As we were eating breakfast we picked up a newspaper report of the destruction the floods had caused in Thailand. Over 500 people had died and 2.5 million people’s lives had been disrupted. It was amazing to think we’d only missed it by a day or two.
As usual, we had to walk many miles out of the city centre. A couple of teenage lads pulled up on a scooter and asked us something we didn’t understand in Chinese. We showed them the translation of our hitchhiking mission and they spluttered more Chinese before pointing in the opposite direction. They then scooted off 100 meters ahead of us and started talking to a man in a car. When we caught up with them they ushered us into the man’s car and we drove off. We pulled up outside an ATM and one of the boys got out, withdrew some cash, and then handed it to the driver.
It turned out, we realised, that the boys had paid the driver to take us to the tollgate on the highway. We were gobsmacked. Despite the boys’ benevolence, however, the driver they’d paid obviously didn’t understand what we wanted to do. He drove us around in circles before pulled up next to a police car outside the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.
“Uh oh. I don’t like the looks of this,” I said to Michael. “Why is he talking to the police?”
The policemen opened our doors and ushered us to follow them. We walked through the gates, where everyone was queuing to pay, and into a tourist office.
“Ah I see. They’ve taken us to someone who can speak English”
We walked inside and were greeted by an enthusiastic tour guide. He was quite tall, about 20 years old, with thick glasses and a wide grin. Every time he said “panda,” which was roughly every third word, he overemphasized the “pa,” as if he was a child shooting an imaginary gun.
“Hello! You interested to see panda?!”
“Er no. Not today we just-“
“Here in Chengdu we have soooo many Panda! So many panda for you to see!”
“Yes, congratulations, it’s just that-”
“The Chengdu Panda Base was founded in 1987!”
“Ooookay. Well, be that as it may-“
“Six giant pandas from the jungle! Today is 83 panda! Ha ha ha ha ha”
“Six panda to 83 panda!” he said, nodding with enthusiasm “Happy panda! Yes, ok? Ha ha ha ha ha ha!”
I looked at him for a couple of seconds. He smiled back at me. I took a deep breath and I tried again.
“We would like you to-“
“Sell tickets for panda? Very good! Best in China!”
“No! We want you to-“
“Why no panda? Why you here?”
“I’m trying to tell you!”
He nodded and looked at me, smiling. I scratched my head harder than was necessary and then went to speak but I just couldn’t…
“Michael, you’re going to have to tag in on this one, mate,” I said and I sat down.
“Hello, my name is Michael, what is your name?”
“Name is a Jason. I here for you buy two tickets for panda education”
“No pandas today”
“Oh! No panda!?” he said, sounding hurt.
“No panda”, Michael repeated
“Panda in England?”
“Plenty panda in Chengdu!”
“Yes, plenty panda in Chengdu”
“Two tickets for Panda education show?”
“Ok, what are the prices?”
“MICHAEL!” I shouted.
“Oh right, yeah. No panda”, said Michael.
“No panda? Why are you here?”
“Listen. We are trying to hitchhike. Do you know hitchhike?”
“Good. We are trying to hitchhike from Indonesia to England. 20’000 km, through 20 countries, in 100 days. For charity”
“Aaaaahhhhhh. England, yes, very good,” he said, sticking his thumbs up. “Aaaaaaahhhh Charity yes very good”
“We would like you to explain to this man that we would like him to drive us to the tollgate, on the highway, so we can hitchhike towards….where is it,” he asked, turning to me
“Guangyuan,” I said.
“Guangyuan. We want to drive to the tollgate,” Michael repeated, slowly, “so we can hitchhike to Guangyuan. Can you do that Jason? Can you explain that to our driver?”
“Ah, yes yes yes”
Michael gave me a confident nod, as if to say ‘job done’, and Jason started talking hurriedly to our driver.
“Finally, we’re getting somewhere,” I said to Michael.
Jason stopped talking to our driver and looked back at us.
“Well?” I said, “Did you explain to him?”
“What is hitchhiking?”
I stood up again.
“Hitchhiking is da bianche” I said, pointing to the word in our dictionary.
“Jason! I waste enough time standing around watching a fat, sexless slob with big black bags under his eyes when I brush my teeth in the morning. Don’t make me feed you to the bears!”
“Pandas only eat bamboo”
“He’s got you there Rich” said Michael in my ear.
I couldn’t argue with that. I marched out of the tourist office, where I sat down and started rocking, with my knees hitched up to my chest, on a bench. To calm myself down, I jammed my fingers in my ears and tried to think of happy thoughts:
“Making cupcakes with Funshine Bear, making cupcakes with Funshine Bear”
About ten minutes later, Michael came outside. He’d finally managed to get Jason to understand what we wanted him to do. I went back inside and apologised for losing my temper but he didn’t seem to even notice that I had. We thanked him for his help and went on our way.
We waited for about 30 minutes at the tollgate before we were picked up. As our new driver wasn’t interested in talking, and in fact appeared unfriendly and slightly scary, I busied myself with a bit of reading. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted Michael practicing a card trick we’d been shown in Chengdu: one where you flick it from the front of your hand to the back of your hand, making it look like it’s disappeared. I thought about telling him “to pack it in,” but didn’t want to sound like my Dad; so, despite the opportunity for a bad pun, I didn’t say anything.
It was at this point that Michael fired the card, like Gambit from X-Men, from the back seat into the windscreen. The driver turned around and growled.