Central Asia Recap Part II: Western China

My Friends,
   In my last entry I detailed my arduous crossing into China.  Here is the account of my subsequent experiences.
   After the bus from Kazakhstan dropped me off at a hotel in Urumqi, China I reluctantly entered just so I could get out of the cold.  I was seized upon by the hotel staff who were trying to peddle a room to me.  The most aggressive of these peddlers was also the most comical in appearance and carriage: he was a five foot tall effeminate Oriental with a soft, creepy voice not unlike Guy la Douche from the show MXC.  His thin pedophile mustache only served to make the comparison more apt.  However, since it was already 2am I wasnt really looking to pay the full night’s accommodation.  I asked for chai and they directed me to the upstairs cafe which I found out was open til 4am.  This was good because it gave me two cost-free hours in warm air to plan my next move (cost of chai notwithstanding).  Also, there was a bathroom which I made exemplary use of (Note: I’m really getting good and squatting for dookie and I actually prefer it to traditional toilets as I have yet to have a bad poop while squatting.  Seriously, its the best for constipation; errrything just comes right out.  But I digress).  Toward the tail end of my stay in this cafe a hotel employee/regular came to me and struck up a conversation.  I use the phrase “struck up a conversation” very loosely because evidently he was mute: he could only communicate by pointing, drawing pictures and grunt/moan/screaming.  He sounded exactly like Peter Griffin’s co-worker, Opie on Family Guy.  You know, the mentally-challenged guy with a shard of glass stuck in his head.  If you don’t get the reference you should google it to give yourself an idea of the communication barrier we had. 
   Still, he seemed intent on helping me get a bus or train to Chengdu.  After taking me around to the various travel agencies located on-site in the hotel (they were all closed; it was just after 4am after all), he finally made me follow him, through a series of exclamatory screams and hand gestures, to the lobby where he hooked me up with a cab driver to take me to the train station.  But Opie was not done with me by any means.  No sir, he insisted on accompanying me to the train station, and thus began the most surreal cab-ride of my life.  See, the “cab” in question was apparently the cab driver’s own personal Suzuki shitbox.  Not only could he seemingly not get it past 20km, but he also had to keep giving it rolling starts as it would stall out without fail whenever he fully released the clutch or had a misstep in the elaborate dance his right hand was doing with the stick-shift.  Yet that was only half of the hilarity: Now the last thing I want to do is detract from Opie and his heart of gold, but he was a bit of a jumpy fellow and became very excitable every time we came within 200m of an exit or turn.  Since he was mute he couldn’t really say, “HEY, GO THAT WAY!,” but instead resorted to pointing and yelling “BLAAWH RRRLLAAAGH RIIIHHH!”  Let me reiterate that these bouts of panicked screaming came when we were only “just in sight” of turns that we were approaching at slightly faster than the speed of park, and also that he was sitting right behind me but leaning forward to scream in my ear.
   I looked at the cab-driver once or twice during this ridiculousness as if to say “dude, is this guy for real?” but he was so intent on keeping the car going that he couldn’t appreciate the humour of the situation.  Also, he seemed to take Opie dead serious so I followed suit and just tried to reassure myself that this was what China was all about, while I made a vain attempt to warm my frozen toes on car heaters which didnt work (did I mention the car was a shitbox?). 
   When we reached the station, Opie and the driver insisted on coming with me and carrying my bags, God bless their hearts.  But it was only when they finally found me the right line to wait in (miraculously, all the station staff understood Opie’s screamings perfectly) that I managed to get across the point I had been trying to make at the hotel: I had no Yuan, only American dollars.  Needless to say, with all the screaming Opie was doing, we were quite the spectacle for the early morning commuters: An exasperated westerner (rarely seen in that part of China), a short little Mexican-looking cab-driver who spoke almost not at all, and Opie, carrying my backpack and raving in moonspeak about God knows what.  The mission was then to find a money-changer.  We dropped off Opie and got some money and I was back at the station waiting in line by 630 am.
   However, the ticket windows for trains werent scheduled to open until 730 and I had a very illuminating hour which gave me some unique perspective into Chinese life.  First of all, I had noticed when entering the station that there were people camped out (like actually sleeping on the floor) in line.  I took this as an ill-omen because it followed that the tickets were going quick.  So I took my spot in the rear of the line and began waiting.  I pulled out my book and started reading and in my peripherals noticed people staring and pointing at me and my shoes.  They soon got bolder and started reading over my shoulder (well glancing anyway cause they didn’t understand English).  Some even got really bold and started tugging my pant legs to get a better look at my shoes.  While this was invasive, I took it in stride; after all, I might be just as struck if it was my first time seeing me too.  The plot thickened when I pulled out some bread to snack on; the murmurs increased, and even the sleep-fucked people who had been camped out woke up and took notice.  I offered one guy who had been eye-fucking me a piece of bread and he declined with an aghast look on his face.  “Whateva nigga; more for me.”  The climax came however when I pulled out my notebook and started making notes of the morning’s adventures; literally everyone in a 20 foot radius went silent and then started murmuring and were soon taking turns crowding around me to see what I was writing.  I smirked at this but kept on writing cause “fuck it,” might as well give ’em a show.  Such was their rapt attention that every time my pen wavered or I took a momentary pause to decide exactly how I wanted to phrase a sentence they reacted with increased chatter.  It was fucking bizarre.
   The party ended soon thereafter however when security came in for the morning shift half an hour before the ticket booths opened.  Armed with a megaphone, the lead security guy, a stout, bald-headed, middle-aged man who looked like he was a big softie once you got past his officiousness, started bringing order to the ticket lines.  He woke up all the campers, told people with a surfeit of luggage to move it and phyiscially pushed line-jumpers out of the way.  It seemed a little heavy-handed to me, but I thought that it was hypocritical for me to think that way as I would have given anything for this guy to have been around the previous day at the Chinese border crossing when line-jumping seemed to be the order of the day.  What really struck me though was how the people accepted the harsh treatment; he would push someone or yell in their face with a megaphone and they would meekly submit or shuffle away.  It gave me the impression that Chinese culture is very submissive to authority.  I think the Chinese government is wise to this as well because it seems as if every civil servant, no matter how mundane their job (i.e. the ticket sellers), wears some sort of military-reminiscent uniform with officer’s cap.  It certainly makes them look more important than they actually are and evidently it works. 
   When I got the front of the line all of the train tickets to Chengdu were sold out (hence the camping).  I then had to resort to the more expensive bus to Chengdu.  Now communicating that I wanted to go to the bus station to the next cab driver was a difficult process and I almost got into a fight.  Then he almost drove away with my stuff.  But mercifully there was a guy who spoke just enough English to tell me the name of the station which I then communicated to the next cabbie.  Long story short, I got my ticket (after a laborious money-changing process at the Bank of China.  I should have just changed it all that morning) and spent the rest of the day hanging around in the vicinity of the Urumqi bus station trying to stay warm and waiting for my 5pm bus to depart.  The departure itself was a bit of a process as I had paid for a sitting bus but at the last minute they switched it to a sleeper (the sitting bus broke down apparently) and demanded another 130 yuan (22 USD).  I was miffed at this, feeling that the bus company should absorb the cost of their fuck-up, but Inua, the English-speaking bus-mate who explained the situation to me just shrigged and said, “Yeah, but its China.”  This confirmed my earlier suspicion about the Chinese fear of authority.  I relented, deciding I didnt want to be stranded in Urumqi and paid the extra money.  It turned out to be a good choice though as it was a two-night ride and it would have been murder sitting up that whole time.
   The 48+ hours on the same bus with the same people was good in that it allowed me to make friendships but bad in that it led to drama; particularly a love triangle that I wanted no part of.  I already mentioned that Inua spoke English, and being the only English speaker on the bus aside from me, she was naturally the person whom I conversed with most.  But little minx that she was, she also sat up with the drivers and talked to them for hours at a time.  Now one of the drivers, a young, good-looking guy, already had it out for me I think for my abrupt manner when I boarded the bus for departure (I was cold, I hadn’t slept in 24 hours and he was looking at my passport gawking at the stamps.  I, not being in the mood for such fuckery, grabbed my passport, pointed to the Chinese stamp, and said “there it is; happy!?  Not my finest moment but like I said, I was in a bad way).  Regardless of his disposition toward me at the outset, it only worsened when he saw that I got on well with Inua (who for the record had a boyfriend).  So he formulated a plot to win her over which ultimately worked out in my favour: On the second day, she told me that he had invited us to eat meals with him and the other driver at the meal stops.  I was reluctant but agreed.  He took every opportunity during these mealtimes to pull out wads of money and and insinuate what a baller he was.  Inua seemed impressed by it.  And me?  Well, I just enjoyed free meals for two days and let him woo her.  I think he realized I wasnt a threat when I showed her a picture of my woman on the evening of second day and then she showed it to him.  At that point I think he realized that we had both misunderstood each other from the get-go and we were cool after that; cool to the point that he still copped this weary traveller’s meals for the rest of the trip. 
   We made it to Chengdu on the evening of December 23, parted amicably and I began walking east to the outskirts of the city, basking in the significantly warmer weather.  I camped behind a gas station that night and had a chilly but good sleep.  The next morning (Christmas Eve) I awoke and held a sign which said “Shanghai” for an hour before I got a ride to the next city of Chiongqing.  My ride dropped me in the middle of the city and convinced me to take a train the rest of the way because the hitching to Shanghai would probably be no good.  Normally the hitch-hiking advice of non-hitch-hikers goes in one ear and out the other but since it was Christmas eve, I was already alone and didnt wish to be cold as well, I agreed that maybe a train to Shanghai would be good. 
   I had an awesome motorcycle taxi ride across the city of Chongqing to the Northern train station and bought a train ticket for Christmas morning.  The rest of my Christmas Eve was detailed two entries back (“It Wouldn’t be Christmas without a Trip to the Police Station,” 26 December 2011) but after that entry was submitted I also got some cool pics with my new friends in the Chongqing police force and a cop car ride back to the train station.  What with all the motorcycle rides, police car rides and dog-eating, it actually turned out to be a pretty dope Christmas.
   That more or less concludes my adventures in Central Asia/Western China.  Next time around I will go into the trip to, and time in Shanghai.
Stay Thirsty,
-Andre Guantanamo

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