It was Christmas afternoon, and we’d just got off our Three Gorges Cruise. Three days of utter confusion, and it wasn’t over yet. Included in our itinerary was a bus to Yichang, where we hoped we’d be sitting down to Christmas dinner in a couple of hours or so.
We waited expectantly for our bus.
Everybody else got into buses, or cars. Minivans. We waited. Shaking heads were all we got, trying to determine if any of these vehicles were for us.
When finally we were ushered to our bus, it was a taxi. Slightly concerned, but with no recourse, we got in. Off we drove, past the looming dam, over a bridge, and on downriver. For about ten minutes. Then we stopped. By the side of a road. Next to some trees, and not much else. The taxi driver ushered us out. We declined, having no clue as to where we were or why we weren’t in Yichang. He insisted. Some of us got out, and took the bags out of the boot. I stayed sat in the back of the car, door open, feet out. We felt this might be an attempt to drive off with our bags, or to abandon us to a friend in another taxi, who’s price we’d be hard pressed to negotiate, since we didn’t know where we were or how else we might get to Yichang.
So I stayed resolutely half in, half out of the car.
The taxi driver wasn’t particularly impressed, but seemed more amused than annoyed. So our stand-off (sit-off) went on. Another taxi arrived, and its passengers got out. Perhaps we were swapping vehicles? No, the other taxi drove off. Now we were less concerned, but still confused. Our driver had a chortling chat with the other passengers. We didn’t know if they were laughing at us for being ripped off, or for being a nuisance. Then the bus arrived. So it was the latter, then. We were only being delivered to the (entirely unmarked) bus stop by this blameless taxi driver, in who’s car we’d staged a sit-in. This is the risk of travelling with almost no language, it’s easy to distrust. And misplaced distrust is pretty rude.
There didn’t seem to be any hard feelings though, and we were waved off onto the bus. Squashed into the vintage seats, with our bags on our laps, we began to look forward to our Christmas dinner. We had big plans. But China had other ideas. For the moment, at least.
The bus dropped us off at the train station, which seemed like a good start. The train station was on our map of Yichang, so we knew where we were.
Or so we thought.
Everything was thoroughly modern. (You’re not even allowed to spit these days.) Maybe too modern. Perhaps this should have rung alarm bells, but it didn’t. We were riding high on the expectation of being at our hostel in a matter of minutes, and with Christmas dinner underway not long after. Beers were imminent.
So we set off to walk to the hostel. It was probably going to be a ten minute walk, looking at the map. Just a few blocks in from the river. That we couldn’t actually see the river didn’t occur to us. The map said it was behind us. Off we went, certain we must be going in the right direction, because the river was in the other direction. According to the map.
It was surprisingly hot. We must have come a fair way south from the cold winds of Beijing and Xi’an.
We walked along the empty road. It was wide, with space for several lanes of traffic, but there wasn’t a vehicle to be seen. Perhaps everybody at home celebrating Christmas? In this areligious nation? On we walked, sweating in the dust. Ten minutes dragged by, sweat clamming up our shoulders, dust sticking to our skin. Twenty minutes. By now we were thirsty, our backs sticky with sweat, and aching. Tempers were shortening. Our festive dinner seemed to be receding into impossibility. The occasional palm tree sprouted abruptly from a roadside planter. To our left reared apartment buildings, to our right a multi-storey fence. And behind it a wasteland of rubbish and construction rubble.
By the time we finally reached an intersection, it was clear that the map did not match reality. Or not the reality which we had found ourselves in.
A water truck passed us, slowly spraying down the dust.
At the intersection there was a little more traffic. Eight lanes of it. Mostly heavy duty trucks, interspersed with mopeds. Stood bewildered at the edge of this thundering mess, vertiginous shells of newly built high rises loomed over us. Newly planted flowerbeds flanked the pavement, small plants marooned in lakes of freshly turned earth.
Something wasn’t right. We needed help. It came in the form of a growing conference of passers-by. First we recruited a man with a wheelbarrow, perhaps the planter of these sudden flowerbeds. Then a moped driver pulled over. Some pedestrians joined in.
We showed them our map. They were flummoxed. Like, really flummoxed. Flummoxed, like, I have never seen a map before flummoxed. I guess maps aren’t quite the universally clear pictorial guide I thought they were. We eventually concluded, more or less unaided, that we were off the map. It had begun to dawn on us that maybe Yichang had joined the ranks of Chinese cities blessed with a brand new railway station, miles from the town centre.
After the long walk back through the dust, and repeated attempts to find a city bus, we eventually managed to convince a taxi driver to take us to our hostel on the meter, rather than for a quoted exorbitant sum. And it was absolutely miles away. Kilometres away. Really bloody far. Yichang train station is no longer in Yichang. But, finally, we were.
It took the intervention of a passing police officer to actually get us to our hostel, hidden on a high floor of a nondescript tower block. But five hours after leaving the boat a short distance upstream, we’d found our home for the night. And so close to the river, it turned out. It had a balcony, kind and helpful staff, and a hostel cat.
And an international supermarket a block away.
Christmas dinner was back on.
I never thought I would be so happy to buy a trolley full of over-packaged produce from a notoriously unethical global supermarket chain. But Walmart had brought us Christmas dinner, after days of discomfort and misery, and for that I will be forever grateful. Not just Christmas dinner either, but Christmas hats, and more importantly, beer.
This definitely ranks as one of the most deeply appreciated beers I’ve ever had.
We took a few moments out on the balcony to enjoy the winter sunshine, and send message to friends and family back in Europe. After a day of disorientation, it was beginning to feel a lot like Christmas. Beers were open, Christmas greetings were sent, and we even had some Christmas cards to open, courtesy of a parental care-package we’d found waiting for us a few weeks earlier at our friend’s place in South Korea.
The Christmas feeling really kicked in though, when we adjourned to the kitchen. For me it’s not Christmas if you’re not cooking, so we got stuck in. It’s also not Christmas if you’re not getting gently soused while cooking. Fortunately we had more beer. And as Christmas treat, we’d each shelled out for an imported beer from our respective homelands.
Turns out the Wallmart Asda takeover had a silver lining: the availability of English beer halfway up the Yangtze. I’d gone to great pains to source a hostel with a kitchen, so we could whip up our Christmas dinner, which was tricky. There doesn’t seem to be much expectation that hostel guests might want to cook in China. It wasn’t much of a surprise then, that what we had to work with was a stove top and a toaster oven. But we weren’t to be deterred.
Carrots were peeled, potatoes chopped, and a rudimentary gravy assembled from mysterious condiments, onions, and a slug of our precious bottle of Great Wall wine. (I think it’s fair to say that there’s a reason Chinese wine isn’t widely available.) Sabine whipped up some kind of deranged German pudding made of wafers, chocolate chunks, pudding that comes in a pot, and lots and lots of brandy (or whatever peculiar alcohol we’d actually purchased, who can say).
Somehow we managed to coax the toaster oven into producing something resembling roast potatoes, and even got a decent crisp on our veggie stuffing balls. There were no Brussel sprouts, or parsnips, but it was otherwise beginning to look quite convincing. The pièce de résistance was a rotisserie quail. With chilli.
And we’d even managed a soup starter, which may have been a mistake, given the volume of food we’d managed to create. Time to tuck in then!
Not too shabby, eh?
After a brief family Skype, it was time for desert. As well as Sabine’s pudding, which was served topped with flaming booze soaked sugar, we also had a bought dessert. The perfect Christmas dinner should always have at least two puddings, ideally eaten simultaneously.
In lieu of Christmas pudding, or mince pies, Walmart Yichang was offering this beauty of a Christmas cake.
Or possibly Chinsemos cake. Unclear. After all that, and all the day’s excitement, it was all we could do to squeeze in one wafer thin mint, and then collapse into bed.
Tomorrow, on to the next adventure.