The Songpan Fiasco

On the whole I like to think that we’ve done pretty well in regard to getting ourselves around China. Inner- city travel has been easy on the modern metro lines and cheap public buses whilst longer distance journeys across the colossal country have gone mostly without a hitch. Other than the Xi’an disaster we’ve overcome the language barrier and any last minute doubts to make it to our desired destination. With China’s advanced bullet trains and mega-highways we always thought that any dire delay would be due to my disastrous directions but on our rural ramble to the mountains of Songpan our dawdlingly dreary day was down to a bus businesses bumbling bungle.

Committing to a seven and a half hour drive didn’t seem too bad having seen a few luxury looking coaches around and the destination surely justified the ordeal with the promise of picturesque ponds colourfully filling the mountainside. The reality of a beaten up minibus was a disappointment but no deal breaker. It still had seats and the smaller stature may get the trip over with sooner, that’s seemingly what the driver thought as he hurled it around bends and mindlessly overtook anyone crawling along at the speed limit.

Chinese driving is a maverick affair with little rules or road sense involved, order is installed by angry horns instead. Traffic lights are ignored and right of way asserted by a horn, indicators are replaced by the blurt of a horn, there’s no point using side mirrors when you can honk a horn and just to let pedestrians know you are on the road, an alerting horn blast is the custom. If a horn had not been sounded for a minute, a maintenance check was apparently required or if the driver just needed to keep himself entertained, why not give the horn a toot. When approaching a blind corner, a small honk is required, when terrifyingly overtaking around a blind bend, holding down the horn is the key to completing the turn alive.

Slowly, we adjusted to the raucous radio replacement and the death defying driving to settle into the sweaty seats, only for Georgie to declare her urge for a toilet stop. We were only half an hour and four near death experiences into our cross county commute but already a bathroom break was necessary. We had no idea how long it would be before a rest and not a clue how much longer I could take the whines of a well hydrated woman but luckily for us it wasn’t long before we pulled off the motorway and into a service station. The interlude was the first of many, as was the requirement of one, but without such lengthy layovers it felt as if the day devouring drive could’ve been a briefer undertaking.

It was only half an hour before the next hour long rest, just about long enough for an eardrum to recover, and this one was celebrated with a change of bus. All the information we had before setting off was the duration and destination of our journey. No clues about breaks, no idea about changes and absolutely no hint of possible delays. Without the invaluable assistance of a slightly more competent Korean companion we might never have made it. Acting as a translator/ guide he ushered us towards the right changes and explained the confusing situations. He couldn’t, however, explain the next break.

The new bus had only a brief thirty minutes to acclimatise us with its new born before coming to an unexpected standstill on the road before a tunnel. A police blockade prevented any further progress as a lengthening line built up behind us. The day before we arrived in Sichuan an earthquake had shook the province, apparently waking up hostel dwellers as well spilling drinks. With a magnitude of seven, it also had the potential to disrupt infrastructure and the steep roadsides of the mountain drives up to Songpan were as open to landslides as any. Knowing (hoping) that this second bus had come from the jammed direction we believed that the road remained open but two hours later a car had neither emerged from the tunnel or entered it. With Georgie requiring a rest break and with our Korean comrade out of ideas and explanations, it felt like a hopeless situation. On the bright side, there are worse places to be stranded. The surrounding mountains were a brief distraction as was the powerful river running below. Not being stranded due to a breakdown or in a mechanics yard was also a nice change for me.

Inevitably, after the feature film length stop, we were only on the move for the standard thirty minutes. Frustrated, we were forced from the bus once more and this time alarmingly shoved into backs of random cars. Not sure if we were being kidnapped or promoted to luxury we nervously squeezed in with a laid back local who had a similarly causal approach to personal hygiene. Unable to establish whether it was an abduction or a chauffeuring we worryingly waited for more information. A tragic translation of “are we going to Songpan?” was greeted with a terrifyingly confused look and scary silence before an uncertain nod of agreement was tediously taken from our smelly acquaintance. Not entirely sold on the ambiguous affirmation we remained skeptical of our fate as we veered off on the dirt tracks away from the main highway.

Delighted to escape our could be capturers and to be reunited with our Korean guardian, this time we were happy for another break and, despite being ten hours in to our journey, prayed for another bus. As we waited for the final part to our saga our intense game of cards entertained not only us but the entire bus load of commuters who were happily trying to understand the game or just enjoying watching Georgie win, conveyed by cheerful celebrations and lack of humility. The crowd made it feel as if we were engaged in some high stakes underground gambling and it was tempting to take bets on the game but just as the entrepreneurial spirit arrived, so did the bus.

The final stretch bared the marks of the recent earthquake with landslides and flooding frequenting the scenery as well as explaining the delays and cause for kidnap confusion. Leaving at dawn, we arrived at the new hostel in dusk and accompanied with a cheerful honk of a horn, celebrated the end of a long days commute.

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