Thirty years ago last Tuesday I got on a plane at Heathrow and set off for China. I was 26, and between jobs when a friend of mine, Cheryl, who was studying in Beijing, sent me a card saying she and her roommate Elspeth were just about to set off for Tibet. So, naturally, I asked if I could tag along. The following three months were some of the most extraordinary of my life. China in those days was a bit of a mystery, a totalitarian state where many people still worked the fields in the same way that they had done for 1,000 years or more; and where, generally, their Number One ambition was to be able to afford a bicycle. This is my diary of what happened:
February 10, 1985
Set off for China but didn’t get there. Snowing thickly and the plane, due to take off at 12.25 was delayed for 4½ hours. PIA treated all the passengers to lunch; great long tables full of cheerful Pakistani families with mountains of luggage and huge packets of Pampers nappies going on their holidays; plus me, and Alex, who is apparently the only American mountain guide based in Nepal, a six-foot tall, blond Californian complete with cowboy hat, whacking great mountain boots, plus fours and muscly calves. He had about 50 rucksacks with him and wanted me to check some of them in on my allowance. Didn’t think this was a good idea, but for some reason, agreed. I comforted myself with the idea that he couldn’t be smuggling anything out of Britain and made a mental note to be more assertive in future.
I got to know Terminal Three very well in the next four hours; the bar, the bookshop and, most importantly, the duty-free shop. I bought a two-litre bottle of gin for Cheryl and Elspeth. Even when the flight was called we had to sit in an airport bus for an hour. I began to consider opening the gin, but managed to resist. Eventually got on the plane, which lumbered into the air and, within minutes, landed again in Paris where we took on 15 Chinese people in grey Mao suits. They were led by a guy who looked like Mao’s twin brother and who spoke perfect German. His second in command was a woman who was a kindly intellectual type, who spoke perfect French. On investigation, I found that all of them spoke another language perfectly. But not English.
And then it just went on and on. Awful film, awful food and a three-year-old boy in front of me threw up. I spent the next millenia in a fog of vomit with nothing to read. The most memorable thing about the flight was flying into the dawn. A faint red outline of the wing tip just kept growing and growing until the whole sky was red and orange and pink and green and bright, blazing blue.
Staggered off the plane at Islamabad. It was lovely. The air was fresh and clean and clear and the morning was warm and gentle, nothing like the raw Heathrow afternoon I had left. I didn’t see Alex and his 50 rucksacks, and nobody came to arrest me, so that was ok. But then the problems began. My connecting flight to Beijing had gone. The next one was due in four days. It was just me, the Chinese lot and a young anxious lad called Michael Wong who works at a Chinese takeaway in the Edgware Road.
Indian toilets! How amazing are they! An old woman in a spotless sari welcomed me in, bowing and smiling. She even opened the door to a cubicle for me, and then…well. My mate Gina told me back in London that there would be no toilet paper, but I didn’t believe her. She told me I would have to fling water over myself instead. Oh, how I laughed. And there, in the cubicle, was a silver jug on the floor filled with water. I eventually emerged with sopping jeans and socks to find the woman waiting, bowing and clasping her hands and leading the way to the sink, where she switched on the taps for me. I was obviously not to be trusted with water. She even adjusted the hand drier and pointed it out carefully. Then she waited expectantly and I didn’t know what to do. I knew I was supposed to tip her but I had no Pakistani money. ‘It is quite all right,’ said another woman. ‘I will do it for you. Go, catch your plane.’ Didn’t have the heart to tell her I had four days to wait for it.
Got back to the desk to find Chairman Mao, his entourage, and Michael, clustered anxiously around a PIA official who wasn’t going to let any of us litter up his airport for four days. Too tired to argue, we trailed faithfully after him and he loaded us, like vaguely bleating sheep, on to a plane bound for Karachi. Completely in the opposite direction to Beijing, but hey, what else did we have planned for the day?