“It may also be possible to wave down the bus to Jianchuan from highway just east of Old Town Dali if you can read the Chinese characters for Jianchuan, it could save you the trouble of going south to Xiaguan first, but seating is not guaranteed.” (Wikitravel)
One week in and we were pretty acclimatised to China, so we decided to build on the previous day’s success of simply standing at the side of the road and flagging down a passing bus. By all accounts, that tactic was a sure way to get us to our destination.
The early morning’s torrential rain had moved on by the time we reached the highway at the edge of Dali Old Town. Confident that we were on the right road and facing the right direction, we declined over-priced rides from the ubiquitous guys in people-carriers who tried to persuade us to travel with them instead.
We craned our necks at passing buses, trying to recognise the shapes and symbols which spelt out ‘Jianchuan’, and optimistically showed drivers our piece of paper explaining in Chinese where we wanted to go. But everyone simply waved “no” and directed us back to the notional bus stop, often pouring out a torrent of Chinese which was undoubtedly really informative but which was also, sadly, utterly incomprehensible. When we eventually started noticing our destination on the front of buses, it was only on those flying past in the fast lane with absolutely no intention of stopping for us.
Reluctantly – after much waiting, asking and hoping – we admitted defeat and decided to get a bus in the other direction to Xiaguan where long distance journeys start from. Picking up our backpacks, we embarked on the logistical nightmare of getting back to the other side of the three-lane motorway. There was no official crossing, but there was a gap in the central reservation which implied that it was a recognised place to run the gauntlet of miscellaneous, overtaking, lane-hopping vehicles.
Even if there had been black and white lines, we’d already learnt – in the China we’d encountered so far – that zebra crossings and green men at traffic lights are no guarantee of safe passage. Rather, they are suggested gathering points where you wait until there are enough of you cross en masse. The other option, if you’ve no time to wait for safety in numbers, is stick by one of the feisty, wizened old ladies who step slowly out into the path of even the most aggressive lorries, shaking their fists at drivers and somehow managing to stop the traffic and cross in safety.
Anyway, we made it across and tried to rally our spirits as we settled down to wait again on the other side of the road. Suddenly, to our delight, we saw ‘Jianchuan’ on a passing bus and leapt up to flag it down. Ok, so admittedly it was currently going in the wrong direction, but this was our bus! Hooray! Through gestures and smiles, the driver seemed to imply that if we got on and travelled back to Xiaguan, eventually the bus would turn around and get us to our destination. Suddenly driving in the wrong direction seemed a lot less disheartening. Winners, as one of my travelling companions would say.
Our excitement was, however, short-lived because our cheery driver kicked us off fifteen minutes later in Xiaguan bus station. Our sense of achievement evapourated. But he didn’t want to abandon us and, implying that we should follow him, set off at a pace, ducking and diving between buses as we straggled behind. With a triumphant smile, he deposited us by another driver whose bus was already full and who looked distinctly unimpressed by this additional requirement to deal with three British girls who didn’t speak a word of Chinese and who were trying to get him to sell them a ticket.
Apparently, it transpired, tickets could only be purchased inside the bus station. So much for the advice we’d been given that flagging down a bus was the way forward. No wonder they’d all passed us on the highway without even a glance.
Getting in line for tickets, I set my mind and elbows to battle mode. We might have failed to make any progress towards our destination but I was determined not to be set even further back by the inevitable pusher-inners who had characterised every Chinese ‘queue’ we’d been in so far. Having beaten off the opposition, I returned to the bus stop, the proud bearer of three tickets, albeit somewhat discouraged by the fact that we wouldn’t be leaving for another two hours.
On the plus side, this gave us time to buy a drink and snacks and go to the loo. And what a loo it was!
Loos in other countries tend to have inherent comedy value. The bus station loo, however, won the prize for being the first loo I’d ever used without a door.
Two of us walked in together, only to be confronted by a long gully and a row of squatting women, divided into cubicles and therefore unable to see each other, but each fully and front-on visible to everyone who came in to wait their turn. The little brought-up-in-England voice in my head begged me not to use a loo without a door, but I told it to shut up. Everyone is staring at you, the panicked voice said, you simply can’t expose yourself in this way. This is not what we do. I know, I know, said the other voice in my head, but it’s what they do and it’s what I have to do when I’m here. And no one else knows I’m internally freaking out. I wonder if this is what it feels like when you breastfeed in public for the first time.
We got back to our waiting bus, merrily debriefing the trauma of the door-less loo and the fact that being there with each other made it worse because it’s always easier to do in front of strangers things that you’d never do in front of your friends. It was just a little thing, but I always love the sense of achievement that comes from managing to defy my own culture’s deep-seated norms. The delight of successfully embracing difference and not being phased by other people’s ‘normal’, as divergent as it is from my own.
And besides, there were worse loos to come.
Then we literally just put our feet up and waited for our bus to leave. The only thing we had to achieve that day was reaching our destination which, if we’d had a bigger budget and private transport, we’d have long settled into by now. But although we were now ten miles further away than when we started, we were on our (albeit stationary) bus and could relax. With my feet resting on my backpack, I got stuck into yet another novel, enjoying the rare opportunity to do nothing but read. This is why I love travelling, even when I’m not moving.
It transpired that when buses are full, they leave, so, once everyone with tickets had boarded, off we went, half an hour early. I popped in my headphones, let my shuffled tunes fuse together into the day’s soundtrack, rested my head against the open window, and watched the world go by. Soon we had rejoined the morning’s highway, flying past the spot where a couple of hours earlier we’d tried in vain to flag down buses like this one. We live and learn. Our hooter-happy bus driver, as all bus drivers in China seem to be, recklessly overtook and beeped his way from Dali to Jianchuan, where we transferred to another small bus for the final leg of the journey to Shaxi.
Our somewhat abortive morning made it late afternoon by the time we found ourselves on a long, winding road through mountains and valleys to our village destination. It was a relief to leave the highway behind and suddenly we were passing herds of goats and waiting while random horses vacated the road in front of us.
In the mellow late afternoon sun, the world had taken on that lovely and indescribable transcendental quality. In the same way that a casserole which has been cooking all day has a comforting and succulent depth of flavour, it now felt like all the warmth and sunshine of the day had infused the countryside to make it mouth-wateringly beautiful. I wanted to drink it up and didn’t know how to do this other than by taking actual and mental pictures. Yet none of them did it justice and the moment slipped through my fingers as I tried to capture its painfully ephemeral loveliness. Unsatiated. Treasure just to look upon it.
We crawled up into the hills covered in sage green pine trees, then dipped down into valleys where granny smith green paddy fields were interspersed with darker rows of corn and other vegetables. Bright yellow sunflowers sprung up unexpectedly across the landscape and small clusters of houses cast long shadows as the sun started to sink. When we swung round a corner the whole landscape opened up in front of us, made three-dimensional by the puffy white clouds which brought depth and changeabilty to the vast blue sky. In the distance, lapis lazuli grey and charcoal blue mountains cut strong silhouettes against the horizon.
I was almost hanging out of the open window, letting the warm breeze blow my tangled hair out of my grimy face, and I shut my eyes from time to time to feel the sun more completely. I barely noticed the way that the road fell away to one side or felt scared by the fact that the driver had no qualms about chatting on his phone as we blindly approached hairpin bends.
Glancing at our fellow passengers – for whom the view was so familiar that it was considered with indifference, if at all – I wanted to call them out of the virtual social media moments they were living elsewhere to remind them to be re-captivated by their context. Then I smiled because it’s so easy to be like that in London when passing by sights that many travel the world to see. From time to time, I see my taken-for-granted city with the expectantly excited eyes of a traveller, but definitely not as much as I should.
Within an hour or so I will discover that our final destination is lovely and will be delighted to curl up on the terrace with a cup of tea and a view. But for now I don’t want this moment to end. Wending my way through restorative green pastures, I lack nothing and find joy in the journey.
Then sings my soul.
(For all their inadequacies, you can see my China photos here)