This is an incomplete, work-in-progress description of my travels from 1990-2009 in the China-Tibet borderlands, following in the footsteps of botanist Joseph Rock. Will be adding chapters and pics when they are ready - expected completion date November 2009. Contact me on mutikonka [AT] gmail,com

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Chapter 33: HITCHING HOME: Sunny Trucks and Scary Buses.

It took me another three days of hitching and riding on overcrowded buses to get back to Lijiang. I loved riding on trucks: stood up on the flatbed, facing forward like a panzer commander looking over the driver's cabin. I wore a scarf over my face to keep the dust out, plus my baseball cap and sunglasses, which fooled a few of the staring peasants. After a couple of hours of standing up I would try to sit down on the flatbed, only to bounce around with every pothole and end up covered in dirt.

The scenery was spectacular for the first two days; the same epic hills as surrounded Muli, covered in pine and spruce, and barely inhabited but for a few Tibetans and Yi eking out an existence from the narrow terraces of barley. But as we travelled further south the landscape became progressively deforested, until there was only a little scrubby bush left on the skeletal hills. On my first night I stopped over in Bowa, a Tibetan-Han outpost in the hills. Its only interesting feature was a department store with a Tibetan section selling prayer wheels, portable shrines, chubas and multi-coloured woven belts. And I was back in 'Laowai!' territory, where all the sinicised Tibetans gave me gormless stares.

Ironically, I felt better for being back in a Chinese area. I felt safer and knew what to expect- The Chinese attendants in the guesthouse had the same m alter "of-fact practicality as anywhere else, which felt reassuring after the friendly but haphazard treatment I had received from local Tihetans.

The second day on the road was a nightmare of a journey on an overloaded bus, lurching along pencil-thin mountain roads. I boarded the ancient bus at the crack of dawn, when the dogs were still howling and the cocks half-crowing. After a rowdy scrum by the door, I managed to squeeze onto a ledge near the driver. It was already standing-room only. but peasants were still climbing in through the windows with their sacks and satchels. Eventually. I was hemmed in by unkempt Tibetan labourers with brown teeth and shaggy hair, as the bus shuddered into life and rolled out of the forecourt.

About half a mile out of town the tarmac road ran out. The bus coasted down a dusty ledge cut into a cliff, towards the distant floor of the valley. It was a long drop from the edge of the road straight down a scrubby canyon into a void of boulders and landslides. I looked on in horror as the ledge eased out round a low overhang and the road sloped away from the cliff, with only a flimsy, flattened crash barrier between the swaying bus and oblivion. I whimpered and turned away, unable to watch; it would take only one misplaced rock or a broken axle to pitch the whole bus straight over the edge.

When I looked again, we had cleared the outcrop and I prayed it would be the last such threat. Unfortunately, it was to be just the first of many. For the next four hours I crouched in extreme discomfort, feeling a mixture of terror, boredom and leg cramp as I was squeezed in by chain-smoking peasants. I tried not to look each time the bus veered round another blind corner, swaying between some rocky protrusion and a dizzy drop-off, but I was scared to distraction. I couldn't read a huok or think of anything else while a messy extinction was so close at hand. This was a different kind of fear from the calculated risks of walking the Tiger Leaping Gorge; at least there I had been in control of my own destiny: here I was helpless, at the mercy of an insouciant driver and his clapped-out wagon.

It didn't help to see across the loops in the mountain road to crumbling sections shored up with piles of loose stones against further erosion. And when we stalled on the middle of a rickety wooden bridge some 500 feet over a chasm, or when the driver tried to overtake an overloaded logging truck whose timbers had tipped the vehicle back onto its rear wheels, I bunched my fists, closed my eyes and wished I was hack at home.

The other passengers seemed curiously untroubled by the perilous nature of the route. When we reached a mountain pass that marked the end of the Muli hill country, they disembarked for a pee-break with a nonchalance bordering on stupidity. I sipped a can of coconut juice and revelled in the simple pleasure of breathing.

The rest of the day's Journey was a relatively stress-free trundle clown to a nowhere town called Ninglang, where I cooped up in my hotel room to escape the stares and 'Allos!'. The evening was passed, like so many others in Chinese small towns, with a bottle of weak local beer and a bag of peanuts, sat in from of the TV.

The TV news showed the same items every night: scenes of Party leaders in conference, sitting inert behind old tables with their lidded cups of tea as some bigwig lectured them on a point of the economy; or the rural scenes of peasants spraying their crops with hand pumps as the announcer described a new productivity scheme. The national news gave extensive coverage to visits from leaders of obscure countries: Prime Minister Li Peng meets the president of Surinam, and mouths the same platitudes about greater co-operation and stronger ties between developing countries. And the news finishes off with a human interest story: a postman in Hunan who is retiring after 40 years of dedicated service. His post-round seems to involve fording flooded rivers and scaling muddy hills to get the mail through to grateful villagers.

These items were interspersed with unannounced adverts for air conditioners, mountain bikes and cold remedies. Not having a great advertising industry, the Chinese ads relied heavily on simple computer graphics and booming, God-like voice-overs to say how grand their products were. Back in Lijiang, I felt deflated because my real journey was all but over. All that remained was to retrace my steps via Kunming and Guilin, back to Hong Kong.

Now that I no longer had the goal of getting to Muli, my everyday, real-world worries resurfaced: nagging thoughts of hills to pay and lax forms to fill in, back home. And perhaps because I had been too long in China, the background babble began to sound like snatches of English: I would turn suddenly on the street when I heard someone say; '...sausages...that's the one...', only to see old Chinese ladies or pedicab drivers.

My bedraggled appearance after a week on the road attracted a few odd stares from the westerners in Lijiang. When I went to shave off my stubble and use some 2-in-l shampoo in the shower, 1 felt like I was washing off all my experiences of Muli. 1 emerged squeaky clean to enjoy a feast of steak and chips in 'Pete's Cafe', on whose wall I read: 'I have a 'Great Locos of China' to swap. It's a vast volume and a really rivetting read. The chapter that refers to the engines that ploughed the route from Beijing to Chiangjao in the North-East is really quite fascinating - a remarkable account. Anyway, this especial edition is ready to he swapped. If you're interested please contact Trevor (Guesthouse 3, room 402). I'm not too picky about the book I swap it for, but if anybody has a copy of the current edition of the Modern Model Railway Makers Manual ).008 gauge, or the Casey Jones 1957 Annual, I'll be jubilant.'

Underneath this notice was another: ROOM MATE EXCHANGE 'We want to swap anything with two legs for Trevor, a happy little British hoy. He enjoys train watching, plane watching, bird watching, wears knickers and keeps a fascinating diary. Send resumes and enquiries to D&K, room 402.'

The cafe sold ganja pancakes and little bags of hashish, which pleased Alan from Blackpool very much. He had travelled down from Beijing and had very little nice to say about China. All the Chinese he had met were cheating, unfriendly slobs. The women were hideously ugly and the men had disgusting eating habits. The food made him retch and the beer was like piss. Alan was travelling through Asia after being sacked from his job with the council for having an attitude problem.

Later in the evening, just before I was due to catch my sleeper bus to Kunming. we were joined by the proprietor's son, who was a manager with the local Bank of China. 'Most Chinese would like to go abroad you know,' he said. 'In China, it doesn't matter if you are lazy or hard working, you still get the same reward. I could stay at home every day but still get paid. So people just want the chance to work hard and he a success/ "Then why don't you go to Shenzhen?' i asked. 'Impossible. I have my family here, and I could not get permission from my work to move,' he said with regret. He was the get-up-and-go type. who in Hong Kong or Taiwan would he running his own small company. But here in this frumpy Chinese country town he was still stuck in a nine-to-fivejoh, shuffling papers for the government.

Twenty four hours later I was sat in a Vietnamese scullery in Kunming, eating delicious crusty bread rolls and drinking their Vietnamese coffee. I was back in a real city, where shops had nice things, where there were real restaurants and hotels and taxis, and where the girls had legs and figures that turned my head. I bought a soft-sleeper ticket to Guilin and spent the next two days by myself in a luxury compartment. reading the last of my paperbacks (Tai Pan; never mind the quality, feel the width). I tore off each page as I finished and threw it out of the window, to flutter into the karst landscape.

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Medical writer, user of Rolleiflex and Leica film cameras, China-phile and Brompton bike rider. Editor of http://www.chinesemedicalnews.com  Originally from Yorkshire.

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