Continuing my 1985 diary of my trip to China. Here, I get a taxi and have some chocolate biscuits.
Walking out of that door into the main departure area was like a blow in the face. Behind me, plush calm, in front, dusty heaving chaos. Everyone in thick padded coats and peaked hats and luggage piled everywhere. I had given up all hope of seeing Cheryl at the airport. My plane times had changed so much. I had difficulty in working out how long the trip had taken me, never mind how I was going to get to the languages institute where she and Elspeth were students.
I practically dropped the gin, when I saw her at the departure gate.
‘Where the bloody hell have you been?’ she said. (She’s from Yorkshire, so that’s quite a warm welcome, especially since she’d been waiting there, on and off, for three days.)
‘I’ve got gin,’ I replied, as we gave each other a hug.
She had got hold of a tame taxi driver who, when we got outside, had disappeared. After about 20 minutes he returned in a sky blue job similar to a 1950s Morris Oxford, which clanked up to the airport entrance. This covered the 15 miles to Beijing at a pace that would have put a funeral cortege to shame. Still, we were glad even of that when half way there it stopped dead. We were just considering the prospect of a bracing walk when the driver managed to start it again. ‘Thank God,’ said Cheryl with some feeling.
Peking was dark, foggy, cold and the buildings stretched on for miles. Finally we drew up at some gates that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a remake of the Hound of the Baskervilles. The taxi wasn’t going any further. This was the institute compound. Large grey blocks. Thick wadding curtains covered every doorway. Even the tree trunks were wrapped in wadding. The air smelt of cabbage, but it was clean and cold and crisp.
The guy who designed the institute had obviously had a lot of concrete and not much imagination; it was just a square box really, separated into small square rooms with a lavvy at the end of each floor. The place was home to students from all over the world. One Jamaican lad I met said to me, ‘Most other guys put up pictures of girls in their rooms. I’ve got a poster of Caribbean vegetables. It’s so beautiful. I just look at it every night and dream of home cooking.’ He looked at me hopefully. ‘You didn’t bring any mangos, did you?’
Cheryl and Elspeth’s room, though, was quite cosy with bits of material and rather kitsch posters of the great Chinese leaders stapled all over the walls.
‘Trouble is,’ said Elspeth, when I complimented them. ‘Everybody else thinks it’s cosy too; it gets quite crowded at times.’
I put my backpack down and presented the girls with my other, heavier bag. ‘There you go, courtesy of the food hall at Marks and Sparks.’ They zip it open and fall like starving vultures on the goodies that spill out. Marmite, chocolate, camembert, smoked cheese, apples, chocolate digestives and chocolate; I had just filled my trolley with everything I could think of that you might not get in China. And it was practically vaporised. A German guy and a bloke from Denmark bagged the Bavarian cheddar with little grunts of delight. The gin made a very satisfactory glugging sound when it was opened. And, get this, I had remembered tonic water, and a lemon. Brownie points galore for me. One of the lads tugged out a cardboard box. ‘What is this?’
‘Tea bags,’ I said.
‘You brought tea, to China?’ he said.
‘Tea bags,’ I replied. ‘You know, for a proper cup of tea. With milk.’
They began to laugh. ‘You English,’ said one. ‘What would you do without tea?’
‘Tea and toast and Marmite,’ said Elspeth, dreamily. ‘Bloody marvellous.’