Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China; here we try to play space invaders
The reason why we’re here in Xian, of course, is that we want to go to Tibet. The plan is to get a train as far as we can, to Liu Yuan, which is in Gansu Province. Then we’re going to try to hitch a ride on a truck to the city of Golmud and then on to Lhasa. It should take us about a week. There are two problems with this. Well, maybe more than two.
First off, Golmud is off limits to foreigners and you can’t get a pass to go there. However, the word is that if you wind up there, they don’t arrest you, they just send you on your way, hopefully to Lhasa, as quickly as possible. Golmud is in Qinghai province and the Chinese authorities don’t like foreigners there because that is where, it is rumoured, they do their nuclear testing.
Also, there is a faint possibility that we could get altitude sickness, and if that happens the only thing to do is turn back immediately, which might not be possible if we are hitching.
The thing that is beginning to exercise me most, though, is that I am described in my passport as a journalist, and I have discovered that as far as most Chinese are concerned journalist is just another way of saying, spy. I’m beginning to get quite nervous about what will happen in Golmud.
Still, that’s not for a bit yet. The important thing is to get to Liu Yuan. Elspeth very generously takes the short straw this morning and gets up at 7.30 to see if she can get railway tickets. She has to go early, before the crowds start. It seems like the whole of China is on the move for the Spring festival, their New Year, on Feb 20. But she doesn’t have any luck. You can only book so far ahead, and all seats are taken.
So we are here for another couple of days. We get a bus to go to the Big Goose Pagoda. The guide book enthused about this thing rising out of the wheatfields and reminding one of the ‘similarly massive ruins of Mycenae’. Dunno about that. It rose all right and it was quite impressive, but it’s not exactly Mediterranean scenery. Or heat.
The view from the pagoda was good. You could hear the crackling of the fireworks like far-off gunfire as people celebrated the onset of New Year. Then we went to a nearby wartime air-raid shelter which the guide book said had been turned into a popular café and amusement arcade.
Well, we wandered all around it. In the amusement arcade Elspeth wanted to place Space Invaders. She gave the attendant 2 Mao (about 7p) and started off. But the attendant decided Elspeth didn’t know how to play. ‘Why don’t you press this button. Look, look, that one’s getting away! No, press this one.’ Finally she stood in front of Elspeth yelling incomprehensibly, before taking over the game completely. ‘This is how you do it!’ We watch her, a bit bemused, and then tiptoe away and leave her to it.
There was a zoo too. Awful. Monkeys in metal cages with nothing to do but gnaw the bars. A stuffed crocodile nailed to a plank, a stuffed owl nailed to a branch. Four tortoises trying to burrow their way out of an empty, dry case. A python crammed into a case with a quilt on top of him. A snub-nosed iguana-like creature, alive, but too big for his tank, fitted in diagonally, the water green and stinking.
Elspeth walked in and promptly walked out again. Cheryl and I made it to the end of the display and back. I felt sick. But there were plenty of families there, with parents showing their children the amazing animals.
Down another tunnel and a brightly lit neon sign proclaimed, ‘Cinema’. But it was a dance hall, really. The two girls who were minding the record player were waltzing together to the Blue Danube. In China you can get arrested for disco dancing.