This story is part II of ours Cover article from September 2020, offering readers a look back at what it was like to travel to China 30 years ago. To read Part I, click here.
When McDonald’s opened on Wangfujing Street on April 23, 1992, it was the largest in the world. It had 700 seats, 29 cash registers, and, according to the ledger, served over 40,000 orders on its first day. At that time, compared to the normal daily lunch in Beijing, it was seen as a kind of luxury and a must-see on visit. It has become irresistible to many Chinese youth and families with children.
It closed in 1996 to make way for the upscale Oriental Plaza shopping mall, but was relocated 150 meters north, back to Wangfujing Street.
Notice the row of street food stalls – they were removed many years ago in a major landscaping project along Chang’an Avenue.
Historically, Beijing was a fortified city. Large watchtowers and gates were located at strategic points around the walls. Today it is one of the few gates that survived the strong walls of the Ming era.
Deshengmen Gate was also known as “Victory Gate” and controlled the route to and from the Badaling Pass. It dates back to 1437 and was the place where the victorious armies would return to Beijing after the battle.
It was the middle of winter in Beijing, with the area around the gate very quiet except for this cyclist.
Niujie (Ox Street) is the main Muslim area of Beijing, centered around the historic Niujie Mosque.
Around 1995, there were many outdoor snack stalls serving large portions of grilled mutton and bowls of steaming spaghetti. It was a fascinating area to observe or partake in Beijing’s oldest traditional customs.
This scene was near the Niujie Mosque. Today the mosque remains and has been renovated, but the outdoor food stalls have long since disappeared.
Chaotianmen, July 1994
Today, water flow levels along the Yangtze (Changjiang) are more constant, with fewer seasonal variations due to the opening of the Three Gorges Dam in 2010. Previously, there could have been noticeable fluctuations in the water level, making a Sometimes the construction of piers or docks impossible.
In Chongqing, boats would be moored to floating docks. These were connected to the shore by metal or wooden walkways stretched on pontoons facing upwards.
After the crossing, there would be long stairways up to street level.
Chongqing is renowned for its summer heat and climbing would be exhausting!
Leshan, July 1994
Leshan, south of Chengdu, is famous for its Dafo (Big Buddha) sandstone sculpture. I was on a boat preparing to leave for a two-day trip along the Min River (Minjiang) to Chongqing. Through the fog emerged this local ferry crowded with people, mostly wearing white shirts – common attire at the time.
In 1994 there were very few bridges over major rivers, so ferries would have been the only way.
Dalì, January 2000
In Dali, I really enjoyed spending a relaxing stay near Erhai Lake.
I traveled by boat to Wase, on the other side, then much quieter than Dali. Today the freeway and the railway pass close to the city.
Wase was famous for its weekly outdoor markets where most people wore ethnic costumes such as Bai and Naxi. Pack horses were commonly used.
Simple sailboats hauled goods across the lake. These horses were led to the port where the boats were unloaded.
Lijiang was a remote mountain town on the “tea horse trail” from Kunming to Lhasa. Lijiang in 1995 was mostly pre-tourism then, and the streets in the older part of the city teemed with everyday life. Most of the people were Naxi and wore their traditional dark blue clothing. Bai and Yi were also present in the market areas.
This couple sat patiently along a busy alley hoping for a sale.
In 1995, Lijiang was a traveler’s dream. It felt in a time warp compared to other parts of China, especially the east coast.
The streets were more like stone-paved alleys. The buildings were two-story with red wood facades that housed shops and restaurants on the ground floor.
It was amazing to just walk around, or just sit at a food stand and watch the scenes – yet I knew, in my mind, that sooner or later it would change.
In July 1995, it was a long bus ride, on older buses and narrow streets from Kunming. An airport was opened in early August 1995 – three weekly flights to and from Kunming. Today, thousands of tourists travel to Lijiang by plane and train from all over China.
Shangri-La, August 1995
Zhongdian (now known as Shangri-la) is located on a plateau along the road to Tibet. In 1995, the areas had only recently opened to Western travelers. Access to the plateau was by bus from Jinshajiang (Yangtze) valley – I traveled from Lijiang.
It was an area of grasslands, famous for its flora and areas of growing wheat and corn. Villages of whitewashed adobe buildings were scattered across the prairies.
Another attraction, Napa Hai, a shallow lake around which sheep, cattle and yaks grazed.
The best way to explore was on a bicycle, rented from the town’s guesthouses and hostels.
The bikes were the heavy “Flying Pigeon” gearless varieties: they had to be pushed uphill followed by fast downhill speeds on empty, gravel roads.
The monastery, 5 kilometers from the city, belongs to the Gelukpa Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism, dating back to 1679. It is the largest such monastery in Yunnan. Today it is an important tourist attraction.
In 1995 I left the city and approached the monastery. At the time, there was no admission fee, so I just walked in. Some monks saw me and invited me to have a milk butter tea in their dormitory. The monk in the photo offered to show me the buildings and grounds.
This was one of those traveling moments! I was traveling by road from Lanzhou to Xiahe (Labrang Monastery) and stopped for lunch in Linxia, a predominantly Muslim city. Sitting in the car, I watched the street scenes in fascination. It was a very lively place with several open markets. Luckily, we were moving slowly and I had the window open. Suddenly, sitting outside this large traditional wooden door, we ran into these young guys wearing the traditional circular skullcaps, except the one standing. They all saw me looking at me with amused curiosity. No time to try and set up the camera, I shot this shot, which came out surprisingly well.
It was their expressions and the way they sat, in a line almost inclined according to their height. For me a magical moment traveling.
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[Images via Bruce Connolly]