Here I am back in a different world. The official government car that is waiting for me outside the airport is neither black nor an Audi, but the waiting chauffeur has his obviously-thick woollen jacket turned up at the collar. The Kunming sky reminds me faintly of sludge. The air is not good today; sometimes, the driver confides in me, the sky is blue.
I am here for a meeting with the local government, but a more important man (the Governor) has jumped the queue. My meeting is suddenly bumped. I check into my hotel, wander out to find some lunch, and wait.
But the wait ends in typical Chinese style. I am sent a message on WeChat, the Chinese equivalent of WhatsApp, but with rather fewer encryption measures. Are you ready for dinner? “What time,” I reply.
In the friendliest terms, official Chinese dinners can be brutal affairs. The baijiu flows constantly, and attempts to deflect a toast are rarely well received. The politest I can be about baijiu is to think of it as alcoholic petrol. I can feel it damaging my body with every sip, but if only one were allowed to sip. The liquid must be knocked back, brimming glass by brimming glass. With each, my body shudders; however I attempt to train and restrain myself, I simply cannot repress them. But with the toasts and their shudders come other things as well. The smiles and the hugs; the speeches and the vows of everlasting friendship. As the evening wears on, the constant cigarette smoking fills the room and the air becomes thicker and thicker. As thick as thieves, the saying goes. Like the air, so the friendships.
I have been here before, of course, in different times with different people in different places. Such vows never mark the end of the road, but they do at least signal that you have been granted access to the road. The hard work might still remain, but the gate has been opened. Now is the time to step through it.
The morning replaces haze with a blue sky and a surprisingly bright sun; inside the government officesa chill still pervades. Around the table are the usual pink slips of paper bearing names. On one is marked “LEO”. I guess it is where I am meant to sit. Slowly the others gather. It ends up with me against eleven. And so we begin.
When it is over there is another car, this time black. It is time for lunch (where I must learn on the spot how to fillet a small fried fish with chopsticks) and then the airport.
My time is done.