The plan for today was to hike over
the Gaoligongshan mountain range to Tengchong. The 26 mile route follows the mountain trail known as the Southern Silk Road,
and ranges from 1500 metres to 3,600 above sea level (masl) and down again to 1,800 masl. Unfortunately (?) the weather yesterday up top was poor. Looking up from about 2,400 masl I had
seen that thick cloud was enveloping the mountain tops and fresh snow had fallen. Not ideal conditions for a walk which, even
on a good day, would be a test for my endurance. Walking the same distance as a marathon is one-thing,
but doing so while climbing up two vertical kilometres, to about the same altitude of Lhasa, across the backbone of one of
the wildest mountain ranges in China – while carrying a backpack – is quite another.
And so, at the last minute, I changed the plan and hastily arranged for a truck to take me to Tengchong and for Mr Zhou to
pick me up there in his “large, black VW”, on the Gaoligongshan side of town.
From there he would drive four hours to Nabang, in far western Yunnan. Arranging
anything in this part of the world can be a lottery at the best of times, but I had struck lucky. The Gaoligongshan driver had nothing planned for the day; and the Tengchong
driver, Mr Zhou, was only too pleased to get a long, money-making fare.
I first met
Mr Zhou last year, in March, when I had taken his battered taxi from Tengchong airport, also to Nabang. Several days later, for the return leg, he’d swapped his well-used
local-brand taxi for a large, shiny, black, and very comfortable VW sedan. The car attracted more than a few admiring glances in the border town, where rickshaw-taxis are the
only taxis in town.
“New Car?” I asked. He told me that he and his wife ran the taxi business and that she usually
had the VW, but because I was now an “important customer,” she had suggested they swap for the day. Mrs Zhou, it seemed, called the shots when it came to
their business affairs. Mr Zhou’s mobile phone was even answered by his wife, who arranged his day’s fares for
And so I wasn’t in the least bit surprised when, yesterday, I had dialled the entry
on my Nokia: “Mr Zhou VW, Tengchong,” and she had answered “his” mobile phone. The promise of a pleasant drive in the air-conditioned, spacious VW, was
the factor than had compelled me to call the number. I had spoken slowly and clearly to make sure that there would be no misunderstanding: “So, the large, black VW
I rode in last year would definitely be there a 9am,” I confirmed with Mrs Zhou.
I was taking no chances because, in this part of China, where bone-shaking journeys
and breakdowns are the norm, the VW brand-name stands out like a beacon. With group sales in China totalling 1.4 million units in 2009 – a year-on-year increase of
37 per cent – I am not alone in pinning my transport-hopes on the tried and trusted VW badge.
The bone-rattling pick-up truck, which I had hired for the first leg of my journey, left at 5am for the four hour drive (the
driving distance to Tengchong is 6 times further than the walking distance). We travelled in darkness for most of the trip.
Progress had been a little slower than I
had anticipated, so at about 8am I called Mrs Zhou to say that I may be 5 or 10 minutes late at the rendezvous point. “No
problem,” she reassured me.
At 9.05am – five minutes’ late – I arrived
at the swap-over point on the outskirts of Tengchong. I said goodbye to my Gaoligongshan driver and hello to a smiling Mr
Zhou. I looked around for the promised VW-badged
car. I then noticed that Mr Zhou had his
moped with him. “Where’s the
car?” I asked.
“Mashang lai!” he said with a serious look.
Nothing annoys me more than being told that something is coming on
a horse. That’s the literal meaning of mashang. It’s meant to be reassuring and to conjour up
an image of someone galloping towards you at breakneck speed, who would arrive in moments.
I enquired about the horse’s progress. It transpired that Mr Zhou’s wife
had the car (to squeeze in an extra customer before picking me up).
After 20 minutes, my
patience was wearing a bit thin. I called Mrs Zhou, who told me that she was still galloping towards me and that she would
be with me in, guess what, no more than another 20 minutes. I’m afraid this was the last straw. I had got up at 4.30am to be here for 9am.
I told Mrs Zhou what I thought about her and her husband’s shoddy service, and told
her to take her time as I would not be waiting for their horse, even though it was a thoroughbred.
Although this made me feel better, this probably wasn’t a sensible thing to do, as I had to make my own arrangements
for what was a less than straightforward journey. But I didn’t care, the principle was worth suffering for. I marched across to the other side of road and waited for a taxi. After five minutes, I hadn’t
seen a single one. Then I saw an empty taxi driven by a 60 something year old woman. Elder Sister Wang looked surprised to
see me, but stopped nevertheless. “Where are you going?” she asked. I told her.
“That’s crazy,” she laughed, “No ones goes that far west!” In fact, it’s impossible to
go any further west as my destination abuts the border with Burma, one of the most dysfunctional countries on the planet.
After two minutes of discussion, I had persuaded her to take me half way; and after realising
she was a remarkably good driver – in fact one of the best I’ve seen in China – I renegotiated for her to
take me all the way (and to pick me up in five days' time). Happy with the deal, Elder Sister Wang dropped down to third
gear, breezed past a convoy of bread vans that were struggling to negotiate the pot holes on the dirt track, and raced towards
the border in her battered local-brand taxi, which had suddenly risen several places in my hierarchy of brands.