After riding the 20 hour T77 train from Shanghai to Guilin, checking into a cheap hostel, taking a boat tour of the Li River and catching a bus to Yangshuo, my friend Nick and I had a good idea. Instead of taking the RMB 15 bus back to Guilin, we'd take the much more expensive and exhilarating option of a motorcycle taxi. Three were lined up outside the bus station, chatting with each other as they yapped at the puppies up for adoption at a nearby shop. We approached the man in the middle and asked how much he would charge to drive two people to the Guilin train station. He looked confused.
It's likely that no one had ever asked him to venture so far from Yangshuo. For a moment he scratched his chin in thought. “Yī bǎi wǔ,” he said. A hundred and fifty. Nick and I laughed, playing the bargaining game and repeated “Tài guì le. Tài guì le.” Too expensive, we said.
I suggested eighty. He countered one forty. Fifteen minutes and two walk-aways later he had finally gone down to one twenty. The other students we were with suddenly sparked an uproar. “Zach, Nick, this isn't a good idea. It's an hour and a half ride,” said Sophie, a friend of ours. Nick and I shrugged. She continued. “Motorcycles are one thing back in Shanghai when it comes to a five minute ride back to campus from the subway. But this seems a lot more dangerous. And it looks like it could rain.” Read the epic conclusion of this tale after the jump....
I'll admit it, she brought up some good points. But in the end Nick and I decided that the worst that could happen was we die. And everybody dies. So we thanked Sophie for her concern and hopped on the motorcycle. I remembered a conversation my mother had with my twin brother and I when we were about seven years old. “If I ever catch you riding a motorcycle—with or without a helmet—I will kill you myself,” she said with the utmost conviction. You see, my mother is a nurse, and she has spent a good deal of her career caring for the victims of motorcycle accidents. “We only have one name for them in the O.R.,” she'd say. “Organ donors. Every last one of 'em.”
The bike shot forward, and we watched our friends disappear behind us. Soon Yangshuo was gone too. The small town of roughly one hundred thousand that sees a staggering fifteen million tourists annually gave way to the open road and the beauty of the mountains around it. Lush, green and jutting out of the earth like the jagged teeth of some poor monster without dental insurance, the mountains of northern Guangxi surrounded the road with a claustrophobic splendor. A heavy smog turned the mountains a grayer form of green, and seemed to swallow the layers of mountains beyond. The motorcycle zoomed ahead; I began to smell and taste the pollution as I breathed. I was transfixed by the ambiguous nature of the countryside, where natural beauty seemed smothered by car exhaust. As if on cue, our driver pulled into a gas station.
We all hopped off the bike, and he handed RMB 20 to the lady attending the pump. She giggled hysterically at Nick and me and chatted with our driver in Chinese. He hopped back on the bike and motioned for us to do the same. Off again we went. Bugs bashed against my face, one after another, and I grew worried that they would fly into my eyes—which were already streaming with tears from the wind—but bugs were not the only thing hitting my face. Tiny rain drops periodically spat against my forehead. The smog enveloping the mountains had blended with darkness. Moisture had joined the pollution in the air. Rain and nightfall were on their way. The question was whether we'd beat them to Guilin.
Our driver clearly sensed the urgency. He lay his hand on the throttle and we sped faster than ever over the corroded road abundant with cracks and small holes (how fast exactly I cannot tell you—his speedometer was broken). Other traffic on the road drove equally desperately. Often cars would pass on the opposite lane. Buses would accelerate behind us, horns blaring, and force our motorcycle into the bike lane. At one point, two passenger buses coming toward us took up both the bike and car lanes, with heavy traffic on all sides, racing to pass one another. Despite the traumatic chaos in our path, our driver remained cool and composed. There was something truly amazing about the way he'd thread the needle every time a car or bike stood in our way. I was witnessing a master at his craft. Michelangelo was sculpting the Statue of David. And he was doing it for a measly RMB 120.
It occurred to Nick and I that we'd had very little interaction with our driver. “He's kinda just doing his thing and we were doing ours,” Nick said. Night was officially upon us, luckily without the rain, and our driver flipped on the motorcycle's headlights. We reached a kind of in-between town, where a traffic jam was at a standstill. Our driver quickly did the logical thing and scurried over to the bike lane, where movement was possible. This bike lane, however, soon arrived at the site of a broken fire hydrant. A puddle the size of a small pond was forcing bikers to alter their course—although one brave man on a moped did drive right through it. Our driver laughed. “Hěn duō shuǐ,” I said. A lot of water. He laughed even harder. “Hahaha, hěn duō shuǐ!” he shouted back. Finally, we'd had interaction.
We soon fled the in-between town and raced forward on the open road. At a toll station, our driver found himself in the middle of a car lane which would be forced to pay a toll. In a frantic attempt to reach the gratis bike lane on the right, he weaved horizontally across the automobile lines and merged with the other motorcycles and mopeds. Our motorcycle suddenly gave a heartrending howl, and I felt the engine vibrate beneath my buttocks. The bike had stalled. Our driver quickly began twisting the keys to restart her. Bike traffic around us piled up. After a moment that seemed like an hour, the motorcycle started again and we shot away from the crowd and passed the scene we'd created.
After an hour and a half of sitting on a motorcycle between the driver and Nick, the lights of Guilin came into view. Once in the city, it took about five minutes to reach the train station, and the possibility of death by motorcycle was a mere shadow behind us. The driver stopped at an intersection under a bridge and pointed to the station ahead. Nick and I got off, and the feeling in our numb legs rushed back with a tingling force. I could not stand straight, and stumbled around as I handed him the money. He smiled. We asked we could get a picture of him. His smile widened even more and he nodded.