In the 80s I met my father in Hong Kong and within the week took a ship across the China Sea to Shanghai. We spent most of that summer at the Beijing Friendship Hotel. My parents [father and 1st stepmother] and many others were invited to mainland China as ‘foreign experts’ to bring the Chinese up to date on various occupations and technologies. My father was a writer and journalist, had a syndicated sports column in Australia, wrote tv shows [kids, cops], amongst other things. My stepmother was with Reuters HK.
The Beijing Friendship Hotel is massive and is actually many buildings and gardens. The journalists and broadcasters had their own dining room: 40 foot ceilings, jade-like paneling, the menu a mix of empathy and disdain in its interpretation of western taste [beer floats]. It was a strict hotel, beer floats aside, and if you were late for a meal you were out of luck. Breakfast was congee from 6:30 to 7:30 am. I stocked up on White Rabbit candies for whenever our quest for a meal was met with ‘méi yǒu’ [meaning ‘no more’ or ‘have not’] which was often and for more things than meals.
Being partly along the Russian border Inner Mongolia was more closed off than the rest of China. You could only travel within it on government tours. My father, stepmother, and I took a train from Beijing to Hohhot. The photograph above is from the train as we crossed into Inner Mongolia.
Our Ger where we stayed and slept. Camels in the background. There had been terrible drought and the grass was sparse, every few feet a tiny carcass of an overturned dung beetle.
At night we would lie under the stars. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my life, the dome of the sky in entirety. I have a lot of stories to tell about China but here am limiting it to photo descriptions.
Tea served inside. And I remember having coffee outside one morning. Sitting on the ground. Given large cubes of pressed coffee and sugar in wax paper that you unwrapped and dissolved in boiling water and to which you added yak’s milk and a type of seed or grain that floated on top.
Dromedaries at sunset.
Dromedary in full saddle. Possibly mine that briefly ran off with me.
The skylight in our Ger.
Here you can see how dry the ground was. Ovoo in the background.
I remember the kids in Inner Mongolia being so shy and peeking over the walls at us. I often traveled without adult company in China and never got used to being followed around. There weren’t many foreigners yet. It was different in Inner Mongolia, it was a tour and people were being presented to us.
We were introduced to families in their homes. Here a woman sits outside hers.
Photographs by Tara Bethune-Leamen.
| Tara Bethune-Leamen