If you ever receive a diagnosis of Bradycardia, known to laymen as “low heart rate,” I have just the cure. Read closely. Here is what you need to do: 1). Buy the cheapest plane ticket from the nearest airport to any airport in any province in any county in China. 2). Pack your bags. 3). Get on the airplane. 4). Get off the airplane. 5). Take a taxi. Destination: anywhere. Steps 1-4 won’t do anything for your Bradycardia, they’re just trivial obstacles on your way to treatment. Once you get started on step 5, you’ll never see a doctor again. The whole ordeal should run the average person around $1,000 USD, surely cheaper than a couple visits to your physician. No shots, no pills, none of the old grope & cough.
Driving in China is a sobering affair for the average person, a maniacal thrill for the average masochist. I’ve never personally been behind the wheel of a Chinese car. I do not have a Chinese driver’s license (but based on extensive firsthand experience, I can conjecture that the test must be pretty damn easy).
A few things to note: In Northwest Yunnan cars are certainly a common sight. In fact, upmarket brands like BMW and Audi are ubiquitous. That being said, the majority does not have the financial means necessary to own a car. Very few of my students have a car at home.
Unlike in the US, people in rural China who don’t own cars do not spend each waking second of their day hitting up their car-owning friends for rides to Subway or RadioShack. Because the carless masses of Yunnan all have places to go and people to see, it is incredibly easy to find transportation at almost any time. The major thoroughfare next to my school connects Dali City and the relatively large city of Lijiang. It’s called the Da(li)Li(jiang) Road. Anyone with a destination somewhere between the two cities can hitch a ride on a bus, van, or taxi headed that way. Simply stand by the side of the road and wave. I’ve never waited more than ten minutes. You tell the driver where you want to go. He makes up an unreasonable price. You repeat your destination. He makes up a reasonable price. You go. Often, passenger cars will pick you up. I have yet to be abducted. For some reason China and Chinese people give me a much less kidnapp-y feeling than American drivers.
Prices are absurdly low. The 45-minute van ride from my village to the nearest city of consequence floats between 6 and 7 Yuan. That’s about one US dollar. I have no idea how drivers can afford the gas, which costs essentially what it does in the states, if not slightly more. However, there is never a shortage of people willing to be stuffed 12 to a minivan (4 in each row, 2 in the front, 2 in the trunk).
So, now I’m shoved in a minivan with 11 Chinese people. The expression “elephant in the room” is interchangeable with the lesser-known “white guy in the van.” The average ride in the hills of Yunnan does not come complete with a pasty foreigner. Usually, there will be an extended silence of curiosity while they size me and my intentions up. Sometimes, someone, usually a middle aged dude, will initiate conversation with me. The incredibly boring conversation that ensues (China… America… peace… friend!!) has the other passengers on the edge of their seats (even though they already were on the edge of there seats).
So I’m in the car. Cigarette smoke fills the air. This middle-aged dude is chirping in my ear. The people in the back and the trunk are elbowing their way to a better view of my China-very good-USA-very good conversation. However, the real show is taking place in the driver’s seat:
A Chinese van driver is a caricature. Let’s break him down: First, it’s always a man. I’ve often asked questions to my local female teachers like: “Why aren’t you driving?” “Why aren’t you drinking?” “Why aren’t you smoking?” The answer, spoken with concision, is always, “Women don’t drive.” “Women don’t drink.” “Women don’t smoke,” respectively. One time I saw my neighbor knitting. I asked her if she could teach me how to knit a sweater. Her answer was “No.” I suppose you can guess why. Second, he’s absolutely never wearing a seatbelt. I’m not even sure the cars are outfitted with them. In fact, if you try for a little safety yourself, you may very well get a strange look from the driver; something along the lines of “You don’t trust me?” I still haven’t perfected my “Hell no,” look.
Next, with 90% certainty, he’s smoking a cigarette. That’s one hand that needs to come of the wheel every few seconds for a smoke break. Fourth, 50% of the time, he’s on the cell phone. He’s not having a “Yeah, I’ll be there in five,” kind of conversation. He’s screaming and laughing and carrying on into the phone. I don’t understand the local dialect, but every conversation seems like vehement philosophical debate:
“No, you’re wrong! There is no God!”
“Erroneous! But, my friend, how can you say such a thing. You know not the truth!”
“Hold on, let me not hit this goat.”
At least that’s what I hear. Oh, and the radio is on blast. In the back, people are yelling about getting let off. Other people are yelling about stopping to pick people up. It’s bedlam in a box.
But, the inside activity pales in comparison to how the driver is maneuvering the van. China is a country in flux. It’s transitioning from a society of subsistence farmers to a free-market with first world infrastructure. This means: perpetual construction and perpetual animals. The driver has to avoid “road work ahead” and audacious chickens and goats at the same time. Naturally, the “road work ahead” does not include any sort of signage or warning that there are people literally in the middle of the road carrying large things that could break cars in two. Secondly, and most unsettling, we’re on a mountain. The guardrail, if there is one is probably a foot tall. One false move and it’s a loooong way down. The scenery is nice, though.
If you haven’t been cured of your Bradycardia by this point, don’t worry; you’re about to be.
Maybe it’s because there are no traffic police, maybe it’s that there are no special lanes, or maybe it’s just that Chinese drivers are absolutely out of their fucking minds, but passing cars at 60 mph may as well be the national sport of China. Chinese drivers spend so much time in the left lane that the uninformed might think they were in London. During a 15-minute ride, you can expect to pass 10 cars, trucks, tractors, and motorbikes. Drivers pass directly into advancing traffic, often missing oncoming cars by what seems like inches without even the slightest agitation. “There is a gigantic truck loaded with giant steel bars that could crush everyone in this car into next week approaching in the left lane? No better time than the present to pass this car in front of me.” Drivers pass around blind turns. They pass around blind turns up hills. Usually, they signal their intention with a beep of the horn. Usually they don’t beep the horn until they’re halfway around the bend. It’s like being on a rollercoaster that has a history of accidents, except the operator is smoking a cigarette and talking on his phone.
Despite the cathartic experience mentioned above, I’ve never been in an accident in China. I’ve never even seen a car accident. I still don’t know how that is even possible. I think a country’s roads say a great deal about it. Spend a few hours driving around on an average road in any country, and you will probably get a good feel for the way things run. How many cows are in the street, how much construction is going on, are there police, are there signs of any importance, how psychotic are the drivers? Hopping in a car in this part of China, you can quickly feel the reality of a third-world country rocketing full speed into the definitive world powerhouse. In many respects, it is utter chaos. The ultimate goal is quite clear, however, a lot of old has to be replaced with a lot of new. Only two things are certain about the end result, it must be done and it must be done as fast as possible. The van driver is going to get to the destination and he’s going to get there so fast that sometimes it appears that the means are putting the ends in danger. It’s chaos but it’s organized, just like China. It’s better to just relax and have that conversation.
The driver goes for the pass, the car in front slows down, the people in the back hold their breath, the bus inches slightly to the right, the van slips through. On to the next one.