|Day three. Tired and sore, and a long way above the river.
The series of wrong decisions begins immediately after breakfast, when I have to decide whether to hike another four to six hours along a newly asphalted road and through uninteresting terrain to reach our forward pick-up point, in Dazhu, or to take an easier option and hire a minibus going along the riverside road back to our starting point, Qiaotou. With tired legs, the river road was beckoning, and having walked for two days high above the river, with it constantly 1500m below my right hand, I’m really desperate to get down beside it and feel its power from up close. And you know, dip my hand in the waters.
From the walking trail high above the road, it always appeared that the serpentine road, apparently recently completed, ran right beside the river just a whisker above the waterline. I could get the minibus driver to let me off somewhere, walk down to the water’s edge, and take a few photos. I asked the lovely Xiao Li at Sean’s Guest House
whether she could help find a driver willing to take us.
‘No problem, we have a guy we always call!’ she said. Great! So easy! I wouldn’t have to flag down a bus laden with chickens and goats after all.
‘How long will it take to get to Qiaotou?’ I asked
‘Fifty minutes’ she replied. ‘Five -Zero’, for emphasis. Plenty of time to stop for photos, and still make the rendezvous with our Lijiang-bound ride.
As we got into the minibus, I noted our wild looking driver, wearing the same sort of shapeless grey suit pretty much every man in China waers as a uniform, with a pair of pleather loafers and a partly untucked business shirt, no tie. He had a deep brown suntanned face and a wild hairstyle that stuck out every which way, which looked like he cut it himself. His silver minibus was really a small van with two seats in front, two behind, and a space for luggage behind the back seats. These silver Chinese minivans are ubiquitous everywhere you travel in China, and have a uniquely poor suitability for travelling in any other fashion except a straight line, at a speed of 40kmh or less. Their slightly-too-high centre of gravity means they are apt to tip over when going around bends, and I’ve seen valleys all over the country littered with the compressed carcass of a silver minivan or two. The van, combined with the slightly unhinged appearance of the driver gave me some misgivings, but I got in anyway. And then I saw the road.
Turns out the appearance of a road at water-level that was an optical illusion of depth perception, and the road is actually positioned a precarious 400-500 metres above the water. If you could actually call it a road. Carved from the steep rocky slope, it appears to have been built on a succession of small landslides with extremely limited stability. Have you ever built a sandcastle mountain and then used your finger to trace out a road along its side? That’s kind of what this road reminded me of, with the same degree of impermanence about it.
Long stretches are still just gravel, other stretches are being asphalted right this second, leaving the narrowest of paths for vehicles to pass. The mountain side of the road is littered with giant slabs of smashed rock, fallen from the tectonically unstable mountain above, and the river side of the road plunges impressively off to the left. Fierce wind gusts volley up the river and buffet us at every bend. Occasionally there are small blocks of concrete, about the height of our minivan’s hubcaps, placed at intervals along the sheer drop. I suspect they would stop nothing but an unmanned skateboard from going over the edge, and only then if it managed to miss the two metre gap between blocks.
Reassuringly, there is a lucky charm hanging from the rear view mirror, which makes me feel so much better as we go around the first corner on two wheels at about eighty clicks. The driver cranes his head round to give me a manic smile, while I yell at him to ‘Slow down! Slow down!’ This seems to have no effect as we prepare to overtake a gravel truck on the wrong side of the road going around a blind corner. NOOoooo!
Fate smiles briefly though, as the truck grinds to a halt while a rockfall is cleared from the road. Saved. I breathe out. Then the driver begins to inch forward in an attempt to pass between the truck and the concrete blocks on the river side of the road. NoNo NONONONO! I yell, Chinese abandoning me in my hour of need. This guy is a complete lunatic and this is where my life will surely end, I think. The only way we can fit through is if we knock all the blocks down into the river on our way past.
‘Ting Ting TING!!’ I yell as my father yells ‘Stop Stop STOP!’ in English. No effect. We’re metres from death at the hands of an idiot. Suddenly, like divine inspiration, a small tinny mechanical voice pops into my head and repeats itself over and over. It’s saying ‘ee loo ping ann, ee loo ping ann, ee loo ping ann’ on loop in a singsong voice. What does it mean? It must be an important message from my subconscious, I figure, in the scant few seconds before we hit the first concrete block.
Suddenly I have it – the meaning is clear and it might just save me. Sitting in thousands of Shanghai taxis, mind on autopilot, the taxi’s meter automatically plays a phrase whenever the driver gets above the speed limit, or it’s little electronic brain gets bored. It’s a recorded message played so often during any one trip that it becomes meaningless.’Yi lu ping an!’ it rattles – ‘All the way safely!’
I clamp my hand on the driver’s shoulder and yell ‘YI LU PING AN!!!’
He stops trying to inch ahead. It’s nothing short of a miracle.
The truck lurches forward, and so do we, at slightly less than eighty the rest of the way. The view from the front passenger seat shows just how cosy we are to the white line marking the road edge.
And even closer. I should mention here that all of the above road photos were taken by my much braver father, sitting beside the driver, while I was hanging on to the door handle with my eyes closed in the back. Every time he snapped a photo the driver swung round again with a grin and we swung towards the road’s edge. I may, or may not, have yelled at my father to ‘Stop distracting the bastard!’
Either way, the next thing I knew we had reached the safety of Qiaotou. The fifty minute, five-zero, trip had taken exactly twenty-three.
I recovered enough to ask the driver for his photo. He stepped out of his seat, smoothed his wild hair, retucked his shirt and applied a sober and serious look to his face. Very amusing. Out of the corner of my eye I spied a flat-bed truck coming around the corner, with a concertina-ed silver minivan on the back.
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