THE delegation of civic big-wigs was there to sign a friendship agreement with top Communist Party government officials in one of China’s emerging cities. I was with them to report on proceedings for my then newspaper.
Myself, the council leader, mayor and various chief executives of businesses and educational faculties had flown business class (council-funded!) and travelled through the rice fields of the rather lovely Pearl River Delta to spend a couple of nights in the university city of Zhaoqing, before heading off to the Silk Road city of Guangzhou, one of the most built-up populated places in the world.
On arrival I instantly knew this was viewed by the locals as something special. We were greeted by a television crew and two long lines of women, forming a tunnel over us with branches as we made our way along a red carpet and into the hotel, through which part of the river travelled, with a pianist playing on a bridge.
Everywhere we went, a curiosity as possibly the only westerners in town, we were clapped, banquets were served and the drinks flowed.
We were given tours of country parks and universities before the big event — the signing of the documents that would officially twin Bolton with Zhaoqing.
There was panic as the mayor’s outfit had been left at the airport and a courier had to whizz it over. The Government officials looked stern and the mayor annoyed, but eventually we were applauded to our seats and once the ceremony was over were served a 20-course (the pile of washing up afterwards must have been immense) banquet.
Being vegetarian, I was nervous, but luckily the leader of the council didn’t eat meat or fish either and they weren’t going to annoy her by dishing up minute mouse or whatever.
I was situated between two people who didn’t speak English and, to be fair, my Chinese, aside from “gambay” (which approximates to “down in one”) was as rusty as a Terracotta warrior.
Glass after glass of some rocket fuel-like white spirit was knocked back, followed by confusion as orders of vodka and gin resulted in full bottles being handed over, which three of us drank until 4 in the morning. At 7 the alarm went off and one of the worst journeys of my life ensued, a full hour in a minibus with no air conditioning, the sun blazing through the windows.
The industrial estate we ended up at contained only empty factories they said would employ 12,000 people and as they told us about them I looked for somewhere to be ill. Nowhere.
Back in the bus and on to lunch with speech after speech toasted with wine. As the food was served I took the chance to nip to what must have been the poshest and cleanest toilets in the world and lo and behold they were empty. I have never been so ill, but the pre-planning of carrying a toothbrush and paste served me well, enabling me to knock back a couple of glasses of wine and visually announce myself back in the game.
I relate this because the other day I Googled images of Guangzhou and Zhaoqing and am ashamed to say I remember very little other than later that evening we walked into a pub just as we were appearing on national television. Everyone in there burst into applause and within minutes the mayor was on a makeshift stage playing guitar and singing Where Have All The Flowers Gone? The same place as my memory, I think.