Friday, January 17, 2014

Back to Beijing

There is a familiar sight as we enter or exit Erlian where dinosaurs appear on each sides of the street and then we pass under two kissing Diplodoci. They are statues of course and everytime I smile when I see this because it reminds me that even in places where cold and desolation makes you think of death, there is some random dude who had enough time to waste to build giant dinosaurs in the Gobi desert. Yes I know it was probably the Chinese government or some big corporation but it still seems, from the theme of it, that it was still some random dude.

I remember standing near that road in the late morning with a smile on my face because I know this place and I have mistaken it for home. Because I have warm clothes and a girlfriend and some food in my bag. Because I speak Chinese enough to ask Ni hao mei nu, ni chu na li? (Hello young lady, where are you going?) which is way more that I can say for my Mongolian.
And because, I am going more South how the minute so my chances of freezing diminish and will soon dissapear completely. If I have to be honest with you my dear readers, I would say that I am not afraid of dying of cold, not one bit. It is not because I have better clothes now, it is because of those dinosaurs. A place which has the luxury of having plastic dinosaurs soaring from the ground just can't have third-world problems such as freezing to death or dying of hunger, that would be a violation of the Maslow's pyramid.
Also, in West China, people take without money and that's a worry that I don't have.

A black car stops and two happy Chinese tell me to get in.
"Where to?"
"South south!"
Since there is only one road, it cuts the orientation debate short and they help me out to Sonid Youqi, the next big city after Erlian.
Erlian and its dinosaurs
My drivers, as usual are surprised to see me in this place and don't really understand that I don't know where I am going. I say Beijing and they say that it is very far and it is crazy. That guy is riding under a giant lizard and he calls me crazy.

This is the place where the national road and highway starts but it is not always a good idea to hitch there because there isn't many cars at this point. It's a difficult spot for hitchhikers anyway. I change my sign several times, everytime asking for a marker pen in gas stations and the helpful Chinese curiously staring at me with curiosity.

I settle for Hot-Hot (pronounce Ho-en-ho-te), the capital of Inner Mongolia because that's the most common destination. And lucky me, I get a truck. It is not fast but it going far. I am not sure if to Hothot but I think so. If so, I'll try to get out at the intersection at Ulanqab city and then it's just a mere 200 kilometers from Zhangjiakou, my Pakistani haven and then I'm more home than home.

We don't speed up much over 60 kilometers per hour so with my time wasted finding a good hitchhiking spot, it turns out that when the sun sets, we are still in the Gobi, near Zurihe. I have the location of the deep Christian family who took me in but since I am kind of reluctant of repeating the experience. So I let us pass Zurihe as the night falls down and come what may.

Come what may is a police cars which stops us and I don't have time to hide. The policeman reprimands my driver for taking a passenger and I see that I'm in trouble. Best case scenario, I am left on the side of the road, worst case, the Chinese government will hate me for having to pay me another hotel. No way my driver is going to save me, he is Chinese and he hates me already for putting me in trouble.

To my great surprise, the truck driver speaks with the policeman and offers a bribe. I never thought I would see a bribe in a country as down-to-the-rules as China. Yes I heard from home that China is chaotic and corrupt but that's just European rumors so far unsubstantiated wherever I went in that country. Nevertheless, that bribe may have saved me a night in the Gobi freezer.
Not only doesn't my heroic driver hate me for this but he offers to continue the ride and I gladly agree. I don't know if he is going to drive through the night but I certainly hope so.

After the police car leaves, instead of continuing on the main road, he bifurcates on a small, barely paved road, to the east, not too far after Zurihe. From one side, it is in the direction of Zhangjiakou and I will be no more big cities on the road and I won't get stuck in Ulanqab.
On the other hand if his destination happens to be anything other than Zhangjiakou, I have mathematically zero chance of meeting another car here tonight for sure but even tomorrow and ever because the location is so remote.
The problem with destinations in China is that because of my poor knowledge of the Chinese language, I try to guess them from the general behavior of the driver, the matriculation of his or her car, documents present in the vehicle and the random babbling that serves as our means of communication.
It's not enough just to say "Ni chu Zhangjiakou ma?" (are you going to Zhangjiakou), first because nobody understands my accent, they're likely to just understand the city name and say something like "Shi Shi, Zhangjiakou hen hao!" (Yes yes, Zhangjiakou is very nice.) And Reykjavik and New York too but I am not going there.
In our current case, based on the fact that he is driving a truck, I guess that he must be going to Zhangjiakou because any other destination leaves me in a fucked up situation. Plus, there is a sinogram on his matriculate part of which looks like 家(jia) which I know because it means family and it's a good guess it should be in ZhangJIAkou.

So far the ride is joyful, my driver is a bit tired but keeps driving and passing villages where I really don't want to stop.
At one point, I am almost positive we're going to my Pakistani haven and then we stop. We stop at some village in the middle of Inner Mongolia where the traffic probably is a car per month in a parallel universe.
Is it a final stop? Maybe, maybe not, because my driver invites me to a restaurant for a great portion of Chinese food... and more than I would welcome of jiu, their alcohol.

We stop to eat and drink in a restaurant in Inner Mongolia
I am not so worried about me drinking as I am for my driver who may get into an aggressive state remembering that he lost money bribing that officer and leaving me in that village forever. By the way I am not the least worried about any drunk driving because a. it is China and people don't drive drunk and b. even if he drives drunk, we are a truck so we won't get killed and c. we also won't kill anyone because we are in the middle of nowhere.

There is some other truck drivers who flock in and ask questions about me but I am too busy eating as much food as I can and also eating everyone's white vapor bread because they are busy drinking jiu.

My driver is a reasonable bloke. He disappears from sight before everybody gets way too drunk. He invites me in a small dormitory, it's a room with two beds where we can spend the night. That is the most reasonable choice he could make and I am very grateful.

The next morning, the truck drivers flock together for a common departure. I even switch trucks from time to time.

The truckdrivers flock together
At this point, I am sure to get to Zhangjiakou, actually I can even get to Beijing. But I want to visit my Pakistani friends one more time.

The happy ride with Chinese truckers takes us to the border of the province where we have an amazing lunch on which I can last a couple of days.
A yurt in inner mongolia, a pale Chinese attempt at Mongolian culture 
At last, we are out of the desert and in the city of Zhangjiakou. I jump out on the highway side. It is strange, it seems to be paved with coal because of all the coal falling from tracks which drive there.
When I arrive to Umer's place, my room is still there and empty because his roommate is away again.
It is a warm welcome with many stories.
I can't believe that our crazy plan actually worked! I really hitchhiked to Mongolia, Janela really met me there, damn isn't life incredible?!

One bad news awaits me however: during my stay in Mongolia enjoying virtual freedom, China has upgraded their firewall. They used to block listed VPNs so that people can't anonymize their connection; now they are blocking any foreign server which servers a huge number of connections. This policy is restrictive like crazy and isolates China in an a way which is hard to imagine for us Europeans.
Fortunately, Umer advises me on a workaround which I set up on my tablet.
The next day I am on the road again, on the road to Beijing.

From the landscape around us, it doesn't look like I am approaching the capital. It's nothing like approaching Paris where buildings greet more buildings. Approaching Beijing is going through a lot of nature and the city seems to appear at the last moment. The road is mountainous and we also pass the Great Wall of China. And then, at last, I am at a metro station, at Le's friends.

If this is not home, I don't know what is.