Friday, October 03, 2008

Slip slidin' away... (almost)

The route from Xiangcheng in souther Sichuan to Zhongdian (now called Shangri La, in a tourism ploy) in northern Yunnan is amazingly scenic. You go over two very high mountain passes and are surrounded by beautiful rocky peaks.

Such as this one:

From China

But this was to be the first day in China that I've actually felt in danger.

The first pass took us back and forth, slowly up the side of an enormous mountain to a prayer-inducing altitude. On one side is the mountain. On the other is nothing but a vast expanse; a river is somewhere several thousand feet below. When there is a barrier, which seem to be quite arbitrarily placed, it surely won't stop a heavy bus.

But still, we made it up and down just fine and had our lunch break at the bottom. Getting going again, we come up to a muddy stretch of road--probably worse than the one I encountered last week. I would have sworn we'd end up stuck. The driver doesn't bat an eye. It's full speed ahead, and he blasts right through it. It was far from the only mud slick of the day.

An hour later, we're halfway up the side of a mountain. We've been criss-crossing up the side of the beast without issue when up ahead, I notice another horrible mud slick. I don't mean like wet, runny mud. I mean thick, gooey mud. The kind you lose a shoe in.

Half the bus is asleep (I have no idea how). The Chinese guy next to me looks worried. He stands up to get a better look. I do too. I don't know how we're going to do it. It's mud from the cliff wall to the edge--the edge of a 2,000-plus-foot drop. Can those trees hold us? I think. Once again, the driver is gung-ho into the mud track. We slide, we get stuck briefly, and we slide some more. If we weren't in an all-wheel-drive bus, we would have fishtailed right off the side of the mountain.

The Chinese dude and I are holding onto the seats in front of us for dear life, as though that will save us in the event of a fall. But we pull through. I breathe again and look over. Chinese dude makes the hand motion of his heart pounding. I feel the same. And that was only the first of many muddy paths in the road.

Going through one, a guy in the front starts chatting with the driver.

"How 'bout them White Sox?" he asks, handing the driver a cigarette.

"Yea, hell of a deal" he replies, as he lights up, oblivious to the fact that we are mere feet from certain doom.

Or they could have been talking about the Cubs; my Chinese isn't that good.

Bottom line, this was--bar none--the best driver I have ever seen. He knew exactly where to place the wheels, exactly what gear to use. Someone with less experience would have put us all in peril. So I hope he gets a nice $5/month raise this year.

By the way, if you're afraid of flying...take a bus trip in China.

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