Part 1 of the story is here: https://seanhoganblog.wordpress.com/2016/04/19/long-march-short-story-part-1/
Standing at the bus station was the first time the seriousness of my situation hit me. Sitting on the bench, watching people walk past with large parcels on their back, people from the countryside carrying chickens. The ordered chaos that I’d loved when I first arrived. Probably one of the reasons that I had stayed. You miss chaos when you don’t have it. Now I was about to run. Getting on the bus would mean I was running, I wouldn’t be able to turn back.
I went to the ticket office and bought a ticket. I had no idea where I was going other than south. The map on the ticket office window had no English names. I pointed at a town or city. Even if it was in English, I wouldn’t have known it, five years here and my geography of the country was still awful. The girl at the ticket office gave me the ticket, she didn’t seem concerned about the place I was going, confirming it was probably a city.
The bus was full. I was the only foreigner on it. A young man sat next to me, smiling as he sat down. I’m hoping that he can’t speak English, I don’t want a conversation. The events of the morning running through my head over and over. I’m scared, helplessness, going on a journey whose end could unravel in many different ways. One of them could be life in a Chinese prison, or even execution.
The buildings of Beijing started to disappear, fields and rivers replacing them. I’m regretting the decision to ever come here. I could have gone anywhere. Yet I chose here. I wanted adventure and something new. I had been tired of life back home, tired of the monotony. Now, the only place I want to be is home. I want to be able to lie down on my bed. Imagining a feeling of relief. A feeling that I desperately needed, one that was so far away.
The kid next to me keeps staring at me. Smiling. I know he wants to talk to me. Even in my predicament I feel bad. In fact, I want to be him. He’ll go home to his countryside home and see his family. Then he’ll go back to Beijing and continue his life. A life that at some point in the past I had probably derided as simple. Right now I want simple. I smile back at him. It might pass some time.
“Are you a student?”
“Yes, I am a student. My major is English, but I think my English is not so good. I want to practice.”
“Your English isn’t so bad. Where are you going?”
“I am going to my home. I live in a small village. I go home one time each week, it is not so far from Beijing.”
He continues to tell me about his home and family. A conversation I would have otherwise thought boring, I listen intently. Wanting him to tell me more about his home and his family, his life in the city. It gives me something else to focus on. I occasionally look out the window. Still seeing fields and sometimes a small town in the distance. I appreciate the beauty of the view outside. It’s funny how fear makes you appreciate the small things.
My new friends gets off the bus in a town. He says he still has to travel by motorbike to get home. He wants my phone number, I tell him my battery is dead but he can write down his and I’ll add it later. Once he’s gone I feel the loneliness again, nothing to take my mind off what is happening. I ask the person in front of me how far to go, one hour she tells me.
It’s dark as we pull into the bus station. Stepping off the bus people call out at me asking where I am going. I ignore them. Walking away from the bus station like I had a purpose. There’ll be no more buses until the morning. Luckily it seems to be central. Another realisation, I can’t stay in Chinese hotels without a passport. Not all of them take foreigners, none of them will take them if you have no passport.
I can’t sleep on the streets, that would be too suspicious. At least I know where I am, Shijiazhuang, a reasonably sized city. I know that there are foreigners here, I’d met people in Beijing that had told me they worked here. How I would be able to find any of them would be a problem. And that’s when I get my first piece of luck. I see a foreigner walking along the street.
Some foreigners here can be aloof, they don’t interact with others. As I’m approaching him I’m trying to think what I can say, he may just ignore me. I ask him if he knows where there is a bar nearby, I tell him I’ve just arrived here and don’t know anything about the city. He tells me he’s going to a bar now. I can come along with him if I want. At least something is going right for me today, well in the context of it all it’s going right.
We walk into a bar that is on the second floor of a building. It is decorated like an English pub. There’s a pool table, two other foreigners playing pool. My new friend buys us two beers.
“You’ve just arrived?”
“Yeah I arrived a couple of days ago, I just started work at a school, I don’t know anyone here.”
“Strange time to start work. Which school is it?”
“It’s a Chinese name, I can’t remember it properly, my Chinese isn’t very good.”
“Fair enough. It’s not the greatest place to live. The pollution is bad, the school will probably mess you about. Come here and you’ll meet people.”
We carry on with the small talk. I want to be somewhere on my own but there’s not much choice. The bar looks to be closing, I am not sure where I can stay. My new found friend suggests we go to a club. Last time I went to a club, I was supposed to have killed someone. I tell him it’s a great idea, quickly finishing off our beers and walking down the stairs to get a taxi.
In the taxi he gives me a talk that he’s probably given to all the newly arrived people in the city. He tells me not to trust anyone, everyone wants something. Don’t get into fights, never marry a Chinese woman, they’ll take all your money. He sounded more bitter than I am. I ask him about Beijing. He says he never goes, doesn’t like it there. I ask not out of conversation but to see if he mentions anything about foreigners on the run. Nothing.
I thought we were going to a club like I’d go to in Beijing. This place doesn’t even look like a club. The door is in a wall underneath an elevated highway. The club is actually built into it. The people hanging around outside look shady. Looking at us both suspiciously, some shouting out a ‘hello’ that sounds menacing. I look at my friend, my friend whose name I still don’t know. He tells me not to worry, that he comes here all the time.
We walk in, the music so loud you can’t hear each other speak. They find us a table. My friend sits there looking out onto the dance floor. He seems to have become distant. Barely saying a word. Three men on a table opposite keep pointing at us. They look menacing. I’ve never been anywhere like this in China. The red lights making the atmosphere even stranger.
One of the men gets up and walks over to our table. He asks us in perfect English to come and join them. My friend refuses. Waving him away. The man looks insulted, muttering something in Chinese before going back to his friends. Even with some of the whiskey we’ve just bought inside me, I am becoming more and more nervous. Maybe it’s just everything that’s happened today. But I feel like I need to get away.
My friend pulls at my arm and leads me over to another table with two Chinese men sitting at it. They offer me cigarettes, I take one gratefully, I’ve smoke all of mine. A bottle of whiskey appears on the table, shot glasses are filled and we all drink ‘ganbei!’. The alcohol is having no effect on me. Not even the slightest of glows. Four women approach the table and sit down with us. The other foreigner is speaking to the two men, his Chinese appears to be good.
The women pull out small packets of white powder. Everyone on the table getting louder and louder. I refuse the powder. One thing I never do here is drugs. The girls lift their heads from the table, eyes glazed. The music seems louder, my head is starting to spin. People are talking to me but I can’t process what they are saying. My hand is shaking. I get up and walk out the door.
The air outside is still thick, but it feels fresh to me. I have a vague idea where the bus station is. I start walking in the general direction. Behind me there are cries of ‘bye, bye’. Laughter at their originality. I keep walking pretending not to hear. In front of me there’s an alleyway, I look down it, there’s nobody there. I walk down halfway and fall against the wall.
I’m not drunk, I’m just exhausted. Exhausted at everything that has happened. Maybe it was shock but this was the first time I really felt frightened. The first time that I knew I was in serious trouble. Sitting in an alleyway in a foreign country, in a city I didn’t know, on the run. Running from something that I hadn’t even done. Had I even made the right decision? If I go back now it might not look so bad. They might look favourably on me turning myself in. Why the fuck did I run in the first place?
I look up at the sky, looking for a God that I don’t believe in. Looking back down at my knees, my head falling forward. I cry, and keep crying. Telling myself I am not a bad person, why has all this happened to me? There’s a lot of people in this country who would deserve this happening to them, not me. The image of home appearing vividly in my mind as the tears roll down my face.
I don’t know how long I’ve been here, but the sky is starting to brighten. I can hear birds too. Unusual for China, especially in a city. I come out of my daze, rising to my feet. I search my pockets for cigarettes, finding none, forgetting that I’d finished them. I walk out of the alleyway and head towards the bus station. Luckily there are signs in English under the Chinese.
My night of crying has released some of the tension. I am now completely aware of my situation. It doesn’t make it any better. I’m just able to think more clearly. My situation might have been one you’d see in a badly made movie, but for me it was real. I’d not made it that far, the bus back to Beijing wouldn’t take too long. The embassy would get involved, the evidence was clear. I hadn’t done anything.
Arriving at the bus station I sit down. The decision I make now would have an impact on the rest of my life. Either I go back or I carry on south. Heading south means sneaking through the Chinese countryside, over a border and through another country to get to an embassy. Just thinking about it sounded ridiculous. I curse my stupidity for running yesterday.
Despite the fear that I am feeling, despite the helplessness, there is a perverse sense of excitement. If I actually made it to Vietnam, it’d be that adventure that I had always been seeking. I watch as a bus pulls out of the station 北京 written on the front. The only two characters I know：Beijing. I walk over to the ticket office, again I point at the map, somewhere further south.