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China, humour

China 22: Decision time for Tibet


Copyright, Elaine Canham 2015

Copyright, Elaine Canham 2015

Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China

March 2

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!’

‘No. Mayo.’

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.


About elainecanham

I started blogging because I'm a writer, and I thought I ought to. Now I realise that I blog because I like to; even when I can't think of much to say.


14 thoughts on “China 22: Decision time for Tibet

  1. I think this is brilliant. I know everyone else thinks you should (and probably rightly) be completely annoyed by the entire experience by now, but it sounds like adventure to me. I like it. It’s something I would have done at that age, had I ever left NYC. Which I didn’t, and is probably why it all sounds so fantastic to me.

    Posted by naptimethoughts | March 8, 2015, 8:36 pm
    • I’m so glad you said that, I keep thinking I must be boring the pants off everybody. And yet if I don’t tell this story now, I’ll never tell it. It meanders a bit, I must say, and there’s a lot of emphasis on food. But that was just how it was. I haven’t made anything up. And it was an adventure. I loved it, even though it did get irritating at times.

      Posted by elainecanham | March 8, 2015, 9:28 pm
  2. Reblogged this on Will the real reality please stand up!.

    Posted by lassy | March 7, 2015, 9:57 pm
  3. I can’t help myself. I have visions of the Chinese there going for an English takeaway very much as we do with their meals here, and ordering the numbers from the menu that correspond to the meal you were presented with there. I have the feeling the takeaway wouldn’t last long serving that.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

    Posted by davidprosser | March 7, 2015, 5:44 pm
    • No, I don’t suppose it would. But they wouldn’t order it, they knew how vile it was. However, when they opened a McDonalds in Beijing, the Chinese queued round the block xx

      Posted by elainecanham | March 7, 2015, 6:16 pm
  4. No way could I have done this! But I am enjoying it so much, vicariously. Not only can I picture you all enjoying that western dinner–I can smell the smells and taste the food (tinned hamburger???)

    Posted by Vivra Beene | March 7, 2015, 3:47 pm
    • I don’t know if you were very young when you left Lancashire, Vivra, but do you remember those tinned meatballs you used to get? They tasted like those.

      Posted by elainecanham | March 7, 2015, 6:18 pm
  5. I don’t know how you managed to hang in either. I’d be moody and ugly by now. Miserable and bitchy. Oh, dear. None of the alternatives are any good. What did you do? Can’t wait to read. 😮

    Posted by Let's CUT the Crap! | March 7, 2015, 3:10 pm
  6. Swiss role eh! any port in a storm, to use a badly non-relevant metaphor. All this hanging about in the middle of nowhere without the necessary funds or visas is really morale sapping as you brilliantly get across in this post

    Posted by Peter Wells aka Countingducks | March 7, 2015, 3:04 pm

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