“Méiyŏu.” The two syllables dropped like dead weights onto the ticket counter and my heart sank.
My Chinese was rudimentary at best, but I had by then learnt the various meanings of 'méiyŏu': don't have; cannot; not possible; end of the line, buddy; I don't know, so stop bothering me. It usually was accompanied by a shrug, always precipitated the thwarting of my plans and never failed to inspire despair.
The ticket agent offered a lazy shrug and returned to her magazine.
I was crestfallen. There was no bus. I would have to spend the last days of my trip in the over-touristed old town of Lijiang, its cobble-stoned labyrinths and arched bridges marred by DSLR-wielding throngs and standstill human traffic. I turned to the crowd outside, resigned to my fate.
“Shitoucheng!” A beer-bellied man exclaimed, standing in my way. Shitoucheng, a remote farming village in the mountains of eastern Yunnan, was the destination to which I had hoped to escape, so, a little bewildered, I nodded.
He beamed beneath a Nike baseball cap, nodded quickly, and busied himself with a pen and paper. When he pressed it into my hand it was scrawled spidery black characters. Taking me outside, he flagged a taxi, stowed me safely in the backseat, shouted and flapped his hands at the driver for several minutes, then turned to beam at me again as the taxi pulled away.
I was deposited at a marketplace and presented to a vendor on whose fold-up table lay the slimy inhabitants of a distant ocean. I tried not to stare at the glistening mess of tentacles as he read my missive. Without a word, he directed me to the center of the marketplace and indicated that I should wait. I was beginning to feel like a leaf on the wind, my own fate out of my control; I decided to surrender to it.
A weak breeze stirred the stench of garbage and old fish. Beneath a stall, an off-white cat waited patiently, grooming her matted fur, and around her wove men with tattoos and branded hi-tops, balancing polystyrene crates on their shoulders. Women and children stepped gingerly over deep-crimson stains on the ground, and customers peered at leafy greens as vendors bellowed their wares.
A man – man #1 – approached. He passed me rapidly into the care of man #2, who seemed to own a vehicle. Men #3 and #4 then entered into a heated debate with man #2, and I was subsequently led away by the victor: man #5. He placed me in the passenger seat of a grubby delivery truck and we drove off. Such is the life of an English-speaking traveler in China, I thought, as we sped along the teeming, potholed arteries of Lijiang.
Within minutes, we stopped. My driver had clearly dealt with foreigners in the past, and concluded that we were all imbeciles with whom communication is hopeless. To get my attention, he grunted and waggled a hand in my face, and instead of attempting language he preferred to perform ridiculously exaggerated mimes. Thus I surmised that we were stopping because he wanted to take an enormous bite out of a giant sandwich. In fact, he had noodle soup, eyes fixed in moody silence on the bowl as I made halting attempts at Chinese conversation.
Back in the truck, we drove a thrilling twenty meters before stopping again. This time, the mime was indecipherable, so I allowed myself to be led through an open-front garage and into someone's bedroom. My driver left. It wasn't long before I realized he had driven off.
The musty room was about the size and smell of four portaloos. On its walls were glossy pin-ups of magnificently-endowed Chinese girls in superhero costumes and on its floor sat three men on upturned boxes. The room was dimly lit, presumably for the benefit of a fifth man, who was sleeping soundly in bed.
The men were passionate chain-smokers. A heavy fog choked the air, moving in great lazy swirls whenever it was disturbed. Through the smoky gloom, I watched the men prepare something whilst chatting in soft voices: into a bamboo tube was poured an egg, hot water, powders of scarlet and orange, a fatty liquid, and lumps of something unidentifiable. The bamboo was corked and shaken vigorously, then, a boyish grin on his face, one man passed me a cup. It resembled hot, congealed mud. I gulped it down in one and nearly vomited.
When my driver returned, the three men took their seats in the van. As I approached the door, however, it was shut in my face. A finger pointed to the tarpaulin-covered back of the truck; a grunt and a mime confirmed my fears. My protestations were met with nonplussed silence, so, resigned, I clambered in and made myself a nest of vegetables and beer bottles as we lurched into gear.
Four hours later, the van doors swung open and a welcome grunt reached my ears. I extricated myself and looked around. We had reached the end of a rutted, dirt road, high on the side of a vast, fertile valley, and I was the only passenger remaining.
My driver performed a complex little mime, climbed back into the van, did a swift three-point-turn, and drove back down the road.
Before the dust-cloud could even settle, a woman appeared. She had a leathery face and a walking stick that still resembled the branch it once was. When I called to her, she hobbled over and, looking up at me, said, “Shitoucheng?” With a smile, she beckoned me to follow, and started down a rocky trail at the road's end. Feeling again like a leaf in the wind, I followed.
As we descended, the sun sank slowly behind us, cloaking the valley in the shadow of its mountain. Pomegranate trees were everywhere, their swollen red fruit littering the trail. Soon, we had arrived at Shitoucheng.
It was everything that I had dared to hope for. No cars, no tourists and no phone signal. The village was perched high above the great Yangtze River, swaddled among rice terraces on the steep mountainside. Its houses were simple, built from mud bricks, and their overlapping tiled roofs formed the scales of an old, grey dragon in the white dusk.
A group of men smoked thoughtfully over an intense game of Mahjong. Night loomed, and the village was quiet but for the trickle of irrigated water and the gentle clip clop of a donkey's hoofs. The old woman led me along the cobbled streets to the only guesthouse in the village: her home.
At night, after sharing dinner with my host and her family, I tried to count the number of strangers who had helped me that day. The experience of travel is always influenced the most by the people whose company you keep, and today I had been especially lucky. I thought of their unsolicited kindness and toasted them silently in the dark.
Before bed, I remembered I needed to return to Lijiang in just two days' time. I found my host and asked her about buses back.“Méiyŏu.”
Joel Hindson is a young British traveler who loves few things more than adventure and exploration. When he's not wandering around the world, he's either writing about it or baking chocolate-chip cookies. He has twice won the Telegraph's Just Back travel writing competition, and writes regularly on teaisfortravel.wordpress.com.