Friday, April 20, 2007

International theft, miscommunication and crazy driving

Dunhuang seems like an interesting place, it's certainly warmer than the other places we have been, and it was kind of a relief to get here.

We arrived after a lengthy and somewhat confusing bus ride which involved many of the classic Asian bus journey problems experienced by foreigners. We waited mysteriously at random locations for lengthy periods, we drove at 100km/hr the wrong way down a split laned freeway (which was still under construction), there were heated arguments over passengers tickets, passengers were sick, the bus was overcrowded and we got pulled over by the cops (possibly for overcrowding, possibly for crazy driving). Reasons for much of this were completely unclear to us, and all we could do was sit and wait till we arrived at our final destination. We have been doing a lot of travelling though. Getting from the east of China to the far west is no mean feat public transport wise and so in many ways we took much of this in our stride.

Dunhuang is in the middle of the desert and is famous for the Mogao caves which were first built around 366AD and were developed as places of worship and depositories of books, paintings and sculptures. After being hassled by our hotel we agreed to take their bus out to the caves. At 10am the little minivan, containing us, 3 Chinese businessmen and a driver, sped out of town, took a right turn at the skeleton of the brand new train station and headed out into the desert to the caves.

On arrival we discovered that the ticket office workers didn't speak English and that there wasn't an English tour for another hour and a half which would mean that we couldn't meet back at the minivan at the appointed time. We traipsed back to the gold minivan and tried to explain this to our driver using our little Mandarin phrase book. It wasn't clear that he completely understood so we hauled him over to the ticket office so that they could explain in fluent chinese. Much discussion ensued. The driver kept on addressing us in Chinese, and we kept on smiling and saying (in awful Chinese) "we don't understand chinese!". Finally he gave up and seemed to agree to wait for the end of our tour.

Before the tour, to kill some time we had a look in the museum on site. It had an impressive exhibition of beautiful Tibetan bronze figures obtained by unspecified means.

In a fitting display of the Chinese approach to Tibet, a Chinese security guard in the exhibit room, wandered around leisurely touching the figures and rapping them with his knuckles to hear the resulting reverberations.

The tour itself was good. It started late, but our softly spoken, young Chinese guide kept up a lively discussion on the caves, buddhism and the local weather. The paintings in the caves were interesting, in particular how they showed buddhist art over many dynasties in China. In another part of the caves an exhibit, rather mercilessly detailed the circumstances as to why the ancient books, paintings and sculptures that had been hidden in the caves are now located in museums in England, France, Russia and Japan. It seems there was an all out international raiding, not that this was limited only to foreigners, the local Chinese authorities also took their cut.

Once we had seen our allotment of 10 caves, including one cave which had what is now the second tallest buddha in the world, carved from bottom to top, standing 34 metres, we took a look at the time. We were late. We rushed out of the ticket area and over to the carpark. We stood breathless as the driver angrily gesticulated at his watch and then quickly clambered into the van. The other passengers didn't look to happy either. Dust spraying out behind the tyres we floored it out of the carpark and down the new bitumen road. After an angry exchange with the men at the gate of the in-construction train station the van came to a hasty halt and the 3 businessmen got out.

We had no idea what was going on. The driver kept on speaking Chinese to us, and by now we had given up trying to say that we don't understand Chinese. Were these men catching a train? had we made them miss the train? The driver then asked us if we wanted to go on a tour to some nearby dunes and was all smiles again, whilst loudly honking the horn. Finally the men returned and we drove back into town. Although in doing so, our driver who seemingly was taking out his frustrations through his driving avoided paying a toll at the toll booth by screaming through close at the heels of another car when the toll gate went up. The businessmen seemed to cheer up at this behaviour and happily we made it back to town.

We were dropped off at our hotel and Andrew made pains to fetch one of the hotel staff who spoke english to apologise to the driver for being late and if we had inconvenienced the other passengers. She refused to apologise for us and kept on saying "no problem".

Hmmmm. Confusing, huh. I am enjoying being in China and we have seen some wonderful sights, but I have really felt that our inability to really communicate with people has meant we are really just skimming the surface.

No comments: