June 27th 1984

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The People’s Palace

It was a very comfortable journey, even tho’ neither of us slept very well – perhaps the motion of the train disturbed us.  We spent the early morning chatting with some HK Chinese on holiday here – they were interested in our photos.  We arrived in Chongqing just in time to join in with the morning rush hour.  Our first experience was cramming ourselves in to the funicular railway, carrying us up to the main part of the city high above.  From there, on to the bus, no 1, joining up with an American girl called Melanie, also just come off the train, tho’ in a rather worse condition than us, having travelled hard seat.  There was some confusion about when we should get off the bus – the man who had spoke English who had directed us on to the bus, told us to get off after 3 stops, but the conductress told us to stay on a couple of stops beyond that.  We decided to take the lady’s advice – foolishly, as it turned out, since it involved us in a long + frustrating plod back thro’ the city, asking for directions every few minutes.  Fortunately, however, there was no problem at all at the hotel, where we got beds quickly, easily, + reasonably cheaply. 

Once settled in, + after a cup of coffee, we headed down to the ferry terminal to attempt to buy our tickets for the Yangtse.  We found the place chaotic + confusing, + it was dispiriting to see a notice in English saying that all foreigners would have to go to the CITS office to buy their tickets.  And this is what Melanie decided to do – she doesn’t have much time left in China, + wants to leave on the boat tomorrow morning.  We want to go the following day, on the 29th, so have a little more time to play with.  We had another English speaking helper to intercede for us at the ticket office, but the girl there simply didn’t want to know.  However, the man assured us we would have no trouble buying a ticket if we simply turned up at the boat a little while before it sailed.  He even gave us a letter to give to the purser of the ship.  He told us he knew the Purser of the particular ship personally, + that he worked for CITS.  It seems a little strange, but it can only be worth giving it a try, especially since we were getting nothing but a headache at the office there.

We strolled a little around the area, then, choosing what looked like an interesting place on the map – it had the symbol of what appeared to be a palace – we caught a bus out there.  We had no idea what the place was, but it was an immensely impressive structure, with a great glass dome on top of a large stone building, the whole set up on the hill above us.  We were misled by the map however into walking round virtually the whole circumference, no small distance, searching for the entrance.  When we did find it, we went straight up the impressive driveway + steps, determined to discover what sort of palace we had discovered.  The central section, beneath the dome, was a theatre, tho, not currently running anything so far as I could tell.  We were amazed to discover, however, that the flanking wings housed the People’s Hotel, very grand premises indeed.  Since the Renmin (its Chinese translation) also housed CITS, we thought we might as well take advantage of our visit to see if they would be able to offer any assistance with boat tickets.  And contrary to the current grapevine on the matter, which states a 5-daywaiting period, they were.  They were able to offer us tickets not only for tomorrow, but for the day after too.  Bit there was a catch.  Or rather 2 catches.  First of all for some weird reason they couldn’t sell us tickets to Yichang, where we wanted to go, but only to a port further downstream.  We could still get off at Yichang, but would have to pay for the further destination.  Plus, understandably, they wanted paying in FECs.  These 2 factors in combination made the tickets wickedly expensive.  So we decided to return to Plan A, + see if our letter would do the trick.  The girl in the office had been, moreover, appallingly unhelpful, so we had no qualms at all about messing her around.

We tried once again to send off the cassette to Val’s mum, + again it was refused because it wasn’t adequately packed – the thing is becoming a millstone around our necks.  We ate our evening meal in a local restaurant.  We went early, understanding that Chinese rests. close early, but either that information is incorrect or we’d overdone it.  At any rate, we were the only ones in the place.  Quite a good meal, but spoilt by being served up with cold rice.  Returned to the Post Office, having bound up our cassette with cardboard, +, at last, having it accepted.  Whether or not it actually arrives is another matter entirely, of course.  Another Englishman had arrived during the day, making up a foursome in our room.  The most remarkable thing about him from our point of view was that he was a virtual clone in every respect of a friend of ours from back home – we noticed it independently, only confirming it to each other the next day.  But interestingly, he had come from the opposite direction – unusual to find someone hitting the circuit anti-clockwise – so was able to give us some information + views about some of the places we are heading towards.  We chatted for a long time – Geoffrey is not at all our sort but we had plenty enough to say.

Something of a flat day – I don’t know why we were delaying our departure, when we clearly had very little to do in Chongqing.

June 26th 1984

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Started off the day with dumplings for breakfast, brought to me in bed by Val.  We became heartily sick of dumplings by over-indulging in them in the Chinese restaurants in Sarawak, but tried one here yesterday + instantly fell in love.  The Malaysian variety generally had a rather sweet sauce, but these are savoury, really quite a rare treat when compared with all the sweet buns, cakes, + biscuits on offer.  Were on the way out of the door to take a last couple of photos of the place when we ran into Guiseppini.  The girl is destined to haunt us, since she too is taking the bus to Chengdu today.  There were 7 Westies in all, being the ones I’ve mentioned already, the French girl, + Francois, a Frenchman, + another regular on the circuit.  He annoys me more than most, being the archetypical been-there, done everything traveller, + one who, what’s more, is constantly whingeing about the price, not as a matter of principal, but as a bargaining ploy to obtain a better deal.  Those sort of tactics, when the place is already both cheap + trusting, annoy me.

The bus journey was the usual exercise in tedium, made somewhat worse by the fact we all thought it was much shorter, 3 or 4 hrs, instead of the nearly 6 it turned out to be.  We might have known, however, for the fare was about 6, and one yuan per hour has been pretty constant.  Broke the journey just once along the way, to grab boiled eggs + buns, + stretch the legs.

Val + I didn’t really have any fixed plans when we arrived in Chengdu, but we joined the others + walked en masse to the tourist hotel a short walk away.  A very impressive modern building, something in the hotel internationalese style, at least in the lobby, which is where most Chinese hotels seem to spend their money.  It wasn’t as expensive as all that, + all the others checked in, but we decided to go down to the train station + see if we could get out of the place straight away – I don’t really know why, I think we were anxious to get on to the next town, Chongqing, as soon as possible, + make arrangements for the trip down the Yangtse River, by all accounts a time-consuming process.  The station was in a right mess, in the process of being rebuilt, + it was a devil of a job finding the ticket office, but luckily a man who spoke English came to our rescue, guiding us to the right place – no simple matter.  Val was clutching the piece of paper bearing my attempts at Chinese calligraphy, saying where it was we wanted to go, what train we wanted to go on, +, of course, that we were students, but it was all barely necessary.  Our helper took over the communications at the window – the prime advantage of this was that we didn’t have to provide evidence of our student status.  But the news wasn’t good, for we were told that the train was full.  This we knew to be a nonsense – they sell hard-seat tickets until people pop out of the windows, but the woman was quite adamant, so there was little we could say.

So, the briefest of conferences, then it was back to the window to ask for the same ticket for tomorrow.  No, not possible, we were told – not till 6 o’clock – it was now 5.  Not long enough a wait to do anything with, so we said goodbye to our new friend, plonked ourselves down on our packs, + prepared to wait out the hour.  We were then approached by yet another man wanting to practise his English, a teacher this time.  We began with the usual pleasant inanities, but when he discovered we had attempted to buy a ticket for tonight, but had been unable to do so, he was puzzled (as indeed we had been.)  But he then bustled about, questioning various members of staff, eventually returning with one of them.  “Which ticket did we want?”  I was inclined not to push our luck, but Val, being braver + cheekier, asked for a hard sleeper.  Which, to our amazement, we got – usually such things take at least 3 days.

We had enough time, too, to rush back into the centre of town on the bus to have a meal – one of the attractions of Chengdu is its food, with 3 restaurants particularly recommended in the guide-book.  We found one of them without too much trouble – I even had enough time to pop along + take a photograph of a big statue of Mao at the end of the avenue.  Chengdu seemed an attractive city, with broad tree-lined avenues.  The food, however, tho’ quite acceptable, was nothing very special, tho’ being in a rush, we weren’t really able to do it justice.

Back to the stn then, + on to the train, no trouble.  So we found ourselves in the hard sleeper, feeling somewhat dazed at the transformation, yet even more so, elated at both our good fortune + the pleasant prospect of a comfortable night’s journey.  I began a letter to Dave Trickett, anxious to relay our experiences to someone.

I suppose the upside of an oppressive bureasucratic regime is that from time to time one encounters people who are happy to help you through… and such was the case today. But otherwise a day without much to report, sitting on a bus, dealing with officialdom.

China is one of the few countries we visited then that we have been back to, five or six years ago in order to visit our son. Went to Chengdu, and the statue is still now, though now entirely overpowered by high-rise buildings.

June 25th 1984

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We walked first to the Post Office to make yet another attempt – futile, as it turned out – to post the cassette we’d made to Val’s mum.  This time the excuse was not that there was no customs official there, but that it wasn’t packed in a strong box.  Still, at least the trip gave some purpose to our morning promenade.  The other piece of business we had to perform was to buy a ticket for a bus across to Lejang, from where we could catch the train to Chongqing.  This route is recommended in the guide book, being an attractive route in its own right, + cutting a big corner off the journey, which would otherwise mean going to Chengdu.  However, events had rendered that part of the book obsolete – there was now a big notice in English at the bus station stating that bus tickets could now be bought only to 3 towns… + none of them were Lejang.  We tried even so, but no go – everyone we asked gave us a “mayo” + said Chengdu.  So in the end we bowed to public pressure + bought 2 tickets for tomorrow morning to Chengdu.

We continued our walk thro’ the market, which was much the same as usual.  After a very short time, one becomes accustomed to the unusual: huge slabs of meat, strange animals, people pushing, pulling or carrying enormous bundles.  Our notion of the exotic right now would be a visit to Sainsbury’s.  We then turned + ambled thro’ some narrow lanes, with stone houses crowding in on us on both sides.  Again, it was very similar to the sort of streets one sees everywhere in Asia, only there was an absence of the abject poverty of Indonesia, Thailand, etc. 

Eventually we found ourselves down by the river at the ferry wharves, + discovered quite by chance that we were only just across the river from the Big Buddha, Leshan’s principal – indeed, only – scenic attraction.  It is an enormous statue of a seated Buddha set into the cliff, the largest in China, one of the largest in the world, dating from (I think) the 8th century.  We found the appropriate ferry to carry us across to it.  For once, our timing was perfect – there was one just waiting to go.  We even travelled first-class, for what it was worth: wicker chairs on the top deck.  But it was only a 5 minute trip across, + we found ourselves on the wrong side of the boat to catch a glimpse – or take a photograph of – Big B from the water.

The walk around the temple complex that included the statue on the other side was really very pleasant, but we weren’t in a condition to enjoy it.  It involved following a path with countless steps, up + down, up + down – obviously the monks who built the place did not have convenience or comfort in mind.  And we were still stiff + aching from our exertions on the mountain – obviously we’d strained ourselves more than we’d realised.  There were a couple of interesting temples to have a look around, but it was the Buddha itself, looked down on from above, that was a highlight.

We returned across the river on a different boat, + then headed off to find a meal.  We stopped off at a small café serving a doughy fritter-like dish, like a rissole, + had a couple of them – we’re always willing to try something new.  But while we were sitting there, there was suddenly a great commotion outside, with news of some impending event spreading like fire, + people rushing down the street.  Even the woman in charge of the café barked out how much we owed to her assistant, + ran off.  Great excitement somewhere, obviously, but we are British + phlegmatic, so we took our time to finish our food, paid up, then strolled down the street to see what all the fuss was about.  Many of the shops were completely abandoned, so one could, if one had a mind, help oneself to any amount of goods.

We joined the milking throng at the junction with the main road, + once again our timing was excellent, for we discovered at once what all the fuss was about.  The first truck appeared just then, the open back loaded with soldiers in combat uniform, standing rigidly at ease, holding modern-looking rifles across their chests.  The next held a dozen civilians, each with their head bowed + hands tied behind their back, each guarded by 2 stern-faced policemen in white uniform.  And this was the pattern for the rest of the procession, perhaps 20 more trucks, except that one was all female – women prisoners, women guards.  They were obviously enemies of the state, tho’ whether internal – criminals – or external – foreign guerrillas, I couldn’t say for certain.  Most likely the former.  But was this exhibition, as a public degradation + deterrent to others, the extent of their punishment, or but the prelude, a la revolution francaise, to something more drastic.  It made for an eerie spectacle, disturbing+ frightening, like a carnival parade, only almost completely silent, except for the sound of the engines, +, at beginning + end, a recorded speech, blared thro’ loudspeakers.  SAs I had the camera already slung around my neck, I risked a couple of pictures.  The risk ranged from confiscation of the film, or possibly camera, thro’ a measure of harassment to, presumably, deportation, but I counted on the crowd providing me with sufficient cover, + I was not mistaken.

Dinner was adequate but uninspiring, but afterwards we went to a tea pavilion, for sponge cakes + green China tea.  Potentially, it was very nice, with lily-pads, bamboo furniture, an ornately decorated roof.  And one could not complain about the atmosphere, with lots of men sitting around, spitting + chatting.  But as usual, + in spite of the attractive surroundings it was all rather squalid.  So we had no more than 2 cups of tea – normally they would keep re-filling the cups until after the cows came home – then walked back.  Highlight of the evening was a scaldingly hot shower – nothing like it for relaxing aching muscles.  I met Ben down there – he too tried to buy a ticket to Lejang, failed, + will now be off to Chengdu in the morning.

Some unexpected encounters – with the huge statue of Buddha, with lorries full of prisoners – to enliven the day.

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

posted in: The way back | 1
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.