Saturday, 4 February 2012
On A Slow Bus To China
A dozen or so years ago, I went with four friends to some of the wilder and more remote parts of China. It was a trip with mixed success. The basics of Qinghai and Gansu Provinces were not to everyone's taste. Needless to say I was in my element. Anywhere or anything which is the antithesis to the traditional English holiday of sitting on a crowded beach turning the colour of a cooked lobster, or taking a villa and only being with your own countryfolk, speaking the same language, or the ubiquitous package tour and city mini-break has always meant I have been to varied places.
I love the writings of John Reed, Jan and Cora Gordon, Rebecca West, Norman Lewis and Thant Myint-U. They are pioneers, both past and present and bring places to life, unlike more well known books about Provence, Sicilian Lemons or backpacking in the Himalayas. But each unto their own. I would have liked to have met Marco Polo, T.E. Lawrence and Countess Waldeck who mixed with spies from all nations whilst staying in the Athenee Palace Hotel in Bucharest in 1941.
Back to Gansu Province. Some of the group were not overly thrilled with the spartan accomadation, sleeping on a wooden floor in a hut, somewhere in the hilly, grassy foothills of ther Himalays. We were huddled together, around one pathetic little stove, covered in animal furs in a bid to keep the cold out. And by gum it was cold. It rattled through the bones and it was impossible to control the chattering of teeth.
We were illegally there, having hired a dodgy tour operator who took us off-track to some off limits village. You knew, the previous afternoon that we were somewhere where Westerners hadn't been, when we were followed by a group of curious monks. So curious were they, that every few minutes I felt a shaft of pain in one or other arms, as an anonymous hand would reach out and help itself to a tuft of hair.
'Yes, we did say we wanted to go somewhere authentic and different,' said the group the next morning, confronting me, 'but we never thought you would take us to such a hell-hole as this.'
Besides the cold, the bad backs, the aching muscles, the lack of any hot water bathing facilities, the thing which had sent them over the top was breakfast. Our host, who had kindly given up his house, had slept in the stable next door. He came in at 7am and announced that it breakfast time, pointing to a drawer under the only wooden bed in the room.
'Yak butter tea,' he said with a broad grin. 'Verrrrryyyy gooooood. He opened the door, grabbed a spoon of yellow butter, put it in a cup, poured water over it and handed it to one of the group. She took one look, wretched and ran out the door into the frozen air. So I drank it. It wasn't bad and I can helped keep the cold out. That's the thing about the Chinese. They are very pragmatic people. Nearly everything is done for a good reason.
When we went on to other places, one of the group wanted to stay in another beautiful place we had been to called Ta'er Si. She wrote a letter to me several months later, about her experiences on the way home. They were hilarious. They still make me laugh today:
"I went back to Ta'er Si after you guys left. It SNOWED the whole bleeding time. Very cold. But I had a luxury room on the first floor with full view of the monastry. I ate at that little Muslim restaurant everyday (twice). In fact that was half the reason I went back there. I avoided other places for fear of bumping into any more skinned whippets (I was not in the group's high esteem, having spent days quelling their fears of eating dog or any other unusual meat. The first restaurant we walked into, they demanded to see the kitchen and there, hanging up on the wall were two skinned dogs. Ooops.)
It was a complete nightmare getting out of Xiahe on a bus. I was almost in tears. I had to get insurance first (never worked out why) but by the time I got on the minibus was full. The driver was trying to move people so I could sit down. But each time he managed to get somebody up, quick as a flash, someone else got into the seat. Musical chairs or what? Lots of long distance spitting went on noisily and we all looked like and smellt like an ash tray by the time I got out the bus. All the passengers must have developed cramped necks, as the whole trip they turned to the back of the bus, where I was sitting and stared at me mercilessly. There was a section in the Lonely Planet (the guidebook I'd lent her) about staring. It said 'THE MOVIE IS CALLED THE ALIEN ... AND YOU ARE THE STAR'. I really caved into the pressure."
But every story ussually has a silver lining and the trip had a happy ending:
"A bunch of very snotty and unfriendly backpacking tourists on an organised tour arrived on my last day. I beamed at them happily as not a word had passed my lips in 3 days. Well except for the odd 'HELLO' to the crowds of children. But the b******s completely ignored me and I was rather p****d off with them. Then I got my revenge. It turned out, in that part of the world, one needed a travel permit, and they did not have one. They got fined $3000! HEE HEE. I knew it was because they were unfriendly s***s, and must have upset the hotel people, who called in the Police. Consequently they kept them for an extra two days, which really upset them. I was smiling fiendishly. That's what you get for being unfriendly.
Back in Beijing, I had planned to see the Summer Palace and Mao Sleeping. But I am ashamed to say I was so exhausted with dog avoiding, spitting and being a Superstar that I did not leave my hotel room for the whole of 2 days, except to go for a swim and eat downstairs in the European restaurant.'
Now this to me is the truest form of travel writing. Witty - no outrageously funny but more importantly, regardless of whether you have been there or not, if you shut your eyes you can imagine everything vividly.
And what about Chinese buses?
If you are 6 foot 6 inches like me, you will find them cramped. But the drivers are good and you will no doubt have plenty to talk about.