During the dark days in China 25 years ago the only way to get a visa was by official invitation from the Chinese government. The first order of Cremona Violins at the Frankfurt Music Fair gave me a contact in China to get that invitation. Within a few months I was on a CAAC flight from Hong Kong to Shanghai.
The arrival at the Shanghai airport was in the late evening. The airport was small, dark and dingy and uniformed security was very much in evidence. The baggage was carried from the plane to the claim area on a flatbed truck and dumped unceremoniously on the tarmac.
I grabbed my bag, headed for immigration, got a stamp in my passport and entered the reception area. It was also really dimly lit and, to my surprise, there was almost no one there. In 1981 most visitors arrived as members of officially organized tour groups, mainly from Europe. A lone passenger, without hotel reservations was unheard of, but there I was. One English word stood out among the jumble of Chinese characters… TAXI …written on a small cluttered desk. I walked over and the attendant was unable to get away before I got there. I said, “Taxi.” And he replied hesitatingly, “Where?” “Hotel,” I answered, and that got me a cab. But the problem was that I had no hotel reservation (unheard of at the time in China) and had no idea about hotels in Shanghai. Somehow I communicated that to the driver and against his better judgment (and mine too!) off we went.
The cab was a “Shanghai” brand, built in China on an obsolete assembly line that had been sold to the Chinese government by the Soviet Union. The design was decidedly 1950’s with a mammoth steering wheel and spongy seats. The shocks were gone and each bump in the road (there were many!) drove my hind end right down to the axle. The road from the Hong Qiao Airport to downtown Shanghai was not lit, but there was little traffic. The driver worked the headlight switch like a strobe. Flashing the lights on for one or two second and then driving for ten or fifteen second on the memory of the flash…old prayers from childhood were soon on the lips of my subconscious. Then I noticed that the few other drivers on the road were all doing the same thing. It did not ease my mind. We arrived at the Jin Jiang Hotel, which I was told later was the same hotel where President Nixon had stayed during his ground-breaking trip to China a couple of years before. The hotel was full, but there was room in the annex. Okay for me I thought, and soon I was being led across a courtyard to a small building, through a maze of bicycles up a grotty flight of stairs, lit by a naked 25 watt bulb, to my room. I tossed my bag on the floor with a sigh…finally I was in China!