After we left Xi’an we headed south to Sichuan, where things got a little crazy. Sichuan is deeper into western China than I had ever been before. It is known for its very spicy food, for its relatively underdeveloped economy, for its gnarly and nearly impossible-to-understand version of Chinese, and, as I’ve been told time and again by Chinese friends, for its beautiful women.
It is also known for the horrific earthquake that struck there in 2008, killing more than 60,000 people.
As we approached Sichuan on an overnight train from Xi’an, I had all of these things in mind, particularly the spicy food and pretty women. I was also thinking of Jiuzhaigou Valley, which is known for its incredibly blue water and beautiful mountains. My friend Jack had been to Jiuzhaigou the year before, and he said it must be the most beautiful place in the world. I figured it must be an exaggeration—this was coming from a man who had never left mainland China.
Unfortunately, we had a huge obstacle before we could get to Jiuzhaigou: a 12-hour daytime bus ride from Chengdu.
Before I continue with the story I should insert a caveat: Anyone who reads this who is thinking of traveling to Jiuzhaigou should know that you can travel directly there from Xi’an by bus. You don’t need to go to Chengdu first. But we did because I didn’t know this fact before we left.
Anyway, after a day in Chengdu (unremarkable place, no pretty women), we set out in the early morning by bus for Jiuzhaigou (“zhai” rhymes with fly and gou sounds just like “go”), and crammed into our seats. The bus had a few other foreigners on it but was mostly Chinese. This made sense. The plane tickets to Jiuzhaigou were 2000 yuan round trip (over $300) while the bus tickets were $45 round trip.
The problem with these bus rides, besides the fact that you have to sit on a miserable bus all day, is that they always stop at these sham places for lunch that serve terrible food for too much money. The passengers tend to accept this meekly, with no complaints.
But after going to Jiuzhaigou (which was beautiful—I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves), a passenger decided to make a stand.
We pulled over for lunch around 1 p.m. in a decent little cafeteria. Jess and I glanced at the food, but it all looked really spicy and neither of us were very hungry, so we decided not to eat and I just got us a soda. We sat in the back of the dining hall quietly and rested; we would all have to get on the bus soon.
But then a heavy-set Chinese man in a lime green shirt started arguing loudly with the woman at the cashier. At first I had trouble understanding what they were shouting about, but after a minute I picked up the problem: The man had taken one tray of food for he and his daughter to eat, thinking that it would only count as one meal when he paid the check. But he had no such luck.
Unfortunately this is just how these places work. You get food as soon as you walk in the door—they practically shove it on you—but you don’t pay until after you’ve eaten. Invariably the price is 50 percent more than what it should be, which usually only amounts to an American dollar so I tend not to complain, but it annoys even me.
This guy was furious. He had paid for two overpriced meals when he felt that he had only taken one. And he was not backing down. At all. After a flurry of initial stern disagreeing with the stocky middle aged woman behind the counter, he let go and started shouting at her. He told her he wasn’t going to pay. He argued that they were cheating him and everyone else in the place. He shouted. She shouted back. A skinny looking young guy started looking at him sternly, but let the woman do most of the shouting.
The man’s daughter was still sitting quietly in the back of the cafeteria while all this was going on, no longer touching her food. And soon the man came back to her and stood by her while he continued the shouting match. At this point other passengers from the bus started peeking into the door of the cafeteria to see what all the commotion was. Some people who were already inside smiled sheepishly at the man’s antics. Some people simply stared ahead quietly.
I expected the man to scream a lot and then pay, which is what usually happens. But it went on for about five minutes with no clear end in sight, the woman holding firm, the man nearly choking on his anger. The argument waxed and waned as these kinds of public Chinese arguments do, punctuated by occasional awkward silences where each party gauged the steadfastness of the other. There was a brief lull and then a sudden burst of shouting from the man. By this time I had pretty much started to ignore the both of them and just tried to enjoy not being on the bus.
Then I heard a loud crash, and a shout from the man, and from the corner of my eye I saw a burst of color as the man’s tray of food flew threw the air towards Jess and me. The guy had decided he didn’t want to eat after all, and had slashed the food off the table, apparently in the direction he thought no people were in. Except that there were two foreigners there, sitting in the dark corner of the cafeteria.
Luckily, Jess served as a pretty good food-shield, so I didn’t get any on me. But she got a bit of a splattering of rice and little bits of carrot or pumpkin. The guy got up and continued his shouting, shoving his eight-year-old girl daughter out the door while he kept on arguing loudly.
Now there really was a crowd, everybody staring in that disturbing and silent Chinese way at the activity, faces impassive or smiling slightly.
Finally the young male proprietor just told the man to get out. He walked up to him and looked him in the eye and said, calmly, get out. Just get out, and after a few minutes of this the man indeed got out.
Jess and I went outside, her bemused, too, and she got on the bus. I lingered outside the bus for a moment and a Taiwanese guy, maybe about 45, whom I had noticed handling a passport on the bus that said “Republic of China” on the cover, chatted with me for a moment.
“Do you know what they were fighting about?” he asked in English.
“I think they were arguing because he was asked to pay for two meals when he only had one,” I replied in Chinese.
“Yeah, I think that’s about what it was,” he answered in Chinese. “But it’s a bit hard to understand why someone would go through so much over just a small bit of money.”
“Maybe he was doing it on behalf of all of us,” I said.
The Taiwanese guy smiled and asked me if I knew a certain Chinese idiom: gé mìng xiān liè. I had never heard it, so he explained it to me. The term means “martyr to the revolution”. This had been exactly how I had seen the guy in the green shirt, and even though his gesture had been ridiculous—splattering his food on the floor like a child—I understood how he felt. Traveling in China was always like this. Literally everywhere you turned, there were unscrupulous people trying to screw you out of money and ruining your travel. It was always obvious that the bus drivers got a take of these stops, but nobody complained. At least they never complained to anyone but themselves. Only the occasional person complained bitterly and endlessly. This was maddening to me.
The Taiwanese guy’s English was pretty good, but he was busy most of the trip chatting with another Chinese passenger. We all got back on the bus, as if nothing had happened, and I commented how happy I was that at lest we didn’t get pelted with food.
“That’s because I was a shield to you,” Jess reminded me.
Throughout this ride, I hadn’t really thought of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake much. I knew it happened in Wenchuan, but I wasn’t sure where in Sichuan that was. I had noticed some cracked and oddly bent roads along the way, but I wasn’t sure if that was caused by earthquake or by construction.
Then, a few hours after lunch, suddenly nearly everyone on the bus sat up at the same time and bent their necks to look out the right windows, and my eyes followed theirs. Down in the bottom of a gorge that ran beside the road, maybe 100 meters deep, sat a row of buildings almost completely submerged in water. Suddenly the earthquake pops into my head, and I realize that we are in Wenchuan. There is a huge black sign with white lettering in the bottom of the gorge, and I recognize five characters before it zips by: Wènchuān Dà Dìzhèn. The Great Wenchuan Earthquake.
Suddenly signs of the earthquake are everywhere: We pass by a highway, originally on concrete 15-meter legs, that has completely collapsed into the river below us and is still lying there, running straight into the murky brown water where it disappears; a series of attractive luxury apartments, interrupted midway by a cluster of older buildings in the center, cracked at the foundation and resting at an awe-inspiring angle, as if the five-story buildings were water jugs that had the tablecloth pulled out from under them; a wrecked suspension bridge; tunnels that look too dark; roads that have been ripped in two like paper.
The scenery is fascinating in the terrible way that images of disaster are, and it is strange to think that this all happened three whole years ago. In some places it looks like it happened yesterday. But there has clearly been a lot of new construction here; there are new, shiny government buildings, new highways, new apartment complexes. One thing is still lacking: the reason it takes 12 hours to get to Jiuzhaigou is because the highway that was destroyed in the earthquake that led to Jiuzhaigou from Sichuan’s capital has yet to be rebuilt.
The scenery moves on, and we get closer to Chengdu, and the wreckage seems less. Then we stop for a rest at a grungy little gas station two hours outside the capital.
That was where karma reminded me that I was not invincible by throwing something completely unexpected at me, again, literally.
Everybody got off the bus and fanned outward, stretching their legs, smoking, chatting. I walked in the opposite direction as everybody else, curious to look down into the gorge below us. I noticed, about ten feet away from me, a very big, black, filthy dog laying in a big patch of dirt. This truck stop was the definition of the word shithole. The air was thick with smog, the place was too close to the road, and on top of that they had mangy looking dogs leaning against rusty sheds. But I didn’t pay the dog any mind. I just rested my eyes and stretched my legs, and then after a minute turned back to the bus to find Jess and chat with her.
From behind me, I heard a loud growling and a bark and the rustling of gravel, and without looking I knew to run. Or maybe leap desperately would be the right word, because that is what I did, and after about two steps I felt the dogs teeth grab onto the small bag I was holding, and hold onto it. Glancing over my shoulder I saw his bared teeth flashing at me, but something had held him back. I stumbled backward a few steps, yanking my bag out of his grip, and saw that he had been barely held back by a ten-foot chain. My bag was fine. But it was clear that if that had been my arm, I would not have been fine.
Two Chinese men looked at me concerned and I explained I was OK and then marched to the place where the owners were selling overpriced water and soda and ice cream.
“Boss, your dog just tried to bite me,” I said. She looked a little surprised and looked me up and down. “He didn’t bite me, but got my bag.”
She smiled, and a few passengers around me laughed.
“It’s not funny,” I said angrily.
“I know,” she said. “Why were you near him?”
“I didn’t even see him,” I lied. I had seen him, but I hadn’t expected him to leap at me. He weighed about 90 pounds and had white and black fur and clearly hadn’t left his spot for a long time. “He tried to bite me,” I said again in frustration
An old woman in a classic breadbox-shaped dark blue cheap coat interrupted: “What were you doing over there?”
“I was just walking around relaxing,” I said. “It’s not funny!” I insisted again, angrily, and then I walked away, the driver and the others breaking into harder laughter. “Yeah, real funny!” I yelled over my shoulder, “really funny!”
Then I did what I’ve always done to calm down—went to my crutch and smoked a cigarette—and when Jess found me and asked me what flavor ice cream she should buy I said simply that a dog had tried to bite me and I didn’t know. She said sorry sympathetically, which was nice of her, and went to get her ice cream. I relaxed for a minute and went back to the shop.
“That’s not safe. You should put the dog somewhere where it can’t bite people,” I said.
The old woman said: “That dog doesn’t bite people.”
“It just tried to bite me!” I said incredulously.
“He’s never seen a foreigner before,” the owner woman, about 40 in a white and black striped shirt, said.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said, “it’s not safe.”
“It is safe,” the old woman said.
“It’s not safe!”
The owner lady gave me a few palliating words—yes, we’ll move him somewhere else, fine—and I said OK, and walked away, still shaking. The Taiwanese guy laughed with me for a moment; finally it did seem funny, if only because I hadn’t been hurt.
But I knew that if the dog had got me it could have been much worse. I had gotten away by a hair.
Back on the bus, Jess commented how the dog had actually been cute, and I asked her, as politely as possible, to stop talking. We tried to decide if it was a bad omen, and Jess decided that it was just karma balancing itself out; after all, she had been my shield for the food, and now I had been attacked by a huge dog. I felt OK with that explanation. We struggled to get comfy in our cramped seats and rode out the next two or so hours of the trip mostly in silence, thinking only of our hostel beds.
We had enjoyed Jiuzhaigou, but in the end I felt as though we could have gone somewhere else that would have required less work. Jess said she thought the bus ride was worth it, but it wasn’t for me. Jiuzhaigou was truly beautiful, like nothing else I’ve seen, but it is not the most beautiful place on earth, and it, like most of China in the summer, was a hotbed of Chinese tourists. After seeing it once I decided something I’ve decided in so many other places in China—nice, but I don’t need to ever go back.
Luckily that would finally change with out next destination—the most beautiful place I’ve seen in China and an area I would happily return to anytime; and also the second-to-last stop on the second epic journey through China: Yunnan!