Sunday, February 15, 2009

Why did the laowai cross the road?

"'Black' car. Not safe," the middle-aged woman told me, as she washed the rear window of her taxi. "You understand my meaning? 'Black' car not safe."

"I understand," I told the taxi driver. But the 'black' car - illegal, or to frame it more positively, an example of private enterprise contributing to China's unique brand of capitalism with socialist characteristics (or is it the other way around?) - would take us out to the Stone Forest for 350 yuan - 50 yuan less than the off-the-meter taxi.

"Black car, taxi, it's all the same," the tout who had hooked us up proclaimed. She and her partner, another woman in her thirties, waited by the public bus station, waylaying travelers who couldn't get where they need to go on the bus, which at this point included us.

Even though we'd been assured by several knowledgeable locals that we could catch a bus to the Stone Forest any time of day at the public bus station near the train station, like so many things in China, just because someone tells you something with authority doesn't mean it's true. In fact we would have had to have caught a bus for the Stone Forest this morning, one of those ubiquitous white mini-busses that waits until it's full-up before departing.

"A car is a car," the tout continued. "It's perfectly safe." She led us to the driver, a stocky man with a greasy head of graying brown hair and one of those stiff, boxy Chinese sweaters that defies characterization - it's not at all clear where this non-fashion comes from, what it's trying to emulate. It just is.

The car looked okay, an aging black AudiVolkswagon Santana. Back in the day, not too long ago, these Volkswagons were top of the line. Now they've been supplanted by silver Beamers, Audis, and for reasons that are hard to unpack, Buicks.

Once we wound our way through construction sites and half-built roads more unpaved than not - Kunming's traffic is notoriously bad, partly because the infrastructure has yet to catch up with the volume of cars - it was a quick trip to the Stone Forest was on a new highway, taking a little over an hour. Far different than my first trip here. No highway that time. I don't remember much about that trip, except that it took many hours. I can't even say for certain how we got there, I think by an aging public bus, dirt-white trimmed in red, but the ride was long enough and hard enough that you had to spend the night out there, in a guest house with shabby bungalows painted that particular shade of light green. After watching the "ethnic minority" dances and singing "Rocky Raccoon," we'd retired to our room and drunk "balandi" to celebrate my birthday, then gone home the next day.

Of course I didn't recognize any of the complex around the entrance to the Stone Forest. I doubt if any of it was there nearly thirty years ago, though much of it is old enough to suffer from "White tile disease," that late, unlamented period in Chinese architecture where nearly every public building was fronted in white tile.

We agreed to meet the driver back by the car park in about an hour. That was all the time we'd need.

At first, I wondered how the hell I was going to do what I'd come here to do. I'd brought Paul's ashes in an old hong bao, complete with two gold-foil covered chocolate coins, tucked in my jacket pocket. By the time I'd reached Beijing, the hong bao had started to leak, so I'd put it inside a Baggy. I already worried about being conspicuous. But as we entered the Stone Forest, I wondered how I would manage to do this at all. A wide road wound around hills and limestone spires, shuttle busses driven by young women dressed up in ethnic minority costumes. Tour groups were everywhere, hoards of them, led by guides with pennants and loudspeakers. Was this it? Could you even get off the main road? Was I going to have to scatter ashes dodging tourist mobs taking photos of each other and eating snacks?

Richard and I walked up the road a pace. The sun blazed down on us. It hadn't been nearly this warm when Paul and I had come here thirty years ago. We'd been thrilled that it was warm enough to go without long underwear and gloves and a scarf, but now, it had to be at least 75 degrees.

We came to something called the "Bushaoshan Hill Scenic Area." The signboard pointed toward a narrow stone path that headed into a thicket of stone spires and roughly paralleled the larger road. We followed the path. It wound up the hill, at times leading through passages so narrow that I had to take off my pack and walk sideways.

At length we came to the highest point of the path. From here you could see for miles. It was quiet. No tour groups came this way. Just the breeze.

This seemed like the right place.

I unsealed the Baggy, now gray with the dust of Paul's ashes. I opened the hong bao, spilling some ashes on my hands in the process. The breeze gusted up from the valley below, blowing some of the powder back into my face, onto my camera. I scooped out a handful. Said nothing. Didn't think in words, either. Just, "this is for the beautiful part of you, Paul." I let the ashes go. Put the two gold coins on a rock. And said goodbye.

I took a few photos after that, laughing a little because some grit had gotten into the lens ring, and the top of the camera was powdered with ash. Well, Paul had been a photographer at times in his life, and hey, I'd purchased the service contract on the camera (an Olympus E-410), after the saleswoman had lectured me on how easy it was for dust to get inside these things, and how that could really screw them up.

After that, we headed for the exit, where the driver waited, and then we got on the highway back to Kunming.

Shortly after we'd passed through the toll entrance marking Kunming's official boundary - an outer suburb far from the city center and our hotel - our car sputtered to a halt. Right in the middle of the main highway into Kunming.

"Aiya," the driver muttered. He tried to start the car. It cranked anemically. Not even close to turning over.

"Oh, great," Richard said. "I've seen cars run right into stalled cars in China. It happens all the time. Like that truck behind us."

"Shit. Fuck. Shit." Lots of honking. Cars and trucks slowed, swerved around us.

"Seriously," Richard said. "I've seen it more than once."

Big blue construction truck. Honk. Swerve.

"Okay, that was close."

The driver, meanwhile, got out of the car, casually as if he'd broken down in a parking lot, popped the hood, checked the oil.

"Should we get out of the car?"


We waited until the lane to our left was clear and climbed out, pressed against the median wall while the driver continued to mutter and putter with his dead beater Audi.

Meanwhile, a worker in a yellow safety vest and hardhat waved for us to cross the highway, shouting something that I couldn't make out. Even if I could have heard him, I probably wouldn't have understood him anyway. Yunnan dialect bears little relationship to Beijing Mandarin.

Cross the highway? It's one thing to walk out in the middle of traffic on your typical Chinese street. There's a sort of art and flow to it, and while I can't say I'm totally comfortable, I've learned to adapt. But not this. This was a fucking freeway.

Except here, there were people hanging out on the side of the highway, near the exit. I have no idea why, what they were waiting for. A guy on a motorcycle weaved over, smiling, gesturing at his seat.

"I don't think so," I said.

Finally the worker walked across the highway. No big deal. Gestured for us to come with him. We did. He held up his hand at the oncoming cars and massive diesel trucks, and they slowed and stopped, and we followed him across.

"You can catch a taxi," the worker said, pointing off in the general direction of the exit, then pointing again at the motorcyclist, who grinned at us, showing tea-stained teeth. Then he and another worker started pushing the crippled Volkswagon over to the nearly non-existent shoulder.

We just stood there, not sure what to do. Walk down the exit? Look for a taxi? Were we even in Kunming proper?

All the while the motorcyclist waited, grinning. Another motorcyclist had slowed and stopped to watch the fun, along with a couple of young men who'd been hanging out by the exit. "You can take taxi," the worker said, returning with the driver.

"I'll take you to a taxi for 10 yuan," the motorcyclist said, again, patting the seat of his cycle.

"The two of us?" Richard said. "This is big enough?"

"Big enough," the motorcyclist said, grin even bigger. "No problem."

"Go with him," the worker said, "just give him-" meaning the driver - "his money."

"No way I'm paying him 350 kuai," Richard said.

"How much?" I asked the driver.


"350?" I said, incredulous. "Why should we give you 350? Your car broke! This isn't the train station! We're not giving you 350!"

"350!" the driver insisted.

"We're not at the train station!" I yelled back.

"I'll give you 300," Richard told him. "That's all."

The driver took it, not at all happy with the situation, but what was he going to do? "I shouldn't have even given him that much," Richard said. The two of us walked towards the off-ramp.

The second motorcyclist, a middle-aged man, cruised past, busting a grin. "You speak good Chinese," he told me. More to the point, I'd provided some good entertainment.

"I've got a long way to go!" I said, laughing.

We did have a long way to go. The exit led into what looked like an industrial park - not many buildings, not a lot of traffic and certainly no taxis cruising by, just our friend, the first motorcyclist.

"I'll take you to a taxi," he said again.

Richard presented both sides of the argument.

"Are we really going to do this? How can both of us fit? But we might never find a taxi out here."

So we said okay, and climbed on the motorcycle, me first, holding onto the driver, Richard behind me, grasping the carry-rack behind him, long legs just skimming above the asphalt.

"Please drive slowly," I requested. "Man zou!" The motorcyclist wasn't offended by my back-seat driving, mainly because for whatever reason, I couldn't stop laughing as we puttered down the off-ramp, all three of us on one underpowered Chinese bike, and onto the street. "If we don't die, this'll be a great story to tell our grandchildren," I babbled, "not that I'll ever have any grandchildren, but you know, the if we don't die part..."

We passed a bus stop, swooped around a couple busses, turned a corner, then came to an intersection. Across the street, heading past us, was a taxi.

"Hey!" the motorcyclist shouted, waving madly. "Shifu! Hey! Ting che!"

The taxi stopped, practically in the middle of the intersection, and so did we. I gave the motorcyclist his 10 yuan, and then asked if I could take his picture, "because you are our hero!" It's a little blurry because I had to take it in a hurry, since we were sort of tying up traffic. But you can see his smile.

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