I met up with the group I would be traveling with at the Kunming Airport the following afternoon. We would be heading about five hours south to the town of Pu’er, just over 50 kilometers northeast of the border to Myanmar. There is something that really appeals to me about being so close to the edge of a country, the edge of the world as it seemed in this case. China is a very large place, and I was headed to the far edge, with the Tibetan plateau to the west and the beginnings of Southeast Asia at my feet. These were exciting times.
Their plane was late, and I figured that with such a long drive it was unlikely that we would depart that evening. I really needed to use the bathroom, but decided that I could wait until we arrived at the hotel before doing so. I don’t like holding up a group that I have just met. I could hear the teenage taunts in my head. “Oh yeah, the new guy, he couldn’t hold it”. We got on the bus, and the representative from the organization informed us, to my great surprise, that we would begin our long journey south. Looking to the back of the bus, it was apparent that there was no bathroom. In China, where it is entirely possible to be stuck in traffic for five hours, this is not a good thing. Drivers also have a tendency to avoid taking any breaks, if possible. A good ride without traffic should never be interrupted, less your luck suddenly change. But hey, we were headed south, and I was immediately distracted by the changing scenery. Corn and other lanky crops were quickly replaced with things that I had never seen; the kind of vegetation that seems to be compulsory element of every Vietnam film. And then we entered the mountains.
The bus tilted from one turn to the next as we passed through roads nearing ten thousand feet. I was a bit concerned about the odds of rolling over the edge, but we happened to have a relatively conservative driver. Other buses flew past us, ignorant to the signs warning of melting brakes and transmission failure. We periodically passed the carcass of a truck (typically unrecognizable) that had been displayed on stilts in the middle of the median, an intentional reminder of the consequences for careless driving. I found it to be quite effective, and hoped that our driver felt the same. As darkness began to creep in we made our way further into the mountains, going through long tunnels in sections were mountains had challenge the path of the road. Each time we exited to the opposite side, the sky would be just a bit darker, until I could not tell the difference between tunnel and heavens, but for the change in the sounds around the bus.
I was woken up by a change in the road. We were bouncing around and moving at a much slower speed. Small houses and shops passed by, and it was clear that we were in a village or possibly a town, but it certainly was not Pu’er. Large trucks and an assortment of other vehicles were wedged against the sides of houses, leaving only a small space for our bus to push through. There was no doubt that we were in a rural place. This was truly far in, a place that I like to call the Way Back. I have always been drawn to the quiet that exists in farming communities, a silence second only to that which you find while standing in a snow storm. True quiet is generally a sign of a working class town, an agrarian community that gets up and goes down with the sun. This town was silent, and I was excited. Getting off of the bus I could smell the fields and see the stars, and for a moment I felt like I was in my grandparents driveway in Vermont, after a long drive north from New Jersey.
There was some confusion about how to arrange our rooms in the hotel, but I didn’t mind spending a bit of time just watching the lack of movement that was all around us. Beijing, even at its most quiet, is a city of constant hum, a white noise that lingers, becomes like the noise of a jet long into a flight. You loose awareness of it’s presence, deaf to it’s roar, only to be reawakened by it’s absence once you have left. I was handed my room keys, and headed in for the night.