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.
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
(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).
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
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.