Has anybody seen those appalling posters on Facebook about the wonders of being British? Something along the lines of how we’d rather walk a mile in tight shoes than complain about our restaurant food, or how we’d probably describe a nuclear strike as a ‘bit warm’? About how marvellously modest and unassuming we are?? I mean, has the person who wrote that ever heard of Jeremy Clarkson? Boris Johnson? Brian Blessed? Or the fans of any football club you care to mention? (I suppose you could make a case for the modesty of Millwall supporters, whose motto is ‘no one likes us, we don’t care’ but only if you’d never heard them in full cry).
Anyway, I have been thinking about Britishness lately because I have just come back from France. And my topic du jour is kissing. We are all kissing each other’s cheeks in Britain now, and I blame the French. Time was, and I’m not that decrepit, when you only kissed your mum and dad. And, possibly, whiskery aunties. And then just a swift peck, mind you, none of this random face pressing that we all seem to be going for these days. No. Back then, we British (if I can get all Facebook postery) made do with a swift handshake and a mumbled hello. In fact, that probably counted as rather imaginative foreplay back in the day.
When I was 17 I was taken by my sister in law (French) to stay in Bordeaux for a week. When we got off the plane an entire phalanx of relatives were lined up (some actually wearing berets) and we all solemnly kissed each other. Took ages. (I have to say at this point, although it is somewhat off piste, that during this visit I was taken to meet some great uncle who was in hospital. He was a lovely, ancient man, aged about 804, tucked tightly into a spotless bed; and he too was wearing a beret. And, naturally enough, we all kissed him. Took ages.
Years later I went to see a friend in France who had teenage children. And get this, when they brought friends home, they all came up to us and kissed us. I was charmed, and somewhat staggered. I could, in no circumstances, think of being approached in Britain by a strange teenager who wanted to kiss me politely on the cheek and wish me good day.
And yet, that day may not be far off. Even now, in the South East, people who’ve known each other for quite a long time are kissing each other when they meet (except my friend Deborah, who refuses to give in to any of this continental canoodling and is hoisting the flag for traditional British circumspection). Brothers and sisters are kissing each other when they greet (yes, really) and er, quite a few other people in situations I can’t think of at the moment. The disease has certainly reached the midlands, but the jury is out on whether it will sweep Yorkshire (it’s the way they stare at you there which kind of brings you to a halt before you properly get to grips with your intended target, and the only way you can alleviate any possible embarrassment is to stop before you get any closer, lift your arms really expansively and say, ‘fancy a pint?’)
Still, think on this. A couple of years ago I was sitting on a train in a French railway station watching out of the window as an inspector tried to pacify a surging crowd of people whose train’s departure had been delayed. Suddenly, down the steps on to the platform came the boss of the whole shebang. Big hat, gold braid, the lot. He marched up to the inspector. The people gesticulated. (As they do.) I thought there was going to be a riot. The inspector turned to his boss. His boss looked at him. And yes. They kissed. Both cheeks. And suddenly, everything was fine. The people got on the train, the inspector got on the train and the boss waved them off as it hooted down the track.
Maybe if it has that kind of effect, we shouldn’t be so uptight. Anyone up for a kiss? Mr Clarkson? Boris?
Picture by Banksy, courtesy of Creative Commons at https://www.flickr.com/photos/leonsteber/1154551362/
Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China March 17
Plane to Nanning. The aircraft is much snazzier than the one to Lhasa and we get free hankies (my second), boxes of chrysanthemum tea (not dried tea; it’s a cold drink) and a compass on a key ring. I don’t know if the compass is supposed to make us feel more confident that the pilot knows what he’s doing, but we get there.
Cheryl and Elspeth were entranced by the news that, according to that guy I met in Cheng Du, you can get pizzas in Nanning. Unfortunately I can’t remember which hotel he said, and we trail round three with no success. Our packs are getting heavier as we are now carrying all our winter clothing. The further south we go, the hotter it gets. We’ll have to get out our shorts, soon. C and E have the heaviest loads with those huge Chinese coats.
Bereft of pizzas, we go back to the hotel where the airport bus dropped us off. There’s some kind of celebration going on; there’s a lion dance in the driveway and sheets of firecrackers. The place is packed and everyone is crowding into a special room (where the tables have tablecloths!). Don’t know if it’s supposed to be a particular function but, amazingly, there’s plenty of space for us. The waitress is friendly and the sweet and sour pork is lovely. A western family is here too. They have a baby and a six-year-old child. Both of them seem really ugly after Chinese children. Maybe they are just really ugly. Bed. My first time under a mosquito net.
Bus to railway station. Hard seat to Zhan Jiang, which is China’s southernmost town. It’s a nine-hour journey through the sort of countryside that everyone always associates with China – terraced fields; paddy fields, peasants in coolie hats, water buffalo and rich red earth like turmeric powder piled in heaps. It’s getting warmer and warmer.
At Zhan Jiang we get bicycle taxis to the hotel. I’m on the outside and it’s a bit scary when we go round corners. The hotel is a bit of a dump, but clean and cheap. No food. We go round the food stalls buying oranges and bananas for tomorrow’s trip and trying not to look at the varnished brown dog carcases hanging up with the chickens in the pavement cafes. We stop by a woman with buckets of rice and greens on the pavement and have that for tea. It’s cold, but at least it’s not dog.
Up in the velvety darkness at 5 am for our 6 am bus ride and ferry to Haikou, which is on the island of Hainan Dao. It’s supposed to be marvellously beautiful and unspoilt. It’s also a big military base, and we shouldn’t really be going there, as westerners, but after bottling out of the truck ride to Lhasa we’re going to try it. It’s another trip on the bicycle taxis. This time I sit on the inside, bang next to the back wheel. We get to the bus, and find that the world and his wife and all their pigs and chickens and spring onions are coming too. But, miraculously, we do actually set off at 6. And we’re in front seats, thank god. Some people are standing, and two are sitting on the engine cowling by the driver. Talk about a hot seat.
We go across a river on a raft. We have to get off the bus, which then drives on and we all crowd on after. Everybody spends the short trip fighting like hell to get back on the bus, because as soon as the raft docks the buses drive off – there’s no waiting about. Then we get to the real ferry for Hainan Dao. And, get this, we have to go up a proper gang plank to get on. Well, two planks actually, that wobble, and you have to step over a dead rat. How authentic is that? I feel like I’m in a proper English 20th century novel. Any minute now Peter Ustinov is going to push through the crowds towards us in a linen suit and a Panama hat, or maybe Clark Gable and Jean Harlow are already throwing plates at each other in the restaurant. But sadly not. The boat is just chock full of Chinese people (and pigs and chickens and vegetables) and us. And no restaurant. But, bizarrely, there is a woman selling pink-iced finger buns. We’re very doubtful about them, especially after my experience with the concrete bread rolls in Tibet, but they are lovely. Just like you’d buy in the bakers, back home.
I’m not entirely certain we’re going to get all the way there in one piece. Sealink would probably have sent the ferry for scrap in about 1915. On the up side, there are so many holes in it I get plenty of fresh air and am not seasick, which I was rather worried about.
Amazingly we are here. Another bus from the ferry to Haikou, and yet more bicycle taxis from the bus station to the hotel. It’s properly hot now. There are palm trees which C &E have never seen before in the wild, as it were, and they’re entranced. Elspeth hugs one with delight. ‘They’re great aren’t they?’ she announces. Cheryl is busy examining the patterned bark. I’m sitting on my pack writing this while I wait for them. Anybody would think they’d gone completely bonkers (and I’m sure some passing Chinese people do) but they’ve spent so long in the cold bleakness of northern China that all this lush greenery has completely gone to their heads. They are so happy. Extraordinary.
The hotel is amazing too. All glass and marble and we don’t know if we can afford it. The wall behind the reception desk has clocks showing the time in London and New York. But it’s only five kwai (£1) for a dorm bed. It looks as though they’re still building the place but it will be extremely posh indeed when they’ve finished it. The dormitory has a smoked glass door and white tiles on the floor – it’s like we’ve stumbled into the council chamber in Milton Keynes. However, there is no electricity. There are clerks at the end of the hall who are using candles, and they let us use their private bathroom for a wash.
Elspeth and I go exploring and find a restaurant which has a carpet on the floor and a nice Malaysian bloke who tells us about this coffee shop that sells toast. ‘No bangers and mash for you Brits,’ he laughs, ‘But lot of toast!’ He was dead right. Hot buttered toast. And proper tea. There are a load of young Chinese in, too, and they are all sitting round flashing their digital watches and eating their toast with forks, which they then wave theatrically about while talking very loudly to each other.
Spend the afternoon lying around, having baths and eating McVitites digestive biscuits, which they sell in the hotel shop. The shop sells the oddest things. Roget et Gallet perfumes, Californian wine (30 kwai) a Wrangler denim jacket and personal stereos. I want batteries for mine and point to a stereo in the display case. The bloke in charge gets it out and I point to the battery compartment.
‘Ah, you want batteries,’ he says and shows me two.
‘Yes, that’s exactly what I want,’ I reply.
‘No. Mayo,’ he says and puts them away.
Dinner in the restaurant. The tablecloths are filthy and the waitress sweeps up the leavings with a dirty dustpan and brush. But the service is quick and they are really friendly. The food is delicious; fish with melon, sweet and sour pork, beef with noodles and a huge plate of fried rice. Another big bill (15 kwai) and we begin to realise we haven’t got much money left. Prospects of going to Hong Kong now look definitely dodgy.
In the dorm we are joined by a German couple, two French girls and two Swedish guys. The folding wall down the centre of the room has been pulled out. And there is lots of shouting and shuffling on the other side. So we all creep up, shushing each other and giggling, and peek through the cracks.
All the waitresses from the restaurant are there, and there’s a man fiddling with a tape player. Then, as the strains of Carmen fill the room, he begins to shout instructions and the girls all pair up and start to solemnly tango. And, on our side, we fall silent and feel unaccountably homesick.
Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China 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
Woken up at the crack of dawn by the guards. All the guards on all the trains we’ve been on have been women, and a pretty unsmiling lot at that. They crank up the music in all the carriages and everybody stands up and does their morning exercises. It’s done by numbers, 1,2 3, up to ten. A different move for each number. So the three of us get up and have a bash too. The entire carriage is in fits at the sight of us. But they seem very happy that we’ve joined in.
We draw into Cheng Du hours later and its still dark, about 7 am, but kerosene lamps flare everywhere. Outside the station where, I suppose in Britain, you’d see a statue or a little park, is a washroom with no walls; a central wall of mirrors with sinks on either side, neatly tiled in white. People are standing in the floodlit dark, shaving. There are many barrows with people selling hot flannels, noodles, maps – and oranges! Hundreds of them. Heaps of them! We buy a load, and devour them, spitting the pips, just like the Chinese do, and crush into Bus No 16, seven stops to the Jin Jiang hotel.
Cheng Du is the capital of Sichuan, and it’s supposed to be a pretty amazing place. It’s famous for its cooking, and for being the home of the giant panda. It’s not half so stark as Xian, anyway.
The guide book says the Jin Jiang is big with plenty of internal shops and a bar which stays open until midnight. Gosh. With a tape player. The guide book is right. The place is enormous, there is a man on the gate who says, ‘Good morning,’ a bloke in a blue uniform who stands by the door and says, rather shyly, ‘ Hulloh’, a marble foyer, and reception clerks who speak fluent American. Just one snag. There are no rooms. We have to wait until someone checks out. No, we can’t reserve. Yes, we can have breakfast. We are almost speechless when we see it. Real coffee, real milk, hot toast, butter, jam and get this, an omelette with tomatoes in it. There’s also a plate of swiss roll and biscuits. We eat the lot and clock the Europeans, and the Hong Kong Chinese. We’d almost forgotten what western clothes and haircuts looked like.
Back to reception. When they said we couldn’t reserve, they tell us, they didn’t mean we couldn’t fill out a registration form, like the millions of Japanese tourists are doing; of course we can fill in the forms. So we fill them in, and the clerk puts them in a pile, and we watch them start to move to the top as people begin to check out.
We’re seventh in the pile. There is a coffee lounge! Cheryl and Elspeth meet Alison, another student from Beijing. The morning passes very pleasantly. The Japanese poetry professor from Dunhuang is here. A Kiwi with the improbable name of Frean McSween is here, two more students from Beijing arrive, and one of them must be avoided at all costs on account of the fact that he is the most boring person on the planet.
We get a dormitory room. Three normal beds and a cot in the middle occupied by a really nice American girl called Hannah from New York. Alison couldn’t get a room, she is bedding down on a landing with 20 other people for three kwai a night.
We go to the bus station to find out about buses to Lhasa. It’s a nice walk there, through a park, by a river, and there are lots of old men sitting on tree stumps playing chess, or cards or practising Tai Chi. There are some weirdly dressed women, their hair brightly braided, with stripy aprons over dark dresses and breeches, that I later discover are Tibetan.
When we get to the bus station, about 20 people gather round to watch our efforts with the officials. They all stare intently at us; they hate it if you stare back, but you can’t stare at them all at once. No wonder westerners here get so stressed at times. It’s like constantly being under a microscope, or being a particularly exotic exhibit in a zoo.
And, of course, we can’t get tickets at the bus station (Mayo La, again) We must go to this place, says the bloke in charge, and he very helpfully writes down the address in Chinese characters. So off we trail, half on a mission, and half beguiled by the sheer energy of this city. It’s sunny and the air is fresh and clean, and the streets are filled with people. There are hardly any cars, of course. A laughing man with a bowl of food in one hand, and a pair of chopsticks in the other inveigles us into a restaurant. The food is excellent, even if there are 15 people outside all watching us stuff our faces.
We spend the afternoon wandering about looking at all the shops, they’re just shacks really, by Western standards, all in winding little streets, like a film set, but they sell such amazing stuff. There’s one very mysterious one with jars of powder and open boxes of, well, wings and claws and dried up things. I swear there’s a dead eagle hanging from the ceiling. Back to the hotel. At dinner time we are given Chinese food, and its ok but the men nearby are having western food – hamburgers and chips, fruit salad and ice cream, and potato salad. We try desperately to attract the waitress’s attention, and eventually she stops by.
‘Can we have western food, too?’
‘No, mayo, You order in advance.’ She has a hard face and is wearing Chinese jeans.
Can we have coffee?’
‘You have to order in advance.’
We grab another waitress.
‘Can we order a western dinner for tomorrow?’
She gets the manager. Oh what a lovely man. Kind faced, good American English, very accommodating. ‘You want Western dinner?’ he asks.
‘Yes,’ says Cheryl.
‘And can we have coffee now?’ asks Elspeth.
‘He beams at us. ‘Sure you can have coffee.’ The hard-faced waitress, hovering nearby, gives us a particularly filthy look.
Then it’s upstairs to the bar, and Alison puts her Bob Dylan and Bob Marley tapes on. One Chinese guy has never heard of either. He stands very close to the tape-player, entranced. He insists on playing Dylan through, twice, and tapes it.
Back upstairs Elspeth goes to bed, but Cheryl and I stay up and drink gin with Helen from New York, who can’t sleep. The chat soon evolves into an argument about politics, which goes something like this – the essential difference between Russia and China is that the former works through paranoia, establishing buffer satellite states to guard against any possible threat of invasion, whereas the Chinese are a supremely self-confident race – who once ruled the known world (as far as it was known to them) and who don’t fear any other state. Helen says, and Cheryl agrees, that the only other country that is similar to China in background is Italy, because both, historically, not only conquered countries but gave them cultures that have lasted for centuries. Russia merely subdues, it doesn’t add anything. What about the British Empire, I say. No, that doesn’t apply, they argue. Its time span is too short and again, it didn’t make the people it conquered, British. It just exploited them and remained staunchly isolationist. I’m not entirely sure they’re right. But I’m too tired to bring up the subject of Tibet. That’s been conquered, and I don’t think the Tibetans feel Chinese. Maybe they will, one day. We all trail off into sleep.
Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China
Wake up this morning to fertile land. High mountains and mist and a river, and terraced fields. We go through many tunnels cut through mountains. It must be bitterly cold outside. There is a huge ice floe in the river, snow on the mountains and I’ve seen two frozen waterfalls. Still, it’s not brown. It’s like the Scottish highlands. The scenery gets even better as we go on. Those paintings of mountain peaks that you seen hanging on the walls of Chinese restaurants in Britain don’t look so far-fetched now.
The food situation is pretty bad. We have some packet noodles, but it’s not enough and the food in the restaurant car is disgusting. Flimsy polystyrene boxes of cold rice and I suppose something that looks like chopped up salami, but isn’t. And when we finish, the guards just open the train window and chuck the lot on to the tracks. Box after box flying into the perfect scenery.
I’d love an orange. Don’t know why that popped into my head. But now it has, I can’t get rid of the idea.
The children in the carriage are lovely. One toddler, with eyes like sloes, who looks more Indian than Chinese, keeps getting dumped on Cheryl’s bunk. Another child is sleeping above me and squeals with delight when I waggle my fingers. Then she grabs my hands, just like a kitten. But she’s strong – she almost pulls me up off my bunk.
As the night draws on we are visited by four men who want to practise their English. They are all in the blue Mao suits nearly everyone wears here, if you’re not a member of the People’s Liberation Army, and they are holding their caps in their hands.
Actually only one of them understands English, and then only if I write it down and let him have a good think about it. He reads it out loud; he’s very proud of his reading skills. He and Elspeth read a page from his Teach Yourself English book (A Day At the Seaside) – he very correct, and Elspeth in broad Scouse, while Cheryl and I stuff hankies in our mouths to try to keep a straight face. That’s a point. We’ve run out of bog paper and the girls are threatening to use my diary, but we compromise by using the souvenir envelopes of Shanghai that we pinched from the hotel in Xian.
Anyway, back to Mr Earnest – he’s determined to improve his English so he does his best, while the others sit and listen and nod and chat about us in Chinese. I write on his paper, ‘What do you do?’
His lips move slowly, wordlessly over the sentence. Then he has a huddled conference with his mates. Back comes the answer, ‘I study economics.’
‘What did you do before that?’ I write.
He mutters to himself. ‘I was cadre.’
So I decide to plunge in. Cheryl and Elspeth, as politics graduates, could tell me the answer to this in a second, and I know myself that it means a communist party worker, but I’m determined to get it from the horse’s mouth.
‘What is a cadre?’ I write. ‘I’ve never met one before.’
Much astonishment from the men.
‘We don’t have them in England.’
Now it’s his turn to ask a question.
‘Do you have peasants in England?’
Of course, to them, it’s a perfectly normal question; under the Chinese system you have people who work the land and people who work in towns. Having spent all my life in a country where communists are thought of as either rather silly and slightly dangerous, or plainly eccentric, I’m just getting used to the fact that I’m now in a country where people talk about Marx and Mao in the same way westerners talk about Winston Churchill or JFK. It can be very surprising at times.
Back to the question of what a cadre does, though. I’m beginning to get writer’s cramp. No answer. The men talk among themselves and we wonder if this is a rebuff, Chinese style.
‘Why don’t you answer my question?’ I scribble.
Then after another party conference, comes the answer. ‘A cadre looks after the people.’
‘What people in particular, how many and in what way?’ comes my spiffy rejoinder. This is a facer for them. ‘In particular’ and ‘in what way’ seem to give them the most trouble. Back to the conference.
Then, ‘A cadre is a very important person. He responsible for many people. Sometimes hundreds.’
‘How many people were you responsible for?’
He looks round at his mates. ‘Three.’
Everyone laughs, including him.
‘What, these three?’ I ask. ‘Are you all cadres, and you take it in turn?’
His second in command seems to understand this and all the others have a good laugh. But he’s not very happy about this loss of dignity, and when Cheryl teases him, saying, ‘Are you in charge tomorrow?’ he answers gravely, ‘Tomorrow I study economics.’
Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China
Back on that bloody bus. We sit at the front this time. The desert looks just the same, like an asphalt car park for some megastore, without the megastore. The slag heaps look just the same, too.
Get on the train to Lanzhou. Can’t get hard sleepers, so we sit up all night. The carriage is packed and everyone thinks we are great curiosities. When we get a pack of cards out, everybody perks up. There’s even somebody in the luggage rack watching us. They’re such great gamblers, the Chinese; I think they are expecting us to play poker or something. Don’t know what they make of Find the Lady. They look very confused, anyway.
Still on the train. Feeling extremely jaded. Two men in very smart blue uniforms get on and sit next to us. They say they’re judges, but they look very young; about 30. One speaks English, so we get the standard grilling. Where do you come from? Where are you going? Are you married? I almost fall off my seat when he asks if Margaret Thatcher is a madam.
He means, of course, is she married, and can’t understand why I am laughing so much. The thought of explaining it is fairly mind-boggling, so I don’t try.
He gets quite paternal; insists on escorting us to the dining car, tries to get us beer (but even he gets mayo la) and tells us we must have a good dinner when we get to Lanzhou.
The Chinese are wonderful with children. There are several four and five-year-olds in the carriage, all running up and down and being petted and spoiled by everyone they go up to. They are all beautiful; great dark eyes in solemn faces, wrapped up in so many layers that their arms stick out from their sides and they walk with a rolling gait, like old sea dogs. One claims the hearts of a group of soldiers, who sit her on their knees in turn while they play cards.
Another walks up to one of the judges and is made a great fuss of. Our judge, in between polishing up his English, is having a conversation with a four-year-old sitting on the seat behind and who keeps popping up to have a good look at what is going on. It’s sometimes difficult to tell which children belong to which adults. The toddlers are so confident of affection from anyone, and the adults don’t let them down.
We cross the Yellow River. It’s raining. I never thought I’d be so glad to see rain. We arrive at Lanzhou, it’s taken 24 hours to get here. The length of the train trips in this country really makes you appreciate how vast this place is.
The judge insists we write him a message in his Chinese/English dictionary – much in use over the past few hours – and he writes one in the back of Cheryl’s paperback.
To my three English friends, wishing them much happiness. I hope you come to China again, from your friend Pei Ping.
He gets off the train with us to make sure we find the right exit. I promise to send him a postcard from London. He’s going to send me a picture of his wife and daughter.
Get on the train for Cheng Du. We ask for hard sleepers and wait an hour, but we get them.
Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China
We’re properly in the Gobi Desert now. Saw two camels trotting along in fine style all decked out in bright red harnesses with tassels. They look woolly and cute. Never thought I’d say that about a camel.
Felt better this morning. Elspeth and I sliced up the last of the apples and bananas and mixed them into an interesting sludge with the last of the biscuits. Cheryl declined to join us for breakfast.
Talk about blasted heaths. This is just empty, brown land. Any water, and there seems to be precious little of it, is frozen solid.
The train stops for Liu Yuan; the guard opens the door, but there is nothing here. No station. Nothing. We drop our packs on to the ground and then climb down from the panting dragon. People hang out the windows and wave at us. Nobody else gets off.
‘Are you sure this is right?’ Cheryl shouts up at the guard.
The guard shouts something back and then slams the door, and the train puffs and heaves and slowly clanks away, gathering speed as it leaves us. We are alone in a vast landscape.
‘What did the guard say?’ I ask.
‘She said there’s a bus,’ replied Cheryl.
‘Right,’ said Elspeth looking around at the emptiness. I never realised before, just how dry a Scouser’s sense of humour can be, and the wealth of meaning you can put into one word.
We move away from the tracks and sit down on our packs. We can still see the train, a tiny disappearing clockwork toy in the vast landscape, and I begin to remember all the B movies I have ever seen about ignorant travellers coming to grief in the desert. I particularly think of the one with Sophia Loren where she finds a skeleton face down in the sand, but still grimly clutching a handbag.
I begin to wonder how regularly this desert bus is supposed to run. If it is anything like the service in Milton Keynes, we’re done for.
Continuing my 30-year-old diary of my trip to China. Here we have a party on the train and introduce the Chinese to David Bowie.
There are three blokes on the bunks opposite us, and they seem to have an inexhaustible supply of apples. The Chinese are very careful about the cleanliness of what they eat and drink – although maybe not so much about where they eat and drink it – so they peel everything. (The word for leather is, apparently, cow peel). The peel falls from their fingers, in long and delicate ribbons and, fascinated, we strike up a conversation. At least Elspeth and Cheryl do the talking. I marvel at the easy way they’ve learnt to speak Chinese. To cement international relations we give them a mug of gin and tonic – the oldest man tries it and laughs.
‘He thinks its pop,’ said Cheryl.
The gin goes down a bit more and then they bring out their alcohol. Pure white spirit that tastes like refined turpentine but once swallowed makes you feel extremely cosy. Then I do something terrible. I try to mask the awful taste by adding tonic water. Utterly disgusting and now there is twice as much.
‘We can’t drink this,’ I say, appalled.
‘Smile,’ said Cheryl. ‘They’re all watching us.’ And it was true, everyone in the carriage had gathered round to watch the weird western girls drink strong liquor.
‘Can’t I just go to the bog, and get rid of it there,’ I suggested, beaming at three guys and waggling my mug to show how much I was enjoying it.
‘God. No!’ said Cheryl. ‘The Chinese would never think of doing anything so insanitary as that. They’d think we were the absolute pits.’
‘What about knocking it over, casual like?’
‘They’d probably only give us a refill,’ said Elspeth, grinning manically and then knocking back a hefty slug. So what could we do, but drink it? With the result that we all got very mournful about our lives, prospects and the future of the world. The Chinese, on the other hand, decided that gin was, ‘Very, very good.’ One of them was, apparently, a professional alcohol taster and he did the whole bit, rubbing it on his hands, sniffing it and then draining a stiff shot in one go before giving it his definite seal of approval. So, no problems for you here, Gordons. Of course, the guy could have just been a chancer from Harbin, or wherever…
Lent the oldest man my personal stereo. He put the earphones on with a big smile and was obviously telling all his mates he couldn’t see what the fuss was about, when I switched the tape on. He was utterly astounded. Oddly enough, the track was David Bowie singing Little China Girl. He listened to the whole thing. I think he liked it.