Sorry it’s been so long since my last dispatch, but I’ve been busy getting schooled.
My first official travel adventure began on the bus to Zhaoqing. The only passengers on the bus were me, and a very pretty girl named Jay, who is home on holiday from the University of Birmingham in England and lives in Zhaoqing. She struck up a conversation with me as we went through the border crossing, and in discussing my plans, I realized that I would be arriving in Zhaoqing with no money. See, you can’t change money into yuan outside mainland China, and by the time we got to Z., the banks would be long closed. I’d sort of thought there’d be a ton of money changers at the border, like at, say, the Canadian border, but there were not. There was one small bank counter, and the woman behind it looked at me like I was mad when Jay asked if she could change a travel check (I’d spent all my Hong Kong dollars).
‘I’m sure some hotel will take a credit card,’ I said to Jay.
She lifted an eyebrow. ‘I wish you luck.’
While all this was going on, we’d wandered out to the parking lot where the bus was supposed to pick us back up in China. We waited there for a ridiculously long time, and then suddenly the bus driver and about four women came running up to us, screaming Chinese and flapping around. Turns out we’d gone the wrong way after diverting to go to the bank, and had ended up back on the Hong Kong side. Jay explained, and everyone started laughing, except for one woman, who confiscated our passports. Jay’s explanations started getting panicky and no one would tell me what was going on. Finally, after all the other women told her to lighten up (I gathered), the woman grumpily gave us our passports back, and we got back on the bus.
Jay then called her mother (I guess about my situation), and her mom said that she and some other ladies were currently playing mah jong in a hotel room they’d taken for the evening, and I was welcome to stay there when they were done. I said I’d like that very much. Then the bus driver told Jay I was going to Zhaoqing, which is not where she lives after all. Jay lives in some similarly pronounced city on the way to Zhaoqing. So we were back to the drawing board. Jay got back on the phone to her mom, and they decided I should still stay there, and they’d take me to the bank in the morning to change my money, and then to the bus station and put me on a bus to Zhaoqing. I’m going to owe so much karma when this trip is over, I’m going to have to go around looking for poor, lost idiots to assist.
Jay and I met her mother and three other ladies in a private dining room at the hotel, and had an enormous dinner, where everyone stared at me the whole time, and discussed in Chinese (which Jay only partially translated) how stupid I was to come to China without speaking a lick of Chinese, and how I would likely be dead in a few days, so the least they could do was feed me.
‘Eat more,’ they kept saying (through Jay). ‘You want some spaghetti? A pizza? A fork?’
I guess people come to this hotel and play mah jong all the time. The rooms had big mah jong tables in them, where the tiles rose up through the felt when a button was pressed. There were a bunch of young men were in the next room going ‘WOOOO!’ repeatedly, and when I left at 8:00 a.m. the next day, they were still at it. Their revels kept waking me from my dreams, in which Jay’s mother took me down to the docks and explained that everyone was discussing what a price I’d fetch if sold into white slavery.
Next morning, Jay and I went to the bank and got some money changed (it took two full hours), and then we had congee with her mom, and then she and her mother put me on a bus. They’re the best people ever, and I hope they have long and satisfying lives.
The bus ride lasted about an hour, and when I got off at Zhaoqing, I wanted to die. Everything in China is in Chinese. I knew this. There’s no reason why it wouldn’t be. But yet somehow, the truth of it didn’t really fully sink in until that moment. Standing in the bus depot, swarmed on all sides by men on motor bikes yelling at and prodding me, gawked at by all other bystanders, and squinting at the tiny characters on my shitty map trying to see if any of them looked like the characters on the street sign I’d found, I started to think perhaps I made a mistake. I started to think I might like to just sit down in the dirt and have a good cry.
But then I took some deep breaths, busted out my phrasebook and went back into the depot, where I accosted a girl at a counter. Man, I love seeing the look of horror on vendors’ faces when I come up to them with my phrasebook. They know they’re in for a long, frustrating exchange. What usually happens is that at some point in the transaction, some bystander who speaks a bit of English will chime in, and this time was no exception. Some older folks were going to the same place as me, to see the Seven Star Crags, and they explained what buses I needed to take, and then let me ride with them. Once I got into the center of town, things were easier. I had a guide for that, and things were a bit more set up for lost tourists (if not English ones), and I found a hotel pretty easily. I spent the afternoon walking around the crags, which are four limestone peaks around a big lake, with all sorts of parks and pagodas and Buddhas and bridges and things. There’s also a tres bizarre cave with all these eerie plaster figures illustrating what I guess must be the history of Zhaoqing or something. I’ll bet some villagers hid in that cave from the Japanese at some point. Villagers are always doing that.
The next day blew again. I got on a bus to Guilin at 8:00, and didn’t get off until 8:00 that night. And in between, I sat just behind the crew of five rambunctious boys who for some reason were needed to staff the bus, and I sat just under the speaker for the television program of about 14 screaming music videos played on a loop, and I suffered. The boys screamed along with the videos and spat and smoked out the window and reclined their seats into my lap and (I’m pretty sure) mocked me from time to time. And the driver honked and honked, so joyfully. And the roads were small and clogged with bikers and people with carts and roadblocks and oxen. And the way was long. And the way was slow. And we kept making potty breaks at these sort of rest areas/noodle stalls in very rural areas, and all 30-some people there would just gape at me the whole time. I mean, just stare, with their jaws dropped. If I shifted my weight, 30 people gasped. I get that they don’t see many foreigners, but by the fourth potty break, which occurred at about hour 9 of this interminable bus ride, I just wanted to impale them all on their own chopsticks.
I hate to end on a negative note, and I do have more to say about China, but this entry has gone on quite long enough, so I’ll just say that I’m in Guilin now and it’s beautiful here (albeit in a Gatlinburg-esque way). More soon.