That last post was a little too light-hearted for its content — or rather, for the trajectory of its content. Because what happened next was not at all funny.
To recap: I was at a music festival in Qingdao, China. At least, I thought it would be in Qingdao. It turned out that our accommodations were at an obscure rural hotel, some distance from the city. It also turned out that this institution was big on supervision, and small on music, and I was verging on panic. I needed to leave. I needed to be in a place where I could make my own decisions.
I tried frantically to book a hotel in downtown Qingdao for the remainder of the festival, but that is not so easy to do without a map or a functional telephone — even with my Canadian accomplice googling madly on my behalf in the middle of the night in Toronto.
I needed to know if any hotels had an airport shuttle, but I had no way to contact them. I finally managed to get through to the masterminds at Expedia, who then contacted my hotel of choice, only to report that no one at the hotel spoke English. Foiled.
I found a local number for another downtown hotel, but couldn’t dial out from my cell phone. I picked up the hotel phone in my room. No instructions to “Press 9 to dial out.” No “Press 0 to reach reception.” Nothing. Well then, I’ll go and ask at the front desk.
“You must dial 8, and then the room number.”
“What if I want to call someplace outside the hotel?”
“It is not possible.”
I stared her down.
“The phone is only for use on this property. Who do you want to call?”
I insisted. She consulted her superiors.
“You may use the phone at the front desk to call outside the hotel. But you may not call outside of China.”
Of course not.
I gave up on the idea of a few days of exploring the city I had come to see. Without a hotel room or transportation to the airport, Qingdao was out of reach. What then?
Beijing. But how?
I packed my bag. I returned to the desk.
My plan was to take my suitcase on the festival bus to today’s top-secret-performance-location, and then take a taxi to a hotel (any hotel), where I would plan my next move. But it turned out that we were scheduled to plunge even further into China’s unmappable hinterland, in some cultish artsy-village in the exact opposite direction of the fabled city.
One more day then. One more day. Tomorrow’s performance destination is, I think, partway to the city. And if it’s not, I’ll hop on some other choir’s bus to some other place. Someone must be going to Qingdao. Please. Someone.
The nice, but entirely useless girl at the front desk could not coordinate such an unprecedented plan. “It is beyond my power.”
I see. I am speaking to the wrong people. I must speak with the right people. The ones with whom the powerless must comply. What I need is an inside job.
“Samed. I need your help. I need to get to the airport. I need a hotel in Beijing. I need to go today.”
Samed is the Moroccan chorister who’s taken charge of this “let’s go sing in China” gig from the start. Samed coordinated visa applications, hotel bookings, flights, tours, and train tickets. Samed can help me. He must.
“Of course! This is a simple thing,” smiled Samed. He was not upset with me for leaving early. He was not offended. He was almost jovial. I was beyond relieved. Well beyond.
But I wasn’t on my way yet.
Samed booked a hotel in Beijing for me. Samed arranged for an unidentified driver in a sinister black car to personally convey me to the train station. Samed helped me book my ticket. Samed, my friendly Underground Railroad conductor. Samed, my passage to freedom.
When I finally exited the Beijing train station in the middle of the night, my first thought was, “taxi.” And the first word someone said to me was, “Taxi?”
Glory be. This is going well.
“How about 50?” This is how it works in Morocco.
I was so tired.
He took my bag. He walked me past the taxis. Through the underground parkade. This is not a taxi. This is another unmarked black car. This does not feel good.
I hesitated. I took my bag. He prodded. I took a few more steps. Gingerly. Feeling a little sick.
“I don’t want to take your taxi.”
“You will not be able to get another taxi at this time of night. It will take two hours.”
“I don’t want to take your taxi.” Not an unidentified non-taxi in a dark parking lot. This was not the Underground I had in mind.
The man was looking agitated. Desperately using his cell phone as a translator.
“Pay me 90 and pay 60 to the driver.”
One: that was not the arrangement. Two: I don’t want to take your non-taxi.
He was utterly crestfallen. Likely just trying to make a living. I wished I knew how to apologize in Chinese. I broke the deal, after all.
No. One must not allow oneself to be abducted just because one agreed on the price of one’s abduction. No apologies. Walk faster.
There were no English signs to the taxi stand. But there was a very long line. And a guard. “Taxi?” I asked. He grunted. “Taxi.”
The shady non-driver followed me the whole way. He hovered beside me while I stood in line. “Please!” I was shaking.
Thank God for international roaming cards. I texted my Chinese camp counsellor at the festival. The loveable one, who has lived in Beijing all his life. The one in the know. “It’s normal,” he said. “Just ignore him. Don’t be too polite.” Okay.
It did not take two hours to get a taxi. It did not cost 150 yuan. It only cost 19 yuan. The clerk at the Happy Dragon Hotel was waiting for me. “Natasha! You are the friend of Samed! I know you!”
That’s it. Just follow the official channels, and all is well. All is well.
Beijing offered me much more licence than The fringes of Qingdao had. Maps, public transit, independence. But not quite liberty. I had to go through security every time I entered the subway, and sometimes at pedestrian crossings. I had to show my passport to enter train stations and tourist attractions. My location was always known by someone I could not see. I was identified by name at ticket booths. Everywhere I went, my independence was a sham.
The obedient locals had it worse. Their identity cards and mobile phones were the key to everything. Their mystery app, without which I could go nowhere, was their ticket to planes, trains, taxis, hotels, and bicycles. They had Chinese-only super-apps for chatting, buying clothing, registering a marriage, paying fines — apps for everything. Everywhere these people go, someone knows where they are and what they’re doing. The convenience is undeniable. What a system. But what a system it supports. And the populace is cheerfully compliant.
I’ll admit, I did appreciate being able to walk the streets knowing that I (and my belongings) were under police protection. There was a certain freedom in knowing that if I set my shopping bag down, it would not likely be snatched, even after 20 minutes of accidentally shopping without it.
But I think I prefer that other kind of freedom. The freedom that allows a fake taxi driver to choose to dupe or not dupe me, and that allows me to choose to be duped or not duped.
Free enterprise is called “free” for a reason. Twenty years ago, people had to hide in the forest and sell their homemade handicrafts on the “black market” because the free market was not an option in China. Not for sellers, not for buyers. Not for passersby.
And if we do have these things, we must have gratitude. China is the most populous nation in the world, and it is just one nation among many that supervise their civilians in ways we cannot imagine. Some may argue that our consumerism in the West makes us as trackable as anyone else in the world — but at least we are free to buy and sell, to “accept” or “decline.” At least we can move from one location to another without swiping a bar code at every turnstile. We can phone. We can navigate. We can breathe.
I am breathing above the clouds now, somewhere over Alberta, enroute to Toronto.
The customs inspector in Vancouver asked what I was doing in China.
“Were you with anyone else?”