November 2014 – How Not to Avoid Jet Lag

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My taxi driver was a Tibetan with a long nose and weathered skin. He told me he didn’t smoke, a rare and good thing for a taxi driver in China. We talked price for the journey from Shangrila to Tiger Leaping Gorge, and he agreed that finding another passenger would make the trip more affordable for me and more profitable for him. In short order we came across a rotund older man wearing a modified Mao suit and clutching his wallet in his chubby paw like it was a chunk of the original Analects of Confucius. His wife was with him and from what I gathered he had a plane to catch in six hours in Lijiang, probably back to Beijing if his accent counted for anything. Like me, he’d missed the morning bus and couldn’t risk waiting for the next one south. Negotiations between the old man and the Tibetan driver got louder by the sentence. The driver’s asking price was not to the old man’s liking. Wanting to hit the road, I attempted to reason with the old man. “Look, I’m heading to Tiger Leaping Gorge, halfway to Lijiang, so once we agree on a total price I can pay some of it and make your trip cheaper. Otherwise you might miss your plane.” The driver understood immediately. It was winter, and business was slow. “Yeah, what the foreigner says. Usually I charge five hundred to go from here to Lijiang. It’s four hours. But if you two want to split the cost, I’ll charge him one hundred and drop him by Tiger Leaping Gorge and bring you the rest of the way to Lijiang for three hundred. You get a bargain, and I still make four hundred for the day, minus gas and tolls. How does that sound?” The old man either didn’t get it, or sensed there was some ugly collusion happening between white devil and sinister Tibetan. He argued loudly with the driver, so loudly that the people in the bus station turned to watch. In China a public argument is considered entertainment. “WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO SAY? ARE YOU TRYING TO CHEAT ME? THREE HUNDRED TO LIJIANG! CRIMINAL! I WON’T PAY IT!” The old man’s wife tried to quiet him down. “Don’t lose your temper. Consider your blood pressure.” She understood that a taxi to Lijiang would be an unavoidable expense. “Look, it’s a fair deal,” I said. “Four hundred to Lijiang is pretty good, and you only need to pay three.” The old man took no notice of me, and continued yelling at the driver. The driver, having clearly taken enough abuse from pushy Han Chinese to last him several lifetimes, pushed back. “WHAT ARE YOU ON ABOUT? YOU DARE CALL ME A CRIMINAL? NO TAXI DRIVER WOULD BRING YOU FROM SHANGRILA TO LIJIANG CHEAPER THAN THREE HUNDRED YUAN!” I backed up a few steps and let the two duke it out, scanning the station for other options. By chance a westerner I’d bicycled around town with a few days before sat on a nearby bench. He seemed to enjoy the spectacle, though I knew he spoke no Mandarin. He was heading to Dali on the cheap: otherwise I’d have split a cab with him. After five or so minutes, the driver headed back. “This guy is crazy,” he told me. He is holding out for a better deal. How is it that he doesn’t understand that gas costs money, tolls cost money? I’ll still need to drive back to Shangrila. If I can’t catch a return fare I’ll come away with less than three hundred for a full day’s work.” I walked back over to the old man, who was still being shushed by his wife. “It’s a fair price, but I’ll tell you what. Let me pay one fifty, you just pay the other two fifty. The driver gets the full four, you get your airplane back to Beijing, and I get to Tiger Leaping Gorge before the sun goes down. Okay?” The old man barked something at his wife in an accent so guttural that I couldn’t understand him. I gleaned from his tone that he was dubious of the whole arrangement.  On the other side of the waiting room the Tibetan paced angrily. The old man and his wife conferred, and after a minute or so seemed to reach some sort of reluctant decision. “FINE, FINE, OKAY. LET’S GO!” The old man barked at the driver. We walked to the taxi. I got into the front next to the driver. The old man and his wife sat in the back. We hadn’t even gotten a block before the old man began berating the driver anew. “I NEED A RECEIPT! YOU WILL GIVE ME A RECEIPT FOR THE PRICE OF THE RIDE!” “This is off the meter. I can’t give you anything.” “THEN I WON’T GO! FOUR HUNDRED! NO RECEIPT! CRIMINAL!” The driver got on the phone and made a call to someone, presumably a fellow driver somewhere along our route. “Fine, I can give you a receipt when we arrive in Lijiang.” “YOU HAD BETTER! BECAUSE WITHOUT A RECEIPT I WON’T PAY. AND YOU WILL BRING ME TO LIJIANG AIRPORT!” Hearing this, the driver snapped. “The airport? No, I’ll bring you into town, and you can take a bus or pay me more. The airport is a further twenty five kilometers. You’re already robbing me!” “NO, YOU WILL TAKE ME TO THE AIRPORT! FOUR HUNDRED YUAN! CRIMINAL!” I turned around to face the old man. His face was bright red. “Would you just shut the fuck up already?” I hissed at him in English. “WHAT DID YOU SAY?” The old man yelled, addressing me directly for the first time. “FOREIGN GHOST! SPEAK CHINESE! YOU ARE ILL-MANNERED!” I turned to the Tibetan. “Sorry, friend. You have to let me out. If I stay in this car I will punch this old man before we’re out of Shangrila.” “Xing, xing,” the driver replied, indicating at once that he understood and that there were no hard feelings. I grabbed my bag from the trunk. “If you hit him yourself and get in trouble, have the police find me. I’ll tell them that he had it coming.” The Tibetan cracked a pained smile and drove off. I began walking back towards the bus station. I’d gotten about two blocks when a taxi pulled up next to me. It was the Tibetan driver, minus the old couple. He’d apparently gotten another block before dumping the old couple out and coming back for me. “Listen, add fifty, so it is two hundred Yuan total, and I’ll bring you to Tiger Leaping Gorge. I can’t do it for any less.” “Fine.” I threw my bag into the back seat and got in. “What was wrong with that man?” The driver said. “He was crazy, absolutely crazy!” “The elderly have an especially hard time making the adjustment from communism to capitalism,” I said. “He longs for the days when you could eat a full meal for five fen.” The driver laughed. “That guy lives in another time.” As we drove out of town I asked the driver what the man had said to finally push him over the edge. “He didn’t say anything,” he replied. “I didn’t like his attitude from the start, and figured he’d try to cheat me once we’d gotten to Lijiang. So I dumped him out and came back for you. With you I know I’ll get paid.” Though in the end it had boiled down to business, I was flattered nonetheless.

 

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