RUTH MILLINGTON

AWARD-WINNING WRITER, PODCASTER & ADVENTURE TRAVELLER

CHINA 2001: BUSES, BREASTS AND LǍOWÀI

© Ruth Millington

What a difference twenty years makes.

I took this photograph whilst on a bus somewhere between Beijing and Xi’an in 2001. I can’t remember the exact place to be honest as I had been distracted that morning by a chicken sitting on my lap.  It was well behaved despite being scrawny and eyeing up my dusty hair for a good pecking. Behind me, a woman retched onto the floor; a stream of phlegm meandered past my feet. The road was full of tight bends and the bus driver had a death wish to career as fast as he could around them. On the most severest, the passenger entrance door would fling open and a plume of dirt and dust would blast into the bus.

The gentleman in the middle with the light blue Mao jacket on and pointing at the camera sums up that period perfectly. 

Foreign tourists (particularly westerners), or Lǎowài as they called us, were a rarity in China in 2001 especially outside the main hubs of Beijing and Shanghai, or cities such as Xi’an, home to major tourist attractions such as the Amy of Terracotta Warriors (or Worriers as one big sign said on the road to the site).

I always felt like I was the circus coming to town. I was a constant source of fascination and amusement. It wasn’t unusual for large groups of locals to surround me. It could be anywhere – a small village, a park, a bus station or on the broken sidewalk of a town. I was tall, slender and, compared to them, very hairy with my masses of brown, curly locks. They would grab my arms, their noses almost touching my skin, like they were examining some long, lost artefact. I was never quite sure if it was because they had poor eyesight or they simply wanted to take a closer look. They would pinch the hairs, making me reel back in pain. Other times they would stroke my arms like they were petting a cat (not that they kept domestic cats back then).  Sometimes, they would pull the hair on my head. When they realised I wasn’t going to shout at them or run away, a middle-aged man would always reach forward and slap me on the back as though this strange creature from faraway lands was now accepted as one of them. 

The women would stand marvelling at the size of my breasts which, in comparison to theirs, were huge

Groups of women would often accost me in the communal showers in hotels which accepted both locals and Lǎowài. Such hotels were infrequent. Mass tourism was still in its infancy and the mingling of locals especially with westerners was not encouraged. Forming a circle around me, they would stand marvelling at the size of my breasts which, in comparison to theirs, were huge. Sometimes, they would try to touch them, bursting into giggles if I allowed them. 

Travelling on one’s own is an incredibly rewarding experience. There aren’t any travel companions to distract you or to taint your views. You are the soul interpreter of what you witness and your experiences, but travelling solo does require guts and, more often than not, strong nerves.

I was once asked what’s the best advice you could give to travellers? There are three rules I always insist you should adopt: don’t take yourself too seriously and learn to discard what you may consider as societal norms. A smile is a must too. The Chinese would always stare at me but as soon as I smiled they would burst into laughter and grin back. 

Yours,

Ruthie x

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