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China 15: At the arse end of nowhere

Copyright Elaine Canham, 2015

Copyright Elaine Canham, 2015

Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China

But the bus does eventually come, a little wreck of a thing, rattling along with shrunken green curtains fluttering at the windows, like a hippy home at Glastonbury.

And when we get off in Liu Yuan we find that we are in the 1880s, in a mining town somewhere in the Arizona desert. Only it’s cold. We get off at the top of the main street and gaze appalled at what we have come to. There is nothing to recommend it. It makes pit villages in South Yorkshire look like Las Vegas. It is surrounded by slag heaps; the main drag looks as if Sergio Leone has just built it, and then gone away because it was too depressing. You can’t even say it’s a one-horse town. There is no horse. The heavy coal cart coming towards us is being pulled by a man.

Some of the buildings have false fronts, and the few people in the street stop what they are doing to stare at us as we walk past.  It is the creepiest place. Honest to god, I expect one of them to rush away screaming, ‘The Clantons are coming, Mr Earp!’

And there is somebody shouting. We look at each other and then turn, slowly. But it is only the bus driver; turns out he is offering to take us to the hotel. We get back on. I feel very relieved and a bit silly.

The hotel looks like a prison for young offenders. And my impression is fully justified by the fact they want to charge us double the normal rate. Cheryl argues. Elspeth argues. I stand about with my hands in my pockets. Eventually the staff back down. Six people, three teenage girls, the woman behind the desk in reception, someone I mentally class as Uriah Heep, and the bus driver, all escort us to our rooms. The beds look high and soft.  Uriah, who has done nothing but stand about, rubbing his hands, refuses to leave until we pay him. What for, none of us has any idea.

Then we discovered the bathroom is locked. ‘Oh God,’ says Cheryl. ‘Not more arguing.’

Back come the girls, with a great rattling of keys. They try a few, and then one announces, very matter of factly, ‘There is no water.’


‘No water,’ she patiently repeats. ‘Spring festival.’

And then they leave.

The latrines, truly loathsome, are located out the back, round the corner and then 100 yards away over tricky terrain. We decide to drink as little as possible.

Go to the dining room to eat. Everybody comes to watch us. They give us bowls of rice with fried eggs dusted in sugar. Absolutely delicious.

China 14: Alone in the desert

Copyright Elaine Canham 2015

Copyright Elaine Canham 2015

Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China

We’re properly in the Gobi Desert now. Saw two camels trotting along in fine style all decked out in bright red  harnesses with tassels. They look woolly and cute. Never thought I’d say that about a camel.

Felt better this morning. Elspeth and I sliced up the last of the apples and bananas and mixed them into an interesting sludge with the last of the biscuits. Cheryl declined to join us for breakfast.

Talk about blasted heaths. This is just empty, brown land. Any water, and there seems to be precious little of it, is frozen solid.

The train stops for Liu Yuan; the guard opens the door, but there is nothing here. No station. Nothing. We drop our packs on to the ground and then climb down from the panting dragon. People hang out the windows and wave at us. Nobody else gets off.

‘Are you sure this is right?’ Cheryl shouts up at the guard.

The guard shouts something back and then slams the door, and the train puffs and heaves and slowly clanks away, gathering speed as it leaves us. We are alone in a vast landscape.

‘What did the guard say?’ I ask.

‘She said there’s a bus,’ replied Cheryl.

‘Right,’ said Elspeth looking around at the emptiness. I never realised before, just how dry a Scouser’s sense of humour can be, and the wealth of meaning you can put into one word.

We move away from the tracks and sit down on our packs. We can still see the train, a tiny disappearing clockwork toy in the vast landscape, and I begin to remember all the B movies I have ever seen about ignorant travellers coming to grief in the desert. I particularly think of the one with Sophia Loren where she finds a skeleton face down in the sand, but still grimly clutching a handbag.

I begin to wonder how regularly this desert bus is supposed to run. If it is anything like the service in Milton Keynes, we’re done for.

China 13: Steaming into the wilderness

gobi desert

Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China

We’re travelling on a steam train, westward. When I woke up this morning we were running parallel with high snowy mountains, rising straight out of a flat brown plain. They went on, straight as a ruler, like theatre scenery, and then just stopped.

The plain is divided into tiny cultivated plots, and dotted here and there are neat villages; houses smoothly plastered in mud, each with its own little walled courtyard.

Every so often there are factories. The Chinese have strict rules about who moves where in their society. They are determined that their cities will not end up, like those in other parts of the world, surrounded by shanty towns with nobody left to work the land. They need their farmers to keep the land cultivated to feed their ever-growing population. Villagers are forbidden to work in towns. University graduates are assigned jobs by the state. Industrial development has been encouraged everywhere, so it is almost impossible to find a city, or even a small town without a fringe of factories.

From the train, everywhere you can see is brown. The sky is clear blue, like a July morning in England, but outside it is bitterly cold. What water there is, is frozen. For the first time I have seen a river that is completely solid. Now we are passing through a land scored by rivers that have dried up, with a back-drop of terraced hills. In the fields by the track there are mounds like large mole-hills, all in straight lines. What on earth are they?

There goes a shepherd with some goats. A baby grand canyon is running parallel to the track now, and the mountains behind are rising in steps, and behind them, more mountains. A donkey is wearily plodding up the foothills. And not a blade of grass to be seen. There must be some in the summer; each hamlet is stuffed with haystacks.

We eat egg and fungus, pork and spring onion and cabbage in the dining car. The cook has a couple of woks going on a blazing fire, and the food tastes wonderful. As we eat, we can see the front of the train, curving way in front of us, puffing away across the plain.

But later I realise I must have eaten too much. I spend the rest of the night clinging giddily to the top bunk before I give in, get down and brave the appallingness of the train toilet to chuck up. It’s not really a toilet, as such; more a hole in the floor with a steel plate over it. You just untie the chain holding the plate and everything lands on the track underneath. Or not.

China 12: Dog meat in brown sauce

Copyright Elaine Canham, 2015

Copyright Elaine Canham, 2015

Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China

The bus next stopped at Huaquing Hot Springs, where we were offloaded for three hours. It was bitterly cold. We ate jaozis in a shack and had a look round the springs. People were queuing up for baths and the surroundings were beautiful – but cold. Every tea house was closed. We asked a woman outside a pagoda where we could rest or eat.

‘Mayo,’ she said. ‘Not have. All closed.’

We trailed off, and then Elspeth, who had looked through the windows of the pagoda, said: ‘There’s loads of settees in there. I bet they serve tea.’

‘Right,’ said Cheryl, so we went in and asked the woman for tea.

She looked at us in astonishment. ‘Oh, you want tea?’ She was amazed that we wanted tea, when we had said we had wanted two different things.

‘We want to get warm,’ said Elspeth.

The woman bowed to the capriciousness of foreigners. ‘You sit down,’ she said. ‘I bring tea.’

The inside of the pagoda was richly carved and decorated a la Fu Manchu, but the furniture was strictly 1930s with sofas covered in lacy anti-macassars all lining the room. It was very warm and very civilised and we gradually thawed out with the tea, while the women at the other end of the room washed their smalls and hung them over the backs of chairs to dry.

Back for dinner at the restaurant in the People’s Edifice. I decided I ought to order the dog meat in brown sauce. I mean, if it’s on the menu, and it’s what the Chinese do, then I think I ought to try it. The waitress came and Cheryl and Elspeth ordered noodles as per usual.

‘I’ll have the dog meat,’ I said.

The waitress scrawled on her pad. ‘Two noodle, one dog meat.’ And then she disappeared.

‘It’s probably going to taste disgusting,’ said Elspeth.

‘I know,’ I mumbled.

Eventually, after what seemed like several days, the waitress came back and looked at me very seriously. ‘We are sorry,’ she said carefully. ‘But tonight, dog meat off.’

Relieved? You betcha.

February 19.

Stayed in bed as long as possible – our train leaves at 10.30 tonight. Stuffed ourselves full of food at lunchtime and went off to meet the artists again.

There were four of them this time and we all crushed into this chilly, concrete cell. They gave us green tea and the Chinese equivalent of pretzels. None of them could speak English but they were all very good natured. The room was plastered with photos of impressionist paintings, Western book covers and their own efforts. They particularly wanted to draw us, they said, because they earned a few bob on the side by illustrating comic books and they needed a few European faces.

The flat was full of good smells, preparations for the Spring Festival, and we were asked to stay to eat, but we decided not to because Cheryl had used a restaurant’s chopsticks yesterday and was beginning to look very pale.

Back at the hotel the restaurant was full of visiting Hong Kong Chinese all celebrating the New Year. The waiters were pouring rice wine like they were just emptying the bottles. It was delicious – like apple froth and probably very powerful since it tasted so innocuous.

When we left the hotel, fireworks were going off left right and centre. The night was just a sheet of white shimmering light with head-splitting bangs. It was like the place was under rocket attack. I wanted to throw myself on the ground and put my hands over my head, but I didn’t; we all just ran like the clappers in case any of the fireworks hit us. The outside of the hotel was all lit up, the fountains were going, and people were setting off more fireworks on every street corner. Still, we got the train.


China 11: Terracotta snowmen

Copyright Elaine Canham, 2015

Copyright Elaine Canham, 2015

Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China.

February 17.

It snowed during the night, so we decided to build a snowman, much to the amazement of the passing Chinese. Quite a few stopped to watch as we toiled away. One of them, a lad who could speak hardly any English, told us, with the help of a Japanese tourist, that he was an art student and, could he sketch our faces?

First we had to finish our mighty project. Our grinning snowman, adorned with Elspeth’s beret and Cheryl’s scarf, was the subject of a lot of pictures. We arranged to meet the student and went off for lunch. Baozis again, and bowls of beer – the waitresses just ladle it out of a barrel.

Student came back with a friend and we went to their place. It’s like a hall of residence but it seems to house their families as well. They seem quite well off because they have a television and a fridge. There was a glorious painting on the wall, done by one of their fathers, of a red cross nurse on horseback. Unfortunately the guy with the key to the room where all their art stuff was stored was out and didn’t come back. We promised to come again. Went back past the snowman. Somebody had kicked it over.

February 18

Today we got a bus to see the Terracotta Soldiers. These were found about 10 years ago by some farmers digging a well, and apparently they are amazing.

First though, we had to get up early and trek in the cold dark to the railway booking office again for tickets to Liu Yuan. Two English girls who checked into our dormitory yesterday said it was really easy to buy seat tickets and then, once on the train, to negotiate for sleepers. So we bought three seat tickets and then went to get the bus to see the soldiers. The bus was freezing. Our breath condensed on the windows and then turned into ice. There weren’t many people, but one woman, who was English, was wearing a skirt. It’s the first time I’ve seen someone in a skirt since I left Britain. I’m surprised her legs didn’t drop off in the cold. But it didn’t seem to bother her. She kept up a bright patter all the way up Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi’s burial mound and pointed out the places of interest from the top. Not that she knew any more than us. She just wanted to tell us all about what she’d read in the guide book. I felt as if I were on a school trip. Any minute now she would tell me to get off the grass or to pay attention and stop fossicking about.

The army was amazing. Life size soldiers and horses stretching out in all directions from the emperor’s burial mound, supposedly to protect him from the armies of the underworld. At the time of his burial apparently, the emperor’s real soldiers were so worried about their souls being stolen by these model ones that they broke into the grave and took their weapons, thus removing their power. Only about 500 of the soldiers have been uncovered, but there are estimated to be more than 6,000, and the burial mound has never been excavated, although legend has it that it is filled with heaps of treasure with a ceiling that has pearls for stars.

The soldiers are under cover, but it is all pretty basic. It’s like being in a farm shed. There are some exhibits in glass cases, with labels in Chinese and English, which say things like, more trifles belonging to the imperialist running dogs. Or, another example of capitalist excess.

The Chinese are obviously in a bit of bind over this exhibit, as they are with so many things from their past. They have such an obvious pride in being ‘the central kingdom’ (in other words, the only place on the planet of any significance) and they did invent bureaucracy and gunpowder and papermaking and printing and hydraulics and pasta and, well of course, china, and bicycles. (No, scrub that last one, ed.) But after being kept down for so long, and then coming through the havoc of a revolution, they can’t quite bring themselves to praise too loudly the exploits of their despised imperial past – or their running dogs. I wonder if they’ll ever raise the shutters and come out to meet the west.


China 10: Buddha on the bus

Copyright Elaine Canham 2015

Copyright Elaine Canham 2015

Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China: here we have tea with a monk

Today we caught a bus to Chang’an and then another one to Xiang Ji to see a Tang monastery.

The bus ride was fun. The old man standing next to me was amazed by our height and yellow hair. This was all translated by a diffident lad who had studied English for three years at night school. Elspeth was informed that she had yellow eyes.

‘I do not!’ she said indignantly, in Chinese. Much to the amusement of the rest of the bus.

We got off the bus in a hamlet. You could just see the monastery pagoda far away in the distance. We started walking towards it.

“Hey! Hey!” A whole horde of Chinese peasants were coming after us. We waited for them to catch up.

They gathered closely round us, feeling our clothes and talking about our hair. They wanted to know where we came from, and how old we were. Nothing sinister, just typical noisy Chinese curiosity.

“Where are you going?’

“To the monastery.”

“It’s over there.”

“Yes, we know that.”

“We’ll draw you a map.”

So we waited patiently while the man who seemed to be the leader, looked carefully through our Berlitz phrase book, and breathing heavily, drew two parallel lines on the fly-leaf. ‘Just go up here,’ he said, tapping the lines helpfully. ‘Turn right, and there it is.’

We walked off and they stood and watched us for a while, waving cheerfully if we turned round.

The monastery was built in 706AD and was beautifully peaceful. The garden all around it was lovingly tended. The entrance was a circular hole in the wall, just like you see in the movies. And the monk who let us in looked as if he’d walked straight out of the American Kung Fu TV series. There was an enormous Buddha in the main hall with great swathes of material hanging from the ceiling and a couple of the monks’ bikes parked in the corner.

As we were leaving an old monk with a seamed face asked us in to tea. He smiled and nodded at us as he pottered about getting the tea things, warming our cups and then pouring out the hot, clear, tea. Conversation itself was severely limited, on account of the fact that neither party could understand what the other was on about. Still, it was very soothing.

Went back to the hamlet and waited for an age for the bus back. But it was worth it. Two kids were playing marbles. The local mechanic had his shop behind us and was busy mending a bike and when the villagers spotted Elspeth’s camera they all came out and demanded to have their pictures taken. But it was getting colder and colder and we were glad when the bus came.

China 9: Pagodas and plans for Tibet

Copyright Elaine Canham, 2015

Copyright Elaine Canham, 2015

Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China; here we try to play space invaders

The reason why we’re here in Xian, of course, is that we want to go to Tibet. The plan is to get a train as far as we can, to Liu Yuan, which is in Gansu Province. Then we’re going to try to hitch a ride on a truck to the city of Golmud and then on to Lhasa. It should take us about a week. There are two problems with this. Well, maybe more than two.

First off, Golmud is off limits to foreigners and you can’t get a pass to go there. However, the word is that if you wind up there, they don’t arrest you, they just send you on your way, hopefully to Lhasa, as quickly as possible. Golmud is in Qinghai province and the Chinese authorities don’t like foreigners there because that is where, it is rumoured, they do their nuclear testing.

Also, there is a faint possibility that we could get altitude sickness, and if that happens the only thing to do is turn back immediately, which might not be possible if we are hitching.

The thing that is beginning to exercise me most, though, is that I am described in my passport as a journalist, and I have discovered that as far as most Chinese are concerned journalist is just another way of saying, spy. I’m beginning to get quite nervous about what will happen in Golmud.

Still, that’s not for a bit yet. The important thing is to get to Liu Yuan. Elspeth very generously takes the short straw this morning and gets up at 7.30 to see if she can get railway tickets. She has to go early, before the crowds start. It seems like the whole of China is on the move for the Spring festival, their New Year, on Feb 20. But she doesn’t have any luck. You can only book so far ahead, and all seats are taken.

Copyright Elaine Canham 2015

Copyright Elaine Canham 2015


So we are here for another couple of days. We get a bus to go to the Big Goose Pagoda. The guide book enthused about this thing rising out of the wheatfields and reminding one of the ‘similarly massive ruins of Mycenae’. Dunno about that. It rose all right and it was quite impressive, but it’s not exactly Mediterranean scenery. Or heat.

The view from the pagoda was good. You could hear the crackling of the fireworks like far-off gunfire as people celebrated the onset of New Year. Then we went to a nearby wartime air-raid shelter which the guide book said had been turned into a popular café and amusement arcade.

Well, we wandered all around it. In the amusement arcade Elspeth wanted to place Space Invaders. She gave the attendant 2 Mao (about 7p) and started off. But the attendant decided Elspeth didn’t know how to play. ‘Why don’t you press this button.  Look,  look, that one’s getting away! No, press this one.’ Finally she stood in front of Elspeth yelling incomprehensibly, before taking over the game completely. ‘This is how you do it!’ We watch her, a bit bemused, and then tiptoe away and leave her to it.

There was a zoo too. Awful. Monkeys in metal cages with nothing to do but gnaw the bars. A stuffed crocodile nailed to a plank, a stuffed owl nailed to a branch. Four tortoises trying to burrow their way out of an empty, dry case. A python crammed into a case with a quilt on top of him. A snub-nosed iguana-like creature, alive, but too big for his tank, fitted in diagonally, the water green and stinking.

Elspeth walked in and promptly walked out again. Cheryl and I made it to the end of the display and back. I felt sick. But there were plenty of families there, with parents showing their children the amazing animals.

Down another tunnel and a brightly lit neon sign proclaimed, ‘Cinema’. But it was a dance hall, really. The two girls who were minding the record player were waltzing together to the Blue Danube. In China you can get arrested for disco dancing.

China 8: Hospital beds and sexy Hungarians


Copyright Elaine Canham 2015

Copyright Elaine Canham 2015


Continuing my 1985 diary of my trip to China.  Here, we discuss vacuum cleaners and I discover dumplings.

Our room is lovely. A six-bed dormitory and so far, we are the only ones in it. The beds are tubular metal ones, like you get in hospital, with hard mattresses, but comfy quilts and…a bathroom. Holy of holies. A bath with hot water, all the time, and a real sit down American bog. Joy.

We spend most of the rest of the day wallowing and sleeping. Elspeth has decided that Bill the sexy Hungarian she introduced me to in Beijing is definitely an aristocrat and that she is going to marry him. ‘And we’ll invite everybody to the castle for Christmas…’ she paused. ‘Do they have castles in Hungary?’

Cheryl and I looked at her and shrugged.

‘Bound to,’ said Cheryl. ‘What else do aristos live in?’

‘They’re hot on horses,’ I said. ‘There’s lots of sweeping plains and they spend a lot of time riding about in leather trousers and eating salami.’

‘I don’t think that’s right,’ said Elspeth. ‘Leather trousers?’

‘And they eat lots of cherries,’ I add.

‘The horses eat cherries?’

‘No, the proud Hungarian aristocrats. Cherries. Practically their staple diet. And beetroot. Although that might be the Russians.’

‘You’ll have to learn to speak Hungarian,’ said Cheryl, more practically. ‘Or possibly German.’

‘I couldn’t do Hungarian,’ said Elspeth, ignoring the fact that she didn’t have too many problems with getting by in Chinese. ‘What’s the German for “Where is your castle?”’

I thought for a bit. ‘Dunno. But I know how to say, Where is the vacuum cleaner? Wo is die staub sauger?’

Elspeth lay back on her bed. ‘That’s not going to be much use, though, is it? I mean, I can hardly go up to him and ask him where his vacuum cleaner is. He’d think I was mad.’

‘Especially as he speaks perfect English,’ I pointed out.

‘I want to impress his family,’ said Elspeth. ‘His mum and dad, and all the little barons. I don’t want them to think I’ve come to do a bit of cleaning.’

‘It’d be more to the point,’ said Cheryl. ‘If you learnt how to say, Wie viele staubsaugern haben sie? How many vacuum cleaners have you got, and then you’d get more of an idea of how big his castle was. I mean, if he said 50, you’d probably be onto a good thing.’

‘If he has 50, he’s probably a vacuum cleaner salesman,’ said Elspeth, gloomily.

‘A sexy one, though,’ said Cheryl.

‘There is that.’

In the evening we go for a wander. Cheryl and Elspeth are amazed that everyone is still up after 7pm. In Beijing, apprently, everything stops then but, here, kerosene lamps flare on every corner, illuminating people on small stools gathered round tables shovelling in dumplings like there is no tomorrow; or stalls piled high with fireworks (we bought three), or noodles, or clothes or sweets.

Next morning we have breakfast in the restaurant at the People’s Edifice. Honest to god it is so enormous, you’d need an oxygen mask to paint the ceiling. It’s like eating in a gym. But they do boiled eggs and toast. Also on the menu is dog meat in brown sauce. None of us fancies that.

copyright Elaine Canham 2015

copyright Elaine Canham 2015


Go to the public security office to get my pass for Lhasa. The official is beautifully polite. He also has beautiful handwriting and he doesn’t seem to have heard of red tape. Here is the pass, here is my name, in Chinese, and here was his official stamp. Sit down, here you are, thank you, thank you. It is as simple as that.

Went looking for somewhere to eat. Forget warm steamy caffs with ham egg and chips and a mug of tea. Cheap restaurants here are bare and draughty. It’s a bit like sitting in a garage. Bare tables, bare walls, and full of people shouting. All the cooks dress in white, with white mob caps; they are like subjects in a Breughel painting, busily kneading dumplings in an adjacent garage.

copyright Elaine Canham 2015

copyright Elaine Canham 2015

You have to bring your own chopsticks. You can use the restaurant’s chopsticks; they are generally in a box by the till, but they’re not really washed. You have to queue up and say what you want, and hopefully they decide you can have it. Sometimes they tell you, MayoLa, which means, ‘No, we haven’t got it, and even if we did have it, we’re not going to give it to you, and we really can’t be bothered to talk to you any more, so go away now.’ Amazing how much meaning those three syllables have. Anyway. If you don’t get the mayo treatment, you get a ticket, and then you have to trek over to the other side of the restaurant and queue up again to get your food. And again, you might get a ‘mayo’. I’ve not been here long, so I’m more bemused than anything, but Cheryl and Elspeth have been here for five months and the continual little obstacles that you seem to get in every day life here are wearing them down.

Xian is practically the only area in China that is not noted for its cooking. The only thing you can get to eat when you’re out and about is noodles or steamed dumplings. I don’t care for the noodles which tend to be great thick ribbons of pasta, which completely clog your mouth up and taste of nothing much. But the dumplings, the little ones which are jaozi, or the big ones, baozi, are filled with meat and veg and are lovely. You pick one up with your chopsticks, which is difficult because they are a bit slimy, dip it in a mixture of soy sauce and vinegar and then shove it quickly in your mouth before it falls in your lap. The tables are none too clean, and the floor is filthy, so if you drop something, that’s it. Its so cold that if you drop any gravy it congeals before it has a chance to run off the table. I can’t work out at first why people are eating so quickly, and then I realise its because they’re hungry. They’re not eating because it’s a sociable thing to do; they’re eating because they need to refuel. But, those dumplings are good. I’m soon shovelling away with the best of them.


China 7: Chrysanthemum Wang


Copyright Elaine Canham, 2015

Copyright Elaine Canham, 2015


Continuing my diary of my 1985 trip to China; here we get a hotel and meet a spotty oik.

7.30 am. Arrive in Xi’an. Outside the railway station there is a sort of quarry filled with people, that looks like something left over from a Cecil B De Mille epic. Everyone stares at us, and when we stop to look at a map, we are in the middle of a crowd six-deep. They’re all desperate to practise their English, but hello is the only word they know.

Everyone is adequately dressed for the cold, but its all utilitarian blue and green. Even Cheryl and Elspeth are wearing the standard padded coats. It makes them look like Victorian teenagers. I’m in my ski suit from C&A on Oxford Street, which the assistant assured me was loved by people in Finland. It’s in a reasonably unassuming greeny grey and mustard yellow, thank god. Neon pink here would stand out like a fan dancer in church. Not that we don’t, as westerners, already stand out.


copyright Elaine Canham, 2015

copyright Elaine Canham, 2015


Xian is the capital of Shaanxi province and was capital of the Chinese Empire for almost 1,000 years between the 11th century BC and 25 AD. Apparently it was bigger than Rome, Constantinople or Baghdad. The first emperor Qin Shi Huangdi had a million workers toiling to make wide boulevards and eight huge palaces. Nothing left now but a handful of monuments.

There are alleyways teeming with people, and filled with stalls selling everything from a bowl of noodles to a handful of fireworks. There are hardly any cars, but there are thousands of bikes. Some are tricycles pulling carts – there was a man pedalling along with his wife and child in the back. There were two men pushing a whacking great tree trunk down the road, one end balanced on their shoulders, the other on what looked like a pair of pram wheels.

We get to the first hotel in Cheryl’s guide book, but the lobby stinks of cats and they want to charge us £5 a night which is way too expensive. The cat smell is overpowering too, which is strange because cats and dogs are rare in Chinese cities. I think of the stalls that we have just passed; a lot were selling bracelets which looked like they were made of cat-tails.

Then we get to the Renmin Dasha, The People’s Edifice. It is certainly an edifice. The architect must have been having bad dreams about Versailles. Walk up the wide steps and into reception. We are all very, very tired.

Copyright Elaine Canham 2015

Copyright Elaine Canham 2015


The girls have got me a student card so I don’t need to pay tourist rates. I had to have a Chinese name for it, and there was a significant amount of arguing about what this should be. Names in China are tricksy things, you see, with many meanings. Elspeth’s name is Ai Bai Yang; Ai translates as Chinese mugwort or wormwood (used in Chinese medicine to alleviate feelings of unease and general malaise), Bai as white or snowy (or reactionary and anti-communist, which can be a bit dodgy considering where we are), and Yang as poplar. Cheryl is slightly hacked off with her name which is three random characters put together to sound like her name, Xie Li Ar – (pronounced sea-air lee ah) and which she thinks is very ugly.

On the safe side (this was all done before I arrived, so I had no say) they went for a flower name for me. My Chinese name, they have decided, is Chrysanthemum Wang. Or possibly Autumn Flower. Wang Jiu Wah. I’m slightly embarrassed by the idea of being called Chrysanthemum. But, secretly, I quite like it.

The desk clerk is a spotty oik who looks distastefully at us, and then at our ID cards.

‘Your names are very provincial,’ he says. ‘Nobody who is anybody is called Chrysanthemum or Poplar these days.’

He asks me when my visa began. ‘I’m sorry, I forgot to look,’ I said.

He looks at me in disgust. ‘Your English is very bad. It is not I forgot to look. It is, I forgot to looking.’ He tapped a small book by his side. ‘I read this in Chapter Seven of my grammar book. You are entirely wrong, I think. Yes?’

‘No!’ we shout, practically in chorus.

The desk clerk opens his mouth, looks at us again and then shuts up and writes our names down in the register.

China, 6: Two drops of the hard stuff

copyright elaine canham 2015

copyright elaine canham 2015


Continuing my 30-year-old diary of my trip to China. Here we have a party on the train and introduce the Chinese to David Bowie.

There are three blokes on the bunks opposite us, and they seem to have an inexhaustible supply of  apples. The Chinese are very careful about the cleanliness of what they eat and drink – although maybe not so much about where they eat and drink it – so they peel everything. (The word for leather is, apparently, cow peel). The peel falls from their fingers, in long and delicate ribbons and, fascinated, we strike up a conversation. At least Elspeth and Cheryl do the talking. I marvel at the easy way they’ve learnt to speak Chinese. To cement international relations we give them a mug of gin and tonic – the oldest man tries it and laughs.

‘He thinks its pop,’ said Cheryl.

The gin goes down a bit more and then they bring out their alcohol. Pure white spirit that tastes like refined turpentine but once swallowed makes you feel extremely cosy. Then I do something terrible. I try to mask the awful taste by adding tonic water. Utterly disgusting and now there is twice as much.

‘We can’t drink this,’ I say, appalled.


‘Smile,’ said Cheryl. ‘They’re all watching us.’ And it was true, everyone in the carriage had gathered round to watch the weird western girls drink strong liquor.

‘Can’t I just go to the bog, and get rid of it there,’ I suggested, beaming at three guys and waggling my mug to show how much I was enjoying it.

‘God. No!’ said Cheryl. ‘The Chinese would never think of doing anything so insanitary as that. They’d think we were the absolute pits.’

‘What about knocking it over, casual like?’

‘They’d probably only give us a refill,’ said Elspeth, grinning manically and then knocking back a hefty slug. So what could we do, but drink it? With the result that we all got very mournful about our lives, prospects and the future of the world. The Chinese, on the other hand, decided that gin was, ‘Very, very good.’ One of them was, apparently, a professional alcohol taster and he did the whole bit, rubbing it on his hands, sniffing it and then draining a stiff shot in one go before giving it his definite seal of approval. So, no problems for you here, Gordons. Of course, the guy could have just been a chancer from Harbin, or wherever…

Lent the oldest man my personal stereo. He put the earphones on with a big smile and was obviously telling all his mates he couldn’t see what the fuss was about, when I switched the tape on. He was utterly astounded. Oddly enough, the track was David Bowie singing Little China Girl. He listened to the whole thing. I think he liked it.


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