Monday, December 12, 2005

The First 10 Hours of a 6-Hour Drive

October 1, 2005

The time has finally come. This week is my Chinese Vacation Extravaganza (or ‘holiday’ as everyone here calls it). This seven-day break is to celebrate something called ‘Chinese National Holiday’. The name is pretty typical of China, straight and to the point, but without really giving too much information away. I spent much of last week trying to find out exactly what we were celebrating, everyone just said that it was National Day.

“You mean the day China was founded?” I kept asking.

“Yes, yes.” Was the typical reply.

“That’s like a 4000 year old holiday, hasn't China changed calendars like 10 times? How the hell have you been able to keep track of the day? How do you even know that China was actually ‘founded’?” With every response, downpours of additional questions soaked my mind. I just felt that if I was going to celebrate something in a communist country, I really think I should know what it is that I’m celebrating.

And cant anyone in this place just say something straight?! It’s always like a police interrogation with a criminal mastermind to get anything figured out.

After several hours of painstaking questions and even more painful responses, mixed with a bit of Internet time, I finally came to the heart of the matter. I felt like I was trying to piece together a shattered windshield. October 1, 1949 was the founding of the People’s Republic of China. China itself was never actually ‘founded’ it just kind of grew over Asia over the course of about 3500 years. The holiday is the Chinese version of our 4th of July, with one minor difference. This year is the 58th anniversary of the PRC, while the good ol’ Red, White and Blue celebrated their 229th this year. So in my mind, the United States of America is about 175 years older than China. The people in the hotel had no idea what I meant when I spiked a football while standing on the piano, just simple mathematics my fine little friends, you young countries just wouldn't understand.

Even though Chairman Mao declared China a “People’s Democratic Dictatorship”, some people (like America) overthrew some other people (like America) and created a democratic dictatorship (like Texas). Basically, Chairman Mao built the “People’s Jumbo Shrimp”, a 1.2 billion person oxymoron and no one called him out on it until it was too late. But he did band the country together to overthrew the same body that built the Forbidden City, now that’s a dictator I can wave a flag for. People are so boring when they band together, it’s what we do on our own that make us interesting.

Now that I understood why I was awarded a week off work, I felt free to enjoy the week. The only problem was that I really didn't know what was in store for me. The previous week consisted of Navigations Expert Xinlei planning and plotting various trips deep into the heart of this vast country. As with most Chinese-based plans, they changed on a daily basis. Originally, we were going to some mountains, then to some beach, then to some forest, then to some jungle, after that I just quit paying attention; I was running out of climates. All I really needed to know was how to pack and a rough estimate of how many days we’d be gone (the response – “Pack some clothes and we’ll be back later in the week”, thanks my friend). But then again, I figured, why should I worry about my destination with all the land ahead of me and the countless unforeseen events waiting and hiding to surprise me and make me glad to be alive to witness?

Joining us on our adventure would be two ladies; Mattie, whom I met the previous weekend and Sherry, whom I’ve never met, but she’s studying to be an English teacher, which bodes well for my communication skills.

Mattie and I had exchanged a few text messages throughout the previous week and I was very excited to spend some time with her. For the next four days, I will be exchanging my computer, my job and the hotel for a small car, an unreadable map, two ladies and an unknown destination. At the very least, I knew the trip would promise something to write about.

Saturday morning Xinlei and I left Langfang around 9:00 am to pick up Mattie and Sherry in Beijing. Xinlei said it would take us nearly six hours to reach our vacation playground, the location of which was still unknown to me, all I had been able to figure out was that it was ‘North’ and something about horses (I hope I’m not going to be forced to make another video that will leak to the Internet, that gets so old.)

The highway to Beijing was closed down due to fog, so we had to take the back roads into the city. So our one-hour trip to Beijing took us three hours, most of which was spent stopped in traffic. Saturday was the actual ‘holiday’, so everyone was traveling. The roads were packed with people traveling in much less comfortable means than us; busses were packed with hundreds of people, cars had seven or eight people spilling out the windows, motorcycles had up to four people on them. Everyone was going somewhere, if you weren’t in Beijing, you were going to Beijing, if you were in Beijing, you were leaving.

We finally got to Mattie’s house around noon and loaded the car up. You will be happy to hear that Mattie is still beautiful (good to know, I was pretty drunk when I met her), Sherry is cute as a button, but, considering that she’s studying to be an English teacher, speaks very little English. Ok, it’s finally time to hit the road into the great unknown.

Or so I thought.

We drove across the street, everyone got out of the car and Xinlei locked it up.

“Hey man, that was a quick six hours.”

“Ha-ha, no dude, we’re going to eat lunch real quick.”

See, this is going to a problem for the next unknown days. The honkey is left completely out of the communication loop. Everyone has complete understanding of where we’re going, everyone knew how to pack, everyone knew about lunch. Except me. I didn't know about lunch people!

When traveling into the unknown in a country known for their strange toiletless bathrooms, it is important to choose your food very wisely. I have known this for quite some time and have actually managed a technique where I can send my stomach into hibernation, so I can go for several days feeding on minimal food, maybe one-half meal per day. Somehow, I didn't think we would be going to a worldwide known resort, so I knew that I should be very careful. Of course, we ate Korean food, which is known for it’s spicy and greasy nature. I was still pretty satisfied from breakfast, so I didn't eat very much, and it’s a good thing. Everyone else attacked the food like a pack of wild wolverines on a moose carcass. Lunch finished, time: 1:15, time to hit the road.

Or so I thought.

Once again, we drove across the street and stopped in front of a market. I was told that we needed more food. More food? How are you people so skinny? We piled into the grocery store and began filling up the counter with food. We bought enough food and bottled water the storeowner asked us if we were in the preparing for a nuclear war. Now with the trunk stocked like a Georgia hillbilly fallout shelter, we were on our way.

Sherry gets carsick, so she latched onto the front seat like a barnacle on a fishing boat and Mattie and I were banished to the back seat like a couple of hunting dogs. If this trip was four guys, I would have been livid, but looking across the seat to see Mattie somehow changed my bitterness into a strange inner warmth that I haven’t felt in years.

It was 1:45 pm, total distance – two blocks. But this time we were off for sure.

Or so I thought. Just kidding, we actually did leave this time.

We headed north out of Gotham at the wicked and dangerous speed of 30 miles per hour on the highway. I could already tell that there would be no cruise control on this trip. Even outside of the city, we had to share the road with cows, horses, fruit carts, bicycles, mopeds, pedestrians, and any other number of indescribable vehicles. This definitely was not my family’s vacation of back seat fighting, highway chases, The Beatles and clean rest stops; it was my Chinese family’s vacation of swerving, honking, dodging, honking, flashing headlights, slamming on the breaks and dark roadside ditches for bathrooms.

Throughout my life, I have been the person to fall asleep the quickest in a car. I have many memories of hitching a ride back home from college with one of my roommates and falling fast asleep to the gentle sounds of Pantera in the background like a metal lullaby. Much like me, Mattie is a car-sleeper. While I was still too scared to fall asleep, she had no qualms with it. The problem was my body took up about two-thirds of the backseat, leaving her very little room for slumberous comfort. Being a gentleman, I offered her the only help I could, the use of my oversized lap to rest her feet or head on. At first she shied away and said no, but eventually she caved and rested her head in a pillow on my lap. After she was asleep, I gawked at her face for about half an hour in amazement. Finally, after the comfort of human trust had relaxed me enough to forget about the madness going on between Xinlei, the steering wheel and the world outside the car, we were both asleep.

Sleeping in a car is never really that great to begin with. I always open my eyes a bit every five or ten minutes, mainly to make sure that the car is still there. I had no idea how long I was asleep, it felt like an hour or so, but couldn't be sure. My surroundings were the same, same car, same people, same beautiful woman sleeping in my lap, same Chinese pop music blasting my ears, same car horn punctuating the gaps between my ears, same donkeys and chickens and three wheeled blue trucks in the road.

Except … wait … that three-wheeled blue truck next to us seems to be a bit closer to us than normal. Wait … it seems to be getting closer! Holy shit!!

“Xinlei! Some dude is about to…..” I don't know how to punctuate both surprise and not being able to finish my thoughts the same time.


We both saw it at the same time.

Metal on metal makes a sound similar to slowly breaking celery, especially when it’s along the door you’ve been sleeping on, inches from your head.

The poor guy has only had his driver’s license for about a week. I should have known this was coming after my experience driving with him the day after he got his license.

We pulled over to the side of the road and jumped out to assess the destruction to the rental Elantra. The damage was fairly minimal, good scrape down the side, starting at where my head was extending to where my arm was resting.

As it turns out, the guy that hit us (he was trying to cut across the street in the middle of traffic) had no license (I am Jack’s total lack of surprise). He got on his cell phone and started to make some calls, Xinlei got on his phone and started to make some calls, Mattie got on her phone and started to make some calls, Sherry got on her phone and started to make some calls, I played blackjack on my phone.

I made the stupid assumption that someone was calling the local law enforcement official. As it turns out, China McCrashy was calling every person he knew to come and help him and my companions were all calling various people for advice on what to do. Before long, the guy had about eight friends there, all of whom had something to say to us. Eventually, Xinlei or Mattie called the police, but we knew it would be a long wait so we all settled down into a comfortable argument with the opposition.

While we waited for the fuzz to show up, everyone decided to argue for about an hour about whose fault it was. The guy that actually hit us, hung back and didn't say much, but his friends really got up in our faces. These pricks weren’t even there, yet they were trying to tell us that it was Xinlei’s fault. It was all very confusing. I was the outcast of the conversation, and it’s probably a good thing. These upper-middle class Chinese men are real assholes and I’ve been ready to throw-down with one for weeks now. These guys were no different, getting up into Xinlei’s face and yelling at them, then turning away from him when Xinlei was trying to reply, total lack of respect. Oscar Zeta Acosta would break a bottle of tequila across their faces and I was just praying that Buffalo Brown would show up, high on bennies with a Harley chain hanging from his back pocket.

While Mattie and Xinlei argued with McCrashy’s friends, I made myself useful by taking pictures of all the license plates on every car that pulled up, which made many of the other guys uncomfortable, but no one would approach me. I’m kind of like an angry bear when I wake up and you don't need knowledge of English to know when it is a bad time to get in my face. The fire in my eyes is universal.

Finally, after about an hour, the cops showed up. This was my first real good look at the police of China. In my dealings with police, if you’re close enough to read the badge number, you’re too close. They rode up in a kind of paddy wagon; it sort of resembled a white and blue airport shuttle.

I was reminded of an article I read recently. In 2004, the People’s Republic of China sentenced over 3,500 people to death. In China, if you are sentenced to death, the punishment is carried out the next day, if not sooner. To put that in perspective, the United States had 59 (23 in Texas alone); in fact the entire rest of the world had 369 death sentences carried out. That means that Big Red has nearly 1000% more death penalties than the rest of the world combined.

In China, it is possible to be sentenced to death and not actually be in the courtroom. In fact, you can be sentenced to death and not even be under arrest yet. This has naturally created some difficulties finding and bringing the unknowing fugitives to justice. The death penalty in China is big business, so, rather than changing their death penalty processes or flat out decreasing the number of death penalties, the good people of the Chinese government found a simple way to streamline the gavel to the grave process a bit. Introduce the Chinese Mobile Death Vans (which will be the name of my first alt-rock album I think). This van would simply pull up to the living quarters (house, apartment, ditch, hole in tree) of the condemned and strap them into the back seat, quick ‘flu’ shot, and it’s on to the next house. This process has brought rave reviews throughout the government and now China has a fleet of mobile death vans that travel around the country like bounty hunters locating people and dropping them on the spot, armed with only a needle, some Drain-O, a CB radio and an itchy plunger-finger.

As I tried to casually move around to the back of the death van to see the straps but I was ushered to the front of the vehicle by the fuzz, where they could keep an eye on me (I really cant do any thing ‘casually’ in China). I would probably survive as a fugitive in China for about thirteen minutes before being discovered crying in a ditch like a baby with a snot-bubble coming out of my nose.

So I hung out at the front of the ride waiting for the outcome and the continuance of our journey to nowhere. After about an hour of deliberations, the perp’s friends pooled up two handfuls of money, one was given to Xinlei, a sum of 1000 yaks to fix the car, and one pile to the police for release of their friend. In case you missed that previous sentence, I witnessed the most lackadaisical police bribe in the history of corruption, but what the hell, we were back in business.

I have never seen poor Xinlei so mad and upset. Not so much for the accident, but for the inconvenience that it may have caused us. He was convinced that he had ruined our trip. None of us were upset in the least, we just felt bad for him. We cheered him up by having him pose for some pictures by the dented door and were back on our merry way.

I would like to say something about the beautiful countryside of China, but at this point I still couldn't find anything positive to say. It’s dirty and smelly, flat and barren, everywhere that could be of some use is being put to some use. Whether that is to dry corn, to sort bricks, to have a mud-pit, to live. Everything has a use and it’s all being abused. My dreams of beautiful skies and rolling forests were dwindling rapidly.

We drove on for another hour and were finally starting to see some relief in the land. You could only see about half a mile off the road due to the pollution and fog, but every now and then we began to see hills and mountains emerging from the distant grim, there were even a few places where we could see part of the Great Wall snaking across the mountains. Every hour of driving in China feels like two hours. Random traffic jams would stop us for a few minutes here and there plus we had to stop and ask directions about every 15 minutes (probably because the map was in Chinese).

Around 5:00 we found ourselves in the middle of another traffic jam, but after about 15 minutes, we began to feel that it would be a longer jam than the previous ten. We got out of the car to stretch our legs and Xinlei forged ahead to ‘get to the bottom’ of the mess. We were driving on a road that paralleled a much larger highway-looking road that looked to be much faster for our travels, my mind was trying to figure out why we weren’t on it when the man returned to tell us that all traffic was being stopped because the Chinese Prime Minister would be traveling through here in a few minutes and that all traffic must stop when someone that high in the government passed through.

Get a damn helicopter dude, you’ve got more stolen money than Al Capone, you can afford it.

So we waited. We snacked on our bomb-shelter food. We waited. We snapped a few pictures. We waited. I stared at Mattie. We waited. We waited for about 45 minutes before hearing word that ‘he was on his way’ and that it wouldn't be long now (the ‘word’ was in Chinese, so it had to be translated for me). Despite the wait, I was interested in seeing how one of the most powerful men in China traveled. I ran back to the trunk to get some water and put my book away and turned around to see everyone getting back in their cars.

“Come on dude, it’s time to go.”

“What? What about the Prime Minister guy?”

“He just drove by, didn't you see him?”

“Um, yeah… I just thought that might have been someone else.” Stupid Dumas book.

By this time, it was starting to get a bit darker and I couldn't help but think that we were getting close (even though I still didn't know where we were going). Mattie and I were leaning a bit closer together, our hands occasionally brushing against each other, each time sending a shudder down my spine.

Once more we stopped to ask for directions. We were about 180 kilometers away from our destination. We were approaching a semi-major city, Chengde when Xinlei posed the question to us: “Do you guys want to move on or stop for the night?” It was about 7:30, which meant we’d be rolling in about 9:30 according to my liberal math calculations.

“I say we push on man, we said we’d get there today in six hours, ten hours ago. Another couple of hours isn’t going to kill us. Forge on! Right guys?!! YEAH!!”

“It’s about three hours from here, plus the scenery is really nice. I would like to do it during the day.” Xinlei said. Why did you ask then?

“Me too.” Mattie and Sherry piped in.

“Like I said, let’s do it in the morning!! Woo-Hoo!!!” I shouted.

We pulled into Chengde around 8:00 and found a nice steam bowl restaurant to eat at. Dinner was really good and the city was really nice (but I don't trust things as much under the cover of darkness anymore). Chengde features a Summer Palace that one of the old ass emperors built a long ass time ago and is rapidly becoming quite a tourist spot granola expatriate honkeys.

After dinner, we went to a river boardwalk and snapped a few pictures of ourselves, many featuring me holding Mattie on my back. By this time, we were holding hands in the car. It was starting to feel a bit like sitting in the backseat of your parent’s car when they took you to the skating rink. We talked a lot during the day and I thought she was really cool. Her English is excellent and she is very smart and strong willed.

About 10:30, we got to a hotel right across the street from the Summer Palace and Mattie somehow negotiated us rooms for 180 yaks a nigh (about $22 USD). The hotel had quite a few ex-pat honkeys in it, all dressed in sweaters and Birkenstocks (I think we stumbled on Colorado, China). I had been somewhat curious of the sleeping arrangements, I’m not sure why, mainly I was wondering if we would all be in one big room or not. True, Mattie and I had began to get a bit closer, but, come on, lets be real people, nothing like that’s going to happen after eight hours in a car without alcohol involved. In the end, Xinlei and I both had our own rooms; Mattie and Sherry shared a room.

So off we went to bed. It sure didn't feel like I spent 12 hours in a car, but my imagination was somewhat distracted which helps to pass the time. Not bad for a day of driving, a car wreck, a death van, a handful of traffic jams, a couple soft hands to cup gently and some beautiful eyes to look into. Sunday was going to start at 8:30 with a three-hour trip to our destination into the unknown.

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