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I caught glimpses of the sunrise as I stirred in my sleeper bus bed built for a 5’5” Chinese man, legs folded awkwardly against the window and kicked up on the luggage rack in front of me. I scanned the parking lot to find our cargo bus. The night before our bikes couldn’t be loaded into the underneath of our own bus, because the space was being occupied by thousands of newly hatched chicks stuffed into cardboard boxes. Instead, we were forced to pack our bikes onto another bus leaving directly after ours. I locked the bikes into the poultry free under carriage, scribbled down the license plate, cell number and name of the other driver, and then took a leap of faith as I climbed into our bus.
I arrived in Tengchong the following morning filled with relief. The night before, I was given the run down about the bus system through an obligatory convo with our driver in the wee hours. I woke up at 2:30am due to bumps and grinding noises as our bus was slowly drifting off of the road and onto the shoulder of a windy mountain road. I looked up toward the front and saw the bus driver repeatedly punch himself in the head in attempts to wake up. I watched him abuse himself for a while before deciding I should go up and keep him company, I had no interest in sailing off of the interstate and cliffs in the mountains of Baoshan County.
I kicked my legs out of the bed and jostled forward to the front of the bus to sit on a small stool next to the driver. I lit the man’s cigarette and started chatting up the tired driver. Sitting right in front of windshield on a two story bus is quite the big screen visual experience. I hugged the stool with my legs, reaching out to brace myself frequently as we wound up the peaks and shot through tunnels that stretched into the peaks that stretched multiple kilometers into the mountains. The driver explained the ins and outs of the bus service and how he makes a living. The conversation was interesting, but this is also a key survival tactic in China where cab drivers typically work 12 hour shifts, and bus drivers push themselves into dark mountain roads to keep the Maos Maos coming into the pocket. I listened to him explain the ins and outs of how he makes a living, thrilled to have him alert with all of our lives in his tired hands.
It turns out it was a good idea to strike up the convo. Within a week of this adventure a sleeper bus traveling on the exact same route from Kunming to Tengchong careened off of the road, falling 10 meters, killing 9 people and injuring 36. I hope my new found friend’s head punching method didn’t fail him when he was at the wheel. Kunming to Tengchong sleeper bus crash article.
I stayed up chatting to the driver until the changing of the guard at Yongping. Fun facts; tolls are 770rmb (122usd) one way on the interstate to Tengchong..yikes. The driver is paid 400rmb per trip, which he does every other day, and all packages taken on the bus other than those dictated by the company ( huge flocks of chickens) the driver makes pure profit on. This type of pure profit is also achieved if he adds passengers after leaving the station, which was the case with the sleeper bus crash. Sending a package on the bus starts at 20rmb and is much faster and cheaper than the mail service. You can change a ticket at a 20% loss up until the bus leaves, or a 50% cut within one hour of the bus taking off.
The rest of our day we spent wheeling around Tengchong, first through back streets and then out into the country side. At Heshun we detoured due to the high ticket price enforced at the roped off old town. We took a cobbled road that stretched out into fields of canola with small patches of land being plowed by oxen to produce more of the same.
A vast majority of Tengchong has been converted to tourist zones, charging admission tickets for crowds and a lackluster experience. The bicycle allowed us to avoid all of this tourist riff raff and find hidden gems of the valley. Climbing off of the cobblestone path, we wheeled through a small town built on a hill before finding this seemingly empty temple. The temple was actually inhabited by monks who had quite the garden set up inside the temple walls, bee hives included.
The group of guest house employees and a couple of Chinese guests who had hunkered down in the same guest house for sometime cooked a feast. Highlights were the 可乐鸡 Coca-Cola chicken, a Chinese style chicken pot, but with some coke slow boiled in as well to make a sweet tangy sauce.
During the dinner we pulled out all of the stops, discussing censorship, social media, gun laws, ongoing Bo scandals in Chongqing and Hong Kong, the education system, Journey to the West vs. Lord of the Rings, etc… It was great to land a dinner with a bunch of young, open minded, and critical Chinese. We ate our fill and started sipping on some Jim Beam that we had brought down from Kunming.
Drinking in China usually necessitates the incorporation of food, and eventually we took the whiskey on the road in search of a new environment and grills. We traced a small canal running through Tengchong and happened upon some bars filled with local youngins. We poked our heads in and were pleased to find large stocks of whiskey, however, they only sold the poison by the bottle.
At the third bar a young bartender named Lao Dong, at first we assumed this name would mean ‘old east’ or ‘old winter’, but her name actually turned out to be ‘toil or physical labor’. Physical Labor stood about 5′ tall, was in her mid-twenties, smiled constantly, and was already a few drinks deep herself. She agreed to open a bottle of Jim Beam for us, put it on the table, and then to calculate our cost based on the percentage of the bottle we consumed. We agreed, and out came wine goblets full of Jim Beam and the remaining 2/3 of the bottle.
Within ten minutes, Physical Labor started to slouch in the table next to us. Two minutes later she was hugging the trash can under the table. The two guys who had assisted in this debauchery sat there doing nothing, so we started barking out orders, “hold her hair back”,”get another plastic bag”, “grab a glass of water, not too hot!”. Physical Labor was all smiles as we walked out of the bar, giving her thanks from the floor.
We headed onwards for grill of goose meat, lotus root, wild mushrooms, and a plate of Tengchong’s famous ‘da jiu jia‘ ‘大救架’ or the ‘big safe’, a Tengchong version of everything but the kitchen sink. Stir fried pounded rice, pork, eggs, and every veggie within arm’s reach.