“…and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars” – Jack Kerouac
I woke up to the cold biting my nose. The hostels in China weren’t equipped with heating, and the electric blanket had made me entirely too hot during the night, so I had foolishly turned it off mid-slumber. Scarf, knit hat, and knock-off North Face jacket in tow, it was time to make it to the side of the road and give hitching another try.
No sooner had Ya Ting and I raised an arm than a car pulled right over. Like our ride up to Deqin, this driver was from the minority tribe and was at least headed in our direction, though to Dali rather than LiJiang. He would be able to take us the vast majority of the way. Curious where I was from, he inquired as to my nationality and when I told him, responded with “America! It’s China’s big brother!”
The drive should have taken about three hours. Unfortunately the ride went along at an abysmally sluggish speed. It’s possible, at some points, that I could have gone faster on foot. But he wanted to enjoy the scenery and I couldn’t be frustrated with him. His childlike fascination with the beauty of his own country was endearing.
I didn’t know then how much I ought to have enjoyed the slow ride. The white knuckle-inducing rides that followed left me thinking longingly of his relaxed driving demeanor.
All seemed to be going well until he insisted we pull over for a photo op, only to notice a flat tire which we all worked together to change. Five hours later, there we were in LiJiang after catching another ride from the freeway intersection – one with a driver who told us all about where to find cheap and good street food in the area.
The next morning arrived in LiJiang and it was my turn to follow Ya Ting somewhere. She hadn’t initially planned on going to Tiger Leaping Gorge nor Yubeng, but went with me because she enjoyed the adventure and we had become such great travel buddies.
We were told there was no way we’d make it the 8 hours to Lugu lake leaving so late. We’d had a late night the evening before playing Chinese dice games, laughing, and joking. It was already noon and there were no busses left. There was no choice but to attempt hitchhiking. I figured if I couldn’t get to Lugu lake that day, I’d part ways with Ya Ting and go back to my beloved Dali.
I had the same ache in my heart to return to Dali in the way that I did to return to Pai after leaving it for the first time. But I left it up to fate to decide and as the silver car pulled up offering us a ride halfway to Lugu lake, I knew that I was meant to stay with Ya Ting.
As I jumped into the car and we pulled away from the intersection I silently promised myself to make it back to Dali before the year of the wooden horse is through.
The driver was a 20-year-old kid who lived in Yunan province. He couldn’t take us the whole way but knew that we would be able to catch the last bus out of his hometown, halfway to the lake.
He drove with reckless abandon through the sharply curved roads down the mountain – clearly well versed on how to get down and determined to get us to the bus in time. We arrived in his town with time to spare and had a delicious lunch with his uncle, who took one look at me and said he was sure I couldn’t understand Mandarin.
Ya Ting proudly countered that I spoke Mandarin very well (which is a quite inflated version of the truth), as she always did when people asked if I could speak Chinese. She added that I love spicy food and use chopsticks quite well, with obvious pride.
During the discussion the kid who gave us the lift quietly transferred our belongings to his uncle’s car then took his leave without a word. I regretted that I didn’t get to thank him but he wasn’t seeking thanks. He was simply happy to help.
The real shocker was when his uncle took us to the bus station, gave us the tickets then refused to let us give him money. We tried four times (one more than the traditional three) to insist he let us pay for the lunch and tickets. He had no intention of relenting, wishing us a pleasant journey and returning to his car.
Ya Ting turned to me, her eyes glassy and almost brimming over with tears. We were speechless, but there were no words that needed to be spoken. We had encountered more kindness that afternoon than anyone could hope for, and we both knew it.
Sometimes people suggest I see more of the world. They wonder why I can’t bring myself to leave Asia.
This is why.
Someday I will absolutely pay this forward.
Part Three —>