Our latest story begins in the hills of southeastern Sichuan, near the Guizhou border, where there are found mysterious concentrations of ancient wooden coffins, perched high up against the limestone cliffs. They are 1,000-year-old remnants of the Bo people, a long-lost ethnic group that once populated this mountainous area. The bigger mystery, though, is how our visit there went so suddenly awry.
With the biggest cluster of coffins located south of Yibin, a city we’re passing through, we decided to make it a side trip. It all began typically enough: standing in the rain, haggling with a driver to take us up the road, and answering the usual questions:
“Are you from Xinjiang?”
My patchy facial hair and brown eyes are starting to make me appear to Han Chinese like a Uigher. “No. American.”
“America? Where in China do you work?”
“Hangzhou. I’m actually a grad student.”
“Hangzhou? Nice place. Never been. Ha, you’re still a student!”
In China, nearly all grad students test into their programs directly from college, meaning they’re much younger than me. When I tell Chinese that I’m 28 and going to school, I might as well say I’m in 4th grade, the idea is so weird.
“I actually graduated college six years ago. My work unit in the US sent me to China to get a master’s degree.”
“Oh, your work unit sent you to school. I see.”
Some time ago, I stumbled upon the discovery that ‘my work unit sent me’ is an eminently satisfying answer to the question why I’m in China. I have exactly the same conversation above at least once every single day, and the vague causality of my ‘work unit’ explanation has never elicited a single follow-up question. Apparently, it’s not unexpected that work units have their employees do all kinds of crazy things. In America it must be no different.
We settled on a price, and then watched as a police officer sauntered up the road, sending all the pedicabs scrambling. Apparently here, just outside the train station, it was illegal for pedicab drivers to offer their service. Meanwhile, the crowds of luggage-toting train riders would have to walk to the end of the road to find a ride.
“In America, your economy right now is not good.”
“Not as good as it has been… but you have to consider that living standards are still very high compared to here.” We then discussed average salaries.
“Also, America is very unstable right now, right? Lots of protesting. And people have guns.”
The police officer was threatening an elderly pedicab driver, telling him to move farther away. The old man, bald and missing most of his teeth, was arguing back. We watched.
“Well, we don’t tend to equate protests with instability. As long as the protestors don’t hurt anybody. And it’s true that lots of people own guns.”
“And they have shoot-outs!”
“There is gun violence. But most Americans believe that they should be allowed to own guns if they want. They think if they don’t have guns, then they will be too dependant on the government for security, and the government will be able to do whatever it wants. This is a very traditional concept in American democracy.”
The police officer had threatened away the last pedicab driver, and now it was clear what the impetus was: a black Audi A6 with tinted windows rolled past, unobstructed.
“Do most people in America have pistols or rifles? I think I’d want a pistol.” He made his hand into the shape of a pistol, and pulled the trigger a few times. The conversation then turned to what kinds if cars Americans drive.
An hour later, we were dropped off in the town of Xunchang, where we decided to spend the night before pressing on in the morning. It was mid-afternoon, and Owen needed some good playtime. So the next morning we set out again, and arrived by late morning, at last, at the eery spectacle of dozens of thousands-year-old coffins, perched high on cliffs rising up above the surrounding farmland.
We stayed about thirty minutes. What happened was, it started to pour rain. So we accepted the offer of a family from Yibin to jump in the extra seats of the van (with driver) they’d rented to come all the way out here. They’d woken up early and driven three hours to get here, they said. We started further down the rocky road, looking for the next cluster of coffins. The road got bumpy, and thenl the driver declared the road impassable. Not sure that it was even the right road, they (and we) drove all the way back to the entrance gate to ask for directions. That’s the road, the attendant said. The driver wasn’t budging. Then Grandma in the front seat made the decision: since the road couldn’t be driven, and there was no way she was going to get out and walk in that mess, and not to mention it was getting past lunch time, well then that was enough hanging coffins for the day.
Bayley and I looked at each other. We’d hardly seen anything, but here was a chance to hitch a ride with a nice family, avoid the smoky county buses, and get all the way back to Yibin in one fell swoop. We accepted their offer, and away we went.
Then something went wrong. Approaching the first town, I mentioned that our two bags were being stored at the little bus station. We’d just have to pause for a second while I jumped out and grabbed them.
“There’s a bus station here?” Grandpa asked.
We answered yes, and explained that’s how we’d gotten here. The family was silent. When the bus station, really just a small parking lot, came into view, we slowed to a stop and I jumped out.
Returning to the van with our two big backpacks, I couldn’t open the back. It was locked. I called to the driver. He got out, came around back, and waved off the back door.
“You will take the bus.”
“That bus. It’s going the same direction we are. Take that back.”
“But we’re already going with you!”
“No, you’re taking the bus.”
I looked in the window at the family inside. No eye contact. Then at Bayley: “Let’s go! I guess we’re not invited anymore.”
We were both dismayed. We’d cut our trip short, for the sake of easy transportation back, because they’d offered us a quick ride to Yibin. Now, after driving all the way out of the hanging coffins area, and with no easy way back for us, they’d changed their minds and were dumping us out. They’d fly on ahead, and we’d be back on the trundling old bus, an hour or two behind.
And so it was. It might have been the realization that there were buses available, or the thought of stuffing our heavy backpacks in the back, or just Grandma’s desire to go out for lunch without worrying about what foreigners can eat or not eat. We’ll never know. The family didn’t want to say. “You’ll take the bus” was all they gave us.
Late that afternoon, our dusty bus braked and swerved its way into Yibin. I found a cab driver. “Is there a 7 Days Chain Hotel in this city?” I asked, hopefully. He replied: “There are two!”
We’ll count it as a good travel day.