August 15th, 2010
Beijing, China

Sleeping in a dorm turned out to be about as shit as I expected. Other people come and go all the time, and unless you’re a heavy sleeper you get constantly woken up throughout the night. And it’s not that much cheaper than the split cost of a shared room.

We got up around 7.30, and left the hotel at 8.00. Our plane was scheduled to depart Chengdu at 10.30 that night, and we’d been told that the bus ride was usually six hours; a worst-case scenario of ten if it was raining. It was raining, but that still left us a margin of three hours, and we still had the umbrellas we’d bought in Lijiang, so we didn’t get too wet on the voyage down to the bus station.

Sitting next to us on the bus were a Canadian couple we’d met on the far more hellish bus ride the previous day, a brother and sister in their early twenties named Christopher and Erica. We chatted to them for a while as we took off out of Kangding and headed east towards the Chengdu Basin: out of crisp pine forests and grass-covered mountains, and down into steamy monsoonal valleys choked with green vegetation and wreathed in mist. And, since this was getting towards the more heavily settled parts of China, there was usually a chemical plant or a factory somewhere in the landscape.

The rain wasn’t that heavy, but it must have been going for several days – huge streams of water were pouring down from the embankments across the road, and the muddy river to our right was swollen and flowing very fast. There were a couple of traffic jams we got caught up in, but these soon resolved themselves.

At around 1.00, however, we came to a traffic jam that stood firm. We wandered on and off the bus to stretch our legs; I could see a line of cars backed up all the way down the valley, but assumed it would sort itself out eventually like the others had. The TV screens on the bus were already playing their third movie of the day: The Collector, a horrifically inappropriate R-rated splatterfest. I’d seen some questionable violent scenes in movies shown on Chinese buses before, but this was really beyond the pale. Severed fingers, intestines dragged out, stitched-up mouths, bear traps… just countless gory, graphic scenes.

“This is horrible,” Erica said.

“This is an R-rated movie,” Chris said. “On a public bus. There’s a little kid on this bus.”

“Can you imagine how outrageous it would be if this was shown on a bus in the West?” I said.

“Absolutely,” Christopher said. “People would get fired, there’d be lawsuits…”

“I just… it’s hilarious,” I said. “It’s so funny that they think this is okay.”

The joke was wearing off by the time the movie finished, since by then it was 3.00 and we’d been stuck in one place for two hours. The others went off to find some food; I wasn’t hungry, so I stayed on the bus to watch our bags. At this stage I was severely worried. Chris and I are normally the most flexible of travellers, but this mysterious hold-up had come on the one day we had a flight to catch. And I was getting worried by the increasing number of Chinese people travelling downstream through the bumper-to-bumper cars and buses, carrying all their luggage with them.

The others returned about half an hour later. “Dude,” Chris said. “We just talked to a guy who speaks English and he says the road is out and won’t be fixed today. A lot of people are walking to the next town to catch taxis.”

I looked out the window, at the flooded road and the rain and the raging river. “How far is it?”

“About five k’s.” He turned to the Canadians, who were talking to the only other Western guy on the bus, a Brit named Tom. “What are you guys doing?”

“I don’t know…” Christopher said. “I can just imagine us leaving and then the traffic starts moving.”

“We can always flag the bus down again if it passes,” I said. “It really doesn’t feel like this is going anywhere.”

“Yeah,” Chris said. “And it’s already four o’clock.”

“Better get moving then,” I said.

At this stage I want you to imagine that it’s the end of an episode of 24. Doot! Doot! Doot! Doot!

The five of us tracked down the bus driver, got him to open the luggage compartment, and wrestled our bags out. Chris did most of the heavy lifting, getting his feet completely drenched in the ankle-deep flood running down the road.

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“I wouldn’t worry about it, dude,” he said. “Our feet are going to get wet anyway.”

“Actually it’s not so bad in front of the bus.”

“Oh. Damn.” (He was right, though.)

We pulled our packs onto our backs and prepared to set off. “Should we even try to get money back?” Chris asked.

“Nope,” Christopher said. “If there’s one I’ve learned in Asia, it’s that there’s no refunds. Once you’ve paid for something, that’s it. If it doesn’t work out, too bad.”

“Alright then,” I said. “Let’s go.” With our backpacks and umbrellas, we joined the throng of Chinese travellers pushing their way down the road.

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Buses, cars and trucks were completely backed up in the right lane. Occasionally a motorcycle would come honking down the left lane, and we’d have to scurry out of the way. The only reason I could think of that cars and buses weren’t using the right lane was because they knew that there would be traffic backed up on the other side of whatever obstruction it was, and gridlocking both lanes would just prolong the problem. That might seem like common sense, but in Asia it’s an impressive display of foresight compared to, say, the Vietnamese.

“How long did this guy say it was?” I asked, as we waited for a woman to try and force her scooter through a narrow gap between two buses.

“About five k’s,” Chris replied. “Unless he got his English wrong and meant fifty. Outta the way, lady! I got a plane to catch!” He grinned. “I always wanted to say that.”

We walked further down the river of cars, with the real river roaring away to our right. Every ten metres or so a new tributary of rainwater run-off would be cascading down from the vegetation to our left, running across the road and emptying into the river. We were surrounded by other Chinese people who’d given up on vehicle travel, carrying suitcases and backpacks and cardboard boxes and huge bags of rice. With every passing hour it had become clear that this was more than just a minor hold-up; it was big.

“This must be what it feels like to be in a disaster movie,” Chris said. “Like War of the Worlds. Just a mass exodus of people. I feel like a refugee.”

“Whatever this is, it better be good,” I said. “If it’s a bunch of people standing there staring at an easily fixable problem I’m going to be very angry.”

Turned out it was bit more serious than that.

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A landslide had come down and not only blocked the road, but washed it away. The right lane was completely gone, and while the concrete of the left lane was still there, it didn’t look like there was much supporting it. The response to this disaster appeared to be in the preliminary stages of stringing warning tape around the area. I did not get the impression this would be repaired anytime soon.

“Wow,” Erica said.

“There is no way that’s getting fixed today,” Chris said.

“So, leaving the bus,” I said. “Definitely the right decision.”

The string of rag-tag refugees were traversing the landslide by climbing up the embankment to the left: a steep, muddy, slippery trail. Some of the people climbing up it were elderly, and some were wearing high heels, so we had to stand in line for a while before tackling it ourselves. It was much muddier than I expected, but there was enough bamboo and foliage to grab onto for support. “I really hope I don’t fall over,” I said. When you’re carrying 15 kilos on your back, this is harder than it sounds.

I was first in line, and when I reached the top a Chinese man gave me a hand in scrambling up the last part. The trail at the top of the embankment was ankle-deep in sloppy mud. My shoes and jeans were coated with it in seconds. I gave Erica a hand up, and then took photos of our hilarious situation while we waited for the others.

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Most people probably wouldn’t take photos at a time like this, but I’m eternally aware of the need to provide photos for this blog. Professional pride.

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It sounds miserable, but it was actually hilarious. Definitely one of those days where travel problems create much more interesting stories. And we were all feeling elated, because leaving the bus had definitely proven to be the best move, and we now had a real chance of making it to Chengdu that night.

We descended down the muddy trail without any mishaps, and washed our feet off in the rainwater ditch before continuing along the road. The other side was pretty much the same as the first, but with blocked traffic on the other side of the road. “Man, our bus is going to be there all night,” Christopher said.

“What are the people going to do?” I asked.

“Sleep on it, I guess,” Chris said.

“Man, fuck that,” I said. “Definitely the right decision. The best case scenario we could have hoped for would have been going back to Kangding. We definitely would have missed the flight.”

“What time is it?”

I looked at my watch. “Nearly five. I wonder if they’ll let us on the plane covered in mud?”

It wasn’t too long before we arrived at the next town, or the outskirts of it: a couple of buildings and a whole bunch of cars with people clamouring to claim them. As usual, a Chinese entrepreneur found us first and asked us through gesturing if we wanted a car.

“How much should we offer?” I asked.

“Anything,” Chris said.

“I think about a hundred for each of us?”

“That sounds good,” Tom said.

He ended up asking for 150 each, for a ride all the way to Chengdu, and we didn’t bother to bargain him down. “Alright, let’s go,” Christopher said. The man directed us to sit on a bench outside a ramshackle building while he went to secure a vehicle. I took a leak off in the bushes, and then realised there was a convenience store right across the road from us. The shelves were almost bare – contributing to that feeling of being in a disaster movie – but I bought and ate a packet of plain biscuits, since all I’d had to eat all day was a packet of peanuts.

I returned to the group just as our Chinese benefactor was proposing that we ride to Chengdu in a pick-up truck. “What?” Tom said. “There is no way we’re riding in that in the rain.”

“It’s a four-door,” I said. “We should be able to squeeze in.”

“What about our bags?” Christopher said.

“Does he have a cover for the tray?” Chris asked.

“I think we should barter him down to 100, for a pick-up truck,” Tom said.

There was a bit of plastic sheeting. Chris and one of the Chinese guys packed our bags into the tray, covered them as best as they could, and then we squeezed into the car. Christopher sat in the front, while Chris, Tom, Erica and myself squeezed into the back, which was a pretty tight fit. It was then that the Chinese men decided they wanted payment up-front. What followed was the kind of frustrating language barrier negotiation that anybody who has travelled in the third world will be familiar with. We were trying to offer half now, half later, using the Canadians’ Mandarin phrasebook, but they were having a lot of trouble understanding that and arguing amongst themselves.

“Jesus, it’s pretty simple,” I said. I could feel my inner Jack Bauer screaming “Damn it, we don’t have time for this!”

“I think their language breeds confusion,” Tom said. “All the tones and dialects…”

Eventually they figured it out, and our driver – an old man in a shabby suit who did not seem like he should be driving a pick-up truck – took us off down the road. “Yes,” I said. “Yes! We’re going to make this!”

“I don’t think we’re even halfway to Chengdu,” Chris said. “I think we’ll make it, but it’s gonna be tight.”

Chris was proved right when we passed a sign saying it was 15 k’s to Ya’an. According to the map in our Lonely Planet, Ya’an was perhaps a third of the way to Chengdu. And this wasn’t on a highway – it was on the same tiny two-lane road carved into the side of a foggy, rainy mountain, with the same minor landslides and hold-ups. At one point we had to wait to pass an earthmover that was shovelling dirt from another landslide into the ravine, and in the back of my mind I was worrying that we might come to another major disaster – a bridge out, or another section of the road washed away. If that happened, we were screwed.

Nonetheless, we were making decent time, and could probably reach Chengdu in a mere two hours. It really says something about the last four months of my life that I think a two hour drive crammed into a backseat with three other people is nothing. Back home I used to think the three hour drive to Collie in the back of my Dad’s air-conditioned car was a long haul. Try twelve hours in a Chinese sleeper bus, kid.

The time, therefore, passed fairly quickly, as we chatted to our companions and worried about our driver’s ability to keep us alive, as he often swerved too close to the curb or did some very dangerous overtaking. As we were passing through a built-up area, approaching a freeway on-ramp, the traffic suddenly slowed and became a mass of backed-up trucks again.

“Oh no,” we all said. “Oh no.

A random Chinese truck driver stuck his head in the window and started talking to our driver. We tried to communicate with him and figure out what was going on, but that was fruitless as usual. He insisted on writing what he was saying in Chinese and showing it to Christopher, who kept shrugging and making it clear that he couldn’t read Chinese. Obviously.

We got out of the ute and stretched our legs while we tried to determine what was happening. Erica went up to a bunch of Chinese tourists taking photographs of statues on a hill and returned with a woman who spoke some English. “Can you ask him what’s going on?” we asked her. “We don’t speak Chinese.”

They talked to each other for… quite a while. This is a common problem in China: simple questions seem to take a long time to get an answer for. Eventually she turned to us and said “Where you from?”

“Canada,” Erica said, while the rest of us tried to restrain ourselves from slamming our foreheads against the roof of the ute.

“Piss-up in a brewery,” I muttered.

There was no ultimate answer to our question other than “something.” We wandered around a bit trying to find someone else and determine whether there was another route to Chengdu. Our driver, who knew full well that we wanted to go to the airport and therefore had a plane to catch, seemed content to sit on the curb smoking and waiting.

“Fuck,” Chris said. “I don’t think we’re going to make this.”

“We might,” I said. I didn’t know why, but I felt fairly confident. It was now 6.30, but for some reason I was still full of hope.

And – praise be to Saint Christopher – the trucks suddenly started firing up their engines, and the traffic started moving again. We piled back into the car and took off, this time on a four-lane freeway that was rushing us towards Chengdu. “Yessss!” Chris said. “Now we’re gonna make it!”

“Unless this guy crashes and kills us,” I said, as he almost clipped the median strip.

“Thank you so much, by the way, for letting us go to the airport first,” Chris said.

“I think it’s actually on the way,” Christopher said.

“Excellent.”

We passed the rest of the voyage talking about Canada and Australia and London and our previous travels, and eventually arrived at outskirts of the airport just before eight o’clock. Mitch and Chris: 10; Time: 0. We bade farewell to the comrades we’d made through our shared ordeals, and were shuffled off into another cab to be taken to the terminal building.

“Oh my God,” Chris said. “I am so relieved. I can’t remember the last time I felt this good.”

We were deposited out front of the terminal at about 8.15, exactly when we were supposed to arrive. We breezed in through the gates, found our check-in desk, changed out of our muddy shoes right there in the terminal, and gave the agent our bags. We’d made it.

There’s something I like about waiting around in an airport. I know I’ve said I prefer to travel overland, but there’s also something nice about planes and airports. A hub of transport, with people leaving and arriving from places all over the world. A lot of stories flowing past you.

I wouldn’t mind a job that required me to fly a lot. I’d probably get sick of it after a while, but at the moment it seems appealing. Of course what I really want is a job where I’m doing something different and interesting; a job where I don’t have to show up to the same place every day, or where I’m at least working on very different things all the time. That’s part of why I’m attracted to working for ASIO or ASIS, although my short attention span and tendency to daydream could count against me. Also the fact that I’m more in line with the Julian Assanges of the world rather than the John Howards.

Our plane was delayed by about half an hour due to air traffic, so we didn’t land in Beijing until about 1.30. The terminal we arrived in, built two years ago for the Olympics, was absolutely massive – in fact, looking it up now, it has the fourth-largest floor space of any building in the world. “This is amazing,” Chris said. “I want to play jetpack chasey in here.”

We wandered around the airport for a bit trying to find Starbucks, where we were supposed to meet Glenn, a friend of Chris’ parents who was kindly letting us stay with him. We found him around two o’clock in the morning, profusely apologised for making him be awake at such a late hour, and then he drove us to his house.

Chris’ parents had frequently described Glenn’s house as mansion, but in recent days we had decided to downplay our expectations in case they swelled too greatly. “I’d be happy with something on par with my house back home,” I said.

Glenn’s house is significantly better than my house back home. For example, it has an elevator.

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Three stories tall, it sits inside a gated compound full of wealthy expat manors. It has a swimming pool, a sauna, at least three bathrooms, multiple expansive living rooms, century-old antiques and – in accordance with the opulence scale established by the hotel scene in Knocked Up – 35 different kinds of chairs.

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Today they were having a barbecue, and after sleeping in (on soft mattresses in an air-conditioned room) we enjoyed the best meal we’ve had since leaving home: sausages, salad, chicken wings, bread, cheese, tomatoes, olives and wine.

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They also own a piano, something Chris has desired for a very long time.

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I’m so glad we made that flight. Actually, did we die on those roads back there and go to heaven?

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