Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China
The people at the hotel desk translate the piece of paper we got from the bus station. It does not say, as has happened to others we know, ‘You can’t go to Lhasa.’
It does say, ‘The Tibetan affairs office.’ Elspeth and Cheryl go off to find out what they can. I think I’m coming down with a cold, and in any case, we’re sharing a book at the moment, and it’s my turn to read it, so I stay behind and read Kurt Vonnegut and eat chocolate. Imagine. Cadbury’s chocolate in Cheng Du. Totally surreal.
The girls come back an hour or so later and it’s bad news. There is a bus, but not until the 15th. They can’t afford to fly. It’s a bit steep for me, too, about 322 kwai each way, which is about £100, but I can just about afford it if I pay in renminbi ‘people’s money’ rather than FEC (foreign exchange currency) which is what foreigners are supposed to use.
On every street corner there are blokes offering to ‘change your money’. They give an exchange rate of about 1.5, which means that, if you have a student card, like me, everything is suddenly much more affordable. The Chinese want FEC because they can use it to buy western goods; stereos and gin and the like, which you can’t pay for in renminbi. Bill the Hungarian back in Beijing gave me a very serious lecture about how bad for the economy it was to change your money. It’s also illegal, but, I want to go to Tibet.
We talk around various other ways of getting there; going to Shanghai now and coming back for the bus would take too much time, going by truck from here would take two weeks, and nobody fancies standing shoulder to shoulder for that long. There will also be complications about getting my Russian visa back in Beijing, if we mess about for too long. In the end Cheryl and Elspeth decide to try to go to Lhasa this summer. I will fly there and back and meet them in Kunming. We are all very glum.
Elspeth and I trek off to get a separate pass for me to go to Lhasa. Sit about in a 1930s office that looked like it was expecting Philip Marlowe back at any moment. Fill in forms. Very strait-laced lady eventually hands over the pass. Bizarrely, there is a comments book, and in it, one Australian bloke has written, ‘Wanted a pass for Lhasa, no. Wanted a pass for Golmud, mayo. Shall I take her out to dinner?’ Bet he didn’t ask her, doesn’t look as if anything would soften this cookie.
One bright spot – that night we have the western dinner we’ve ordered. The waiters don’t quite get the idea of courses, so we get potato salad, cock a leekie soup and toast and jam all at once. Then we get the hamburgers. We have been so looking forward to this moment, and when the plates are put in front of us, we have exactly seven chips each. The hamburger is tinned, and we get peas too, admittedly also tinned. But we also get tomato sauce. Tomato sauce! Then we wait for pudding. We wait and wait and wait, but nothing happens. We seem to have become suddenly invisible. We manage to attract a waiter, but he stares at us blankly.
‘Pudding? Pudding? What is pudding?’
‘Fruit salad and ice cream,’ we explain, and I try to mime it by opening an imaginary tin. Which is frankly daft. The waiter looks if anything, even more blank at this. ‘No. Mayo.’
‘But you had it yesterday!’
Eventually the nice guy from yesterday waltzes over. ‘So. You want dessert, huh?’
‘Yes, please!’ we chorus, like children at a birthday party.
‘Sure you can have dessert.’
Smiles of relief all round. Five minutes later we are presented with a plate of Swiss roll.