“I’m starving!” I said, as we finished a long morning organizing the new student coffee shop at Jiangxi Agricultural University.
“I know just the place,” said my friend Greg, English professor at the school in Nanchang, China.
We walked across the road to a row of dingy stalls, crowded with students on their lunch break. He suggested visiting the last stall, claiming it had the best food around. The corrugated shack was only big enough to hold an old woman cooking noodles in a large pot over a charcoal fire. She was four and half feet tall, wearing old peasant clothes and a dirty apron. Her stall had a counter to place your order and a decrepit picnic table out front for the diners. There were only two items on the menu – plain noodles, and spicy noodles.
“I’ll have the spicy noodles,” I said. “I’m living dangerously on this trip!”
The old woman grabbed a handful of noodles with her gnarled hands and threw them into the pot.
In time, the old woman yelled something in the local dialect. Order up! She scooped out the noodles and plopped them down on a thin paper plate. For my lunch special, she dumped a mystery mixture of oils and peppers onto the plate.
Being chopstick challenged, I produced my washable plastic fork. The taste was amazing. It turned out to be the best meal I had in China. It was the best value too, a tasty student lunch for 35 cents.
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We stumbled through the door of the arrivals terminal in Beijing, looking for a ride to the city center. I knew I had to find an ATM to get some yuan before getting a taxi. No sooner had we got through the door than a polite, enthusiastic man in a dark cab driver uniform approached us.
“Taxi for you, come this way now!” he said.
“Cool it buddy, I need to find an ATM.”
Oops, I think that was a mistake, because he now thought it was his mission in life to lead us to the ATM.
“Yes, sir. I help you sir, ATM right this way!”
“Hey, I can find it myself” I said as we walked away.
It had been a tough 15 hour flight from San Francisco. Every seat on the plane seemed to be filled with Chinese grandmothers, and they all brought home-cooked meals in leaky Tupperware, the smells suffocating me as I tried in vain to sleep. I can never sleep on the plane, and am usually completely wiped out after a long trans-oceanic flight. To pass the time I watch movie after movie on the tiny screen in the seatback in front of me until my eyeballs turn to moldy jello and my brain goes completely numb.
When fully alert, I am normally careful in dealing with touts who are trying to sell me something in airports. This time I was not on my game.
We found the ATM, got some cash, and walked to the outer doors of the airport. Our friend was back at my side.
“My car, right here. Good ride. What hotel?”
“Alright, you got me buddy. Let’s load and go.”
He grabbed our bags and stowed them in the trunk. We sunk into the back seat like marathon runners who couldn’t make it to the last mile. As I put my head back on the head rest, the car pulled away and joined the mass of honking geese fleeing the airport road.
A few minutes down the freeway, I became alert enough to notice that there was no meter on the dash.
“Hey Lisa. Did you happen to notice anything about the car when we got in?”
Lisa was half asleep. I don’t think she noticed anything about the car. She just got in it because I lead her to it.
“You know, I don’t think there was a taxi light or sign on the top of the car, like on the other taxis we are seeing on the road.”
The man looked like a taxi driver. He acted like a taxi driver. He even drove like a taxi driver. But I don’t think this is a taxi.
Paranoia set in. I started fearing for my life. It was late at night on the outer ring freeway of Beijing. I had no idea where we were, or which direction was the right one for where we had to go. He could be driving us to some deserted warehouse where we would be robbed, stripped, and left for dead to be eaten by communist pandas. Do they eat meat? I’m not sure, hopefully they only eat eucalyptus leaves.
He kept driving and we kept worrying about what was going to happen. It seemed like we drove for two hours, from one freeway to another and back again. In time, I could see that we were entering Beijing.
Suddenly he pulled over next to a large dark building.
“Hotel. Fifty yuan!”
I didn’t see any hotel. How could this be the hotel? It looked like an office building. Then I noticed the sign of our hotel on the corner. We were in the right spot, but he wouldn’t pull into the front circle of the hotel because of his dubious status. Maybe they arrest pirate taxi drivers in this country and send them to the re-education camp.
We got out, collected our luggage, and paid the guy. I don’t know what the proper fare is from the airport to Beijing, but it seemed ok, and he did get us there in one piece.
As we walked away I wondered if this was the future of China. No more crowds of bicycles racing down the streets in the socialistic paradise, people too poor to buy cars. Instead, mobile hustlers of the new car culture, looking to make a quick buck off the flood of western visitors to the Middle Kingdom.