Monday, January 1, 2001
another holiday in transit
New Year's Day. Caught a 1:00pm flight to Huangshan City, about an hour and a half from Huangshan, or "Yellow Mountain," probably the most famous scenic attraction in China. It's known for its beautiful peaks, rolling clouds, indigenous pine trees (pinus hwangshaneus, in fact). Imagine any Chinese mountain landscape painting and you'll know what I'm talking about. That's Huangshan.
So after I got off the propeller plane to the tiny little airport in Huangshan City, I was immediately mobbed by taxi drivers wanting to take me to all sorts of places for enormous sums of money. I wanted a bus to Tangkou, at the base of the mountain, an hour or so away, but none were leaving from the airport. Finally a driver offered to take me to the "bus station," where he said there were buses I could take. Sounded okay to me.
I didn't realize that he took me to the train station, where there weren't public buses but rather minibuses, waiting for people coming off the trains. To become a minibus operator in China pretty much requires two things: a van (the older and slower the better), and a steel capitalist will to make money. The minibus owner on the way to the Great Wall was the same way: he stopped every ten feet to offer people rides, and didn't stop until the van was completely full, pushing two people into one seat, and leaving a few people standing up to collect an extra fare.
When he dropped me off at the bus station, the minibus woman told me a few things, mostly false: a] this was the place where the public 10RMB buses left for Tangkou (false); b] there were no more buses leaving today, 3:30pm was too late (false); c] if I waited a bit for the 4:30 train to arrive from Nanjing, perhaps there would be some people wanting to go to Tangkou and then she'd take me (probably true). I bought it. Oops. I waited around like an idiot for the train to arrive and phoned ahead to a hotel to deter people mobbing me trying to get me to stay at their hotel that night.
What I didn't know was that the minibus woman's true intention was to get me to wait around until all the buses HAD actually left, it was too late to go to Tangkou, and I'd be forced to spend a night in the hotel next to the train station, where she was in cahoots with the owner.
Finally, a Chinese girl asked me what country I was from (I had been getting stares from everyone, being the only foreigner at the train station). She guessed I was French (huh?), but nope, I'm American, half-Chinese, blah blah blah. She was from Yunnan province, travelling on holiday, and she'd just come down from Huangshan. She further informed me this was NOT at the bus station, but it was close to here, and if I wished she could accompany me there (she had an hour to spare before her train arrived). Really nice of her, I thought, so we hopped a bicycle rickshaw down the street to the station. We chatted along the way and she offered advice at what to do on the mountain, etc.
We were mobbed when we arrived at the bus station -- they formed a swarming circle around us, shouting offers and trying to give proof of their credibility with various ID and business cards. They were talking too fast for me to understand so the girl acted as my agent and began shouting back. We tried to run away from them, but they followed us and finally a minibus driver made an offer that satisfied her. While she was negotiating, I noticed the driver ask her a question: "The two of you, or just him?"
Her response: "Haven't decided yet, what's the price for each?" AAACK! So I get in the bus, and she asks me, "Do you want me to go along with you?" That's crazy -- she would skip her train, not go home, and go back up to Huangshan with me just like that? I told her it was very nice of her, but it wasn't necessary. "Well, if you ever go to Yunnan, look me up," she said, and gave me her address. I've got guanxi in Yunnan now, I guess. Oy.
The minibus took me to a cheap hotel in Tangkou. I mean REALLY cheap. The Chinese custom is to take a shower before bed, so hot water was only available for an hour at night. Plus, as I found out AFTER I paid for the room, there was no heat in the room. I mean NO HEAT. NONE. My breath turned to mist in the room. Getting out of the shower into my freezing room was -- well, uhm, REALLY REALLY REALLY BAD. I wore my sweater, wool pants, long underwear, and two blankets to bed that night.
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