Saturday, May 2, 2009

Early departure from Shanhaiguan

I'm back now, after my visit to Shanhaiguan -- regarded as the "head" of the Great Wall, where it meets the Bohai Bay. I had intended to be there for four days, or maybe five, but I ended up being there for only two. It was a sublime experience, in the full meaning of that word. I learned several things:

1) It is not the case that one can find English speakers in every tourist destination in China.
1b) My Chinese language skills are way short of adequate for any basic survival needs.

2) The Chinese people in smaller towns are not your friends. They will rob you silly when it comes time for you to pay your bill for anything, if they can get away with it.
2b) They can always get away with it.

3) I really wish I'd had my backpacking gear, so I could have struck out on my own and not been at the mercy of everyone who thought she could extract some money from me.

4) Surprisingly, I do have the capacity to feel fear. I mean, real terror that I am helpless and alone and unable to get home.

Here is one quick anecdote, before I launch in to the full story: My driver all through ShanHaiGuan (SHG) was a very smiley, friendly Chinese guy who spoke exactly one word of English: "Hello!" 

Here is a picture of Driver, standing next to the three-wheeled taxi he drives. The passenger-side front door does not have a door handle. 

When I first tried to get into his cab, after arriving in SHG, he issued me into the front seat, where I barely fit. I'm not that tall, but I'm a Westerner. It felt as if the cab might flop over to the front-right when I sat down — it definitely lurched that way. My knee changed the radio station and the volume, both at the same time. My backpack hit my chin, until he very helpfully pointed to the back seat, and I moved it there. On our second drive of the night, he invited me to sit in the back seat.

I never learned a name for him, so I can only call him "Driver." 

I must say that he was very helpful to me, taking me to the two sites that I especially cared about: Qinghuangdao (The Dragon's Head), where the Great Wall of China meets the ocean, and Jiaoshan Mountain, which is the first major mountain pass on the Wall.

However... the man knew nothing by means of which we could communicate verbally. 

He did not even know the English numerals. And by that, I don't mean that he didn't know "one, two, three..." I mean, he did not know "1, 2, 3." He did not know that "1" is "yi," "2" is "er," etc. He only knows how to write and read the numbers in Hanzi, not in Western characters. 

This is bizarre to me, especially having lived in Dalian where everyone knows at least THAT much. It took several experiences of my thinking he understood what I meant — accompanied by bobbing head gestures of "yes" — before I realized that he didn't know what I was writing down for a time, or a street number, or a calendar date...

... such as, for example, the date when I wanted to book my train ticket back to Dalian...

I told him very clearly, in English and in my version of spoken Chinese -- and I wrote down the date in English numerals -- that I wanted to come home on May 1 or 2, and no later. By this time I hadn't tasted true fear, but I knew that I wasn't comfortable here being massively overcharged. I wanted to get home, and soon. He nodded, smiled eagerly, and then ran up to the window. He ordered in sharp-toned Chinese phrases, and came back with a ticket.

I thought I was going to lose my lunch when I saw that the date on the ticket was May 18! I can't stay here till then! I'm supposed to be teaching on May 5!

And when I called out, pathetically, "Does anyone speak English?!" with as little fear in my voice as I could manage, it took two or three entreaties before two teen Chinese tourists who spoke VERY little English were able to come forth and get my ticket changed for me. Somehow, though, it worked: I got home.

My driver was much abashed -- but he still managed to extract from me a little more than 30 dollars for 8 hours' work. He's doing well for himself, at that rate.


  1. LOL, Oh how I remember THOSE days...

  2. I'm amazed you were somewhere where a taxi driver never even felt the need to learn English numerals! You must have done well to not have been reduced to uncontrollable sobbing -- unless you didn't tell us that part. :-)

  3. No uncontrollable sobbing -- but I will admit there was a little desperation in my voice as I was crying out for anyone who spoke English.