Shamus Sillar recounts the time he unwisely chose to invite his loved ones to join him in exploring a far-flung corner of China by bus.
A few years ago when I was living in Shanghai, five family members (my parents, uncle, aunt and cousin) visited from Australia. After a week spent checking out the Bund and the French Concession, I whisked them away for an adventure in Yunnan Province, in China’s southwest.
Our local tour guide, a bloke called Nimway, turned out to be alarmingly inept – which is perhaps why he only charged 15 Aussie dollars a day. He carried no phone, no map and no watch, items that mightn’t be particularly useful for a day touring around, say, Orchard Road, but can often come in handy in the highlands of rural China.
Even worse was when Nimway (let’s call him “Dimway”) suggested that we take what he called “The Special Route”. His plan – as cunning as one of Baldrick’s – meant we could see the various sights of Yunnan Province without retracing our steps to the main town of Lijiang. When asked what The Special Route involved, he replied: “Six hours on a bumpy road.”
At least he got the “bumpy” bit right.
Dimway didn’t have any transport, so instead we tracked down a local bus to brave The Special Route. It was a cramped old thing, held together with masking tape, belching out black clouds, with a wicker basket of baby chickens tied to the top, and a furiously smoking driver. My mother seemed okay with it, waving at my camera as the driver secured the last bag of live animals to the roof.
Not that it was comfortable, mind you. My “seat” was actually a sharp-edged metal box that held the water for cooling the engine. I was able to guess the water level because the metal felt warm above that line and freezing below it.
Our first hint of trouble came before we even took off. The driver’s assistant – his wife, I think – was filling up my metal seat but she didn’t judge the level properly and a great geyser of liquid erupted from the hole. Happily, only some of it splashed my camera, but my Auntie Jean was right in the firing line and spent the remainder of the day in wet clothes.
The second ominous sign came five kilometres after setting out; the road turned into a quagmire and we promptly got bogged for an hour. At this point, Dimway turned to me and casually said, “I hear they’ve had lots of rain in these parts.” Nice to know!
Sloshy roads eventually gave way to dusty mountain paths, but more problems were in store. During a toilet break, I stepped off to find the driver’s legs sticking out from underneath the bus, and his assistant looking on. I remember noticing her look of anxiety and thinking to myself: “Why is she worried? Hasn’t she done this kind of thing before?” It was like when you’re on a plane and you’re telling yourself that the turbulence isn’t so bad, and then you see that the stewardess has turned white as a sheet. It was, however, difficult to complain about the view.
Fresh troubles. Things were getting pretty smoky under the hood by now, so we stopped at a stream and the driver poured about twenty thermoses of water into this magic slot. My seat also needed topping up.
More hours; more breakdowns. The repairs were taking longer each time, so we decided to get off the bus and continue along the road on foot instead, until the vehicle caught up with us. We were now over 3,000 metres above sea level, with great scenery and plunging valleys.
The succession of mechanical issues continued, as we half-drove and half-walked over the top of a mountain ridge and began our descent on the other side.
As the afternoon ticked by, the day became gloomier, the dirt track a bit narrower and steeper. I was on the left-hand side of the bus, behind the driver, with a rather frightening view straight down to the soft edge of the path and the valley below.
The picture above is the last one I took before the crash. We stopped in a village to let a local woman get off the bus (she should count her lucky stars…). My family was strangely quiet by now: I could sense some anxiety about the diminishing light, and about the state – and height – of the road. We’d been going for eight hours (for the past four of those, Dimway had been saying: “20 minutes longer!”). And we hadn’t passed a single vehicle of any sort. It didn’t seem too popular, this Special Route – which is probably why these children couldn’t keep their eyes off us.
Away we went again, and, as our bus approached the millionth hairpin bend, I heard the engine rev very highly. The driver clutched for the gear stick. His assistant screamed.
The brakes had completely gone. And we were doing 50 kilometres per hour down a treacherous track.
Our driver – credit to him – realised that if the bus went another 100 metres, beyond the next bend, we’d plunge to our deaths in the churning Yangzi River far below. (I could just imagine the newspaper headlines: “Dimway’s Special Route Ends In Tragedy”.) So instead he pulled the wheel hard right and drove us up into the bank. The bus climbed briefly then slipped to the left, overturning and crashing down on a flat rocky opening.
I can’t quite remember what happened next. There was glass everywhere and liquid dripping on my head. (I thought it might have been petrol – it turned out to be beer. Small mercies!) A woman was sobbing. I lifted myself up and crunched out through the space where the front windshield had been. Then I realised my family wasn’t out, so I went back in and saw my parents and uncle and aunt lying horizontal: my uncle’s head was bleeding from a gash – I thought he was a goner – but I could see my mum’s eyes were open.
Somehow everyone was okay. Lots of nasty cuts (plenty of claret around the place), my cousin Natalie cracked her knee pretty badly, dreadful bruising up the left side of our bodies from landing on rocks; the driver’s assistant was howling – a fractured femur. I tore my AC joint, and my foot got mashed by a metal tool-kit flying through the air.
But in the scheme of things, we were very, very lucky.
The picture above shows the destination sign from the dashboard. It says “Labo” (the village we were supposed to get to). I photographed it lying outside on broken glass, spattered with someone’s blood.
After helping patch up my dad’s mangled arm and uncle’s gouged forehead, then lying down for a few minutes so I didn’t pass out (I’m not exactly doctor material), I snapped a picture of the inside of the vehicle. Fans of the Where’s Wally series can search for the following items: a) my metal chair; b) the toolkit that smashed my leg; c) one bottle of beer (intact!); d) an axe (lovely to have one of those flying around in a crash).
Within 20 minutes of the accident, locals starting arriving – a network of communication had been established from the farmer in the nearest field who saw the incident, down through the valley and its villages.
A tractor pulled up and, after Dimway chatted briefly with the driver (probably about football scores, or the weather), we piled into the tiny cabin. From there we negotiated another million hairpins, thinking each would be our last. We finally arrived in the dark (and heat: it was muggy beyond belief) at a lodge right on the banks of the Yangzi. And when I say “lodge”, I mean a thatched barn with an outdoor squat toilet next to the pigsty, a hard plank of a bed with straw pillow and bugs, no running water, and a single swinging lightbulb of negligible wattage. “Not quite the Hilton,” as my mother put it.
Still, we were alive. And hungry. So we cracked open the precious three bottles of beer that had somehow survived the crash, while the family who owned the house kindly whipped up some dinner. Stewed chunks of unidentifiable animal and rice with tiny rocks in it might sound unpalatable, but we ate with gusto. Then we limped off to bed. (Actually, I stayed up with the grandfather of the house for a nightcap – a glass of his lethal white spirits, poured from an empty fertiliser drum, and almost certainly the cause of his partial blindness.)
We barely slept, what with the heat and the bugs, not to mention the fitful dreams. I dreamt of a line of identical Dimways dressed in army fatigues, looking over a giant map like one you’d find in a war room, pushing a little plastic model of our bus along a red dotted line marked “Special Route” and laughing like a maniac.
After breakfast (leftover lumps of last night’s dinner), the next day’s adventure began in earnest. Our first mission was to find a way across the Yangzi. Dimway said he would take us to a ferry, and after a five-kilometre drive in another tractor, followed by a dangerous scramble down a rocky hill, we were there.
With what had gone on in the previous 24 hours, I’m not sure why I thought that this “ferry” would have a cafe selling lattes – or even an outboard motor. Of course, it was a rowboat. We were going to cross a swiftly flowing and rarely navigated section of the world’s third-longest river in a rowboat. Still, one look at the guy doing the rowing and we didn’t feel in danger for a second. Check out that sturdy footwear!
Getting across the river felt almost cathartic, too – hence my family’s happy faces. But a new problem awaited us: there was no bus over on this side (and only a smashed one lying prostrate on a mountain pass on the other.)
Fortunately, we had one other option. And once she’d emptied out the last of her load of rocks and granite dust, we climbed aboard.
Day 2 was as long as Day 1, with just as many mechanical snafus; every stretch of bumpy path felt like a rodeo ride. The six of us sat, stood and lay in this wretched blue Chinese truck for eight hours, as it tortuously ticked off the kilometres. Natalie – notice her bandaged knee – tried to catch up on some sleep. We didn’t eat, we didn’t talk. Dimway occasionally spat.
Finally we reached civilisation again, climbed out of the China truck, and hired a minivan to get us back to Lijiang. It was at that point we realised that, over the course of a full day in the back of the truck, the continual friction from the leftover rock fragments on our clothes had quite literally torn them to shreds.
I snapped the photo above just as we were approaching the main town again, with Natalie putting a soothing arm around her mum’s shoulder as if to say: “It’s over.” Meanwhile I was putting a less-friendly arm around our tour guide’s shoulder and saying: “Mate, we really need to talk…”