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China 41: Walking the gangplank

Copyright Elaine Canham 2015

Copyright Elaine Canham 2015

Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China March 17

Plane to Nanning. The aircraft is much snazzier than the one to Lhasa and we get free hankies (my second), boxes of chrysanthemum tea (not dried tea; it’s a cold drink) and a compass on a key ring. I don’t know if the compass is supposed to make us feel more confident that the pilot knows what he’s doing, but we get there.

Cheryl and Elspeth were entranced by the news that, according to that guy I met in Cheng Du, you can get pizzas in Nanning. Unfortunately I can’t remember which hotel he said, and we trail round three with no success. Our packs are getting heavier as we are now carrying all our winter clothing. The further south we go, the hotter it gets. We’ll have to get out our shorts, soon. C and E have the heaviest loads with those huge Chinese coats.

Bereft of pizzas, we go back to the hotel where the airport bus dropped us off. There’s some kind of celebration going on; there’s a lion dance in the driveway and sheets of firecrackers. The place is packed and everyone is crowding into a special room (where the tables have tablecloths!). Don’t know if it’s supposed to be a particular function but, amazingly, there’s plenty of space for us. The waitress is friendly and the sweet and sour pork is lovely. A western family is here too. They have a baby and a six-year-old child. Both of them seem really ugly after Chinese children. Maybe they are just really ugly. Bed. My first time under a mosquito net.

March 18

Bus to railway station. Hard seat to Zhan Jiang, which is China’s southernmost town. It’s a nine-hour journey through the sort of countryside that everyone always associates with China – terraced fields; paddy fields, peasants in coolie hats, water buffalo and rich red earth like turmeric powder piled in heaps. It’s getting warmer and warmer.

At Zhan Jiang we get bicycle taxis to the hotel. I’m on the outside and it’s a bit scary when we go round corners. The hotel is a bit of a dump, but clean and cheap. No food. We go round the food stalls buying oranges and bananas for tomorrow’s trip and trying not to look at the varnished brown dog carcases hanging up with the chickens in the pavement cafes. We stop by a woman with buckets of rice and greens on the pavement and have that for tea. It’s cold, but at least it’s not dog.

March 20

Up in the velvety darkness at 5 am for our 6 am bus ride and ferry to Haikou, which is on the island of Hainan Dao. It’s supposed to be marvellously beautiful and unspoilt. It’s also a big military base, and we shouldn’t really be going there, as westerners, but after bottling out of the truck ride to Lhasa we’re going to try it. It’s another trip on the bicycle taxis. This time I sit on the inside, bang next to the back wheel. We get to the bus, and find that the world and his wife and all their pigs and chickens and spring onions are coming too. But, miraculously, we do actually set off at 6. And we’re in front seats, thank god. Some people are standing, and two are sitting on the engine cowling by the driver. Talk about a hot seat.

We go across a river on a raft. We have to get off the bus, which then drives on and we all crowd on after. Everybody spends the short trip fighting like hell to get back on the bus, because as soon as the raft docks the buses drive off – there’s no waiting about. Then we get to the real ferry for Hainan Dao. And, get this, we have to go up a proper gang plank to get on. Well, two planks actually, that wobble, and you have to step over a dead rat. How authentic is that? I feel like I’m in a proper English 20th century novel. Any minute now Peter Ustinov is going to push through the crowds towards us in a linen suit and a Panama hat, or maybe Clark Gable and Jean Harlow are already throwing plates at each other in the restaurant. But sadly not. The boat is just chock full of Chinese people (and pigs and chickens and vegetables) and us. And no restaurant. But, bizarrely, there is a woman selling pink-iced finger buns. We’re very doubtful about them, especially after my experience with the concrete bread rolls in Tibet, but they are lovely. Just like you’d buy in the bakers, back home.

I’m not entirely certain we’re going to get all the way there in one piece. Sealink would probably have sent the ferry for scrap in about 1915. On the up side, there are so many holes in it I get plenty of fresh air and am not seasick, which I was rather worried about.

Amazingly we are here. Another bus from the ferry to Haikou, and yet more bicycle taxis from the bus station to the hotel. It’s properly hot now. There are palm trees which C &E have never seen before in the wild, as it were, and they’re entranced. Elspeth hugs one with delight. ‘They’re great aren’t they?’ she announces. Cheryl is busy examining the patterned bark. I’m sitting on my pack writing this while I wait for them. Anybody would think they’d gone completely bonkers (and I’m sure some passing Chinese people do) but they’ve spent so long in the cold bleakness of northern China that all this lush greenery has completely gone to their heads. They are so happy. Extraordinary.

The hotel is amazing too. All glass and marble and we don’t know if we can afford it. The wall behind the reception desk has clocks showing the time in London and New York. But it’s only five kwai (£1) for a dorm bed. It looks as though they’re still building the place but it will be extremely posh indeed when they’ve finished it. The dormitory has a smoked glass door and white tiles on the floor – it’s like we’ve stumbled into the council chamber in Milton Keynes. However, there is no electricity. There are clerks at the end of the hall who are using candles, and they let us use their private bathroom for a wash.

Elspeth and I go exploring and find a restaurant which has a carpet on the floor and a nice Malaysian bloke who tells us about this coffee shop that sells toast. ‘No bangers and mash for you Brits,’ he laughs, ‘But lot of toast!’ He was dead right. Hot buttered toast. And proper tea. There are a load of young Chinese in, too, and they are all sitting round flashing their digital watches and eating their toast with forks, which they then wave theatrically about while talking very loudly to each other.

Spend the afternoon lying around, having baths and eating McVitites digestive biscuits, which they sell in the hotel shop. The shop sells the oddest things. Roget et Gallet perfumes, Californian wine (30 kwai) a Wrangler denim jacket and personal stereos. I want batteries for mine and point to a stereo in the display case. The bloke in charge gets it out and I point to the battery compartment.

‘Ah, you want batteries,’ he says and shows me two.

‘Yes, that’s exactly what I want,’ I reply.

‘No. Mayo,’ he says and puts them away.

Dinner in the restaurant. The tablecloths are filthy and the waitress sweeps up the leavings with a dirty dustpan and brush. But the service is quick and they are really friendly. The food is delicious; fish with melon, sweet and sour pork, beef with noodles and a huge plate of fried rice. Another big bill (15 kwai) and we begin to realise we haven’t got much money left. Prospects of going to Hong Kong now look definitely dodgy.

In the dorm we are joined by a German couple, two French girls and two Swedish guys. The folding wall down the centre of the room has been pulled out. And there is lots of shouting and shuffling on the other side. So we all creep up, shushing each other and giggling, and peek through the cracks.

All the waitresses from the restaurant are there, and there’s a man fiddling with a tape player. Then, as the strains of Carmen fill the room, he begins to shout instructions and the girls all pair up and start to solemnly tango. And, on our side, we fall silent and feel unaccountably homesick.

China 16: On the bounce

Copyright, Elaine Canham 2015

Copyright, Elaine Canham 2015

Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China.

Just before dawn we get the bus to Dunhuang. It’s the hippy bus again, and we decide to sit at the back. The few villagers who are there, are all at the front. They turn and watch us expressionlessly as we slide on to the wooden seats.

‘This reminds me of being on the school bus,’ I say.

‘Yes,’ said Cheryl. ‘The back seats were the best. Isn’t this great?’

‘And now we’ve got them all to ourselves,’ said Elspeth. ‘Wonder why nobody else wants to sit here?’

‘Obvious, isn’t it?’ I say loftily. ‘Back seats are just another sign of western decadence.’  And we laugh. Ha ha.

The bus sets off. We see the sun rise over a slag heap. Actually we see it rise several times as fresh heaps alternately obscure it and then reveal it again. The road gets bumpier and bumpier. The bus seems to be made out of solid metal. There is no suspension. We realise this, though, when the driver really gets into his stride out of town and starts to aim for the potholes. Although to be fair, they are difficult to miss.

The first one he hit, I spring fairy-like upwards, and narrowly avoid smashing my head on the ceiling. I land, with all my bones rearranged, on the seat again. Cheryl and Elspeth, too, are gasping untidily, and then we hit the next pot hole. Bang! And up we fly again, squawking and swearing. The only thing to do is to grip tightly to the seat in front and crouch hopefully like tethered birds, grimly being shaken into half flight with every bounce.

The villagers have all swivelled round again and are watching us with keen interest.

Copyright Elaine Canham, 2015

Copyright Elaine Canham, 2015

‘We’ve got to move,’ says Cheryl, desperately.

But it isn’t easy. We stagger crazily up the bus, under the gaze of the locals. This is obviously the best entertainment they’ve had for a very long time. And then, when we do make it, I realise we have left the gin behind. I crawl back to get it, and smack my face on the back of a seat.

Dunhuang is very sunny; it isn’t much better to look at than Liu Yuan, but there is a friendly air to it, and it is much busier. There are a lot of trucks, which is a good sign for our hitch-hiking plans. Some of them, surely, must be able to take us to Golmud, where we can get another truck to Tibet.

We check in at a hostel, which is pretty bare, and there is no water there either. Still, it is clean, and we go in search of food. Find the main hotel which is much nicer, and decide to check in there tomorrow. They offer us lunch and charge us a few Mao each (about 60p). For this we get a table covered with little saucers. Some have got readily recognisable food, like cabbage and mushroom or pork and spring greens. But there’s one of little cubes of meat in gravy that looks like Pedigree Chum, and another that looks like someone has just cut the seams off a lot of polythene bags and dipped them in vinegar.  They taste like that too.

Copyright, Elaine Canham 2015

Copyright, Elaine Canham 2015

The hotel arranges a taxi ride for us to the Singing Sand Dunes. The taxi turns out to be a minibus, very plush, just for us three and driven by a very cool dude in shades. He spoils the image, though, by grinning manically at us. He’s a really nice bloke, and very proud of the dunes. And they are beautiful, huge and yellow against a clean blue sky.

We stagger about for a laugh, gasping ‘Water, water!’ but the effect is spoiled by the fact we are wearing four layers of clothing. The crescent lake is beautiful, but inches thick in ice. We walk all over it, getting sunburnt from the reflected glare. According to Cheryl’s guidebook some emperor in the Han dynasty about 200 BC used to come here for his holidays and the entire court would stay by the lake in silken pavilions. We try to climb the dunes, but can only get so far before the sand just runs out from under our feet and we roll back down. Good fun, though.

Summer lightning


Woke up this morning at half past three with a bloody great crash bang! I thought the house was falling down, or the Royal Philharmonic had crept into the attic to play the 1812 overture. But no. It was just the mother and father of all thunderstorms.

And then I thought, hell’s teeth, the washing. The line out in the garden was loaded with it. All dry. (Which is important when you are a dilettante washerwoman).

I thought about leaving it. And then I thought about all the other washing waiting to go out…So two minutes later there I was, in my jammies, lightning cracking over the greenhouse, feverishly tearing the pegs off the line and throwing clothes in a basket while raindrops as fat as grapes burst on my head and shoulders.

Then there was another enormous kettle drum of thunder and, almost instantly, the sky split with a horizontal flash as if it were taking a picture of the garden.

The pattering on the leaves stilled for a moment, and then the rain roared down. I picked up my basket and fled.

Back upstairs, job done, I dried myself off, went back to bed with a cup of tea, consoled two uncertain dogs and watched the lightning arc across our neighbour’s field. I felt very, very smug.

Until I had to get up four hours later.

Oh to be in England, now the car boot’s here


I’ve gasped with awe at the Himalayas and the Rockies, I’ve sat on palm fringed beaches in the Caribbean and on deserted islands in China. But, for just a couple of weeks, while the blossom is out, and the trees and the hedgerows are freshly green, and the ducks down on the canal have nine thimble-sized ducklings trailing haphazardly after them, there is no lovelier place in the world than the British countryside.

And what do you do in the midst of such loveliness? You go to a bank holiday car boot sale, of course.

I blame the Americans. (Careful, Ed) They invented the idea of boot sales, although I don’t think they call them that, but they have now become a truly British institution. Once, at this time of year, we used to be happy to go to a fete, watch our kids dance round a maypole, and chuck a wet sponge at the vicar. Now, it seems, all we want to do is take our tat to a field, sell it and come home with other people’s tat. Napoleon was right. We are truly a nation of shopkeepers.


So we went, myself, husband, son and daughter, each with our secret little hopes for a bargain, to the biggest boot sale around, in the parkland of Overstone Manor, deep in Northamptonshire. You could look one way and there was a sea of cars and people selling everything from toasting forks to deck chairs. But, look the other and there was an empty grass track curling down to an ancient stone bridge and then continuing up to the house, drowsing in the sunshine. Eat your heart out, Downton Abbey.

The house is Victorian, built in 1864, and is now a girl’s school, but there has been a manor there since, well, since forever, probably. The first mention of it seems to be in the 11th century  when, according to British History Online, Maud the daughter and heir of Niel Mundeville married Ruallon d’Avranches. The history of the manor is long, and peppered with bizarre sentences such as, ‘in 1365 one Edmund de Morteyn claimed that his greatgrandmother Constance was seised of the manor in the reign of Edward I, but his pretensions were without foundation’ or ‘Walter le Mazun complained that she had unjustly ejected him from 1 virgate of land’. Suffice to say (here, I’m doing it, now) Henry VII’s grandad owned it at one point, and God knows what he would have done if he’d seen 2,000 serfs milling about in his parkland eating chips and buying second hand George Foreman fat-busting grills.

So there we were, wandering in the park among the knick knacks, listening in, willy nilly, on other people’s conversations.

Last time I saw you, I was on a horse. Or was it you that was on a horse?

I said to him, I said, ‘What do you want for your birthday?’ and he said a painting. So he came home and I bought him two.

I’m having the baby in August and my boyfriend’s going to come and see me every Wednesday.

And when we had finished we sat on plastic chairs by the tea wagon and shared a plate of chips. (With mayonnaise, natch, because even in the country we know all about café society.)

‘Oh, God, mum, not more kitsch,’ moaned my daughter, when I presented my haul of five Devonware egg cups, two embroideries, a teaspoon from Aberystwyth and two pots of parsley.

Why is parsley kitsch?

Son had bought two box sets of DVDS, containing the entire series of Lost, and a broken BB gun. ‘There was this enormous hunting knife, too,’ he said rather despondently. ‘But dad wouldn’t let me have it.’

‘That’s because we don’t want to spend this afternoon in A&E,’ I explained, heaping mental brownie points on husband’s head.

‘Also, it was a rubbish knife,’ said husband, immediately being seised of said brownie points.

Daughter laid out heaps of clothes. ‘Look,’ she sighed.  ‘A real Moschino belt. And it only cost 50p.’




Please turn the taps off…

I suppose, before I start, that I ought to apologise to any Americans reading this, but would it be too much to ask for some cold weather? A bit of frost, maybe? I know snow is probably off the menu for this year, seeing as it’s all been sent to the States, but if whoever is in charge of the global weather department (British division) is reading this, could you please turn the taps off before this country overflows?

Rain in Somerset

I know I ought to be used to living in an atmosphere of grey cotton wool, and I had my family waterproofed some years ago, but still, I have not yet fully developed my gills, and my new fins have not, so far, arrived from ebay (apparently suppliers are working overtime).

I shouldn’t complain really; I don’t have a rowing boat moored to the bottom of the stairs, because I don’t live on a flood plain, or anywhere near the seafront at Aberystwyth, but last week it started raining in my son’s bedroom, and there is a damp patch the size of Australia in the easterly corner of my kitchen.

fire engine

The weather forecast today is something on the lines of, ‘We have a low weather front lining up in the Atlantic for today and another one arriving for tomorrow. There are flood alerts here, here and here. The only person not at risk of flood damage is Nelson, although we can’t say the same for his column.’ Actually, I made that last bit up. I had to, because I’m not sure the forecasters are bothering to turn up for work anymore; it’s been the same weather since November.

However, even if in America you’re finding it hard to breathe, and your kettle keeps freezing as soon as it’s boiled, spare a thought for one special brown dwarf star system – Luhman 16AB, home of the closest pair of brown dwarfs to Earth.

brown dwarf  

At just 6.5 light-years away, it is the third-closest system of any kind to our Sun, and the closest to the nearby star of Alpha Centauri.

Scientists using Nasa’s Spitzer telescope detected hurricane-force winds of 100-400 mph and temperatures of up to 1,227C. Which sounds quite toasty warm, but the astronomers also found clouds covering 50% of the brown dwarfs’ surfaces and they think the ‘rain’ is molten iron. Still, no mud, and I could always get my brolly reinforced…

Where’s the white stuff?



Christmas is coming, (in case anybody hadn’t noticed) and nearly every card I get has snow on it. What is it about that white stuff that gets us all so hopeful? In Britain we border on the delusional about snow. It’s what we all want for Christmas, but we rarely get it. We don’t have white Christmases; we have wet ones; sleety, windy, breezy, damp ones. And if the weather forecast is anything to go by, we are in for some tremendous gales today. Michael Alexander Chaney put some snow scenes from literature in his blog. I’ve got some rain ones. Get your brollies out.

The air was so heavy with water, that not till they had passed Frog’s Bridge did they hear the sweet, dull jangle of sound that told them that the ringers were practising their Christmas peal; it drifted through the streaming rain with an aching and intolerable melancholy, like the noise of the bells of a drowned city pulsing up through the overwhelming sea.

The Nine Tailors, Dorothy L Sayers.

Then came a wind and a rain, and the wind whipped the rain and hail about in every direction, so that an overhanging rock was no protection at all. Soon they were getting drenched and their ponies were standing with their heads down and their tails between their legs, and some of them were whinnying with fright. They could hear the giants guffawing and shouting all over the mountainsides.

The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien

Though the hygrometer was within 33 ½ degrees of extreme dryness, or 66 ½ from extreme humidity, thick clouds formed round us, which obliged us to think of retreating: in a little time, the summit of the mountain was surrounded by them: they spread and covered the whole horizon: a premature night surprised us in a very dangerous road, and we suffered one of the most violent tempests I ever experienced, of wind, rain, hail, and thunder.

Thoughts on Meteorology, M de Luc

My troubles began when I joined my Highland battalion in India and had to have a batman from the ranks of my own platoon. No doubt I had been spoiled in India, but the contrast was dramatic. Where I had been accustomed to waking to the soft murmur of ‘Chota hazri, sahib’, and having a pialla of perfectly-brewed tea and a sliced mango on my bedside table, there was now a crash of hobnailed boots and a raucous cry of ‘Erzi tea! Some o’ it’s spilt, and there’s nae sugar. Aye, an’ the rain’s oan again.’

The Complete McAuslan, George MacDonald Fraser,


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