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Published: December 7th 2010
When last I left you I was waiting to board a bus from Shanghai, about to leave the bright lights and gargantuan buildings behind and set off on a 'five hour' journey to Taizhou (pronounced tie-joe). Let us return now a moment to dwell once more under the flickering fluorescent lights of that cold concrete bus shelter, amid the teeming throngs of travellers impatient to be on their way. It is said by many a commentator that the UK is increasingly becoming a 'nanny state'; our citizens wrapped in proverbial cotton wool to protect them from the abounding dangers such as kamikaze conkers and unlabelled cups of hot coffee. The truth of this notion would be impressed upon even the most zealous health and safety freak, were they to spend an hour or more in China. Here, health and safety concerns are not merely seen as unimportant, but are conspicuous in their complete and utter absence!
In the bus station, for instance, there was a small store selling drinks, sweets, newspapers and other such items to enhance the comfort and enjoyment of your onward journey. Though fully open and operational in selling these travellers delights, this store, (as
it turns out is quite common), was still under construction. There was a coil of unprotected live wires hanging down from above the door frame, a man welding some sort of metal structure along the lower edge of the window frame with a fierce spout of open flame and another man actually in the process of hammering together the sales counter! Lying about the store were various bits of plastic and half built wooden shelves with nails several inches in length protruding from them. Personally, I find it refreshing that people here are seen as imbued with enough common sense to navigate such 'grave dangers'. Similarly refreshing is people's attitude to minor accidents and incidents that may from time to time occur, (and sometimes not so minor – only two days ago I saw a man on a bike knocked down by a truck dust himself off and ride away); an attitude which is to simply pick themselves up and carry on! Suing, here, is a totally alien concept. This is one aspect of the philosophy and culture of the Chinese people that has lead me to already develop a great respect for them and their way of life.
For now, though, we must get back to my journey or we may never arrive in Taizhou, where I am to live and work for the next twelve months! In the airport and around the centre of Shanghai there had been other Westerners and all the sign posts were duplicated in Chinese and English, so getting around (or following where Peter was taking me) was relatively easy. Apparently, though, the other Westerners all knew better than to attempt to travel by long distance bus to the next province. As I entered the bus station and looked about me, my gaze was met only by Chinese faces and Chinese signs. Suddenly I was thrown into an entirely alien world where I was completely unable to communicate beyond 'hello' and 'thank you'. This was my first experience of such a situation and it was both embarrassing and unnerving. Without Peter as my guide I would not have even been able to work out which bus I was to travel on, for I could not recognise which symbols on my ticket represented my destination, nor did I know the name of the place I was destined for. Of course I knew the city
was called Taizhou, but there are two cities of this name to which you can travel by bus from Shanghai and the one to which I was travelling is split into three distinct regions. (The region where I was to disembark I now know is called Luqiao , but at the time I had no idea that this was the case).
Thankfully, I did have Peter as a guide and he was able to show me the relevant symbols I was looking for on the ticket and the terminal from which I was to board the coach. As we approached it though, there was no sign of a coach waiting to be boarded and a fierce looking argument in process between a Chinese traveller and a staff member. Such arguments, I now realise, are merely spats and common in everyday life here; no stiff upper lip in the East! At the time, however, I was rather alarmed when Peter pushed me right into the middle of it and started pointing at me and demanding something of the staff member, in what seemed a very rude and intrusive manner. In fact, this is normal in China, the people are
very direct and don't exactly do queueing or waiting to be addressed! It was the man that the staff member had been arguing with who jumped in and replied to Peter though, after which the debate resumed with all three of them inputting their opinion, while I stood by feeling rather bewildered. Eventually, the spat broke apart and Peter turned to me and explained that the bus was running about twenty minutes late. Further than this there was no explanation of the rest of the conversation, so I can only assume, based on what I've seen since, that they were merely expressing their disapproval of this fact. Though these disputes may look quite fierce, I have seen enough of them to know there is no real aggression behind them and they are never in any danger of breaking into a physical fight, as might be expected if one was to witness such a display in England. It seems that if people here are unhappy with the way something is done they will not shy away from making this perfectly clear. However, this is common practice and not considered at all rude, so the person on the receiving end does not
get defensive or offended. They merely shout back some justification and when both parties have been heard, peace is restored and all is good.
Peter at this point was concerned as he had borrowed his friend's travel card for me to use, but was due to meet his friend at University so that they could travel home together. This arrangement was clearly his priority and I was shocked to see that he was preparing to leave me. I was at the bus station and happy that I could get on the correct bus when it arrived, but I was also aware that there would be more than one stop and I had no idea how to ask the driver to tell me where I needed to get off. I could end up lost, miles from where I was supposed to be with no way of contacting my school or communicating my predicament to the locals. As I was attempting to explain this to Peter and perhaps get him to write a note for the driver, a curious Chinese lady came sauntering up to us. She addressed Peter with wonder in her eyes and gesticulated furiously in my direction. It
seems she was very surprised to see a Westerner travelling by bus and wanted to know all about where I was from and what I was doing in China. Her intervention was most welcome, for it turned out she was headed to Taizhou on the same bus as me and relished the idea of taking over as my chaperone! She couldn't believe that I was out here preparing to travel on my own with no grasp of the language and apparently thought I was very brave. At one point she was saying something that was addressed to both me and Peter, to which I said 'I really need to learn some Chinese!'. Peter looked taken aback for a moment and replied 'you understood?'... It seems that I had inadvertently repeated the very comment the helpful lady had just made!
The bus finally arrived at 18:50, my bags were loaded and the helpful lady, (I never learnt her name), showed me to seat 11, which was reserved for me. I sat down next to a toothless Chinese man in a particularly unattractive string vest and blue overalls (probably a street cleaner or labourer as this is their general attire) and
pulled out my Kindle, intending to lose myself in a book for the next five hours, until my anticipated arrival at 23:50 in Taizhou. As the bus pulled out of the station a blast of putrid smelling air hit me full in the nose and almost made me gag. A glance to my right told me that this unpleasant odour (understatement) was going to be with me the whole way. I was sat in possibly the worst seat on the entire bus, directly opposite a small stairwell leading to the foulest smelling toilet it has ever been my distinct displeasure to encounter, (and this includes the festival toilets at Download!). Thankfully, I was wearing a blue scarf I had recently bought in England and which I was able to pull up to cover my nose and mouth. This acted as a sort of filter to block out the vile stench produced by the toilet. Without it, I'm not sure I'd have survived the journey.
As we drove into the night, I was half aware of the bright city lights of Shanghai passing by the windows and when I glanced up from my book I saw many a vast building
rearing into the sky, a neon lit street, or a spaghetti junction of huge main roads. Though the bus was constantly moving, it was often at a crawl and I began to grow uncomfortable as these inner city scenes continue to adorn my window for a seemingly interminable time. Surely, I thought, we should have left Shanghai by now if we were to cover the 200km to Taizhou in the allotted time. I was greatly disheartened when two full hours after setting off, we pulled into our first stop...at Shanghai South Bus Station! We stopped here long enough for those that smoked to get off and smoke, and for anyone who needed to use the bathroom to do so. As the bus refilled, I was further dismayed to find that more people were boarding and the bus was from here onwards going to be filled to capacity. Until this moment, you see, I had harboured the notion that I may be able to move to an empty seat further down the bus and away from the stinking toilet. My hopes of escaping this fetid commode thoroughly dashed, it was to my extreme horror that, just before we left Shanghai South,
the driver boarded through the emergency exit beside the toilet with a large bucket of water, opened the door and sloshed the contents into the gross abomination that waited inside. I am unsure what he hoped to achieve through these actions, but the actual result was that throughout the remainder of the journey I could not only smell the contents of that rotten toilet, but hear them sloshing around and, far worse, see them leaking under the door as they overflowed from the toilet bowl. 😞
Finally, we pulled out of Shanghai South Station and not long after this we were finally on the highway speeding out into the night. As we left Shanghai behind, it was already 21:20, but I retained a hope that rush hour had been factored in to the bus timetable and we may still arrive roughly on time. I turned back to my reading and was just becoming engrossed in a particularly exciting chapter when all around me the lights on the bus flickered and turned out. I was plunged into a lonely darkness, unable to see either the words of my book or make out more than a never ending stream of lorries
laden with various loads of building equipment speeding past the window into the otherwise featureless blackness beyond. I closed my eyes and dozed brokenly for some time. Though I was still jet-lagged and travel weary, I never fully achieved sleep through worry of missing my stop and a nervous excitement about what the next hours and days were to hold when I arrived.
Around 23:00 my heart stirred inside me as opening my eyes and peering out of the window, I beheld a familiar and beloved silhouette darkening the horizon. We were passing through the vast mountainous region I knew surrounded Taizhou and all around me blacker than black outlines of the mountains loomed up, visible against the only slightly lighter, moonlit sky. I had hoped and expected to be travelling during the afternoon and had thought that the bus journey would be a wonderful experience for I would witness the beauty of these nature's giants that have so captivated my imagination since my earliest youth, when I was first taken into the Peak District by my Grandparents and stood atop Mam Tor or the Roaches. It is a heartfelt disappointment to me that I passed by the mountains as they slept and could not see their full glory and majesty, but only a dark dim shadow; a mere suggestion of their awe-inspiring presence. Still this suggestion excited me terribly. I knew I could return to this place and one day could hike through these mountains. I also took this to mean that perhaps we were on schedule and the bus would be arriving in Taizhou in less than an hour.
Unfortunately, it seems I rather underestimated the vastness of the mountainous region we were passing through. 23:50 came and went. Still these hulking beasts loomed large outside my window. I was thinking to myself that they surely couldn't go on for much longer, we must be nearly there. There was a dread in my soul, too, that perhaps the mountains were situated further out of the city than I had anticipated and they may come to an end, giving way to a flatland or a cityscape long before my journey was at an end. My fears though were groundless, the mountains continued to line the horizon and we passed through tunnel after tunnel, dug through their huge mass. The mountains continued, and so did the journey. 00:50 came fast upon the heels of 23:50 and still we journeyed into the night. I was bone tired now and the world rushed past me in a dreamlike blur. Time ticked onwards and I began to doubt if we would ever stop. Perhaps this was it, I had boarded a bus into the twilight zone and was doomed to sit by the stinking toilet as it lumbered on into endless night.
It was about 01:30 when I became aware of tiny firefly lights dancing past the windows. In the distance the mountains were still present, but ahead I could see that collections of twinkling orange lights that indicated we were finally nearing some form of human habitation. Could this be Taizhou? Was I finally here? We sped towards the lights which turned out to be illuminated small hamlets and villages. These though grew more frequent and larger in size, until they were no longer distinct but blurred together to form clear shanty-town like suburbs of a city. Next we sped past huge factories and warehouses, interspersed with great wastelands that were to be the sites of future developments. Another feature of Chinese cities is that there is always development work going on and mighty buildings being erected. I was aware that it is a developing country, but I was not prepared for just how visibly apparent this would be. The city scape changes and is added to almost daily! Finally as 02:15 approached, the factories and development sites gave way to apartment blocks, shops and garages. After a further 10minutes driving through this sleeping city, the bus pulled into a garage and the doors were opened. As people started to unload I was concerned as to where we were. At first I had assumed we were stopping for petrol, but then the luggage holds were opened and bags began to be unloaded. A line of taxis appeared, as if from nowhere and other travellers from the coach climbed in and sped of to their various destinations.
I looked around in a confused moment of panic, thankful to encounter behind me the friendly face of the helpful lady who had boarded with Shanghai. She had come down the bus to advise me this was not yet my stop and I should remain on board. She spoke no English, but was able to convey her message through gestures, so I relaxed back in my seat, wondering when I was finally to arrive. I did not have to wonder this for too long, however, as at 02:43 (precisely) we turned of the main street and chugged to a halt down a seemingly abandoned alley way. I again looked to the helpful lady and seeing my confusion she gestured that this seemingly forsaken place was indeed where I was to leave the coach. I must have emanated concern at this news, for the lady also got off the bus and helped me unload my bags. Later, I found out that she was due to stay on until the next stop, but had got off early to make sure I was ok, then taken a taxi home. I will be always grateful to this kind stranger, though I don't even know her name. She is a great example of the friendliness and helpfulness I have met with everywhere I have been in China. This is another reason I have a great respect for these people!
The alley was not wholly deserted and forsaken as it at first appeared. As I pulled my huge rucksack onto my back for the penultimate time, I became aware that the helpful lady was talking to someone in the shadows. As I turned towards them, two people stepped forward and greeted me in a feverishly excited manner! I was thus introduced to Jane and John, two Chinese staff that work at EF and had come to meet me and take me home. I have no idea how long they had sat in John's little yellow car awaiting my arrival, but I was finally there and with my large bag crammed into the tiny boot and the rest of the luggage piled up around us, we set off to my new apartment, to meet my new house-mate and start my new life in Taizhou!
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