Blessed to be a witness

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Monday, March 28th

Attack of the tripods

A nasty 5am start meant we were on the airport bus for the two-hour journey at 6.30am. The lack of traffic - apart from the odd tractor laden with nomads, unlit, that our driver had to swerve around - meant that we made the 95km in only an hour and a half, and sat around in the airport for the next two hours, watching PLA divisions running around the airport grounds in rank, chanting what I took to be the Chinese equivalent of "I don't know but I've been told, Lhasa women ain't got no soul", or obscene variants thereof. Then again they may have been singing the catchy Communist number "Before the revolution I only had a chicken, but now I have two light bulbs and a bicycle".

Due to bad planning we only had small change on us, and naturally the exchange counter was shut and the ATM out of order, so we scraped what we had together and bought two cups of coffee. Then we boarded and took off, the plane making a very steep climb to get over the hilltops. Because I was so hungry, I girded my loins to eat the muck that I expected to be served for breakfast (anyone who has flown with China Airlines before will know what I'm talking about), but it was actually a rather delicious stew of chicken, broccoli and rice with fruit salad to follow. The plane was in good condition too - I think things are finally improving in Chinese aviation. In contrast to the terrifying outgoing flight, our return to Chengdu was smooth as a baby's bottom. For most of the flight there was significant cloud cover over the mountains, which seemed to suppress the high winds, though occasional breaks in the clouds did afford some stunning views.

I know as a backpacker you're meant to bemoan things like this and wish for remoteness, but as we drove through the city Chengdu looked incredibly sophisticated - the rampant industry seemed almost inviting. Alas the pollution, if anything, was worse than before. It was great, though, to get back to Sim's, sit in the garden and enjoy a tuna baguette each.

It was also good to get back to nearly 100% air pressure - a brisk walk up and down stairs left us with not even a raised pulse, rather than the panting wrecks we had been at our hotel in Lhasa. And when I took out my water bottle, which I had last opened in Lhasa, I was amused to note the effect of the increased air pressure. This was the opposite of the various lotions and things we had brought with us to Tibet, that on arrival at 3,600 metres either splattered, popped, or in the case of the roll-on deodorants, exploded spectacularly, shooting the ball across the room.

So that evening we celebrated our safe return in Sim's new bar, a corner of the garden that he'd walled off in our absence - they don't half build quickly here: in two weeks the builders have nearly built two entire new storeys on top of the floor where our room is.

As we and other foreigners were sitting there drinking beer, a young Chinese woman and a middle-aged man arrived. They ordered a beer each and started playing Chinese chess. The girl spoke English, and said she was a student at such-and-such a university, and that the gentleman with her was her professor. Eyebrows were raised. Shortly afterwards two other, very rough-looking Chinese men came in and sat opposite them. They seemed interested in the foreigners, and they started roaring "gam bei", which means "cheers" but also means that the participants have to down their drinks. Thus they proceeded, over the course of about 45 minutes, to get exceedingly drunk and rowdy, taking down the musical instruments from the wall and failing utterly to play them.

M went out to the toilet, and on her way back met Sim in the garden. He was looking very distressed. "These people are not my customers," he said. "I did not invite them. They see my name and the address of the hostel in the newspaper, and they just turn up."

M came back and told me, and as I looked at their demeanour, I supposed that they might in fact be triads - Chinese gangsters, or "tripods" in Hong Kong expatriate argot - come to swing their weight around and possibly extract protection money. I thought I might be exaggerating the situation, as is my wont, but from seeing Sim's discomfiture we reckoned that these people weren't just noisy drunks. It sounds like a movie cliché, but having known people who operated businesses in Hong Kong, the paying of protection to gangsters is actually almost ubiquitous in the Chinese service industry.

M asked Sim if it might be a good idea for us at least to pretend that we were leaving, and though she expected him to say that this wouldn't be necessary, he said "please, that would be a good idea". So we made a show of say goodnight, and went down into the dark end of the garden, watching the situation, hiding our cigarettes. Eventually they were persuaded to leave, and though the "student" and "professor" professed not to know the rowdies, they all left in the same very flashy Land Cruiser, drunkenly driving off into the night. I hope they don't return.

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