Sunday, 21 April 2013

Lost and found

A photo-less feature story: “A picture paints a thousand words, but the epics of desperation are marked by the gap in the album.”

I’m sitting in a warehouse. Stacked cardboard boxes of varied but unknown contents are stacked somewhat precariously on wooden pallets around me. I look at the concrete floor, and my dusty jandals, then glance up as a lean tough old man with a face full of wrinkles and a pair of dark green loosely gathered pants wanders slowly past me. I think about the absurdity of me being here. In this one random warehouse amongst a complex of such depots, in a sprawling, newly constructed industrial suburb of northern Chengdu.

It took some finding to get here. A kind of game of ‘Hotter and colder’, as our tireless guide, the English speaking Xiao, navigated his way here via regular cellphone calls, fiery assertions, animated conversations with whomever he could find to quiz, and a ludicrous process of trial and error. But I am so happy to be here now, because beside me sit two bike boxes from Cycle World Dunedin, and in them sit the fundamental objects on which rest the plans and hopes of our next year.

We have found our bicycles! The problem was, you see, we unknowingly sent them from the Shanghai Koala Garden House to Chengdu via a bogus company. It was Day Two in China, and after a traumatic and depressing feasibility assessment at the Shanghai Railway Station of the chance of taking them on the train with us, we happily welcomed the help of our Garden House receptionist. She suggested sending them via a courier company. She researched the options on the internet, rung several companies, and chose us the best deal. Joyfully and thankfully, we waved them off in the back of an unmarked but shiny black van (“Wow that’s pretty flash, they’ll travel better than us!”), with only a token joke that the video footage we captured of the event might be the last we ever saw of them.

“China Bailway Express!?” Xiao read off the reciept that we showed him at Sims Cozy Garden Hostel three days later. “What is this company? I think it is a fake.” With those words, anxiety enters our lives again, and leads us on a two day journey of the highs and lows of complex problem-solving. Little of the problem solving is carried out by us though, since the few words and two phrases we have mastered in Mandarin would not begin to be done justice by the term “insufficient”. So, as I described, we follow Xiao, listening to his conversations, and getting brief summary translations. It is his day off work at Sims. We are incredibly indebted and massively thankful. We follow him on the smotheringly hot northbound bus for an hour, into a taxi that promptly brakes down and then into the car of an incredibly helpful man and his wife. The afternoon ticks away, as we try complex after complex of warehouses, each full with stacked boxes, lorries unloading onto the concrete platforms outside. It is huge, and so so new. Pointed onwards again and again, we find ourselves walking through the central floor area of a tall building in what to all appearances is a stock market! Pointed on again, more intelligence is gathered, and more details are added to the address scrawled on the scrap of paper. Another warehouse suburb, another depot complex. Cool. Getting warmer. Cold again. Hotter. Hotter. Hot! We found the company. We saw one of the bikes! Hunting around we found the other. We touched them. We gazed upon them.

That is why I sit on a cardboard box in a large warehouse in northern Chengdu now. Looking at my jandals. Looking at the tin roof stretching wide above me, and saying a thankful prayer, although not without some uncertainty still. Reunited again, the journey is halfway done. In the next three hours we will pay an exorbitant ransom to release our hostage bicycles, a price set by the crooked but untraceable man in Shanghai. We will look in wonderment at the two yuan (40c) that remains to us, after monopoly-like we have stacked all our small change notes on the table. We will debate whether this is the right thing to do, or to somehow fight through the embassy, police and newspapers to have him apprehended. We will shuttle the boxes to the main road through the kindness and the sedan of a worker here. We will twice unsuccessfully attempt to board a crowded homeward bus with them. Tying them onto a rattly tuktuk we will head for the bus station, hoping for an uncrowded bus, and after several more denials we will find an amenable driver. A smooth trip, and one more bus transfer, and then a hurried, stumbling carry of the heavy, precious boxes the last few hundred meters along the now dark streets of Chengdu to our hostel, and victory!

We collapse into a couch where our fellow cycle tourist Andy and his friends sit with beers and the remains of their dinner, and spin our yarn for the first time. Heads so busy though, that it will take some distance, and some processing, to come to terms with all we have seen and experienced this Tuesday. I feel that somehow this is some kind of baptism into China, some kind of initiation. I feel different now, but can’t put my finger on how. Enough now to have some noodles, and some rest. The day is done.

Writer: Anna

Andy is posting for Ollie and Anna while they are behind the Great Firewall of China.

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