'Everyone seems contented and there is no obvious attempt to control their actions. They all work to better the state, so our guides tell us, but the impression is that they are shell shocked. The Gang of Four did a lot of harm to the people and terrorised them for no apparent reason.'
- Mike Smith, November 1980, 'Impressions of China'
On November 13 1980, my father - Michael Frank Smith, known to his friends as Mike - was in China, a country still recovering from era of Mao Zedong, on a business trip. He had just returned to his hotel in Hong Kong after two weeks spent travelling around Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing and Wuhan. Tired, all he wanted was a shower when the phone in his room rang; it was my mother with some startling news. Thirteen days earlier she had given birth to their first child - a daughter - four months early and weighing just 1lb 12oz, less than a bag of sugar.
It might seem odd that she had waited such a long time before calling him but two things need to be taken into consideration. First, I was born at twenty eight weeks which, twenty seven years ago, meant my chances of survival were low. No one knew if I had sustained some form of neurological or physical damage or even if I would survive. Second, my father (a transplant technician at Addenbrookes Hospital) had spent the previous fortnight in the heart of communist China attending lectures, conferences and visiting hospitals along with his good friend and mentor Sir Roy Calne, the surgeon who pioneered liver transplantation and gave the eulogy at Dad's funeral in 2003.
While he was there, Dad kept a diary which sits on my bookshelf. A few days after he passed, my brother and I were going through his things (like me he was a hoarder) when I came across a battered student notebook that I instantly recognised and the one thing of his that I wanted as a memento. As part of his job he often went on trips all around the world but his was the only trip on which he kept a record and his reasons for doing so are unknown. The diary contains his thoughts and at the back is an amusing account of his overall impressions on the country, from the food and drink to his capitalised opinions on the homicidal drivers and suicidal cyclists and the state of a land recovering from the tyrannical dictatorship of Chairman Mao and his wife Jiang Qing.
This was a time when foreigners were slowly being allowed into China, always under the watchful eye of the PSB and local guides, determined to show the countries best side at all times. If you lost a sock, it would follow you across country and appear miraculously in your hotel room thousands of miles away from the place you left it. He slept badly, disliked the coffee and described Maotai as '2000% proof , high octane liqueur which is like 5 star petrol' but my father was, for once, incredibly astute about his observations and chronicled his travels with detail and care making this diary one of my most treasured possessions.
Thanks in part to his fluid descriptions of the Middle Country, I gained an interest in China which has lasted to this day and now covers ancient as well as modern history. In 2003, I knew nothing and my sole Chinese friend at uni refused to talk about her home country, of course it was only once I started reading about the real China through books like Wild Swans that I understood why. The idea of communism fascinated me as it seemed so perfect - at least on paper - in reality, once humans get involved, it fast becomes something very different.
It was my Dad who inspired my love of traveling, a habit I've started to indulge more and more since becoming a journalist. Thanks to his work, my father saw most of the world, much to the envy of my mother (although she's seen most of it thanks to a lengthy period of travel in her youth) and I'm becoming increasingly determined to do the same: I want to see new cultures, try new food, learn new languages (even if it's only to find the nearest loo or order food) and 2008 is seeing this finally become a reality.
I traveled regularly to France as a child for holidays and returned as a teenager as well as going to Germany as part of two terrifying exchanges. It's only now, as an adult that I can travel for work, returning to Paris, seeing various areas of the UK and this year will see my first trip to the US as well as returning to Paris once more - this time completely under my own steam - for Blizzard's Invitational event.
Travelling has become something of an addiction. While stations and airports still freak me out, I love using trains and plans and buses - taxis too. Seeing the world is incredible and while the concept of going to France and America on my own remains a scary prospect, it's certainly going to give me a huge confidence boost. Yes it might freak me out but I love to experience new methods of travel and new bustling cities and all of this is thanks to my father, I only wish he had kept more note of his thoughts and impressions on all his travels.