Disappointing hotel rooms and stone-throwing mobs: 19th Century China travel

Isabella L Bird

Isabella L. Bird was a “traveller” in the biggest sense. She grew up rather sickly in England and found relief from her ennui through travel. In her book, “The Yangtze Valley and Beyond” (1900), she writes about one of her journeys through China.

If you can wade through her rather serious discussions on why British cotton doesn’t sell well in rural China, local methods for milling grain and missionary work, there are many interesting travel gems to be uncovered:

Disappointing hotel rooms: I had a good laugh upon realizing that even old-school adventurers can be disappointed by hotel rooms that don’t live up to expectations:

“… I got a room in a new inn which, though on the road-level on one side, was two stories above a winding stream and some undulating agricultural country on the other. On that side it actually had a window and a view. … I congratulated myself heartily on such unusually pleasant surroundings. This was premature. When the bustle of unpacking was over, noises all too familiar made me look through the chinks of the floor, and I saw that I was over a pig-sty the size of my room, inhabited by nine large, black sows.

“It was the only night of my journey on which I had no sleep. … for the groaning, grunting, routing and quarreling were incessant.”

Angry locals: The whole account of her journey is relatively amusing and droll, but then, you come to realize the real peril she is in, traveling through China during a time when foreigners are most definitely not welcome. There are multiple occasions when she is threatened by large crowds and one when she must be barricaded into a hotel for safety against a mob. Here is one particularly hair-raising incident:

“The crowd caught sight of my open chair, which, being a novelty, was an abomination, and fully two thousand men rushed down one shingle bank and up the other brandishing sticks and porters’ poles, yelling, hooting, crying “Foreign devil,” and “Child-eater,” telling the bearers to put the chair down. …Then there were stones thrown, ammunition being handy. Some hit the chair and bearers, and one knocked off my hat. The yells of “Foreign devil,” and “Foreign dog,” were tremendous. Volleys of stones hailed on the chair, and a big one hit me a severe blow at the back of my ear, knocking me forwards and stunning me.

“Be-dien said that I was insensible for ‘some time,’ during which a ‘reason talker’ harangued the crowd, saying it had done enough, and if it killed me, though I was only a woman, foreign soldiers would come and burn their houses and destroy their crops, and worse. This sapient reasoning had its effect. When I recovered my senses, the chair was set down in the midst of the crowd, which was still hooting and shouting, but no further violence was offered, and as the bearers carried me on, the crowd gradually thinned. I had a violent pain in my head, and the symptoms of concussion of the brain, and felt a mortifying inclination to cry. …”

The dark underbelly: She also very casually mentions in her narrative that she revived a young woman who had attempted suicide by opium overdose:

“…[A] young married woman had committed suicide with opium, and was lying apparently dead. In great fear of something–I know not what–the villagers appealed to me for remedies, which I succeeded in forcing down her throat, and also put plasters of hot vinegar and cayenne pepper behind her ears. … I had a bad quarter of an hour before she became conscious, for, had she died, the opium would have been acquitted, and the blame would have been laid on the foreigner. …”

Isabella L. Bird: I will think of you fondly the next time I’m tempted to gripe about smelly airplane loos, jet-lag or disappointing hotel rooms. Thank you for the perspective.

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7 responses to “Disappointing hotel rooms and stone-throwing mobs: 19th Century China travel

    • Glad you stopped by. Stumbling across your blog after a day of house-hunting in Tai Po brightened my day (or at least helped me come to terms with the fact that almost all kitchens in HK suck). Cheers!

  1. This made me think of the hotel room I had in the Philippines that had a rooster crowing outside starting around 3am. Really made my day!

    • Probably even more annoying as you continued to hope that it would finally give up and shut up… and just when you thought it had, it crowed again.

      What really drives me nuts is when a mosquito or two make their way inside a hotel room and keep buzzing past your ears and trying to bite your face. I’ve spent several long stretches searching for them in the middle of the night in hotels….

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