Continuing my 30-year-old diary of my trip to China. Here we have a party on the train and introduce the Chinese to David Bowie.
There are three blokes on the bunks opposite us, and they seem to have an inexhaustible supply of apples. The Chinese are very careful about the cleanliness of what they eat and drink – although maybe not so much about where they eat and drink it – so they peel everything. (The word for leather is, apparently, cow peel). The peel falls from their fingers, in long and delicate ribbons and, fascinated, we strike up a conversation. At least Elspeth and Cheryl do the talking. I marvel at the easy way they’ve learnt to speak Chinese. To cement international relations we give them a mug of gin and tonic – the oldest man tries it and laughs.
‘He thinks its pop,’ said Cheryl.
The gin goes down a bit more and then they bring out their alcohol. Pure white spirit that tastes like refined turpentine but once swallowed makes you feel extremely cosy. Then I do something terrible. I try to mask the awful taste by adding tonic water. Utterly disgusting and now there is twice as much.
‘We can’t drink this,’ I say, appalled.
‘Smile,’ said Cheryl. ‘They’re all watching us.’ And it was true, everyone in the carriage had gathered round to watch the weird western girls drink strong liquor.
‘Can’t I just go to the bog, and get rid of it there,’ I suggested, beaming at three guys and waggling my mug to show how much I was enjoying it.
‘God. No!’ said Cheryl. ‘The Chinese would never think of doing anything so insanitary as that. They’d think we were the absolute pits.’
‘What about knocking it over, casual like?’
‘They’d probably only give us a refill,’ said Elspeth, grinning manically and then knocking back a hefty slug. So what could we do, but drink it? With the result that we all got very mournful about our lives, prospects and the future of the world. The Chinese, on the other hand, decided that gin was, ‘Very, very good.’ One of them was, apparently, a professional alcohol taster and he did the whole bit, rubbing it on his hands, sniffing it and then draining a stiff shot in one go before giving it his definite seal of approval. So, no problems for you here, Gordons. Of course, the guy could have just been a chancer from Harbin, or wherever…
Lent the oldest man my personal stereo. He put the earphones on with a big smile and was obviously telling all his mates he couldn’t see what the fuss was about, when I switched the tape on. He was utterly astounded. Oddly enough, the track was David Bowie singing Little China Girl. He listened to the whole thing. I think he liked it.