Get up in the dark for the taxi to the railway station. I’m off to Kunming this morning to meet up with Cheryl and Elspeth. Of course, with China being so big, the trip will take a day or so, but I don’t care. I have a soft sleeper, and it is supposed to be one of the most beautiful railway journeys in the world, hundreds of miles south through the rich tea-growing province of Yunnan.
The taxi is one of those lumbering Morris Oxford jobs. While we are waiting to draw out into the traffic from the hotel, some guy is riding towards us on his bike, but he seems to have fallen asleep; he is nodding over the handlebars, even though his feet are still pedalling. And then he jerks awake, sees us and, trying furiously to brake, falls off. The taxi driver just keeps going and leaves the bloke in the dust.
I get to the station and, because I’ve got a soft-sleeper, the guard leads me to a special spot behind the barrier to wait for the train. It’s not a ‘special’ special spot. It’s just like I’ve been parked. I’m waiting with two spectacular Germans. They’re big, shaggy wild rovers. They have big felt hats, woolly pullies, and packs with all sorts of stuff hanging off; cups and tents and a full canteen of sterling silver cutlery complete with grapefruit knives and a 25-year money-back guarantee. Ok, so I made the last part up. The Chinese are astounded by these men. They are hanging over the barriers gawping; one girl just stares, open-mouthed with her head on one side.
‘Don’t you feel sometimes as if you are in a zoo?’ I ask the men.
‘No,’ says one of the guys. ‘In Germany too, we get stared at.’
The train arrives and I find my compartment. The soft sleeper looks a bit tacky – horrible net curtains, dirty tablecloth, sticky carpet. Still, there’s a plant in a nice pot on the table and the other three occupants are nice too; a soldier, an agricultural professor who keeps dashing out to look at the scenery and a man who works in a chemical plant. There’s also his wife, who sleeps next door, but who spends most of the day in with us. She can’t speak English but she does speak Universal Mother Language and we understand each other perfectly. She’s a little dumpy, cheerful woman and she never stops talking. The soldier lies in one of the top bunks and puts his hat over his face, while she just goes on and on.
‘Look at her,’ she says, pointing at me. ‘All she does is eat chocolate and oranges and drink coffee. It can’t do her any good at all.’ Her husband looks at me, and we both smile. Then she feels the cloth of my ski trousers. ‘Thin, so thin. How does she keep warm? Eh?’ I offer her my jacket and she puts it on. ‘Thin, far too thin. Nice feel, though.’ She gestures at her big blue padded coat, the sort that all the Chinese, and Cheryl and Elspeth wear. ‘That’s what you need to keep the cold out.’ She makes me feel it. ‘Good thick stuff. Warm, hmmm?’
After we eat in the restaurant car, it’s more of the same. ‘Look at her. She uses her chopsticks as though she has one hand tied behind her back. Two hands, dear, like this. Look, look. Like this.’ And, ‘How old are you dear?’ (She does this by by placing her hand parallel to the floor and counting) ‘Don’t you miss your mummy and daddy?’
In the evening another agricultural professor, who can speak English, arrives. He has spent a couple of months in Germany, in Wastephalia as he terms it, and has already met the two German backpackers. The woman leaves for a bit and when I ask the professor to translate exactly what she has been saying, all the other men start laughing. The soldier in the top bunk lifts his hat off his face. ‘Mama, baba,’ he groans theatrically, and everybody laughs again.
The professor is a lovely man. He’s very earnest and, boy, does he love his subject. He tells me that China has almost doubled its agricultural production levels since the revolution and that they are doing the best to reclaim the desert for grazing.
We stand in the corridor and lean against the window while he talks about tea production, and grass growing and behind him the countryside unrolls like a silk painting. Terraced hills in green and yellow, wide rivers, and rice paddies with water buffaloes and people in coolie hats. It is story-book beautiful. (Unfortunately, none of my pictures come out, possibly on account of the camera being dropped down the toilet, so I have posted a picture of a random shack. Hope nobody minds.)
Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China and Tibet
Back in Cheng Du. I loved Tibet, but it feels so good to be back. Like I’m home or something. In fact, I feel so good that it doesn’t bother me that I have to get a bus to the Jin Jiang hotel, and that I haven’t the faintest idea which bus is the right one. I just climb on the bus that I think is right and all the passengers nod madly when I rather tentatively say, ‘Jin Jiang?’.
It’s funny. In Tibet, the Chinese were easy to dislike; most of the ones I met were arrogant and aggravating. Here, they couldn’t be nicer. All of them are obviously having a conversation about me, and whereas before it would have made me feel so self conscious, now, I don’t care. I do wonder, in passing, what I’m going to do if I’ve got on the wrong bus. But what’s the worst that can happen? Anyway it is the right one. The bus screeches to a halt, right outside the hotel and all the passengers shout, ‘Jin Jiang!’ and about 60 pairs of hands pat me on the shoulder as I make my way out.
The doorman carries my bag to reception. That’s not something I expected to happen either. Must be just a day for general friendliness. Check in and run up the six flights of stairs to my dormitory room. At the top I stop and realise what I’ve just done. I ran up six flights of stairs with my pack, which weighs about 50lbs. And I’m not out of breath. I can’t believe it. But then that’s what being at high altitude does for you. I understand now why all those athletes train in Mexico, or wherever. It’s an amazing feeling. And the air is so good to breathe. Dump my pack on my bed pull out my towel and go for a shower. Honest to God, the dirt that comes off me. My hair is caked in dust. The water going down the plughole is brown. But it is hot water and a proper powerful blast of it too. Lovely, lovely, lovely hot water and soap.
And then, food in the hotel dining hall. Meet Margaret from Leeds. She’s spent the last one and a half years teaching English to giggling Japanese women in Tokyo. It’s apparently feminine to giggle before you’re married in Japan, and then become terribly serene after. Reception has assured Margaret that she’s in a room with two Hong Kong women, but there are three packs in her room, all with men’s underwear peeping out of it. When she asks to be moved they put her in a room with a Japanese professor. I make some fatuous joke about him probably being a martial arts expert. And Margaret, small and demure replies, ‘Oh, that doesn’t matter. So am I.’
Apparently she’s the only Western woman ever to have studied this particular branch of Ju Jitsu, and certainly the only woman black belt in it. It teaches strength through weakness; the less strength you use to overcome your opponent, the better you are. She would have got into her second dan by now, except that her teacher feels she is not quite ready – she can’t completely control her emotions. This is quite important as it’s a lethal sport – there are no competitions because of the danger of killing your opponent.
It turns out that I am the one sharing with the two women from Hong Kong. Very pleasant. Bed is wonderful; soft, big clean – and safe.
Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China and Tibet
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
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.