Pandas, Buddhas and High Velocity Collisions

My girlfriend kept saying “bad things always come in threes”. But it just seemed like they kept piling up. This duck egg in a rainbow synch, given to me by a student to celebrate Dragon Boat Festival, was meant to bring me good luck. At the moment, my luck, and in turn the luck of my girlfriend, Ruth, seemed nothing other than wretched. In fairness, it can’t have helped that, having laid in my counterfeit North Face bag (purchased from Ben Tanh market in Ho Chi Minh City) for several consecutive days of plus thirty degree heat, it had been cooked through and ultimately cracked. Lucky charms, in the hands of the careless, surely lose their significance.

We were in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, perhaps the furthest west we would travel in the country we had called home for almost two years. We were leaving in two weeks to return home (via Japan), and this was the last chance we had. Unfortunately, it had turned into a series of transportation mishaps that it would be hard not to let define this trip.

Our dismay was triggered within a few stops of our scheduled to be nine hour journey. (Nine hours on a bullet train – Chengdu was the furthest destination from Wuhan we had tried to reach). When it comes to rail travel, my anger is usually directed at ScotRail – an organisation so frequently unreliable, it makes the short distance between Glasgow and Alloa less appealing than a thirty-two hour standing ticket to Kashgar. In fact, up until now, it has been hard to direct any ire toward China’s national rail service. When the vehicle I was on came to an unscheduled stop at a rural station in god knows where China, that rail travel triggered frustration came stumbling out from its dank prison. There we remained, for ages – for a time so long that not even binge viewing a season of Community could help us bear it. And the reason? Not a clue. Our limited combined Mandarin skills took us no closer to why there was such a delay, but did help us figure out that we wouldn’t be moving for quite some time. An eternity later, we did start to move, although at a speed that no mode of transport capable of travelling at over three hundred kilometres per hour should be proud of. We stuttered along. Midnight came and went, and so did a nap. At approximately 3am, we arrived at our terminal station – fourteen hours from departure. Finally, we were in Chengdu.

Before I could figure out whether we could have made it all the way back to Scotland in that time, we had another obstacle to contend with before we made it to our accommodation for the next few days. As at all train stations, especially at such a ripe hour, taxi drivers try their hardest to get you to agree to as astronomical a price as possible to take you to where you will stay. We had dealt with this many times – a mere annoyance. Once we had found a driver at which we could look fiercely enough to let us take his taxi on the meter, we were on our way.

Chengdu seemed like any other large Chinese city – a smattering of high rise apartment buildings, neon lights glowing from their peaks, and busy enough to make it seem like it wasn’t after three o’clock in the morning. We sped along, looking forward to our beds, feeling bad that we would be arriving at our hostel three hours after we had promised to, passing by a collision with a tree, looking forward to our one day tour of Chengdu’s famous Giant Panda Breeding Base and nearby Leshan’s Grand Buddha, talking about how much spice we could handle from Sichuanese hotpot, wondering if there were any cool bars showing the opening games of the Euros, smashing head on with an oncoming vehicle…

Ok rewind. We’re both in the back of the taxi, which is unusual – normally one of us would take the front passenger seat to show the driver the address, or just because we need to be forthright with Chinese drivers who seem unwilling to take non-Chinese passengers. And we don’t have any seat belts because…who needs road safety in China, right? As I mentioned, the roads aren’t exactly quiet for such a time, but for a city that’s populated in its millions, they’re relatively bare. And while I wouldn’t have commented on it at the time, the driver is doing his job smoothly – it certainly isn’t the most unsafe I’d felt in a country where taxis regularly rocket along like the getaway from a GTA style carjacking. I don’t see it coming; the driver wails something indecipherable; Ruth shouts in vain.

I’ve never been in a car accident before (and disclaimer, this all seemed very dramatic at the time, I’m not writing this from beyond the grave so it wasn’t fatal, or even that bad, but it’s fun to exaggerate) so I don’t know what I expected, but maybe to black out or be in such shock from the collision that I don’t realise what’s happening, or something. That’s not how it happened. I felt all my limbs being thrown forward and then immediately forced back, and in between the upper right side of my head smack against the passenger seat as I tried to swing my body across Ruth’s for protection. No, I’m not a hero; the action likely resulted in Ruth’s only facial injury as her head ended up coming into contact with my body rather than what it would have had I not been there – namely, nothing. Almost comically, the back seat of the car was doused in the contents of instant noodle pots – our uneaten snacks from the train journey. A truly Chinese car crash.

We exited the car. I surveyed the damage, my head was spinning, and I could feel the swelling already. Ruth was cut round the eye and had some grazes and large leg bruises. We were ok. The taxi driver and the passengers of the other vehicle seemed fine and were now screaming at each other on the expressway where we had come together. The girl from the other car was freaking out – because she shouldn’t have been driving, because she had no insurance, because she was, inexplicably, driving on the wrong side of the road, because the taxi she hit contained foreigners? Who knows. All I knew was that we were sore, but we were miraculously unscathed.

There was a lot of shouting in Chinese, a lot of cars slowing down to survey the carnage, and a lot of smoke coming out of the taxi’s engine. We were bailing. As soon as we figured out that we were relatively uninjured, we just wanted to get on with our holiday. I felt kind of sick, but I was pretty sure I didn’t have a concussion; Ruth was upset but gathered up her stuff and hailed another taxi. We showed him our hostel’s address and he pulled the meter – we were in enough of a state for no questions to be asked. We entered the dimly lit hostel lounge at 4.30am looking more than a little worse for wear, cleaned up and went to bed. I should probably pay tribute to the staff at Chengdu’s Flipflop Hostel, who were extremely accommodating to our unexpected needs – if you ever visit Chengdu, stay there.

Needless to say, the following day was utterly ruined. Our plan to spend the morning mingling with pandas and the afternoon relaxing in the shadow of a giant religious figure was scrapped. The actual details of our trip seem almost unimportant now, but I should go on to say that Chengdu is a really cool city. Unfortunately, just when we thought our luck was improving, it took another downward turn, and that kind of coloured it differently for me.

Coming to the end of our few days there, we again set out for a gruelling nine hour train journey (of course, recent experience meant that that kind of travel time seemed almost reasonable to us. It was a Saturday and the station was crowded. Families with their entire lives packed up into a pile of suitcases queued irregularly in front of the station gates. We searched for our train number on the giant LED screen that, even in the bright light and heat, seemed to cast a massive artificial beam over the road that approached the station. We searched and searched but it was nowhere to be seen. Panicking, we stuttered around in our less than acceptable Chinese looking for an explanation. Another traveller pointed to a similarly large but less cluttered screen to the left of the station. We were unsure of the meaning of the characters displayed there, but we knew we weren’t going home today. Our train was cancelled and, as we quickly found out, all other trains were booked up until Monday. This posed a problem – work life in China meant that, on occasion, you had to sacrifice a Sunday to your employers in order to enjoy the actual holiday over the festival date (this is a detail about Chinese life that still baffles me).

So, Chengdu had lured us there, banged us up in a road traffic incident, spat us back out to try and be tourists then kept us there against our will for a day longer than anticipated. Thanks Chengdu.

Somewhere in my creative mind there’s a glowing article about how chill it was to see cuddly pandas lazing about munching bamboo and hanging out in trees; about how awesome the sight of a giant seated buddha was as I stood at its feet while it surveyed the lands and seas ahead of it; about how a man I met at the tip of those huge stone toes thought it was more exciting to take a selfie with me than with the buddha himself. But for now have this cranky, ill-tempered ode to one of the worst Dragon Boat Festivals ever experienced by a foreigner teaching English in China.

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