After a long drive we finally arrived in Chengdu. It seems so far away from Beijing, even if we are in the same country. Lily is tired from the journey so I have left her in the hotel while I go out and look around. I am not sure what she says to the people at the check in desks at the hotels but they don’t seem to have much problem in letting me stay without a passport. It is far more humid down here. My I ♥ BJ t shirt is soaked through.
I still haven’t used her phone and neither do I plan to. The freedom from everyone that was previously in my life is becoming addictive. If I wasn’t running away from a murder accusation I would be considering not stopping. The only person I would contact is my mother. Apart from that, this life is for me. I do feel the need to speak to someone from my own country though. Conversation with Lily is interesting but it’s intense, she doesn’t quite get my sense of humour either.
We are staying in a hotel that is near a university in the centre of the city. The hotel is run down and cheap. Middle aged men in suits falling into bedroom doors drunk, accompanied by young girls. Seediness permeates the building. Downstairs there is one of the ubiquitous KTV bars. Calling cards from prostitutes are scattered all over the floor outside the main entrance. It’s nothing that I haven’t seen before, in fact I’ve taken part in the seediness but now looking at it as an outsider I feel dirty.
I ask the security guard if he knows where there is a foreign bar. He answers in an incomprehensible dialect, gesturing in a direction away from the hotel. I can see groups of people hanging around outside some kind of plaza. I take a card with the hotel address on it and walk towards it hoping that there might be somewhere quiet I can have a drink and gather my thoughts away from Lily. I’m starting to think she’s a bad influence on me. I should be running, not playing the tourist.
As I approach the plaza I see lots of white faces hanging around in groups. The Chinese people don’t take much notice of me either. It’s refreshing to be somewhere that you’re not some kind of attraction or freak. I ask one of them if there is a quiet bar nearby. He gives me directions to one just five minutes away. It’s on the second floor of a building, I can’t miss it he tells me.
I find the bar. There are only a few other people in there. All of them foreigners. None appear approachable so I sit outside on my own drinking a beer and thinking about what to do next. I could drop Lily now if I wanted to. She’d not be able to find me here, the city is too big. She’d be able to go on here own way too. It’d probably be for the better. I need to get out of here as fast as possible and wandering around with her pretending to be an excited tourist is making life difficult.
My problem lies in me having become quite attached. I’ve only known her for a short time but in some ways I can relate to her. She’s like me, looking for a way out of the bullshit life that she’s created, not knowing where to go. The difference being she jumped and I was pushed before I ran. I’ve always pushed people away in my life, even if we only share this adventure for a week I’ll feel I have helped her in some way.
A girl has pulled up a seat at the table next to me. She’s Chinese and looks completely unaware as to where she is. She keeps rubbing her nose and looking vacantly over the balcony down on to the street. A foreigner comes over with two beers and joins her. He is about 30 years older than her with grey hair and a red nose. He’s wearing a colourful shirt. I turn slightly in an attempt to show I am not interested in conversation. They continue just sitting there, exchanging no words.
I’m going to have to make a decision about Lily tonight. If I’m going to leave her I’ll not go back to the hotel. Chengdu is a big city. I might even be able to get a long distance bus all the way down to Nanning from here. I’d be there in a day at the most. The thought of getting to the border is currently outweighing any feelings of guilt I have about leaving her. I’ll have a few more beers and decide.
“Where are you from mate”, the guy with the girl calls across to me.
“England, and you?”
“I fucking hate the English. I’m from Australia.”
“I’m not too keen on Aussies either”. There is hostility in my voice.
“I’m only joking mate, what are you drinking? I’ll get you one.” I had been looking for company but not this guy. His aggressive manner tells me I had better just let him buy me a drink.
“Tsingdao.” He walks off into the bar. The girl with him is still completely oblivious to her surroundings, occasionally sipping her beer. She looks towards me, her eyes are glazed, her pupils the size of pinholes. I’m not sure if she is even looking at me, it’s like she can see me through me and there is something behind me that has caught her attention.
“Don’t worry about her, mate. She’s just had a bit too much to drink. She’s my girlfriend Cherry.” I don’t bother to acknowledge Cherry. Her stare has unnerved me.
“What’s your name, mate?”
“John.” I then remember that Lily doesn’t know my real name. She didn’t ask again after I so obviously lied to her.
“I’m Joe, they call me Crazy Joe around here. You live here? I’ve never seen you around before?”
“No, I’m just backpacking through China. I’m on my way to Vietnam. I came to Chengdu to see the pandas.”
“Fuck the pandas. I don’t know why anyone goes to see them. I’ll tell you something, if it wasn’t for humans, pandas would be all dead.”
“Well, I thought I should see them while I am in China. What do you do, Joe?”
“I used to be a highly successful business man. My name was known all over Australia, but then I got bored of it. So I came to China. I teach English to little kids. I do it because I like it, not like most of the poor saps here who hate it and want to go home but don’t have the money to get back.”
Joe is full of shit. I’ve met these kind of people a million times in Beijing. They were always successful back home, got bored and came to China. The one thing they all have in common is they never seem to have any money. Spending time in bars telling people stories that only they believe. I take his jibe at English teachers personally.
“You must be loaded then Joe. Why are you here? You could have got yourself a nice retirement visa for Thailand. Do you have a fetish for pollution?”
“Easy mate. I’m just trying to be friendly. No need to be aggressive.”
“Sorry, I’ve just had a long day.”
“You said you’re going to Vietnam? I am going to Laos tomorrow.” Him going to Laos is interesting. Laos is probably nearer. There is hundreds of miles of mountains between the border and the capital though. I’d thought about going there last year on one of my holidays and had looked at the map. If I was going to run through Laos it’d be a lot more difficult.
“I’m not completely decided yet but I was heading towards Vietnam. Why are you going to Laos?”
“I have a bit of business to do there”, he replies tapping his nose.
“Where in Laos?”
“A town on the other side of the border. I am only going for two days.”
It sounds like a long trip to make just to go over the border for a couple of days.
“Listen, mate. The bar is closing soon and Cherry isn’t much company. You want to come back to my apartment for a little bit?”
Usually I would so no without hesitation. His trip to Laos could be a way out for me though. He also seems harmless.
“Go on then, only for a couple of hours though, I am leaving early tomorrow morning,”
We walk down the stairs and out on to the road. Cherry seems to have some kind of auto pilot because she is not on our planet. Crazy Joe waves down a taxi. We all get inside. It only takes 10 minutes to get to his apartment. It’s one of those old Commie blocks, the walls crumbling, no lift only stairs. Doesn’t really seem the place a wealthy ex businessman would live. I feel a bit sorry for him. How can life be that bad you have to create an alternate reality for yourself?
The apartment is grubby. There are beer cans all over the floor. The ashtrays on the small coffee table haven’t been emptied for a long time, the cigarette ends spilling out on to the table. There is a sickly sweet smell lingering in the air. Joe sits down and tells Cherry to get some beers. I sit down on an armchair. Cherry comes back and hands us both a beer and then disappears into what I assume is a bedroom.
“How did you meet Cherry, Joe?”
“I wish I had a great story for you mate, but I don’t. She used to work in the massage parlour I go to. Although it’s not really for massages, if you know what I mean. Anyway, I met her there. She’s a nice girl, I told her if she gave up her job there I’d give her the same money she earns and she can live with me. It’s company for me and she doesn’t have to do that anymore.”
“Fair enough. She looks a bit out of it though, mate.”
“Don’t worry about her. She’s fine. I think she might have another boyfriend though. It doesn’t surprise me really, just wish she’d be honest with me.”
“I suppose you knew that was a risk given what she did for work before.”
I’m starting to think I am becoming soft. This guy I had treated with disdain I am now starting to feel sorry for. Take people out of the caricatures you create of them and they become more human.
“Oh well. You win some you lose some, hey mate?”
“Indeed. Why are you going to Laos anyway? I’m curious.”
Joe gets up and opens a drawer in a table. He pulls out a black lump of some substance and puts it on the table.
“Opium. I smuggle opium across the border and sell it. I used to have a habit but haven’t smoked it for years.”
“Why do you go to Laos? I thought it was easy to get in China.”
“It is and it isn’t. I sell it to other foreigners. They don’t like to deal with Chinese drug dealers. Getting it from a foreigner makes them feel a bit more at ease.”
“There can’t be too many foreign opium smokers about. Is it worth the risk?”
“To be honest with you, mate, no it probably isn’t. Look around my apartment. It’s a shithole. Look at Cherry, she’s completely fucked up on drugs, she’s probably cheating on me with another man. My job is shit, I hate it. I don’t have anything back in Australia. I’m getting old and this is the one bit of adventure I have in my life.”
“I’m sure there are a lot less riskier things you could do for a buzz. If you get caught they’ll execute you. They executed that British guy a few years back.”
“I know that. I know it sounds fucked up to you, John. I enjoy it though, I don’t really have all that much to live for anymore, if I get caught, I get caught. I’m killing myself here drinking and smoking. They’d just make it a lot quicker.”
“How do you get it over?”
“Down in the mountains the border isn’t patrolled. A Laotian guy meets me on the Chinese side and then takes me over. Once we’re over there it isn’t so bad. All the police have been paid off by the people that sell it. The Chinese probably know what’s going on but ignore it.”
“Do you think you could get a person over with you?”
“What, back to China?”
“No, I mean from China into Laos.”
“Yeah, but they’d have to pay. I don’t know how much they’d want. I’d have to sort that out when I am down there.”
“Joe. I am in a pretty fucked up situation. I need to get out of China and then to an embassy in the next country I am in. I am not going to tell you what the situation is but would you help me get into Laos?”
“No problem. You’ll have to pay me though. Pay me and the guys from Laos.”
“You don’t have to pay me much, I’ll let you decide. Just don’t take the piss? The guys from Laos, I’ll only know once we’re there.”
“Would they be able to get me to Vientiane?”
“Give them enough money and they’ll take you where ever the fuck you want.”
“Okay, when are you leaving?”
“Tomorrow morning. Around 10. Don’t you have stuff you need to pick up?”
“I’ve got everything here. Like I said, I’m not in a good situation.”
“Fine, sleep on the sofa. I’m going to bed now. I’ll wake you in the morning. It could take 24 hours to get where we need to go.”
Joe goes off into the same room Cherry went into. I have a way out. Unfortunately it’s with a washed up Australian who smuggles drugs into China because he lives an unfulfilled life and needs some sort of buzz. The image I have of drug smugglers is forever changed. I could be out of the country in two days though and that would be my biggest problem solved.
Lying on Joe’s sofa I think about Lily. She is probably wondering where I have got to. Not knowing that she’ll never see me again. At least she’ll remember me as the person who helped escape her fucked up life. I feel a pang of guilt. Bizarrely I think of her getting excited while talking about travelling with me. Someone I’ve known for little more than three days. Sorry Lily, I hope you enjoy the rest of your life, please don’t go back to that village.