Mark Collins – The Foreign Office in 1985 (and the Trans-Siberian)

The start of a piece by Simon Winchester in the NY Times Book Review:

Thirty-one years ago, while on a railway journey between London and Hong Kong, I stopped off in Mongolia and to a briefly illustrative encounter.

At the time the British had the sole Western embassy in Ulan Bator — at 30 Peace Street, if I remember — and I thought I might interview the ambassador and present him, as it was early December and he was said to cut a lonesome and homesick figure, with a Christmas plum pudding. I rang the mission’s doorbell and must have looked faintly taken aback when it was opened by a young man of evidently Caribbean origin.

“Don’t be startled,” he said cheerfully, in a broad Welsh accent. “I’m Trevor Jones, first secretary. From Cardiff. I think I’m the only black man in the diplomatic service, and look see, they pack me off to bloody Ulan Bator!”..

The FCO more recently here and here.

By the way in 1972 I took the Trans-Siberian from Moscow to Beijing via the Ghobi Desert. I travelled hard-class, no bed just a roll-up mattress of sorts–the only white amongst Asians (Chinese, Vietnamese, a few others); soft-class was exclusively white Commie Euros. Talk about a racial divide. The divide was in fact in fact the restaurant car with us at the back end and them at the front.

My compartment mate was a North Vietnamese Army major with whom I got along swimmingly in some French. We ate breakfast togther in the dining car, ham and eggs being the only decent food served until we got a Chinese dining car after Mongolia. Otherwise we shared the food each had brought along.

My Asian compatriots generally, including the Chinese, were most friendly and I played a fair amount of cards with them. On the last day before leaving the USSR all the young Vietnamese–many had been doing vocational training in Czechoslovakia–got hammered with dining car booze, spending their last roubles as they could not be taken out of the country. They then proceeded to snake dance and sing through our section of the train. Their favourite tune was “Yellow River” by Christie:

Ah, the joys of youth.

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds


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