Dining out on blood jelly soup

It's a brave oldie who goes on a three-week tour round China. Joan Wyndham feared the worst - and was not disappointed There was always one dish of some unidentifiable creature

At the start of any package tour there is usually one dreadful moment, when you first clap eyes on your fellow-travellers. How will you survive three weeks with these doddering old fools, these plump, blue- rinsed matrons? It takes three or four days before you realise that they are are a) charming and interesting people, and b) about 10 years younger than you.

There were 28 of us travelling to China, in the charge of a fiercely competent lady guide, whose rallying cry was "Follow the yellow umbrella!" The brochure had not been encouraging - "Bring plenty of loo paper, be prepared to do a lot of walking'' and, worst of all, "Don't look on this as a holiday, more as an Experience!''

I arrived in Peking fearing the worst, only to find myself staying in a super-modern Holiday Inn with acres of marble flooring, a beauty parlour, and a swimming pool - even an Olde English Pub called the Pig and Whistle.

Everyone we met was smiling, friendly and helpful. Having just read Jung Chang's Wild Swans, I wondered what had become of all those Mao fanatics, and why were they being so damn nice to us bourgeois capitalist swine?

It wasn't long before I realised that it was our capital they were after. "Hello! Hello!" they screeched from every market stall. My husband, who was born in China, and speaks excellent Mandarin, tried to explain to them that the English don't like being hassled, but it fell on deaf ears - a pity, as some of their stuff was quite tempting, ranging from brightly coloured children's clothes to lighters with Mao's picture on them which played "Happy Birthday" when lit.

But for a straightforward con you couldn't beat the boys who put on student specs, and went round the coaches saying they were collectors of foreign coins. I also liked the line of the pretty girl behind the jewellery counter: "Look into my eyes - if these pearls are false, may I be reborn as a dirty pariah dog!'' Even the monks were at it: "Give money and become Buddha" was the tempting offer inscribed on their collection boxes.

Inevitably our tour featured a visit to the Great Wall, but friends in London had warned me to expect vast queues of Japanese fighting for a foothold, with another long queue forming up, well to windward, outside the worst loos in China. They must have been something special, as all the loos we encountered were appalling, either malodorous holes, or sit- up versions that didn't flush.

As the only tourist in living history to turn down the Great Wall, I spent, instead, a relaxing afternoon at the health and beauty salon. In the reception, two elderly Chinese were sitting on vibrating armchairs, watching television, while in the room next door, beautiful, naked Chinese girls were leaping out of the sauna on to the scales - quite unnecessarily as they were slim as reeds. Finally, a large, heavily-built lady gave me the best massage of my life. I couldn't get over how strong her hands were, until I realised she was walking on my spine.

As our evening was free, I went with my husband to the hotel's posh restaurant, but one look at the starters - Pickled Chicken's Feet and Blood Jelly Soup - sent us scurrying back to the Pig and Whistle for a cheese sandwich. Next day, to atone for not having seen the Great Wall, I did the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace in two four-hour sessions. They were undeniably beautiful, but it was a long slog - only one of our party fainted.

Next stop Xian, and the grossly over-hyped Terracotta Army. Apparently they are all supposed to be different, but when you are looking down on 6,000 of them massed together in a pit it's hard to distinguish one moustache from another. The bad news is that they are about to dig up 6,000 more.

But it was in the poorer quarters of Xian that I first saw what I thought of as the "real China'' - families living out on the streets, drinking tea (or something stronger), smoking pipes, guzzling noodles, playing Chinese checkers or just snoozing. They lived in hovels open to the street, with doors propped up by oil drums and bicycle tyres weighting down the corrugated iron roofs, but at least they could never have been bored or lonely. Sometimes there was a small table with a few oranges or watermelons on it, and behind it sat Dad, proud to be both a householder and a business man.

In Chongqing we boarded our boat for a week's trip up the Yangtse - getting on was a terrifying experience. I was teetering in the middle of a long, swaying gang plank, the filthy river below, when a docker started prodding me from behind with his shoulder-pole. "How much! How much!" he bellowed. How much for what, for carrying my bags or for knocking me into the water and then saving me? Luckily my husband came to the rescue. "Leave my old lady alone!" he snarled in perfect Mandarin, "and go fry your testicles." Totally gobsmacked at hearing street slang from the lips of a well-dressed, round-eyed long-nose, he beat a hasty retreat.

Our ship, the Kunlan, was immensely cosy and tatty. Strange, sinister smells of disinfectant and bad cooking lurked in the corridors. The ship had once belonged to Chairman Mao and for an extra £400 you could have the dubious pleasure of sleeping in his bed. On the sundecks there were morning Tai Chi classes. I was just getting into it when a big boat full of laughing, jeering Chinese swept past, freezing us in the posture known as "Hanging a woman by her ears" - China not being famous for its feminism. After that I decided to give Tai Chi a miss.

But the real black spot was the food. Every morning the farmers' boats would circle the ships with their pails, to take back last night's untouched banquet to the best-fed pigs in China.

There was always one main dish of some unidentifiable creature, mainly scrag, skin, and gristle, sitting in a watery sauce, which was either tasteless or red-hot. Green vegetables and noodles were served in the water they had been boiled in. As each evil-looking dish arrived some brave person would take a bite, to anxious choruses of "What's it like?", "Well, it's kind of tough and slimy at the same time, with lots of bones!" Right, another one for the pigs. Annoyingly, the rice always arrived after you'd finished eating, together with a cauldron of unsalted, dishwater soup, and some mushy water-melon. One day, in despair, we begged the chef for a typical English meal. We got sweet-and-sour chips followed by Spotted Dick and custard, both greeted with loud cheers.

Meanwhile we were sweeping through the three famous gorges, to which the Chinese give fanciful names. For the first two days I dutifully tried to identify "Fairy Peaks", "Dragon Gates" or "Six Tigers Killing a Goat", but by day three one crag was looking much like another, even when enlivened by leaping monkeys. Luckily I had brought a good supply of Elmore Leonard, my favourite crime-writer, and after "Cow Liver and Horse Lung Gorge" it was back to Freaky Deaky.

Our first shore trip was to the "Devil City" reached by a cable car. We particularly enjoyed the Note to Travellers. "For your safety" it read, "the following people don't take the Cable Car, please: 1) Drunkard, 2) Neuropath, Idiot and easily dizzy people, 3) Very old and deformed man whose action is inconvenient.'' At our final stop, Lushan mountain, we were promised a "typical" farming community. Seekers after picturesque squalour were disappointed by the spankingly new, houses, built for farmers by the government, and had to content themselves with snapping a water- buffalo standing by a cesspit.

Finally, at the end of our trip came the Captain's Farewell party. There was a karaoke concert by the crew, mainly old Beatles songs, followed - believe it or not - by Musical Chairs. When the disco began we fled to our cabins - two dozen geriatrics doing the Hokey-Kokey was not a tempting thought.

We were met by a coach that took us through fascinating scenery to Wuxi. We would have liked to enjoy it in peace, but our guide had other ideas. He came from that school that teaches you to repeat everything twice and tell awful jokes. For instance, "OK, so now we pass the Jade Temple, the Jade Temple, OK? - and now I tell funny story. Why is the bicycle leaning against the wall? Because it's two-tyred, OK? Ha ha!" Be sure to pack ear plugs.

Our next destination was Guilin, for a boat trip up the amazingly beautiful Li River, whose limestone crags have inspired so many Chinese artists over the centuries. This was one of the highlights of our tour, unlike Shanghai which seemed to have nothing left of its former sleazy glamour.

The nearest we came to a low dive there was a karaoke bar, run by the local versions ofSharon and Tracey, one varnishing her nails, the othercombing her greasy locks over the peanuts.

Our last two days were spent in Hong-Kong, where my main interest was the wonderful food. Having lost 10lbs in the preceding weeks, I fell like a ravening wolf on the buffet at the Peninsular Hotel, starting with oysters and sushi, and munching my way towards the bread and butter pudding.

By far the friendliest place in town is the "Go-Down", run by Bill Nash and his ugly dog Pig - a haven for tourists and ex-pats. When the waitress brought the steak and kidney pie I noticed a brass plaque set into the table beside my plate - "Terry Wogan sat here". Then I knew I was truly half-way home.

`Anything Once', the third volume of Joan Wyndham's autobiography, has recently been published (HarperCollins, £5.99).

F A C T F I L E

Joan Wyndham bought a 23-day `China the Beautiful' tour with Voyages Jules Verne (0171-723 5066). Departures are weekly through the summer from 25 March to 21 October, price £2,450 per person (single supplement £650) including flights on British Airways.

Further information: China Travel Service, 7 Upper St Martin's Lane, London WC2H 9DL (0171-836 3688).

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