Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Mrs Whojimaflip's Norwegian Escapades 1969: 2. It Can Be Very Wet On The Fjords

Mrs Whojimaflip has spent a comfortable night in Bergen and is ready to explore the country. But it's not as simple as that, as she wrote:

'Took the train to Voss. It was the wrong train and we ended up travelling in completely the wrong direction. After severar hours of waiting on platforms with unpronouncable names, we managed to get back to Oslo Station and board the right train. We had to pay a fine when the inspector seemed to think we were in the wrong seats. I thought they were rather too comfortable. We hadn't managed to have the time to examine our tickets properly or to figure out what they said. My Norwegian dictionary was stuck at the bottom of my case.

Earlier we had problems with the taxi driver who drove us to the station. The fare was included in the package tour, but the banks were not yet open and we had no Norwegian money, so we couldn't give him a tip. He muttered something under his breath, but he didn't seem to mind. Norwegians are very proud. 

Arrived finally in Voss and took the bus to Ulvik. Norwegian buses tend to do a lot of waiting in the middle of crossroads for other buses, so that passengers can change. The bus drivers, when they meet  have long chats over cigarettes.

Went on a bus tour up the mountain. Got soaked. Soaked inside the bus. This was because the young boy I had seen eaarlire canoodling in a waterfall with a girl, had obviously got out of the water wearing the same trousers, had boarded the bus and sat next to me. He was dripping. I did not know what to say. I looked out the window feeling cold and miserable.

That was not to be my only soaking of the day. We went on a boat trip. I wondered at the Norwegian timekeeping. The buses always met the boats and the boats were always punctual. I wondered how they did tis when passengers had to transfer from one boat to another. I soon had an answer as my boat drew alongside another boat in the middle of the fjord and a plank was placed between the two. I was still wondering and marvelling when I slipped on the plank as I walked across and fell into the icy blue water.

The German woman who was on the tour never laughed so much.

'You are so funny - you English,' she said. She repeated it for the rest of the tour.

I felt like joining the 88-year-old woman I had met earlier that day, who lived up a mountain with her cow, goat and hens. When she wanted supplies she would lower a bucket on a rope and pulley down to the valley floor.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Big Stink At The Olympics And The NHS Car Park

As I was sitting in a hospital car park fuming at the parking charges, I had a Mitt Romney moment and contemplated what was coming out the backside of Number 10 Downing Street. If you are unlucky enough to have to dart into hospital and have to dump the car for a large period of time, then you will be faced with an eye-watering bill at the end of your visit for the privilege of parking.

Salt is rubbed into the wound when you notice that the next door car park by the football fields, which is a two minute walk to the hospital, is half the price of the hospital car park.

So though I felt that watching Danny Boyle's celebration of the NHS in the Olympic Opening Ceremony, with vintage dancing nurses and children trampolening on the beds was nice, but put an over rosy gloss on the leviathan institution, completely overlooking the underlying costs and financial difficulties.. It may well have engendered a feelgood factor in Britain, but the rest of the world must have been left wondering what the hell was that all about. Luckily The Queen, James Bond and Mr Bean saved the day.

It could have been worse. My own day was saved by the sign on the local football clubhouse I spotted. All thoughts of car parking charges evaporated as I contemplated about how difficult I had found it in the past to  clean the insides of my shoes. Personally, I always used Odour Eaters.

The simple things in life give the greatest pleasurs.

Mrs Whojimaflip's Norwegian Escapades 1969: 1. Flight To Bergen; Delays, Lager and Randy Youths

I had a great friend who was 99 when she died and was a pillar of society in the North East. She was a great character and one of the reasons we got on so well, was because of our shared love of travelling to lesser known places around the world. We also shared an interest, some would say verging on the frenetic, in archiving the life and times we both lived in. She had double the number of scrapbooks as I did.

She loved her community and the closeness of it. She loved cleanliness. She loved straight talking and humour. She loved the past, the present and the furure. She believed in wasting nothing. Her garden was full of old jamjars, yoghurt pots and her old nylons, filled with human hair from the local barbers, which were hung on the chain link fence to frighten the deer away (deer don't like the smell of humans, you know and who can blame them). Every inch of her house was made by her. The furniture, the lace tablecloths, the painted china, the curtains. 

It was the antithesis of our modern day, throw-away everything life.

When she died she kindly left me some of her travel scrapbooks. They are a scream. She got into all sorts of scrapes. So I thought I would pass on some of her tales. I have given her the name of Mrs Whojimaflip. It is not her real name, but somehow it is appropriate.

One of her books was about Norway.

I knew little about Norway, having never been there. Like everyone I knew it from the list of stereotypes people used to describe the place - the Land of the Midnight Sun; Roald Amundsen and the South Pole; Thor Heyerdahl and Kon-Tiki; Edvard Munch and The Scream; Henrik Ibsen and Hedda Gabler Edvard Grieg and Peer Gynt; Quisling; The Heroes of Telemark; Morten Harket and A-ha; Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Jo Nesbo ..... er .... and that's about it, apart from the fact that it had a reputation for being expensive.

But Norway was a popular holiday destination from the North East. There had always been close ties between the two places.  Newcastle was twinned with Bergen, Norway donated a Christmas tree every year and King Harald V was the recipient of the Honorary Freedom of Newcastle. Several holidaymakers were  all set for a two week trip to see the fjords. One of them was Mrs Whojimaflip. Her trip started on a misty and drizzly August day . . . . . . . .

'Arrived at the airport. Got there far too early, one hour before the flight. As we sat having a coffee, the speaker announced that the plane hadn't even left Bergen and there was a two hour delay. But  B.K.S gave us a £2 voucher to spend on the aeroplane. It was when I was at the toilet that they called the flight. We stood in a long queue for the customs, but as there was nobody there, we walked straight through, out of the building and onto the plane.

'What are you doing here?' the Steward asked us. 'We are not ready yet.' 

My friend was most embarrassed. 

When we got to Bergen we took the bus to our hotel - the Rosenkrantz. It was a modern hotel but not understanding pipes and showers etc, I turned a switch by mistake which heated the whole bathroom, all night. By morning it was like an oven and the Manager had to come and clear the smoke and sparks which were coming out the bathroom.

Went for walk to the shops but we couldn't understand the concierge's map and it took us three hours to find them. Came back. Watched an American Western called Branded. Had some lager. Felt light, so took it to bed. Start drifting off ... but hear a noise at the door. It is only young boys trying to get into my bedroom ... for drinks I might add. I am in my mid 60's.'  

Those were the days to travel by plane. How easy it was, being able to wander anywhere around the airport and have all the time in the world. The last time I went to an airport, I watched as uniformed staff of a low cost airline chased passengers who were late up the travelator with sticks, prodding them and shouting 'Come on, get a move on,' every so often.

Though it was at the end of the 1960's when the world was going through a time of massive change, there was still a certain innocence to life. Mrs Whojimaflip led the way.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Knackered Roads And Knackered Routers Are The Lasting Memories Of Summer 2012

Why has it been so quiet lately? Did I fall down a hole in the road?

Or did my router throw a wobbler, combined with my resulting ineptitude over anything remotely technical mean that my internet was down for several days?

It could have been one, the other or both.

The roads are in a bad state following the rain. Potholes are everywhere and cracks have appeared. I did go head over ass down a grassy bank while walking along a country back road. Yes the cracks did not help but  they were not the cause. The blame has to be on me, as I wasn't looking where I was going.

'Stupid bloody idiot' I thought I detected in my dogs looks, as they stared impassively down the bank at my green behind. And like the boss of G4S, I had to think 'I cannot disagree with you'.

As for the router. It just stopped. As if it had been struck by lightening. It seemed to go into one long sulk. My limited attempts to repair it, such as giving it a good kick, were fruitless. I don't know about these things. It has an On/Off switch and some flashing green lights. Beyond that I am stumped.

Wireless, it calls itself. But look at all the wires. I seem to have more wires lurking around the skirting board since investing in the darned thing. It is temperamental too. Never does it the easy way.

So that's why the ABD has been silent. But as you can see it is working again. Thanks to the nice Scottish lady at Virgin, who led me by the hand over the phone for what seemed like a very long time as she had to repeat her instructions three times. She was the master of patience.

Computer problems are the bain of all our lives. How frighteningly reliant we have all become on the internet. It rules our lives.

Maybe it is time to reintroduce the humble carrier pigeon.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Do Judge A Book By It's Thickness

Is this a good maxim to live by?

Sometimes I have found it to be beneficial, particularly when driving a bus and being shouted at by some irate passenger. It seems to take the wind out of their sales. They adapt and sometimes feel sorry for your status in life if you act like a complete and utter dimwit. It has saved me being punched or strangled on more than one occasion. I don't know why. Maybe it is adherance to the old British saying, 'you can't hit a man when he is down.'

I was thinking of the bus driver made famous this week by getting lost and taking four hours to deliver the athletes to the Olympic Village from the airport. Perhaps he played dumb too, whilst his angry and bemused passengers took out their ire and boredom by sending messages on Twitter.

'Have you driven a bus before?' asked one Trans-Atlantic tourist after I had taken the wrong road and we were hopelessly lost.

'Once,' I replied, 'but that was a very long time ago.' 

A look of horror shot across his face, but he was speechless and returned to his seat, never being rude for the rest of the trip.

Then again, when I bumped into the above sign, I was reminded that there were degrees of thickness and that this might have been taking it a little far.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Slow Bloke Goes Over The Pole: Anchorage And Home

The Japanese Airlines flight to London was long and uneventful. It was a last chance to try some sushi. The supermarkets back home were a long way off even thinking about stocking it.

The plane stopped to re-fuel at Anchorage, Alaska. It was cold, rainy and the clouds covered the mountains. Home from home, I thought. It could have been an August day in the North Pennines. It was the first chance to catch up on the world news for a month. Nothing seemed to have changed. The press were still lampooning him at every opportunity. The odds were always stacked against him with Ronald Reagan as a strong opponent and always having to watch his back with fellow Democrat Teddy Kennedy constantly trying to oust him.

Arriving back at Heathrow was a mixed blessing. There is something reassuring hearing the West London and Middlesex voices again. The Red Cap greeted the plane like a Sergeant-Major. The Customs Officers looked stern and alert. The porters groaned when they were asked to carry someone's luggage.

As I walked through the electric sliding doors, my mind went into reverse and I expected to be hit by a wall of hot and humid tropical air. It wasn't the case. It was damp and drizzly. Little droplets of water ran down the shiny, bald head of Toad as we said goodbye.

'Windsor?' said the taxi driver rubbing his hands. 'That's not in the Metropolitan area - it will cost you double.'

I was too tired to care and would have been shocked if he had said anything different. This is Britain, of course.

Slow Bloke Leaves China For Japan And The Hotspots Of Tokyo

The hustle and bustle of Tokyo was a shock after Peking. There seemed to be the same number of people, but everything was so much more hurried and professional. The bicycles had been replaced by cars. The gentle evening light by the brash flashing neon advertising signs everywhere. It all seemed so impersonal.

But everything worked better.

The latest technology was evident everywhere, from the buildings on rollers which moved with the earthquake to the latest electronics and gadgets. I marvelled at things like the Seiko Cleancut, the latest electric razor which was cordless and the Citizen Digi-ana watch which was a dual time chronograph which displayed in analogue and digital.

We went to  Ikebukuro, one of Tokyo's many city centres. It sat at the end of the Marunouchi and Yurakucho lines. The massive Seibu Department Store was situated just outside the frantic commuter station. We hadn't come to shop but to visit the museum on the 12th floor which was hosting a major exhibition - Great Masters of French Painting from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. The room was filled with Monets and Millets. I just imagined Harrods, Fortnum & Mason or Selfridges trying to do the same.

The public transport worked like clockwork. You were manhandled onto the subway trains by the pushers, though it took four of them to heave my bulk into the carriage. The buses were comfortable and had the latest entertainment gadgets. The food we ate was always fresh, always delicious. The Teppayaki restaurant, where the table was the hotplate and the chef cooked everything fresh, was a defining moment for a seventeen-year-old. Dozy Old Britain was going to be a difficult place to return to, and I knew I would seek the same high standards.

After the peace of China and the lack of nightlife, our reaction to Tokyo was like being let into a sweet shop after a long wait. We charged down to the nightclubs in Roppongi. One of the group had been recommended a place called Studio 1. It was a mistake. The DJ played record after record by Earth, Wind and Fire. By 2 am I was ready for the next club, but several bouncers barred our exit. It looked like we were in trouble and might escape with our lives if we bought several bottles of excessively overpriced champagne. But they smiled and said Japanese law forbid anyone to leave between 1 am and 4 am.

Two hours of Boogie Wonderland, September and Let's Groove stretched the patience a little.

Toad had got worse in Tokyo. Some of the group had had enough of him and played a mean trick on him. They rang up several Escort companies and requested a girl be sent at a specific time to his hotel room. A succession of pretty Japanese girls were seen walking up the hotel corridor and knocking on his door.

The next morning at breakfast in the hotel dining room, Toad was unusually bright and breezy. He never said a word but he was the most contented we had seen him on the trip. Perhaps it was just the joyous realisation that there was only another day to have to put up with this rabble. Perhaps not. He has kept us guessing to this day.

The people who organised the prank were surprised. We were all surprised. We all thought he was gay.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Slow Bloke To China: 55 Days At Peking? No - Only 5

It did not take long for the battleaxe stewardess to pipe up when the plane landed at Peking Airport.

'No look. No see,' she yelled as she pulled the blind down. There was plenty to see as we taxied around the apron towards the terminal building. There weren't many passenger planes, but the whole of the Chinese Air Force seemed to be parked on the concrete. Row upon row of Chengdu Jian-7's, the Chinese copy of the Russian MiG 21 stood near the terminal building. The Kodak Instamatic excelled itself and I managed to take a sneaky photo. For a flash I felt like a Philby, Burgess or Maclean, before reality kicked in and my spying activities would have been viewed on a par with Mr Bean.

It was hot in Peking. A different kind of heat, very dry and dusty with the air full of sand blown over from the Gobi Desert, or so they say. It affected some of the group and the asthma sufferers were ill.

We stayed in the tallest building, the Peking Hotel. It still retained most of its turn of the century chic with ornately decorated foyers and halls. From our bedroom on the sixth floor we could see the whole city, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City to the right, Wangfujing Street to the front and the many old streets and low level houses to the left. My room mate became very excited:

'That's where Felix Greene lives.' Since crossing the border, he had been clutching a book by Felix Greene and was on a mission to meet him.

'Who is Felix Greene?' I had asked naively at the beginning of the trip and received every last bit of information about how he was Graham Greene's cousin, had managed to secure a visa which was nearly impossible to live in a small house in Peking. He was considered to be a 'Red' as he always wrote sympathetic articles and books about China, Communism and Chairman Mao. He was also seen to be an eccentric adventurer living in such a 'wild' place.

My friend tracked him down. It wasn'tan hard, finding one of the few Europeans who lived in the old city. He received a lecture on the good qualities of life under the communist regime and returned to the hotel with a sense of triumphalism akin to the return of an Arctic explorer.

The overriding memory of the Peking Hotel was the long corridor between the old and new buildings. Spaced at three yard intervals on either side of the corridor were metal pots. Initially everyone thought they were either ashtrays or empty pot holders. Soon it became apparent that they were neither. They were spitoons. The noise of people clearing their throats followed by a ping as they hit the target, at times was deafening.

There was a new train out to the Great Wall. A tourist train, with special tourist class seating, tourist prices and even a unique tourist ticket. It dumped you quite a long way from the Wall and we had to walk uphill, for what seemed like miles in the heat. It was worth it. Having seen it, every other similar defensive structure pales into insignificance. I cannot get enthused about Hadrian's Wall, for example, however much people try to explain the magnanimity and magnificance of it. To me, in comparison, it is like a retaining wall in someone's garden.

Our group was lucky. The tourist expansion had not yet begun. It was still mostly natural and unspoilt, bar for a few hawkers. none of us felt it would stay like this for long.

As we started our descent down the hill in the direction, one of our group said:

'I'm absolutely knackered. I'm buggered if I'm going to walk all the way back.'

I thought no more about his remark until I saw him a couple of hours later on the train, looking slightly shaken. He had seen a truck standing in a queue of traffic, heading in the direction of the station and had jumped onto the back without the driver. The traffic had cleared. The truck had gathered speed. It passed our group. It passed the station. It passed some Red Guards leaning on a signpost which read:


That was when he decided that he must do something and do something fast, so he banged on the roof of the cab. The driver, Mao capped with a cigarette stuck in the corner of his mouth, Andy Capp style looked as if he had seen a ghost. The white devil on the back made him scream, jam on his brakes and drive into the ditch.

By then it was a long walk back to the station. Before that, he ran into the Red Guards where a heated exchange took place. The Chinese speaking Chinese, the Englishman speaking English and neither understanding anything the other was saying. In the end the Red Guards let him go and he avoided being incarcerated. When he sat down on the train and analysed his hairy experience, the bizarre thought went through his mind that he might be the first Englishman to be shot by the Chinese since the Korean War.

Following the Great Wall trip, there were the usual tourist visits to the Fragrant Hills and the Summer Palace, where we were told Mao liked to walk and recite poetry, the Ming Tombs and the Forbidden Palace. The trick was to dodge the increasing number of American tourists we came across.

The best time to do this was early in the morning. I used to like to walk around the Palace walls. It was a hive of activity with people of all ages limbering up with Tai Chi Chuan.

'If you are a mugger,' said the guide when we returned to the hotel, 'don't attack an 80-year-old. They will kill you.'

There were even opera singers exercising their voices by the moat, people meditating, many friends walking and the occasional jogger enjoying the peaceful early sun and gentle warmth. The moment was ruined by the loud voice of an American lady, I heard from over the wall of the Forbidden Palace:

'Jeez it's dark in here. Why can't they turn on any goddamn lights in here?' It was in the sort of voice that you tended to know from the Golden Girls or Joan Rivers. My step hastened, but in the opposite direction.

The entertainment in the evenings was a simple. There were no nightclubs or discos. There were few bars. We had bicycle races in Tiananmen Square and we watched a wild eyed Spanish tourist play the guitar and his gypsy looking girlfriend lead a Conga with 200 Chinese behind. We walked in the park with hundreds of couples. We watched the film on a large open air screen - Convoy, dubbed in Chinese which somehow seemed to turn Kris Kristofferson, Ali MacGraw and Ernest Borgnine into the same sounding voice. I always wonder how the Chinese censor coped with translation of the film's earthy phrases like 'piss on you and piss on ya' law.'

Our last night we stayed in Peking was a special night. Our guides, who some of us had made great friends with, suddenly became serious and said they wanted to take us to see Democracy Wall. When met with our general unenthusiasm, they said to three of us that we were going if we liked it or not and three of us reluctantly went.

Democracy wall was around for a relatively short space of time. It was a wall to the West of the Forbidden City on Chang'an Avenue where anyone was permitted to pin up written complaints of any kind. This was a chink in the united front of the Chinese Communist Party and for a time it was exploited. In January 1980, six months later, Deng Xiaoping cancelled peoples' constitutional right to hand posters. Democracy Wall was moved to a park in a suburb and quietly run down. Maybe the above piece of paper, which I ripped off the wall and pasted into my scrapbook, is the last actual evidence of  this part of Chinese history.

We spent two hours there. It was an extraordinary place. It felt like a small bubble in a huge space, where anyone could say what they felt. Our guides translated every notice, from a major attack on Government policy to someone who said he was angry at not having a bath in his house.

Today with the internet and globalisation, the wall seems a trivial matter. But it was far from that. I felt our guides were brave in taking us there - it was not on the tourist route. They were students at Beijing University, a hotbed of anti-communist militancy. It was as if they wanted us to be messengers and spread the word around the world. In one respect we had a brief glimpse of the future. The actions of the university students would lead to the Tiananmen Square Massacre, ten years later.

We left Peking the next day on a JAL DC8 jet bound for Tokyo. For some reason I was expecting the battleaxe stewardess to be there, pulling down the blinds. But she wasn't. She was replaced by courteous and attentive staff, handing out sashimi and sushi with pots of sticky green tea and fragrant jasmine scented hot towells.

It was perfection, but I wanted to go back to the imperfect China.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Slow Bloke To China: 12. Changsha - Home Of Duck Blood In Chilli Sauce, Tall Basketball Players And Possibly Castrated Opera Singers

The downside of forbidding a load of sixth formers to leave their compartments became apparent as the train pulled into Changsha at 6am. The excesses of Tsingtao beer and Mao Tai presented itself in a bleery eyed, scruffy, unshaven gang with hangovers who literally fell out of the train onto the platform. Actually that was not strictly true. Most of the group were fine. It was just the Good Time Boys and the Irresponsibles who let the side down. The local guides who were there to meet us were surprised to see one member of the group walk straight past them and chundered onto the tracks, in the gap where the carriages linked up.

They took one look at us and hurriedly rushed us to our hotel, the Hunan Hotel, which was at the time the most luxurous hotels in Changsha. This was undoubtedly due to the fact that it was the only place for tourists to stay. Its Soviet style of architecture did not promise of good things within. But looks can be deceptive and the interior was quite ok with spacious rooms overlooking Martyr's Park.

Even the attempt at a Western breakfast was refreshingly different to the other places we had been where the scrambled eggs had varied in their quality of rubberness. Here the fried eggs were good, the cucumbers were fresh, the bread tasted of stilton cheese and everything was cooked with hot chilis, Hunan style.

I took to Changsha with ease. It was a more temperate climate than the humid South and though lacking the beautiful mountains, the wide tree lined streets and river made the city a friendly place.  

Naturally we were given the full tourist tour. The porcelain factory which produced 70,000 items of china each day. The Hunan Provincial Museum with its 2000 year old mummified lady, who they could tell had died suddenly while eating sunflower seeds, as the seeds were found in her stomach. Everywhere we went, we ate like Kings, with steam coming out of our ears with the liberal use of big fat red chilis in all dishes. It is slightly different from Szechuan cooking, even hotter and better presented. The steamed fish heads with chilis, stir fried duck blood and Changsha stinky do-fu were indescribably good, as was the Dong'an chicken and Orange beef. As before I stuck closely to the Moanersandgroaners and cleaned up the food they picked at. My slim physique was beginning to alter.

Every foreign tourist was given the three line whip to visit Mao Zedong's birthplace at Shaoshan, about 130 kms outside Changsha in gently rolling countryside. We all soon tired of the propagandatorial tour, yet we were in the minority. There were many Chinese weeping, praying, kneeling and lighting of incense sticks. It is easy to put a Western slant on the great leader and say he was an evil man who killed millions in such stupid ventures as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. But to the Chinese Mao is God. For all his faults, his legacy is a unified China and a country not under the occupation of the Japanese. To the Chinese population that was Churchillian.

The evening was a treat with a visti to the Changsha Opera Company's production of Yan Zhi (Buying Rouge). It was a story about a pretty young girl who is left in charge of her family's cosmetic shop though her mind was more on men. A man comes into the shop and falls in love. As they are going behind the counter for some ... a travelling salesman comes in and forestalls the passionate moment. The man bribes him to go away, threatens to hang himself with a girdle he finds behind the counter but succeeds. The girl starts to lead the man through the door at the back of the shop for a second attempt at some ..., but the travelling salesman returns and in the farce the young man plants a kiss on the lips of the salesman, by mistake instead of the girl.
It's simple, really.

We all went determined to hate Chinese Opera and thought of ways of killing the three to four hours of forthcoming torture we were going to be subjugated to. But it was not like that. It was mesmerising - the music, the unusual singing, some of which sounded as if it was sung by modern day eunachs, the set, the costumes, the romance, the theatre ... just the whole thing.

At half-time we were all looking forward to the second half. Toad however was not. In fact he got up and told us we were leaving. We refused and sat down in our seats. Toad went red and vented his spleen on the guide, shouting and shaking his fist. The large audience fell silent and all eyes were on Toad.

Nevertheless we won. We decided to fix Toad, who had no option but to sit down too.

We made it so that he had to sit between the two guides. It was something I had had to do at a particularly dull local opera several nights before. We all started to doze. The guides sat bolt upright. As I began drifting off, I felt a sharp pain as an elbow was embedded into my ribs and a voice whispered in my ear:

'The magpie has killed the dragon.'

I nodded as enthusiastically before nodding off again. A minute later a second elbow crashed into my side:

'The monkey has married the magical golden flower.'

This went on during the whole performance. I sat bolt upright too through the last third of the show. We all looked over at Toad fifteen minutes into the second part. He was sitting straight as a lamppost. We grinned with satisfaction to thinkthat he must have been going through the same procedure.  At the end, he looked irritated and drained. I will never know for certain if he suspected us, but by his short but polite response to us, I think he did.

Our final day in Changsha was different again. We were taken to a Gymnasium and spent the morning letting off steam and playing every kind of sport with the local students. Gymnastics, Table Tennis, Weight Lifting, Badminton, Basketball, Volleyball and Athletics. We were hammered 5-2 by the local football team. I even met a Changsha basketball player who was taller than me. I have never met any Chinese since who was as tall.

Our guides had organised this. It was not on the tour itinerary. Two nights before a group of us had squared up to the guides several nights ago, told them we were fed up with the propaganda and were going to go home unless we saw the real China. They had looked horrified and were speechless:

'One minute please,' said one guide tugging at the other's shirt. 'We have conference.'

They went off into a corner and were in deep discussion for what seemed like an age. When they returned, they smiled and one said;

'OK. No problem.'

From that moment everything changed. The atmosphere lightened. The guides started opening up and by the end of the trip we became great friends. They were strange to most areas as they came from Peking. They studied at Beijing University which was a hotbed of reactionism to the Communists. They opened up. Took us to areas which were illegal for foreigners to visit, met unusual people and sampled proper food.

It was in the evening that we arrived at the bottom of the steps of the same Trident we had flown to Kweilin in. Sure enough the stewardess at the plane door looked familiar. Inside our tourist only cabin was the other battleaxe who had not wanted us to see the economy class. She was already guarding the door. She already had her arms folded. She was about to speak but I beat her to it:

'I don't want to see.'

She smiled. As we began our two hour flight, though I could not see what was behind me, I thought I could hear the anxious sounds of some animal or other.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Slow Bloke To China: 11. Kweilin: Fever From The Li Jiang And The Aussie Builders Deflect The Mind Away From The Tourist Trap

Operation Ichi-Go was the Japanese offensive against the Chinese Guomindang which ran between  April and December 1944. Its aim was to smash the Chinese Nationalists, open a land route all the way across to French Indochina (Vietnam) and close down all the airfields which were being used by the American Air Force, from where B-52's could easily bomb the Japanese mainland. Kweilin was one of these airfields. The speed and decisive Japanese vicories of the invasion meant that there had to be a fast retreat and ultimately a complete evacuation of Kweilin.

'Look at the map,' Brigadier General "Casey" Vincent is supposed to have said. 'It's the worst strategic defeat ever suffered by an American air force.'

Peering out of the Trident's window at the breathtaking beauty of the landscape, it was hard to comprehend that there had been such a time of violence.

'It always rains in Kweilin,'announced our new guide. As he led us out of the main airport glass doors towards our bus, the heavens opened and we were drenched before we had climbed the steps. The rebellion had gathered pace against our teacher/leader Toad. He had delayed the tour, got up late and wanted to do as little as possible on this trip, making it a relaxed holiday for himself. The guide turned to Toad on the bus and said:

'Tomorrow wakeat 7. Breakfast 7.30. Leave 8.15.'

Toad frowned and started complaining.

'Lazy bugger,' one of the two accompanying lady teachers said rather too loudly, but it had the effect and Toad accepted the schedule.

The group was beginning to separate into groups. There were the Good Time Boys, the Irresponsibles, the Deadly Seriouses, the Moansandgroans, the I-Wannagohomes and the KeepquietIwannabeleftalones. You can guess which two groups I attached myself to. I learnt that it was good to sit on the same table as the Moansand groans at mealtimes because they complained non-stop about the food and ate very little, meaning that I could satisfy my ample if greedy hulk by hoovering up every plate.

Everywhere we went I just adored the food. Everywhere we went it was different. It made a mockery of the restaurants back home, which announced that they served Pekinese, Cantonese and Szechuan food. I have been faddy and particular about Chinese food in England ever since.

Our first night in Kweilin ended up in the usual mandatory visit to the cinema to see a propaganda film about a local hero and Chinese fairytale type of legend. This time it was done by a local opera company and was bizarrely amusing for all the wrong reasons. The ones who stayed awake laughed. even our lady guide couldn't understand what was going on.

It rained again as we came out of the cinema, but the good news was that the typhoon had changed course and was heading for Shanghai and not Guangxi Province. We could get a good night's sleep.

The next day was a boat trip down the River Li Jiang. There were some Thais working by the boat, who when they saw me fell about laughing and said to me:

'You are one big joke.' I gave them the benefit of the doubt that it might have been flattery rather than insult. Who knows? At least they said it with a smile.

Having seen the 100th person climbing up the needle like vegetation covered rocks to collect firewood and been round the 100th bend in the river, the trip began to become boring. The wind whistled around the boat and it started to feel cold. A visit to the tourist trap of Yangshuo did not improve the mood. We saw all of twenty other tourists but it was full of traders selling cheap tat. You knew what it would be like when China opened its doors properly to tourists and I imagined the bus loads taking pictures of the view which is seen in every brochure about China.

Even lunch was disappointing. It was the Chinese equivalent of Irish Stew. Perhaps they had made a bold attempt at copying it to make the English tourists feel at home. A visit to a cave where all the stalactites and stalagmites were lit by different coloured lights and where we were asked to ooh and ah if we recognised the shapes of elephants, horses, mice and Chairman Mao, seemed to put the group in a worse frame of mind.

Arriving back at the hotel and feeling ill was not a surprise. I thought I was going to self-combust during the night and as I was no better in the morning, the guide took me to hospital. The Chinese authorities were frightened of any tourist falling ill and whipped them off to see the doc at the first opportunity. I love Chinese doctors and the whole concept of their preventative medecine. You go to a doctor in China when you are well, not when you are ill. They are pragmatic and don't say much.

There was no wait. I was ushered into a clean examination room. The windows were wide open and a variety of insects were flying around the bright lights. The doctor felt my pulse, looked at my eyes and tongue and said to me via the guide:

'Fever from boat. Take these. Better soon.'

He handed me some horrible looking brown ground up herbal root, some pills and some tea. They tasted vile, but true to his word, I was much better by lunch. Well enough to visit another cave with 1200 year old writing. Recent political graffiti had been written over the ancient writing which was supposed to contain the history of China. This was followed by a visit to see a depressed Panda at the zoo, who mournfully and seemingly reluctantly came out of his hole to collect some bamboo leaves.
The Miraculous Cure From The Kweilin Doctor

We never stopped. A trip to the factory where they made people out of flour and water, a climb to a viewpoint up a hill and the jade factory where we saw a 12" x12" carving of four galloping horses and had taken the artist eleven months so far. Most things were for export, for the American. Even in 1979, the prices were vast.

My Preferred Cure - Mao Tai (Rice Wine)
Just before leaving Kweilin, the Irresponsibles and the Good Time Boys went off to the local bar which was crammed full of Australian builders, who had just finished their day's work building the large hotels which were going to house the tourists in the future.

'Isn't it boring here?' asked one of the group.

'No, mate. We make the most of it,' replied the burliest of them. 'And besides, we're paid a fortune, the beer's cheap and there are plenty of sheilas.'

Soap From The Train. (Note The Communist Uplifting Pictures)
The night sleeper for Changsha was already standing on Platform 1 of Kweilin Station. I hadn't been on a sleeper since going to Aberdeen on The Aberdonian. Chinese railways were extremely comfortable and harked back to the golden age of British railways. we were even woken with a cup of tea and Chinese bun.

It was an understatement to say that we getting tired of Toad and his ways. The feelings were mutual and he seemed to be fed up with us, possibly wondering if it had been a mistake to take this motley crew. He snapped, shouted and waved his arms around wildly for a while and confined us to our sleeping compartments, forbidding us even to stretch our legs in the corridor.

It didn't matter. The Australians had shown us where to stock up on beer, food and cigarettes. We were well prepared for the long night ahead.

A Mystery Tour Is Still A Complete And Utter Mystery

Excursions by bus have always been popular in the North East of England. They have always been good value and many companies operated day trips to the same places, year after year.

Just look at these prices from the Northern advert in the Northern Echo in the 1960's. If you look at some of Tyneside's oldest coach companies like Priory, Rowell and Thirwells, they are still doing it. The destinations are mostly the same with the additions of places like Alton Towers, Flamingoland and Lightwater Valley theme parks, or shopping trips to the Metro Centre, a market or a Christmas Fayre. The price for say, a trip to Blackpool Illuminations may have gone up eighteenfold from 23/- to £18-50, but the great thing is that little else has changed.

The very best thing is that the Mystery Tour is still there. National Holidays even run a two day Mystery Break saying it is 'a splendid adventure into the unknown .... never too far, yet not too near.

I took a Mystery Tour, once. It was full of old ladies from a Knit & Natter club, based in a North Eastern metropolis. They were some of the meanest and most miserable moaners I have ever taken. I was forewarned by the other drivers who had taken them before, but I was still unprepared for the ferocity of their complaints.

'Just take them anywhere,' the boss had unhelpfully said. 'You choose. It's up to you.'

So after much thought, I chose the hills over the coast or the rivers. It was a poor choice, because as we started to climb up the steep gradients the fog descended and the ladies sitting behind saw nothing for most of the trip, until we were nearly back at their starting point. Catastrophe, I thought, and tried to deflect my mind away from the ripple of grumblings which seemed to permeate throughout the bus.

When we stopped, I expected the worst. The organiser got up and I prepared myself for an earbashing.

'The ladies and I are in full agreement,' she said, 'that this was the best Mystery Tour we have ever been on. We'll be requesting you again.' A burst of applause followed.

My mouth was still open when I returned to the depot, half an hour later.

Life is one big mystery.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Slow Bloke To China: 10.CAAC - The Way To Fly - But Only If You Were A Foreign Tourist

Driving through the middle of Guangzhou was a challenge. The bus driver never batted an eyelid. He went at the same sedate speed, blowing his horn at regular intervals. The roads were full. The cars, however you could almost count on the fingers on one hand. There were hardly any. This was made up by the large number of trucks, tractors and bicycles. That was the biggest change I noticed when I returned to China a few years later. The ratios had changed. In 1979 it seemed like one million bicycles to each car, and now it seems the other way round.

The Department Store was huge, yet there wasn't much of interest to buy. Lavatory paper...

...yet more lavatory paper and little else bar the rice paper fans and the Mao hats.

Leaving was not hard. The group was deposited at the brand new airport to catch the flight to Kweilin, a mere up and down at only 45 minutes away.

'No take photos,' the stewardess said gruffly. 'Not allowed.' She leant across and pulled the shutter down the window, just in case anyone was tempted.

She proceded to hand out a bag of sweets and an orange plastic key ring with CAAC written on it. We were in the first class compartment of a Hawker Siddeley Trident, a plane which had been flown by BEA in the UK but hadn't been seen around for the last few years. So this is where they have all gone, I thought to myself. As we walked down the plane's steps onto the hot tarmac, I looked back at the tail. It may have been a trick of the light or a trick of the brain, but I thought you could just see the outline of the BEA logo under the pristine white paint.

Everything was pristine on CAAC. The crew were immaculately polite, the front cabin was white all through, white seats, white headrests, white lockers, white carpet. It was like being in an operating theatre. When I went to the aft lavatory, I couldn't resist opening the door back into steerage and sneaking a look.

It was a shock. Everything was far from white. It looked like the inside of a wartime Dakota with wooden benches along the side and a variety of ill dressed people smoking and holding onto their animals. I saw only the briefest of glimpses as the stewardess ran up behind me and slammed the door.

'No see. No, see,' she said and pointed her finger at my vacant seat. 

When I returned to my seat, I spread the word and her life was made hell by a succession of people trying to open the door. She ended standing in front of the door with her arms folded. Even as we landed she was fearful of sitting down in the crew seat.