When even the thought of a Pakistani delegation from our organization visiting China was not conceptualized a voice came to my mind ‘When you go there, take a jacket’ and I started to wonder what in the world would that mean?
And lo & behold when I was asked to visit China along with my colleagues in November 2004, my happiness knew no bounds. And what would we do in China, of course scale / walk the Great wall of China other than eating rice with chop sticks & sip noodle soup but these ideas were to jump the window since there was so much more to do in the land of the rising dragon.
It was almost a bad start when I learnt that I could not get my passport renewed at the local passport office in Islamabad since I hailed from Karachi, just in time so that I could travel with my other two colleagues. I could see the plan fizzing out but then a wise man advised me to get my National Identity Card (NIC) converted as being a local resident of Islamabad than Karachi & indeed that worked.
So finally I got to board that PIA flight & off I went to China about four days later after my colleagues had already left. On the plane I would wonder as to who would pick me up at the airport although I had called in an acquaintance that this young prince was going to land in China but I was so worried as to whether he would make it or not. And if not then how rough things could get since all the Chinese I knew would start and end at ‘Ni hau’.
And there he was at the airport once I landed & my fears were made to rest aside. Mr. Ali being a very humble, polite & hospitable person took me first to his office to relax, and change since it was rather early in the morning that I landed in Beijing. His staff then took me to the travel agency to get my tickets confirmed for the journey that I was to take in the coming days.
In the next 9 days I was to visit 12 universities up north from Harbin Institute of Technology to down south i.e. Zhejiang University & everything in between was a nightmare since myself & the other two gentleman that I was to travel with would attend meetings all day long & fly out to another city in the night.
And before I forget the jacket part, it was extremely cold in Harbin to the order of below 20 degrees Celsius when we landed there and we almost froze ourselves to death. And this was when I reminded myself about the voice that came to me about taking the jacket when I would go to China & indeed I thanked my stars for taking along all the winter wear which I used way back between 1989-91 in Colorado where I went to school to do my Bachelors in Engineering.
The luggage that I carried although was much-needed to beat the harsh cold winters in Harbin but it became a nightmare to pull it along since we were always on the move practically every night and were flying to cities that I could never have dreamt of. But I must confess that visiting China was one of the most amazing experiences in my life especially when I hardly knew anything about their culture, their values & their perspective towards life not to mention the language issue.
I went China trotting from Beijing to Nanjing, from Nanjing to Harbin, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Zhejiang, Shanghai & back to Beijing in just 9 days & except for Shanghai where we caught the weekend, we would travel practically every night.
Nanjing was more of an agricultural city with clean roads and these amazingly long highways. We did not get to travel much in Guangzhou & Zhejiang since we had long marathon meetings at the universities although the temperature in Zhejiang was more like Islamabad at that time of the year.
We landed in Harbin at about 10:00 p.m. & were to encounter the harshest winters since the last 15 years that I had graduated from Colorado, USA. It was a sleepy old town with Gothic architecture, clean lined up streets and very hospitable people who mostly had Russian looks.
Later in the evening next day I was to learn that Harbin was called the ‘Moscow of the East’ since it was at a close proximity with Russia which was about 400 + kilometers from there. During the Russian revolution in 1918, the Orthodox Christians were persecuted & harassed and thus they fled & jumped the border at Harbin and made their abode there. They built a beautiful church called ‘Sofia church’ in Harbin and thus they intermingled with the society although the Sofia church has been converted to a museum now but it houses some of the most beautiful & rare pictures from the times of the Russian persecution.
And then we found ourselves in Shanghai the old business capital & the port city with beautiful gothic style buildings facing the sea front. The sky scrapers were as good as Manhattan, New York except there was no ‘Battery park’ & not too many souls at the pier could speak English. The mood of the city was somber as compared to the fast life trends in Beijing; at least that was my observation.
There was this market area in Shanghai where they have preserved and maintained old pagodas where foreigners could visit and shoot pictures, get to see old archaic Chinese architecture and shop for curios, souvenirs, silk and Chinese and herbal tea. Bargaining was the order of the day. You could get pearls from the South China sea practically for zilch as compared to what you would have to pay in Beijing or at the duty-free shops at the airport. If you were not good at bargaining they could actually slaughter you down there and you would not even know that you just dug your own grave.
After landing in Beijing we could feel the air of the Capital to have signs of bureaucracy, fast life, economics & power. Everybody in the street seemed to be in a rush to get to his / her destination. People did not much bother as to where we were from & what we wanted in life. They indeed went about doing their daily business. There were these amazing road networks, the highways and the ring roads and even Pakistanis living there for a year or so when asked could not figure out as to which highway goes where except for their workplaces, the embassy and the airport.
Meeting the President of the Peking University (the number one university in China) was more of an experience in itself. We were made to sit in an extremely large room where there were sofa sets and chairs dispersed at twenty meters each (or maybe more) and once the communication started between our head of delegation and theirs, we could hardly follow as to what was said not that it was in Chinese and translated later but due to the proximity of the seating arrangement. But we later found out that it was this room and these chairs that President Nixon, William Jefferson Clinton, Robert Mugabe, Nelson Mandela, Mikhail Gorbachev and Jacques Chirac sat and met their Chinese counterparts while visiting this university.
Even before I could travel to China, my brother-in-law who happens to be a pilot and has been to Beijing often, scared me about the food problems that a Pakistani could have and thus I was made to carry about 5-8 kilo of canned food with crackers, cookies & nuts of all kinds. Surprisingly I even carried ‘Joshanda’ a herbal medicine for the throat and Indonesian noodles which could be eaten right out of the cup while adding boiling water.
And boy the two gentleman accompanying me would ridicule me day and night for carrying that load of ammunition around till my younger colleague got sick & needed that ‘Joshanda’ as a medicine for his throat problem & especially when we landed at Harbin airport at 11:00 p.m. with freezing cold temperature & got to the hotel that we were supposed to stay and found out that the restaurant closed ages ago and that load of ammunition which I was carrying called ‘food’ worked wonders before we could have starved. So that is how these two gentlemen came to appreciate my far-sightedness. And indeed I did learn a lot while traveling in the eight countries which I had been to in the last 23 years of my escapades, China being my ninth conquered city. Laughter!
And as they say that ‘All good things must come to an end’ our days had to close in the land of the rising dragon and we were made to say good-bye to the wonderful yet mysterious people of China with the hope that we may come to this amazing country once again. It would be worthwhile to mention that the relationship which we had developed with the China Scholarship Council (CSC) in the last one year would strengthen after this visit and we were also offered direct discounts by certain universities which would lead to the new MOU that we would sign with the Chinese government in April 2005 to send some more HEC funded scholars to Chinese universities.
Shaikh Muhammad Ali
Higher Education Commission, Pakistan
Note: This article was written on 24th Sept 2005 and is being posted here with minor amendments.