Things have gone steadily downhill since the Swedes bade a bright goodbye about 10 hours ago. It’s a small window of time, I know, but one afternoon is enough for things to slide from winning trivia to inciting China’s angriest cabby. And I use the phrase cabby very liberally here, but we’ll get to that.
My laid-back planning will shoulder the blame.
While the Vikings had been buying train tickets and logging their intended routes, I sat back and scoffed at their boring organising.
I perfected the look of adventurous nonchalance. “Where are you going, Penny,” they’d ask, voices laced with excitement at seeing the back of me. “I dunno,” I’d shrug. “I’ll just see where I end up.” I love feeling that anything is possible.
Really, I was avoiding the reality of their impending departure as a chronic smoker avoids venues without ashtrays.
As they strode out the door, I saw a photo on the wall of a beautiful waterfall. “That’ll do,” I thought.
It was 45 minutes away by fast train. “Easy peasy,” I recall thinking with confidence as I boarded the public bus. “Who needs the Scandinavians anyway?”
Standing in the turtle-paced line at the railway station, I noticed the stench of human sweat and reflected that I was contributing my little bit, as sweat dripped off my body. The lack of mates to joke with struck me. Chengdu is nicely tropical.
Briefly, I enjoyed my solitude, freedom and noticed again how much attention everyone pays you when you’re alone. My dearth of language skills hit me like I slammed onto the ground when I slipped over at the ATM last night.
It’s incredibly lonely to not be able to communicate with anyone. Crowded trains are especially bad.
But, unsurprisingly, my persistent good luck meant the folk staying until the end of the train line spoke English and, yes, they were going to the cheap mountain with the beautiful scenery.
They’d be honoured if I joined them. I thoroughly enjoy the Chinese enthusiasm for helping foreigners.
I let them guide me along like a bludgeoned puppy keen for a bone.
We stumbled through the stunning town of Qingcheng, a typical Chinese ‘old town’ comprised of sparkling modern structures. I was delighted with the scenery and hopped with child-like exuberance over the plethora of bridges which cover the crystal river that runs beneath the footpath.
The mountains were luscious and superbly green. I even spotted some blue sky.
Still, I had no plan and cockily told my new Chinese companions that maybe I’d stay in the village the night. Secretly, I was following them, waiting for them to arrive at their hotel where I would cheekily check-in.
We kept walking. And walking. And then we walked some more.
After we left the town behind, I began to think the hotel must be in a beautiful spot on the mountain. But, as the footpath made way for a bush trail, I conceded that I was going trekking with my 16 kg pack again. This time, I cleverly shunned my hiking boots for Havaianas and a pretty dress. Also, I had only a half-full belly, a small hangover and no water.
Planning is for losers, as they say. And, yes, that is irony.
Still, I was entranced by the magnificence of the waterfalls that changed around every corner. There were remnants of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, with shattered rocks busting through the creek and drainage pipes still laying about in pieces, violently destroyed.
The water, by some ancient miracle, was as clear as a freshly-Windexed sliding door that a magpie would fly into. It was icy and refreshing. I could not believe this place was just an hour away from China’s fifth-biggest city. The contrasts were powerful.
The air was moist and chilly, which felt energizing against the Chengdu-sweat. It was a truly stunning walk, quite peaceful and, of course, I was stoked with myself that my no-plans attitude had seen things work out.
But, I arrogantly counted my blessings too soon.
We strolled back into town and I hung on to my new Chinese friends like a frightened lamb. I had not seen another foreigner in the village and, honestly, I was afraid of going it alone.
We caught a bus to some other random city where I was to look for tickets to the place they recommended I visit. “One of the most beautiful in China,” they promised.
Alas, the bus station was closed, a surprising feat in a country that seems to cater directly to public-transport enthusiasts.
Reluctantly, I caught a random bus back to Chengdu.
Then, the fun really started.
My fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants genius did not plan how to get to the hostel in Chengdu. I was dropped at a strange bus station and a kind-hearted entrepreneur offered to take me to Sim’s Guesthouse for triple the usual rate, a meager 60 Yuan.
No-one would take me for less than 50. I had no address card. The beauty of the communication divide in China stretches beyond simply speaking different dialects and having different characters – it’s the pronunciation that gets me the most. Without being able to effectively say the street name, I was at their mercy.
I was tired and craving some shut-eye and kind company. As my shoulders sagged and my eyelids drooped, I thought I might burst into tears in the middle of the station. “Toughen up, girl,” I heard my mother’s voice say in my head.
A face bustled to the front of the crowd gesturing that he’d take me for 30.
“Maybe I still have some luck left,” I mused.
He herded me towards his bike and strapped my pack on. I chucked on the helmet and obliging put my hands around his waist. We puttered off in a cloud of laughter from the hyenas at the station.
I was taking a risk here and felt incredibly vulnerable and was scared. It’s a fascinating sensation to relinquish control so completely.
But, he seemed ok. The problem was not my safety; he drove with fuel conservation as the number one priority. Plus, he was relatively cautious in the backwardly-ordered traffic.
The issue was the address, still. I had committed the cardinal Chinese-backpacking sin – I had no card with the address in Chinese letters.
We motored around for a while as I realised far too slowly that he did not know where I wanted to go. He pointed wildly at a few hotels and as I repeatedly refused them he expressed his frustration with some impressive grunts.
I pulled out my trusty Rough Guide, elated to be getting some use from it.
Of course, Scooter Man had no idea how to read an English map, so we just yelled at each other in our native tongues for a few minutes on the side of the street.
Then, a brainwave hit me like a wave washing a small child away from their sandcastle on a beach. I saw the 28 bus.
“Follow that bus,” I yelled, as I’d caught the 28 earlier in the day. It stops outside the hostel. “Tee! Cha! Er! Baa!”
We stealthily tracked that bus for a good 15 minutes. I was confident and relaxed a little, leaning back on my bag and enjoying Chengdu by night. It was quite the tour, although I was alarmed at that I recognised nothing after four days in the city. I had no idea where we were. Plus, the homogenous nature of the buildings and roads disturbed me.
I began to worry again when I saw another 28 bus heading in the other direction. “Which one is going toward the hostel,” I wondered, concerned, tired and anxious.
I pulled out my trusty Rough Guide and demanded Scooter Man call the hostel for directions.
It is difficult to express how disappointed I am with myself for waiting until 40 minutes into the ride to try this tactic. My clutching-at-straws logic was not fruitful.
Weirdly, it was not until I’d been on the bike for about an hour that I started to recognise buildings. I was almost pleased that we were going around in circles instead of him taking me to the back of beyond. Scooter Man, however, was not pleased at all. He starts to get quite frustrated, yelling at me sporadically.
I take solace in one of my favourite Chinese pursuits, watching people dancing in the street. “At least if Scooter Man dumps me I can go and shake some booty,” I think, desperately trying to cheer myself up.
After an hour and a half I spot the magical Hostelling International sign.
It’d been ten hours since I last ate.
Of course, we have an awesome stand-up argument in the street where Scooter Man even grabs my bag in a threatening manner. There is a satisfyingly healthy crowd of onlookers, and the traffic is slowing significantly as they pause to watch the local man shout at the stupid Western girl. He is exceptionally pissed off with my follow-that-bus maneuver.
In the end, I pay him 50 Yuan.
I stroll into Sim’s, feeling like I’m having my first bite of cheese after months without dairy. I’m home. But, do they have a bed for the no-reservation, no-plans, no-clue Aussie? Of course they do. This story has a happy ending that includes a welcome shower and dinner. I have never appreciated a bowl of yoghurt so graciously and I got to tell my fabulous story to the lads at the counter.
Often I justify errors such as this one by saying “oh well, at least it’s a good story.”
I’m questioning that, ever so slightly, tonight. Is the tale worth the hassle? The danger?
At the moment, I reckon, probably not. But, still, the experience is valuable.
I’ve learnt a brilliant lesson in the art of disorganisation, although, I reckon, the Swedes gave me a fair few of those, too.