Most good days don’t start at 5:30 but as we viewed the historic Three Pagodas of Dali through dense fog without another tourist in sight, I knew we had made the right choice in waking up early. We rose before the sun in our last-minute hotel and hailed three Chinese Ubers (DiDi’s) to get to the ticketing line, intending on beating the long lines that never actually came. During our morning meeting, we ate steamed pork buns purchased from a nearby stand in the shadow of the erect pagodas. As we sat there, the near constant drizzle of Dali intensified into a roaring downpour as drains turned to rivers and rivers overflowed into the streets. We explored the temple complex alone, water soaking through our socks, eventually losing each other in the abundant buildings full of new, golden Buddha and Bodhisattva statues. While occasionally laughing at the poor English translations, like the mysterious Shadow Agglomeration Pond, we took photos and took in the foggy sight of the Dali Oldtown amidst mist.
Getting to the temple was probably the easiest transportation experience during our time in Dali: we called an Uber and we were there. Unfortunately, the countryside surrounding the main part of the city was devoid of any public buses. We regularly had to catch our rides on smaller, private buses and in the cars of especially entrepreneurial locals.
On one such occasion, it was around six and we needed to find a way to get to dinner. Fortunately, a minivan pulled over to the side of the road, hailed by our frantic arm waving at any car that passed. Now there were thirteen of us that needed a ride and at most this car could fit five. But that was before we talked to the driver. The driver pushed her daughter to the front seat and started negotiating. Matthew, who has the best Mandarin ability, haggled with her for a price for all of us to ride as I struggled to understand her emotional state. Was she mad? Happy? Enthusiastic? All I know is that she was just shouting every single word. Us Americans might be loud but even this middle-aged, five foot woman had us beat. He got her down to 70 RMB when the new problem arose: this car had five seats and we were thirteen. However, her entrepreneurship knew no bounds. She pushed nine of us into the back seat, shouting all the while, as we piled on top of and even underneath each other. By the time we pulled away from the curb, I felt more like a sardine than a person.
Along the way, we debated whether or not we were safer being so crammed in without seatbelts which probably didn’t help the already nerve-wracking experience of Chinese driving where traffic laws are more like suggestions than set in stone commandments. Sometimes people drove at 110 km/h, other times 50 km/h, all along this massive six-lane road. Hubris was more often the deciding factor of who got to go than right of way. At one point, we had to sprint across three lanes of freeway-speed traffic, jump over a six-foot wide and six-foot deep gap in the median, cross three-lanes again and then frantically wave our arms to get a ride.
Anyway, while we were being driven, Matthew carried on a conversation with our driver in rapid Mandarin. He turned to translate: she was offering to be our personal chauffeur for the next two days at a cost of 70 RMB a person. Of course next time she would two cars instead of the paltry one. She gave us her WeChat and insisted we send her a message after we ate: the magic of Chinese entrepreneurship.