…and found myself in a hotel room in Yangshuo hanging out of bed with a thumping headache and a rapping noise emanating from the door. It took me a few seconds to realise that I had been dreaming the whole thing and a further minute to work out that somebody was at the door. The noise had woken Lisa up too and she looked in a similar state to me. Clutching her head, she said "Well answer the bloody door then".
"Who the hell is it?" I asked. I looked at my watch. It was 10 o'clock. I crawled out of bed, pulled on my shorts and staggered over to the door. I opened it a fraction and peered out. The woman standing on the other side must have been a bit shocked by my appearance because she stepped back a pace.
"Richard is waiting for you downstairs." she said.
"Who?" I replied.
"He says he is called Richard and he is from Lisa's."
By now, Lisa had joined me. "Tell him to wait for us at Lisa's," she said to the woman. "We'll be there as soon as we can."
I closed the door and looked at Lisa, my head full of confusion. "Who the hell is Richard?" I asked.
"Don't you remember last night," said Lisa. "Lisa arranged a trip for us to see the Yangshuo and all the countryside. This guy Richard will take us on a four hour bike ride to Moon …"
I didn't let her finish the sentence. "FOUR HOUR BIKE RIDE?" I shouted and immediately reeled as my head roared in pain and a tidal wave of nausea washed over me. As I stumbled onto the bed, Lisa continued.
"Yes. We, that is BOTH you AND I, agreed to go on a four hour bike ride with a guide called Richard. After that, Lisa will get us a taxi to take us to Guilin airport."
"But FOUR HOURS?" I cried pitifully. "I wouldn't manage four minutes. I have the grandmother of all hangovers and all I want to do is sleep."
"We'll be alright," said Lisa. "And besides, I wouldn't mind seeing the countryside. I'll bet it's gorgeous"
"But it was bloody boiling out there yesterday," I said. "I'll die!".
Lisa was determined to go, even though she felt rough, and even more determined that I should come along as well. When I suggested that she go and I stay at Lisa's to recover, she gave me a look which told me that my health would deteriorate very quickly if I didn't go with her and Richard. Reluctantly, I agreed and went for a shower in an attempt to wash away my hangover and inject some zest into my life. Thankfully, it worked and, after my morning constitutional (record still intact) I got dressed and packed, whilst waiting for Lisa.
Almost an hour after we had been rudely awakened, we left the hotel room and checked out. The receptionist locked our rucksacks in a room behind the counter for safekeeping. I was about to try to persuade Lisa to forget the idea of cycling around South China when a young man of around twenty walked up to us.
"Dave and Lisa?" he asked.
"Yes," I said warily.
He grabbed my hand and said "I'm Richard. I will be taking you on a trip to see Moon Hill. Let's go to Lisa's to get the bikes."
"After breakfast," I said. There was no way I was going to attempt a bike ride on an empty stomach.
"You can eat at Lisa's," suggested Richard with a smile.
We left the hotel and followed Richard to Lisa's. On the way, he told us that he had been waiting since 8 o'clock for us at Lisa's and had eventually come to the hotel to find us thinking that we had changed our mind. I'm glad he hadn't come that early. I think I would have killed him.
Richard was about as tall as me and spoke very good English. His black hair was short and a smile was constantly on his face, which made me think that he was related to Lisa, the proprietor of Lisa's restaurant. This was not the case. Richard was a student who made money while he was studying by taking tourists around the Guilin and Yangshuo countryside. He explained that he wasn't just doing it for the cash; being a guide enabled him to meet and chat with English speaking tourists and become more fluent. I was very impressed and told him so. Listening to his story made me feel a bit of shame at how we had treated the touts who had pestered us yesterday. Each one had spoken very good English and had had the same agenda as Richard. I began to feel guilty and regretted lying and being so rude to the two women we had encountered yesterday. I knew that we would only need one guide to show us around but the first girl we had encountered should have been the one who took us simply because she had asked first (in fact she had asked twice). I hoped that we wouldn't bump into her today.
Eventually we arrived at Lisa's and there, waiting for us was Lisa herself.
"What time do you call this?" she asked with a huge grin on her face. I couldn't believe what happened next. Lisa, the Chinese variety, grabbed my hand and slapped my wrist. "I told Richard that you would be here at 8 o'clock and here you are, turning up at 11 o'clock. He's been waiting …"
The monologue lasted for a few minutes, accompanied by finger-wagging and the occasional slap on the wrist. My mind had not quite recovered from its dreamy hungover state and, for a few seconds, I thought that my mother had come to China, somehow transformed into this woman standing before me and was reprimanding me for an irresponsible act of gross stupidity.
" … so I hope you are going to be back in time for the taxi I ordered you." she finished.
"Yes, mum!" I replied - I didn't really. She would have slapped me again. We sat down at one of the tables and asked for the breakfast menu. My head was still spinning and I ordered a huge bottle of water to go with my meal. I must admit that the breakfast and the water made me feel a whole lot better, so much so that the thought of a huge bike ride didn't seem too bad at all. Richard had obtained two bikes while we were eating and parked them next to us. We bought another bottle of water each from Lisa and paid her for the breakfast and hire of the bikes - a cool 50 yuan for both of us (around £4).
The bikes were fairly new but nothing special. At least they would be adequate as long as the journey wasn't too strenuous and there weren't a lot of hills involved. I popped my water into the basket at the front of the bike and settled in the saddle.
"Right," I said to Richard and Chinese Lisa. "I'm ready to go now. What's the plan?"
Lisa said goodbye and disappeared back into her restaurant. Richard told us the plan. We would ride out into the countryside alongside the river, through a few villages, past a few farms, see Moon Hill and stop at anything interesting along the way.
"Er, what is Moon Hill exactly - and is it steep?" I asked. I didn't fancy the prospect of mountain climbing today. Richard explained that it was a hill shaped like the moon but he didn't tell me how steep it was nor whether we would be cycling up to the top. He just smiled and cycled away. "I guess we'd better follow him then." I said to Lisa.
I had expected the day to be as hot and humid as the previous days, so I came out dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, sunglasses and a hat, which I had purchased the evening before. I was so convinced of this that I had left my ordinary glasses in my rucksack back at the hotel. In my post-alcoholic state, I hadn't realised that the day was very dull and cloudy and not too warm. We set off at a leisurely pace along the main road and left Yangshuo towards Moon Hill. As soon as we were out of range of the hotel, the heavens opened. My hat shielded my sunglasses enabling me to see but the road started to become very wet, very quickly. The wheels of the bike sprayed water up my back and my legs were soon covered in spots of mud.
Richard, thankfully, didn't sprint off into the distance and Lisa and I were able to keep up with him. After about ten minutes, we drifted through the outskirts of Yangshuo and into the countryside proper. There were no cars at all. People rode around on bikes wearing the traditional conical Chinese hats. I was envious because my pathetic hat was small in comparison. Richard seemed to know everybody; he waved and shouted to passers-by, exchanging pleasantries as we passed. Many of them smiled and waved at Lisa and I; those who didn't simply stared at us (probably amazed to see a stupid half-dressed gweilo on a bike wearing sunglasses in the rain!).
We passed farms with people riding carts pulled by huge oxen. There were rice fields in abundance. Farmers, ankle deep in water, were wading through the fields, oblivious to both us and the rain. It seemed as if we had travelled back a few decades in time. The complete absence of motor vehicles, such as tractors, added to this feeling. The country air had a fresh untainted smell and was a welcome relief after Hong Kong and Guangzhou, and actually began to cure my hangover, clearing my head of muzziness and cobwebs. The rain was very refreshing and helped me recover. After a further twenty minutes, I felt almost human again.
Occasionally, we stopped to take photographs of the limestone peaks dotted around the vicinity. I was pleased that the day was cool but a little sad that there was no sunshine. Lisa took quite a few photographs but I feared that the dull and rainy day would not do justice to the beauty of our surroundings.
The weather became more changeable as we rode on but the sun didn't grace us with its presence. The rain stopped long enough for us to dry off just before starting again and soaking us once more. We left the main road and followed Richard along a smaller, winding country lane devoid of people. After a further five minutes, Richard stopped and suggested we rested for a while. Lisa took this opportunity to capture him on film. He was a little embarrassed and suggested that he take a photograph of us. We obliged but Lisa was not going to take no for an answer. I stood next to Richard and, although reluctant at first, he thrust his arm around my shoulder and, with a huge smile, said "A photo of David and Richard."
Once again the rain had stopped and we had a few minutes to savour the countryside. The surrounding area was lush and green with limestone peaks scattered around the area. Small rivers and streams wound their way around the peaks and the low cloud added to the overall picture, providing an eerie yet entrancing landscape. Lisa continued to take photographs as Richard told us a story about how Yangshuo came to be:
In ancient times, Yangshuo was flat and grassy and featureless with no rivers and no limestone peaks. A lone shepherd wandered around the area with a herd of sheep, each one with a rope around its neck. The shepherd held the other end of each rope to ensure that the sheep didn't run away. The grass was lush and provided excellent food for the sheep. After many miles had been covered, the shepherd grew weary and sat down to rest. Inevitably, he fell asleep, and the sheep saw their chance for freedom. As slumber came, the shepherd's grip on the ropes relaxed enough for the sheep to move away and roam free. Eventually, the shepherd awoke and began to search for his lost sheep but found that the landscape had completely changed. He had slept for so long that his sheep had become the limestone peaks and the ropes he used to hold them had become rivers flowing throughout the area.
It was a great story but they must have been bloody big sheep and I certainly would not have liked to have encountered the shepherd.
Richard set off again and we followed as he led us through small communities. The local children must have been used to tourists because they came running out to us and shouted "hello" in perfect English. When we replied, the children tried to run alongside us and continued to shout "hello" to us urged on when we replied back to them. We passed through small villages and farms where local people were working, chatting or relaxing by playing mahjjong.
I pulled alongside Lisa and said "This is great." and I meant it. My hangover had completely disappeared, adrenaline pumped through my body as I cycled and I felt strangely at home. Everything was so peaceful and even the bad weather couldn't dampen my spirit. We caught up with Richard who suggested that we head to Moon Hill.
I was curious about Moon Hill. Both of the guides I'd met the previous day had tried to sell slightly different tours but everything centred around Moon Hill. The guide book was back in the hotel so I hadn't read up on the area to find out what was so special about it. I was still nervous about cycling uphill, because, despite feeling relatively healthy, I wasn't exactly fit enough to climb a steep gradient on this simple bicycle. Although the rain had almost stopped, the conditions underfoot were treacherous; the paths through the fields were muddy and the road was covered in puddles where the tarmac wasn't level.
Twenty minutes later, we followed a bend in the road and Richard announced our arrival at Moon Hill, pointing to our right. Moon Hill is so called because it has a huge hole shaped like a half moon smack in the middle of it. Our view of the hill was partly obscured by more limestone peaks, trees and forestation, but although relatively small, it was certainly a beautiful sight to behold. There was no surprise that so many tourists were drawn to it and why so many guides were keen to exploit this.
"You can climb the hill on foot," said Richard. "I will show you where to go."
In fact, Richard took us to the bottom of the hill and pointed to a rough path leading towards the summit. He decided that he would not accompany us, his excuse being that he had climbed it so many times. I didn't blame him. As we dismounted from our bikes, we were surrounded by local women trying to sell us their wares. Some had postcards, others had small metal pins and other trinkets the remainder with large polystyrene boxes full of ice and cans of soft drink. Lisa and I both bought a set of ten postcards for 8 yuan and we literally had to run to avoid being hounded further. Because we had bought the cards separately, we hadn't had chance to check with each other. And guess what. We both bought identical cards. It could only happen to us. One woman in particular kept up with us, despite her advanced years and insisted that we buy something. Exasperated, I said "on the way down," just to shut her up. I was hoping that she could slip past her later.
Richard told us that there were a thousand steps to reach the peak and that it was easy and obvious. All we had to do was follow the signs. The ground beneath us was sodden but walkable, so we set off. After a few minutes, we came to a point where the path split into two and no signpost to tell us where to go. Lisa pointed to the left and said, "it has to be that way. It's steeper." I thought about it for a few seconds and, unable to make up my own mind, agreed to take a chance and head to the left.
The path certainly got steeper and the ground was slippery and muddy. I don't know why, but the temperature seemed to have dropped and my wet clothes clung to me uncomfortably, aggravating my feeling of coldness. The further we progressed, the more difficult it was to follow the path. The trees were closer together and the slope in front of us, though punctuated with rocks, became increasingly difficult to climb. My shoes were sliding and I frequently had to grasp branches and trees to stop myself from falling. Lisa was struggling behind me. I asked her if she still thought this was the right way. Richard had told us that there were a thousand steps and I saw before me a muddy slide with no rocks to act as a natural staircase. For the first time, I saw doubt in Lisa's face. My worst fears were realised when I noticed, climbing a bit further, that we had reached a summit of sorts, with a magnificent view of Moon Hill a hundred yards to the right. The only way I could have reached Moon Hill from here would have been to sprout wings and fly over there. Tonto had done it again!
With a sigh, and getting colder, we both retraced our steps back down to the fork in the path. Descending was even worse. I lost count of the number of times I slipped and landed fully on my arse. No words were spoken when we reached the fork; we marched silently along the other path, which incidentally was relatively easy to climb. We finally reached the top and stood under the natural arch of rock which gave Moon Hill its name. The view was magnificent and cheered me up despite the conditions.
All of the climbing had warmed me up slightly and I was surprised and very pleased to see two more women with a huge box of cans of fizzy drink, waiting for us. Sensing our fatigue and eager to make a quick yuan, the two women dragged the box over to us and sold us a can each. As we drank, we marvelled at the scenery; limestone peaks stretching off into the distance, peering up through a veil of mist and haze caused by the weather conditions. Lisa took many photos of the surrounding scenery and I hoped that they would capture its beauty. The two women tried to talk to us but we ignored them and sat on a rock, escaping into the alien landscape stretching before us.
The younger and more persistent of the two women approached us again. I was fed up of saying no to them so I decided to engage them in conversation. Obviously they were used to tourists so their command of English was superb. The younger woman told us something of her life in Yangshuo:
The women came from a village in the shadow of Moon Hill, which we could clearly see when she pointed it out to us. The younger woman's husband was a farmer and although, mostly, the family just about made enough to get by, the women could improve things considerably by selling things to tourists. All of the women we had seen at the bottom of the hill were from the same village and she and her mother (the other woman) carried this huge and heavy box of soft drinks up to the peak of Moon Hill every single day. Not for the first time on this holiday, I felt ashamed. I was tired, cold and wet and had whinged about going on a bike ride, while these poor women had to stay here in the cold and rain for the whole day, having dragged a huge weight up the hill and hope that they made enough money to make their lives that little bit more pleasant.
Before we left, I asked if it were possible to stand on top of the very summit of Moon Hill, that is the top of the rock arch. I was told that there was a path leading up to it but, on a day like today, it would be windy and slippery and hence not advisable. We waved goodbye to the women and descended Moon Hill to rejoin Richard.
On our way down, we met four tourists being followed by another group of women from the village. One of the women was the one from whom I had promised to buy something. Unfortunately she recognised me. "You buy something from me," she said blocking my path. I had bought fizzy drinks and postcards and really didn't want to buy anything else - they had nothing to offer me. I was met with hostility.
"You CHEAT on me," she hissed. "You said you buy and now you CHEAT." I didn’t know what to say. The tourists in front, amused by the situation, stopped and watched. I didn't want to shout at the woman because I felt that this was her livelihood but at the same time I didn't want to end up buying a useless trinket. I stood my ground.
"No. I am not cheating you," I said smiling in an attempt to heal this slight wound in Anglo-Sino relations. "I didn't say I wanted it at all."
"YES YOU DID!" she said, the volume of her voice rising. Each word was spat out with pure venom. Indecision took over. Should I stand my ground and shout back at her? Should I walk away and ignore her? Should I give in and buy one of her useless badges and, while repairing the minor rift between us, appear a weak willed useless excuse for a human being?
I looked at Lisa for guidance but no help came from that avenue of enquiry. Although she didn't actually say anything, the expression on her face told me how much help she was going to be, just as sure as if a telepathic message had passed between us saying, "You got yourself into this mess, mate. You get yourself out of it.". Thanks Lisa.
I considered my options:
Should I stand my ground? I imagined the outcome of repeatedly saying no to this crazy woman. Eventually her friends would join in and I would be surrounded by a mob of angry women questioning my right to exist as a human being and accusing me of being the worst person on the planet since Adolf Hitler. The only outcome was humiliation, especially as the four tourists were thoroughly enjoying the show.
In the past, I have suffered when confronted by "nutters" especially when there have been a lot of witnesses to my inexorable humiliation at their hands. Once, I was sitting on a train on the London Underground, listening to music through headphones from my personal tape machine. So entranced was I by the dulcet tones of Geddy Lee from Rush that I failed to notice the mutant hybrid of a man and gorilla who sat next to me. Looking back, I should have noticed the reaction of the other people on the train; shock when they saw him board and look around for a suitable victim; terror has he approached them; relief as he sat down next to me; suppressed mirth as he began to pick on his victim. I was totally oblivious. I couldn't hear a thing over the volume of music so I had no idea about the weight of the blow fate was about to attack me with. The lady opposite placed her hand over her mouth to stifle a laugh. I was lost in "Mystic Rhythms" my favourite track on the album. I sensed movement next to me but, before I had time to turn and see what was happening, Geddy's voice was replaced by a loud "WHY WON'T YE FUCKING ANSWER ME?" as the Neanderthal ripped off my headphones and threw them onto the floor.
I was livid. I turned to him to express my disgust but when I saw his face, I changed my mind abruptly. The creature next to me had, I'm sure, just crawled out of a cesspit from Satan's sewage farm. He was covered from head to feet in filth from a place I couldn't even begin to imagine. His eyes were so bloodshot that for a second, I believed I was facing one of Satan's more hideous demons. His straggly, knotted beard was full of half eaten food and his teeth were a deep shade of brown. "ARE YE FUCKIN' DEAF OR WHAT?" he shouted, his fetid, whiskey-smelling breath assaulting my nostrils. I looked into his eyes probing for some sign of intelligence and sanity, but my search was fruitless. I was being verbally assaulted by a complete fruitcake.
For ten minutes I had to endure a relentless tirade of meaningless questions and drunken insults. I nodded and shook my head at the right intervals and twice had to refuse his offer to "take me outside and give me a good kicking". The rest of the train loved my ritual humiliation. I couldn't face the prospect of it happening again. Option one was out.
Should I ignore her and walk away? I asked myself how she would react. In my view, she would follow me down the hill with her gang behind her, getting more and more aggressive, forcing me to run for my bike and ride away in shame. Not too bad an option considering that I would never see her again. However, the tourists observing the scene would say, "You should have seen it. A young man being chased down the hill by a group of old women, fitter than him, while his girlfriend was rolling round on the floor laughing." Also, I would have nowhere to ride to because there was a distinct possibility that Richard would not be there at the bottom and I had no idea how to get back to Yangshuo. The final nail in the coffin for this option was the prospect of facing Lisa having run away, got lost and missed our connection out of Yangshuo.
I had to do the honourable thing, swallow my pride, use another cliché and buy a badge. I held my hands up and said "I don't want to give you the impression that I'm cheating you and I certainly don't want to offend you." I bought two panda badges at the stupidly low price of 2 yuan. She smiled at me and turned to follow the four tourists to the top of Moon Hill.
Richard was at the bottom of the hill, chatting to other guides and women from the village. When they saw us, the women once again surrounded us, trying to sell us postcards and other rubbish. The women who had sold me the postcards earlier was amongst them and nagged me to buy even more postcards. I raised my hands and said "I have no more money." Undeterred by my apparent lack of cash, they followed me to my bike, hounded me as I mounted it and yelled after me as I rode off. I waited for Lisa and Richard to catch up and we set off for our next port of call: the Dragon's Cave.
It wasn't far to the cave from Moon Hill. We arrived just in time because once again, the heavens opened. We quickly purchased tickets and joined the guide waiting to show us around the cave. Once again, Richard declined to accompany us, having seen the caves many times.
We followed the lovely young woman acting as out tour guide, into the cave and I soon realised that something was wrong. I couldn't see a bloody thing. Why? I had stupidly left my normal glasses in the hotel and was standing there in a dark, barely illuminated cave wearing a pair of sunglasses. I could have sworn that the guide was sniggering as she led us through the dingy low-ceilinged caves. I grabbed Lisa's hand and said "Don't let go," as I pulled off my sunglasses and allowed myself to be ushered along.
Although my view of the caves was impaired by my useless eyes and even more useless sunglasses, I enjoyed the tour. Different coloured lamps had been strategically placed to add to the atmosphere of the place; the guide pointed out rocks shaped like chickens, elephants, eagles, crocodiles, cats and other assorted fauna plus the occasional mythical beasts, each illuminated to highlight the beauty or menace expected of such creatures. Viewed through my short-sighted eyes, the colours, shadows and blurred shapes gave me a wholly different and much more incredible perspective. The only time I wore my sunglasses was to scan for low rock so that I could avoid fracturing my skull and to watch underground waterfalls cascading to black depths below. At the end of the tour, we had to go through a water filled cave. Fortunately they provided boats for us and a rower, standing at the end of the long boat, conveyed us through the winding cave, skillfully avoiding the low hanging rocks and carefully steering the boat around the tight corners.
We left the Dragon's Cave and walked outside into the heaviest rain so far today. Richard, looking like a drowned rat, was patiently waiting for us. He told us that our next stop was the ancient Big Banyan Tree.
The sky was dark grey and the rain was coming down relentlessly. The Banyan Tree was one our way back to Yangshuo so we decided that, already being drenched, it wouldn't be too much of a hardship to take a peek at this 1500 year old vegetable.
As we rode, I lost all enthusiasm. I could barely see through my sunglasses and the darkness of the afternoon added to my visibility problems. I had to keep stopping to attempt to clean them, but when I did so, they steamed up. I passed the Banyan Tree with barely a glimpse in its direction and, although Richard insisted we take a closer look, we decided to head back to Yangshuo for refreshments before setting off to our next destination.
Chinese Lisa was waiting for us back at her café and howled with laughter when she saw the state of the three of us. We handed our bikes back to Richard and sat down for a well deserved late lunch. We bought Richard a beer and shared our lunch with him. He told us once more of his grand plan to leave China. He wanted nothing more than to see the world and he certainly had the ambition for it. His English was certainly good enough. We paid him 100 yuan for taking us around the countryside and I left an excellent account of our day in his book, hoping that my words would persuade other tourists to take up Richard's offer as a guide. I took the time to read a few of the other accounts. Others were equally as impressed as we were and said so in no uncertain terms. A group of people behind us had been taken on a tour by Richard the day before and were chatting to him as if they had known him for years. If nothing else comes of his book of praise, it will serve as a pleasant reminder of his time as tour guide in Yangshuo and I have no doubt that he will treasure it in years to come.
Murphy's Law came into play as we ate our meal; the rain stopped and the sun came out. Along with the sun came the warmth to dry us off. We sat at Lisa's café and relaxed after a great day of exercise and sight-seeing and chatted to our new Chinese friends until the taxi, ordered for us by Chinese Lisa, turned up. I exchanged email addresses with Richard and Lisa and they waved us off as the taxi took us to our hotel. I retrieved our rucksacks and swapped my sunglasses for my normal glasses and we headed off for Guilin airport and our first domestic Chinese flight.
Guilin airport was roughly one and a half hours away but the taxi fare was a mere twenty yuan. We entered the terminal building and checked in, having to pay an exorbitant fifty yuan airport tax fee. We sat down for a coffee, having paid Hong Kong prices for it, and took it in turns to change out of muddy and slightly damp clothes.
What is it about airports that gives them the right to charge vastly inflated prices for everything? The story is the same the world over. I was unpleasantly surprised in China. I thought that a poorer country would have cheaper airports but it seems that all of them, regardless of the country's economy, feel the need to rip off their passengers. People who fly are generally wealthy enough to do so, especially in China, and, once in the airport, there is nowhere else to eat while you wait for your flights. So you get ripped off. And it pisses me off no end. Furthermore, what is the story with airport tax? Why can't they include it in the price of the ticket? I hate having to pay an additional fee in an airport. I forget the number of times I have been scratching around for currency, having just spent my last few pennies on something I didn't really want, just to get rid of the pocketful of coins I have accumulated, only to find that a checkin clerk is demanding more money for this so-called airport tax. Beaurocratic robbery makes my blood boil.
Apart from that, Guilin airport was just like every other small airport I have been to. Lisa had a minor trauma when she discovered that her shampoo had leaked over her other toiletries. How I laughed until I discovered that my toothbrush was one of the victims. I would be cleaning my teeth with shampoo and toothpaste for the remainder of our trip.
The flight to Chongqing was uneventful and took about an hour. The food was nondescript and unspectacular, as I had expected and nothing untoward happened. We had no hotel planned in Chongqing, so we decided to look at the guide book for a recommendation. One hotel in particular caught our eye; the Renmin Hotel, described as one of the most incredible hotels in China. The hotel was expensive for China but we were only staying for one night and our budget would allow the additional cost. That was where we were going to stay.
The flight landed on time in the darkness and we left the airport terminal building, walking straight into a free-for-all. Touts galore were screaming for us to use their taxis but a uniformed man pointed to the legitimate taxi rank. A couple of taxis were waiting but the driver of the first taxi basically shoved us into his car, fighting off howls of protest from the other drivers. My suspicions were instantly aroused because it seemed that our driver was now the lucky one who could rip off two foreigners - at least that's what Captain Paranoia whispered to me as I closed the door. Another uniformed man handed us a piece of paper with a list of taxi fares from the airport to Chongqing. Lisa and I sat next to each other and exchanged a knowing glance. We had made a big mistake getting into this cab.
It was a proper taxi, of that I have no doubt; the sign on the roof said "taxi"; it had a phone number on the side and a meter inside. However, this was without doubt, not only the smallest taxi but, most probably, the smallest car I had ever been in. My knees were next to my ears and my ankles jammed up against the top of the passenger seat in front of me. The car was a Suzuki Alto. I wondered whether it was the first car ever made by Suzuki. But it the situation got worse. When the driver jumped in and started his engine, it sounded like an oil drum full of marbles, spinning in time to a rap song. The car lurched forward as a huge plume of smoke exploded from the exhaust pipe. The driver increased his speed and the engine, already loud enough to wake a corpse, increased its noise level once more. The taxi thundered around the small winding roads in the airport area before joining a motorway heading in the direction of Chongqing. I regretted not having any cotton wool because I feared I would be totally deaf by the time we had finished our 25km journey into the city, that's if the taxi actually made it that far.
After a few minutes, I noticed the meter in the taxi. It read 53 yuan. I tapped the driver on the shoulder and pointed at the meter, trying to tell him to set it to zero. He turned round and started gesticulating at me. Fearing he would crash the car I pointed to the road trying to persuade him that he should be watching where he was going rather than arguing with me face to face. Unfortunately, he had no idea what I was trying to tell him and grabbed the price list from my hand. What happened next was beyond belief. With one hand on the price list, and the other hand pointing and jabbing at the price list, this mad taxi driver almost turned around completely whilst shouting in Mandarin.
My life flashed before me, focusing on what could have been my last few seconds on earth; sitting in the back of a taxi, converted from a lawnmower, being driven by a deranged lunatic, who would rather turn around and argue with his passengers than concentrate on the driving. In a desperate attempt to placate the fool, I nodded and held my hands up. My gestures did the trick because he turned around and placed both hands on the wheel happy to watch the road again. I decided that it was safer to haggle for the price when we reached the hotel rather than risking death. My attempts to calm him down didn't fully work because he insisted on trying to drive his message home on several occasions (as if repeating it in Mandarin would miraculously make me understand what he was blithering on about. Each time he turned round and pointed at the price list. Luckily, he kept a hand on the wheel and, although I didn't feel totally secure, I felt a little safer.
I was relieved when we reached Chongqing itself. It was difficult to see what the city was like in the darkness but the little I saw reminded me of Guangzhou. Once again, all other drivers had taken leave of their senses the moment they stepped into their vehicles and proceeded to drive around the narrow streets like crazed maniacs. The difference between here and Guangzhou at this point, however, was the fact that I was sitting in the world's smallest car being driven by the most psychotic taxi driver on the planet. I flinched every time a larger vehicle came near to us and because every vehicle was larger than this converted go-kart I was travelling in, I flinched all the time. I could have sworn on occasion, when I caught sight of his reflection in the rear view mirror that this man was the devil incarnate; complete with red eyes and horns. Or perhaps that was the image being shown to me by Captain Paranoia.
After what seemed like an eternity, Mr Madman pulled up at a hotel. I looked out of the window and saw the sign, blazing in red neon; "Chongqing Guest House". My patience finally reached snapping point. The doorman of the hotel opened the taxi door, so I got out with my guide book and walked to the driver's door, with the aim of showing him where we had actually asked him to go. Shaking his head, Mr Madman said something in Chinese and I got back in the taxi. By this time, it was very late and Lisa had had enough. As Mr Madman pulled away, Lisa tapped him on the shoulder and said "stop". Bizarrely, he actually did stop the taxi so I took the opportunity to get out. I was amazed that he had understood what Lisa had said, or perhaps he had just guessed. It was now time to pay the fare.
Mr Madman asked for 130 yuan. I was furious. I had been sitting in this clapped out old oil drum on wheels for the best part of 45 minutes, being driven by the most demented nutcase in China and had spent the whole time convinced that I was going to meet my maker way ahead of schedule. And the lunatic was asking for 130 yuan.
The Sleep Monster intervened. Lisa was so tired that all she could focus on was getting to bed. Getting out of the taxi, she handed over 100 yuan and began to drag me towards the hotel. Stunned, the taxi driver muttered something in Chinese, then, incredibly, shook my hand. The doorman watching this exchange tried his best not to laugh at the situation. As he drove off, the taxi driver yelled something at the doorman and made a handsign I had never seen before. The tone of his voice and the fact that the hand signal was not shown in the guide book led me to believe that he was saying something like "Good riddance to these fucking foreigners." The doorman didn't react.
The hotel was gorgeous. It was another elite hotel, covered in marble with a fountain in the middle of the foyer. The rigours of the day had finally caught up with us and we used the reception desk to prop us up as we asked for a room. The receptionist quoted 450 yuan, but we felt that this was too much and sat down to consider our next move. The guide book listed a few hotels in the city but most of the good ones were a taxi ride away. Lisa looked totally dejected. I, too couldn't face another taxi ride.
The receptionist must have felt sorry for us and, after a word with his superior, offered us a room for 350 yuan. Lisa haggled him down to 325 yuan. We had read in the guide book that certain hotels are for Chinese people only and the remaining hotels have two tariffs, one for locals and one for foreigners. Clearly, in this case, the hotel had made an exception in our case to offer us a room at the local rate because it was late in the day and the room would be paid for. We decided that we would try this ploy again in the future.
The first room we were offered, didn't have a bed. The receptionist was extremely embarrassed by this and gave us another room, which was even more luxurious that the Friendship Hotel in Guangzhou.
That night, I was asleep almost before my head touched the pillow.