Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China March 17
Plane to Nanning. The aircraft is much snazzier than the one to Lhasa and we get free hankies (my second), boxes of chrysanthemum tea (not dried tea; it’s a cold drink) and a compass on a key ring. I don’t know if the compass is supposed to make us feel more confident that the pilot knows what he’s doing, but we get there.
Cheryl and Elspeth were entranced by the news that, according to that guy I met in Cheng Du, you can get pizzas in Nanning. Unfortunately I can’t remember which hotel he said, and we trail round three with no success. Our packs are getting heavier as we are now carrying all our winter clothing. The further south we go, the hotter it gets. We’ll have to get out our shorts, soon. C and E have the heaviest loads with those huge Chinese coats.
Bereft of pizzas, we go back to the hotel where the airport bus dropped us off. There’s some kind of celebration going on; there’s a lion dance in the driveway and sheets of firecrackers. The place is packed and everyone is crowding into a special room (where the tables have tablecloths!). Don’t know if it’s supposed to be a particular function but, amazingly, there’s plenty of space for us. The waitress is friendly and the sweet and sour pork is lovely. A western family is here too. They have a baby and a six-year-old child. Both of them seem really ugly after Chinese children. Maybe they are just really ugly. Bed. My first time under a mosquito net.
Bus to railway station. Hard seat to Zhan Jiang, which is China’s southernmost town. It’s a nine-hour journey through the sort of countryside that everyone always associates with China – terraced fields; paddy fields, peasants in coolie hats, water buffalo and rich red earth like turmeric powder piled in heaps. It’s getting warmer and warmer.
At Zhan Jiang we get bicycle taxis to the hotel. I’m on the outside and it’s a bit scary when we go round corners. The hotel is a bit of a dump, but clean and cheap. No food. We go round the food stalls buying oranges and bananas for tomorrow’s trip and trying not to look at the varnished brown dog carcases hanging up with the chickens in the pavement cafes. We stop by a woman with buckets of rice and greens on the pavement and have that for tea. It’s cold, but at least it’s not dog.
Up in the velvety darkness at 5 am for our 6 am bus ride and ferry to Haikou, which is on the island of Hainan Dao. It’s supposed to be marvellously beautiful and unspoilt. It’s also a big military base, and we shouldn’t really be going there, as westerners, but after bottling out of the truck ride to Lhasa we’re going to try it. It’s another trip on the bicycle taxis. This time I sit on the inside, bang next to the back wheel. We get to the bus, and find that the world and his wife and all their pigs and chickens and spring onions are coming too. But, miraculously, we do actually set off at 6. And we’re in front seats, thank god. Some people are standing, and two are sitting on the engine cowling by the driver. Talk about a hot seat.
We go across a river on a raft. We have to get off the bus, which then drives on and we all crowd on after. Everybody spends the short trip fighting like hell to get back on the bus, because as soon as the raft docks the buses drive off – there’s no waiting about. Then we get to the real ferry for Hainan Dao. And, get this, we have to go up a proper gang plank to get on. Well, two planks actually, that wobble, and you have to step over a dead rat. How authentic is that? I feel like I’m in a proper English 20th century novel. Any minute now Peter Ustinov is going to push through the crowds towards us in a linen suit and a Panama hat, or maybe Clark Gable and Jean Harlow are already throwing plates at each other in the restaurant. But sadly not. The boat is just chock full of Chinese people (and pigs and chickens and vegetables) and us. And no restaurant. But, bizarrely, there is a woman selling pink-iced finger buns. We’re very doubtful about them, especially after my experience with the concrete bread rolls in Tibet, but they are lovely. Just like you’d buy in the bakers, back home.
I’m not entirely certain we’re going to get all the way there in one piece. Sealink would probably have sent the ferry for scrap in about 1915. On the up side, there are so many holes in it I get plenty of fresh air and am not seasick, which I was rather worried about.
Amazingly we are here. Another bus from the ferry to Haikou, and yet more bicycle taxis from the bus station to the hotel. It’s properly hot now. There are palm trees which C &E have never seen before in the wild, as it were, and they’re entranced. Elspeth hugs one with delight. ‘They’re great aren’t they?’ she announces. Cheryl is busy examining the patterned bark. I’m sitting on my pack writing this while I wait for them. Anybody would think they’d gone completely bonkers (and I’m sure some passing Chinese people do) but they’ve spent so long in the cold bleakness of northern China that all this lush greenery has completely gone to their heads. They are so happy. Extraordinary.
The hotel is amazing too. All glass and marble and we don’t know if we can afford it. The wall behind the reception desk has clocks showing the time in London and New York. But it’s only five kwai (£1) for a dorm bed. It looks as though they’re still building the place but it will be extremely posh indeed when they’ve finished it. The dormitory has a smoked glass door and white tiles on the floor – it’s like we’ve stumbled into the council chamber in Milton Keynes. However, there is no electricity. There are clerks at the end of the hall who are using candles, and they let us use their private bathroom for a wash.
Elspeth and I go exploring and find a restaurant which has a carpet on the floor and a nice Malaysian bloke who tells us about this coffee shop that sells toast. ‘No bangers and mash for you Brits,’ he laughs, ‘But lot of toast!’ He was dead right. Hot buttered toast. And proper tea. There are a load of young Chinese in, too, and they are all sitting round flashing their digital watches and eating their toast with forks, which they then wave theatrically about while talking very loudly to each other.
Spend the afternoon lying around, having baths and eating McVitites digestive biscuits, which they sell in the hotel shop. The shop sells the oddest things. Roget et Gallet perfumes, Californian wine (30 kwai) a Wrangler denim jacket and personal stereos. I want batteries for mine and point to a stereo in the display case. The bloke in charge gets it out and I point to the battery compartment.
‘Ah, you want batteries,’ he says and shows me two.
‘Yes, that’s exactly what I want,’ I reply.
‘No. Mayo,’ he says and puts them away.
Dinner in the restaurant. The tablecloths are filthy and the waitress sweeps up the leavings with a dirty dustpan and brush. But the service is quick and they are really friendly. The food is delicious; fish with melon, sweet and sour pork, beef with noodles and a huge plate of fried rice. Another big bill (15 kwai) and we begin to realise we haven’t got much money left. Prospects of going to Hong Kong now look definitely dodgy.
In the dorm we are joined by a German couple, two French girls and two Swedish guys. The folding wall down the centre of the room has been pulled out. And there is lots of shouting and shuffling on the other side. So we all creep up, shushing each other and giggling, and peek through the cracks.
All the waitresses from the restaurant are there, and there’s a man fiddling with a tape player. Then, as the strains of Carmen fill the room, he begins to shout instructions and the girls all pair up and start to solemnly tango. And, on our side, we fall silent and feel unaccountably homesick.
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.
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
Woken up at the crack of dawn by the guards. All the guards on all the trains we’ve been on have been women, and a pretty unsmiling lot at that. They crank up the music in all the carriages and everybody stands up and does their morning exercises. It’s done by numbers, 1,2 3, up to ten. A different move for each number. So the three of us get up and have a bash too. The entire carriage is in fits at the sight of us. But they seem very happy that we’ve joined in.
We draw into Cheng Du hours later and its still dark, about 7 am, but kerosene lamps flare everywhere. Outside the station where, I suppose in Britain, you’d see a statue or a little park, is a washroom with no walls; a central wall of mirrors with sinks on either side, neatly tiled in white. People are standing in the floodlit dark, shaving. There are many barrows with people selling hot flannels, noodles, maps – and oranges! Hundreds of them. Heaps of them! We buy a load, and devour them, spitting the pips, just like the Chinese do, and crush into Bus No 16, seven stops to the Jin Jiang hotel.
Cheng Du is the capital of Sichuan, and it’s supposed to be a pretty amazing place. It’s famous for its cooking, and for being the home of the giant panda. It’s not half so stark as Xian, anyway.
The guide book says the Jin Jiang is big with plenty of internal shops and a bar which stays open until midnight. Gosh. With a tape player. The guide book is right. The place is enormous, there is a man on the gate who says, ‘Good morning,’ a bloke in a blue uniform who stands by the door and says, rather shyly, ‘ Hulloh’, a marble foyer, and reception clerks who speak fluent American. Just one snag. There are no rooms. We have to wait until someone checks out. No, we can’t reserve. Yes, we can have breakfast. We are almost speechless when we see it. Real coffee, real milk, hot toast, butter, jam and get this, an omelette with tomatoes in it. There’s also a plate of swiss roll and biscuits. We eat the lot and clock the Europeans, and the Hong Kong Chinese. We’d almost forgotten what western clothes and haircuts looked like.
Back to reception. When they said we couldn’t reserve, they tell us, they didn’t mean we couldn’t fill out a registration form, like the millions of Japanese tourists are doing; of course we can fill in the forms. So we fill them in, and the clerk puts them in a pile, and we watch them start to move to the top as people begin to check out.
We’re seventh in the pile. There is a coffee lounge! Cheryl and Elspeth meet Alison, another student from Beijing. The morning passes very pleasantly. The Japanese poetry professor from Dunhuang is here. A Kiwi with the improbable name of Frean McSween is here, two more students from Beijing arrive, and one of them must be avoided at all costs on account of the fact that he is the most boring person on the planet.
We get a dormitory room. Three normal beds and a cot in the middle occupied by a really nice American girl called Hannah from New York. Alison couldn’t get a room, she is bedding down on a landing with 20 other people for three kwai a night.
We go to the bus station to find out about buses to Lhasa. It’s a nice walk there, through a park, by a river, and there are lots of old men sitting on tree stumps playing chess, or cards or practising Tai Chi. There are some weirdly dressed women, their hair brightly braided, with stripy aprons over dark dresses and breeches, that I later discover are Tibetan.
When we get to the bus station, about 20 people gather round to watch our efforts with the officials. They all stare intently at us; they hate it if you stare back, but you can’t stare at them all at once. No wonder westerners here get so stressed at times. It’s like constantly being under a microscope, or being a particularly exotic exhibit in a zoo.
And, of course, we can’t get tickets at the bus station (Mayo La, again) We must go to this place, says the bloke in charge, and he very helpfully writes down the address in Chinese characters. So off we trail, half on a mission, and half beguiled by the sheer energy of this city. It’s sunny and the air is fresh and clean, and the streets are filled with people. There are hardly any cars, of course. A laughing man with a bowl of food in one hand, and a pair of chopsticks in the other inveigles us into a restaurant. The food is excellent, even if there are 15 people outside all watching us stuff our faces.
We spend the afternoon wandering about looking at all the shops, they’re just shacks really, by Western standards, all in winding little streets, like a film set, but they sell such amazing stuff. There’s one very mysterious one with jars of powder and open boxes of, well, wings and claws and dried up things. I swear there’s a dead eagle hanging from the ceiling. Back to the hotel. At dinner time we are given Chinese food, and its ok but the men nearby are having western food – hamburgers and chips, fruit salad and ice cream, and potato salad. We try desperately to attract the waitress’s attention, and eventually she stops by.
‘Can we have western food, too?’
‘No, mayo, You order in advance.’ She has a hard face and is wearing Chinese jeans.
Can we have coffee?’
‘You have to order in advance.’
We grab another waitress.
‘Can we order a western dinner for tomorrow?’
She gets the manager. Oh what a lovely man. Kind faced, good American English, very accommodating. ‘You want Western dinner?’ he asks.
‘Yes,’ says Cheryl.
‘And can we have coffee now?’ asks Elspeth.
‘He beams at us. ‘Sure you can have coffee.’ The hard-faced waitress, hovering nearby, gives us a particularly filthy look.
Then it’s upstairs to the bar, and Alison puts her Bob Dylan and Bob Marley tapes on. One Chinese guy has never heard of either. He stands very close to the tape-player, entranced. He insists on playing Dylan through, twice, and tapes it.
Back upstairs Elspeth goes to bed, but Cheryl and I stay up and drink gin with Helen from New York, who can’t sleep. The chat soon evolves into an argument about politics, which goes something like this – the essential difference between Russia and China is that the former works through paranoia, establishing buffer satellite states to guard against any possible threat of invasion, whereas the Chinese are a supremely self-confident race – who once ruled the known world (as far as it was known to them) and who don’t fear any other state. Helen says, and Cheryl agrees, that the only other country that is similar to China in background is Italy, because both, historically, not only conquered countries but gave them cultures that have lasted for centuries. Russia merely subdues, it doesn’t add anything. What about the British Empire, I say. No, that doesn’t apply, they argue. Its time span is too short and again, it didn’t make the people it conquered, British. It just exploited them and remained staunchly isolationist. I’m not entirely sure they’re right. But I’m too tired to bring up the subject of Tibet. That’s been conquered, and I don’t think the Tibetans feel Chinese. Maybe they will, one day. We all trail off into sleep.
Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China
Wake up this morning to fertile land. High mountains and mist and a river, and terraced fields. We go through many tunnels cut through mountains. It must be bitterly cold outside. There is a huge ice floe in the river, snow on the mountains and I’ve seen two frozen waterfalls. Still, it’s not brown. It’s like the Scottish highlands. The scenery gets even better as we go on. Those paintings of mountain peaks that you seen hanging on the walls of Chinese restaurants in Britain don’t look so far-fetched now.
The food situation is pretty bad. We have some packet noodles, but it’s not enough and the food in the restaurant car is disgusting. Flimsy polystyrene boxes of cold rice and I suppose something that looks like chopped up salami, but isn’t. And when we finish, the guards just open the train window and chuck the lot on to the tracks. Box after box flying into the perfect scenery.
I’d love an orange. Don’t know why that popped into my head. But now it has, I can’t get rid of the idea.
The children in the carriage are lovely. One toddler, with eyes like sloes, who looks more Indian than Chinese, keeps getting dumped on Cheryl’s bunk. Another child is sleeping above me and squeals with delight when I waggle my fingers. Then she grabs my hands, just like a kitten. But she’s strong – she almost pulls me up off my bunk.
As the night draws on we are visited by four men who want to practise their English. They are all in the blue Mao suits nearly everyone wears here, if you’re not a member of the People’s Liberation Army, and they are holding their caps in their hands.
Actually only one of them understands English, and then only if I write it down and let him have a good think about it. He reads it out loud; he’s very proud of his reading skills. He and Elspeth read a page from his Teach Yourself English book (A Day At the Seaside) – he very correct, and Elspeth in broad Scouse, while Cheryl and I stuff hankies in our mouths to try to keep a straight face. That’s a point. We’ve run out of bog paper and the girls are threatening to use my diary, but we compromise by using the souvenir envelopes of Shanghai that we pinched from the hotel in Xian.
Anyway, back to Mr Earnest – he’s determined to improve his English so he does his best, while the others sit and listen and nod and chat about us in Chinese. I write on his paper, ‘What do you do?’
His lips move slowly, wordlessly over the sentence. Then he has a huddled conference with his mates. Back comes the answer, ‘I study economics.’
‘What did you do before that?’ I write.
He mutters to himself. ‘I was cadre.’
So I decide to plunge in. Cheryl and Elspeth, as politics graduates, could tell me the answer to this in a second, and I know myself that it means a communist party worker, but I’m determined to get it from the horse’s mouth.
‘What is a cadre?’ I write. ‘I’ve never met one before.’
Much astonishment from the men.
‘We don’t have them in England.’
Now it’s his turn to ask a question.
‘Do you have peasants in England?’
Of course, to them, it’s a perfectly normal question; under the Chinese system you have people who work the land and people who work in towns. Having spent all my life in a country where communists are thought of as either rather silly and slightly dangerous, or plainly eccentric, I’m just getting used to the fact that I’m now in a country where people talk about Marx and Mao in the same way westerners talk about Winston Churchill or JFK. It can be very surprising at times.
Back to the question of what a cadre does, though. I’m beginning to get writer’s cramp. No answer. The men talk among themselves and we wonder if this is a rebuff, Chinese style.
‘Why don’t you answer my question?’ I scribble.
Then after another party conference, comes the answer. ‘A cadre looks after the people.’
‘What people in particular, how many and in what way?’ comes my spiffy rejoinder. This is a facer for them. ‘In particular’ and ‘in what way’ seem to give them the most trouble. Back to the conference.
Then, ‘A cadre is a very important person. He responsible for many people. Sometimes hundreds.’
‘How many people were you responsible for?’
He looks round at his mates. ‘Three.’
Everyone laughs, including him.
‘What, these three?’ I ask. ‘Are you all cadres, and you take it in turn?’
His second in command seems to understand this and all the others have a good laugh. But he’s not very happy about this loss of dignity, and when Cheryl teases him, saying, ‘Are you in charge tomorrow?’ he answers gravely, ‘Tomorrow I study economics.’
Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China
Back on that bloody bus. We sit at the front this time. The desert looks just the same, like an asphalt car park for some megastore, without the megastore. The slag heaps look just the same, too.
Get on the train to Lanzhou. Can’t get hard sleepers, so we sit up all night. The carriage is packed and everyone thinks we are great curiosities. When we get a pack of cards out, everybody perks up. There’s even somebody in the luggage rack watching us. They’re such great gamblers, the Chinese; I think they are expecting us to play poker or something. Don’t know what they make of Find the Lady. They look very confused, anyway.
Still on the train. Feeling extremely jaded. Two men in very smart blue uniforms get on and sit next to us. They say they’re judges, but they look very young; about 30. One speaks English, so we get the standard grilling. Where do you come from? Where are you going? Are you married? I almost fall off my seat when he asks if Margaret Thatcher is a madam.
He means, of course, is she married, and can’t understand why I am laughing so much. The thought of explaining it is fairly mind-boggling, so I don’t try.
He gets quite paternal; insists on escorting us to the dining car, tries to get us beer (but even he gets mayo la) and tells us we must have a good dinner when we get to Lanzhou.
The Chinese are wonderful with children. There are several four and five-year-olds in the carriage, all running up and down and being petted and spoiled by everyone they go up to. They are all beautiful; great dark eyes in solemn faces, wrapped up in so many layers that their arms stick out from their sides and they walk with a rolling gait, like old sea dogs. One claims the hearts of a group of soldiers, who sit her on their knees in turn while they play cards.
Another walks up to one of the judges and is made a great fuss of. Our judge, in between polishing up his English, is having a conversation with a four-year-old sitting on the seat behind and who keeps popping up to have a good look at what is going on. It’s sometimes difficult to tell which children belong to which adults. The toddlers are so confident of affection from anyone, and the adults don’t let them down.
We cross the Yellow River. It’s raining. I never thought I’d be so glad to see rain. We arrive at Lanzhou, it’s taken 24 hours to get here. The length of the train trips in this country really makes you appreciate how vast this place is.
The judge insists we write him a message in his Chinese/English dictionary – much in use over the past few hours – and he writes one in the back of Cheryl’s paperback.
To my three English friends, wishing them much happiness. I hope you come to China again, from your friend Pei Ping.
He gets off the train with us to make sure we find the right exit. I promise to send him a postcard from London. He’s going to send me a picture of his wife and daughter.
Get on the train for Cheng Du. We ask for hard sleepers and wait an hour, but we get them.
Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China
Check into Dunhuang’s hotel which, unlike the hostel, does have running water. And it is hot. Showers all round! The shower is galvanized steel, like an upended spout on a watering can, and the cubicle is bare concrete. But at the risk of repeating myself, there is water and it is hot. How marvellous it is to turn a tap on and see water coming out.
At lunchtime they put 21 plates of mysterious stuff on the table and although we do our best, it is beyond us. When we finish, bloated, it looks like we haven’t eaten anything.
Share a minibus with three Japanese people to the Mogao caves. It’s the same driver as yesterday with the big shades. The caves contain countless shrines to Buddha, carved into a sandstone cliff between the 5th and 14th centuries when Dunhuang was a big stop on the Silk Road.
When we get to the caves we buy tickets – you can’t go anywhere, or do anything, in China without buying a ticket. But when we drive from the gatehouse to the entrance, the gates are padlocked. A man standing there says, ‘The caves are closed until May.’
One of the Japanese guys, a poetry professor, and his wife, wade into battle. ‘But the hotel sent us here! We’ve bought tickets! What do you mean, closed? Two of our friends came this morning.’
‘Impossible,’ replies the gatekeeper, and then adds, really rashly for a Chinese person, ‘The man with the keys was here, but he has gone home.’
‘He is ill.’
The bus driver, polishing his beloved minibus, comes up to join us. ‘How do you know he was ill?’
‘He told me.’
A crowd of Chinese people, also waiting by the gates, decide this is their cue. They too advance on the gatekeeper, much to his alarm.
‘Yes. How do you know he was ill?’ they ask. ‘Did he look ill? We’ve bought tickets too, you know.’
Eventually the gatekeeper, deciding that he is heavily outnumbered, comes up with a handy solution. ‘I’ll go and get him,’ he says, and scuttles off.
The key-keeper, when he arrives about half an hour later, really doesn’t look the picture of health, and Cheryl, Elspeth and I all feel a bit guilty. The Japanese have no such qualms. Off they stride, through the now open gates, with us behind and the Chinese bringing up the rear.
The caves are well worth the argy bargy. From the outside they look like run-down slum flats, because the sandstone has been shored up with concrete beams and pebble dashed to stop it crumbling. It was done during the Cultural Revolution so, in the circumstances, they were lucky to have got off so lightly.
It’s dark inside, with fitful light provided by dim electric bulbs strung haphazardly here and there. But the poetry professor has a torch like a collapsed sun, and we have little wavering torches that we poke bravely in some of the darker corners. The gate-keeper comes along with us, giving us random facts that Cheryl and Elspeth translate.
Some of the caves have faded and crumbled, but others are spectacular. In one, the walls are covered with 1,000 images of Buddha, done in repeat patterns of red, blue, green and ochre. The ceilings are painted with flowers and not a square inch is left bare. There are huge statues of Buddha, surrounded by disciples, some with the most evil looking expressions on their faces.
Three statues in particular stand out. In one cave you enter, you are at eye-level with the lap of Buddha; going further in you stare up at the rest of him, 13 metres high. After stumbling around the echoing stairways and passageways, being spooked occasionally by the distorted, echoing voices of our fellow explorers, we come upon a larger and even more impressive Buddha. As we pool the light of our torches, we realise that we are on a balcony staring straight into his eyes, and then we look down on the rest of his 26m high bulk.
In another cave, a gigantic dead Buddha lies surrounded by murals of people all over the world in anguish at his passing.
In every cave there is a statue of Buddha. Mostly his expressions are serene, sometimes bland, and once, his eyes glittered with malice in the light of our torches.
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.
‘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.
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.
Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China
But the bus does eventually come, a little wreck of a thing, rattling along with shrunken green curtains fluttering at the windows, like a hippy home at Glastonbury.
And when we get off in Liu Yuan we find that we are in the 1880s, in a mining town somewhere in the Arizona desert. Only it’s cold. We get off at the top of the main street and gaze appalled at what we have come to. There is nothing to recommend it. It makes pit villages in South Yorkshire look like Las Vegas. It is surrounded by slag heaps; the main drag looks as if Sergio Leone has just built it, and then gone away because it was too depressing. You can’t even say it’s a one-horse town. There is no horse. The heavy coal cart coming towards us is being pulled by a man.
Some of the buildings have false fronts, and the few people in the street stop what they are doing to stare at us as we walk past. It is the creepiest place. Honest to god, I expect one of them to rush away screaming, ‘The Clantons are coming, Mr Earp!’
And there is somebody shouting. We look at each other and then turn, slowly. But it is only the bus driver; turns out he is offering to take us to the hotel. We get back on. I feel very relieved and a bit silly.
The hotel looks like a prison for young offenders. And my impression is fully justified by the fact they want to charge us double the normal rate. Cheryl argues. Elspeth argues. I stand about with my hands in my pockets. Eventually the staff back down. Six people, three teenage girls, the woman behind the desk in reception, someone I mentally class as Uriah Heep, and the bus driver, all escort us to our rooms. The beds look high and soft. Uriah, who has done nothing but stand about, rubbing his hands, refuses to leave until we pay him. What for, none of us has any idea.
Then we discovered the bathroom is locked. ‘Oh God,’ says Cheryl. ‘Not more arguing.’
Back come the girls, with a great rattling of keys. They try a few, and then one announces, very matter of factly, ‘There is no water.’
‘No water,’ she patiently repeats. ‘Spring festival.’
And then they leave.
The latrines, truly loathsome, are located out the back, round the corner and then 100 yards away over tricky terrain. We decide to drink as little as possible.
Go to the dining room to eat. Everybody comes to watch us. They give us bowls of rice with fried eggs dusted in sugar. Absolutely delicious.
London is lovely in autumn. There are just too many people in summer and the pavements are sweaty and the Tube is suffocating, but when the leaves start to fall there’s a kind of quietness, even in the busy parts. And standing at the crossing outside Euston there was a clean laundry smell from the people around me, and I was feeling pretty content, and then I saw the No 10 sailing past, while I was stuck in the middle of the road with the pedestrian lights on red.
Plus ca bloody change, as they say in Walthamstow.
And then the lights changed, and the bus pulled in at the stop up the road, and I ran for it, and some doddery old couple were holding it up wanting to know if it went to Kamchatka or wherever and I made it. And I went upstairs and somebody smoked and I fell into a dream, aahhhh….no, that was John Lennon. And nobody is allowed to smoke upstairs now on a bus. So I just stared out of the window and we turned into Gower Street and there was a girl sitting on a trunk in the middle of the pavement, and an old guy with a big box, walking along as though it weighed nothing, and a young lad, obviously his son, carrying the same kind of box, and hurrying along trying to keep up, and I realised that it’s that time of year, when university is starting again, and then out of the other window I saw a blue plaque saying that this was the place where anaesthetic was used for the very first time. And I realised I was short on ideas for a blog post, so I got my phone out, and started clicking away like a demented tourist.
This is Gower Street. Fascinating, huh?
It’s part of Bloomsbury and, in the past, famous for its intellectuals. Its full of university buildings, and the British Museum is really close. But if you’re going to Kensington, like me, you stay on the bus and at the top, you hang a right past the amazing umbrella shop, which I couldn’t take a picture of, on account of somebody’s head being in the way, and you’re on New Oxford Street, coming up to the junction with the Tottenham Court Road, and the whole place is being torn down and rebuilt and it’s a mess. Makes you think what it might have looked like in the Blitz. But without the bodies.
And then you’re on Oxford Street, and there’s not much to say about it, really. If you manage to look down Argyll Street (unlike me, because the bus was too fast) where the tube station is, you’ll see Liberty’s, which used to be an utterly brilliant department store, where ladies up from the counties came for lunch and to wander about the wondrous fabric department. The carpet section was fantastic. A man there once showed me hand-made rugs from Afghanistan decorated with Kalashnikovs all round the border. Now it’s all been updated, (although the actual building is still worth a look); the carpets are in a cupboard somewhere, the cafe’s gone downhill, and there’s only three things for sale at a million pounds each.
Still, there’s Selfridges right at the bottom. The guy who founded it, Harry Gordon Selfridge, lavished the fortune he made from it on showgirls and ended up destitute but, hey, at least he had a good time, and the shop is thriving.
At the bottom of Oxford Street you turn left on to Park Lane, with its swanky hotels on the left, and Hyde Park on the right. After a while you go past the Hilton, which doesn’t look too swanky at all. And is chiefly memorable to me, for the time a mate of mine went out to report on some twit who had attempted to parachute from one of the balconies and landed rather messily. She found one of his hands on the pavement.
Then you turn right round the bottom end of the park, with the back garden of Buckingham Palace on your left, and get ready to turn on to Knightsbridge.
You go past Knightsbridge barracks on the right, but I didn’t bother taking a picture because it’s just a brick wall really. This is where the guards keep their horses; they exercise them in park early every morning. Years ago, I used to go riding in the park, and I’ll never forget one winter morning a whole troop of soldiers just riding out of the mist by the Serpentine. Spooky.
Nearly there. Glance down to your left as we go past the Brompton Road and you’ll get a glimpse of Harrods, the building with the domed roof, which I like mostly because of its Egyptian themed escalator. Really, it’s like being in the pyramids. Only you can get tea and buns afterwards. And their Food Hall is sublime. But go there only in February, when the tourists are hibernating and Christmas is a dirty word.
After that, you go past Princes Gate, below, where 25 people were taken hostage at the Iranian Embassy (that’s No 16) in 1980. When the attackers killed a man and threw his body out of the embassy the SAS were sent in and they rescued all but one of the remaining hostages, and killed five of the six terrorists. The sixth spent 27 years in jail. The embassy itself was a wreck for years, and didn’t reopen until 1993.
Then it’s the Albert Hall, which the bus just jerked past, so not one of my best.
Anyway, here’s a picture of a green hut in front of Kensington Gardens. You see these huts all over London, and they always look as if they’re trying to pretend they’re not there. They are there. They are private cafes for London’s cab drivers. I’ve often thought Dr Who ought to have one of those instead of a police telephone box. People who try knocking on the doors to ask for a cup of tea, spare change or a lift to Kings Cross, are never seen again.
On to Kensington High Street, and out at the station, which is one of the prettiest stations in London. Piccadilly is the most elegant (it has art deco lamps) but the entrance to Ken High Street is full of light and smells of flowers.
And er, that’s it. Eat your heart out, Henri Cartier Bresson.