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
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.)
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.
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.
PLEASE NOTE: This is an account, from my 1985 diary, of how the Tibetans dispose of their dead. It is not sensational, but some people might find it upsetting.
Get up while its still dark and walk out of Lhasa to see a sky burial. The sun rises as we leave the streets and go out, past a field of greenhouses and anti-aircraft guns, across a rubbish tip and part of the way up a mountain. There is a high ridge above us. It looks just like the desert and mountains that you see in cowboy films and, frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of apaches suddenly appeared against the skyline.
There are four of us; me, Agnetha, Mick, and Julie. We get to the place; there are seven men drinking tea around a bonfire; a few feet further on is a monk dressed very ornately and sporting a pair of mirrored sunglasses. He is beating time with a little hand-held drum. The men give us cups of hot sweet tea and offer us cigarettes.
One of them mimes a camera, and then makes a slitting motion across his throat. He is not joking. You can watch this ceremony, but they won’t allow you to photograph it. One American who tried it had a human heart pushed into his face and his camera smashed on a rock. The Swedish girl, Kristen, who is leaving today for Xigaze, told us last night that when she came here a few days ago, she thought she did have permission, but when she got her camera out they threw stones at her, and one man chased her with a knife.
Why they let us watch at all, I don’t know. A bus toils up the track and some Chinese squaddies get out. They are unarmed, cheerfully jostling each other. They have obviously come to see the sights. The Tibetans stand up, get their knives out, and walk towards them. This is not what the soldiers were expecting and they falter, their smiles dying. They’re only young lads, far from home. They’ve just come for a trip out, and they don’t really get what is happening. But there is no misunderstanding the Tibetans. The bloke who dealt with us goes right up to them. It doesn’t take a degree in languages to understand that he is telling them to bugger off. Some of the soldiers point at us, and the Tibetan lifts his knife and says some more. There is a moment of silence and then the soldiers get back on the bus, and it drives away.
When the sun is fully up five of the Tibetans go down to a large rock below us. It is as if it were held between two knees, and we are standing on one of the knees. Three of the men sit down, side by side.
There are two small bundles on this rock and what looks like a lump hammer. There are joss sticks smoking everywhere in the earth, the air is heavy with the scent of incense and burning yak dung. The two men left standing sharpen their knives, and begin. They rip open the bundles and there is an adult body in each; a man and a woman, trussed up like chickens. They untie them, but fasten them by their necks to a rock. And then they start. They simply turn the bodies on their fronts and hack them up. They throw the bones to the three men who are sitting, waiting, and they pound them up. They put the internal organs into a sack and smash the skulls by dropping rocks on to them. The woman’s hair, still braided with ribbons, flutters away and is caught and hung on a bush, where there are already several others. The priest chants and drums the whole time.
When the men are done, they all come back up to us, except for one who stays behind and shouts to the vultures which are sweeping in, perching untidily in the crags and ridges above. The birds won’t come down until they are absolutely certain it is safe. Other people begin to arrive and stand beside us now. They are the relatives and they have come to see the vultures arrive – the quicker the birds arrive, the greater the honour. It’s impossible to tell what these people are feeling, and I’m not going to stare at them. Their attention is focused on the birds.
A couple of birds swoop down and the man throws the flesh. More and more birds, including eagles, arrive and the rock is a moving mass of brown feathers. The vultures are easily spooked. The eagles take longer to come, but once they do, they don’t scare easily. When they show signs of losing interest, the man throws the contents of the bag at them.
And then it’s all over. The whole thing has taken about an hour. Apparently Tibetans choose this way of disposing of their dead, partly for practical reasons – there is not enough wood for burning, and you can’t dig graves on the side of these mountains. But they also feel that death is part of life, and that other creatures must benefit. At least, that’s how I understand it. But I don’t know what it takes for a person to rip a body to shreds and feed it to vultures. I do get the distinct impression that all the guys involved, including the priest in the shades, are a bit crazed.
We walk down the mountain in complete silence. It is a beautiful day.
Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China and Tibet
Decide to check out of the Snowland and go to the Tibetan Guesthouse instead. Not because there’s anything wrong with the Snowland, we assure the lovely landlady, but because we have friends at the Tibetan.
The Tibetan, or Hotel Shol Balak Lhasa, is just down the street. You enter through a narrow door and on one side is a dim stable with yaks in it and on the other is a little bare room which is reception. Agnetha and I get beds in the dormitory up on the roof. The passage from the main door leads into a courtyard and there are wooden steps leading up to the first floor and then up to the next. There’s a little verandah on each floor running past the rooms and, at our level, we have a flat roof to walk about on, too. Next door is a school, and every morning the kids do their exercises, counting along, Chinese style, to loud piped music, just like I did with Cheryl and Elspeth on the train.
The dormitory isn’t half as nice as the room at the Snowland but Helen from New York is there and so are Mick and Julie, friends of Agnetha’s. It doesn’t really matter what the room is like; lying on my lumpy iron bed I can look out of the door and see the Himalayas, clear in the morning sunshine. Take that, Cesar Ritz. There’s a big Chinese flask of water on the table, with a wash bowl. Water is available between 4pm and 7pm from a hose in the kitchen. So we have to remember to keep the flask filled.
Agnetha and I go out walking and we are stopped by three Tibetans, wild men in thick padded coats. They are rubbing their fingers together and obviously asking for money. I feel really disappointed that they are begging, but it can’t be easy living here. I don’t normally give handouts, but this time, I feel I owe them, somehow. I’m just getting my purse out when someone shouts at us and Julie hurries up. ‘For Christ sake don’t try to give them money, they’ll be really insulted.’
I am completely confused by this. The Tibetans are just standing, watching hopefully.
Julie says, ‘Just look in your purse and then shake your head really sorrowfully.’
I do as I am told. The Tibetans look really disappointed, but they all put their hands together and bow. We bow back.
We watch them walk off, and Julie explains. The men had come up to us, because they wanted to know if we had pictures of the Dalai Lama. When the Chinese invaded in 1949, he was taken into safety in India and has been protected and treated with honour ever since by the West. This is the reason the Tibetans are so welcoming to us, and it is why they will do their best to protect us. All they ever ask for is to see the face of the man who has been taken from them. I feel very, very, small. I wish I’d know this before I came. I’d have brought them a bloody crateful of pictures.
We take the table out of the dormitory and put it on the verandah and spend the afternoon sitting in the sunshine, writing postcards. There are four Swedes at the hotel; one Dane; one Australian; Mick and Julie from Hemel Hempstead; Hannah from New York; Michael, a gold smuggler from Cricklewood; Agnetha and me.
The first six are planning on a four-five day bus trip to Xigaze and back, starting at dawn tomorrow. One of the Swedish girls, Kristen, has a stomach upset, but she’s determined to go. She’s already spent two months in hospital with amoebic dysentry and no measly bug is going to stop her from doing what she wants to do. Blimey, Swedish people are tough.
Night falls and the sky is like nothing I’ve ever seen. It is blazing with stars. I drag a chair out into the middle of the flat roof and lie back as far as I can without tipping over. The stars are so low, so bright it’s like being in the lighting department of a celestial John Lewis. I’ve never seen so many stars, but it does strange things to your mind, contemplating stuff that you can’t really take in. It makes me feel like I’m falling into them and so I get up and look about at the here and now instead. Down in the courtyard I can see through the open doorway into the kitchen. There are two women in there. One is stirring a cauldron over an open fire. The other has just put half a goat on a tree stump and is hacking at it with an axe.
Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China
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
Today we are going to hitch to Golmud. Since it is a forbidden city, in a banned state, and hitch-hiking is banned, I’m slightly apprehensive. But apparently it’s been done before. The Chinese, being thoroughly practical, apparently don’t do anything terrible if they discover you, they just want to get you out of the area ASAP, and since we’ve got our passes to Lhasa, hopefully they’ll send us on in that direction.
We start out really early. It is dark and very cold. We walk right out of the town so as not to excite suspicion and when a truck comes along, we stick our thumbs out. No luck. Some trucks stop, and the drivers are very helpful, but none is going as far as Golmud. This is not going so well.
The day wears on and we decide to keep going until 3pm. No luck. Most of the trucks that go past are full to busting anyway, with people standing up in the back.
Decide to open a tin of corned beef, and even that is against us. The tab for the key has been soldered firmly to the can. We open it with a penknife and a rock. No more lorries stop. We sit about in the dust by the side of the road and dig out lumps of corned beef and bicker about what we should do. The girls are much braver than me. They’d take a truck half way to Golmud and chance it. They’ve been in China long enough to know what is possible. But I’m seriously concerned about only getting part of the way and ending up somewhere even more out in the boondocks than here. Especially as it’s in a state where the Chinese apparently do their nuclear testing and foreigners are not officially allowed in. There’s nothing to say, that if the Chinese police do decide to scoop us up, that they’ll be nice.
Also, none of us is very enthusiastic about standing for several days in the back of a truck. We talk some more. Cheryl gets her guide book and her railway timetable out. There is a bus from Cheng Du. We could get that. Or we could possibly fly. Although that might be expensive. We finish off the corned beef and agree to go to Cheng Du. It will mean our schedule is a bit buggered, but I’m quite relieved we’re keeping everything legal.
Back to the hotel.
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.