Tuesday, December 23, 2008

We're Bigger Than You And We're Comin' Through!

This was going to be a post where we talked about how comfortable bus travel is here in China, and how we love to spread out and claim the entire back row of the coaches we ride in. But then our trip from Chengde back to Beijing happened...

It started when the desk clerk at our hotel told us, when we were checking out, that we could go to this other hotel a couple of blocks away and catch a bus back to Beijing. "Cool," I thought. No need to head to the bus station out on the edge of town. We jumped into a cab for the, luckily, short trip. (I say "luckily" because the cab was of the, shall we say, smaller variety. With our luggage not all fitting into the trunk, I ended up with two backpacks on my lap. I know Desi and the kids were joined in the back seat by two pieces of our rolling luggage.)

I made sure I told the driver not only the name of our hotel destination, but also the reason we were going there. Good move, Steve! Turns out that we didn't really want to go to the hotel. Rather, we needed to be at a spot about half way down the block from the hotel. (Have we ever posted about the distinctly Chinese way of giving directions? Let's just say it often seems to involve a lot of words and even greater imprecision.)

Essentially, our target was this little piece of sidewalk between the hotel and a strip of stores. At this location, there was an old-fashioned looking bus (kind of like the ones you see in Africa, except that ours didn't have luggage or people on the roof). It was parked crooked, jutting a bit out onto the road.

The bus looked kind of crowded, so I asked the laoban (boss) if there were any seats. You, came the reply. After getting this confirmation, we climbed on board, to claim the last four seats (luckily, Julie and Z got to sit together), all while moving about under the smiling and watchful eyes of the mostly young, male passengers.

Then came the latest episode in the Balla family's language learning reality show. The laoban asked me a question that I didn't fully understand. The problem was that the key phrase in the sentence didn't make any sense, as I was understanding it. As I heard it, the phrase was gàosu, which means "to tell." I kept asking him, "What are you trying to tell me?" We got louder and louder, until it finally got all resolved, with the help of another passenger. (Who got involved when the laoban turned around and yelled out in Chinese, "Does anybody here speak English?") It turns out, the phrase in question was gāosù, which means "high speed." Now, these phrases may look to be identical, but notice the difference in the slash marks. These differences imply that the two phrases are said with totally different emphases in pronunciation. No, this language isn't difficult to learn!

So here's what the question boiled down to...If I agreed to pay 10 extra kuai per family member, the bus would take the new expressway, rather than the normal local roads. Apparently, everyone else had already agreed to this, so the pressure was on us. With our quick agreement, we were off to the expressway entrance.

Have you ever been in a bus that turned around on a dime? Well, we had that experience a few minutes later, when the bus arrived at the toll booth and was flagged away by an official-looking person in a long green coat (more on PLA coats in another post!). When I asked the passenger next to me why we were turning around, he said it was because xia xue le. In other words, it had snowed...three days before...about two inches...and the road was still closed.

So back to the local road we went...going the wrong way up the one-way access road. Lucky for us, we were bigger than any of the oncoming vehicles, so they had quite an incentive to get out of the way!

The local road made for quite an interesting, and sometimes harrowing, journey. With sub-freezing temperatures outside, the laoban and his trusty rag served as a human defroster. As we passed village after village, we saw roadside marketplaces, farmers herding goats up the road, and other obstacles that the shifu managed to avoid...with lots of swinging and swaying. Not surprisingly, one passenger in front of the kids barfed into a bag. Z, for his part, looked green the entire trip.

Z's saving grace were the movies that were being shown up on the bus's television screen. Bad Chinese gongfu, Russian roulette, high-stakes horse races...good fun for the entire family!

Going over one icy mountain pass, we whizzed by a chain-reaction accident in the opposite lane. Needless to say, we were thankful when we reached flatter ground! As an added bonus, the expressway down there was open, so we got to speed on to Beijing for the rest of the journey. Oh, and there was a return stop at the infamous "worst bathroom in the world ever." (You still have a chance to have the picture sent directly to your inbox! All you need to do is ask!)

And what about our gāosù money? The laoban returned half of everyone's high-speed cash, given that we eventually did make it onto the expressway.

Do you think that was a fair deal?

~Steve

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