My alarm went off at 4:30 but I didn’t go off until six. After a quick shower in lukewarm water I scanned my map, which had blow-up sections of all the main cities in Yunan Province, including Pu’er. In tiny characters at the bottom was a list of bus stations and which destinations they served. One of them listed Pu’er, so my only task was to show the name of the bus station to the front desk and ask them how to get there.
When I approached the desk with my map they scurried but I nabbed one. He scowled at the name on the map and shrugged. “I don’t know that place.”
He took it to his co-worker, who was equally perplexed. “Go to the subway,” she said. Back to square one.
I left the hotel and decided to walk to the main train station, which was a mile or so beyond the nearest subway stop. I got there and saw nothing besides a local bus stop, so I decided to do what they had been saying all along, that is, go to the subway. I wondered what magical thing would happen when I appeared at the subway to direct me to the bus stop.
Halfway there I saw a giant green sign for a travel agency touting tours throughout Yunan, and paused before it, wondering whether it was time to seek professional help. A woman darted out from the crowd proffering a business card.
“Where would you like to go? I’m a licensed travel agent!”
“Tonight?” She looked perplexed.
A man in a shabby black coat ran up, also holding a business card. “We can do that,” he said.
“We can?” asked the woman.
“He’s is my colleague, Wang. He is excellent and will be a good friend to you.”
“How much?” I asked.
“180 yuan,” he said, about $28, which seemed steep but not unaffordable.
“Okay,” I agreed.
They both brightened like Christmas trees. “Follow me,” Wang said.
We began walking back to the train station, then turning down various side streets until we reached a small office filled with people holding massive suitcases, and everyone was in a huge hurry. The man brought me to a woman. “Here,” he said, like a fisherman delivering a giant tuna to his happy wife. “My hao pengyou.”
“When do we leave?” I asked.
“You want to go to Dali instead?” the fish wife asked.
“Dali more famous. And pretty.”
“Dali is much better. Pu’er is old country town.”
“What time do we come back from Pu’er?”
“What time do you want to come back?”
She wrinkled her nose but didn’t miss a beat. “Okay.”
It didn’t seem very organized. “What time does the return bus leave?”
“You just call me and I’ll come pick you up.”
I could see several people smiling when she said that. Something was wrong. “No, thanks,” I said, and started walking.
My two hao pengyou sprinted after me. “Come back!” they howled as the tuna swam away. “You will love Pu’er! Great price!” I opened up my long stride. If they were going to follow far, they were gonna need some lungs. After a minute I dropped them, then headed back towards the subway.
At the entrance a bunch of motor scooter cabbies were standing around looking for fares. “Where you going, friend?”
I showed the cabbie the name of the bus stop on my map and told him I wanted to go to Pu’er. He whistled. “50 yuan.”
“Bus stop too far.”
“I will take you to the bus stop where you can catch a bus to take you to the bus stop to catch the bus to Pu’Er. 15 yuan.”
I climbed on the back of the scooter and we shot off into traffic. It occurred to me to be scared, but I decided to focus instead on not falling off. It worked.
He whipped into a sad parking lot with a handful of small, sad, dirty buses, and offloaded me. “That’s your bus, number C71, cheap!” And off he sped.
It was cheap, only 5 yuan, or 80 cents. I boarded and waited as the bus filled. We took off, and it became clear why the cabbie had wanted 50 yuan. We were taking a very, very long trip. After half an hour we reached the massive South Bus Terminal. I got off and went in. A bus was leaving for Pu’er at 10:30; my timing was perfect. You have to give your passport to buy a ticket for a bus that goes out of town, so the government knows who’s going where. The ticket cost about $28, which again seemed pricey for such a nearby destination.
I boarded and soon we left. My seatmates across the aisle were well provisioned for the trip with several bags of mini-tangerines, thermoses of booze, and a stack of bread cakes. They were enjoying themselves immensely before we had even left the parking lot.
The traffic was horrible and an hour flew by, then a second, though we had left Kunming completely and were flying down the expressway. I turned to the guy nearest me. “What time do we get into Pu’er?”
“5:30,” he said.
“Yes. It’s a seven-hour trip.”
Now it all made sense, everyone laughing at the travel agency when I said I wanted to return that evening; the “high” fare; the extensive provisioning of my neighbors. It was also clear that I would be spending the night in Pu’er.
Pu’er sits at well over 10,000 feet, and the bus never went in a straight line for more than a couple of minutes. We plunged down huge mountain passes that descended for ten miles or more, and clawed our way out with the vintage diesel engine groaning and bucking up the grade every inch of the way. I wondered if the bus would break down, but then put aside my cynical superiority complex. This was China and it wasn’t this bus’s first rodeo. They knew what they were doing.
By the third hour I was famished and dehydrated, and my seatmate offered me a bread roll which looked delicious but which I could never have chewed with my dust-dry mouth. “Thanks but I’m too thirsty to eat,” I said.
He nodded and pulled out a giant bag of mini-tangerines. “Here.”
I began peeling and devouring them, and they were probably the tastiest things I’ve ever had. “Hunger is the best sauce,” as Sancho Panza was so fond of saying.
We struck up a kind of traveling friendship; he and his pal were going to Pu’er for a short vacation, and soon the whole bus knew that I had thought it was one hour’s drive from Kunming, generating much hilarity.
About an hour from Pu’er, the bus really did break down. We pulled into the village of Tong Guan and all got off the bus. The driver called the main office, and they advised him to “fix it.”
With a much put-upon look he opened the engine compartment, poked around, then took out his toolbox. Everyone stood around and watched, along with a great many villagers for whom this was capital entertainment of the finest sort. No one was shy about offering advice, either. One man seemed to have very decided opinions about the repair job, which he punctuated with spitting. Everyone smoked. No one got angry. Broken buses seemed like a part of the ticket purchase, and the driver’s filthy and well-worn wrenches alternately inspired confidence and despair.
After half an hour of very intense wrench work, the driver took off his greasy mechanic’s apron, took a photo of the repair job, and texted it back to HQ. They were not impressed, because he began cursing and kicking his tools. He finally went over to a small side storage compartment, unlocked it, and pulled out a fat coil of baling wire. Everyone had an opinion about this latest development and Mr. Very Opinionated began expectorating with such vehemence that I feared he might spit out his tongue.
The driver climbed halfway into the engine compartment, and fifteen minutes later he emerged black from head to toe with only a short snippet of what had originally been a fifteen-foot coil, at least. He ordered us all back on the bus and off we went, another hour of dreadful mountain road with death at every turn, bound to this earth by nothing more than a flimsy strand or two of cheap wire. There is a metaphor there somewhere, and if you find it, it’s yours.
The arrival in Pu’er was anticlimactic. We shuffled off the bus and as we alit my pengyou mentioned that if I were really in a hurry to get back to Kunming I could always fly. If I wanted to have a good time, a really good time, a really, really good time, I could spend the night and hang out with them. “There’s an airport here?” I asked.
“Yes. Tiny town but has an airport.”
I kept forgetting that tiny in China and tiny in the USA meant different things. By now I knew that the best shot outside a bus terminal or subway station was just to stand around and I’d have a pengyou in no time.
Sure enough, a group of illegal cabbies began chattering about me until one came over. “Where to?”
“Airport. Is there a flight tonight to Kunming?”
“Oh, yes, many.”
“How much to the airport?”
I was too tired to haggle. If he didn’t murder me en route I’d not worry about the four dollar cost. “Okay.”
Pu’er was bustling on a Friday evening. I saw young people everywhere and the town consisted of, it seemed, one endless main street. My illegal cabbie seemed nice and was loquacious and inquisitive, but his accent was an impenetrable firewall. I imagined his questions and supplied my own answers, which seemed to work.
In a few minutes we reached the airfield, which was smack in the middle of town. “You’ll have to get out here,” he said. “The airport police know me.”
I exited and walked into the airport and up to the one ticket counter. “Any flights to Kunming?”
“Yes. In one your. 900 yuan.”
I handed her my passport and credit card. She entered my info. “Sorry, flight is full.”
“Oh. That was quick. Do you have another?”
“Yes. 11:00 PM. 2000 yuan.”
“Wow. Okay. I’ll take it.”
She took my credit card. This was the first time I’d used it in China. “Sorry, Chinese credit cards only.”
“I don’t have enough cash.”
“No cell phone.”
My friends who had traveled in China had told me that without WeChat to pay, I’d be fucked. Now I was, as I contemplated another full day on the Baling Wire Special.
“Tomorrow’s early flight is cheap. Only 600 yuan.”
“I’ll take it. How early?”
“Perfect.” I shelled out the bills.
“Come here tomorrow at 10:00 for your ticket.”
“I want my ticket now. I just paid you for it.”
“No ticket now. Come here tomorrow.”
“Can I pay then?”
“2,000 yuan. And maybe no seat like now.”
“Can I have a receipt?”
“No. We will remember you.”
I gave up and left. At least I’d get to see Pu’er. Then I realized I had no place to stay. I hailed a cabbie. “Where?”
“Nice hotel that takes American credit cards.”
He nodded and off we went. We pulled up at Jing Land Hotel and he opened my door. “15 yuan, please.” My illegal cabbie really had ripped me off a whole $2.15.
I entered Jing Land in fear, fear of credit card declination. Fear of sleeping on a park bench. Fear of arrest for vagrancy. “Do you have a room for tonight?”
“Do you take foreign credit cards?”
I never bothered to ask the price. I did not fuggin’ care.
The Jing Land Hotel was a big step up from my $33/night crash pad in Kunming. At $42/night I got more space, a nicer bathroom, hotter water, and two free condoms placed thoughtfully next to the toothbrush. I decided to walk around for a couple of hours and called the front desk to ask if they had a map of Pu’er.
“Staff will bring to your room.”
Soon there was a knock at the door and a pretty housemaid was handing me a map. “20 yuan, please.”
I was about to pay, a bit surprised a the $3.33 price tag, almost three times more than the awesome maps I had bought in Kunming that were already falling apart. “This isn’t even new,” I said, looking at the ratty edges and tears forming along the creases.
“Yes, it is.” I stared hard at the holes and ragged edges, so she doubled down. “Brand new.”
“Here I am, 400 km away from a provincial capital which is itself thousands of miles from anywhere and I’m about to argue over two dollars and some holes in a perfectly serviceable but shitty little map,” I thought. It was half principle, half cheapness, half stubbornness, and half annoyance at spending the day on the Baling Wire Express. Then I thought about the park bench I wasn’t on, the vagrancy charge I wasn’t facing, and her pretty, smiling, lying face. At least if you’re going to lie, don’t do it by halves. “Okay,” I said, giving her the 20 yuan. China won again.
Outside, Friday night was going full blast, but the main street was nothing but retail shops. I figured the food was elsewhere but after an hour couldn’t find it, and the few restaurants I passed were shuttered. One place was open, down a side street, called “World of Steak.”
The bored staff were playing with their data aggregator/tracking devices, and hopped to attention when I came in. I pointed to the Steak in a Box on the menu pinned to the wall.
“Cola or juice?”
“It comes with cola or juice.”
“Can you make it come with water?”
“Cola is better.”
“I believe you. Can I have some terrible water instead?”
“Okay,” she gave in, giving Team USA its sole goal of the tournament.
What came out of the kitchen was amazing, and not just because it took half an hour and sounded like thirty people were taking apart an old car with hammers. It was amazing because there was nothing there. The girl brought out a large drink cup 3/4 full with a lid shoved far down into the cup and from which a cute, curlycue straw protruded.
Atop the lid was a tasteful arrangement of a celery stick, a carrot stick, seven french fries, and about ten tiny, tiny cubes of meat. Each french fry had a ketchup-and-mayo face drawn on it. The whole thing was about three bites of food. It tasted great, but my last meal had been almost fourteen hours prior. I figured I’d do the hour walk back to the hotel and go to bed hungry again, which most certainly would have happened had I not passed two old women hawking baked sweet potatoes. The potatoes were huge, hot, and all carb. I bought one and sat on the curb to enjoy my dinner. That night I slept like a log.
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