Riding with Strangers in Yunnan
11 Feb 2006
The image at left of riding in a car at night in the dark, through a shadowy tunnel of trees, brought back such a vivid China memory that I thought I’d share. But first, the disclaimer. The Flash animation at left was not created by me; it is from a webcomic called Bigger than Cheeses. (Be sure to click on the button. Hopefully your browser blocks pop-ups.)
OK, so about that flashback… I used the word “vivid,” but that more describes the feelings than the actual details. I’ll see what I can do.
It was 2003, and I was spending my Chinese New Year vacation in Yunnan. I headed out there with a Chinese friend, but after hanging out in Dali (大理) and Lijiang (丽江) some, we soon found our vacation mindsets quite different, and we went our separate ways. I was more than happy to be wandering wild crazy Yunnan on my own. I headed to Jinghong (景洪), the starting point for most “treks” in the southern Xishuangbanna (西双版纳) area of Yunnan Province.
I won’t go into the details of the trek in this post, but it was a 40 km trek. It was supposed to take two whole days, but since I was doing it alone, I figured I’d start early, walk a little faster (at 6’4″ I have long legs), and do it in one day. The night before the trek I stayed in a pretty miserable little town and slept in a dirty little bed that was overpriced at 40rmb. I was off at dawn.
As the sun was setting, I had made it to the end of the almost 14-hour trek. I found myself walking through some little town, but evidently I was still a ways off from the bus stop that takes you to Jinghong. After walking through that town for about half an hour with blistered feet, I asked and determined that I was still 10km away from the bus station, so I caught a ride. I arrived at the station just in time to see a bus pulling away. Guess which one it was? Yes, it was the last bus to Jinghong.
At that point I had to make a decision. I had already paid for that night at my hotel in Jinghong. It wasn’t really a lot of money, but it seemed stupid to spend the night where I was. Although I really enjoyed the trek, there was no disguising the squalor of the villages. The people there understandably saw foreigners as money-making opportunities, which didn’t allow for many meaningful interactions. I was sort of getting into a “get there, understand, get out” mentality. I really felt I didn’t belong, and I was ready to go. Maybe I was experiencing the onset of travel fatigue.
If I didn’t want to spend the night in that village, though, what options did I have? The last bus was already gone. Seeing a fairly nice car coming down the road the bus had just left on, I did something impulsive. I went over to the car and asked the two men inside if they were going to Jinghong. They were. I asked if I could get a ride with them.
I have to explain here that I’m not the type of person that hitchhikes all the time. I’ve certainly done a fair bit of hitchhiking around Japan, from Tokyo to Fukuoka, but that’s Japan. That’s pretty much the only place I feel hitchhiking is really safe (at least for a big male foreigner like me). Yet that night in Yunnan, a sort of desperation came over me. I felt I just had to get out of there. I imagine it’s the same sort of feeling China as a whole gives some foreigners. We all have our own thresholds. Anyway, catching a ride in Yunnan with two men I didn’t know really didn’t seem like a bad idea at the time. They looked like decent guys.
So I got in their car, and we started chatting. They had driven down for the day on business. They had to collect gambling money for the boss or something like that. It was soon pretty obvious that these guys were some kind of gangsters. I had hitched a ride at night with gangsters in China’s drug capital.
It was really dark. There are a lot of remote roads in Yunnan, and not enough public funding for street lights. I really had no idea where we were going. I just knew that the two guys had said they were going to Jinghong when I asked. I tried not to think about it. It was well into the trip, when we were driving down a desolate tree-lined road that one of the guys turned to me and asked, “do you know where we’re going?”
“Jinghong,” I told him, trying to disguise a rising feeling of alarm.
“Jinghong, huh?” he replied, smiling. He gestured to the road ahead and the spookily lit trees, cradling the dark road like claws. “Does this look like the road to Jinghong?”
I don’t even remember how I replied. The two were looking at each other and laughing. I wasn’t sure what to think or what to do. The guy didn’t say much after that.
As more time passed, it became clear that we were almost to Jinghong. The guy had been joking with me. He and his friend’s chatter about drinking, gambling, and whoring hadn’t exactly assuaged my fears that these guys were dangerous, but at least they really did intend to take me all the way to my hotel as they promised. They tried to get me to go drinking and whoring with them, but those invitations were easy enough to deflect. I slept really well that night.
Yeah, I have to say, hitchhiking in China isn’t the best idea. I’m lucky all I got was a scare. I don’t remember what the guys looked like, but I very clearly remember that dark road, and the guy asking me, “Does this look like the road to Jinghong?”
That trip to Yunnan was pretty awesome.
Related Link: Yunnan photo album (2003)