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Sound bite

So, at the carboot this morning there was an Irishman talking to a Polish guy:

Irishman: I was in Dublin. In Dublin.

Polishman: Yes?

Irishman: Yes. In Dublin. Dublin. At No 1 O’Connell Street.

Polishman: Yes?

Irishman: And there was an alligator in the bank.

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China 41: Walking the gangplank

Copyright Elaine Canham 2015

Copyright Elaine Canham 2015

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.

March 18

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.

March 20

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.

China 40: Voices in the night

Copyright Elaine Canham 2015

Copyright Elaine Canham 2015

Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China

Woken up by the telephone.

‘Wei!’ yells Cheryl.

‘Wei’ shouts a voice on the other end.

Elspeth and I look blearily at each other. Is this their teacher ringing? Is she going to give the girls permission to go to Hong Kong?

Cheryl is desperately trying to keep up with the flood of Chinese coming out of the telephone. It’s not the teacher.

‘Sorry,’ she says at last. ‘I don’t understand.’

Silence. Then another voice comes on the phone. ‘Hello,’ it says. ‘Can I help you?’

‘Yes,’ says Cheryl. ‘What did the other man want?’

‘No,’ says the voice. ‘What do you want?’

‘I don’t want anything,’ says Cheryl.

‘I don’t think I can help you then,’ says the voice. And rings off.

Kunming is supposed to be the city of eternal spring and this is the first time it has shown any signs of it. The city was really cold when I arrived, although there were lots of flowers (poppies and hollyhocks), but today it’s warm and we go in search of Mr Tong the elusive restaurant owner.

He’s in a completely different part of town to the one we were wandering about in last night. We have to take a couple of buses and walk through some charming streets that look as if they are straight out of Hollywood;  very old fashioned houses with curved roofs, lots of plants, little lanes, washing hanging out, and everything looking clean and bright.

One house is actually a hairdressers. It looks like it is someone’s front room, with three women, their hair in curlers sitting on a sofa, reading magazines and waiting their turn.

We walk through Green Lake Park, so called because the scum on the lake is a bright, bright green. There’s lots of building going on. The scaffolding is a crazy network of bamboo, and the bricks look like they’ve been thrown together, but I suppose the builders will cover it all in plaster, and it’ll look really solid.

And we find Mr Tong! He is everything Hannah said he would be, and more. He talks brilliant American. ‘Hey, you guys! How you doing?’ And he keeps patting us fondly on the back. The food is excellent and we get coffee and toffees and memorial chopsticks, just like Hannah’s. Hefty bill though – 17 kwai.

Slow contented walk back to the hotel in the sunshine. We wander through a tourist shop – beautiful china, but very pricey. Elspeth asks the cost of what she thinks is an antique bowl. The shop owner smiles at her. ‘500 kwai, and it’s brand new,’ he says proudly.

China 39: Escape plans

china39pic Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China We could go to Hong Kong with my credit card! What a lovely idea, all that cheese and hamburgers and cocktails. I think all of us have had enough of being in this country now. I can’t describe what it’s like being here. Like white noise, I suppose. You don’t notice the stress at first. But all the tiny little irritations just pile up and up, until you think your head is going to fall off. We’re all bizarrely unreasonable about ridiculous things, and Cheryl and Elspeth have been here way, way longer than me. I don’t know how they’ve managed it this far without going completely bonkers, like that American girl who smashed plates in Cheng Du. By not thinking too much, probably. Anyway we lie in our beds and discuss how bloody marvellous it would be just to go to Hong Kong, and then we go to the Public Security office, for the girls to get passes, which as students, they need before they can leave the country. And, of course, the office won’t hand over any passes without permission from their teacher in Beijing. Cheryl and Elspeth put through a person to person call in Beijing to try to get their teacher, but without much hope. Its 3.30 and she’s probably already gone home. The rest of the afternoon is spent waiting for the phone to ring, which it does frequently, but it’s only the operator saying, ‘No luck.’ Chinese telephone etiquette is quite startling. When you pick up the phone you yell, ‘Wei!’ and then the person at the other end yells, ‘Wei!’ and then you both pause while you wonder if the other person is still there. Hannah comes around and we go in search of Mr Tong, a ‘lovely little Burmese man’ who, according to her, runs a fantastic restaurant with really good coffee, but he wants to go back to Burma and the Chinese won’t let him. We follow her guide book’s instructions and get totally lost. We stand in the middle of the street and call, ‘Mr Tong!’ plaintively, like lost storks, but no joy, and no smiling Burmese gent, either. A bloke in a Vietnamese coffee bar offers to help, this though he admits he doesn’t like foreigners much, especially Americans, but even after he asks around for us, no one has heard of Mr Tong. In the end we eat at another restaurant where we get excellent food. Hannah rather sadly gets out her memorial chopsticks, given to her by Mr T and then realises he also gave her his card. Duh! We’ll go there tomorrow. Come back via a three storey department store. The counters are exactly as I remember them in Cairds, in Perth when I was about six. Like glass-topped desks. And the goods for sale are all in small enamel pie dishes. None of us can work out what the goods are though. They’re just metal things. But they have some lovely postcards, of beautiful water colour paintings by Pan Tian Shou. I take a packet to the till, and some bloke looks at me in disgust and says, ‘Why are you buying those? What do you know about Pan Tian Shou? You’re just a westerner. You cannot appreciate him.’ But I do. Picture courtesy of Creative Commons via http://arts.cultural-china.com/en/77Arts4565.html

The snow leopard and the journalist

snow-leopard2

Now listen. Once upon a time there was a snow leopard and he lived far away in the majestic beauty of the Himalayas with all their snowy peaks and rushing waters. He was a solitary soul. He ate by himself, slept by himself and walked by himself. He wasn’t what you’d call a party animal.

But, oh was he beautiful and mysterious. His coat was as thick as a shag pile rug and as soft as a cardigan. And his tail was like a plumy rope. And he padded through the secret places of his kingdom without a care.

Everybody wanted to know him. ‘What does he do?’ They asked. ‘We want to know all about him.’ Photographers camped in leaky hide-outs for months to get a single, clear shot, and TV documentary makers roamed the snowy peaks and whispered in awe about his beauty and strength. But they only caught useless glimpses of him, and they never saw him do anything.

And all the expensive executives in all the newspapers and TV channels wailed and rended their Vivienne Westwood tweed suits in despair. Because, after all, prime time footage of a snow leopard doing something would boost the ratings, like, well, significantly.

And there was at this time, a desperate struggling journalist, who thought to himself, ‘How hard can it be to get an interview with a snow leopard? Does he have a publicist? Or an agent? Or a security code on his front door? No. He does not even have a front door. I’ll show those documentary makers.’

And so the cunning man dressed up in a snow leopard suit and set off with his notebook and his pen and a teeny tiny tape recorder. And he travelled many, many miles and at last came to a still pool in the foothills of the Himalayas where the snow leopard was looking at his reflection, and twitching his plumy tail.

And the journalist sat down beside him and asked the snow leopard all sorts of questions about his favourite music and what he liked to eat for breakfast, and other such questions that showbiz reporters use to mock the majesty of kings.

And the snow leopard, who was a polite animal, answered them. And then he laid a weighty silken paw on the journalist’s back. ‘You have the loveliest fur,’ said the snow leopard.

‘Thanks,’ squeaked the journalist. Because, really, that paw was heavy.

‘And the plumiest tail. Plumier, even, than mine.’

‘Nice of you to say so.’

‘I’ve been a bit lonely, lately,’ said the snow leopard. ‘Marry me, and let us shimmer through the undergrowth together. I will show you how to tease a TV crew, and demoralise a documentary maker. And we will have such fun.’

‘Um,’ said the journalist. And he took off his fake, snow leopard head. ‘I have something to tell you.’

And the snow leopard looked at the journalist’s sweaty face (it had been very hot in the suit) and at his notebook and his biro and his teeny tiny tape recorder, and then he ate him.

Because that’s what snow leopards do.

 

Picture courtesy of http://pixabay.com/static/uploads/photo/2015/02/02/05/31/snow-leopard-620518_640.jpg via Creative Commons

Job interview? Just sing it and wing it

A bloke in charge of advertising

A bloke in charge of advertising

I have just been to the best job interview ever. Which is good, because I have had some real stinkers.

A job interview is not the kind of thing that makes you want to leap out of bed in the morning. It’s not like you’re going to be having lunch with George Clooney at the Savoy and, if you hit if off over the Poire Belle Helene, he’ll be asking you to write his next movie.

No. Job interviews, generally speaking, are a weekend spent with dentist in-laws, being examined on philosophy and arse-licking, condensed into an hour.

The weirdest job interview I’ve ever had? That would be the one in the advertising department of a local radio station. It didn’t go too badly. At first. I impressed the head of advertising with my choice of music for some processed cheese (Air on a Cheese String), but then he asked me, quite seriously, what famous actor I would choose to play him in a film. And what film it would be. What kind of question is that??? My mind, poor at the best of times in these situations, went completely blank. I stared at the guy, who was small, pinkly balding and perspiring freely,  and then, in a splurge of sycophancy, I mumbled, ‘Oh, that would have to be Samuel L Jackson, of course, because he’s the coolest man on the planet.’

A cool dude

A cool dude

‘And the film? he pressed, smirking slightly.

‘Er, oh…’ and then I blurted, ‘Babe the sheep pig, because he looks like you.’

Most crushing job interview? That would be one I had in the seventies, when no one had really yet got to grips with equality. It was for the job of junior reporter on a weekly paper, and it all went swimmingly until, at the end, the editor said, ‘Well, it’s a choice between you and a young man.  So, of course, I’m going to give him the job.’ Yes, he really said that. Mind you, he also said he’d call me back in six months, and he did. So, fair play. (ish)

Most time-consuming and ridiculous interview? That would be for a multi national bank. Not in the money department, you understand, but as editor of a staff newspaper. When I got notification of the interview, a friend said to me, ‘They’ll ask you what you like doing in your spare time.’

‘Oh, that’s easy,’ I replied. ‘Lying in bed and eating chocolates.’

‘Nooo!’ said friend. ‘You can’t say that.’

‘Why not? They’ll think I’m being friendly and humorous.’

‘Banks don’t have a sense of humour,’ counselled the friend. ‘Say, that whatever time you get home, you like to go out for a run. Otherwise they’ll think you’re sluggish and hopeless.’

‘Eh?’

And it came to pass that, during the interview, I was given several bizarre tests cunningly designed to reveal the inner me (including building the Forth Road Bridge out of plastic straws). Efficient people with clipboards watched my every move, and would ask at intervals, ‘How do you like to unwind after a day at work?’ (Oh, I have to go for a run. It’s absolutely my favourite thing). Or, ‘What’s your favourite pastime?’ (Running, of course, or possibly going to the gym. You can’t beat an hour or two on the treadmill – I mean, it did wonders for Oscar Wilde); or rank, in order of preference, your ideal method of relaxation: a, watching TV; b, lying in bed; c, eating chocolates; d, going for a five-mile run over muddy terrain in the dark (Yes, you guessed it.)

And, get this: I got offered the job. I didn’t take it though. It was too much like hard work.

Which brings me to my latest interview. This was for a job as an adult education tutor for my local county council. Zero hours contract, mind, and no cast iron guarantee of any work, but it was worth a go. So I jumped through most of the hoops online, and was called to interview last Tuesday at a former stately home in the depths of the lush spring countryside. They (whoever they were) started building the house about 900 years ago out of the glowing local stone, and the Victorians put an end to it with fancy bits of brick. It had gothic doorways, and crumbling turrets and lush untidy lawns with a stand of beehives at a safe distance. It was the kind of place that made you want to take a cup of tea out onto the terrace and conjure up a best selling romance, while the cook and butler got busy with the bacon and eggs. (Enough pointless description, ed).

Anyway, there I was with three other hopefuls, who teach music, drama and relaxation therapy. We all had to give a 15-minute lesson. The music teacher was first. She had all of us, including the county council types, up on our feet singing What shall we do with the drunken sailor and Oh, sinner man. She gave us tambourines and scrapy sticks and divided us up to so we could do part-singing. And it was truly joyful. (And mostly in tune.) Then it was the drama teacher, who emptied a bag full of masks on the table (I got the one labelled ‘confused’) and showed us how to mime. (Move over, Rowan Atkinson). My 15 minutes on how to write natural-sounding dialogue was a bit quiet after all that but, because I’d also had instruction on how to meditate from the other teacher, my nerves had flown away. I was having A Good Time. And guess what? I got the job! (And I’m hoping that the other three were taken on too, because they were really good.)

My classes are being time-tabled, and the leaflets are blowing out over the land. All I have to do now, is get some students. Music and mime, anybody?

Picture of Samuel L Jackson: commons.wikimedia.org

Picture of Babe the Sheep pig: simple.wikipedia.org

China 38: Money lenders and My Fair Lady

Copyright Elaine Canham, 2015

Copyright Elaine Canham, 2015

(continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China and Tibet)

The train pulls in to Kunming just after 7.30 am. Cheryl’s waiting for me at the barrier, and it is so good to see her. We get a bus to the hotel; the old rugger scrum again, but when we get bashed in the mad scramble to get on, I find I can bash back twice as hard with my pack.

She and Elspeth have pushed the boat out and got a three-bed room with a bath (12 kwai each). Breakfast is fried eggs, toast and coffee and I think I’ve died and gone to heaven. Hannah from New York, who I was with in Tibet, is here. She wants to go to Shanghai, but all the planes are booked for a week and she doesn’t want to spend three days on a train. Cheryl goes with her to the CAAC office to see if this is true or if they just can’t be bothered to take her, but they are adamant. No seats.

They are equally tough in my case. We’re flying to Nanning on the way to Hainan Dao (it means literally, South Sea Island) and Cheryl and Elspeth can pay in Renminbi with their student cards, but the office won’t accept my card. The woman behind the counter will not believe I’m a student – no matter how often I tell her my name is Chrysanthemum Wang. Which is sharp of her, but it means I have to pay in FEC, foreign exchange currency. Which is a pain. It means I’m going to have to find a moneylender and go in for a bit of swift mental arithmetic.

I go back to the hotel and change a travellers’ cheque, then I go out in the street and collar a likely looking  lad on the corner with a bike.  Why do all money-lenders have bikes? (Monumentally stupid question, ed. Just look at all the police strolling about, and ask yourself why you are down a side street with three of the guy’s mates on look-out  duty).  I change my money with him at a rate of 1.6 into renminbi, and then nip back into the hotel and change it back into FEC with a lad from Sheffield at the rate of 1.4. Total economic madness. But we’ve all made something, and we’re all happy. Except possibly the Central Bank of China, but I don’t know them personally, so it doesn’t bother me. Although how the whole system doesn’t collapse when everybody seems to be winning, I don’t know.

Suppertime is a bit of a disappointment. Practically everthing on the menu is off, so we have a very small meal. We go back to the hotel and eat fried goat’s cheese, which is all they have (and very nice). The bar has a tape player, so I put on Frankie Goes To Hollywood, but the bar staff don’t like this at all and switch it off. But then, when I just laugh and take it away, they tell me to put it back on. They can be such odd people.

Hannah and I go for a walk and discover that we both grew up listening to My Fair Lady. Within seconds we are prancing down the street singing, ‘All I want is a room somewhere’. Hannah’s attempt at a Cockney accent is hysterical and she thinks much the same of my rendition of ‘ahhooOOoodenit be luvverly.’  We are bent over, breathless with laughter,  8,000 miles from home, being carefully skirted by Chinese people who stare at us rather warily. Maybe we have gone loopy. Maybe after all these weeks, the songs of Lerner and Loewe have finally done for us. But who cares, when there’s two of you to sing?

(I apologise for the quality of my pictures at the moment. I’ve had to get a new scanner and the operating system is still waiting to be decoded by Alan Turing).

And now for something completely different…

dog3

(China Diary back shortly)

Imagine you have a beloved pet. And it dies. (I know, this part is sad.) So, is it just me, or is it perfectly normal to look at poor Fluffy’s mortal remains and think, ‘I’ll just call a taxidermist. No. Wait. I’ll stuff him myself. It’ll be easy peasy.

And apparently lots of people do have a go. I give you, for example:

dog1

Or:

dog2

Or even:

dog4

I find taxidermy rather bizarre, even when it’s done by professionals. But attempting it yourself, as a little light entertainment on a long winter evening??? (Enough with the question marks, ed).

And where do you start? Do these people just pick up a pair of scissors and get stuck in (literally), or do they have some kind of practical experience? In, say, upholstery or remedial basket work in a home for the bewildered? Maybe some people, after bringing a piano stool back to life, then looked at a donkey and thought, hmmmm:

donkey

Or maybe not.

Imagine the scene. Bonzo has barked his last, and with a sudden light of enthusiasm sparking in your mad scientist eyes, you assemble the kitchen scissors, a needle and thread and a couple of bags of cotton wool balls, and begin. Several hours later your partner/care-worker arrives to find you elbow deep in gore and sawdust. What, please tell me, do you say?

‘Oh, hello.’

Or, ‘You’re back early.’

Or even, ‘Could you thread this needle for me?’

Still, amateur pet stuffers, take heart. Think of the man at Gripsholm Castle in Sweden, 350 years ago, who was presented with a lion skin and told to make it scary. He did his best:

dog5

All pictures courtesy of Facebook page Badly Stuffed Animals

China 36: At home in Cheng Du

Copyright Elaine Canham, 2015

Copyright Elaine Canham, 2015

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.

China 34, A lesson in gold smuggling

Copyright, Elaine Canham 2015

Copyright, Elaine Canham 2015

March 10.

Don’t think I’ll be going anywhere today. We were planning to borrow bicycles and go the Drepong monastery, but after last night, I can’t even summon up enough energy to go with the others to the Dalai Lama’s summer palace, which is much nearer and has a western bog and a Philips radiogram, according to Michael, the gold smuggler.

Michael is a terribly serious, young(ish) bloke who comes from Cricklewood, and who is attempting to learn how to do the Daily Telegraph cryptic crossword. He used to work in a dole office, apparently, advising claimants on how to fill in their UB40s, and now he runs a smuggling ring from Korea to India. Amazing the turns a career can take.

I don’t know why he wants to learn how to do cryptic crosswords. It’s not as if he needs something to do on the 8.10 to Liverpool Street every morning. And commuters only do the crossword so that they don’t have to speak to any of their fellow human beings. I keep thinking of that scene in James Bond where 007 says, ‘Do you expect me to talk?’

In my mind, Goldfinger is replying, ‘No Mr Bond, I expect you to help me with 24 Across.’

Still, Michael is earnestly insistent that I unlock the mysteries for him, and in between wondering if I’m going to heave again, I do my best. He has a much-thumbed paperback of crosswords, and we go through them slowly.

‘It’s like a secret code,’ he says. ‘And nobody ever tells you how to crack it.’

Julie works for him, as a mule. She’s an ex teacher but she got bored with her husband who was an accountant and who wore shirts with contrasting collars. She had a hatchback and an executive house with fully fitted carpets and she and her husband went to fondue parties and drank Mateus rose, and one day she bought a backpack and went to India. When her savings ran out she did a few little trips for Michael and apparently it’s very lucrative. He pays $600 per trip.

I thought about doing it too, for about 30 seconds. The money is very good. But I’m not too keen on inserting two lumps of gold the size of large torch batteries, into my bum. You get on the plane to India and when you get off you are met by a taxi driver who takes you to a pre-arranged meet, where you produce the gold and get the dosh. But it doesn’t always work out like that.

‘Sometimes the taxi drivers have been bribed by a rival gang to take you to the police station instead,’ Julie told me. ‘That’s what happened to me. And I just kept telling the police I had no idea what was happening, and that I was just an innocent tourist, and they said they would let nature take its course. So I just hung about in the station doing my yoga exercises to show that I hadn’t a care in the world, even though, ohhh, that gold was really hurting. But then some more money must have changed hands because they let me go. And everything was fine.’

Everything, except, possibly, her backside, where she could now keep her rucksack.

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