tubes and hundreds of discarded packages all waiting for their owners to claim them. Similar cabinets for “lost” items were placed at all railway stations, hotels and the Fair. China was not a disposable society, everything was re-used. Later, when I discarded an empty bottle in the wastebasket at my hotel it reappeared the following day after having been washed.

The train for Guangzhou departed promptly at two o’clock and slowly wound its way through the picturesque countryside, gathering speed as we left Shenzhen. Loud music accompanied us on the train and forced us to shout to be heard. There was no volume control but I already had a solution in mind for the return journey, all I had to do was find a store that sold a screwdriver so I could disconnect the speakers. As we departed Shenzhen we passed a large poster on a billboard beside the tracks. It featured a soldier holding his rifle in the air while shouting a “welcoming” message, in English: Death to the American imperialists and their running dogs. As an Australian I was one of the running dogs.

Lowu Station – 1972
Lowu Station – 1972

The air-conditioned train was smooth, comfortable and covered the 100 kilometers to Guangzhou non-stop. Except for the music, it was an interesting ride as I stared out the window at the terraced rice fields and farms. There were no trees or farm equipment, only workers carrying vegetables in bamboo baskets. It felt as though I was looking through a window into the past. The other passengers on the train were a fascinating mixture of European and Middle Eastern traders, some having made this journey twice each year for the past ten years. I could hear Italian, Spanish, French, German, Danish, Arabic and English being spoken. There were two other Australians on the train, both buyers from the “rag” trade.

The train slowed as we reached Guangzhou, probably so we could more easily read the posters with their slogans in English. I thought about the Europeans on the train and hoped they did not feel left out of this welcome. The Guangzhou Railway Station was clean but crowded when we left the train to stand waiting on the station. There were small pot plants with bright red flowers lining the station, brought in for arrival of the train and later taken away to decorate other buildings. An official appeared and began shouting something in Cantonese over a hand-held loud speaker. Some people started moving through the crowd towards the exit while the Europeans from my carriage remained still. As the crowd thinned I began to understand the voice on the loudspeaker, he was calling out each nationality not in alphabetical order but in order of their level of friendship with China. The Africans, Albanians and other Eastern Europeans were first and then the Middle East traders, Swiss, French, Spanish, Italians, Portuguese, German, Dutch, Danes, Swedes, Norwegians and English followed.

Guangzhou – 1972 (From my hotel window)
Guangzhou – 1972 (from my hotel window)

There were three of us left on the station when the official shouted Aodaliya (Australia) and indicated we should follow him. It was dark when we left the station and ushered along the street to identify our baggage on a solitary trolley before boarding an old bus. The others had gone, most of them to the Guangzhou Hotel near the Fair. As we bumped along the road we realized that Aodaliya was at the bottom of the list of China’s friends because there were no Americans.

The bus may have been the “last” bus in China, as it had no glass in the windows or springs in the suspension, but it did get us to a guesthouse near the Pearl River, where we slept in a long room with a polished concrete floor, open windows, a common bathroom and toilet at the end of the hall. There were twenty to thirty beds in the room, each covered with a mosquito-netting canopy. The cost was less than A$5.00 per night including breakfast. The first night was memorable as I struggled to sleep with the high humidity, constant buzzing of mosquitoes, sounds from the river and the body functions of my roommates, and the sound of tiny furry feet scurrying across the floor. The iron-framed beds were high off the floor to deter the rodents from climbing up and annoying the occupants. It was a different experience from the relative luxury of the hotel in Hong Kong I had just left. While the guesthouse was clean and the room had a view of the river I did not like the possibility of spending two weeks in a dormitory, reminiscent of a European youth hostel, sharing a room with twenty to thirty others and the visiting rats. In the morning I made contact with our agent from the trading company who came to the hotel to discuss our first appointments and how to get me moved to a better hotel.

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Photographs: Ken Peacock
Ken Peacock

Ken Peacock

Ken Peacock, a former senior Australian executive of a mining company, first visited China in 1972 at the end of the Cultural Revolution and before diplomatic recognition by the Australian and US Governments. This was the first of many visits to China during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1978, he traveled throughout China with a trade delegation and revisited Shanghai where he stayed at the Shanghai Mansions Hotel and discovered the “Last Bottle of Gin in China”.