Deng, I salute you for letting the backpackers in
He started doling out visas and what started with a few boffins turned into a flood of holidaymakers
Sunday 02 March 1997
An intense early experience for me at the age of nine was reading the Guinness Book of Records and discovering that the person (or nutter) who held the record for having travelled to the most countries in the world had not yet been to the People's Republic of China. That struck me as truly odd. If the one place to have eluded this world beater had been the Falkland Islands I could have sympathised. But China? One of the most important countries in the world? It didn't make sense.
That was before I had heard about things such as visas and frontier controls. But when I became a traveller at the age of 18, I, too, noticed the problem with China. My 1981 Lonely Planet edition of Across Asia on the Cheap made facetious remarks about the impossibility of getting there. "If you could travel the Karakoram Highway from northern Pakistan into China's Xinjiang province," it chortled, "it would certainly be a interesting journey." The whole of China was closed, like an embarrassing secret cupboard.
It was around that time however that Deng came along with his open-door policy and put an end to all this nonsense at a stroke. Without fuss, he started doling out tourist visas, and what started with a few boffins and dignitaries touring the Great Wall quickly turned into the flood of backpackers and holiday-makers that we see today. Now you can cross into China by land from not only Hong Kong and Macao, but also from Vietnam, Nepal, Pakistan, Kyrgystan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Russia.
Talking of Russia, Gorbachev may have knocked down the Berlin Wall, but neither he nor Yeltsin have managed to revise the absurdly tight regulations governing foreign tourism in their own country. Casually roaming around Russia with the kids, as one might do in, say, the Dordogne, remains about as realistic as landing a light aircraft in Red Square. Perhaps Russia needs a Deng.
Generally speaking, I have the impression that anybody who knocks down walls and dismantles borders must have something to be said for them, whatever else their faults. Genghis Khan was another great dismantler of borders, converting virtually the whole of Eurasia into a single country. This, more or less, was what enabled Marco Polo to travel to China. Judging governments according to how easy it is to visit their countries is quite a simple test. Take North and South Korea as another example. The tourist board of one of these two countries shows locally made art films in free cinemas, subtitled for tourists. The other country has not seen an independent tourist for 40 years. Which one do you prefer?
And look at Europe: a few years ago I not only had to obtain visas in advance, but also had to buy hotel vouchers - for each day of my proposed trip - at the borders of Poland and Czechoslovakia before they would let me in at all. The fact that I can now travel throughout eastern Europe without even a visa is as indisputably a good thing as I can possibly think of.
Travelling through western Europe without a passport sounds even better. The thought of walking past rusting, disused frontier gates along the Rhine, the Pyrenees and the Alps makes my heart leap. One day these borders may become tourist attractions in themselves, as relics of a less enlightened world. The British Government's insistence that it will continue examining my papers whenever I go to France will seem as antiquated as the House of Lords.
I admit that there may be exceptions to this rule of judging governments solely according to the effect their policies have on my freedom of travel. Burma is probably one. For many years tourists could never get Burmese visas for longer than seven days, but now the same government that uses slave labour to construct its tourist infra-structure, is trying to curry favour with foreigners by offering us four whole weeks. Unlike China, on the other hand, it has not deigned to open its land borders to tourists.
So farewell old Deng, opener of borders. May backpackers on the Karakoram Highway be your most enduring memorial.
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