Road Stories #48 – Camping on a building site and other adventures

Camping on a construction site in Zhaotong, China - header

Hitchhiking with a young Bruce Lee

Our flying visit to Kunming only lasted a night, we had plans that involved turning back on ourselves and into the very heart of China once again.

Our trusty Baidu map app helped us negotiate a bus out to the edge of Kunming and we scored our first ride quite quickly. A young couple picked us up and we tried to exchange a CD with them. Unfortunately, they didn’t really enter into the spirit of the whole thing and expressing a distaste for attempts and a dislike for our music, the rest of the journey passed in abruptly stony silence.

Then a married couple with a young child in the back stopped. They were travelling a long way so we made ourselves comfortable. The married couple were having an argument which added to the tension. The child, initially shy but letting the curiosity get the better of him, decided to make the journey more interesting. Showing off his karate skills he proceeded to start punching me in the neck. Small little hands of fury, he was only about six years old but had the strength of a young Bruce Lee. Desperately trying to hold him off, struggling to resist the urge to knock him out, the journey was passing slowly. Then he got hold of a small piece of ribbon and after attempting to tie my hands together, and failing, he ingeniously decided the string would also function as a garrotte and set about trying to strangle me. Parents arguing, small devil child trying to kill me, the lift could be going better.

When the car stopped everyone felt relieved. Just to put the cherry on top of this bitter cake, the couple then asked for money. We offered them a postcard instead, they looked at it like we had offered them the still beating heart of a dead cow. Awkward moments followed until they drove off looking pretty peeved.

Camping on a building site

As it was getting dark and we had no desire to trek into town and trek back again the next day, it was time to bring out the sweat box tent once again. After fruitlessly searching for a piece of land, we headed towards a construction site in the hope of a pitchable spot. In amongst the cranes and in the shadow of a half finished skyscraper we spied what looked like an acceptable location. Sure, it was rocky, not exactly sheltered and a bit in view of everyone, but we were tired and it seemed to matter little at the time.

Camping on a construction site in Zhaotong, China

There was a small shop on the corner so we went to ask them if we could pitch behind their locale. Unfortunately, our attempt to say tent in Chinese and our hand signals seemed to confuse her and she ran away. Then we saw a cabin belonging to the building site and went there to ask instead. He was a lot more friendly and gave what we took to be assent.

We had picked a real beauty of a spot and a microcosm of modern China. People were working deep into the night, light flooded the half finished edifice. The sound of drills drilling and machines whirring. There was a small canteen, a ramshackle gazebo and being hungry we went inside.

Builders canteen, Zhaotong, China

To say we attracted some attention would be an understatement. Two Europeans, trying to order food and beer in a small Chinese backwater in a place reserved for labourers. The one occupied table downed chopsticks in amazement. Still, we managed to get something, had photos taken with everybody in the place and became local celebrities. After eating we headed back to our tent, this time followed by all the restaurant’s clientèle. More photos, more hoots of laughter. My guess is that throughout the night our new friends came to check on our tent frequently, but we were too tired to care, so on our bed of rocks we slept like babes in arms.

Jon and builders in China

Hitchhiking to Leshan

Up early and back on the road. We thought today would be easier, especially when 3 middle-aged people in a packed car stopped and we discovered they were travelling quite a long distance. Lady luck wasn’t smiling on us though. Thirty minutes later and without explanation they pulled over and kicked us out.

Next up a much nicer family with a teenage daughter who spoke some English took us in. When we reached their town they tried to help us catch a car but in the end it was easier for us to do it alone and we bade them a friendly farewell. An expensive jeep stopped and he was the kind of lovely guy you dream to meet when hitchhiking. He spoke no English but insisted on giving me a pack of cigarettes and even tried to give us close to $40 but we kindly rejected his gift. We didn’t need money and his generosity in stopping to help was enough.

Following Mr. Lovely, a young guy who got a bit angry at us because we didn’t understand Chinese! It takes all sorts, I suppose. Finally a young guy who drove us into Leshan, dropped us off in completely the wrong place and it took us a few hours to work out with our host exactly where we were. After taking pictures of street names and bus stops, Julie, our host, eventually pulled up in a taxi and we were on our way to her house.

Playing a Chinese game with our host

Our host and her family trying to teach us a traditional game from Leshan called “Two, Seven, Ten”

Visiting the Giant Buddha and learning Chinese chess

Chinese food in Leshan, ChinaJulie, it turned out, was a lovely girl and we really enjoyed our time staying at her Grandparents’ house. Every evening the family laid on a feast for us all to enjoy and we felt very much at home in their company. We tried to talk a little politics with her and she had an interesting viewpoint on modern China, even if we didn’t necessarily agree with everything she had to say. Once again we met the brick wall of understanding that seemed to exist in all Chinese people. Taiwan, is, was and will always be a province of the mother country, Tibet was backward before the Chinese intervened, China is a ‘new country’ and this is a mitigating factor in such things as human rights.

Learning Chinese chess, leshan, China

Learning Chinese chess

We also got to make another video for our Cultural Relay and this one was very much up my street. Chinese chess is a subtle game of strategy and understanding and I had been desperate to learn it since seeing all the old men playing together on the streets. We also taught her and her family how to play Mancala and I think they enjoyed that as well.




Read also: How to play Chinese chess (+VIDEO)

The only slightly disturbing thing was her Grandfather clearing his throat onto the floor occasionally, with sounds straight out of a horror film. We had still to get used to this particular Chinese custom, perhaps we never would.

In Leshan, we strolled around the city and went to visit the UNESCO listed Giant Buddha. At first we were reluctant to fork out the cash but Julie disappeared for a moment and came back with two boat tickets in hand. Flatly refusing to be reimbursed, she ushered us onto the boat and we must say we are glad that she did. The Buddha is magnificent and was well worth the money.

Leshan Giant Buddha, China (13)

Being back in Sichuan once again felt great, it is one of the most beautiful regions of the whole country, but it was time to look for new adventures so we trained our sights east, deep into the heart of this contradictory, exhausting yet amazing land.

written by: Jon

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