China — Night Crossing
Salli (and George's side comments)

We walked from Macau immigration and crossed the dusty no-man's land to the China border. The wind was blowing sand around the chipped and broken tiles (and piles of plastic garbage) as we picked our way across the fenced area. Everything was the color of sand. Images of spy movies played in our heads as we faced the mystery of China (and walked this 100 meters of lifeless border).

There were two women checking passports. We chose the line where one uniformed woman was massaging the other's neck. We figured she'd be more cheerful, and we were still imagining Chinese immigration prison from some unfortunate un-dotted "i". But when our turn came we discovered that we didn't have the proper paperwork filled out. Rather than calling the guards to take us away, she simply pointed to the forms in piles against the wall. We scrambled to fill them out and get back in line. By the time we made her window again, she was no longer even somewhat cheerful (we whispered to each other the massage must have worn off like a Chinese dinner), but she let us through after tediously stamping our passports. We were the only westerners anywhere in sight.

We changed a few Hong Kong dollars at the exit (getting in return a pile of greasy, stained People's Republic notes), and inquired about the bus to Guangzhou. (We asked everyone we saw). Blank, disgusted looks and a vague arm wave was the only response. I pulled out the guide book (let us open our hymnals to page....), but everything seemed to have moved, nothing matched the crude maps we had. We followed our intuition (motivated in large part by our fears and the rapidly enclosing crowds) and the first bus we saw.

The street we stepped into was filled with vendors mostly selling food from carts or just "squats" on the sidewalk. (Let's not forget the beggars, the local "mafiosa," and the desperate). We seemed to cause quite a commotion and occasionally we'd hear a youngster crowing "hello" right before the pleading hustle. It seemed to be the only English word they knew. They were hawking corn on the cob, and the accompanying oranges, tangerines, and large green and yellow melons all brightened the city-scape. God knows it could use it--it seemed to be all cement, gratings, dirt and sand.

We stopped at the first mini-bus lot, where the dozen gruff mini-bus drivers present tried to get us on board their buses. After we massacred the name of "Guangzhou" a few times, they waved us up the street to a second, dustier lot. (Not just dustier, but looking like a cross between a lunar landscape graced with Chernoble architecture) This ticket seller's booth had signs on it--and a big hand-lettered one that we guessed said something like "Out to Lunch" or "Back in Five Minutes" or "Closed for the Night" (Or, "Gone to Tineman Square to straighten a few things out"). We didn't know. Again the bus drivers vied for our fares. One driver assured us that he was going to Guangzhou (although the way he pronounced it gave us all a different impression, was that "gang zoo?" "cherchoo?" or "Dizzy Doo?") We climbed on board (oh yes, have I mentioned how much stuff we were carrying? more than the combined luggage of half the city's population) and asked every already seated passenger "Gaungzhou?" "Gaungzhou?" A few nodded yes, (most looked blank or stared strangely at the girls' blond hair) and we sat back figuring this was the best that we could do. Fortunately the travel agent had told us about how much the fare should be – the driver tried to inflate the fare, and then tried to short change us! Great start!

They filled that little mini bus--including little pull own seats in the aisle, the top, under the sets and any air space that might be available (and just when you thought it was filled, with only enough room left for our fears, they let on another few)--and then we took off in the gathering gloom. We stared hard out of our windows at endless humanity, endless concrete, a constant stream of seven-story gray grimy apartments. Low open front stores lined the road, always dingy, sometimes tiled and usually with expando metal grating as its only door.

In the distance we could sometimes see those beautiful mountains made famous in Chinese paintings--green topped and straight granite sides, mists in the valleys beside them. In the fading light, they seemed like a mirage. Maybe they were.

The difference in traffic was immediate and obvious. There were tons of pedestrians, bicyicles, motorbikes, and motorcycles. Cars are often Japanese, Russian and a few American (like Ford). Unlike the rest of Asia, the steering wheel is on the left. Oil company signs like Esso, British Petroleum and Texaco are everywhere. And if Italians speak with their hands, the Chinese speak with their horns. Drivers (especially ours) are untrained Kamazi pilots--going fast, heading straight into oncoming traffic, ignoring traffic lanes (if there were any), honking constantly, and stopping every little while to pound something back on the car or bus.

As night fell, it grew really dark. There were no lights in most of the buildings, and no street lights. Then, every few miles, a mind-numbing oasis of blinding lights and neon, would appear. The places looked cold and empty. They were barren except for a few tables and chairs and even fewer people. I could imagine the echo as one walked through the door. In between these barren recreation oasises, but about as often, the walls and search lights of a prison would appear.

On and on through this we went as we wondered if we were, in fact, on the right bus. There was no one else to ask. No one seemed to speak English (or at least no one volunteered that they did). In the lull of the bus ride, my mind wandered and I began to imagine one of those news stories about a bus crash that killed way too many people. I couldn't figure out why. Just then George told me not to look out the front window--the flash of oncoming headlights made me look anyway. We moved Cassidy to the middle, with the hope that it would afford some protection from the inevitable crash.

After about an hour and a half we reached a rest stop. There seemed to be food and drink available, but none of it identifiable. Cassidy and I had to go to the bathroom, so we followed the women who seemed to be going somewhere "with a purpose." Our path led us behind the building to another small low building. We stepped though the door and let out an almost (we hoped) inaudible gasp.

There were women (some in high heels and panty hose) squatting over an open concrete trench. Water seemed to be flowing from somewhere to keep the contents of the trench moving. Sort of. Cassidy didn't balk, but simply asked for help maneuvering. Sam had stayed behind on the dark bus to watch our stuff while the rest of us got off. Real troopers!

We returned to the bus and continued on in the dark. More of the same neon and prisons. It was too dark to read the guide book, and our flashlight was unreachable. I tried to peer at the book using the passing neon light and looking for landmarks like big hotels. As near as we could tell, one city flowed into another for hours on the road. People were starting to get off at points and our panic level was rising. Where were we? Had we gotten on the right bus?

Finally a woman on the bus who spoke some English (hold out!) kindly told us we should get off at the next stop. (I suppose she had grown weried of our hyperventiling and pathetic whimpers). We were apparently in Guangzhou, and our hotel was not too far, but who knew where? We hauled ourselves off the bus and on to the dark street, with almost the only light coming from the heavy speeding traffic that encircled us (like Custer's greeting party).

We walked back to a freeway overpass (or more like a stage setting from "Escape From New York) and a street that seemed to go the direction we thought we should head. It was darker yet. The guide book had warned us that this was a big city (population 59 million--or in other words, roughly 115 times the entire population of our home state) and the poor coming into the city preyed on tourists, even in hotel lobbies. And this wasn't a safe place to be in ANY city. We finally flagged a cab, but we weren't sure he understood where we wanted to go. But preferring the cab to the dark street, we climbed in.

We were relieved to pull up in front of a huge western-style hotel that seemed to match the brochure photo we'd gotten from the Chinese government tourist office. After checking in through the cavernous, echoing lobby we found our way to the clean rooms. It had all the trappings of the five-star hotel it was supposed to be (except at least two of those stars were hanging loose and askew on their rusty nails), but there was something just a little off-kilter about everything. The girls called it the "Twilight Zone Hotel."

Our adrenaline depleted, we opted for overpriced Italian food in the hotel rather than another adventure on the dark streets of Guangzhou. We finished the day by channel surfing in our room to discover "X Files" dubbed in Mandarin with Cantonese sub-titles, "60 Minutes" in English and Chinese, and Indian MTV. China is indeed a different place!

(I have to be fair in congratulating the Chinese Government for making a real attempt at better developing their tourist trade. The people we dealt with in Hong Kong with the CTS, Chinese Tourist Service, were wonderful, honest and helpful. And this was a meaningful effort to provide a sound, attractive and comfortable hotel to encourage more tourists to visit. All of the staff were helpful, our room was quite nice, the food tasty. It's just that something was a little off about everything.)

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