Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China We could go to Hong Kong with my credit card! What a lovely idea, all that cheese and hamburgers and cocktails. I think all of us have had enough of being in this country now. I can’t describe what it’s like being here. Like white noise, I suppose. You don’t notice the stress at first. But all the tiny little irritations just pile up and up, until you think your head is going to fall off. We’re all bizarrely unreasonable about ridiculous things, and Cheryl and Elspeth have been here way, way longer than me. I don’t know how they’ve managed it this far without going completely bonkers, like that American girl who smashed plates in Cheng Du. By not thinking too much, probably. Anyway we lie in our beds and discuss how bloody marvellous it would be just to go to Hong Kong, and then we go to the Public Security office, for the girls to get passes, which as students, they need before they can leave the country. And, of course, the office won’t hand over any passes without permission from their teacher in Beijing. Cheryl and Elspeth put through a person to person call in Beijing to try to get their teacher, but without much hope. Its 3.30 and she’s probably already gone home. The rest of the afternoon is spent waiting for the phone to ring, which it does frequently, but it’s only the operator saying, ‘No luck.’ Chinese telephone etiquette is quite startling. When you pick up the phone you yell, ‘Wei!’ and then the person at the other end yells, ‘Wei!’ and then you both pause while you wonder if the other person is still there. Hannah comes around and we go in search of Mr Tong, a ‘lovely little Burmese man’ who, according to her, runs a fantastic restaurant with really good coffee, but he wants to go back to Burma and the Chinese won’t let him. We follow her guide book’s instructions and get totally lost. We stand in the middle of the street and call, ‘Mr Tong!’ plaintively, like lost storks, but no joy, and no smiling Burmese gent, either. A bloke in a Vietnamese coffee bar offers to help, this though he admits he doesn’t like foreigners much, especially Americans, but even after he asks around for us, no one has heard of Mr Tong. In the end we eat at another restaurant where we get excellent food. Hannah rather sadly gets out her memorial chopsticks, given to her by Mr T and then realises he also gave her his card. Duh! We’ll go there tomorrow. Come back via a three storey department store. The counters are exactly as I remember them in Cairds, in Perth when I was about six. Like glass-topped desks. And the goods for sale are all in small enamel pie dishes. None of us can work out what the goods are though. They’re just metal things. But they have some lovely postcards, of beautiful water colour paintings by Pan Tian Shou. I take a packet to the till, and some bloke looks at me in disgust and says, ‘Why are you buying those? What do you know about Pan Tian Shou? You’re just a westerner. You cannot appreciate him.’ But I do. Picture courtesy of Creative Commons via http://arts.cultural-china.com/en/77Arts4565.html
Now listen. Once upon a time there was a snow leopard and he lived far away in the majestic beauty of the Himalayas with all their snowy peaks and rushing waters. He was a solitary soul. He ate by himself, slept by himself and walked by himself. He wasn’t what you’d call a party animal.
But, oh was he beautiful and mysterious. His coat was as thick as a shag pile rug and as soft as a cardigan. And his tail was like a plumy rope. And he padded through the secret places of his kingdom without a care.
Everybody wanted to know him. ‘What does he do?’ They asked. ‘We want to know all about him.’ Photographers camped in leaky hide-outs for months to get a single, clear shot, and TV documentary makers roamed the snowy peaks and whispered in awe about his beauty and strength. But they only caught useless glimpses of him, and they never saw him do anything.
And all the expensive executives in all the newspapers and TV channels wailed and rended their Vivienne Westwood tweed suits in despair. Because, after all, prime time footage of a snow leopard doing something would boost the ratings, like, well, significantly.
And there was at this time, a desperate struggling journalist, who thought to himself, ‘How hard can it be to get an interview with a snow leopard? Does he have a publicist? Or an agent? Or a security code on his front door? No. He does not even have a front door. I’ll show those documentary makers.’
And so the cunning man dressed up in a snow leopard suit and set off with his notebook and his pen and a teeny tiny tape recorder. And he travelled many, many miles and at last came to a still pool in the foothills of the Himalayas where the snow leopard was looking at his reflection, and twitching his plumy tail.
And the journalist sat down beside him and asked the snow leopard all sorts of questions about his favourite music and what he liked to eat for breakfast, and other such questions that showbiz reporters use to mock the majesty of kings.
And the snow leopard, who was a polite animal, answered them. And then he laid a weighty silken paw on the journalist’s back. ‘You have the loveliest fur,’ said the snow leopard.
‘Thanks,’ squeaked the journalist. Because, really, that paw was heavy.
‘And the plumiest tail. Plumier, even, than mine.’
‘Nice of you to say so.’
‘I’ve been a bit lonely, lately,’ said the snow leopard. ‘Marry me, and let us shimmer through the undergrowth together. I will show you how to tease a TV crew, and demoralise a documentary maker. And we will have such fun.’
‘Um,’ said the journalist. And he took off his fake, snow leopard head. ‘I have something to tell you.’
And the snow leopard looked at the journalist’s sweaty face (it had been very hot in the suit) and at his notebook and his biro and his teeny tiny tape recorder, and then he ate him.
Because that’s what snow leopards do.
Picture courtesy of http://pixabay.com/static/uploads/photo/2015/02/02/05/31/snow-leopard-620518_640.jpg via Creative Commons
I have just been to the best job interview ever. Which is good, because I have had some real stinkers.
A job interview is not the kind of thing that makes you want to leap out of bed in the morning. It’s not like you’re going to be having lunch with George Clooney at the Savoy and, if you hit if off over the Poire Belle Helene, he’ll be asking you to write his next movie.
No. Job interviews, generally speaking, are a weekend spent with dentist in-laws, being examined on philosophy and arse-licking, condensed into an hour.
The weirdest job interview I’ve ever had? That would be the one in the advertising department of a local radio station. It didn’t go too badly. At first. I impressed the head of advertising with my choice of music for some processed cheese (Air on a Cheese String), but then he asked me, quite seriously, what famous actor I would choose to play him in a film. And what film it would be. What kind of question is that??? My mind, poor at the best of times in these situations, went completely blank. I stared at the guy, who was small, pinkly balding and perspiring freely, and then, in a splurge of sycophancy, I mumbled, ‘Oh, that would have to be Samuel L Jackson, of course, because he’s the coolest man on the planet.’
‘And the film?’ he pressed, smirking slightly.
‘Er, oh…’ and then I blurted, ‘Babe the sheep pig, because he looks like you.’
Most crushing job interview? That would be one I had in the seventies, when no one had really yet got to grips with equality. It was for the job of junior reporter on a weekly paper, and it all went swimmingly until, at the end, the editor said, ‘Well, it’s a choice between you and a young man. So, of course, I’m going to give him the job.’ Yes, he really said that. Mind you, he also said he’d call me back in six months, and he did. So, fair play. (ish)
Most time-consuming and ridiculous interview? That would be for a multi national bank. Not in the money department, you understand, but as editor of a staff newspaper. When I got notification of the interview, a friend said to me, ‘They’ll ask you what you like doing in your spare time.’
‘Oh, that’s easy,’ I replied. ‘Lying in bed and eating chocolates.’
‘Nooo!’ said friend. ‘You can’t say that.’
‘Why not? They’ll think I’m being friendly and humorous.’
‘Banks don’t have a sense of humour,’ counselled the friend. ‘Say, that whatever time you get home, you like to go out for a run. Otherwise they’ll think you’re sluggish and hopeless.’
And it came to pass that, during the interview, I was given several bizarre tests cunningly designed to reveal the inner me (including building the Forth Road Bridge out of plastic straws). Efficient people with clipboards watched my every move, and would ask at intervals, ‘How do you like to unwind after a day at work?’ (Oh, I have to go for a run. It’s absolutely my favourite thing). Or, ‘What’s your favourite pastime?’ (Running, of course, or possibly going to the gym. You can’t beat an hour or two on the treadmill – I mean, it did wonders for Oscar Wilde); or rank, in order of preference, your ideal method of relaxation: a, watching TV; b, lying in bed; c, eating chocolates; d, going for a five-mile run over muddy terrain in the dark (Yes, you guessed it.)
And, get this: I got offered the job. I didn’t take it though. It was too much like hard work.
Which brings me to my latest interview. This was for a job as an adult education tutor for my local county council. Zero hours contract, mind, and no cast iron guarantee of any work, but it was worth a go. So I jumped through most of the hoops online, and was called to interview last Tuesday at a former stately home in the depths of the lush spring countryside. They (whoever they were) started building the house about 900 years ago out of the glowing local stone, and the Victorians put an end to it with fancy bits of brick. It had gothic doorways, and crumbling turrets and lush untidy lawns with a stand of beehives at a safe distance. It was the kind of place that made you want to take a cup of tea out onto the terrace and conjure up a best selling romance, while the cook and butler got busy with the bacon and eggs. (Enough pointless description, ed).
Anyway, there I was with three other hopefuls, who teach music, drama and relaxation therapy. We all had to give a 15-minute lesson. The music teacher was first. She had all of us, including the county council types, up on our feet singing What shall we do with the drunken sailor and Oh, sinner man. She gave us tambourines and scrapy sticks and divided us up to so we could do part-singing. And it was truly joyful. (And mostly in tune.) Then it was the drama teacher, who emptied a bag full of masks on the table (I got the one labelled ‘confused’) and showed us how to mime. (Move over, Rowan Atkinson). My 15 minutes on how to write natural-sounding dialogue was a bit quiet after all that but, because I’d also had instruction on how to meditate from the other teacher, my nerves had flown away. I was having A Good Time. And guess what? I got the job! (And I’m hoping that the other three were taken on too, because they were really good.)
My classes are being time-tabled, and the leaflets are blowing out over the land. All I have to do now, is get some students. Music and mime, anybody?
Picture of Samuel L Jackson: commons.wikimedia.org
Picture of Babe the Sheep pig: simple.wikipedia.org
(continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China and Tibet)
The train pulls in to Kunming just after 7.30 am. Cheryl’s waiting for me at the barrier, and it is so good to see her. We get a bus to the hotel; the old rugger scrum again, but when we get bashed in the mad scramble to get on, I find I can bash back twice as hard with my pack.
She and Elspeth have pushed the boat out and got a three-bed room with a bath (12 kwai each). Breakfast is fried eggs, toast and coffee and I think I’ve died and gone to heaven. Hannah from New York, who I was with in Tibet, is here. She wants to go to Shanghai, but all the planes are booked for a week and she doesn’t want to spend three days on a train. Cheryl goes with her to the CAAC office to see if this is true or if they just can’t be bothered to take her, but they are adamant. No seats.
They are equally tough in my case. We’re flying to Nanning on the way to Hainan Dao (it means literally, South Sea Island) and Cheryl and Elspeth can pay in Renminbi with their student cards, but the office won’t accept my card. The woman behind the counter will not believe I’m a student – no matter how often I tell her my name is Chrysanthemum Wang. Which is sharp of her, but it means I have to pay in FEC, foreign exchange currency. Which is a pain. It means I’m going to have to find a moneylender and go in for a bit of swift mental arithmetic.
I go back to the hotel and change a travellers’ cheque, then I go out in the street and collar a likely looking lad on the corner with a bike. Why do all money-lenders have bikes? (Monumentally stupid question, ed. Just look at all the police strolling about, and ask yourself why you are down a side street with three of the guy’s mates on look-out duty). I change my money with him at a rate of 1.6 into renminbi, and then nip back into the hotel and change it back into FEC with a lad from Sheffield at the rate of 1.4. Total economic madness. But we’ve all made something, and we’re all happy. Except possibly the Central Bank of China, but I don’t know them personally, so it doesn’t bother me. Although how the whole system doesn’t collapse when everybody seems to be winning, I don’t know.
Suppertime is a bit of a disappointment. Practically everthing on the menu is off, so we have a very small meal. We go back to the hotel and eat fried goat’s cheese, which is all they have (and very nice). The bar has a tape player, so I put on Frankie Goes To Hollywood, but the bar staff don’t like this at all and switch it off. But then, when I just laugh and take it away, they tell me to put it back on. They can be such odd people.
Hannah and I go for a walk and discover that we both grew up listening to My Fair Lady. Within seconds we are prancing down the street singing, ‘All I want is a room somewhere’. Hannah’s attempt at a Cockney accent is hysterical and she thinks much the same of my rendition of ‘ahhooOOoodenit be luvverly.’ We are bent over, breathless with laughter, 8,000 miles from home, being carefully skirted by Chinese people who stare at us rather warily. Maybe we have gone loopy. Maybe after all these weeks, the songs of Lerner and Loewe have finally done for us. But who cares, when there’s two of you to sing?
(I apologise for the quality of my pictures at the moment. I’ve had to get a new scanner and the operating system is still waiting to be decoded by Alan Turing).
(China Diary back shortly)
Imagine you have a beloved pet. And it dies. (I know, this part is sad.) So, is it just me, or is it perfectly normal to look at poor Fluffy’s mortal remains and think, ‘I’ll just call a taxidermist. No. Wait. I’ll stuff him myself. It’ll be easy peasy.’
And apparently lots of people do have a go. I give you, for example:
I find taxidermy rather bizarre, even when it’s done by professionals. But attempting it yourself, as a little light entertainment on a long winter evening??? (Enough with the question marks, ed).
And where do you start? Do these people just pick up a pair of scissors and get stuck in (literally), or do they have some kind of practical experience? In, say, upholstery or remedial basket work in a home for the bewildered? Maybe some people, after bringing a piano stool back to life, then looked at a donkey and thought, hmmmm:
Or maybe not.
Imagine the scene. Bonzo has barked his last, and with a sudden light of enthusiasm sparking in your mad scientist eyes, you assemble the kitchen scissors, a needle and thread and a couple of bags of cotton wool balls, and begin. Several hours later your partner/care-worker arrives to find you elbow deep in gore and sawdust. What, please tell me, do you say?
Or, ‘You’re back early.’
Or even, ‘Could you thread this needle for me?’
Still, amateur pet stuffers, take heart. Think of the man at Gripsholm Castle in Sweden, 350 years ago, who was presented with a lion skin and told to make it scary. He did his best:
All pictures courtesy of Facebook page Badly Stuffed Animals
Get up in the dark for the taxi to the railway station. I’m off to Kunming this morning to meet up with Cheryl and Elspeth. Of course, with China being so big, the trip will take a day or so, but I don’t care. I have a soft sleeper, and it is supposed to be one of the most beautiful railway journeys in the world, hundreds of miles south through the rich tea-growing province of Yunnan.
The taxi is one of those lumbering Morris Oxford jobs. While we are waiting to draw out into the traffic from the hotel, some guy is riding towards us on his bike, but he seems to have fallen asleep; he is nodding over the handlebars, even though his feet are still pedalling. And then he jerks awake, sees us and, trying furiously to brake, falls off. The taxi driver just keeps going and leaves the bloke in the dust.
I get to the station and, because I’ve got a soft-sleeper, the guard leads me to a special spot behind the barrier to wait for the train. It’s not a ‘special’ special spot. It’s just like I’ve been parked. I’m waiting with two spectacular Germans. They’re big, shaggy wild rovers. They have big felt hats, woolly pullies, and packs with all sorts of stuff hanging off; cups and tents and a full canteen of sterling silver cutlery complete with grapefruit knives and a 25-year money-back guarantee. Ok, so I made the last part up. The Chinese are astounded by these men. They are hanging over the barriers gawping; one girl just stares, open-mouthed with her head on one side.
‘Don’t you feel sometimes as if you are in a zoo?’ I ask the men.
‘No,’ says one of the guys. ‘In Germany too, we get stared at.’
The train arrives and I find my compartment. The soft sleeper looks a bit tacky – horrible net curtains, dirty tablecloth, sticky carpet. Still, there’s a plant in a nice pot on the table and the other three occupants are nice too; a soldier, an agricultural professor who keeps dashing out to look at the scenery and a man who works in a chemical plant. There’s also his wife, who sleeps next door, but who spends most of the day in with us. She can’t speak English but she does speak Universal Mother Language and we understand each other perfectly. She’s a little dumpy, cheerful woman and she never stops talking. The soldier lies in one of the top bunks and puts his hat over his face, while she just goes on and on.
‘Look at her,’ she says, pointing at me. ‘All she does is eat chocolate and oranges and drink coffee. It can’t do her any good at all.’ Her husband looks at me, and we both smile. Then she feels the cloth of my ski trousers. ‘Thin, so thin. How does she keep warm? Eh?’ I offer her my jacket and she puts it on. ‘Thin, far too thin. Nice feel, though.’ She gestures at her big blue padded coat, the sort that all the Chinese, and Cheryl and Elspeth wear. ‘That’s what you need to keep the cold out.’ She makes me feel it. ‘Good thick stuff. Warm, hmmm?’
After we eat in the restaurant car, it’s more of the same. ‘Look at her. She uses her chopsticks as though she has one hand tied behind her back. Two hands, dear, like this. Look, look. Like this.’ And, ‘How old are you dear?’ (She does this by by placing her hand parallel to the floor and counting) ‘Don’t you miss your mummy and daddy?’
In the evening another agricultural professor, who can speak English, arrives. He has spent a couple of months in Germany, in Wastephalia as he terms it, and has already met the two German backpackers. The woman leaves for a bit and when I ask the professor to translate exactly what she has been saying, all the other men start laughing. The soldier in the top bunk lifts his hat off his face. ‘Mama, baba,’ he groans theatrically, and everybody laughs again.
The professor is a lovely man. He’s very earnest and, boy, does he love his subject. He tells me that China has almost doubled its agricultural production levels since the revolution and that they are doing the best to reclaim the desert for grazing.
We stand in the corridor and lean against the window while he talks about tea production, and grass growing and behind him the countryside unrolls like a silk painting. Terraced hills in green and yellow, wide rivers, and rice paddies with water buffaloes and people in coolie hats. It is story-book beautiful. (Unfortunately, none of my pictures come out, possibly on account of the camera being dropped down the toilet, so I have posted a picture of a random shack. Hope nobody minds.)
Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China and Tibet
Back in Cheng Du. I loved Tibet, but it feels so good to be back. Like I’m home or something. In fact, I feel so good that it doesn’t bother me that I have to get a bus to the Jin Jiang hotel, and that I haven’t the faintest idea which bus is the right one. I just climb on the bus that I think is right and all the passengers nod madly when I rather tentatively say, ‘Jin Jiang?’.
It’s funny. In Tibet, the Chinese were easy to dislike; most of the ones I met were arrogant and aggravating. Here, they couldn’t be nicer. All of them are obviously having a conversation about me, and whereas before it would have made me feel so self conscious, now, I don’t care. I do wonder, in passing, what I’m going to do if I’ve got on the wrong bus. But what’s the worst that can happen? Anyway it is the right one. The bus screeches to a halt, right outside the hotel and all the passengers shout, ‘Jin Jiang!’ and about 60 pairs of hands pat me on the shoulder as I make my way out.
The doorman carries my bag to reception. That’s not something I expected to happen either. Must be just a day for general friendliness. Check in and run up the six flights of stairs to my dormitory room. At the top I stop and realise what I’ve just done. I ran up six flights of stairs with my pack, which weighs about 50lbs. And I’m not out of breath. I can’t believe it. But then that’s what being at high altitude does for you. I understand now why all those athletes train in Mexico, or wherever. It’s an amazing feeling. And the air is so good to breathe. Dump my pack on my bed pull out my towel and go for a shower. Honest to God, the dirt that comes off me. My hair is caked in dust. The water going down the plughole is brown. But it is hot water and a proper powerful blast of it too. Lovely, lovely, lovely hot water and soap.
And then, food in the hotel dining hall. Meet Margaret from Leeds. She’s spent the last one and a half years teaching English to giggling Japanese women in Tokyo. It’s apparently feminine to giggle before you’re married in Japan, and then become terribly serene after. Reception has assured Margaret that she’s in a room with two Hong Kong women, but there are three packs in her room, all with men’s underwear peeping out of it. When she asks to be moved they put her in a room with a Japanese professor. I make some fatuous joke about him probably being a martial arts expert. And Margaret, small and demure replies, ‘Oh, that doesn’t matter. So am I.’
Apparently she’s the only Western woman ever to have studied this particular branch of Ju Jitsu, and certainly the only woman black belt in it. It teaches strength through weakness; the less strength you use to overcome your opponent, the better you are. She would have got into her second dan by now, except that her teacher feels she is not quite ready – she can’t completely control her emotions. This is quite important as it’s a lethal sport – there are no competitions because of the danger of killing your opponent.
It turns out that I am the one sharing with the two women from Hong Kong. Very pleasant. Bed is wonderful; soft, big clean – and safe.
Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China and Tibet
Get down to the depot this morning and get my pack on a lorry going to the airport. Take a last look around the market and buy some prayer scarves and am plagued by three kids who alternately hug me and kick me in the shins. Say my goodbyes to Agnetha and Michael and Mick and Julie, and get the bus to the airport. Remember to sit fairly close up front this time, so that I don’t go flying when it hits a pot hole. Still, the journey is not too bad. It takes four hours and there are times when I think we’re having an accident, but no, we are not careering out of control down a ravine, we are merely being driven rather excitingly down a hill that hasn’t got a road yet.
The airport hostel is appalling. The latrines are overflowing and I find I’m sharing a dormitory with a bloke from Saudi Arabia. He seems okay, but he has a master’s degree in moaning. He’s is the most miserable person I’ve ever met. More miserable than a friend’s great aunt, who used to tell people, ‘Ooh, you go on. I’ve had my life.’
He’s been here since his plane arrived this morning and he dislikes the look of the place so much, that he can’t be arsed to go to Lhasa. He just wants to fly straight to Shanghai. ‘I thought it would be a magical place,’ he intones. ‘All green and misty but it is just desert. If I wanted sand I would stay at home.’ At which I giggle. But he just goes on and on.
I leave the room and try to see if I can get into another dormitory, but they are all full up. All the other people here are Chinese and seem mystified that I don’t want to share a room with a strange man. After all, he’s another westerner, isn’t he? None of them are really bothered about my problems, but one bloke, at least, gives me some ink for my pen.
Back to the room. Misery Guts is lying on his bed swigging from a bottle of rice wine and staring at the ceiling. ‘I thought this place would be Shangri La,’ he intones. ‘It is not what I thought.’ I try telling him that I felt much the same way when I arrived, and that he should at least take a look at Lhasa. But he won’t listen. Moan, moan, moan.
He’s also fed up because the airport won’t take travellers’ cheques and he hasn’t got enough money to pay for his ticket. He wants to borrow money from me. He is astounded when I tell him I don’t have enough. Even if I did I wouldn’t lend it to him – but I don’t tell him that. He is going to have to go to Lhasa to change his cheques. The thought makes him even more miserable.
He starts on about his headache. I tell him this is probably because of the altitude. But he’s having none of it.
‘Altitude? Altitude? I am used to altitude. It is this terrible cold I have. Oh this place. Oh how terrible I feel. Why did I come here?’
At least he’s at the other end of the room (although it’s not a very big room). At 10pm the lights are switched off by central control. This is creepy, and it makes him grumble even more but, eventually, he falls silent. I shut my eyes, but I don’t sleep.
At 5.30 he looms over me in the darkness.
‘Did you sleep well?’ he asks.
‘Yes,’ I say warily. He is far too close, and I don’t like the silky tone of his voice.
‘Can I get into bed with you for a warm?’ He is pulling at my sleeping bag.
‘No, you bloody can’t.’
‘Why not?’ he asks. He is, can you believe it, offended.
‘What do you mean, why not?’ I say.
‘But I thought all you western girls have sex with everybody you meet.’
‘Go. Away.’ If he tries anything more, I’m going to sock him.
But, amazingly, he goes. I get up, which is easy because I slept in my clothes, get my stuff packed and get out. But there is nowhere to go. The waiting room is locked and eventually I make my way to the canteen. The Chinese man, who gave me the ink last night, arrives and starts chatting. He talks apologetically about the state of the airport and I think he is quite taken aback, when I just let rip about the sleeping arrangements. Poor bloke. It’s not his fault.
And then I discover I don’t have enough change to pay for my breakfast, so he insists on paying the difference. It is rice porridge, diced raw turnips and four dry biscuits. I know it’s silly, but I cry.
Don’t think I’ll be going anywhere today. We were planning to borrow bicycles and go the Drepong monastery, but after last night, I can’t even summon up enough energy to go with the others to the Dalai Lama’s summer palace, which is much nearer and has a western bog and a Philips radiogram, according to Michael, the gold smuggler.
Michael is a terribly serious, young(ish) bloke who comes from Cricklewood, and who is attempting to learn how to do the Daily Telegraph cryptic crossword. He used to work in a dole office, apparently, advising claimants on how to fill in their UB40s, and now he runs a smuggling ring from Korea to India. Amazing the turns a career can take.
I don’t know why he wants to learn how to do cryptic crosswords. It’s not as if he needs something to do on the 8.10 to Liverpool Street every morning. And commuters only do the crossword so that they don’t have to speak to any of their fellow human beings. I keep thinking of that scene in James Bond where 007 says, ‘Do you expect me to talk?’
In my mind, Goldfinger is replying, ‘No Mr Bond, I expect you to help me with 24 Across.’
Still, Michael is earnestly insistent that I unlock the mysteries for him, and in between wondering if I’m going to heave again, I do my best. He has a much-thumbed paperback of crosswords, and we go through them slowly.
‘It’s like a secret code,’ he says. ‘And nobody ever tells you how to crack it.’
Julie works for him, as a mule. She’s an ex teacher but she got bored with her husband who was an accountant and who wore shirts with contrasting collars. She had a hatchback and an executive house with fully fitted carpets and she and her husband went to fondue parties and drank Mateus rose, and one day she bought a backpack and went to India. When her savings ran out she did a few little trips for Michael and apparently it’s very lucrative. He pays $600 per trip.
I thought about doing it too, for about 30 seconds. The money is very good. But I’m not too keen on inserting two lumps of gold the size of large torch batteries, into my bum. You get on the plane to India and when you get off you are met by a taxi driver who takes you to a pre-arranged meet, where you produce the gold and get the dosh. But it doesn’t always work out like that.
‘Sometimes the taxi drivers have been bribed by a rival gang to take you to the police station instead,’ Julie told me. ‘That’s what happened to me. And I just kept telling the police I had no idea what was happening, and that I was just an innocent tourist, and they said they would let nature take its course. So I just hung about in the station doing my yoga exercises to show that I hadn’t a care in the world, even though, ohhh, that gold was really hurting. But then some more money must have changed hands because they let me go. And everything was fine.’
Everything, except, possibly, her backside, where she could now keep her rucksack.
Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China and Tibet
The Potala Palace is a hell of a climb, just to get to the main doors, and made even more difficult by the fact that the Tibetans like their steps to be steep. But when we eventually get to the first entrance, the main door is closed. Agnetha is gasping for a pee, and there’s no one about so she just squats by a wall. I can’t resist it; I get my camera out. Horrified, she stands up and her trousers fall down. Naturally, I think this is hysterically funny and we run up to the next level, shouting and laughing. I don’t know what’s got into us. Neither of us would behave like this outside Buckingham Palace, or the Royal Palace in Stockholm. But there is no one to hear or see us. We’re like seven-year-olds, skidding at last into a large, open, almost deserted courtyard.
At one end is an entrance to a temple and we buy the inevitable ticket and remember where we are. Up we climb again. This whole place, the official residence of the Dalai Lama, is a maze of tunnels and walkways. There is an open square, several storeys high, with balconies. There is a little bridge from the balcony we are on, to a central building. We go across to it and it is a restaurant. Closed. Looks sort of Chinese 1930s style again. Can’t imagine the monks using it. Peeking through a chink in the curtains I can see a Bakelite telephone. Direct line to the Dalai Lama? I doubt it somehow.
There are doors everywhere. Some lead to tiny little rooms, some to huge ones. A monk, with pads under his feet (to keep the floors polished?) smiles and points at Agnetha’s camera, but no, we haven’t got pictures of the Dalai Lama. He is a wonderful old monk and is all smiles when we want to take his picture.
We find another room, one with white pendant lamps like you get in a wine bar at home. There are Buddhas everywhere. And in front of all of them are bowls of yak butter and money and white prayer scarves and green grass growing in empty mandarin orange tins. The buddhas are magnificent. God knows what they are made of – solid gold probably. And there are great knobbly chunks of turquoise just lying about. Hanging from the ceiling in one room are child-size red hand prints on white silk – with evenly spaced dark dots on them. Are these the marks of the Dalai Lama as a child? Dunno. There is hardly anybody about – we seem completely free to explore. I so desperately want to find a secret passage, but I stop myself from prodding likely looking knobs.
As we wander deeper and deeper in to the palace the silent reverence of the place makes us fall silent and, when we do talk, it’s in slow whispers. We have become so awestruck by all this dim mysterious magnificence that when we are approached by a monk with a tin of toffees, we don’t know what to do. I’m particularly struck by the fact that they are Bluebird Toffees, just like my great auntie Maggie used to have, and that there is a picture of what looks like Edinburgh Castle on the lid. He says something and shakes the tin at us so, very respectfully, we take a sweet each and then look at each other.
‘Are we supposed to give them to Buddha as offerings?’ says Agnetha.
I don’t know. We hold the toffees reverently and look at the monk for guidance. He seems rather exasperated. Finally he points at the sweets and then points at his mouth, as if he were dealing with a very slow pair of children. I begin to giggle, and then, much to his obvious relief, we undo the waxed paper wrappings (each with a little picture of a bluebird on it) and start chewing the toffees. They taste so good. We’re still chewing when we walk into another room which has a beautiful, stylised painting of Lhasa on the wall. The monk who has led the way, points out the Potala and the Sera and the Jhokang, and then points to another and shakes his head sadly – this monastery was razed to the ground by the Chinese during the cultural revolution.
At the doorway to the Dalai Lama’s bedroom, two monks sell us tickets to have a look. You can’t actually go in, though. An American who has arrived doesn’t have any change, but it doesn’t matter - one of the monks gets the change from offerings thrown into a roped-off part of the sitting room.
And boy, does that guy have sitting rooms. There are five, that we see, and in each his chair has his empty coat and hat on it. Some of the monks must sleep in these rooms because, in each, there are little towels, neatly folded, with bowls of yak butter tea here and there.
As we come out, back into the great courtyard, we meet the old monk again, now accompanied by a boy monk who says the old man wants to know our names. So we tell him and he tells us that he is Lama Namideya, or something that sounds like that, anyway. He poses cheerfully again for a picture.
On the way back to the hotel, as I am crowing about finally getting decent photograph, Agnetha shakes her head.
‘Tibetan monks can disappear from pictures, you know,’ she says.
‘Don’t be daft.’
‘It is true. They pose for pictures and then when you get them developed, not nobody is there.’
‘Sounds like the kind of pictures my mother takes,’ I say cheerfully, and we meet up with the others and go off to a restaurant where we’re all given a basin of lamb bones to gnaw on. It’s so mediaeval I have to stop myself from throwing my used bones on the floor. They taste great, but in the middle of the night I get up and am totally and fabulously sick.
Months later, when I get my pictures developed, I don’t have a single one of the monk and his boy.