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China 35: Strangers in the night

Copyright Elaine Canham, 2015

Copyright Elaine Canham, 2015

Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China and Tibet

March 11.

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.

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China 16: On the bounce

Copyright, Elaine Canham 2015

Copyright, Elaine Canham 2015

Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China.

Just before dawn we get the bus to Dunhuang. It’s the hippy bus again, and we decide to sit at the back. The few villagers who are there, are all at the front. They turn and watch us expressionlessly as we slide on to the wooden seats.

‘This reminds me of being on the school bus,’ I say.

‘Yes,’ said Cheryl. ‘The back seats were the best. Isn’t this great?’

‘And now we’ve got them all to ourselves,’ said Elspeth. ‘Wonder why nobody else wants to sit here?’

‘Obvious, isn’t it?’ I say loftily. ‘Back seats are just another sign of western decadence.’  And we laugh. Ha ha.

The bus sets off. We see the sun rise over a slag heap. Actually we see it rise several times as fresh heaps alternately obscure it and then reveal it again. The road gets bumpier and bumpier. The bus seems to be made out of solid metal. There is no suspension. We realise this, though, when the driver really gets into his stride out of town and starts to aim for the potholes. Although to be fair, they are difficult to miss.

The first one he hit, I spring fairy-like upwards, and narrowly avoid smashing my head on the ceiling. I land, with all my bones rearranged, on the seat again. Cheryl and Elspeth, too, are gasping untidily, and then we hit the next pot hole. Bang! And up we fly again, squawking and swearing. The only thing to do is to grip tightly to the seat in front and crouch hopefully like tethered birds, grimly being shaken into half flight with every bounce.

The villagers have all swivelled round again and are watching us with keen interest.

Copyright Elaine Canham, 2015

Copyright Elaine Canham, 2015

‘We’ve got to move,’ says Cheryl, desperately.

But it isn’t easy. We stagger crazily up the bus, under the gaze of the locals. This is obviously the best entertainment they’ve had for a very long time. And then, when we do make it, I realise we have left the gin behind. I crawl back to get it, and smack my face on the back of a seat.

Dunhuang is very sunny; it isn’t much better to look at than Liu Yuan, but there is a friendly air to it, and it is much busier. There are a lot of trucks, which is a good sign for our hitch-hiking plans. Some of them, surely, must be able to take us to Golmud, where we can get another truck to Tibet.

We check in at a hostel, which is pretty bare, and there is no water there either. Still, it is clean, and we go in search of food. Find the main hotel which is much nicer, and decide to check in there tomorrow. They offer us lunch and charge us a few Mao each (about 60p). For this we get a table covered with little saucers. Some have got readily recognisable food, like cabbage and mushroom or pork and spring greens. But there’s one of little cubes of meat in gravy that looks like Pedigree Chum, and another that looks like someone has just cut the seams off a lot of polythene bags and dipped them in vinegar.  They taste like that too.

Copyright, Elaine Canham 2015

Copyright, Elaine Canham 2015

The hotel arranges a taxi ride for us to the Singing Sand Dunes. The taxi turns out to be a minibus, very plush, just for us three and driven by a very cool dude in shades. He spoils the image, though, by grinning manically at us. He’s a really nice bloke, and very proud of the dunes. And they are beautiful, huge and yellow against a clean blue sky.

We stagger about for a laugh, gasping ‘Water, water!’ but the effect is spoiled by the fact we are wearing four layers of clothing. The crescent lake is beautiful, but inches thick in ice. We walk all over it, getting sunburnt from the reflected glare. According to Cheryl’s guidebook some emperor in the Han dynasty about 200 BC used to come here for his holidays and the entire court would stay by the lake in silken pavilions. We try to climb the dunes, but can only get so far before the sand just runs out from under our feet and we roll back down. Good fun, though.

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