Shortcut, my a--!

I had planned to tell you today about our trip to Inner Mongolia, starting at the beginning of the trip. However, the trip home was so interesting that I wanted to tell it first.

On our trip up to Inner Mongolia, we had seen hundreds of trucks stopped on the freeway that leads to Beijing. Coming back to BLCU, our dear leader, hoping to avoid the traffic, instructed the driver to take a different route, one that cut through the mountains and would drop us  right into Beijing. We would be able to avoid the traffic jam on the main road and save ourselves a couple hours road time. If only it were that simple.

Shortly after we left Datong, we pulled off at a small rest stop to use the bathroom. The guide told us it would be six hours before we stopped again, because along this back road there were not going any good places to stop (he was wrong, there were plenty of bushes along the road). This sounded a little ominous, but I didn’t worry too much about it. Driving tractor growing up had seasoned me for long periods of sitting. However, once we got back on the road, I quickly realized that we were in for a long day.

In theory, the shortcut was a good idea. The freeway traffic was terrible, and no one wanted to face that. Unfortunately, the idea had one important flaw: the shortcut was not a secret. Coal truck drivers don’t like waiting in traffic anymore than bus drivers, and they were well aware of back way too. As a result, we ended up on a road full of slow-moving coal trucks, and instead of being on a large freeway, we were a narrow two-way road. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

For those of you who have never ridden on a bus in China, the experience is much different than riding on a bus in America, especially if you are on a two-lane road. Chinese drivers like to play chicken, and bus drivers are no exception. Our driver took advantage of any opportunity we had to pass one of the coal trucks, often when he could see cars coming toward us. Most of the time the oncoming drivers lost the game of chicken and let us pass, but once in a while we had to slam on the brakes and scoot back in behind a truck.

The first part of the trip passed through a valley that was nice and flat, so the road was straight and the driver could usually see the road ahead when he was passing. It got much more interesting when we started up into the mountains. The road became narrower, steeper and more winding, but we kept passing trucks anyway. I kept waiting for the time when we would pull out in the left lane only to see an empty coal truck barreling directly at us.

Traversing the valleySmiles early in the trip

Our luck finally ran out as we were climbing up a steep hill, passing a line of stopped trucks. I’m not sure why the driver thought he could drive in the wrong lane all the way up the mountain, but we came around a curve and directly in front of us, a truck coming down the road at us. Fortunately it was moving slowly, so there was no danger of a collision. We did have a problem though. There were trucks to our right, a truck in front of us and a mountain to our left. We had nowhere to go but backwards.

We stopped and the driver opened the front door. A couple of men jumped up onto the step and began talking animatedly to the driver. I was sitting at the back of the bus, so I can’t be sure what was being said, but it didn’t look like they were discussing the weather. Since we weren’t moving, everyone else got off the bus and looked for their own private ‘bushroom’ (er, bathroom) where they could relieve themselves, girls to the right and guys up the hill to the left. After a couple of minutes, the bus was able to back up while the trucks in front of us squeezed together as close as they could, creating just enough space for it to squeeze back into the right lane. Downhill traffic began to flow again, cautiously.

The road ahead...

...and behindAfter about fifteen minutes, our side of the road began to move again. Slowly. Too slowly for our driver, who after a few minutes of driving at ten miles per hour went back to his old trick of driving in the left lane. I have to hand it to him, he was effective. We passed many trucks and always seemed to find a way back into our own lane. This game of cat and mouse went on for a while. Actually, it went on for the next four hours. Our mountain shortcut, wasn’t. It was a steep, narrow, crowded winding road that turned and twisted in all directions and was not a great place for hundreds of trucks (and a bus or two) to be traveling.

Our guide would take out the microphone from time to time, assuring us that we were only one hour (two at most!) from Beijing. After a while, we quit believing him. Everyone was tired of being on the bus—we were hungry and thirsty and starting to get angry at being misled about our arrival time. Of all the people on the bus, the Korean and Italian women seemed to be the angriest. I learned a couple of new Italian phrases as le ragazze heatedly discussed what they thought of the guide. I felt (a) little sympathy for the guy. He had tried to take an alternate route in order to avoid a two-hour delay and got a four-and-a-half hour delay in return. When we got on the bus at Datong, we thought we were going to return be back at 7:30. When we finally returned to BLCU at 12:05am, forty worn-out students ambled off the bus, wanting only a shower and some sleep. The trip had been quite memorable. Che pazzia!!!