June 24th 1984

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I was up until the early hours, writing + listening to the radio.  The night was also disturbed by one of the worst storms I’ve ever experienced, thunder so loud, so near + so violent that it rocked the building, + rain pouring over all as if tipped from a celestial bucket.  I needed to go to the toilet during the night, tho’ perhaps I would have attempted to exercise more control over my body had I known what was in store.  The journey to the toilet required just 10 yds of walking out in the open.  In those 10 yds out (+ the same back), I was wetted more thoroughly than if I’d stood under the shower.

Val woke me in the morning with a nice hot cup of coffee, but it was only when I tried to get up that I discovered how stiff + sore I was, especially in the calves; Val wasn’t much better off.  We noticed especially when we first climbed down the stairs – every step was agony.  We walked first to the hotel, hoping to find breakfast – ideally, Western breakfast – but no go.  The place seemed very disorganised, + being on several sites, took a good bit of walking round.  So we resorted to egg sandwich followed by that old stager, sponge.  It’s been such a relief, to Val as much as me, to find something along that line that I can enjoy.

The rain was still falling steadily all morning, tho’ with none of the ferocity of last night, but we decided to move on to Leshan sometime during the afternoon, if there were a bus.  There were.  One of my better ideas, tho’ Val was the actual constructor, was to make a small cardboard clock with moveable hands, like a teaching aid in a nursery school (or do they use digital ones now?)  The people we’ve met love it, + it’s a far more accurate way or receiving information.

We had some noodles for lunch before going out to the bus stn in good time.  It was a good job too – getting on the bus was a hell of a struggle, worse even than usual.  I appreciate that no nation queues in quite the way the British do, but the shoving, clawing + scrambling that the Chinese indulge in every time a bus pulls in is carrying things too far the other way – it’s worse here than in any other country I’ve been in.  Still, when necessary, I can mix it with the best, + I muscled my way aboard, fairly high-up in the field.  Crazy, when everyone is supposed to have numbered seats – my first task was to throw someone out of ours.

The journey was reasonably short, + then, for once, we found the hotel at the other end with no trouble at all.  We were given a splendid room, with TV + all, tho’ the hotel itself was decidedly seedy, for a cheap price.  We ate in a local restaurant, deciding to supplement the fare we were offered with a duck from the stall outside – quite acceptable, obviously.  We asked them merely to remove the head + feet from the fowl, + not cube it up, reckoning it would be easier for us to eat it Henty VIII style.  And no-one would mind your throwing your bones on the floor.  The duck made it quite an expensive meal in all, but it wasn’t a huge success.  Blander + blander, the food becomes.

We returned to tackle the chore of washing our clothes, nearly all of them grubbied by having climbed the mountain.

Very much suffering because of our exertions, but really a small price to pay. I had forgotten about the clock, and my guess is that, despite the enthusiasm with which I describe it here, it was not quiute as game-changing as we would have liked.

June 23rd 1984

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Descent into the mist

We’d had at least vague intentions to get up early to watch the sunrise, but the sound of rain on the window-panes, plus the glimpses of cloud we caught outside, soon put paid to that notion, + we stayed put.  Eventually we emerged at a more reasonable hour, 8.30 or thereabouts.  It was really quite cold, so I pulled on the army greatcoat provided.  The monastery obviously had an enormous stock of the things, obviously surplus stock from some Siberian front campaign, for they were heavy, with fur collars.  When one went outside, and saw virtually everyone parading around in the things, it looked like a convention of Russian generals were taking place.  I posed for a picture wearing mine, then we ate a breakfast of an egg sandwich.  The bread was sweet, of course, but we were able to disguise that with salt + pepper, + it was acceptable.

Then we set off down the mountain – the others were 15mins ahead of us, but we were positively bounding down the steps, full of energy, + soon overtook them.  We were back down to Xi Xiansi in just a couple of hours, but annoyingly, it took a good bit of time to reclaim our bag.  I went in to collect it, + even tho’ I could go straight to the door of the room where it was locked away, I couldn’t find anyone to open it for me.  I tackled an official sitting there counting money, but he was not interested in making any effort to help me, + when I persisted, holding on to my temper as best I could, eventually he just walked away.  When something goes wrong in China, one feels so helpless, far more so than in any other country I’ve been in.  So I came back out to where Val was waiting, to confess my failure.  She went in to try, + to my mixed delight + annoyance, returned almost immediately with the pack.  It just so happened that she run straight in to a girl who was both willing + able to help.

We paused briefly for an early lunch of spam sandwiches, livened up with tomato ketchup.  I had acquired sachets of the stuff from various fast-food establishments in Hong Kong, with just this sort of ideas in mind.  We both felt hassled + uncomfortable standing there in the courtyard, + were anxious to push on.  We were considerably burdened now, however, by having both packs again.  I found that going down such steep steps carrying a really heavy pack soon put an enormous strain upon my leg muscles, + before very long I had a severe attack of the knee-wobbles, a condition which worsened considerably during the descent.  Partly because of that, partly because the weather was still pretty lousy, we had decided to take the more direct route down, the same way we had come up, but all of a sudden we noticed we were on an unfamiliar path.  Obviously, in our concern to overtake a group of old ladies heading down, we had stumbled onto the longer path, the scenic route.  We still had the option of turning back + finding the other path, but we were loath to do so.  We didn’t know how far back we would have to go, + we had just come down a particularly steep staircase, so we decided to push on anyway. 

But fate played us a particularly unkind trick when, after luring us far enough on to make going back entirely out of the question, we found ourselves faced with a lengthy uphill stretch.  There was nothing for it but to plod on up – a further drain on our reserves of energy, both physical + psychological.  Then, to add injury to injury, it began to rain, quite heavily.  As some measure of compensation, this route was certainly much more attractive, + had a lot less people using it.  We saw some of Emei Shan’s famous monkeys, entirely missing from the other route.  This was perhaps a mixed blessing, for they have a reputation as fierce bandits for food.  Luckily for us, all the ones we saw looked particularly well-fed + docile, even timid.  There were various other ornamental attractions: a huge rock  with a couple of Chinese characters, a small bridge with a carved dragon running thro’ it, a couple of high waterfalls.  It seemed the clouds were lifting at last to reveal more of the hills + valleys around us, but it was a cruel illusion, serving only to lull us into a false sense of comfort, for soon the rain came again, driving fiercer than ever, proving yet again (if further proof were needed) the uselessness of our ponchos in anything heavier than a light short shower.  We sheltered in a small café until it seemed the worst was over, ventured out, + got caught by a second burst.  That did mark the end of it, however, + now the sky cleared.

We were descending now thro’ a narrow river gorge, very pretty, if a little sculptured – bridges, pavilions, etc.  But in any case I was in no mood to appreciate it – my legs were now wobbling so much, I was finding it difficult to walk.  I was taking frequent rests, more often than not to drink a bottle of fizzy drink from a stall, so it was pretty slow going.  We had hoped that the path would lead us back to the car park from which we’d started, so it was a great disappointment when we arrived at a great pavilion complex, with pagodas on several levels, + paths radiating from it in several directions.  We tried to ask the way, but it was not easy, particularly since we didn’t really know where it was we wanted to go, but we made a guess, pointed at the place on the map, + were told which path to take.  This seemed to be partly confirmed when they mentioned the word “bus”.  She also told us it went at 5, in 15 mins time, so off we charged. 

I told Val to go on ahead, which she did, being a little fresher, while I plodded on as best I could.  The virtue of this final stretch was that it was flat.  It was also attractive, with 3 or 4 high waterfalls hurling water from the cliffs above us down into the river.  Val soon marched out of sight, but I wasn’t despondent, became almost cheery.  The sun was shining, the scenery was delightful, the path was easy, + just ahead there was the promise of an end to our ordeal (even tho’ it had soon became apparent there was no chance of reaching the bus by 5.)  Then to my overwhelming delight I heard the strident blast of a motor-horn – a road at last.  I redoubled my efforts, strode around the curve + into the small compound – a shop or 2, a gravel car park with a few buses.  I spotted Val right away, but instead of seeing relief + pleasure on her face, there was anger + frustration.  In the time before I’d arrived, she’d tried to find out about the bus to Bagun, but had met nothing than the wave of the hand, + “Mayo, mayo” – China’s negative, encountered everywhere.  The trouble is, even tho’ it is given in the most emphatic manner, it covers the whole gamut of negative responses, so that, in this particular case, it could mean, “No, the bus doesn’t go for 10 minutes”, it it could mean, ”The last bus went half an hour ago”, or even “The country has run out of petrol.”  It leads to frustration, when one can’t get any other response, something close to despair.

Our options in this situation weren’t many – we didn’t even have the option, as in most countries, of taking a taxi,  As usual, however, when we find ourselves in a bad situation, luck steps in.  Val approached a tourist bus waiting there in the car park, + they offered to take us.  It was a little worrying that they didn’t appear to know the name Baguo, but we pointed to where we thought it was on the map, + yes, that was where they were going.  It was an hour or more before they finally left – they had to wait for all their party to return from the mountain – but so long as we ended up in Baguo, we didn’t really care..  I would have preferred to sit back in my seat + rest, but had to spend some time trying to converse with one of the passengers who spoke a little English.  As usual in such circumstances, I found it to be dreadful.ly hard work – it was, nonetheless, but a small price to pay.

We were indeed dropped off at Baguo, where we were lucky enough to run into a German.  He told us 1) that the hotel was full, + that we would have to stay in the monastery, 2) where the monastery was, + 3) that we could get a hot shower at the hotel.  So we utilised the information he gave us, first one, next two, then three.  The “shower story” is a good example of a situation one comes across so many times in China.  We called in at the hotel reception to pay the small fee requested for the use of the shower.  The receptionist apologise, but told us that because of the heavy rain, the pipe had broken.  This sounded a little odd – we’d just seen 2 westerners with wet hair walking down the road – but we didn’t question it, merely asked where it was, “so that we could come tomorrow”.  When we arrived at the showers, loads of hot water, as much as one could want, + plenty of Chinese using it.  So we joined the merry throng + had a shower too, + much better we felt for it.  Why the receptionist should have taken the attitude he did, + deprived the hotel of money, (tho’ admittedly, not much) is quite beyond me.   But one has to get used to it – that kind of obtuseness is by no means rare.

Ate a reasonable meal in a local small café.  The standard of food recently has certainly fallen from its earlier dizzy heights, but I still find I’m looking forward to my evening meal, even if the event doesn’t quite live up to the hopes.

Really quite a struggle, but as is so often the case, this turned into a compensating sense of relief when, unexoectedly, tings turned in our favour.

June 22nd 1984

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Val was very ill this morning, so violently + suddenly ill, that she was unable to make it to the bathroom (yes, that sort of ill) + had to perform her business in the washing bowl in the room.  Provided me with a bit of a rude awakening, of course, but not to worry – what must be must be.  That over, however, our attention was turned to a problem of the mind rather than body: what to do.  It had not as yet been a spectacular walk.  We had been blanketed in heavily all the way up, + had seen nothing, so had to decide whether to cut our losses.  Our options, we thought, numbered 3.  We could give it up as a bad job, + go down again, probably via a second, more scenic, route.  We could leave our bags here in the monastery, + go up to the summit as originally planned, then collect them again on our descent.  Or, learning that there was a bus service between the bottom + a car park close to the top, we could have carried our bags all the way up + bussed down.  Since we both have a stubborn streak + aren’t quitters, we rejected the first option straight away.  The last one we did give some serious consideration to, but decide ultimately that nothing had changed sufficiently to prevent us carrying out our initial choice, the second.  Certainly we had been foolish in carrying our packs up, but we could minimise the effects of that error by leaving them behind.  Whether we would return by the longer or shorter route would depend on the conditions of the weather + our bodies.

This morning at least, the weather showed no sign of improvement at all – we could only hope.  So we packed what relatively small amount of gear we wanted to take with us into the one rucksack, + after persuading the authorities in the monastery to look after the other for us – no small or easy matter – off we went.  It didn’t take any time at all for our early heady pace to slacken into a measured + steady heads-down plod.  After killing off a respectable chunk of the remaining distance, we paused for breakfast, this pause allowing Ben, Mandy + Allan to catch up with us, so we walked with them for quite a while.  It made a pleasant change to walk along with other people, + have a different conversation.  Being together so much, Val + I don’t have so much that’s new to talk about.

A little while later, we ran into James + Duane, but soon after we were able to leave them behind, + push up onwards on our own.  This was just as well.  By arriving early, we somehow managed to obtain a wonderful room, not just because of the room itself, which was clean + pleasant enough, but more because of the ante-room.  We were led along a dark + dingy corridor, but entering thro’ an ordinary door, we suddenly found ourselves in a wonderful room, a relic of another age, another culture.  We were in a small room, but one wall was entirely taken up with a door, or rather a circular hole 9 ft in diameter.  Beyond this was a light room, painted pale cream, with light streaming in thro’ the big windows on 2 sides.  The furniture matched the décor, white cane chairs + tables ranged around the walls, a perfectly delightful room.  Our bedroom, one of 4 leading off, was down in the corner.

Once we’d dropped down bags, I trotted downstairs to have a look at some Chinese guys playing table-tennis, + much as I’d expected, I was invited to have a game.  In view of the Chinese reputation at the sport, I was mildly apprehensive, so was delighted when I didn’t disgrace myself.  It was no more than a brief knock, however, after which Val + I went outside to have a look at the summit.  The sun was out, I was delighted to see – after several false attempts on the way up, the sun had finally broken thro’.  Or rather, we had managed to climb up thro’ the cloud.  The monastery was very close to the top, or one of the tops anyway.  The true summit was a few hundred yards away, but there really didn’t seem to be any pressing reason, except for the fenickety, to go over there.

It was nice wandering round the top in the sunshine.  The monastery was nothing at all, a collection of Nissan huts – a far more interesting building had been gutted by fire.  And the place was dominated by a television transmitting tower, one of the products of technology that can never look attractive (unlike power station cooling towers, for example.)  But otherwise it was remarkably pleasant + green, spacious enough to enable one to escape the hordes of Chinese taking photographs of each other against a background of cloud, cliff, or temple.  There were also large numbers of people standing on the cliff edge peering out into the clouds.  Val discovered they were looking for configurations which could somehow be construed as the Lord Buddha – frightfully good luck, it would seem, + even more so if her were somehow associated, preferably enclosed, with a rainbow.  The situation did provide us with a good opportunity to take some photos of our own, for the watchers were so engrossed, they didn’t notice us or a camera.

Looking for Buddha

Lunch was poor – monasteries on the mountain cater for vast numbers of people – + it shows.  The atmosphere was none too pleasant either – the usual debris of food spread over the tables, benches, + floors, + right outside the door was a man lying face down in a puddle of his own vomit – rather a heavy-handed piece of criticism.  During the afternoon, we sunbathed, + after a time were joined by 2 or 3 of the others, who had come up a good way behind us.  I’ll confess I felt smug + self-satisfied when I discovered they hadn’t been able to get a double room.  Chatted pleasantly enough for an hour or so, before venturing once more into the dining room – we fared no better.

Spent the evening closeted with Auntie in our room, which was a haven of peace + tranquillity amidst the chaos + confusion which reigned everywhere else in the place.  Returning from a trip to the toilet, or to buy some cake or something, one closed the door behind one with relief, + a degree of astonishment that the room could be so insulated.  It encouraged a siege mentality, however, similar, I would imagine, to having a nice flat within an appalling tower block.

After the strenuous climb, a relatively easy and relaxed day, with even some room for table tennis. And one of the joys of budget travelling is the occasional good fortune of obtaioning a room which is extra special. (And if you paid for such things all the time, there would be none of the sense of achievement. Much akin to finding a splendid coat in a charity shop.

June 21st 1984

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At a very early hour this morning, we were awoken by a loud hammering on the door, followed immediately by the door being unlocked, revealing a young employee of the hotel in the doorway, clutching a note in his hand, written in English + Chinese, prepared by the English-speaker last night.  “Hello!” it said.  “Let’s go to the bus station to take the bus!”   We weren’t quite ready for that, Val didn’t have any clothes on, for one thing, but luckily the mosquito net covered her from embarrassment.  I was able to thrust some clothes in on her.  Also, it was ridiculously early.  We knew the time of the bus, + it seemed foolish to hang around out there – the bus station was only 5 minutes away.  But our guide waited patiently in the doorway while we packed + made ourselves ready.  He had been assigned a mission, + was obviously determined to fulfil it.  When we were obviously ready, he indicated the second half of his bilingual note – “Follow me please, I will send you off” – + away we went.

He took us to a different bus station to the one we’d found last night – maybe there had been a bus after all – + after watching us buy our tickets, handed us over to a man there – a job well done.  We sat in the waiting room, attracting the usual amount of attention; one becomes used to it after a while.  And soon enough we were put onto the bus, with assigned seats, the usual thing for non-local buses in China.  A short + uneventful bus ride, an hour or so, to Emei (at last!), another bus almost immediately to Bagud, + then directly onto yet another bus directly to the beginning (or end) of the trail.  We stopped briefly for some breakfast, + then off.

At first it was very easy indeed, only gently ascending, well-paved, with steps.  It wasn’t at all what we had expected.  First of all, there were many, many more people than we’d anticipated, family groups dressed for a day’s outing as much as anything.  And to serve them, there were stalls every 50 yds or so, selling soft drinks, biscuits, fruit, hats, walking sticks, maps, brochures, handkerchiefs, + any amount of souvenir – quasi-religious junk, plastic buddhas et al.  After about an hour we arrived at a gate, then a temple.  This was clearly the final destination for the majority of our fellow-travellers, just about all of whom seemed to be posing to have their photo taken in front of it.  It is the Oriental school of photography, we have discovered: every photo, of famous building, waterfall, statue, or other work of man or nature, must have in the foreground, an individual or group, smiling or unsmiling, but usually standing formally.  And this seemed to be an unshakeable rule – I don’t think we saw a single photograph taken any other way.  For those without cameras, there were professionals to take them for them.  Nearly always, professional or amateur, with the same type of camera, an old-fashioned box-type that you hold at waist-level, + look into the top.  But imagine their photo albums – they must be stultifying.

After the briefest of pauses, we pushed on, expecting now to have the path to ourselves, + indeed the numbers were diminished.  There were still enough people to keep it crowded, tho’ people of a different ilk.  We were now firmly established among the pilgrim set, + by far the greatest majority of these were groups comprised entirely of old ladies.  They looked old + fragile, arming themselves with walking sticks + umbrellas, + quite a few weren’t finding the going easy, but they were obviously tough enough – it was a devil of a job overtaking them.  For there was another drastic change which had made itself apparent since the temple: up till then the gradient had been sufficiently gentle to accommodate a gentle stroll, but from now the path went up fiercely in a series of long, dizzying staircases.  Especially carrying heavy packs, we were both soon drenched in sweat, wetter than I’ve been at any time since Kokoda.  The atmosphere was misty, damp + oppressive, + that certainly didn’t help matters.  The refreshment stalls continues to appear at regular (only slightly less frequent) intervals; we also passed a couple of temples, of no particular note to us unbelievers, except that we were able to use them as fixed reference points, + chart our progress on  our map.

We climbed up to Xi Xiansi, or Elephant Bathing Pool, the monastery which was our first night’s destination, at 2.30, + the first people we saw that we recognised were the Singapore couple who had been of such little use on the train yesterday.  They endeared themselves to us further by telling us we could have left our bags down in Baguo or Emei – I’m being unfair, that was our own foolishness, not their fault, but the bearers of bad news are rarely welcome; if I’d had a sword I would doubtless have slain them both.  They were able to tell us we could check in at 3, which we duly did, getting a seedy but adequate room with 3 beds in it – it was pretty obvious that no-one else would be put in there however.  The whole  monastery was on the seedy side, its main function being now only incidentally clerical, acting as a huge hostel for the thousands of pilgrims, + that side of things, along with all the catering, cleaning etc, was handled by lay personnel.  So far as we could tell, there were very few monks in residence to look after the upkeep of + worship at the altars.  The most interesting part of the place was a gallery of Tussaud-like life-size figures, all behind glass, presumably depicting various former priests etc.





We ate an unpleasant + tasteless meal in the cavern-like dining hall – 2 of the dishes were so bad we rejected them after one spoonful – fortunately the food is cheap enough to enable one to do that.  While we were eating, a whole group of others on the Gringo circuit came in.  Especially in the part of China we’re travelling thro’ at the moment, there aren’t all that many places to go, + since many travellers go at the same sort of speed, you’re likely to meet the same people over + over again.  China is a big place, but is made so much smaller by having only certain towns open, approached across certain routes, + with just one or maybe 2 hotels in each town open to us.  This would all be alright if you got on well with the people you keep meeting, but of course those ones get left behind or shoot ahead, while the ones you keep with are the ones you don’t like.  Guiseppini is an excellent case in point – she was at the monastery.  There was also James, a blunt English northerner (I’ve mentioned him before), a somewhat dense American called Duane, + Ben + Mandy, an Englishman + his Irish girlfriend – the best pf a poor bunch.  Plus a French girl I don’t really know but am not attracted to – not just in a physical sense, tho’ that too.  And Allan, the only one I like, our companion from Yangshuo.  But of course, as usual Val + I kept ourselves pretty aloof.  Our insularity is a positive weapon, but is a good reason why we find it so difficult to make friends.

And now back on track; no serious consequence of our unexpected jaunt, except that we did not get the information that it was possible to leave heavy bags at the bottom, so carried our extremely heavy packs most of the way up the mountain. Otherwise, just a steady climb, and virtually all of it on a paved staircase, so manageable enough.

Refugee Week 2024

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At Weymouth

And a busy week too; three performances so far, and one more to come.

We began with a scratch performance cum premiere cum dress rehearsal to the Monday Club, a support meeting for asylum-seekers in the Wembley area, at Park Lane Methodist Church, their regular venue.  It was the first time we had performed the whole show properly, but actually it was remarkably slick.  Unfortunately, it did not get as many laughs as I wanted (and had anticipated), largely the result of the majority having very little grasp of English, so many of the jokes passing them by.  Plus the general fact that small audiences find it difficult to laugh (and bring attention upon themselves), a situation made more marked by the different cultures on display.

However, everyone did seem to enjoy the performance, with sufficient physical theatre to transcend the language barrier.  What surprised me rather was the fact that some people were clearly moved.  I knew we had created some strong comic moments: I was more surprised at how sad the two characters’ situations would turn out to be.  A product, no doubt, of its tragic antecedent, the original Godot play, but I was very pleased that this effect had not been lost in translation and adaptation.

We drove from Wembley to Hayes, to prepare for our next performance of the day, at the Beck Theatre in Hayes, the same theatre that had hosted our production of No Waiting just over a year ago.  Hamed in particular had been desperate to return, for the Beck is a proper theatre, with a stage, a raked auditorium, changing rooms, a backstage, and all the technical facilities one might expect.  And the welcome we received was as warm as ever.

But our visit was not as successful as last time, chiefly because there was such a disappointing audience: small, scattered, and with all the inhibitions (see above) that being in a small audience can bring.  Despite this, the performance itself was once again virtually flawless, and the feedback we received afterwards was most positive.  Despite the fact that not enough people are getting to see the show, we do seem to have created something of a hit.

Performing in the Dry Dock

And on Wednesday, we took the show on the road.  Instead of Roji travelling to London to join us, we went to Dorset to present our show there, as part of the Portland and Weymouth programme for Refugee Week.  The venue there was a teetotal pub, the Dry Dock, which now acts as a sort of community venue.  It did provide a marked contrast; two days previously, we had had a whole theatre largely to ourselves; today we had to share a small pub with old ladies drinking coffee.

At first, I feared that we would be playing to almost no-one.  The afternoon programme also included a singer and guitarist called Tim Fawkes, and he gamely played song after song to very few people listening, despite the fact that he was very good.  There was also a talk by a lady who runs a project collecting and using the stories of displaced people, chiefly from Ukraine; and a brave singer from the Bibby Stockholm, who treated us to one beautiful song and then disappeared; and all of these had a very scant audience indeed.  However, just before we began our play, as if on cue a small crowd of about twenty or so from the barge wandered in, and suddenly we had about as big a crowd as we could have managed in the space.

And the show itself, despite the physical constraints – the lack of space, no lighting to focus attention, an audience scattered around – was probably their best yet – they are really growing into their roles as they become more confident.  And for the first time, there was a lot of laughter, with both the script and the physicality receiving some appreciative response.  This was reassuring – I was sure it was a funny play, and this backed me up.  But once again, it was the desperate sadness of the underlying message that got the most powerful response.

And one more performance to come: on Friday we perform in a studio theatre in Hackney.

June 20th 1984

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Chris shaving in the hotel (the only photo we felt advisable to take)

The sleeping car made all the difference, + I don’t think that, on longer trips, I will want to travel any other way, having now served my 34 hours of penance in hard seat.  I slept very well, + awoke feeling refreshed + ready to face the world, instead of with a thick soup in my mouth as before.  Breakfasted on coffee + sponge, then gazed out of the window for the morning.  Lunch, however, was a disaster.  I’d been told that they started serving at 11.30, so I rolled along there then.  No, the man told me, 12.30, so I returned then , this time with Val.  I was both surprised + a little annoyed to see that there were people there in the middle of their meals, even more annoyed when we were told to come back at 1.30.  I wasn’t having that, so we stumped ourselves down at a table, prepared to wait as long as was necessary.  But my anger + irritation increased as more + more people came in, handed over tickets + were served, while we were ignored.  We tried to buy tickets, but they didn’t seem to be available.  Unlike the other train, these tickets were being sold up + down the carriages rather than in the dining car itself, but I don’t see how we were supposed to know this.  By intuition, perhaps.  Eventually, a young Singapore Chinese couple, the other 2 sitting at our table, told us we would be able to buy some tickets now, + pointed down towards the end of the car.  So I went down there, but found nothing but further frustration: lots of pushing, shoving Chinese, plenty of annoyance at my obvious incomprehension of the system, + not a ticket in sight.  I really lost my cool now, + raged back down the aisle, + flung the purse at Val – an inexcusable action, since she was in no way to blame for the situation.  But I had to express my fury somehow, or half a dozen tables + chairs + several Chinese would have been thrown out of the window.  My furious anger reminded me of the frustrations of teaching, as good an argument as any for not going back to that.

Val fared much better than I had, + was able to track down the ticket seller.  If we’d known the result, I don’t think we would have bothered however, for the food was absolute pig-swill – I’m sure the food we’d seen on the tables had been much better.  When we finally returned to our own carriage, we were both in a foul mood.  Val told me off for having expressed my anger publicly at her, + that just depressed me further, to think that not just everybody else on the train, but Val as well, were against me now.  Of course, she must have felt the same way, but I was too self-preoccupied to think of this at the time.  So we both sat + brooded silently, + this contributed to disaster no 2 of the day.

We both knew we had to get off the train at about 4 o’clock, but we were expecting the conductress or someone, who knew where we had to get off, to tell us when we got there.  Guiseppini, our Australian friend, could also take a share of the blame, we reckoned.  She was also in our compartment, + sat near the window, + had been peering out of the window to check on the stations – she too was getting off at Emei.  But the major responsibility, + culpability, was our own.  We pulled into another small station, quite a few people got off, G craned her neck out the window but made no move to collect herself together, + we 2 just sat, as if powerless of our own fate, waiting for the conductress to come.  After we’d been stopped there about 5 mins, she did, + was obviously disturbed to see we were still there.  She indicated we were at Emei, + that we should get off, but I suppose we were a bit dense, + didn’t recognise the urgency.

G was first to the carriage door + out, Val was next, but with a whistle + a jerk the train then began to move again.  She turned back to check I was right behind her, + that was her chance gone.  The train was still barely moving, + we could have jumped off easily enough, but the conductress obviously decided it wasn’t worth her job to take the risk of having a couple of foreign guests splatter themselves over the platform, + she planed herself firmly in the doorway.  So there we were, stuck on the train, feeling even more sorry for ourselves.  On reflection, just about the only consolation was that Guiseppini had made it off the train – having her along with us as well would be just too much to bear.

The 3 of us, the conductress + us, stood around in the gangway, her being sheepish, us feeling that the gods were against us.  Val was worse than me, the closest she’s been to tears in a long time.  We were told first that the next station was 12 mins further up the line, then that it was 38 kms, the latter obviously closer to the truth.  But maybe it was just as well – as the minutes + miles disappeared we became increasingly resigned to our fate.  We certainly weren’t happy with the situation, but could at least look sanguinely upon our prospects.  We were assured we would be able to catch a bus back to Emei, but about this we had some severe doubts.  Like bureaucrats all over the world, the Chinese officials aboard the train could happily forget about us once we’d disappeared from their view, whether or not we would then have severe problems – it would be someone else’s job to look after us.

We were quite right to be sceptical.  Once down for4m the train, + after sitting still for a few minutes to re-orient ourselves, we walked off to where we were told (we thought) the bus station was.  And sure enough, no bus – not till tomorrow at any rate.  So, apart from hitching (an idea we briefly considered before rejecting) we had no choice but to allow ourselves to be redirected to the local hotel.  The people there were very surprised to see us, + quite clearly didn’t know what to do with us.  We were invited to sit down in the receptionist’s bedroom, while every man + his dog was invited along to contribute their piece.  It was particularly difficult in that no-one there spoke any English, but eventually we were able to explain what had happened to us, + what our requirements were – I think.  When all that was done to their satisfaction, + they’d dug out a couple of forms for us to fill in, they couldn’t have been more anxious to please.

At first we were put into separate single rooms, but then a very nice double.  There was a television, a large bed with mosquito net, + hot tea.  Everything clean, comfortable +, we made sure, cheap – just Y5.40.  It took some time for the various workers to disperse – we had quite clearly created quite a sensation.  Things were looking much better, + what had appeared an unpleasant + awkward situation had been transformed into a perfectly happy one.

Later on, we indicated we were hungry, + were escorted down into the dining room.  There, with the aid of our conversation book, we ordered a couple of dishes, but before they arrived, a somewhat officious man arrived to ask us some questions.  I don’t think he served any official function, but had been summoned simply because he spoke English.  Our interview was not harrowing however – we simply filled out another form, + were asked about our plans tomorrow.  And then, we could return to our meal.

We’d ordered duck, but were somewhat horrified when an entire duck appeared, head, feet ‘n all, with the innards removed, + the whole thing chopped up into bite-sized cubes – a necessary preliminary, chop-sticks not being too efficient at pulling a bird apart.  It was very tasty (tho’ cold) but we had awful visions that it would cost us a small fortune.  So it was a pleasant relief to be told that the entire meal, including rice, + tomato + egg soup, cost Y3.50.

We passed the evening in the usual way, listening to Auntie Beeb.

Inevitably, after a day in which everything went right, there followed a day when everything went wrong… at least until the evening, whenthings seemed to be OK again. And things going wrong does make for a more interesting experience; an encounter with a China where we were very much out of the ordinary had its own attractions.

June 19th 1984

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We weren’t up quite as early as we had wanted to get down to the huge main square across from the Post Office. We’ve already caught fleeting glimpses during our early morning bus trips of vast numbers of people, all ages, all sizes, doing their exercises, both individually + in groups, so wanted to get down to get a closer look, +, of course, take some photographs.  Quite a few people were coming away from the Square as we approached, but there was still quite a lot going on.  There were groups of people going thro’ choreographed sequences using sticks, others involved in something which resembled a Butlin’s keep-fit class, while lone old men + women indulged in solitary, self-indulged work, in the midst of all that multitude, part ballet, part martial art, part shadow boxing.  Still other people were batting shuttlecocks across to each other, + I was particularly interested to see groups spinning Frisbees across the space.  When some of these saw my interest, I was quickly included, happy to show my paces.  I promptly made a fool of myself, since the Frisbees were far lighter than the ones I was used to, tho’ eventually I was able to adjust my throw + prove myself.  One often has the idea that the element most lacking in a communist or totalitarian state is a sense of fun, but all these people belied that.  And it made the western world’s current passion for physical fitness –jogging, squash, et al – appear merely faddish.

We went along to the Kunming Hotel, the town’s luxury hotel, partly to leave “Mr Biswas” at reception for David + Laraine – they weren’t slumming at the Kun Ho like we lesser mortals.  Unfortunately, Val managed to antagonise the receptionist by, rather too loudly, telling a trio of travellers who had just arrived about the Kun Ho + how cheap it was.  Our real reason for being there however was to have a Western breakfast, even if only a simple one – eggs, toast + coffee.  At any other time it would have been a most indifferent breakfast.  In China, after 2 weeks of exclusive Chinese cuisine, I at least thought it was wonderful.

Thus fortified, we set out for the Western Hills, + after the usual flap + kerfuffle about finding the right bus, going thro’ our usual spell of depression + despair at ever getting there, found ourselves on the No 6 bus.  We joined a group of other tourists, mostly Chinese but including one German couple, transferring to another bus to carry us further up, then tramping up the hill towards the Dragon Gate.  It was a grey + unpleasant day, but there was a fine view over Lake Dianchi, 6th largest natural lake in China, so our guide book tells us.  We noticed 3 old ladies in peasant costume hobbling up the hill in an obviously painful manner, + noticed that they were wearing very strange, foreshortened shoes with pointed toes.  I am certain that they were ladies whose feet had been bound in their youth, in order to keep them dainty + attractive.  And, of course, almost useless.  The practice has now been outlawed, but its victims still exist, + must live with this senseless mutilation.

There were many tourists, Chinese tourists, at the Gate, most of them taking photos in the traditional Chinese manner, ie posing formally in front of some temple, statue, scene – almost any landmark will do.  I don’t know for sure exactly what the Dragon Gate was – the path wound up steeply past a number of shrines + small temples.  Clearly, Buddhism still plays a role in Chinese life, + it would seem the authorities are now adopting a pragmatic rather than dogmatic approach.  Attempted repression of religion is nearly always counter-productive, I think.  It merely drives it underground, makes the mysterious more mysterious, + can even force it to become the focus of political unrest.  Far more sensible, even without handing out enthusiastic encouragement, to let it alone.  Most religions are forces on conservatism + stability, things all govts desire… within their own borders.

The German couple told us of an alternative route back to town, by boat + bus, + we did think of taking it, + did walk all the way down to the lake, but the clouds breaking into rain,, plus confusion as to where the boat actually left from, dissuaded us, + we rode back on the bus.  We did some shopping in town, buying some goodies for the journey to Emei Shan, our next destination, as well as longer term goodies – instant coffee, jam.  The Friendship Store – the Foreigners’ Store – was a small room on the 3rd floor of a large dept store, so0 we had a look at what goods were also generally available.  We were quite amazed at how cheap some of the stuff was, especially plain household goods, musical instruments, + games.  We bought ourselves a pack of cards, really attractive, really cheap.  In the Friendship Store itself, we treated ourselves to coke + chocolate.

We walked down a street running down the back of the store, where we had heard there were some fascinating local tea-houses.  We weren’t the only ones who had heard about the street – there were some white faces among the local ones – it was still amazing.  Old men in blue suits sat around on wooden stools drinking bottomless cups of tea – as soon as they drank a half-inch or so, a lady would refill the cup from her kettle.  And while we were there, an old feller in the first tea-house was telling a story – this is a regular occurrence by all accounts.  The storyteller had an attentive, if rather geriatric, audience.  We took a few photos – the old men seemed quite keen to have themselves recorded.  It made for an annoying time when we had to change our film.

We went back to the hotel, managing to catch the wrong bus, + having to walk, change, + mess about – a pain, but we made it in the end.  Pilled our bags out from the dorm + put them in storage, to make it easier to grab them on the way to the station in the evening, then went out to eat.  On the way, we called in at the dept store to buy a mains adaptor for our radio – we’d spotted it earlier, + realised that it would mean we could play some cassettes.  Then went to eat at the Kunming Hotel, recommended to us by the German couple we’d met.  It turned out to be a good meal, with some different dishes we hadn’t tried before.  It all worked out very neatly, for after we’d eaten, the timing was just about right to get down to the station.  We did have a slight hassle when we tried to post the cassette to Val’s mum – as the customs man had gone home, it couldn’t be sent.  At the station, we were pleased when no further troubles occurred, when we found our train, when our hard sleeper berths were actually there.  We sat + drank coffee as we moved out.

A splendid day, with lots of photo opportunities, and everything working well – checking out, a good meal, finding our way (eventually) to the places we wanted to see. And then weith our own berth on the train.

July 18th 1984

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Having been forewarned that any bag put on the roof of the bus would be staying there for the duration, we had re-arranged our belongings so that the large pack could go up there, while the other, containing everything we might need during the journey (and, it must be said, quite a bit besides) would stay with us.  We also had a couple of loose bags which, for one reason or another, we were carrying separately, so, altogether, we were more burdened than usual for the journey to the bus stn.  This was alright in itself, but unfortunately the bus turned out to be the most crowded that either of us have been on anywhere.  Even when we fought our way on it was bad enough, but more people got on every stop, God knows how.  At one stage, one woman just had her lower body aboard – her head, arms, shopping, were all outside, with the automatic doors guillotining back + forth across her chest + neck.  Val was further handicapped by trying to look after the bags on the floor between her feet + prevent them from being stepped on.  As it was, she lost half a dozen biscuits, scattered + crushed over the floor of the bus.  So it was a relief when we arrived at last, fought our way to the door, + were spat out onto the street by the pressure inside.

We found our bus alright, tho’ were surprised not to see Dan + Lisa.  Eventually, Lisa appeared, as usual, with a tale of woe – they’re not whiners, not at all, but something seems to go wrong every time.  This time they’d been assigned to 2 different buses, one on each.  I don’t know how they resolved the situation, for we had to board our bus.  I just know we wouldn’t be able to cope with being split up, not just from an emotional point of view (tho’ that too, I suppose, a bit) but because we are geared up to going together, with food, music, literature etc held in common.  We were the first 2 allowed on our bus, + were directed to 2 of the best seats, right next to the door.  Even so, there certainly wasn’t too much room, but we had a little space to stretch our legs, , a bar to hang a bag or 2 from, + best of all, no high seat immediately in front of us to close us in, restrict our view, induce claustrophobia.  We just had to make sure we kept our feet in as people boarded the bus to make sure they weren’t trodden on.  And eventually, with all safely loaded aboard, we were off.

It took Val some time to calm herself – she was needlessly fretful about a couple of relatively insignificant things that went wrong – she had bought some tomatoes just before we set off, but then the bag burst, spilling them into the dirt; – + our box of sugar cubes had fallen + opened itself on the bus, so we lost a few of those.  But these didn’t make it, as she claimed, the beginnings of “a nightmare journey”.  For myself, I was reasonably content, thinking that things could have turned out considerably worse.  My biggest worry was that I wouldn’t have enough reading matter.  I had 3 books, but 2 of them I was well on the way to finishing, + the other (Orwell’s “1984”) was pretty slim.  I soon recognised this would mean some severe rationing.  But annoying, with 3 more books on the roof above.  It soon became obvious that we wouldn’t be having to endure long stretches without respite, for there were frequent rest stops, which were, to my mind, over-long.  There were a lot of small children on the bus (pretty well-behaved, on the whole) but we seemed to wait for far longer than their needs would dictate.  We were pleased to be able to buy yogurt at one stop, but generally we were self-sufficient, eating bread, spam, ketchup, cucumber.  We avoided the melons – the entire country seems to be awash in an ocean of water-melon – thinking over-indulgence might provoke an upset stomach.  That really would make it a nightmare journey.

It was a long, long day, of course, + by the end, when one had exhausted all the possible positions into which one could contort one’s body to ease the ache in the bum, we were both pretty sore.  Frustratingly, at a spot in the middle of the desert – it turned out to be just half an hour from our night’s destination – the 4 buses in our “convoy” (except we hadn’t travelled together) all stopped.  One was in trouble, it appeared, tho’ it didn’t look like the rest of us were offering any practical assistance, + eventually we pulled out, + left it there.  I’ve no idea what happened to its passengers.

The settlement we stopped at had a huge square, surrounded by low buildings, like a fort in the Sahara – part of this was the hotel, a dark, dirty, + dingy place, its one redeeming feature being that it was cheap.  Val + I were assigned to different rooms, + as soon as we’d established where they were, we went out to eat, for it was very late, tho’ still just about light.  We found a small local restaurant in which 3 other Westerners, all on their way out, were eating, so we joined them for a really very tasty noodle soup.   Rather a strange conversation ensued.  The 3 were a Frenchman, His Surinamese wife, plus a German girl, but it was the Frenchman who dominated the conversation.  He was cynical, amusant, but too consciously so, but I am so starved of conversation that it didn’t irritate me.

I discovered upon my return, after stopping for a warm beer + a chat with one of the locals at a kiosk, that he was one of my room-mates.  The others were 2 Kiwis, one quite young, one quite old, rather a frail + wizened man, but tough enough, like a walnut.  I chatted briefly with them, they too being on the return trip.  They are the first ones I’ve met not to express unreserved delight about Kashgar apart from the market, they said, which was quite good.  But travelling is seeing for yourself, isn’t it.

And my marathon US journey did not stop at night; at least on this trip, at the end of each day there is some rrespite, a proper meal, a proper bed. Otherwise, a long day of sitting on the bus.

June 18th 1984

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The bus journey back to Kunming was the prospect for virtually the whole day.  We were made nervous that we might miss the bus when the girl at the hotel desk took ages to open up, so that we could pay up + retrieve our travel permit.  Val tried to get a student discount by showing our Hong Kong ID cards, but she wasn’t having any of that, + we had no time to argue the point.  It hardly mattered in this case – the difference was negligible – but the slightly disturbing thing was that the cards didn’t have the air of authenticity we had hoped for.

The bus ride was as comfortable as one could hope for during 11 hours, but dull.  Hermann Hesse’s “Glass Bead Game” is hardly the stuff to transport me to a different world, so Val + I whiled away some time by discussing, in a facetious + frivolous manner, the worst names we could think of to give kids.  Judas was pretty high on the list.

At one stop, the town seemed to specialise in knives + scissors – they even had flick-knives – not the sort of thing for peaceful China.  We weren’t interested in that, but our small scissors had just broken, the ones we’d used for needlework, nail-clipping, hair-cutting, paper-cutting, so these ones came along at just the right time as vital replacements.

There was only one other Westerner on the bus, as most of our fellow-travellers were staying in Dali to visit a market in a nearby village.  Our one companion was a remarkably wet Australian girl, a “new” Australian it would seem, as her name was Guiseppini.  We had nothing in common with her, so had little to say.

Back at the Kun Ho hotel, there was no double room available, but we were given 2 beds in a dorm, so that was entirely satisfactory.  To make things easy, we went to eat at a local restaurant just across the road.  It proved to be a mistake.  The food was passable, just, but the atmosphere was appalling.  They used the ticket system, guaranteeing bedlam, it was absolutely packed, the conditions were quite disgusting, with food underfoot, + the noise was beyond belief, with a group near us screaming at each other, playing a rowdy game involving counting + holding up fingers.  We bolted our food as fast as we could wield our chopsticks, + left.  As some sort of compensation, we sought out the local ice-cream shop, but that was almost as noisy, + I had to leave.  I had the radio with me, + tuned in to the BBC, listening to “Brain of Britain” + Sports Report as we walked back.

And so, a day of travel and eating. Never did finish The Glass Bead Game, which I thought was a load of nonsense… but what do I know? And at leastwe had the comfort of the BBC to look forward to in the evening. Brain of Britain, a quiz competition, is still going strong.

June 17th 1984

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I felt distinctly better this morning, well able to stomach coffee + sponge.  I even followed that up with a plate of fried cheese at the Garden.  This was by way of experiment, but didn’t live up to our hopes.  The result was something like crisps, but not crunchy enough, + greasy.  We met Mike + Jacob in there, + they joined us on a walk down towards the lake.  Or at least Mike did – Jacob turned back after a short time, not wishing to exacerbate his fever.  It had begun to drizzle quite heavily, but this was our last day in Dali, so we wanted to take advantage of it.  We felt quite sorry that we had imposed on ourselves the artificial restriction of just 3 days, with a train ticket waiting for us in Kunming.  3 days was barely enough time in any case, + losing one because of a combination of illness + bad weather was a blow.  It was a long walk down to the lake, made even longer when we set off across the paddy-fields, thinking to take a more direct route.  Annoyingly, crossing an irrigation ditch, I slipped on a wobbly stone; dunked one foot + cut my knee.  I also, in dislodging the stone, opened up the ditch to a torrent of water.  Not wanting to ruin the year’s crop, we did our best to replace it as snugly as possible.

The architecture in the small villages down towards the lake was a little more interesting: small stone cottages.  Rough + ready tho’ – not too many straight walls.  The people were friendly, with many calls + greetings, + invitations to join them, from the women planting rice in the fields.  The nearest I got to that was to try my hand at tossing a bundle of young rice seedlings into the field.  Luckily, the guy who normally performed the task was a good bit more accurate than I – he tossed them in nonchalantly but unerringly, even over great distances, so that the bundles sat in the mud, regularly spaced, waiting for the women to move in, pull them apart, + slap them in.  I was interested to see that the women used a string tied between 2 pegs to help keep their rows straight, but this in no way diminished my respect for their skill + industry.  One could stand there, in the middle of acre upon acre of bright green rice plants, + think that each + every single plant was put there by hand.

At the lake itself, we sat for a while + watched the scene.  A fisherman stood in shallow water at the edge of the lake, with a huge contraption made of lashed bamboo, in the shape of an inverted umbrella, about 12 feet across, covered with a fine net.  He would dip this into the water, lift it out again after a few minutes, examine the contents, if any, + scoop out any goodies with a small net – he certainly wasn’t pulling out a lot of fish.  It was a marvellously balanced instrument, nonetheless; we tried to lift one, + it was surprisingly light.

We rewarded ourselves for our efforts during the day with another visit to the bath-house, before going to the Garden for a meal – we’d intended to visit the town’s other Western restaurant, but it was shut, so we were left with little or no choice.  The meal was not as good – I think it is more that we have exhausted the variety of dishes the place has to offer than that the standard has actually dropped.  Which is as good a reason for moving on.  Called in to visit D + L on our return, to give back the Chandler, + incidentally to collect a remarkable detailed letter that David had been good enough to write out for us, outlining places to see + stay in India.  We’ve got on remarkably well with both of them, + would like to get in touch for a pint or seven back home.  They are both teachers, + somewhat unusually, both envisage continuing in the profession.

Another good daY. with a fascinating trip to the lake, and some good pictures to accompany it. Dali has been a most successful excursion; if anything, we are annoyed with ourselves that we have to cut it short.