China: Up A Wall, Without A Paddle
By John Flowers
I had assumed that a bus station in China entailed some sort of bus station. You know, a structure of some sort, a building or tent or anything really with some right angles to it inside of which you would find buses. What I discovered instead was not so much a station as a tailgate. No signs, no directions, no ceilings or walls of any kind. And what’s more, no indications of where this so-called "mini-bus" to Miyun might be. Just an open-air market of rusty, hulking Beijing metal.
I decided—I think, purely on a subconscious level—that if I kept walking, calling out the name of my destination, which ultimately was The Great Wall, the right someone might pull me aside and make everything right with the world again. All I would need to do is correctly utter a two-syllable word which, by the rules of Mandarin, could have as many as 16 different pronunciations and just as many definitions. Easy, right?
“Miyun?” I called out.
“Miyun?” my voice wasn't carrying.
I’m not going to lie either; it was a pathetic display. Here I was, lugging a backpack full of bottled water and as likely yelling the word for "donut" as I was that of a small Chinese town. I was trying to divine directions to a section of the Wall called Simatai that was said to contain the most gorgeous vistas and undergone the least remodeling—and all on the cheap because someone likes to blow through money like bar napkins. Payday and the glory of direct deposit was around the corner but not in time to make this trip, and so I kept calling:
“Donut?” I yelled.
"Donut?" And kept yelling until, just a few feet away from leaving the other side of the bus lot, I heard, “Donut?”
“Donut?!” I responded.
The man who parroted my call pointed to his ride, and crisis was temporarily averted. I paid the roughly $1.25 fare and climbed aboard, grabbing a seat on a “mini-bus” that in America we would call a VW wagon.
I had been in my seat all of about two seconds when the passenger sitting in front of me turned around and with the sort of broad facial expressions one associates with Vaudeville began not so much talking to me but about me for the benefit of the other, strictly Chinese, passengers. What he said exactly I couldn't tell you; but by the reactions he elicited, I can say for a fact, the man had excellent timing.
I had walked into—or “sat” into, I suppose— a situation where my American presence made me “that” audience member: the one who becomes the butt of a lot of good-natured ribbing on the part of the comedian. He would ask a question; I would stare blankly; he would pass a remark to the audience, and everyone would laugh—myself included.
Only, being somewhat of a showman myself, it wasn't long before I flipped the barrel of the cannon and returned his volleys with short, affirmative non-sequiturs that sounded like I knew what the hell he was talking about.
"Yes, I know, and I've been meaning to say something to the wait staff about that.”
He was taken aback, as was the audience, but nevertheless tried again.
“No, no, no. You’re thinking of Mamie Eisenhower.”
And that, basically, became the trip in the early going: a mutually one-sided conversation between my new friend and me. It wasn't long before we had evolved from joke-telling to legitimate story-telling to the exclusion of the rest of the bus. A smile would come over his face as he gestured out the window and reeled off some story about a point he could see in the distance. I would listen and nod and occasionally point in that same direction too as if to ask, “You mean over there?” His response may have been “yes”; it may have been “no.” Regardless we kept up the colloquy with nary a common word for much of the two hours, and I must say it was one of the more enjoyable and enlivening conversations I’ve ever had.
But in-between this feel-good, East-meets-West session, a cloud constantly was over my head: Where the hell was I? This bus ride wasn’t Hoyle; it was a guess. I had no real idea whether this was the direction to Miyun or some Donut east of there. All I knew is that when I said “Miyun?” a man said something in a foreign language; and I gave him money.
I checked the map in my guide book and determined that I should be headed, roughly speaking, southwest. And by the sun in the morning sky, I was able to discern that we were headed in a sort of westerly direction. I also was able to deduce that we were on a road and that that road was definitely in China.
Deep in thought on the matter, I remember staring out the window when another question flashed: “So, where and when do I get off?”
“Hmm, hadn’t thought that one through either.”
I just sort of assumed that everyone was headed to Miyun, much like how at Christmas time everyone who boards a bus in New York is headed to my mom’s house in Richmond.
“Maybe the driver will just automatically know to tell me when to get off,” I thought. “Perhaps China operates by means of a gestalt."
Fortunately, there was entertainment aplenty to distract me from nettlesome questions like “Where in China was I?” Every 15 or so minutes we’d stop, and the driver, who thought there always was room enough and roof enough and duct tape enough for one more passenger, would hustle people aboard at bus stops that clearly were not his. That included one woman whom, I took it, did not wish to board at all. But, like anyone who’s shoved into the back of a VW wagon, she grew accustomed to her new life.
And then, all of a sudden, the driver pulled over, tapped me on the shoulder, pointed outside, and said, “Miyun.”
All I could do was blink (which is all you can do when you're part of a gestalt). So he said it again, by which time I had come to my senses, grabbed my gear, and said goodbye not just to my friend but the only mini-bus I ever knew.
As it pulled away, the vacuum created was filled by a horde of scrambling cab drivers. The man at the head of this pack explained in fingers and broken English the price of a cab to Simatai; whereupon I explained to him I would be taking the far cheaper mini-bus. To which he replied, basically, "What mini-bus?" Whereupon I looked around, consulted the guide book, gave Miyun a second glance, and responded, “You’re right. What mini-bus?” So, sigh, a $25 round-trip cab ride -- or, one-quarter of my bank account— it was, and we were off.
Feeling a bit taxed by the morning, as well as the man‘s neck-breaking driving, I retrieved a cigarette to calm my nerves. This was the cue for the driver to do likewise. Ten minutes later when he wanted another, he determined that the American wanted one as well. "No" having no correlative in Mandarin, I felt obliged and nearly blew a lung in the process (Chinese cigarettes being made from a mixture of stilettos, wood chips, and embalming fluid, near as I can guess).
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