On Saturday, I lost my voice. I blame a combination of coal dust, secondhand smoke inhalation, and lack of soap in the bathrooms. Saturday was also the day we began our bus trip across a slice of particularly rural Sichuan province. We decided to cut through the Yi Autonomous Region, ostensibly in order to reach the train line in Xichang, but our real reason for coming through here was just to see what’s going on in these parts.
Minority groups in China often have a rough go of it: for many, their identities and livelihoods are tied to some of the country’s most unforgiving land, ever since advancing imperial armies and Han settlers drove their ancestors into the mountains centuries ago. The Communists have had a definitely mixed but probably altogether positive record in improving conditions for most non-Han groups, particularly those that haven’t challenged their sometimes heavy-handed policies. (The Yi nobility, similar to the Tibetans, used to practice a form of widespread slavery until banned after 1949.) More recently, the central government’s western development push seems to be behind some mind-bogglingly ambitious infrastructure projects out here. So we came through to learn about this area, its people, and and to see where things stand. And to be honest, like any rich tourists seeking the exotic, we have also particularly enjoyed previous trips through minority population areas: they afford us a chance to see
truly relatively different parts of China, and to answer the inevitable question from a curious local, “So…what brings you here?” As with anywhere a little more remote (majority Han places certainly included), we tend to get more intimate interactions with people we meet, and because–despite regional dialect or full-on language differences–everyone has been required to learn Standard Mandarin in school, we can talk to most people. Even the ancient man wearing a big Yi robe and literally a towel (pink colored, of the bathroom variety) wrapped around his head, herding sheep in the mountain pass where our bus lets us off for a pee break: even this man speaks enough Mandarin to tell us our baby is underdressed.
So, I lost my voice. We boarded a bus that we believed, based on careful Google map reading, a cross-check with Baidu, and finally a confirmation with a fellow traveller outside the bus station, would take us on a 4-hour journey to Zhaojue, the halfway point to Xichang, where we would spend the night before moving on. Cheerful and armed with a bag of “toys” (for Owen these days, the best entertainment comes in the form of Scotch tape, a lidded gum container he can shove things inside, and the plastic dropper from the baby Tylenol bottle, popup books…oh, and lots and lots of balloons), we took a deep breath, prayed for a long Owen nap, and took our ratty, narrow seats. The bus driver, clad in a formal black vest and collared shirt with cuff links, got on and lit his first cigarette before he even started the engine. This was bad sign #1. Bad sign #2 came when we then asked the bus attendant what time we would arrive, hoping for a confirmation, and she said, “5:00 pm” and walked off. It was 6:35AM and we figured she must have misspoken…there was no way it would take that long. Then bad sign #2, part (b): twenty minutes down the perfectly good road along the wide Jinsha River gorge, our bus suddenly pulled off onto a donkey trail along a rain-swelled brook heading up a canyon. The donkey trail of a road quickly turned into deeply rutted, flowing mixture of gravel, mud and water, and then we were stuck.
After spinning our wheels a bit to make sure we were really fully stuck, the well-dressed driver ordered everyone to get off. We all complied, except for the woman with a newborn baby across the aisle. She stayed put. We exited and stood by the river, practicing our rock-throwing skills (Owen) and smoking cigarettes (everyone else). Once it became eminently clear that the bus–especially now, freed of any weight over the powered back wheels–was not budging, that help was not anywhere near, and that the newly arriving minivans plying this route were now going to block the road for a kilometer in both directions, people sprung into action. Men (including a still-amused Nick) hauled rocks and filled in various sinkholes to allow the smaller vehicles to pass. Meanwhile, the traffic jam continued to build up in both directions, with all the honking you would imagine, every beep echoing off the canyon walls above the constant roar of the water. We threw more rocks into the brown river. It began to really rain. Then there was a strange noise of pebbles raining down, then loud cracks, and we witnessed a small rockslide on the opposite side of the river (bad sign #3). After two hours, a backhoe finally arrived and gave our bus a little tow, dumped huge heaps of rocks in the mudhole, and we were all off, continuing on our strange detour.
We cruised (okay, jostled) along for a solid 10 minutes before we came to another impasse: a string with colored traffic flags blocking the road. Young men stood around and informed the driver that we could not pass: there was a problem up ahead. Our dapper driver thought for a moment, then gestured to Nick to come with him, and together they approached the roadblock. The driver reasoned, “This guy came all the way from America, on an airplane, to get to where he’s going, and you won’t let us through?” Maybe a good tactic under other circumstances, but not here. Ahead was a landslide, blocking the road, and it cared neither for smooth-talking bus drivers nor for passengers with unique nationalities.
We disembarked again and wandered down the road a ways, where we laid eyes on the slide. Another job for the backhoe, which may or may not be on the way. So we dug in the dirt, we played with more rocks, changed a diaper (and to think that I once considered a diaper change in the airplane rough!), we waited. An hour later, the hero from before arrived, and after 45 minutes of dumping rocks into the river, we had a clear passage. On we went!
Or, I should say, up we went. We climbed into the clouds, and out the window we watched a world pass by that was unlike anything either of us imagined we would see in this country: it looked for all the world like something out of Middle Earth, but with flocks of goats filling the road every mile; weathered-skinned people dressed in black wool tunics with bright hats; donkeys weighted down with heavy loads, struggling up rocky hillsides; misty mountains rising five-thousand feet over green valleys. Our little bus jolted along the road, which resembled nothing so much as a ski trail at this point, and we wondered just where the hell we were going. The driver gave us an updated arrival time: “8 or 9 PM–ha, usually foreigners are supposed to be good luck!”
Hours passed. Owen played, then got tired, then wouldn’t sleep, then got progressively more miserable. We were right there along with him. Our bus, and one in front of us that had left at the same time, crawled along, through high, cloud-draped pine forests and down steep mountainsides. We’d pass markers indicating a “village,” and look to see a few wretched dwellings, some impossible-looking crop terraces, a few pigs.
With hours more to go, the constant tight turns and secondhand smoke starting to make my stomach do its own turns, I turned to Nick and proclaimed in my most serious whisper (laryngitis cannot keep me from being outwardly annoyed), “If we see a hotel anywhere, we are getting off this godforsaken bus.” “Come on,” he reasoned, “we should press on. I think it’ll be worth it, to avoid getting on another long bus tomorrow.” “NO,” I whisper-shouted, “I am DONE.” And soon enough, as if by magic, we came upon our first town that was more than a string of earthen huts. A dreary-looking strip of shops and apartments, grey in the cold rain, it was called Meigu (“beautiful girl”), and she was certainly beautiful to me. A hotel whizzed by on our right, and we sprang up, asked to get off, gathered our bags from the luggage hold (they had taken a pretty serious mud bath in the hubbub of earlier but were intact), and set up weary shop in the first room we found, which was actually big and clean and cheap (though a hole in the ground would have suited me just fine at that point, too).
Owen and I attended to matters of the belly with hot bowls of noodles while Nick went up the street to ask about onward buses the next day. After dinner, we all stretched our legs along the city’s rough sidewalks until Owen’s bedtime. We slept to the sound of the rain and the little KTV blaring karaoke next door. I woke the next morning, still voiceless, and over Nescafe Nick explained what had happened: the road we took was a 100-mile detour away from the main road on the map. The actual road was under heavy reconstruction, a continuation of the same project that had made our first leg to Leibo such a breeze. This explained the extra 7 hours on the bus. And we’d do it again that second day: due to road closures, the normally four-hour ride to Xichang would turn out to be to a bumpy seven.
But we only had to do it all once. The people living in this poor, harsh region will have to keep bumping along slowly on wide detours, to markets or work sites or school or the hospital, until the new roads are all finished. I hope it is soon.
(My voice is coming back, clearly more chatty than ever. Thanks for reading to the end, Mom. Here are some pix.)