4th-6th April was a national holiday in China: Qing Ming or Tomb Sweeping Festival. It is a festival that is centred on paying one’s respects to one’s ancestors. Many Chinese return to their hometowns to visit the tombs of those who have gone before them to tidy them up, give offerings and burn incense. During this holiday that focuses on those who have passed, I had my own brush with death. Thrice.
A few of the other foreign teachers and I decided to spend the holiday in Yangshuo; a fabled beauty spot of China. We did as the locals and all our other friends who have visited Yangshuo do and booked our beds on the sleeper bus. Excited by the adventure that lay ahead and amused by the three rows of precariously narrow beds crammed into a regular-sized coach, we settled in for a long drive.
At about 5:30 the next morning I was woken up by the sound of the bus skidding on the wet tarmac of the road as the driver slammed on his brakes, I opened my eyes and looked out of the window next to my top-bunk bed and saw the bright headlights of another coach coming straight towards my window. I screamed, the bus swerved and I steeled myself in anticipation of the loud crack that followed as the other coach ploughed into the back of our bus three beds behind mine. Just in front of me, the air-con started to leak and I watched for a moment, frozen, as a choking gas filled the cabin. All of a sudden I heard myself scream ‘EVERYBODY UP!’ and in one swift swoop, I was out from under my sleeping bag and seatbelt. One of my friends shouted for us to grab our things and frantically I searched for my shoes and bags. Confused and in tears I eventually found them towards the front of the bus and scrambled out. This being my third bus crash, I was quite simply hysterical. My friends were a lot calmer and noticed a woman trapped at the back of the bus. They called to the male passengers to help them help her but none of them moved. One even raised a finger to his lips motioning them to keep quiet. They bravely went back to the bus and helped her out. She had gone into shock and several shards of glass had embedded themselves into her face but she was alive and, after a while, able to walk. Looking at the scene of the accident it became apparent just how lucky we had been. On our side of the road was a large truck carrying a load that cushioned the blow. On the other side of this truck was a concrete barrier which stopped one metre in front of where the bus had stopped. On the other side of this concrete barrier was a steep drop to the river running adjacent to the road. The thing that struck me the most was the steeliness of the Chinese passengers. No one seemed perturbed by what had happened. Everyone was very calm, as if we had just casually knocked the fender against the curb when in fact the entire back of the bus had been destroyed. There was nothing but daylight all the way through. We were helped by a kind family who spoke English and translated what was happening and other such details. We waited in a small village for 4 hours for a replacement bus. The last 5 hours of our journey were spent in complete silence save for quietly muttered prayers and sharp inhalations every time the driver beeped his horn.
We arrived bruised but alive in Yangshuo. That evening we had our first meal in 32 hours and it was incredible. We sampled a local dish called beer fish. I don’t know whether it was the hunger talking or if the fish really was that good but we wolfed it down.
The next day we took a bamboo raft along the Li River, pausing to see the birds that fishermen use to catch fish and the iconic Yangshuo scene that adorns every 20 Yuan note. The scenery really was beautiful and worth the long journey. In Shenzhen I am constantly surrounded by people, malls and other ghastly man-made creations such as this. So it was such a relief to get out and see the wonders of nature that, although it is trying, China has not succeeded to completely bulldozer with what they think tourists want: tack, rows of identical shops, a guy selling Disney merchandise, rocks built to look like real rocks and more general tack. That evening we went back to Monkey Jane’s bar, which deserves the reputation it has amongst backpackers. Monkey Jane is indeed crazy but the convivial atmosphere in her little rooftop bar is second to none. People perch on the end of each other’s tables, flitting between conversations, inventing ultimate drinking games with rules pooled from at least 3 continents and generally have a great time. I left with several offers of tour guide services from people living all over China.
The next day was spent relaxing in the town and most importantly indulging in my first proper breakfast in China. I had eggs, TOAST, granola, yogurt, fresh juice and it was incredible. Even better considering I had not hauled it across the border myself like some sort of mule which has become the norm every time I return from Hong Kong. We took the time to wander the streets, do a spot of shopping and hang out in our hostel, Number 11. We chilled out with the owner, an extremely hospitable bloke, who chatted with us in Chinese, made tasty vegetable soup and kicked all our asses at table football all afternoon.
The best day of all was the 43 kilometre off-road mountain biking tour. My two friends and I had the pleasure of the company of Farmer Tang a.k.a FT, our tour guide for the day and a Yangshuo-er born and bred who knew all the back routes, which I’m sure were the most challenging, of the local countryside.
He took us on a tour that involved cycling through the mountains, up and down steep rocky inclines where with one foolish flick of the wrist you could crack your head open on a rock. We were wading through mud, steaming through shallow streams, crossing 700 year old bridges, and riding along precarious narrow planks where if you lost your balance you could face-plant either into a boggy rice field or a river. The waters were a clear jade-blue, the fields were a lush fertile green and the mountains seemed to have popped up in spontaneous locations – think acne outbreak as opposed to mountain range but better looking. Moreover, for the first time, the air was FRESH! So fresh it almost hurt my lungs! We cycled through small traditional villages where the lifestyle and people, the youngsters on scooters and iPhones aside, reminded me a lot of what I have seen in Rukungiri. Living was simple, there were small kadookas selling a random assortment of goods and sweets you haven’t seen since you were knee-high to a grasshopper and old people being scared by chickens that moved too quickly. It was a world away from the bustling city I have known for the last 8 months and the striking difference in wealth and living standard was food for thought. With all the talk of China’s economic growth and the bright lights and malls of Shenzhen it’s easy to forget that this side of China does still exist. After all, China is very much still a developing country.
We finished the day exhausted, sore bottomed and shaky legged with the only appropriate remedy in Asia – a full body massage. It was extremely relaxing although my friend who was massaged by a young man who held his head at highly unnecessary angles whilst massaging her thighs thought rather differently of the whole experience. Add to that the jokes we were cracking at her expense, which, when we translated them to Chinese, the two ladies that were massaging my friend and I took to a whole new level. The poor lad was beetroot by the end of it all and probably partially deaf from our cackling.
That evening we said goodbye to the manager over one final defeat at table football and being too scared to get a bus back home we took a taxi to the airport to catch our last minute flight. However, this is when my life started to feel more like Final Destination than reality. One hour into the journey I caught the driver closing his eyes periodically at the wheel. I pointed it out to my friends who brushed it off as paranoia. After another hour we were on the final approach to the airport. The driver had gone into the wrong lane and despite the bus that was coming directly at us, flashing its headlights repeatedly, the driver didn’t respond. I turned to look at him and the dude was ASLEEP! I shook him violently by the arm and he casually slipped into the right lane as if he had staged the whole charade. By this point I was incredulous and just shook my head as I climbed out at departures.
Then our flight, due to depart at midnight, was delayed indefinitely and there was a serious lack of information from the airline. I have never seen Chinese people get so passionate about anything but the screams that were being hurled at the airline desk girls merited the presence of 3 security guards who then wheeled an old lady off in a wheelchair, grimacing in pain as she had given herself a hernia from shouting. Again, relying on the kindness of English speaking strangers it transpired that the flight was delayed because the wheels of the plane had broken upon landing. I’m serious. 3 hours later we were in the air, praying our way through turbulence and then grabbing each other by the hand as we came in for the roughest landing I have ever experienced. When we got out of the plane it became clear why, the tires had broken again. Exhausted and saved once again by strangers I made it back to my shack at 5:30 am and have never been so happy to see these cursed four walls.
Although in many respects it is very touristy and in some parts westernised, I thoroughly enjoyed Yangshuo for two reasons that no amount of man-made substitutes could hope to emulate – the scenery and the people. It really does deserve the reputation that precedes it.
As for my stint as an extra in Final Destination I have learnt three key lessons. One, keep your standards. If it looks like a death trap, that’s because it probably is. It does not matter that this is how everybody does it, do what’s right for you. By all means, ‘when in Rome…’ but there has to be a limit. Two, don’t travel at night on roads in Asia. Three, make friends with your fellow passengers, especially if you are travelling alone. That grumpy looking giant or the couple with the annoying kid may just save your life.