So, let me tell you about my day…
We made it onto our G train out of Harbin after we thought we were going to miss it, had our hopes restored, thought we were going to be too late again and then we were actually on it. You know, an average day in China.
Riding first class on the bullet was like drinking an entire bottle of scotch before the inevitable crushing hangover the next day. I had enough legroom to sleep, which meant a lot, as it’s virtually impossible for me to sleep on any mode of transportation. Plus, we got a free bag of Chinese snacks. That’s always interesting.
After cutting through the light gray-yellow film of Hebei province’s near-constant pollution, we emerged from Tangshan Railway Station into the very same haze. The transition from the air-conditioned, plush environment of the G-train into the sweltering (97°F) heat of the dirty city (I’m not pulling any punches) seemed to set the tone.
Of course, we weren’t here for Tangshan; we were here for the small, almost-impossible-to-research neighboring town of Qianxi. A fairly neglected stretch of the Great Wall lay an hour still from there, but we were up for the trouble it would probably be worth. I mean, there are trees growing on it and shit.
That fucking guy
The battlefield of hawkers and black cabs (read: illegal taxis) just waiting to hassle you is synonymous with any Chinese city’s railway station. The best strategy is to cut through it like a knife while occasionally telling them to fuck off in Chinese. No professional scammer likes a waiguoren that can hua the zhongwenz because they are no longer easy prey. In theory, at least.
We didn’t want to linger in Tangshan and inquired about the bus station. It’s over there. No, it’s over there. While heading in the general direction of “over there,” we were approached by a man. On the face of it, he was the same as all the others. We’re going to call him That Fucking Guy (TFG) for the purposes of this story and because it makes me feel better.
“Where you going?” he said in English, sporting his straw hat and protruding gut that had ventured slightly beyond the brim of said hat. I really can’t say why we did in the end, but something about him made us trust him. Maybe his rotundness? It was probably and more likely the older woman clutching some medicine who wanted to join our trip to Qianxi. She wanted to go and was paying the same price as us… It couldn’t be too sketchy, right? Right?
TFG told us to wait at the zebra crossing. At that point, I knew he was probably going to bring around a black taxi. It was far from ideal, but the price was fair and someone’s little old aunt was along for the ride. I was relatively relaxed despite the heat. Kate and I piled in beside the old lady in the back, and some other guy with a dragon on his arm who I hadn’t seen before rode shotgun.
Goodfellas Pt. 2, Taxi Boogaloo
So, we’re driving along, getting ever closer to the Great Wall for cool kids. The guy with the dragon tattoo whispered to our gregarious driver. He whispered back. My ears perked up, dog-like, and I started getting an inkling of a negative vibe. There would be no reason at all for those two to be whispering to each other unless they were way more confident in our Mandarin ability than we were ourselves. It also confirmed that they knew each other, if anything. We stopped for gas—still well within the city—while Kate and I whispered about the whispers.
Only the stop didn’t last long. It’s illegal to pump your own gas in China, so there are always attendants to do it for you, just like in Oregon. Ours waddled over and leaned down to TFG’s window. His eyes widened with recognition and perhaps a bit of fear. “Bu xiang.” It doesn’t mean, “I can’t,” it means, “I won’t.” He refused to top us off. TFG merely grunted and pulled out of the station, the low fuel warning blinking on the dashboard in tandem with our own warning bells.
“My friend has a car… He will take you.”
He drove passed the train station again and turned a corner down the high street. We came to a stop under scarce shade provided by Tangshan’s seemingly scarcer, pitiful trees. The massive concrete high-rises surrounding us eerily provided no shade at all. I got the bags out of the back while Kate hung one leg out of the door, just in case our stuff seemed worth more than the trouble of dealing with two waiguoren. Somebody had pulled the stopper out of tub, and we were floating on the water of that moment to an inevitably shady ending.
“Don’t worry! I am not a cheat!” That Fucking Guy brandished his broadest grin. He motioned to an incoming white VW. “There’s my friend now.”
“Um… Yeah. I think we’ll take the bus.”
“There are no buses today.” I looked around to the perpetually silent old lady. Silent until now. The driver still had the stupid grin on his face. The heat pressed the entire moment inward, suffocating and exhausting.
“You go with him.” TFG had stepped closer and was no longer smiling.
“We had a deal.”
“Fuck off, dude. We’re not taking your taxi.” That was in English.
We started walking away but That Guy couldn’t or didn’t want to get the message. “Foreign friends! Come back! Come back! Get in this car!” It was an assertion rather than an invitation.
Open the fucking door
We walked away as fast as you can with a rolling suitcase while TFG’s shouts, then curses, faded behind the thin veneer of smog we had put between us and hailed the first legitimate taxi in sight. He wanted twice as much as TFG did, but I also didn’t feel like our ride would end with us in a bathtub full of ice with our kidneys missing. Just as I turn around to load the bags, the old lady is right there. Like, supernaturally there. We get in the back and the lady rides shotgun after haggling with the driver over her price.
“What the fuck? That’s half of what you charged us. We paid 100, and she—”
“What are you doing?!” TFG was back, leaning in and shouting. Spittle flies into our new driver’s face as he screams, “They were my passengers!”
This was sort of the fever pitch, the climax of the situation, so we both stopped understanding what was being said, mainly because it was very fast and heated. Our driver was terrified of TFG and handed over a 50 RMB note. That’s it. It’s a racket between the black cabs and licensed cabs, and TFG is the kingpin. Upon realizing this, Dragon Tattoo opened the rear passenger door and got in so that I was between he and Kate.
TFG locked the doors. Kate, tragically claustrophobic, reacted predictably. “Da kai! Da kai! Open the door! Open the fucking door!”
Nice time was over. I told the driver to open the door or I would beat the shit out of him or something like that. He was just as scared as we were at that point because TFG was ordering him to drive. Kate was crying.
The lock was missing from Kate’s side, but I could see that Dragon Tattoo’s door still had one of the old school push-pull things. “Get out!” Stoic silence. “Get out! Ni ting bu dong hanyu ma? (You don’t understand Chinese?)”
I knocked the wind out of him with my elbow, pulled the lock and shoved him out of the taxi, pulling Kate out behind me. We grabbed our shit and didn’t look back.
Sometimes travel isn’t fun
Later, I was flipping through the channels in our four-star room near the city center. We were both still pretty shaken up by what had happen, especially because we had always thought of China as very safe. But we were done with it on that particular day. We had abandoned our Great Wall plans and booked a next-day train to Beijing. A few days after that, we would be in London.
Travel appears and often is glamorous, but sometimes it can be shitty. Sometimes you feel defeated and isolated. You comprehend the reality of your situation: you are far from home, you don’t speak the language and you want nothing more than to be home. I don’t feel that way often, but on that day in our Tangshan hotel room, I did.