Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China
Up at dawn. The hotel foyer is deserted except for a couple of men dozing in chairs by the main doors. Agnetha and the taxi driver arrive at the same time and we leave to the strains of a Strauss waltz on the car radio.
The airport is out in the countryside. It looks like Blandings Castle from the outside; inside, it’s a complete shambles. There are crowds of people everywhere; sitting on the floor drinking tea out of those little jam jars the Chinese take everywhere with them, crowded three-deep round what looks to be the check-in counter; snaking up a grand stairway – which is flanked by two fairly imposing looking security guards in regulation green with red tabs. One of them gets quite angry when I start walking up the stairs, and points, in what turns out to be totally the wrong direction, to where I should go.
We’re getting quite concerned we’re going to miss our flight. We have absolutely no idea where to check in, and we can’t find anybody who will take any notice of us, and then it happens again – just when I get so frustrated with this place that I want to scream, a miracle occurs and somebody does something really nice. A fairly incongruous miracle it has to be said; a Chinese bloke who can speak German comes up to us and, since Agnetha can speak German fluently, everything falls into place; ticket stamped, security checks in a flash, green tea in the waiting room and then out in the grey darkness to the plane. The back of the airport also looks like a stately home – great curving stone steps leading down to what should be sweeping lawns and possibly a butler or two, but which is, in fact, the runway.
The flight is like a village bus ride to market. Somebody’s brought a crate of cabbages on board. And Agnetha swears she’s seen a live hen. The stewardesses are constantly bringing us stuff. A small box of orange juice (I have to show the bloke sitting next to me what to do with the straw) a box of Chrysanthemum tea, a box of five peculiar preserved fruits, a free gift (toothbrush, toothpaste and comb) an orange, and a big box containing a sugar cake, a piece of swiss roll, some biscuits, inch-square pieces of dried bacon and a sachet of preserved vegetables.
The secenery below is just like it was over Pakistan, miles and miles of enormous brown mountains. No greenery. Not surprising really, since what we can see is way, way above the treeline. Everest can’t be that far away. I really do say my prayers when we start to descend. It looks like we are going into a mountain. I can’t see any runway, or any airport. The engines on the end of the wings are flapping at an alarming rate, and then, miraculously, there is a gap in the mountains and we are down.
Down the steps; the air is clean, the sky is bright blue and the mountains are brown. And there is that quality of silence that all mountains give. But there are no buildings. No control tower. There is a little shack with a soldier outside washing his smalls. Agnetha and I ask if we can have a pee, and the soldier points to a crumbling brown wall behind the shack, about two feet high, and we squat behind this and feel so exposed and embarrassed that we can’t stop laughing.
A bus takes us to the airport buildings, about half a mile away, where there is a customs shed, a waiting room, a basketball court and dormitories for overnight stays.
Our German-speaking friend comes up and tells us all the buses to Lhasa itself are full but that he can fix us up with free transport. While he’s arranging this we see our first Tibetans, a crowd of cheerful girls in bright woollen headscarves, coatdresses in red or green or blue-black over black trousers with colourful stripy aprons and stripy moccasins. One girl is wearing baseball boots. They are all carrying heavy loads roped across their chests – no poncey padded backpacks for them.
They think we are a big joke. They all gather round and stare and laugh and are utterly delightful. I don’t know why this feels so different from the scrutiny you get from Chinese people, but it does. It doesn’t feel intrusive at all, even when they dissolve into helpless giggles when Agnetha gets her suncream out and starts rubbing it on her face. They crowd even closer when she gets her camera out, but back off when she points it at them.
The German speaker arrives in a sort of Range Rover, very plush. Just as we’re about to leave, a Japanese guy arrives and asks if he too can have a lift. ‘Of course,’ says the GS, ‘But he’ll have to pay a little.’
It takes about four hours to get to Lhasa, the highest, most remote city in the world. The road is very bad and sometimes doesn’t exist at all, but the trail threads through a wide river valley. There is very little vegetation or habitation. There are plenty of road gangs, all made up of Tibetans, many of them women. Some are carrying enormous rocks on their backs to dump them in the right spot, while others squat, chipping and levelling the rocks by hand, ready for the final surfacing.
We stop by a river while a bulldozer clears a landslip. In front of us is a loaded truck with four Tibetans sitting on top. We get out, and they get down. One, an old man, gives me some odd little nut things and smiles and nods and places his hands together and bows his head like they do in India. I share out my orange in return and we chomp the juicy thing in the dry, clear air, staring with friendly interest at each other.
The second time we stop is while soldiers blast a mountain. There are so many people building this road, and it won’t be long before the railway arrives too, and then what price splendid Tibetan isolation?
Cut into the mountain side is a gigantic Buddha, painted and obviously cared for. There are some scattered settlements now. They look like villages in children’s bible stories – mud walls plastered white, but with prayer flags on sticks fluttering everywhere. Pilgrims on their way to Lhasa are throwing themselves full length in the dust and then standing up and throwing themselves down again. This is how they make their way to the Jokhang temple right in the centre of Lhasa and when they get there they have to go all the way around it throwing themselves on the ground, before they can allow themselves to go in.
Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China
Cheryl and Elspeth leave early; they’ve got a soft sleeper on the train to Kunming. They’re going to spend a few days in Dali (the site of the stone forest) and then meet me in Kunming when I come back from Tibet.
Meet up with Agnetha, a Swedish girl who is also going to Lhasa tomorrow. She is small and fragile looking and has white blonde hair. She has hitched to China all the way from Sweden and has never had any trouble, on account of the fact she is the owner of a very large knife. We agree to share a taxi to the airport tomorrow. Arrange to eat with her and a friend of hers – if he’s well; he’s been to the dentist.
So she arrives a couple of hours later with Benny a stocky, genial guy from San Francisco, who is wearing a hat made out of black and white dog fur. He looks like Davy Crockett. We go to the Cheng Du restaurant, and I’m all ready for the inevitable mayo las, and general disappointment, but the waitress is lovely, the service is quick and the food is great. That’s how it is in China; you get wound up, and wound up, and wound up, and then just when you’re ready to let rip, everything is marvellous and you fall in love with the place all over again.
Benny is funny and earnest and views the entire world with a kind of enthusiastic wonder. He tells us about an acupuncture teacher he had back home in the US who had just come over from Shanghai. ‘Man he was really like a Martian. I mean, he couldn’t help staring at everything and he was really puzzled about our shoes. One day he asked us, “Where do you guys go to get them mended when they break?”’ He couldn’t understand that, in America, people own more than one pair of shoes, and they can buy a new pair whenever they want. Can you believe it? ’
Then Benny tells us about his trip to the dentist. ‘Man I had to go. I had this abcess you know, and when he saw me on his doorstep he went white. The place was some kind of timewarp; that chair – have you seen Marathon Man? Laurence Olivier would have been right at home strapping Dustin Hoffman to that one. And you know what? He told me to go away. But the pain was so bad I wasn’t going anywhere, and he was a dentist, wasn’t he? I mean he couldn’t practise if he didn’t know anything? Right?’
Agnetha and I exchange looks and say nothing. I’m not sure if I had ten abcesses I’d go to any old dentist in this part of the country. But neither of us want to say anything. We want to know what happened.
Benny looks at us earnestly. His hat, which is just a high circle of fur, is tilted dangerously far back on his head. ‘You know why he was so scared? He just didn’t want the responsibility if it all went wrong. But I insisted, cause, boy I was in pain. And I was bigger than him so I when I sat down in that goddam chair he couldn’t exactly throw me out. So he washed my neck and face with alcohol, swathed me in sheets and then rubbed my gums with something that made them go completely numb. And then, he put this sheet over my face, with a hole over my mouth.
‘Man that was awful. I could just see my nose. I could feel him digging into my gum and pulling something stringy out – and I’m telling you, there was no pain at all – but it felt really weird not to see what was going on.’
This is intriguing. We spend quite a while talking about this amazing way of rubbing on anaesthetic, and what the ‘stringy thing’ could be. Whatever; Benny is certainly over his abcess.
After the meal, the three of us go to the English corner in the park opposite the hotel. Every Tuesday and Saturday evening Chinese people, who want to improve their English, go there to speak to each other. As soon as we arrive we are each surrounded by a deep circle of people. My lot are headed by an old guy who was baptised by missionaries before the Chinese revolution and who is very proud of it. Now he works in a construction office.
They soon get on to the subject of marriage, girlfriends, boyfriends and parents. You can’t get married in China until you are 27 if you are a man, or 25 if you are a woman. Before that, courting is strictly limited and viewed very seriously. If you start going out with someone it is taken for granted that you will marry them. Parents, too, seem to have much greater control than they do in the west. The family stays together, the old are looked after and the young are watched over – to what a westerner would find an unbearable level. There is no social security and a lot of ‘underemployment’ (in communist China, there is no such thing as unemployment). As one lad put it, ‘Our parents have the money.’
Someone asks me if, in England, husbands are henpecked. ‘I don’t think so, particularly,’ I say. ‘What about husbands in China, are they henpecked?’
‘Yes!’ comes a heartfelt chorus.
One lad near me is dressed in a pretend tweed coat and a polo-necked sweater. He says he works for the government as an economist, and asks me very diffidently, ‘Do you know David Niven?’ He’s just seen the Guns of Navarone and is very impressed. When I tell him I like David Niven too, he says, boldly, ‘My favourite film star is Zero, Zero Seven.’ And then he adds, ‘My favourite pop group is The Beatles. Have you heard of them?’
Back to my room. An American couple from Boston have taken over Cheryl and Elspeth’s beds. They too are hacked off with the eternal ‘mayo’. The man has a beard and says that, on trains, people have lifted up his jeans to see if he has hairy legs.
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?’
Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China
Go to the Furong restaurant in the evening. It’s supposed to be the best exponent of Sichuanese cooking in the city, but what a bloody performance. We sit down at a table with Frean McSwean, the Kiwi; Pat, an Irishman from County Cork and a young American couple who look they’ve come straight out of some Ivy League college, beautifully turned out and with lovely haircuts, and clean clothes. They look so strange in this dusty, dim environment full of yelling, hustling Chinese, and the rest of us look like shambling Flintstones next to them. Still, according to them, they’re fluent Mandarin speakers and know everything about China, on account of studying it for three years in America.
The waitress takes her time about coming, and the young couple, who I’m going to call Bob and Beth, threaten to leave. But when the waitress does come they can’t make up their minds what to eat. Then we have to pay before we get the food. Aeons later some of the nosh arrives.
‘Where’s the rest?’ demands Bob.
‘Mayo,’ comes the inevitable reply.
‘So why didn’t you tell us that when we ordered?’ he demands. The rest of us look at each other restlessly. This is not good. You can’t win an argument in China like this. Pat wades in with some lovely Irish oil, trying to calm the western waters, but Bob ignores him, and Pat sits back and swigs his beer, and digs into what food there is, as the rest of us all do. There is no sense in letting it go cold.
But Bob won’t settle down. ‘Well?’ he keeps on at the waitress. ‘Why didn’t you tell us?’
The waitress shrugs and looks at the ceiling.
‘We’ll have some of this, then,’ he says, pointing at the menu.
‘Mayo,’ that awful reply comes again. ‘Kitchen closed.’
So we eat what there is. And it is really nice, lovely spicy Sichuan cooking at its best; there’s just not enough. But Bob and Beth are not happy, so Bob calls the waitress over and asks for a refund. We all try to stop him, but he won’t listen. He is going to prove a point. And anyway, he reckons we’ve paid for dishes we haven’t had.
When the waitress eventually comes, he talks loudly to her in Mandarin and you can see all her dials begin to show red. When she speaks, her volume goes to 11. She points at each dish, adds it all up rapidly in Chinese and… proves she did make a mistake. There is a little silence. She has now lost face, which is the worst thing you can do to a Chinese person, and Bob then makes the mistake of grinning at her, and saying something that is obviously Mandarin for, ‘I told you so!’ She turns on her heel, marches off to the kitchen and comes back with a dirty plate. She bangs it down on the table and says, ‘There! You ate that, too!’
At this Beth, the shiny Prom Queen, snaps. She stands up, takes the plate and smashes it furiously down on the next table. ‘We didn’t have it, you stupid Chinese bitch!’
The waitress stares impassively at her, marches off to the kitchen, gets another plate and repeats the performance, this time getting the manager involved. The entire restaurant has stopped eating by now and our table is surrounded by yelling, gobbing, gesticulating Chinese people. The waitress yells at the manager, ‘Look, there are all the plates they’ve eaten off!’
Bob is now beginning to look a bit daunted, Pat is very coolly telling him he’s a gobshite and he really doesn’t want to get pasted over a bowl of rice, and Cheryl, Elspeth and I are trying to work out where the nearest exit is. Not that we stand any chance of reaching it through all these people. Every single person in the restaurant is now counting the plates and then, suddenly, just as we think the whole place is going to erupt, they all seem to melt away. Why, I don’t know, except they have probably realised it’s not best policy to get violent with a group of westerners. Maybe the non uniformed gendarmes have arrived. Who can tell? It’s as if we suddenly don’t exist.
Anyway, the waitress, still absolutely furious, stomps over to our table and bangs down two kwai in front of Bob. It’s less than a pound. He looks round apologetically at us. ‘I know it wasn’t much,’ he says. ‘But it was the principle of the thing.’
Woken up in the middle of the night by Elspeth putting her boots on and running down the corridor to the bogs. She sounds like an entire regiment of Panzer tanks. Hours later she trails back.
‘Are you feeling sick?’ says Cheryl. ‘Shall I get you some water?’
Elspeth looks at her as if she’s doing long division in her head. ‘Yes. No. I’ll get it.’ And suddenly she’s off again, galloping down the corridor as if all the waitresses from hell were after her.
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.
Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China
Woken up at the crack of dawn by the guards. All the guards on all the trains we’ve been on have been women, and a pretty unsmiling lot at that. They crank up the music in all the carriages and everybody stands up and does their morning exercises. It’s done by numbers, 1,2 3, up to ten. A different move for each number. So the three of us get up and have a bash too. The entire carriage is in fits at the sight of us. But they seem very happy that we’ve joined in.
We draw into Cheng Du hours later and its still dark, about 7 am, but kerosene lamps flare everywhere. Outside the station where, I suppose in Britain, you’d see a statue or a little park, is a washroom with no walls; a central wall of mirrors with sinks on either side, neatly tiled in white. People are standing in the floodlit dark, shaving. There are many barrows with people selling hot flannels, noodles, maps – and oranges! Hundreds of them. Heaps of them! We buy a load, and devour them, spitting the pips, just like the Chinese do, and crush into Bus No 16, seven stops to the Jin Jiang hotel.
Cheng Du is the capital of Sichuan, and it’s supposed to be a pretty amazing place. It’s famous for its cooking, and for being the home of the giant panda. It’s not half so stark as Xian, anyway.
The guide book says the Jin Jiang is big with plenty of internal shops and a bar which stays open until midnight. Gosh. With a tape player. The guide book is right. The place is enormous, there is a man on the gate who says, ‘Good morning,’ a bloke in a blue uniform who stands by the door and says, rather shyly, ‘ Hulloh’, a marble foyer, and reception clerks who speak fluent American. Just one snag. There are no rooms. We have to wait until someone checks out. No, we can’t reserve. Yes, we can have breakfast. We are almost speechless when we see it. Real coffee, real milk, hot toast, butter, jam and get this, an omelette with tomatoes in it. There’s also a plate of swiss roll and biscuits. We eat the lot and clock the Europeans, and the Hong Kong Chinese. We’d almost forgotten what western clothes and haircuts looked like.
Back to reception. When they said we couldn’t reserve, they tell us, they didn’t mean we couldn’t fill out a registration form, like the millions of Japanese tourists are doing; of course we can fill in the forms. So we fill them in, and the clerk puts them in a pile, and we watch them start to move to the top as people begin to check out.
We’re seventh in the pile. There is a coffee lounge! Cheryl and Elspeth meet Alison, another student from Beijing. The morning passes very pleasantly. The Japanese poetry professor from Dunhuang is here. A Kiwi with the improbable name of Frean McSween is here, two more students from Beijing arrive, and one of them must be avoided at all costs on account of the fact that he is the most boring person on the planet.
We get a dormitory room. Three normal beds and a cot in the middle occupied by a really nice American girl called Hannah from New York. Alison couldn’t get a room, she is bedding down on a landing with 20 other people for three kwai a night.
We go to the bus station to find out about buses to Lhasa. It’s a nice walk there, through a park, by a river, and there are lots of old men sitting on tree stumps playing chess, or cards or practising Tai Chi. There are some weirdly dressed women, their hair brightly braided, with stripy aprons over dark dresses and breeches, that I later discover are Tibetan.
When we get to the bus station, about 20 people gather round to watch our efforts with the officials. They all stare intently at us; they hate it if you stare back, but you can’t stare at them all at once. No wonder westerners here get so stressed at times. It’s like constantly being under a microscope, or being a particularly exotic exhibit in a zoo.
And, of course, we can’t get tickets at the bus station (Mayo La, again) We must go to this place, says the bloke in charge, and he very helpfully writes down the address in Chinese characters. So off we trail, half on a mission, and half beguiled by the sheer energy of this city. It’s sunny and the air is fresh and clean, and the streets are filled with people. There are hardly any cars, of course. A laughing man with a bowl of food in one hand, and a pair of chopsticks in the other inveigles us into a restaurant. The food is excellent, even if there are 15 people outside all watching us stuff our faces.
We spend the afternoon wandering about looking at all the shops, they’re just shacks really, by Western standards, all in winding little streets, like a film set, but they sell such amazing stuff. There’s one very mysterious one with jars of powder and open boxes of, well, wings and claws and dried up things. I swear there’s a dead eagle hanging from the ceiling. Back to the hotel. At dinner time we are given Chinese food, and its ok but the men nearby are having western food – hamburgers and chips, fruit salad and ice cream, and potato salad. We try desperately to attract the waitress’s attention, and eventually she stops by.
‘Can we have western food, too?’
‘No, mayo, You order in advance.’ She has a hard face and is wearing Chinese jeans.
Can we have coffee?’
‘You have to order in advance.’
We grab another waitress.
‘Can we order a western dinner for tomorrow?’
She gets the manager. Oh what a lovely man. Kind faced, good American English, very accommodating. ‘You want Western dinner?’ he asks.
‘Yes,’ says Cheryl.
‘And can we have coffee now?’ asks Elspeth.
‘He beams at us. ‘Sure you can have coffee.’ The hard-faced waitress, hovering nearby, gives us a particularly filthy look.
Then it’s upstairs to the bar, and Alison puts her Bob Dylan and Bob Marley tapes on. One Chinese guy has never heard of either. He stands very close to the tape-player, entranced. He insists on playing Dylan through, twice, and tapes it.
Back upstairs Elspeth goes to bed, but Cheryl and I stay up and drink gin with Helen from New York, who can’t sleep. The chat soon evolves into an argument about politics, which goes something like this – the essential difference between Russia and China is that the former works through paranoia, establishing buffer satellite states to guard against any possible threat of invasion, whereas the Chinese are a supremely self-confident race – who once ruled the known world (as far as it was known to them) and who don’t fear any other state. Helen says, and Cheryl agrees, that the only other country that is similar to China in background is Italy, because both, historically, not only conquered countries but gave them cultures that have lasted for centuries. Russia merely subdues, it doesn’t add anything. What about the British Empire, I say. No, that doesn’t apply, they argue. Its time span is too short and again, it didn’t make the people it conquered, British. It just exploited them and remained staunchly isolationist. I’m not entirely sure they’re right. But I’m too tired to bring up the subject of Tibet. That’s been conquered, and I don’t think the Tibetans feel Chinese. Maybe they will, one day. We all trail off into sleep.
Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China
Wake up this morning to fertile land. High mountains and mist and a river, and terraced fields. We go through many tunnels cut through mountains. It must be bitterly cold outside. There is a huge ice floe in the river, snow on the mountains and I’ve seen two frozen waterfalls. Still, it’s not brown. It’s like the Scottish highlands. The scenery gets even better as we go on. Those paintings of mountain peaks that you seen hanging on the walls of Chinese restaurants in Britain don’t look so far-fetched now.
The food situation is pretty bad. We have some packet noodles, but it’s not enough and the food in the restaurant car is disgusting. Flimsy polystyrene boxes of cold rice and I suppose something that looks like chopped up salami, but isn’t. And when we finish, the guards just open the train window and chuck the lot on to the tracks. Box after box flying into the perfect scenery.
I’d love an orange. Don’t know why that popped into my head. But now it has, I can’t get rid of the idea.
The children in the carriage are lovely. One toddler, with eyes like sloes, who looks more Indian than Chinese, keeps getting dumped on Cheryl’s bunk. Another child is sleeping above me and squeals with delight when I waggle my fingers. Then she grabs my hands, just like a kitten. But she’s strong – she almost pulls me up off my bunk.
As the night draws on we are visited by four men who want to practise their English. They are all in the blue Mao suits nearly everyone wears here, if you’re not a member of the People’s Liberation Army, and they are holding their caps in their hands.
Actually only one of them understands English, and then only if I write it down and let him have a good think about it. He reads it out loud; he’s very proud of his reading skills. He and Elspeth read a page from his Teach Yourself English book (A Day At the Seaside) – he very correct, and Elspeth in broad Scouse, while Cheryl and I stuff hankies in our mouths to try to keep a straight face. That’s a point. We’ve run out of bog paper and the girls are threatening to use my diary, but we compromise by using the souvenir envelopes of Shanghai that we pinched from the hotel in Xian.
Anyway, back to Mr Earnest – he’s determined to improve his English so he does his best, while the others sit and listen and nod and chat about us in Chinese. I write on his paper, ‘What do you do?’
His lips move slowly, wordlessly over the sentence. Then he has a huddled conference with his mates. Back comes the answer, ‘I study economics.’
‘What did you do before that?’ I write.
He mutters to himself. ‘I was cadre.’
So I decide to plunge in. Cheryl and Elspeth, as politics graduates, could tell me the answer to this in a second, and I know myself that it means a communist party worker, but I’m determined to get it from the horse’s mouth.
‘What is a cadre?’ I write. ‘I’ve never met one before.’
Much astonishment from the men.
‘We don’t have them in England.’
Now it’s his turn to ask a question.
‘Do you have peasants in England?’
Of course, to them, it’s a perfectly normal question; under the Chinese system you have people who work the land and people who work in towns. Having spent all my life in a country where communists are thought of as either rather silly and slightly dangerous, or plainly eccentric, I’m just getting used to the fact that I’m now in a country where people talk about Marx and Mao in the same way westerners talk about Winston Churchill or JFK. It can be very surprising at times.
Back to the question of what a cadre does, though. I’m beginning to get writer’s cramp. No answer. The men talk among themselves and we wonder if this is a rebuff, Chinese style.
‘Why don’t you answer my question?’ I scribble.
Then after another party conference, comes the answer. ‘A cadre looks after the people.’
‘What people in particular, how many and in what way?’ comes my spiffy rejoinder. This is a facer for them. ‘In particular’ and ‘in what way’ seem to give them the most trouble. Back to the conference.
Then, ‘A cadre is a very important person. He responsible for many people. Sometimes hundreds.’
‘How many people were you responsible for?’
He looks round at his mates. ‘Three.’
Everyone laughs, including him.
‘What, these three?’ I ask. ‘Are you all cadres, and you take it in turn?’
His second in command seems to understand this and all the others have a good laugh. But he’s not very happy about this loss of dignity, and when Cheryl teases him, saying, ‘Are you in charge tomorrow?’ he answers gravely, ‘Tomorrow I study economics.’
Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China
Back on that bloody bus. We sit at the front this time. The desert looks just the same, like an asphalt car park for some megastore, without the megastore. The slag heaps look just the same, too.
Get on the train to Lanzhou. Can’t get hard sleepers, so we sit up all night. The carriage is packed and everyone thinks we are great curiosities. When we get a pack of cards out, everybody perks up. There’s even somebody in the luggage rack watching us. They’re such great gamblers, the Chinese; I think they are expecting us to play poker or something. Don’t know what they make of Find the Lady. They look very confused, anyway.
Still on the train. Feeling extremely jaded. Two men in very smart blue uniforms get on and sit next to us. They say they’re judges, but they look very young; about 30. One speaks English, so we get the standard grilling. Where do you come from? Where are you going? Are you married? I almost fall off my seat when he asks if Margaret Thatcher is a madam.
He means, of course, is she married, and can’t understand why I am laughing so much. The thought of explaining it is fairly mind-boggling, so I don’t try.
He gets quite paternal; insists on escorting us to the dining car, tries to get us beer (but even he gets mayo la) and tells us we must have a good dinner when we get to Lanzhou.
The Chinese are wonderful with children. There are several four and five-year-olds in the carriage, all running up and down and being petted and spoiled by everyone they go up to. They are all beautiful; great dark eyes in solemn faces, wrapped up in so many layers that their arms stick out from their sides and they walk with a rolling gait, like old sea dogs. One claims the hearts of a group of soldiers, who sit her on their knees in turn while they play cards.
Another walks up to one of the judges and is made a great fuss of. Our judge, in between polishing up his English, is having a conversation with a four-year-old sitting on the seat behind and who keeps popping up to have a good look at what is going on. It’s sometimes difficult to tell which children belong to which adults. The toddlers are so confident of affection from anyone, and the adults don’t let them down.
We cross the Yellow River. It’s raining. I never thought I’d be so glad to see rain. We arrive at Lanzhou, it’s taken 24 hours to get here. The length of the train trips in this country really makes you appreciate how vast this place is.
The judge insists we write him a message in his Chinese/English dictionary – much in use over the past few hours – and he writes one in the back of Cheryl’s paperback.
To my three English friends, wishing them much happiness. I hope you come to China again, from your friend Pei Ping.
He gets off the train with us to make sure we find the right exit. I promise to send him a postcard from London. He’s going to send me a picture of his wife and daughter.
Get on the train for Cheng Du. We ask for hard sleepers and wait an hour, but we get them.
Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China
Today we are going to hitch to Golmud. Since it is a forbidden city, in a banned state, and hitch-hiking is banned, I’m slightly apprehensive. But apparently it’s been done before. The Chinese, being thoroughly practical, apparently don’t do anything terrible if they discover you, they just want to get you out of the area ASAP, and since we’ve got our passes to Lhasa, hopefully they’ll send us on in that direction.
We start out really early. It is dark and very cold. We walk right out of the town so as not to excite suspicion and when a truck comes along, we stick our thumbs out. No luck. Some trucks stop, and the drivers are very helpful, but none is going as far as Golmud. This is not going so well.
The day wears on and we decide to keep going until 3pm. No luck. Most of the trucks that go past are full to busting anyway, with people standing up in the back.
Decide to open a tin of corned beef, and even that is against us. The tab for the key has been soldered firmly to the can. We open it with a penknife and a rock. No more lorries stop. We sit about in the dust by the side of the road and dig out lumps of corned beef and bicker about what we should do. The girls are much braver than me. They’d take a truck half way to Golmud and chance it. They’ve been in China long enough to know what is possible. But I’m seriously concerned about only getting part of the way and ending up somewhere even more out in the boondocks than here. Especially as it’s in a state where the Chinese apparently do their nuclear testing and foreigners are not officially allowed in. There’s nothing to say, that if the Chinese police do decide to scoop us up, that they’ll be nice.
Also, none of us is very enthusiastic about standing for several days in the back of a truck. We talk some more. Cheryl gets her guide book and her railway timetable out. There is a bus from Cheng Du. We could get that. Or we could possibly fly. Although that might be expensive. We finish off the corned beef and agree to go to Cheng Du. It will mean our schedule is a bit buggered, but I’m quite relieved we’re keeping everything legal.
Back to the hotel.
Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China
Check into Dunhuang’s hotel which, unlike the hostel, does have running water. And it is hot. Showers all round! The shower is galvanized steel, like an upended spout on a watering can, and the cubicle is bare concrete. But at the risk of repeating myself, there is water and it is hot. How marvellous it is to turn a tap on and see water coming out.
At lunchtime they put 21 plates of mysterious stuff on the table and although we do our best, it is beyond us. When we finish, bloated, it looks like we haven’t eaten anything.
Share a minibus with three Japanese people to the Mogao caves. It’s the same driver as yesterday with the big shades. The caves contain countless shrines to Buddha, carved into a sandstone cliff between the 5th and 14th centuries when Dunhuang was a big stop on the Silk Road.
When we get to the caves we buy tickets – you can’t go anywhere, or do anything, in China without buying a ticket. But when we drive from the gatehouse to the entrance, the gates are padlocked. A man standing there says, ‘The caves are closed until May.’
One of the Japanese guys, a poetry professor, and his wife, wade into battle. ‘But the hotel sent us here! We’ve bought tickets! What do you mean, closed? Two of our friends came this morning.’
‘Impossible,’ replies the gatekeeper, and then adds, really rashly for a Chinese person, ‘The man with the keys was here, but he has gone home.’
‘He is ill.’
The bus driver, polishing his beloved minibus, comes up to join us. ‘How do you know he was ill?’
‘He told me.’
A crowd of Chinese people, also waiting by the gates, decide this is their cue. They too advance on the gatekeeper, much to his alarm.
‘Yes. How do you know he was ill?’ they ask. ‘Did he look ill? We’ve bought tickets too, you know.’
Eventually the gatekeeper, deciding that he is heavily outnumbered, comes up with a handy solution. ‘I’ll go and get him,’ he says, and scuttles off.
The key-keeper, when he arrives about half an hour later, really doesn’t look the picture of health, and Cheryl, Elspeth and I all feel a bit guilty. The Japanese have no such qualms. Off they stride, through the now open gates, with us behind and the Chinese bringing up the rear.
The caves are well worth the argy bargy. From the outside they look like run-down slum flats, because the sandstone has been shored up with concrete beams and pebble dashed to stop it crumbling. It was done during the Cultural Revolution so, in the circumstances, they were lucky to have got off so lightly.
It’s dark inside, with fitful light provided by dim electric bulbs strung haphazardly here and there. But the poetry professor has a torch like a collapsed sun, and we have little wavering torches that we poke bravely in some of the darker corners. The gate-keeper comes along with us, giving us random facts that Cheryl and Elspeth translate.
Some of the caves have faded and crumbled, but others are spectacular. In one, the walls are covered with 1,000 images of Buddha, done in repeat patterns of red, blue, green and ochre. The ceilings are painted with flowers and not a square inch is left bare. There are huge statues of Buddha, surrounded by disciples, some with the most evil looking expressions on their faces.
Three statues in particular stand out. In one cave you enter, you are at eye-level with the lap of Buddha; going further in you stare up at the rest of him, 13 metres high. After stumbling around the echoing stairways and passageways, being spooked occasionally by the distorted, echoing voices of our fellow explorers, we come upon a larger and even more impressive Buddha. As we pool the light of our torches, we realise that we are on a balcony staring straight into his eyes, and then we look down on the rest of his 26m high bulk.
In another cave, a gigantic dead Buddha lies surrounded by murals of people all over the world in anguish at his passing.
In every cave there is a statue of Buddha. Mostly his expressions are serene, sometimes bland, and once, his eyes glittered with malice in the light of our torches.