Friday, 6 July 2012

A Slow Bloke To China: 2. Planning

Think of  package tours in the 1970's. James Vance, Laker, Tjaereborg, Clarksons and Horizon (part of Court Line), ILG, have all vanished for different reasons. One of the few old stalwarts still around is Thomson Holidays. One of the reasons for this must have been that they were more adventurous than their rivals, as the above shows. 1979, when China was just beginning to open up to tourists, they were there.

Not that the group I went with used them. We were on a school trip. The leader, a teacher, who used to be given the nickname of Mr. Toad due mainly to his facial features and expressions. In China itself, the Mr was dropped and he just became known as Toad because his habit of not getting up early and wanting to do as little as possible, irritated all the boys.

But give Toad his due - he had been adventurous to come up with the idea and had put a lot of work into getting it off the ground. He had many hitches and near failures. The initial plan was to take an Aeroflot flight to Ulan Bator in Mongolia, via Moscow and Irkutsk, before crossing the border to China.

'Don't go on the Trans Siberian Express,' advised a friend who had just returned from Vladivostok. 'We had a miserable trip.'

'Oh? Why?'

Looking at his shoes and shaking his head, he continued: 'Well, we had a lovely first day. It was exciting. Clean. Comfortable. We had a great two bed compartment and we sat and watched the breathtaking scenery fly past. Then, come the evening, we were rather peckish, so off we went to the dining car for an dinner.. When we came back to our compartment, we found that we had been locked out. It was taken over by a load of Ukrainian squatters, who refused to budge. The guard did nothing and just shrugged his shoulders, saying this sort of thing happens the whole time. So we spent the rest of the trip in the corridor. It was a nightmare.'

Maybe it was a piece of good luck that the Russians and the Mongolians refused to give the required Transit Visa to cross into China. Though it was a bind at the time, maybe we were 'saved by the bell'.

Therefore, at Noon on Saturday 11th August 1979, the heavily laden British Airways Jumbo Jet heaved itself down the hot tarmac and headed for the direction of Rome, Delhi and HongKong. We were wrongly given the feeling that we were VIP's when some of Heathrow's PR team, a pilot and a couple of air hostesses (you could safely say that in 1979) whisked twenty-five boys, two teachers and two helpers onto the concrete outside Terminal 3, bypassing all customs and security, for a photograph. We posed underneath a jet engine and were told that fame would beckon as we might be going to reach the heights of the BA staff magazine, the Heathrow Airport staff paper and the Hounslow Chronicle.

We were of interest, being one of the first schools to visit China, be it in a humble way. Any more publicity would have been the ruination of a group of 16, 17 and 18 year olds, who would have been unbearably big headed.

I was already a 6 7/8 hat size in those days.

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