Today, Lisa and I went to the Stone Forest, but we didn’t sight-see or go on a tour or spend a lot of time there (less than an hour, actually). Lisa had something to attend to, and I stood in silence as she completed her mission. It probably only took a minute, even less, but it seemed like a long time. (If any of that sounds mysterious, you must read Lisa’s post; only she can tell this story.)
On to a more mundane aspect of the day – mundane, and yet perhaps as unforgettable for both Lisa and me as was opening the hongbao and emptying its contents in Shilin.
When we set out from Kunming to the Stone Forest, we were too late to catch the bus as planned. A hawker by the bus station told us they could take us there and back for 400 kuai. We walked up to a taxi driver first and asked how much she would charge, and she said 500 kuai. When we told her the gypsy cab would take us for 400 she warned us it would be unsafe. The hawker stepped over, told us they would reduce the price to 350, and we went with them. A serious mistake.
The black VW looked fine, and there was no trouble getting to our destination, about an hour away. It was only when we tried to return that the trouble started, and not until we had reached the outskirts of the city. It was about 5.30 and I was falling asleep in the back seat when I heard Lisa say in Chinese to the driver that something was wrong. I thought she meant she saw an accident; I had no idea she was saying something was wrong with our car. We were still on the highway, and cars were whizzing by us. I realized we had stalled, and the driver was frantically trying to restart the engine. to no avail. It was a four-lane highway and we were in the third lane, smack in the middle, and cars and trucks and buses were coming at us from all sides. I looked out the back window and saw a tractor trailer careening toward us and Lisa and I quickly concluded that we had to get out of there.
As the truck and cars approached and suddenly realized we were stopped, they slammed on their brakes, swerved into the surrounding lanes and pounded on thir horns. It was a scene of perfect anarchy and chaos. The driver got out and lifted the hood of the car, which at least signaled to the approaching cars that we were stopped. When we had a chance, we bolted from the car, ran across the fourth lane and stood pressed against the median divider. Trucks kept coming at us, slamming on their horns, no doubt mystified to see two laowai standing in the middle of a busy highway in the middle of nowhere looking totally dazed and confused. A police car, seemingly oblivious, sped right past us.
The next scene was even more surreal. An older fellow on a motorcycle saw the commotion, stood on the shoulder and motioned to Lisa and me to cross the highway to get to safety in the shoulder. We quickly discussed the viability of this suggestion, and decided it would almost certainly lead to our deaths. “I did not expect the day to end like this,” Lisa said. Cars and trucks were still racing past us, some only inches away and in every lane. The motorcycle driver saw we couldn’t possibly cross by ourselves and took matters into his own hands. He zig-zagged diagonally across the four lanes ad reached us. Then he told us to follow him. He held out his hand like a traffic officer, and guided us across the road, using his motorcycle as a buffer between us and the approaching traffic. Horns blared, driver shouted from their windows, but they all stopped and let us cross. We made it to the shoulder alive. By this point we were laughing. We weren’t laughing as we stood pressed against the divider.
Meanwhile, the taxi driver and some other good samaritans managed to push the taxi to the shoulder. He wanted his 350 kuai and Lisa screamed in Chinese he hadn’t kept his side of the bargain – no way were we going to pay full fare. I gave him 300 kuai, in retrospect too much (were were still at least half an hour from the hotel). When Lisa shouted in Chinese, the motorcycle driver laughed out loud and told us for a mere 10 kuai he’d drive us off the highway to a place where we could catch a taxi. It sounded like an excellent bargain, even though driving for ten minutes on the highway with two others on one motorcycles is not something I want to do again anytime soon.
Bottom line: after a day that was dramatic enough already, this seemed like an eerily appropriate ending, “the perfect bookend,” as Lisa remarked once we were out of harm’s way. We both kept thinking of the first taxi driver’s warning that these gypsy cabs aren’t safe….
Meanwhile, we’ve changed plans a bit, staying a day longer in Kunming, and deciding to go to Dali tomorrow, and then to Chengdu. Chongqing is something we are still debating. Some friends tell us it’s not really worth the time unless you have a few days to explore the surrounding countryside. We don’t have that much time, but would still like to go there for at least a day or two. Is it worth it?
Final words: Everyone seems to agree that Kunming is one of the most enjoyable and relaxed cities in all of China, and I want to say they’re right. Aside from the highway insanity, every minute here has been magical. The food is beyond belief and as cheap as food can be without being free. The people seem unhurried, laid back and eager to help lost foreigners. I could retire here. Today. Lisa says the only place in China even more relaxed is Chengdu; I’ll find out in a few days. A near-perfect trip so far. But no more gypsy cabs.
Oh, I deleted the earlier post because the link I offered wasn’t working. It’s late. I probably won’t post for a few days.
Update: Forgot to mention we had brunch with a reader of this blog today, and will meet other readers along the way. That this silly hobby can put us in touch with such awesome people….
Update 2: For a far more detailed look at what we went through, complete with photos, go here.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.