The dreadful news about China’s Loch Ness Monster makes me very sad. I had been hoping to travel to north-east China’s beautiful Heavenly Lake, where the monster lives.
Included in the number of people who say they have seen the creature stands the redoubtable Colonel Yu Wenhe, a deputy political commissar in the Peoples’ Liberation Army.
He’s not a man known for wild flights of fancy. Actually, not a man known for anything wild, really. And as the man who will use Sky News to introduce a new monster on to the world market, Yu Wenhe was perfectly placed.
Heavenly Lake fills the crater of a long-dormant volcano high in the Cheng Bai Sheng mountain range that straddles north-east China and North Korea. A beautiful and remote region, my mind was filled with glorious, colour images of Colonel Wenhe, a few of his loyal troopers and myself wandering around the edges of the monster’s watery home.
In my imagination, I would be casually chatting with the stern-faced colonel about the exact nature of this exotic beast and swapping great stories about its possible kith and kin in Scotland.
It wasn’t to be.
On Thursday morning my Chinese producer, Cherry Zhang told me the regional government in Jilin Province had placed a ban on the trip. The Wai Ban, Communist officials who control the movement of journalists in China, said they didn’t want too much publicity about the monster. They said it would create a negative image of China. And they even said they didn’t believe the monster really existed.
Shocking as it may seem, the old cynics in the Wai Ban office were doubting the words of a political commissar.
Actually, it doesn’t really matter what they say. If the authorities want to stop journalists travelling, they’ll come out with any old guff to explain it. My favourite remains a refusal to allow me to travel for nothing more precise than “all sorts of considerations”.
The reason for the ban probably had more to do with the stationing of 150,000 Chinese troops on the North Korean border than it had with a camera shy monster.
Set off for Myanmar for a meeting with the junta, staying overnight in Bangkok.
Fly to Burma for a meeting with military intelligence. On arrival, I planned to make a phone call to arrange our meeting from there. Easy – except his number had changed. I phoned other government departments, such as the defence and foreign ministries.
Now my contact inside the Burmese Government really is quite senior, so most of my attempts to track him down foundered as soon as I gave a name. Officials who’d been polite, helpful and friendly suddenly became nervous and ignorant as soon as they knew who it was I was trying to find.
“We don’t know this person,” they’d say without much conviction. “He’s not here. You must try somewhere else. Goodbye.” Click, and that was that.
Eventually, though, an appointment was made.
En route to my rendezvous, I allowed the taxi driver to tell me all about how poor the people of Burma are and how wonderful life would be once the military had been thrown out and Aung San Suu Kyi – “our leader” – had been established in government. It was then I told him I was going to dine with military intelligence and the rest of the journey was carried out amid nervous laughter and the promises of silence from me.
The talks, though, went very well indeed and the result should be seen on Sky News soon.
I fly to Hainan Island for the selection of Miss China. The successful candidate will be the first from China to be entered in Julia Morley’s Miss World beauty pageant. I don’t expect any problems – another dramatic change in Red China.
What was once “counter revolutionary and a symptom of Western decadence” is now routine life in the new open China. How wrong I was.
The girls are bussed to a zoo and an orphanage to demonstrate they want to be kind to both animals and children.
Unfortunately, the orphanage doesn’t have enough children and the girls tend to snatch the infants from each other in their enthusiasm to show concern. The beauties smile entrancingly – the babies bawl.
All in all though, the first day’s shoot goes well enough. We do get a telling off when discovered hiding near the toilet on the girls’ coach. We explain we wanted a few bus shots, but somehow fail to convince.
We’re told off again later, and this time seriously, when we attempt to shoot the girls on the beach. Hands over the camera lens suggest the organisers are not that keen on the girls being seen in bikinis.
Relations are going from bad to worse with the competition organisers. The girls are banned from talking to us and every time we produce the camera we get pushed and shoved.
Miss China, it seemed, would be selected from candidates without official government approval. A private model agency made the choices, including eight girls straight from their agency books. Not a problem for Mrs Morley, who was happy that under the Communist Government the people enjoyed both freedom and democracy.
Our questions of counter-revolutionary activities didn’t go down well. Hence more lens pushing from nervous organisers trying to avoid stirring the wrath of the Communist leadership.
The final winner, Miss China, direct from the model agency, another triumph of democracy with Chinese characteristics.
Our return to Beijing is a great relief.
Life on a tropical island surrounded by beautiful young women was proving too dangerous by far.