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Transit and Respite

Many days of a trip are often lost to the act of traveling itself and the day we left Shangri La was one of those.  We were scheduled to leave the Lijiang airport that evening at twenty minutes after midnight.  We took a bus out of Shangri La, squeezing in next to a man with exceptionally long legs squashed up against the seat in front of him.  We motioned to him to see if he would let us switch with him and sit by the window and he nodded in agreement (a mutually beneficial switch, but still left Megan and I rubbing our hands together like minor Dickensian villains).  He turned out to be the lone man in a pack full of women who had brought a full picnic onto the bus including a container of pepper-pickled chicken feet.  When one of the other women’s noses crinkled in disgust at the snack choice, they dangled it dripping in front of her with their chopsticks and laughed.  Megan and I read our books until the twisting roads became too much for maintaining equilibrium.

When we got to Lijiang we hit a curb.  We knew the airport was far out of town, had seen it on the bus from Dali, had waited for several minutes afterward in a tremendous downpour as the bus arrived at the station in the city.  Lonely Planet told us that there was a shuttle to the airport, we just didn’t know where.

When we arrived at the bus station, the two of us walked to a counter.  I stood, trying not to gesticulate, and said…”fei ji che” which actually just means airplane and the measure word for vehicle (but not airplane).  She looked at me in puzzlement, as we’d become frustratingly accustomed to.  I regathered my wits and am confident that I asked if we could buy airport shuttle tickets.  She only shrugged and shook her head.  We sighed…time to do what we’d been planning anyway.  Go into the city and wait there until it was time to go out to catch our midnight flight.

Around now, the afternoon was still awash with steamy heat of direct sunlight on concrete that had been soaking up exorbitant amounts of rain.  We had been here before, however, and knew how to get into town–in Dali they had told us Bus 8 would take us to the old city and all we’d have to do was walk to our hostel on the other side.  The rain had been slick on the old city cobble stones, and I’d weaved my way with high-knees and tractionless flip-flops through the crowds of Chinese tourists elbowing one another to take pictures off of the arched bridges.  This time I wasn’t slipping, but the driver of Bus 11 did the infuriating thing that we were beginning to see more and more: the arm waving, head-shaking NO and assumption that he knew our plan.  He pointed us across the street to a double decker bus that was waiting to take off.

I vibrated in anger as the two of us climbed to the empty second deck.  Tourist videos and Pepsi commercials smiled from the telescreens in the front of the bus.

This bus took a route to the old city that was only 5 minutes in length, as opposed to the 20 minute ride of a few days before, complete with smoking old men and school children that surrounded me until their heads were practically in my armpits.  One of the most frustrating things about my aversion to Chinese strangers telling me what to do lines up perfectly with my aversion to my mother telling me what to do: usually they’re totally right.

Once there, though, we encountered far less helpful people: a building that stood at the entrance of the Lijiang old city, with familiar girls rushing forward to offer the addresses of guesthouses and people posing next to a Disneyland-scaped mountain covered in pansies and water-wheels, was constructed almost like an American parody of ancient China.  It advertised help for tourists, but when we got there, the attendant had no idea where to send us for bus tickets.  He pointed to the right, vaguely, saying, “I think it’s that way.”


At this point, our backpacks were weighing heavily.  There’s a temptation, when one is traveling, to consider transit days as days of rest and only consider sight-seeing as an activity that counts as “something.”  This effect is a complete mental-trick, untrue to the degree of being the complete opposite of accurate.  We were hot, lugging big backpacks on our backs and our hiking day-packs on front.  We walked past the old city, past KFC and its imitators, cheap clothing shops, and walked into a hotel with a character I recognized.  We’d been told that the bus stop was near the “Blue Sky” hotel and to the left, a block down through tree-lined streets.

Nothing seemed familiar though.  The attendant at the “Blue Sky Hotel” gave us nothing but a strident “I don’t know.”

Then we found the airport booking office.  Saved.

Now, at the risk of sounding ageist, I would like to say that with some exceptions, twenty-something women were by far the friendliest and most helpful people on this trip.  They treated Megan and I like equals, but also like people to be impressed–like the cool girls in junior high that you hope notice your awesome haircut or new shoes.  For this reason, I am not completely disgusted that shows like Gossip Girl exist and are played all over the world.

Two such young ladies helped us, writing the address of the bus stop on a piece of paper in characters and admonishing us not to pay more than 7 RMB for a taxi.  Then they waved us away, pleased with our mastery of “good bye” and “thank you” (“You say thank you’ very well,” an older man had laughed at us as we struggled to make ourselves understood), and attempting a few English phrases of our own.  We left happily, and spent the next few hours before the journey camping out in KFC and taking turns shopping for souvenirs.  We left Lijiang at about 10pm from a tiny back lot that we never…neeeever would’ve found alone.


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