Reckless driving, a dead body, friendly people, rampant development, cultural questions, the usual day of travel in China.
The bus driver wouldn’t slow down, even after the dead body.
The fog was so thick that morning in the Poyang Lake region of Jiangxi province that we couldn’t see the taillights of the truck in front of us, or, for that matter, the headlights of the car barreling towards us as we drove in the other lane trying to pass. To put it simply, the conditions were hazardous. Nobody on that road to Duchang could see pretty much anything. The visibility was lower than from a Hebei high-rise in at the peak of an airpocalypse, but the drivers on the road did not react, take caution, or alter their driving. It was business as usual. Only after nearly smashing into a van head on did the driver flipped on his headlights. After that he seemed to be out of ideas. Slowing down or not driving in the other lane into oncoming traffic did not seem to cross his mind. Nobody else seemed concerned, the women sitting next to me were gossiping loudly. I starred out the window into the opaque fuzz.
Then we saw it: a smashed up moped laying in the middle of the road and the tractor trailer we’d tried to pass a handful of moments before stretched sideways across the opposite lane. We knew it was bad. Two women sitting next to me shrieked, then gasped when we saw what came next. A man’s legs were sticking out scissor-like from beneath one of the tires of the trailer. The body was squashed completely flat. Finally, the driver slowed down, but this was just so he could gawk a little longer at the carnage. It was so perfectly gruesome that it was difficult to fully believe it wasn’t set up, like a Halloween prop or something for a stage set. Though this is perhaps a natural reaction to the gruesome, a suspension of reality to keep our faculties intact.
The bus picked up its pace. I thought the ride would be somber from then on out, but it wasn’t. Hardly a minute had passed since the women gasped that they were again joking around, loudly gossiping. The men on the bus acted like they witnessed nothing. Nobody even bothered to say a single word about what we all just saw, most hardly even reacted. Maybe the people here are just used to such scenes of raw life. Or maybe the stoic, pragmatic streak of this culture just mutes such uncomfortable discussions. Or maybe that’s the normal way humans react to such scenes.
Though in China such scenes seem to be more prominently put on display. In the bus stations of this country there are often looping videos that show gruesome accidents and their after effects. I’m not sure what the tactic is here, as they are shown to people who are about to board buses and head out on the same highways of the scenes from the videos. Do they just want to scare us? If so, it doesn’t seem to work — people watch these scenes of destruction and bloodshed as languidly as they do the latest propaganda clip about the Chinese Dream, whatever the hell that is. Outside of the stations there are often billboards that have photos of horrifying accidents with slogans about driving safely and visuals of the police doing their job. These photos are often as graphic as the scene we just witnessed on the bus, and they tend to draw passersby to a momentary halt, apparently for the mild entertainment value. Carnage is a mild amusement that draws crowds everywhere.
The bus driver was now going as fast as ever. The unwillingness or inability to alter behavior or a concept to meet changing circumstances is an interesting tendency in this culture. I can’t figure how the logical chain of cause and effect so often appears to be broken here — or perhaps self-preservation isn’t as high on many people’s list of priorities as I would think it should be. Cultural contrasts are usually most stark when manifested in the little things we take for granted.
We soon arrived in Duchang. I began walking towards Poyang Lake and felt amazingly good. The sun was shinning, I opened my jacket and let it blow back in the wind, I put on my sunglasses and looked out at the road ahead. There was action in the streets, people were husking chickens and welding metal parts on the sidewalk, people were sitting around little plastic lawn tables playing checkers, the sidewalk was an obstacle course of junk, random things, and squatting men. I stomped down that road and heard each footstep, gear grind, horn honk, and loquacious cackle clearly. There was someplace to go and something to do here. Though my joy was perhaps unfounded, I was just going to look at a mud pit.
I walked to the edge of the city and found myself in a new development zone — of course. Apparently, Duchang decided to build itself a giant clock tower and shopping mall out in some shrub land. Neither were yet functioning, neither even had a residential area within reasonable distance. They were to be a part of the city’s new plan to renew their waterfront. Nobody seemed to care that it doesn’t have any water for most of the year.
Poyang Lake was as dry as the media reports claimed. I took my photos, made my videos, and talked to whoever I could find. There really weren’t many people out there — but if there were it would have been rather strange. I stood in the middle of a field strewn with abandoned boats that were beached when the waters quickly receded in the autumn. Grasses were growing up between fishing vessels, cows were milling about chewing it. This was supposed to be a lake.
More on Vagabond Journey: What Happens When China’s Largest Lake Disappears
I collected enough content for my story and walked back towards town on the other road that connects to the lake. On this side Duchang was also building a new area. Not even the absence of a lake could deter the local government from developing the lakefront. They wanted a flowing wave of high-rise apartments running along the waterfront, but it was clear that they would have to make it themselves. So they pumped water in from the retreating lake beyond and barricading it in. The result was one of those disorienting scenes of artificiality that are almost normal in China: you look out at where the largest lake in China should be, and there is an immense cavity of dirt, then turn around and look at a city rising above a glistening reservoir.
I arrived in town to find it covered in laundry. The fronts of apartment buildings were draped in sheets, the lawns in parks were covered in pillow cases and blankets, the railings around the lake were used as posts to hang quilts, and the trees were decked out in bed clothes.
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I then turned up a street and headed into town to find a cheap hotel that would accept me. Foreigners are still banned from most hotels in China, as it requires a special permit. Though I couldn’t imagine any hotel in this small city having such a thing — why would they, how many foreigners are really stumbling into Duchang anyway? I had two options: hike around town poking my head into every hotel I find and hope they let me stay or find some help.
I heard two girls chatting rather merrily walking up behind me. I glanced back quickly. They were college age. Perfect. Just about anywhere in the world if you want someone to show you around a new town look for a college student. I slowed my pace a little, they walked up next to me, and peered over curiously. A greeting just seemed natural.
They went to college in nearby Nanchang, and just arrived home for spring break the day before. They wondered what I was doing in their town. I told the truth, that I’d come to see the lake. Though this seemed too odd, as there wasn’t a lake at this time of year, so I told them that I was writing an article about the lack of water. They waxed on a little about how they never saw a foreigner in their city before.
They took me to the city’s central department store complex. It was a messy, working class kind of shopping center that had big bins of merchandise strewn all over for people to dig through, not the posh and neat middle class kind of mall that are the prides of the municipalities that build them. They showed me the way to a greasy fast food chicken place. I ate a chicken sandwich. This small, 150,000 person city didn’t have a KFC, which is probably the optimum measure of remoteness in this country.
I became the college student’s responsibility. They would show me around and make sure I had everything I wanted and was content. Hospitality is voracious here. You could show up in pretty much any city in this country that’s off the tourist grid, walk away from the stooges at the stations, throw up your arms and say “help me,” and invariably someone will grab you and tow you around all day. It’s almost too easy to make acquaintances here.
“What kind of hotel do you want?” one of the girls asked.
“A cheap one.”
They talked to each other for a moment, pointed in a coupled different directions, then lead me around a corner and into a small inn. I doubt I would have found the place, though I’ve been traveling in this country for years, can read signs, and speak functional Mandarin. The inn was fully zebra-stripped into the matrix of the street — every shopfront looked exactly the same — and it was crowded out of view by two flower shops. There wasn’t much of a question as to whether they’d let me stay. I came as a friend of local Chinese people, so that automatically made me slightly less strange and foreign. It would also increase the embarrassment for the hotel owner if she was to deny me on the basis of nationality. The accommodation laws of China are not widely known, and I had to question whether the hotel even knew they needed a special permit to house me, as I highly doubt this situation had ever come up before. The cost for a private room was 20 RMB, $3.25.
The college students’ job was essentially done, and they sort of awkwardly looked at me as though I had to formally release them from duty or something. “Thank you, goodbye.”
I walked back out into the street. It was getting to be early evening, the buildings had a crepuscular tint and shadows grew long. I watched two old women sitting in the street rebuilding some cheap, discarded synthetic shoes that didn’t seem worth the effort and an old man who sold a peculiar type of herb that he cut into slices with a home made apparatus that looked like a small paper cutter.
I flagged down a taxi and requested to be taken to the hill that has a temple on it that overlooks the lake. I chatted with the driver along the way, answered all the usual questions about America and what I think of China. He apparently got a kick out of it, and significantly lowered the fare when I went to pay.
I walked up the hill through the grounds of an old temple, and stood next to the large pagoda that rose from its apex. I looked out over the lake that had shriveled up to vein-like rivulets. The sun went down and the pagoda’s lights were flipped on. It blazed on top of the hill like a giant lantern hanging from the rafters of the city. The nightly laser light show began, and gyrating green beams where shot down upon the town below.
It was a normal day of travel in normal China.