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China, humour

China 32, Baby yaks and bum pinchers

Copyright Elaine Canham 2015

Copyright Elaine Canham 2015

Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China and Tibet

Agnetha and I get breakfast courtesy of a baby yak this morning. We go to the market to buy food, and take two empty yoghurt pots with us to see if we can get them filled. These pots are made of rather beautiful white china. You get them everywhere.

The nearest entrance to the market is down the main street and through a little archway. But we’re no sooner through it than this Tibetan woman is waving at us from behind a barbed wire fence. It looks like she’s been penned in, but no, she points to a heap of junk we realise is actually a rickety gate, and we get through that, and then through another door in a wall and we’re in her back yard; there’s a table, a man sitting on a chair sunning himself, and a little stable containing a cow and a calf. That calf is cuter than a boxful of kittens. It is sweeter than George Michael covered in sugar snow singing ‘Last Christmas’. It’s like a shaggy little dog with big brown eyes and a bunchy tail. Agnetha is so overcome she bursts into raptures of Swedish, but mummy yak is having none of it. She is four times as big as her baby and she has horns you could pick a lock with.

Coming back to more practical matters, we hand over the pots and one kwai (about 30p) and the woman gives us full pots in exchange.  Lots of nodding and smiling and bowing and off we go, hoping that the gate isn’t going to collapse behind us. We get some walnuts (expensive) and a couple of apples and go back to the hotel. Agnetha shares her coffee and I contribute a tin of mandarin oranges. God, it tastes good.

We sit, surrounded by majestic mountains and views of prayer flags and vast sky, and naturally start discussing electric toasters. According to Agnetha nobody in Europe had an electric toaster until school trips to Britain started. ‘I’d never seen a toaster before I came to Britain,’ said Agnetha. ‘We never toasted anything. And,’ she leans forward seriously. ‘Not nobody else did either. Not the Dutch, or the French. I have checked, you know. Nobody. The French buy their toast in packets, even.

‘Really?’ I say.

She nods. ‘They call them, tostes. Then, we all come to your country, and boom! Toasters everywhere. Everybody is eating toast now. Hot from toaster.’

Amazing the stuff you learn when you go abroad.

Copyright Elaine Canham, 2015

Copyright Elaine Canham, 2015

We decide to go to the Potala, the Dalai Lama’s official residence. We walk down the main street, past lots of men with little tables. One is a dentist with a box of gold teeth and a hammer and pair of pliers. He is trying to persuade a Tibetan who is clutching his mouth, to sit down. He’s doing this by waving a pair of pliers in his face but the Tibetan, strangely, doesn’t look very keen. A knot of men gather, and there is a lot of banter and finally they push him into a seat and he opens his mouth. The dentist flexes his pliers and …. But at this point I walk on. Dentists have never been my strong point. A guy at the next table is playing Una Paloma Blanca on a little tape player, which is just the last tune I’d expect to hear, here. God, I hate that song. It’s right up there for appalling rhythmic cheerfulness with Y Viva Espana and bloody Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep. And why here??? This is, like, a spiritual refuge, man. They should be playing something deep and meaningful like Stairway to Heaven or Julie Andrews singing The Lonely Goatherd.

I can hear shouting behind me and the dentist’s customer is on his feet, his hands clapped to his mouth, while the dentist is waving something in his pliers.

A few yards further on we meet Julie and drop into this noodle/tea shop where all the customers are Genghis Khan and, in the corner, is a man in a white hat rolling out noodles on a table you wouldn’t put your boots on. There are a couple of men in short hair and short, western leather jackets. They are rather watchful, careful types who have come over the mountains from Nepal with stuff to sell. What this stuff is, exactly, nobody is very certain about. Julie and Mick are travelling back to Nepal with them in the next couple of days and ask if I want to go too. I have to admit I’m tempted. The thought of just launching into the unknown; to keep travelling on and on and never know what is going to happen next, is seductive. But I have stuff to do back in England, and Cheryl and Elspeth would worry about me, especially if I couldn’t get word back to them. Besides, on an extremely practical level, I’ve already paid for my return flight to Cheng Du.

Agnetha is wearing a pair of pink tracksuit bottoms, but all the men think she’s just in her long johns. Two men patted her bum on the way in, and Agnetha is offended, but Julie and I have a hard time not laughing, because it does look as if she’s come out in her jammies. ‘Even if I was wearing my pyjamas,’ Agnetha says. ‘They should not be doing this to my bottom.’ She’s right, of course, but try explaining that to a bunch of cheerful blokes who’ve never heard of leisure wear. God knows what they’d make of Spandex.

The man in charge of the restaurant cannot add up. He’s very cheerful, even for a Tibetan person, but he just puts his hands over his head and moans when he tries to give us the bill. Every time he adds up the column of figures (for three teas) he gets a different result. In the end I work it out on a piece of paper for him, very slowly, much to his relief. Smiles all round and off we go to the Potala, Agnetha dodging the bum slappers on the way out, and saying what she thinks of them in Swedish.


About elainecanham

I started blogging because I'm a writer, and I thought I ought to. Now I realise that I blog because I lwant to; even when I can't think of much to say. I do a lot of work for local businesses - get in touch if you like my style.


31 thoughts on “China 32, Baby yaks and bum pinchers

  1. No matter how i look at it, your planning this trip at all and following through was ambitious and I sent ten stars for your continuation. Not sure I’d like the bum paddling either. Doesn’t sound you had much for breakfast. I would have starved to death on your trip. How long were you gone on this trip?

    Posted by Let's CUT the Crap! | March 22, 2015, 6:56 pm
  2. I have been in china over the past 4 days, and the government blocks everything like google, wordpress, facebook etc, but I was able to get your post email notifications so I could still read your posts, but I couldn’t make comments via wordpress until now (am in Taiwan now). Your posts were so much more real when being amongst it all, although it has changed so much since 1985. I have really enjoyed your narrative, and loved the heart of darkness reference – the toilet holes are still there in many places and you would never chase anything that falls in there!

    Posted by Nolsie | March 19, 2015, 2:38 pm
    • Wow, that sounds great. I’m so glad it’s still recognisable. Where did you go?

      Posted by elainecanham | March 19, 2015, 2:53 pm
    • I have been visiting the same hardware factories for 20 years. Went to Guangzhou and surrounding quangdong province for a few days, then Wenzhou further north yesterday/today, and Taiwan Taipei tonight, down to Taichung (middle Taiwan) tomorrow, then home to Australia. Each trip nearly kills me, so quick and hectic, but I always want to be home by the weekend or at least part of it. I collapse in a screaming heap when I get home but the family always think I have been on a holiday and I get no sympathy at all!

      Posted by Nolsie | March 19, 2015, 4:46 pm
    • Guangzhou! That’s Canton, as I knew it. We got into a bit of a fight in a hostel there. But the food was magnificent. I seem to have concentrated rather a lot on food….

      Posted by elainecanham | March 19, 2015, 5:22 pm
    • The people in Shanghai say that the Cantonese “eat everything” and this is true. I used to ask what it was I was eating, but in the end it is better to just eat it – it is all amazing food. I look forward to flowing your instalments, they are very amusing

      Posted by Nolsie | March 20, 2015, 12:55 am
    • Thanks Nolsie, I’m glad you like them

      Posted by elainecanham | March 20, 2015, 10:04 am
  3. This post and your walk to the Potala in particular reads for some reason like a great music video, dipping in and out of the dental patient’s ordeal. Although there isn’t much room in a music video for deep toast philosophy, I still think you should sell the treatment to a pop star looking for meaning in their lives. There’s normally one or two lying about.

    Posted by Tara Sparling | March 19, 2015, 11:42 am
  4. I can’t stand The Sound of Music! I guess there’s a lot in it too you can’t face!!!!!
    Continue loving the way you continue to climb every mountain in Tibet…

    Posted by Bruce Goodman | March 19, 2015, 1:14 am
    • Hah! Well, there’s always got to be one. As I’ve said before, I don’t know why I love it so much, but hey ho, I cannot explain the mystery of the human mind.

      Posted by elainecanham | March 19, 2015, 9:21 am
  5. I guess toast in not universal, but dentists are. I can picture that dentist waving the gold teeth in his pliers. Ewwww! Loved your rapture over the calf and the backside patting. 🙂

    I want to be in your Sound of Music production, too. I also know all the words. We had the Broadway cast album when I was a little girl–before the movie came out–and my sister and I used to listen to it all the time. Then I watched the movie over and over with my girls when they were little. And I even watched the awful TV production last year.

    Posted by merrildsmith | March 18, 2015, 7:44 pm
    • I didn’t know there was a TV production. Gosh, what have I missed?? Mind you, I don’t care. I love that film. I have no idea why. It is hardly a tour de force of story-telling, but the music is great, ditto scenery. And it’s just addictive.

      Posted by elainecanham | March 18, 2015, 7:57 pm
    • Agree, Elaine. You didn’t miss anything with the TV Live production last year.

      Posted by merrildsmith | March 18, 2015, 9:51 pm
  6. I know all the lyrics to all the songs from the sound of music. Just a little fun fact for you. In fact, I might be able to put on a production of the musical all by myself.
    I wonder what all those pinchy McPinchersons think of all those Chinese teenagers in their Daisy Dukes running around all over the place nowadays.

    Posted by naptimethoughts | March 18, 2015, 6:14 pm
  7. Sorry–I love Una Paloma Blanca!
    Oh, the thought of that dentist–makes my teeth hurt just reading about it.Wish you had a picture of that Yak calf, sounds huggable!

    Posted by Vivra Beene | March 18, 2015, 4:39 pm
    • I know, my pictures are rubbish. I practically had a pinhole camera and I never pointed it at anything remotely interesting, except by accident. I’m trying to find one of the girls I met in Tibet, on Facebook. She had brilliant pictures.

      Posted by elainecanham | March 18, 2015, 4:49 pm
  8. I so wish I could have been the fly on the wall for your trip. It’s pure pantomime in places. I’d love to have seen Bum Patters Incorporated in action as a girl in pink pj’s tries to avoid the hands.And the rickety gate is pure magic.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

    Posted by davidprosser | March 18, 2015, 11:50 am

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