I have spent enough time in Chengdu to be familiar with its drivers' way of thinking. Traffic here is chaotic, definitely never fair, and there is nothing the whistle-blowing orange creatures posing as traffic control at intersections can do about it. Here is what I learned:
1. Traffic lights and signs are mere suggestions and always up for interpretation.
2. Some road users (possibly Hong Kong immigrants) even seem unsure whether the right or the left lane should be used.
3. Never hesitate!
4. Be ruthless (because if you give others their right of way you will never get anywhere).
The dominant philosophy governing Chengdu's streets is anarchy. It is everyone for him- or herself and the result somehow resembles those early computer games, where you had to dodge enemy fire to reach your destination. Next level: New Delhi. I thought I was prepared.
Langmusi, July 2006
We woke up early, the sun was still crawling up mountain slopes and we carried long, westward slanted shadows. Our breakfast consisted of the obligatory apple pie and coffee, extra strong, to make up for an extra three hours of sleep. With squinting eyes and backpacks filled with dirty laundry and over-priced travel souvenirs we arrived at the appointed meeting place.
Our driver, a certain Mr. Bai, was 45 minutes late. He arrived just as I was curling up - bedded on backpacks and my friend's lap - for my 8am nap. "Let's go," he sounded exasperatingly awake and in no way apologetic. So our little group - me and my friend were joined by four other, equally tired, travelers - stacked backpacks and bodies into his gray, dirt-flecked minivan and dared to hope for a long but smooth journey home.
Mr. Bai turned out to be a garrulous driver. He asked all of us about our origins and future plans and often delved into what I assume where facts and stories about the area but might have just as well been confessions of extra-marital affairs or scientific explanations on the beginning of the universe. He did not seem the least bit discouraged by the detached nods, blank stares, and awkward smiles we displayed in response to his inquiries. None of us spoke Chinese well enough to understand more than a tiny fraction of what he said; and it was not like he was actually speaking the Chinese we had studied in school.
Now I imagine that he used talk as a method of distraction. He drove fast, too fast, swished along endless grass planes and through semicircular swirls of the barely-there dirt road. To this day I am still unsure whether the car actually featured a brake. Hours passed. Exhaustion and the beautiful but rather monotone landscape had put me in a sort of trance. Somewhere far away I could still hear Mr. Bai gabbling away at an unconscious audience. All of the others had fallen asleep.
At one point of our journey we reached a tunnel that was undergoing construction. The signs posted told us that the tunnel was closed and that we should take the long route around the mountain. Our driver ignored the signs and for a long while we were shrouded in darkness with nothing but a pale glow of the car's headlights guiding us. When we emerged on the other side of the mountain almost half an hour later we were stopped by construction workers. We were told that we had broken the law and fined 300 RMB. Our driver argued his heart out but they would not let us pass. We offered to pay. We just wanted to keep going. But Mr. Bai refused. He had convictions. So instead of bribing our way homeward, we turned around, crawled back through the tunnel and took the detour.
"We'll take a short break." We had arrived at a small village somewhere in Sichuan. We got out of the car to stretch our cramped legs and hit a small shop for snack food. Aspirin got passed around like candy but we were all in good spirits. As we were waiting for our driver to return, however, the mood turned more and more sullen and finally worried. He had already been gone for over an hour. Had he abandoned us? In my mind I saw him sprawled out on a soft bed. Maybe he had decided it was time for a drink or five. We started to plan the search mission. We were going to split into three groups of two and comb the area. Just as we were about to leave the car unattended Mr. Bai reappeared, face shaved smooth and hair washed, cut and gelled.
" I haven't been to the city in ages. Can't get there looking all disheveled," he explained with a smile. "I have a cousin who lives there. Haven't seen her in years. You understand." It wasn't a question and we climbed into the car without saying a word.
We arrived in Chengdu grumpy and exhausted. Mr. Bai whistled and marveled at the beauty of traffic lights and all of the sudden I realized that I wasn't so much annoyed at as envious of his carelessness, his attitude towards life. So here is what I learned (Part II): Don't fret. Life is beautiful and rules are made to be broken!
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