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.
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.
Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China and Tibet
After the sky burial we walk round the mountain to the Sera monastery. It’s beautiful, all white and red and gold and shining in the sun. There are several temples and houses all connecting with courtyards and little lanes. A couple of Tibetan girls hang out of a window and invite us in for breakfast – or, more accurately, mime us in. So we walk through the doorway below them, into a courtyard, up some steps and round a balcony into the house. In the courtyard is a very serious looking boy monk, about 14 years old, head shaved and robed in red. The house itself is very dark inside, with thick walls – it’s wonderfully cool. The room where we sit is about 8ft by 15ft, the main room of the house. The walls are dark brown because there is no chimney. The smoke from the fire is supposed to go out through the window. Julie tells me the Tibetans are very particular about what you can throw on a fire, no plastic wrappings, for example, or cellophane. They get quite cross if you don’t respect this rule. I suppose, apart from anything else, putting plastic on a fire where there is no chimney is going to stink the place out.
We sit on carpet-covered benches. The family serve us traditional Tibetan tea, which is made by pounding up yak butter, salt and tea in a thing that looks like an elongated butter churn and mixing it with water. It looks and tastes disgusting. It’s supposed to be very good for you, but it smells like vomit. Anyway, we can’t not drink it. Then they give us a bowl of Tsampa – traditional Tibetan porridge – and with much giggling the girls watch while we spoon the brown powder (ground wheat, but I don’t know what else) into our tea in the approved manner. Then we get rolls of bread, which look like the soft, lovely morning rolls that you get in Scotland. I’m all for this, until I realise they are rock hard, but we dip them in our tea/tsampa and it’s not too bad, and then we are given biscuits – they’re lovely.
While we’re going through all this and miming how wonderful it tastes (desperately hoping they’re not going to give us seconds) an old monk comes into the room and one of the women gives him a tray with some bowls of beans on it. He takes it away, I think to share with the boy monk, but comes back shortly afterwards with most of the beans. Maybe this woman is just a rotten cook, after all. But she can’t do enough to care for us, and it would be the worst manners to refuse anything she gives us. The monk picks up Ruth’s camera and says something to her. He doesn’t want his picture taken, but then we realise again, that he is asking if we have pictures of the Dalai Lama. And sadly we have to tell him that we don’t.
‘What are we going to do about offering to pay for this?’ I say, while smiling at the monk.
‘They’ll be desperately insulted,’ says Julie.
‘They might be desperately insulted if we don’t offer,’ points out Mick.
It’s a tricky one, and we talk the matter round while we eat, and decide that it is better to offer to pay, than not. When we get up to leave, we all lift up our purses and point at them, but the family just laugh and shake their heads and bow and smile as we leave.
The main temple is lovely, very dim with many yak butter candles burning in front of the different statues of Buddha. There are many cushions on the floor with Tibetan coats on them, and a monk is sweeping up between them.
Another temple, up and down some very steep stairs – they seem to go for steps here that are about four inches wide and and a foot to 18 inches high. It’s really easy to miss your footing, but a girl of about 12 with a small child on her back skips past me and hurtles down them, without missing a beat, her feet absolutely sure, and she lets her load down easily at the bottom. I’m already beginning to feel knackered.
We come out on to a flat roof with more little temples leading off and monks smiling and bowing and welcoming us in. I’m rather bemused by all this hospitality and good humour, and obvious affection for westerners.
Extremely long walk back to the hotel. When I get there I get a bucket of cold water from the kitchen, and take it up to the empty dormitory, where I stand in the washing bowl, and pour it over me. It’s shocking but lovely. There are no places to wash here and, actually, I don’t think Tibetans wash much. They probably feel it’s pointless considering how dirty the place is, with all that dust that swirls around everywhere and clogs up everything. I’ve seen several kids who were so filthy the dirt looked like a second skin. Wash my hair, out on the roof, much to the curiousity of the Tibetan girl sweeping the dormitory floor. She stands and watches while I rub the shampoo in and I let her smell the bottle, which she doesn’t know what to make of, at all. Still, I let her feel my hair and I feel hers and we have a good laugh. It’s so easy to be happy here.
Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China and Tibet
Decide to check out of the Snowland and go to the Tibetan Guesthouse instead. Not because there’s anything wrong with the Snowland, we assure the lovely landlady, but because we have friends at the Tibetan.
The Tibetan, or Hotel Shol Balak Lhasa, is just down the street. You enter through a narrow door and on one side is a dim stable with yaks in it and on the other is a little bare room which is reception. Agnetha and I get beds in the dormitory up on the roof. The passage from the main door leads into a courtyard and there are wooden steps leading up to the first floor and then up to the next. There’s a little verandah on each floor running past the rooms and, at our level, we have a flat roof to walk about on, too. Next door is a school, and every morning the kids do their exercises, counting along, Chinese style, to loud piped music, just like I did with Cheryl and Elspeth on the train.
The dormitory isn’t half as nice as the room at the Snowland but Helen from New York is there and so are Mick and Julie, friends of Agnetha’s. It doesn’t really matter what the room is like; lying on my lumpy iron bed I can look out of the door and see the Himalayas, clear in the morning sunshine. Take that, Cesar Ritz. There’s a big Chinese flask of water on the table, with a wash bowl. Water is available between 4pm and 7pm from a hose in the kitchen. So we have to remember to keep the flask filled.
Agnetha and I go out walking and we are stopped by three Tibetans, wild men in thick padded coats. They are rubbing their fingers together and obviously asking for money. I feel really disappointed that they are begging, but it can’t be easy living here. I don’t normally give handouts, but this time, I feel I owe them, somehow. I’m just getting my purse out when someone shouts at us and Julie hurries up. ‘For Christ sake don’t try to give them money, they’ll be really insulted.’
I am completely confused by this. The Tibetans are just standing, watching hopefully.
Julie says, ‘Just look in your purse and then shake your head really sorrowfully.’
I do as I am told. The Tibetans look really disappointed, but they all put their hands together and bow. We bow back.
We watch them walk off, and Julie explains. The men had come up to us, because they wanted to know if we had pictures of the Dalai Lama. When the Chinese invaded in 1949, he was taken into safety in India and has been protected and treated with honour ever since by the West. This is the reason the Tibetans are so welcoming to us, and it is why they will do their best to protect us. All they ever ask for is to see the face of the man who has been taken from them. I feel very, very, small. I wish I’d know this before I came. I’d have brought them a bloody crateful of pictures.
We take the table out of the dormitory and put it on the verandah and spend the afternoon sitting in the sunshine, writing postcards. There are four Swedes at the hotel; one Dane; one Australian; Mick and Julie from Hemel Hempstead; Hannah from New York; Michael, a gold smuggler from Cricklewood; Agnetha and me.
The first six are planning on a four-five day bus trip to Xigaze and back, starting at dawn tomorrow. One of the Swedish girls, Kristen, has a stomach upset, but she’s determined to go. She’s already spent two months in hospital with amoebic dysentry and no measly bug is going to stop her from doing what she wants to do. Blimey, Swedish people are tough.
Night falls and the sky is like nothing I’ve ever seen. It is blazing with stars. I drag a chair out into the middle of the flat roof and lie back as far as I can without tipping over. The stars are so low, so bright it’s like being in the lighting department of a celestial John Lewis. I’ve never seen so many stars, but it does strange things to your mind, contemplating stuff that you can’t really take in. It makes me feel like I’m falling into them and so I get up and look about at the here and now instead. Down in the courtyard I can see through the open doorway into the kitchen. There are two women in there. One is stirring a cauldron over an open fire. The other has just put half a goat on a tree stump and is hacking at it with an axe.
Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China and Tibet
I can’t believe Lhasa when I see it. There must be some mistake; wide roads, a block of flats and modern buildings. I am so disappointed, I thought it was going to be some mysterious mountain hideout with buddhists.
Actually, I didn’t know what I thought it was going to be, but not this. This is awful. Of course, what I don’t realise is that this is the Chinese part of town, and that, although Lhasa is 12,000 ft up it is flat because it is built on a huge plateau.
The Range Rover draws into courtyard in front of a Chinese guest house and we say goodbye to the German Speaker, who has been so helpful. He looks astounded.
‘But this is the guesthouse where you will stay,’ he says.
‘We’re going to the Snowland Hotel,’ says Agnetha.
‘There is no such place,’ he says.
‘Yes there is,’ says Agnetha. ‘I’ve got it marked on my map. It’s just over there.’
‘No it isn’t.’
The Chinese can be pretty odd at times but this is definitely weird. This guy is not a happy man, and he looks even more upset when an American couple Agnetha knows walk past and say, ‘You going to the Snowland? See you there!’
So we say goodbye and just start walking. He trails after us for a while, saying over and over that we have to stay at the Chinese guest house, but he eventually gives up, shouting, ‘See you at the depot at 4pm, when the baggage arrives!’ (Checked in bags come separately by truck and are claimed in the afternoon from the China Airlines office).
The neat Chinese part of town disappears, and we enter Lhasa proper. It is everything I thought it would be and quite a lot I didn’t imagine. We seem to have walked into a Breughel painting. All the buildings are flat topped and white-washed like the ones we saw on the way in. Many of the ground floors in these buildings are either stables or shit stores. There’s no regular running water in this town, so no flushing toilets. The toilets are just rooms with a hole in the middle of the floor, and when the room below is full, a couple of Tibetan women come along, open two enormous doors on the street and shovel the waste onto a cart, which they then drag off to fertilise the nearby fields. The air is so dry, it doesn’t smell bad. Or maybe we’ve just got used to smells.
We check in at the Snowland and get a bright little room with all the beams, above the windows and the ones holding up the ceiling, painted red and decorated with flowers, like European naïve art or the decorations you see on an English barge. A German guy tells us to lay off beer for the first few days. ‘Just drink water, lots of it. At this altitude beer will make you fall over.’ I believe him. I have a splitting headache and feel pretty dizzy already. The air is so thin I feel I have to take in great lungfuls of it, but it seems as though there’s nothing in it. It’s like trying to breathe with a paper bag over your head.
We get something to eat; a bowl of rice and some meat, which is twice the price it is in China and, at four we walk back to the depot and get our luggage ok. The German Speaker is there and he doesn’t look very happy. As soon as he sees us he makes a beeline for Agnetha and starts talking to her very fast. She erupts in molten German, in which the word ‘nein’ appears a lot. The driver, who appears to be the cause of all the trouble, stands a few feet away and draws patterns in the dust with his toe.
Turns out they want to charge us 40 kwai each for the trip, even though they told us it would be free. They’ve already skinned the Japanese guy, who is in tears, because he’s been cleared out of all his cash. They took his bag and wouldn’t let him have it until he paid up. The German Speaker tells us that the driver’s boss would hold him responsible for our non payment and that we should go with him to explain why we weren’t paying. (All cars in China are owned by a group of people, with a cadre in charge.)
‘You must come,’ says the German speaker. ‘It’s only a short drive in the car.’
‘There is no way I am getting in that car again,’ says Agnetha. ‘You must be mad.’
Quite a large crowd of Tibetans and Chinese gather round. A good shouting match is always fun to watch. We are tired, hot, shaky on our feet, and desperately thirsty. No one understands English, and only one speaks German.
And then we hear the faint sound of bugles, and Montgomery Clift and the seventh cavalry arrive to rescue us. Well, ok, so I made up the bugles, but a tall, good-looking American has certainly suddenly appeared, as if from nowhere, asks what all the fuss is about, agrees that we are being ripped off and proceeds to chew out the opposition in an extremely satisfactory manner, in fluent and possibly perfect Mandarin.
The Tibetans, who are not huge fans of the Chinese, are absolutely delighted. The driver tells the American that he doesn’t need him for an interpreter. The American tells us what is going on, and tells him he is a complete asshole (wish I knew how to say that in Mandarin) and that the driver can talk to us in Tibetan if he wants to. (Much laughter all round from the Tibetans). The Chinese are not happy. If they lose much more face, things could get ugly.
Agnetha and I say we don’t mind explaining the situation to the driver’s leader, but that we are not going to pay. We give him our address, and tell him, through the American, that he can call on us if he wants.
‘But I can take them to my leader now, in the car,’ says the driver.
‘They’re going to the hotel to rest; they are very tired,’ says the American.
‘I am tired too,’ says the driver plaintively.
More laughter from the growing crowd.
So we thank the American and he just waves us off cheerfully as we go back to the Snowland. What a journey. It’s not that far but, at this altitude, my pack is really weighing me down. My feet are heavy, sweat is running down my back and the sun is almost unbearably hot. The wind is up too and swirls of choking dust clog up our eyes, noses and mouths and turn our hair into coconut matting.
The hotel at last. A thick-walled cool haven. Agnetha dumps her bag and goes off to look for some mates. But I no sooner flop down on my bed than the delegation arrives; the driver, the leader, the German Speaker, an interpreter and two unidentifiables. The interpreter doesn’t bother to interpret. He just asks us to see reason. ‘You must realise that you have to pay something for this service. Forty kwai is cheap; we normally charge tourists 100 kwai. You are British, I think, yes? Then you are reasonable, and will realise you must pay.’
‘Yes, I’m British,’ I yell hoarsely, feeling, I dunno, like Richard Attenborough in drag, on a bad day, and wishing I was somewhere else. ‘I’m bloody British and it’s the principle of the thing. We were told it was free, and if we had been told it was 40 kwai we never would have accepted the lift.’
He says if we don’t pay we will have to leave Lhasa.
At this point the Tibetan lady in charge of the hotel walks in, pours me out a mug of hot water, gives me another pillow and then stands by my bed, her arms folded, silently facing down the opposition, while the argument rages on. Brave, brave woman to stick up for me like this. The Chinese could make things very difficult for her. Eventually, I’m so exhausted I just turn over and go to sleep. Agnetha comes back to find that they have argued themselves round in circles, and they tell her they hope I will feel better in the morning and that perhaps we’d think about paying something towards the cost. They never bother us again.
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.