I’m not much of a writer, but some things are so surprising and incredible that you just have to talk about them. My adventure – and yes, I would call it an adventure – started several years ago. I say “started” because I feel the events I’m going to share with you shaped my life and will forever continue to shape it. I was twenty years old and fresh out of college. Barely was my diploma in my hands that I left the comfort of my parents’ home to travel the world. I had been planning the trip all year, an occupation that had caused my grades to drop a few points. I was going to fly to Beijing, rent a car and visit the country from there. As any young bloke who had never left his hometown, I was filled with ideas of huge landscapes, wild nature and a good deal of “making it on my own” feelings.
Upon my arrival in China, I discovered it was going to be trickier than I thought. I had been teaching myself Chinese for the past year, but actually having a conversation with someone bears little to no resemblance to reading sentences in books. I had the hardest time following when the man who rented me the car warned me against the Beijing-Tibet expressway. If I had understood better, I might have taken his advice and missed out on the most interesting and character-building experience of my life; so, in this way, I would say I was lucky my Chinese was bad.
At first, it looked like any other traffic jam. The highway at rush hour. You know that feeling you can get that you’re going to be here all night. The thing is: even when you get that feeling, you don’t actually believe you’re going to be here all night. Deep down, annoyed as you are, you know it’ll be two hours tops. At first, I thought it would be two hours tops. Time passed and then I thought it would be four hours tops. Then I thought it would be six hours tops. By the time the sun went down, we were moving about two inches every ten minutes.
And suddenly, it happened. The driver in front of me turned his engine off. That’s when I realised I hadn’t grown accustomed to the roaring as I thought I had. The roaring had stopped. I reached over to turn off my engine as well and found myself apprehending the moment when I would admit that I was actually going to be here all night after all. Instead of turning the key, I wind down my window. It had been a very hot day and the air inside the car was barely breathable.
I was busy taking in the fresh air of the evening when my eyes locked with those of the man sitting in the passenger seat of the car next to mine. He was about fifty, his face was wrinkled and very tan. He smiled. I timidly smiled back, and then returned to my steering wheel, which, I grant you, was quite useless under the circumstances. I sighed and finally turned my engine off. The silence rang in my ears for a while. I must say I just felt like crying. I cursed myself out loud for being stupid enough to think I could actually make it on my own. I was all alone in this foreign country without any clue as to how long I was stuck there and all I wanted was to be back home. I crossed my arms over the wheel and buried my face in them.
It was morning when I woke up. Very early morning, but morning nonetheless. I felt sort of numb, my neck was sore and I was starving. I was still fighting with the remains of sleep that were pulling my eyelids down when I heard a light knocking against my car door. A woman was standing there, gently smiling at me. She started speaking to me and I must say I didn’t understand a word she said.
“Sorry?” I said in English. I really didn’t feel like making an effort.
She did, however. She repeated a little slower but it was her gesture towards the front of my car that made me understand we were moving again. I nodded. She nodded.
“Thank you,” I said.
She nodded again, smiled some more and went back to her vehicle. I was able to move my car about three feet before the line stopped again.
Looking around, I saw some people getting out of their cars, so I opened my door carefully and stepped out on the tarmac. It was a surreal experience to walk on the highway. I didn’t dare leave my car – which was silly because it was pretty much like being in a parking lot – so I just stretched my legs and leaned against my car door, and almost fell through the open window. The man who’d smiled at me the day before chuckled. I blushed and looked away, trying to seem cooler than I felt.
I spotted a group of merchants slaloming between the vehicles, selling food and drink to the drivers. They must have come from a nearby village. Suddenly remembering that I was starving, I stopped a guy who was walking past me and proceeded in buying a cup of instant noodles and a bottle of water. I thought I had done a pretty good job in carrying out the transaction entirely in Chinese and was about to pay when the man that had smiled and then laughed at me stepped out of his car, took the noodles and water from my hands, gave it back to the guy and started talking very fast. I watched in a stupor as the vendor left in a hurry with my lunch.
“What’s going on?” I asked in the best Chinese I could manage.
The man – Bao-Zhi was his name, as I later learned – put his hand on my shoulder.
“Twenty yuans for that, it’s too expensive.” he said.
“I don’t have a choice,” I said. “I’m hungry.”
“Come eat with us.” he said.
For a moment, I thought I’d misunderstood, but the way he smiled and pushed me towards his car left little room for doubt. As much as I tried to protest, he wouldn’t have it. He introduced me to his brother Hai, his wife Dao-Ming and his daughter Jia. All of them were smiling and gladly welcomed me. We all sat next to their car and I was instantly handed a bowl of rice and an orange juice. Bao-Zhi was quite chatty. He told me pretty much everything about his life. How his mother’s birthday was coming up and they were travelling to see her, how he and his brother hadn’t seen each other in six months and they thought it would be fun to make the journey together, how Jia was on her summer break from studying economics at the Beijing University. I was intimidated and didn’t talk very much. They asked me if I was visiting China for the first time, although I think it must have come across quite clearly already. Little by little, I loosened up and started feeling more and more comfortable around them.
I ended up spending the next five days with Bao-Zhi and his family. We passed the time by playing cards, or chess. Hai was pretty good at it. I play a lot myself and never won against him. Once every two hour or so we would climb back into our cars, move forward a few inches and then get right back to our game or lunch or discussion. It was very emotional when we finally saw the end of the traffic jam. On the sixth day, we were able to move more, more often. We knew the time would come very soon when we would have to say goodbye and drive our separate ways. And indeed, by the end of that day, the traffic was almost back to normal. We pulled over on a parking lot and exchanged farewells. They gave me their address in Beijing and made me promise I would come and visit them as often as I could. I gave them my address in London and made them promise they would write. There was a lot of hugging and even a little bit of crying. Then I went on to carry my exploration of the country.
We kept in touch, Bao-Zhi and I, and even now that twenty years have passed, I still go to China every two years or so and visit him. It feels like I have another family always waiting for me at the other side of the world. Which in a way, I suppose I do.