Continuing my 1985 diary of my trip to China. Here, I catch a steam train and drink some gin.
Thought I was in a prison cell when I woke up the next morning. But then I remembered I was in an empty room at the Beijing languages institute. We have to get a move on, we’re catching the train to Xi’an at 12.25. Cheryl goes off to rescue her bike from where she parked it a couple of days ago and Elspeth and I and Bill go into the city centre. Bill is short and dark and Hungarian and rather sexy. He says he’s called Bill, because no-one can pronounce his real name. Elspeth has an idea he is some kind of aristocrat on account of his manners, but on the other hand, no one is an aristocrat in Hungary these days.
We have to get to the Russian Embassy sharpish to see if I can get a visa so that when I leave China I can get the trans-Siberian train to Berlin. We travel by bus (getting on is like trying to get to the bar on New Year’s Eve) and by tube. They’ve only just started building this, and there are not many stations, but the platform we’re on is as big as a ballroom. Bill translates the Chinese sign for ‘warning’ on the train door for me. Literally it means ‘small heart’, or, ‘What you are about to experience will contract your heart with fear.’
I think this is it:
Doesn’t much look like a heart.
The Russian embassy is closed, but the guard outside is charming; all done up in green with a high fur cap. He can speak Italian, but no English. We find him incomprehensible; and the only phrase I know in Italian is, ‘I would like a strawberry ice cream, please.’ But he smiles at our pantomime of stamping visas and then said, rather shyly, ‘Monday, Wednesday, Friday; nine to 13.’ Just our bad luck it was a Tuesday. Never mind, I’ll get my visa when I come back. Say goodbye to Bill and make a dash for the train station to meet Chezza. Time is getting on.
The station is bigger than cavernous. Why do the Chinese like to have such enormous public buildings? Smaug could flap his wings in this one. And more people and luggage than for a cup final at Wembley. Apparently everybody is on the move for the Chinese New Year. The bag of choice is a big boxy plastic blue and white tartan bag, all square and tied up with string. Nobody much has suitcases. Bet we’ll see those bags in Britain, soon. Everybody stares at us. If we stop for a minute we get surrounded by people wanting to practise their English and look more closely at our hair and eyes. It’s a bit unsettling.
All the trains in China are green with a yellow stripe. Lots are steam trains. In fact, China has the only steam train factory in the world; in Dahong. You can get hard seats (like park benches) hard sleepers, or if you’re feeling really flush, soft sleeper (which apparently features net curtains and flowers). We’ve got a hard sleeper. It means that the carriage is partitioned into open-ended stalls with a corridor down one side, and each partition wall has three shelves with a thin mattress, a blanket, pillow and a small towel. The shelves are our bunks and there are six in each stall, with a table in between. There are fold-up seats all the way down the corridor, for when you get fed up sitting on your bunk. It’s only possible to sit on the lowest bunks; you bang your head if you try it on the higher ones.
There’s a public address system playing a woman singing a rather lovely, lilting song, to a sort of scraping violin and flute. It seems to match perfectly with the little brown fields and red-roofed houses going by. But, as time goes on, it gets rather wearing. There is a button to switch it off, but none of the Chinese do. It is not thought of as respectful to touch it. In the end, I can’t stand it any longer, and I press the button. There is immediate silence and, as the rumble of the train on the tracks gets louder, I turn to find I am being looked at by several rather expressionless people. I begin to wish I’d left well alone. Five minutes later, when the train guard comes in with a thermos of hot water, she switches it on again.
All the Chinese travel with little lidded cups for their tea. And the guards are continually coming round and refilling them. It doesn’t cost anything, but you have to supply your own tea. The Chinese just tip new leaves in and, as the trip goes on, the green sludge in the bottom of everybody’s cups gets thicker and thicker. We get the gin out.