I consider myself a veteran when it comes to backpacking in China. I’ve spent the last four years doing it and it’s taken me all over the country. I think I’ve pretty much seen it all, smelled it all and experienced it all. Needless to say, nothing surprises me now.
Having said all that, I don’t think it lessens the mental anguish when I do travel in China. Case in point: I was asked to translate and assist for a famous photographer who is producing a book that documents villages around the world. My mission was simple: to be his interpreter, keep him out of trouble and to literally help him figure out what the hell goes on in the village.
When planning this trip, our contact in the village met with me to discuss the logistics of the trip. The method of travel, date and time of meeting and train schedules were all discussed. I pushed for solid dates and times, meeting destinations and potential photography subjects in the village. After a lot of hemming and hawing by our contact, we hammered out a date, time of meeting and he told us that the rice harvest would be underway when we arrived. Feeling it was a bit early in August to be harvesting, I inquired with other Chinese I know from the area whether or not it really was harvest season and they confirmed that to be so.
Travel to the village went pretty smoothly and I was mildly surprised by that. On a previous trip to the town, it had taken the photographer over 24 hrs to get to the village when it really should have taken no more than 14 hours. There was a phantom wedding (great cultural photography opportunity) that never materialised and other promises unfulfilled. Blame that on the cultural/language barrier problem.
Perhaps I was a bit too confident in my abilities for my own good. Having sufficient speaking, listening and reading skills, traveling in China is a lot less demanding these days as compared to when I got to China over four and half years ago.
After our photography session in the village, it was time to head home to Hong Kong. The most direct route, which (supposedly) took the same time as the train, was the bus. Interestingly, there was a direct bus from our town down to Shenzhen, the border city neighbouring Hong Kong. Even though the bus sign said 深圳内 which literally means ‘within Shenzhen’ I was sceptical. I asked the bus driver if they would make a stop at Luóhú, the border crossing between mainland China and Hong Kong. “No problem,” I was told.
Fast forward 17 hrs later, at 5:30 am, we were awakened by the driver who pointed us to the bus across the street, “Take that bus it will take you to Luohu. This bus stops here.” We were in Bao An, a satellite town close to the airport about an hour away from Shenzhen city centre.
Half asleep, I cursed, woke up the photographer and grabbed our bags and boarded the other bus. As we boarded, I made sure there were no extra fees we had to pay for this bus change and that they took us to Shenzhen. I was assured that this was so. After about 20 minutes, we pulled into Shenzhen west station. I was told that this was the end of the line, the bus we were on did not have a license to drive within Shenzhen proper.
The photographer starts to get really annoyed. I keep my cool and start to question the driver of the new bus, “we were told we would be dropped off at Luohu border crossing.” My complaints fell on deaf ears. The driver(s) had been driving for 18 hours, there was no way they were driving any more. We were told to take a cab to Luohu which was a good 45 minutes away.
Defeated, we collected our belongings and waited a good 15 minutes for a cab. Taxis at 6 am in the morning in satellite towns are rare. We climbed in the cab and gave our instructions to the driver but were told that he was only licensed to drive outside of Shenzhen and could only take us to the Shenzhen city limits. Throwing our hands in the air in disgust, we got out at the city limits and had to board a red cab that would drive us another 30 minutes to the border.
What should have been a smooth 18 hr bus journey ended up being a meandering 22 hour trek home. And I thought I was prepared and I certainly understood what people were saying. Where did I go wrong? How are the foreigners visiting China during next year’s Olympics going to deal with traveling in China if an experienced backpacker can’t get it right? Are they all doomed to join tour groups?