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Small notes from a Very Big Country - Part 1

Introduction to 1976 China, and a train journey....

 

We first went to China in 1976, just before a major earthquake and the death of Mao and, therefore, towards the end of the Cultural Revolution.  It was extremely rare to be granted visas to this closed country at this time but we were fortunate enough to be invited to stay with the British Ambassador in Peking who was, in Chinese eyes, Sally's 'uncle', that is, an older male family friend.  He was also highly regarded as a Chinese scholar and speaker of fluent Mandarin, as was his wife, and a famed writer of 'running script' so our application was eventually positively considered.

Nervous....

One of the joys of travelling by train in China in those days was that most of the engines were steam driven, huge great black monsters built in the northern city of Tatung in an underground factory where they also made renowned ice cream.  We were very much looking forward to our three-night three-day journey from Canton to Peking pulled by such a beast.  We travelled from Hong Kong by smart, air-conditioned, characterless diesel train to the British military station at Fan Ling.  There were then strict security checks and only visa holding passengers were allowed to go forward to the border station at Lo Wu.  We were nervous as we walked across a small bridge carrying our cases under the watchful eyes and machine guns of many heavily-armed members of the People's Liberation Army with fleeting thoughts of "what on earth have we let ourselves in for?"  We had little preparation for this trip as, after months of no news, the visas arrived and we had to rapidly ask our clients' understanding, beg a bed from our consultant friend, Peter Barrett, in Hong Kong, and get a cheap BA flight via Delhi.

Much later we realised that we had little to worry about.  Everywhere we went on the trip we were very carefully watched and there was no question of us getting lost or not knowing where we were meant to be. In fact, the people who would be in trouble were our watchers so we learned to do deals with them so we could have freedom and they could have many cigarettes.

Did we fall into the category of Diplomat, Overseas Chinese, Business Delegation or Friends of China...?

At Lo Wu, our passports and visas were very carefully scrutinised and taken away.  That made us even more nervous but we were courteously asked in English to wait in a side room, furnished in the same way as all waiting rooms in China, with large comfortable chairs in mahogany frames and elaborate lace antimacassars, and offered green tea in China mugs with little lids.  We soon discovered that the only way to avoid the large leaves sticking to our teeth was to suck vigorously through nearly closed lips. After about an hour, two young women came into the room and each took us out to a separate balcony. This was subtle, detailed interviewing.   When we congratulated them on their mastery of English, one said, with immaculate pronunciation, "Oh, no, my intonation is very poor".  This was the beginning of a seven-hour process (in the middle of which we had a good six-course lunch) during which the authorities had to decide which category of traveller we fitted into - diplomat, Overseas Chinese, business delegation or Friends of China.  We were none of these so what we did not realise was happening were lots of phone calls to Peking on very bad lines - and they finally agreed that we could be classed as diplomats.   But they didn't tell us.  We had to work this out over the next week.

Unexpected opulence....

We were then taken on a local train with 'guides' to Canton where it was explained that our Express train was not due to leave until late evening.  We were invited to have dinner in a local restaurant, Pan Hsi, where we would be taken and brought back to make sure we were at the station in good time.  The setting of the restaurant was one of the most beautiful we have ever seen.  Ponds full of carp, overhanging trees, exquisite ornaments everywhere, zigzag walkways (to deter any evil spirits) and tables placed just far enough from each other to make privacy and conversation possible.  The food, too, was the best Cantonese cuisine served by gentle, polite waitresses.  What an experience!  And in the Cultural Revolution.

Our minders escorted us back to the station and introduced us to our compartment.  We were travelling 'soft class', of course, and discovered that we were one of only two sets of 'foreign' passengers in the coach.  We were the only Westerners and the other party was a Malaysian diplomat with his wife and young daughter.  Our compartment contained four bunks and a table with the inevitable giant thermos flask of hot water, green tea and mugs.  It was made clear that no-one else was allowed in our compartment.  We decided that we would sleep on the top bunks and push them up during the day when we could use the bottom one for sitting, dozing, writing our journals, etc.  We were a bit perplexed to find substantial towels on the upper bunks and didn't realise at first that it was common practice to place them over your tummy when sleeping as the cold air from the ceiling fans (no air-con) could have a deleterious effect on your guts if they weren't protected.  We weren't particularly enamoured of the constant propaganda and patriotic songs being fed through the loudspeakers in our compartment but we did manage to get the volume turned down a bit and later sabotaged the connection.

Isolated from both the 'hard class' and the 'soft class'.... how much was the resultant silver service going to cost...?

We were worried about what to do for food as we had assumed that we would be able to go to the dining car but we kept being told to wait.  No-one spoke English.  Sally spoke Malay but, as we were not allowed to mix, this did not help.  It turned out that we would not be allowed to eat with the 'hard class' or 'soft class' Chinese passengers, but we could choose our meal from a menu.  This truly ancient gravy-stained, yellowing and dog-eared document, written in French, was presented to us with much pride by an equally ancient waiter who was thrilled to be able to talk in French and offer us food from something which probably dated from the days before Liberation!  We thought we'd better keep it simple but the fresh fish, meat, vegetables and fruit were wonderful and taken on board at each stop.  We drank a delicious beer and began to wonder how much all this was going to cost.  "Don't worry", we were told, "We'll sort it out when we get to Peking".  To our great relief, when it came to settling the bill for the whole journey, it came to the equivalent of just £3.50p.  What a bargain!

The days were mostly spent watching the countryside go by, miles and miles of it.  Paddy fields and mountains south of the Yangtse and wheat fields to the north becoming more sandy as we neared Peking.  We attracted a lot of attention whenever we stopped as 'long-nosed foreign devils' were almost never seen in the countryside and only rarely in the cities.  We were told that we must not take any photographs unless an 'authorised figure' gave explicit permission.  So Bob kept asking the military man in grubby blue shorts and very off-white T-shirt in the next soft class coach.  He became very grumpy about this and started to shoo Bob away which he took as explicit permission.  There was some trouble in the cities and a couple of children threw rocks at the train but nothing untoward happened.

As we approached Peking just after dawn, we were conscious that there was a slight greyish tinge to the buildings in the city, making it look rather like a Lowry painting.  We quickly learned that this was due to the annual spring dust being blown in from the Gobi when the Embassy nurse had to give us something soothing for our sore throats.

We were met at Peking No 1 Railway Station by the Ambassador and his wife who had arrived in the magnificent grey embassy Austin Princess Vanden Plas, driven by an ex-Shanghai racing driver known amongst diplomatic circles as Speedy Gonzales.  Sally's 'uncle' was astonished to see the grumpy man get off our train.  He was the Army Commander for the South of China and was not meant to be here. There were lots of plots around the Gang of Four at this time.  No wonder he couldn't care less whether we took photos or not!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sally Garratt (as Third Warden) AND PM Bob Garratt