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None of it would ever have happened if Tania had not become best friends with Sarah Spence. One moment Tania’s parents had hardly heard the name, and the next it seemed like they heard nothing else: Sarah Spence knew where to buy the best secondhand clothes, Sarah Spence had a CD by a fantastic new band, Sarah Spence said Friends of the Earth were just old hippies. At first Tania’s parents were happy enough, as Sarah Spence — an unexpectedly plain yet self-possessed girl — always treated them politely. But Tania’s father, Guy, began to lose patience when Sarah’s reported achievements were extended to travel. The Spences, Tania explained triumphantly, “were really adventurous,” going to exotic, faraway places all by themselves. Sarah’s father was a “totally brilliant linguist” and would learn Latin American Spanish or Bahasa Indonesian “just like that” so they could buy tickets and find hotels as they went. “Sarah says it’s the only way to travel,” Tania insisted, “as you can really see the country and make friends with the people.”
There was no mistaking the criticism of her own parents lurking in Tania’s praise, and Guy Winter found this especially annoying as he was rather proud of his family’s holidays. Yes, they went with a tour firm, but this was no ordinary tour firm. For some years Guy’s family had booked with the High Style Travel Company, to Rajasthan, India, Tanzania, Indonesia, and elsewhere, and not once had they been disappointed. High Style lived up to its name, taking them to atmospheric, offbeat spots alongside the standard tourist sights, and choosing characterful hotels. Most of all, High Style had a knack of attracting just the right sort of person to their groups, which never seemed to include the loud boors or complaining oldsters Guy dreaded. He and his wife, Chloe, had met some fascinating people on their trips from all kinds of interesting professions, and they had remained good friends with a number of High Stylers even long afterward. For that matter Tania herself had loved all their High Style holidays, and it was only now that she had treacherously decided they were inferior to the Spences’ DIY efforts. The Spences? Guy did not think of himself as a snob, but there were some people he simply had no time for. Didn’t Geoff Spence run some sort of fitness club? Guy had met him at parents’ events and had thought him a silly-looking man, with straggly hair and an overeager, gap-toothed smile.
What really decided matters, though, was Michael Chen. Chen was a buyer for one of Hong Kong’s larger jewelry stores who passed by Chloe’s shop during a visit to London and stepped inside, professionally curious. He ended up staying for more than two hours, examining piece after piece. “You should come to Hong Kong and show these to our manager,” he told Chloe. “Of course I can’t promise anything, Mrs. Winter, but I like your designs and I’m sure he’ll like them too. And believe me, Hong Kong people like buying jewelry.”
He left an impressive-looking business card, which she showed to Guy that evening. There was no denying it was a good opportunity, but a round-trip flight there seemed an expensive outlay when nothing was certain, and Guy remained doubtful. “You might go all the way there and then find this man Chen had just got overexcited. People do that when they’re on a trip.”
“What if we combined it with our next holiday?” wondered Chloe.
For some time Guy and Chloe had been tempted by High Style’s Cool Cathay tour of China, but had always decided against it because of the country’s poor record on human rights. Chloe, the family moralist, was firmly opposed to visiting countries with reprehensible regimes, insisting that “spending money in that sort of place is like giving presents to criminals.” Guy was rather proud of her stand on such matters. Not that he was morally unconcerned himself, but he represented the safe, sensible side of the Winter marriage, while Chloe represented the passionate and committed side. Although he had discovered she could be more practical than he expected. He had not taken her jewelry shop seriously at first, regarding it as more a hobby than a real business, and quietly hoping it would not make too much of a loss, but after a couple of slow years it had done surprisingly well and now brought in a handy addition to his own income. It had also introduced them to a more exciting circle than they would ever have met through his City colleagues. For that matter, they had first heard about High Style through one of Chloe’s clients.
“China’s getting a lot better these days,” Chloe considered. “I saw something in the paper about it. They still have a long way to go, of course, but things aren’t nearly as bad as they were. Perhaps we should give it a try.”
Guy and she had looked up the High Style brochure only to find a problem. The Cool Cathay tour did not pass through Hong Kong but began at Beijing and left from Shanghai. Chloe was not put off. “What if we take the tour and then travel down to Hong Kong ourselves? We could even stop off at a few places along the way.”
Travel independently? Guy found his wife’s suggestion a little alarming, as Chloe’s ideas often were, but he could see how it might be exciting. If the Spences could do this sort of thing, then why not the Winters? Then a problem occurred to him. “What about the jewels? You can’t very well haul them round China.”
“I don’t see why not, so long as we get them insured. Chen mostly liked the rings and smaller pieces, so they wouldn’t take up much room.” She looked into it the next day, picking out a collection she felt was suitable, estimating the value — rather less than Guy would have guessed — and found it was fairly straightforward to arrange a premium with the company that insured the shop. “They weren’t interested in how I’d be traveling. They just wanted to know where and how long I’d be there.”
So that was that. The next day she bought a map and a guidebook and began studying possible routes, and that weekend they told the children. Guy half expected Tania to turn up her nose at the idea — she was getting so hard to impress these days — but instead she surprised him with her enthusiasm, saying, “Wow, Dad, that’s so cool,” so he wondered if she too was involved in a little rivalry with the Spences. Her younger brother, Ben, was also excited, and more so when Chloe suggested they might visit the Baolin martial arts temple: Ben had been doing kung fu after school for a year now, and nothing could have been more appealing to him than a visit to Baolin. Tania, who was going through a mystic phase, wanted to see the huge carved Buddhas near Guangfaochu. Chloe cleverly managed to come up with a route that combined them both. The High Style tour ended with a long boat trip down the Yangtze River, and the Winters would simply disembark half a day early, take a train direct from the river port to Guangfaochu, then another train to the town below Baolin, and finally a third back to the main railway line south to Canton and Hong Kong. Chen confirmed their proposed date for a meeting, while High Style had no problem booking a return flight from Hong Kong rather than Shanghai. In a week everything was fixed and paid for. Guy took some pleasure in mentioning it to Geoff Spence at the next parents’ event and seeing his surprise.
“China? That should be interesting. No, we’ve not done that one yet. I’ve heard it’s quite a hard place to go traveling.”
Guy smelled the whiff of sour grapes. “I’m sure we’ll survive.”
He even bought a language course in Mandarin Chinese, though the words and the strange system of tones were so remote from English that memorizing them proved laborious, and he was still only on page five when the time came to begin packing their bags.
“Don’t you worry, we’ll get by,” Chloe told him breezily. “People always do.”
The High Style tour proved disappointing compared with others they had taken. Famous sights such as the Great Wall and the terra-cotta army were impressive enough, but China as a whole seemed far less charming than Indonesia or India. The countryside could be picturesque, but most of the towns were depressingly industrial, and so polluted that the sun looked as if it were shining through gauze. The hotels, too, were not up to High Style’s usual standards and were either modern and immemorable or grim, Soviet-era blocks, while even the new ones felt faintly run-down, with their dusty corridors, and at one place near Xi’an, Chloe decided against leaving her slim jewelry box in the safe, hiding it in her luggage in the room instead. She became increasingly irritated with the Chinese tour guides, whom she referred to as “the robots,” as they always toed the official line and became quite angry when she asked them about imprisoned human rights activists or censorship of the press.
The main problem, though, was the other tourists. Most of these seemed tolerable enough at first, and Guy and Chloe got on quite well with a couple from Chalk Farm who ran their own PR firm, but little by little a gulf opened up between the Winters and everyone else. The reason was plain enough: their plans to travel independently after the tour. Guy was aware that he and his family talked about these a good deal, and sometimes he even found himself using phrases borrowed from Sarah Spence, about how this was the only way to see a country properly and make friends with the people. And why not? They were not showing off but simply voicing the excitement they felt. He became increasingly annoyed by the small-mindedness of the others: their weary looks and sarcastic replies. They were jealous, he and Chloe agreed. It was so unreasonable, too, seeing as there was nothing to stop them traveling alone themselves. As the days passed, he and Chloe found it increasingly hard to conceal the disdain they felt, and the coolness around them sharpened. By the third week even the PR couple were hardly speaking to them, and when the Yangtze boat finally docked, early one steamy summer morning, and the Winters assembled by the restaurant room with their luggage, nobody troubled to come and wave them good-bye.
“Good riddance,” said Chloe as they shouldered their shiny new backpacks and walked down the gangplank to the shore. “Boring old farts.”
Tania and Ben giggled at this disrespect.
The High Style guide tried to get them a taxi, but they seemed not to be available in the little port, and so the Winters walked the short distance to the railway station. In the event Guy was pleased they had to walk, finding it strangely exhilarating to be striding along the waterside of this foreign town, and breathing in its early morning smells, of river water, jasmine tea, and unfamiliar spices and foods. He was surprised he had never thought of traveling like this before, and even felt a grudging respect for Geoff Spence. How good it was to be rid of the baggage of guides and other tourists. Yes, he and Chloe had their planned schedule, but they could change their minds if they liked. He felt as if the whole of this vast country were unfurled before him like a great map: they could go anywhere they wanted, do anything they chose. In a curious way he had never felt so intensely free.
People were looking at them strangely, and one man almost fell off his bicycle. “I don’t think many foreigners come through here,” said Guy, pleased by the thought.
“It’s like we’re explorers,” said Ben grandly.
The railway station gave them a moment of shock. Walking into the main hall, they were taken aback by a scene of seeming chaos. The Chinese written characters above each ticket window meant nothing to Guy, while the queues were alarming, with people shoving tightly forward against one another. As he and his family watched, angry shouting suddenly broke out from the far end of the hall, almost like a scream. Ben and Tania were looking nervous, and even Chloe seemed unsure. “Stay here and watch the bags. I’ll deal with this,” said Guy briskly. Everything had started so well, and he was not going to let it go sour. “What was the name of the place?”
“Guangfaochu,” said Chloe.
“Guangfaochu,” Guy repeated, adding a singsong accent to the word so it sounded pleasingly authentic. He chose the window with the shortest queue, waited his turn in the squash — actually it wasn’t so bad when you were in it — and told the ticket seller one of the few phrases he had managed to memorize: “Wo shiang chu” — I want to go to — “Guangfaochu,” giving the name his full Mandarin Chinese lilt. The ticket seller looked puzzled — Guy wondered if he had ever spoken to a foreigner before — and made him repeat the name twice but then held up eight fingers. Ticket window eight. The numbers were Western, fortunately, and Guy joined another slow-moving queue till finally it was time to repeat his demand, “Wo shiang chu Guangfaochu.” A moment later he was walking back to his family, triumphantly holding up four cardboard tickets.
“Well done,” said Chloe proudly. Even Tania looked impressed.
“It was easy,” Guy said with a smile.
After that he simply showed their tickets to anyone wearing a uniform till they were on the right platform. Less pleasing was the sight of the train, with its battered paintwork and hard plastic seats. “How long does this take?” asked Ben doubtfully.
“Three hours,” said Guy. “There are supposed to be really good views.”
At least it was not crowded, and they easily found four seats together. Their mood began to improve as the carriage jolted into motion and they were on their way. And there was so much to watch. On the High Style tour they had traveled only on planes and buses, always cocooned with the group, and Guy was intrigued by the life around them on this Chinese train. Almost all the other passengers seemed to be eating something, from peanuts and strange fruit to chunks of chicken in plastic bags or rice in boxes. Leavings were simply thrown to the floor, which quickly became thick with husks, peels, and bones. Just as the mess was threatening to become oppressive, a large, uniformed woman appeared with a broom, bossily making everyone raise their feet as she swept everything away. She returned shortly afterward, now wielding a vast kettle, at the sight of which the other passengers brought out bags of tea leaves and tin mugs, which she carefully filled, their owners snapping tin lids into place to keep in the warmth.
“I feel distinctly underprepared,” said Guy, making his family laugh.
“I rather like it,” decided Chloe. “It makes a nice change from crisps and sandwiches from a trolley.”
The one thing that troubled Guy a little was their speed. This was supposed to be a main line, and yet the train seemed in no hurry at all, trundling slowly past terraced hillsides and often coming to a stop in the middle of nowhere, halting for what seemed an age beside paddy fields or some broken railway building, where the carriage, robbed of its breeze, soon became like an oven. After two and a half hours Guy felt a need to check and asked a man behind him, “Guangfaochu?” to be answered with a finger pointed forward. He was met with the same gesture after three hours, three and a half hours, and four.