A fine site

Travel piece : close encounters in China

Yesterday an attempt to fit narrowly through the passages in a parking lot that descended into a tunnel reminded me of a perilous adventure in China. 
We had been travelling several weeks, touring The Great Wall,the Stone Forest, Tiananmen Square, X’ian Warriors, Temple at Dali. Met by sparkling intelligent guides with names like Minnie or Linda, they were accompanied by somber drivers who would seamlessly weave in and out of traffic in vans that were air conditioned. We would smile and bow a little to these polite men, rarely exchanging more than a smile. Usually we thought little of these encounters mainly because the drivers served as a convenience to follow the guides’ instructions and ensure we arrived safely and in good time to whatever location our itinerary had described.
But on extended trips, one person will stand out. In our case, it was in Kuonming.The town was lovely and at night by the water there was a park near our hotel with the feeling of a festive fair: water boats, coloured lanterns, pavilions,carousels. We were greeted by a young man who began our rounds, only quickly to disappear every twenty minutes, leaving us to wait by a fountain or a rock. His sudden departures made it clear that his bathroom needs were exceeding our own, and when in the confined space of the travel car, he began to cough, and appear sleepy, we suggested that perhaps he need rest, that it was no fault of his own, that people do get sick, and of course, we would not complain he was not fulfilling his duties… He continued to deny he was ill although the sudden interchanges with the driver and the abrupt stops quickly raised my paranoia. Yet the young man vehemently refused to admit he was sick. 
Fearing a virus that would cut short our trip- or worse, I admonished my husband to request a new guide. So we met Evan, a lithe and cool guide whose perfect English, gleaned from overdosing on movies from Hollywood,was the former’s counter foil. He was knowledgeable and fun and when he explained that it would take him 10 hours to return home if he accompanied us to the next location, we agreed to allow the driver to deposit Evan at the bus stop.
Quickly we realized that this driver had not a word of English. As he deftly approached a road that was demarcated with signs posted that announced ( we assumed) no thoroughfare, the driver jumped from the van to peer more closely at the illegible words. Shaking his head and consulting a map, he paced the ground. Even without language, we ascertained that the road was closed, but without a guide to negotiate or explain, we were unable to discuss the next step.The driver, ignoring our flapping hand and convulsed faces, was determined to use this route. Several times he manoeuvred the van towards a space that we deemed impenetrable, set on crossing onto a dusty road where not a single machine or house could be observed. Finally,as successful as a camel passing through a needle hole, he turned to us and smiled broadly. With approximately three inches on either side of our vehicle he had crossed into forbidden road.
Besieging my husband with looks of terror, I communicated that this must be the way to the spot where we would be kidnapped and ransomed, a finger or toe identifying us as North American travellers. Over hills, down into valleys we soared, the driver oblivious to the torment I was experiencing, quite certain that this was the only route where a clandestine exchange could be made, this road essential to the plan for us, hapless travellers, who had willingly abandoned by their guide. I had read of such events in South America and Africa and feared the worst, castigating myself for releasing Evan- or perhaps, worse yet! Evan had been part of this plot. Frequent bathroom stops for the former guide seemed a lesser price to have paid for our safety.
In the end, after almost three interminable hours and twelve minutes later , we arrived at our destination- with all body parts in tact. The driver, wanting to take a short cut he had skillfully managed many times before, stood quietly at the side of the van, expecting a huge tip to reward his ingenuity.
Yet as we descended the twisted tunnel towards the parking lot in downtown Toronto, I re- experienced the fear I had felt at the squeeze of the car through those impassable barriers.

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