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:
Five hours later we board the plane. Chairman Mao is determined to have a picture of all of us. His international friends, he calls me and Michael. So we have to get off the plane and line up smiling on the tarmac by the steps. Unfortunately Pakistani policemen have different ideas about photographs being taken at their airport, especially since there are military jets in the background, and they point their guns at us. So we troop back up the steps and the Romanian pilot takes the picture.
The plane is almost empty apart from us. The Chinese all sit together and Chairman Mao gestures for me to join them, but I just smile and point out a row of three seats further back and stretch out on them. He doesn’t seem to mind. I think about my passport. Not much I can do about it now. I don’t know whether I’ve been stupid, or not.
Our meals come in flat, gaily patterned cardboard boxes. And when they’re finished with, the stewardesses scrape off the waste, and then insert the next meal. They don’t hand them to you, either. They chuck them, like frisbees. Breakfast was not too bad, a heated up omelette and a banana. Lunch was a complete mystery. It had the consistency and taste of a pan scourer fried in batter, and this came with four chips and plastic square inch of strawberry jam. It was pointless asking the stewardesses what these things were; most of them had curled up on the back seats and gone to sleep. One of them was doing her make-up. Two were alternately dishing out tea in red plastic picnic cups and trying to stop the more over-enthusiastic Chinese from leaping from side to side of the plane shooting off entire rolls of film of the Himalayas.
Those mountains are truly awesome. Even from thousands of feet up in an aeroplane they were astonishing – peak after snow-capped peak stretching in all directions. There seemed very little vegetation, just snow and bare brown rock and the occasional glacier. They eventually gave way to desert; miles upon miles of it. Everything looked so dry. Things that looked like river beds snaked across the landscape, but they didn’t look like they had any water in them.
Michael sat down next to me. He seemed unusually twitchy. ‘We will be landing soon,’ he said. I glanced at him briefly and then got back to the scenery. ‘China is a great country,’ he began again. ‘But there are many, many oppressed people. You are punished if you are a Christian. Put in prison. Tortured even. You cannot worship openly.’
I dragged myself away from the Himlayas. ‘What?’
‘Christians.’ He said patiently. ‘In China. They need help.’
‘Are you asking for a donation?’
He looked at me and then around the plane, very carefully. ‘I have 100 bibles in my suitcases,’ he said. ‘I am smuggling them into the country. For people who need them.’
I just stared at him. I couldn’t think of anything to say. How can you smuggle that many bibles in two suitcases? It’s not like nobody will notice.
‘I was wondering if you might like to help me,’ he said. ‘If you could take some of them. God will reward you. You will be doing a great service to the Christian community. You are a Christian, are you not?’
‘But if we are found out and arrested,’ I said. ‘What happens then?’
Michael shrugged his shoulders miserably. ‘I do not know. Bad things. But we will be suffering in the name of God.’
I know I’m not very assertive, but even I could see this was a time to say, ‘No.’
‘I don’t think I can do that, Michael,’ I said. ‘I just don’t. I’m not really that bothered about bibles. And I don’t want to go to prison much. Or er, be tortured.’ He looked, if anything, even more unhappy. Perhaps that was tactless. I decided to move off the painful subject of what might happen to him. ‘Why don’t you pretend those suitcases aren’t yours; just say there’s been a mix up?’
He began to cry. ‘I cannot do that. You must see that we can bring hope to the suffering. ’
I didn’t know what to say. But I couldn’t help him. He was a long way from the Edgware Road. And so was I. I felt a mixture of irritation and sympathy. What did he think he was doing, fossicking about with bibles? He should have stayed at home instead of risking his neck. ‘You’ll be okay,’ I said. ‘We’re all honorary members of the team. Chairman Mao will look after you.’ This didn’t seem to comfort him, and eventually he went back to his own seat. I spent a long time thinking aimlessly about how to help him. But I couldn’t see a solution, and the view didn’t appeal to me anymore.
We were continually losing hours because of the direction we were flying in. I had lost all track of time in any case but, in six hours, it changed from being 9am on a balmy Karachi day to 6pm on a fog-enshrouded sleety Peking evening.
The airport was extraordinary. We were ushered into an enormous room with plush drapes and chandeliers and 1930s boxy furniture and a little delegation came to meet us. Lots of respectful nodding. Chairman Mao beckons me and Michael forward, says something; everybody nods again. He hands an official my passport who looks at it, stamps it and gives it back to him. Chairman Mao hands it on to me, beaming. I nod and smile at him. We shake hands. He says something to Michael, who whispers gloomily back, and then looks at me. ‘Sank you,’ he says, making a great effort to repeat what Michael has told him. ‘Sank you. Danke schon.’
Dunno what for. ‘Thank you,’ I reply. And mean it. He, a committed communist, had found a couple of stray people in the world, and had taken them under his protection. I hadn’t actually wanted him to, but that was beside the point.
A man I hadn’t noticed came forward and took me across the thickly carpeted floor to my bags. ‘These yours?’
I was so stunned to hear him speak perfect American English that I could only nod, again. He touched them lightly and then gestured at a small door. ‘They’re ok. You can go.’
I turn back to see Michael staring at me. I give him a thumbs up sign. He doesn’t return it.