Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China
Elspeth has spent most of the night skulking in the bogs, concentrating fiercely on Kurt Vonnegut. She is pale and exhausted, and is not up for a walk into town, so Cheryl and I set off for the China Airways office to get my ticket. It looks more like a lock-up than a branch of a national airline. But the place is packed; Chinese people are grouped three-deep at the counter, pulling at the ones in front and yelling over their heads at the two women minding the shop. They, of course, take no notice. One is calmly dealing with one person, while the other is going carefully through a pile of 5 kwai notes, making sure each one is the right way up.
We struggle to the front, only to be told we need an application form, available at the other side of the room. Application form filled in – to an audience of 15 interested Chinese people – back we go.
A man behind the counter looks at my passport. ‘This you?’ he asks Cheryl.
‘Of course,’ she says, also offering her student card. We are then allowed to pay in renminbi. Cheryl’s theory that we all look alike to Chinese people, plus the fact most of them can’t understand the western arabic script, is amply proved. They don’t even blink at our different surnames.
We wander back through the market and stop off for some of those lovely dumplings, baodsis. The market is fascinating. All sorts of vegetables. Some look like gigantic dandelions with all the leaves cut off. In the meat market unrecognisable bits of meat hang from hooks. The Chinese don’t believe in the rather neat butchering that you see in Europe; they just take a whacking great knife to a carcase and hack it any old way. Wistfully we look at bits of pork that look like bacon and wander on. The baodsis were delicious, but what wouldn’t we give for a bacon sandwich. There are tables heaped with spices; and fish, all sizes, swimming around in small white-tiled tanks, waiting for the fishmonger to grab them, bash them on the head with a hammer and hand them over to a customer.
There are loads of live hens, too, hanging patiently by their feet from the handlebars of people’s bicycles. Cheryl said she was on a bus in Beijing one day when a hen, tied to the back of the seat in front decided to start squawking. It made so much noise its owner wrung its neck there and then. You don’t see that on a No 27 to Muswell Hill.
Across the street there is a guy blowing his nose, Chinese-style. They think our habit of using a hankie is utterly disgusting. What you are supposed to do, of course, is stand by the side of the road, close one nostril with your finger and blow hard through the other. Then you pinch off the snot, shake it into the road and go on your way. Personally, I’m rather fond of my hankie.
Go to the bar in the evening. It’s our last night together. Cheryl and Elspeth go early, because they’re leaving for Kunming at dawn. Dave, a political student, starts on about the role of politics in the media, which I know nothing about. I can write a picture caption for a fashion story in ten minutes, or edit an axe murder in 20, but this is too deep for me. Still, I must have said something intelligent because at one point he asks me:
‘You know the CGT?’
‘Oh, yes,’ I say, wondering what on earth he’s on about now.
He fixes me with a gimletty eye. ‘Well, are they Marxist Leninists, or crypto Trotskyists?’