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 still a bit of a mystery, a totalitarian state where many people 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 is my diary of what happened:
February 11, (I think) Karachi. A hot summer’s day on a February morning and an airport full of organised (ish) chaos with lots of shouting. No connecting plane to Beijing. Me and Chairman Mao and his retinue and Michael shrink together. The PIA official is condescendingly kind and casually efficient. ‘We’ll put you in a hotel,’ he said. ‘Very nice hotel. And your flight is at 7.30 tonight. Off you go.’
Hordes of porters descend on us, determinedly wrenching away our bags; anything that remotely looks as if it needs carrying. I clasp my still unopened gin to my chest. Nobody is going to get their mitts on that. If that breaks on the Pakistani dust, I will cry. Or kill someone.
Everything, including us, is piled on a mini bus that is coming apart at the seams. The porters want to get on too, but the driver, with some difficulty, shuts the door in their faces. So they hang on to the sides, waving their thin brown hands through the windows. ‘Baksheesh! Baksheesh!’ they yell and we’re all too jetlagged to care. ‘No money!’ we yell back.
The hotel is not big or swanky and the water comes out of the taps with great gloopy burps, but I couldn’t have been more pleased if we’d pulled up at the Dorchester. It’s built as a series of inter-connecting cloistered courtyards with grass and trees in the middle of each. I think about Rikki Tikki Tavi and wonder at the back of my mind if I’m going to find a king cobra under my bed or in the bath, but no. The room is a bit musty smelling but clean, and I sit on my doorstep soaking up the heat.
Lunch in the canteen. Serve yourself lamb curry and rice. The cooks’ aprons look disgusting but everybody smiles at us and I put food poisoning in the same mental box as the snakes, and dig in. It’s kind of earthy tasting, but very satisfying. The Chinese look a bit unhappy, but Mao gives them a pep talk (although he could be reciting a dirty limerick for all I know) and they each get a pair of chopsticks out of their pockets and start eating. Weird.
Then, my big mistake. It’s so hot I put my shorts on and get on the minibus back to the airport so I can telex Cheryl (the hotel doesn’t have a telex). My trip is taking so long I’m beginning to worry that she and Elspeth will have set off for Tibet without me, and I’ll have to somehow catch them up. I was thinking about this so much that I didn’t think about the fact that I was in a muslim city. Or that I was female and on my own.
I knew I’d done something wrong almost as soon as I got on the minibus, from the way the driver looked at me, but the door clanked close behind me and he wouldn’t stop and there was nothing I could do. All the men on the bus, the hotel porters going out to greet a flight just stared at my bare legs and me, and then grinned and nudged each other. I began to feel very, very nervous. I looked determinedly out of the window and pretended I was somewhere else.
Still, got to the airport ok. Got out of the bus to cross the busy road to the airport entrance with lorries full of men leering at me and shouting stuff. God knows what. Even when I made it to the PIA desk the looks I got from the suitably covered up female groundstaff didn’t make it seem worth the trip. If they could have looked any further down their noses at me and my naked legs their eyes would have dropped out. Supercilious cows. But I had to send the telex. Or at least try.
Sending the telegram was a completely potty exercise. After waiting for what seemed like hours, with the entire bloody population of Karachi staring at me, while everybody yelled at everybody else, one of the officials gave me a slip of paper and said, ‘Write your message here.’ I did. So then he took another slip, wrote his own telegram to Cheryl and told me I needn’t bother with mine.
‘But…’ I said. ‘That’s my message.’
He stared at me and pointed at his. ‘And this is mine,’ he said. ‘Much better.’
‘What does it say?’ I asked. ‘Can I see?’ ‘Certainly not,’ he said. ‘Off you go now. And, in future, do not forget to dress more respectably.’
‘Fine,’ I said. ‘Fine.’ Thinking anything but, and went back to the hotel, ignoring another swathe of leering men, to stitch up my fraying temper and put my jeans back on.
At 7.30, all present and correct at airport. Not enough seats on plane. We’re sent back to the hotel. At 4.30 in the morning all present and correct at airport. PIA staff shove us off to Romanian Airlines. Plane arrives. Groundstaff don’t.
Chairman Mao goes back to PIA, determined to negotiate. All the Chinese put their bags on the check-in desk in silent protest. The groundstaff official looks distastefully at them and then at Chairman Mao. ‘You must remove your bags from this place. People are going to New York you know,’ he says. ‘I have important work to do. Take your baggage away until the proper time.’
The place is packed with poorly dressed men queuing up to fly to Dubai to see if they can get work, there are women in saris and men in djebellahs and, strangely in that colourful mass, a line of westerners in dark suits with briefcases, checking in for the New York flight.
I suddenly realise I am watching two members of the greatest bureaucracies in the world lock horns. Chairman Mao can’t speak English; the Pakistanis can’t speak Chinese, but a very flustered Michael Wong translates.
Chinese second-in-command lady speaks to me in French and chips in with her own observations. The Chinese finally move their suitcases and then get into a huddle. I have no idea what is going on. Michael turns to me. ‘Give the leader your passport.’
He nods at Chairman Mao. ‘You must give him your passport.’
‘Don’t be silly.’
Michael looks at me seriously. ‘I am giving him mine. He is an important party member. If you give him your passport you will become a member of his cadre and he will become responsible for you. You will be under his protection.’
Chairman Mao smiles at me and bows. I hand over my passport.