We were leaving Lanzhou trying to make an appointment in Huazangsi, an hour and a half northwest along the Gansu Corridor. Lanzhou is a dump of a city in country known for its dumps. It is an industrial wasteland of two million people. This provincial capital is surrounded by desert mountains, and, in the winter, those mountains trap all the city’s pollution, making it one of the most polluted places on Earth.
We were happy to leave, but it was more trouble than we realized it was going to be. We took a city bus to the entrance to a dusty expressway. Semis and buses swirled around us, a long line snaking towards the toll booth. We posted in a strategic place and I began to flag down drivers.
Within a few minutes, a black sedan made by a company called “Red Flag” pulled up to us. “Where are you going?” The driver asked across his son riding in the passenger leather seat.
“Okay. I can take you there.”
He helped us put our stuff into his trunk and then we hopped in.
Things started off well. I thanked him for the ride, and we chatted. He had his son look up where Huazangsi was on his phone.
He did something weird though: instead of entering the expressway, where he had picked us up, he continued along a dirt frontage road, paralleling the expressway for several miles. Chinese people have penny-wise, dollar foolish ways of saving money. At night, they often drive without their lights on to save money on the battery. Of course, the amount wasted on car accidents dwarfs the few cents saved on the battery.
This driver taking his nice sedan on the frontage road to avoid the toll seemed like a case of this penny-wise, dollar-foolish mentality. The amount of potholes he was eating was certainly doing more damage to his suspension than he was saving on tolls. Plus, I thought it was strange that any man who would pick up hitchhikers for free was that pressed for cash. This should have been a red flag, but I did not think anything of it.
About forty-five minutes into the ride, once we had gotten into the rolling desert with few houses, he told us that he was going to ask for nine hundred RMB for the ride, about $150 USD.
I was stunned. If they are asking for money, they usually say so at the beginning of the ride, before you get in. Plus, what kind of man in a nice car would bring his son along to pick up riders?
“That’s way too much.” I began to argue with him.
“What are you going to do if I just force you out in the middle of nowhere?”
“I’m not giving you any money. If you wanted money, you should have told us at the beginning of the ride.”
“This is my car, and I make the rules. You don’t know how far it is. It is three or four hours from here.”
“I checked last night. It’s an hour and a half.”
We argued like this for ten minutes. He pulled off the interstate into a satellite city near the Lanzhou airport called “New Lanzhou.” New Lanzhou was dead, empty of any sign of life except for the construction workers building this entirely new city. Looking around at the forest of empty sky-scrapers, I guessed there were homes for a million people. All of them empty.
He had stopped in the middle of nowhere, near a series of empty apartments, telling us to get out and pay him one hundred RMB for getting us this far. “I won’t accept anything less. I’ve already driven you this far.” I told him I was not going to pay him any more than fifty RMB, and that he had to take us somewhere we could get a ride. He yelled at us more, but I did not feel threatened. I read while we waited, knowing I could break him.
After five minutes of waiting, I had broken him. He agreed to drop us off at an expressway entrance as long as I paid him eighty RMB. For the next, fifteen minutes, he drove around the empty city, trying to find where an expressway entrance was, asking everyone he saw along the road. We paid him, removed our bags from the trunk of his Red Flag, and he disappeared back into the forest of uninhabited apartments.
In the shade of a newly built hotel in the middle of this empty city we took account of our situation and asked for directions from the hotel staff. We received several different sets of directions, so we just began walking along the wide deserted avenues in the direction we thought we wanted to go.
Almost immediately, we saw an SUV pulled over on the side of the road, two old ladies and a young man fiddling with the luggage in the back. I asked them if they knew which way to go. They told us and asked us what had happened. We told them.
Almost immediately, they said they would take us back for free and gave us each a bottle of lemonade. They were not going in the direction that we wanted to go, but they were going back to Lanzhou.
“There are no buses from here to Huazangsi.” They told us as we sped back through the countryside we had just gone through, this time taking the expressway the whole way. “And that driver was taking you the wrong way. He probably did not have any idea of where he was going.”
Considering what had happened, I first believed that that the Red Flag driver had intentionally dropped us off in the wrong place. However, when I remembered how long it had taken him to get to the point where he had agreed to drop us off, I thought they were probably right. The man just had no idea of where he was going. I was mad at myself for missing all the red flags.
The nice people dropped us off at a bus station, and, one of the ladies, a pretty fifty-something, walked us into the ticketing hall. Because we were already late for meeting with our friend, we had little choice but to take a bus. The tickets ended up costing us about 60 RMB and took only an hour and a half.
That night, I got a call from the fifty-something who had walked us into the bus station, just checking to make make sure we had arrived safely.
Failure is the first step to success. We learned a lot about the Chinese from this back and forth experience, seeing the worst and the best of the Chinese.
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