Have you ever had one of those moments when your life flashed in front of your eyes? You know, a time when the world seemed to slow down and allow you enough time to see everything clearly?
They can take you by surprise, those moments. And, when they do, nothing particularly profound is likely to be realised.
Usually it’s one of the following three options:
1) “Arrrrgggghhhhhh!!!!!” at an ear-splitting level; or
2) “………”, just deathly silence; or
3) “Oh, fuck.” Not loud, just resignation. An acceptance of one’s fate or destiny; the inevitability of one’s own situation.
It was the third of these options that left my mouth as the taxi I was in careened sideways across three lanes of traffic and headed backwards as it spun towards a concrete wall at about 100 km/h.
I was in Dandong, China, on the Yalu River, directly opposite North Korea. Population 2.4 million – plus five Aussie tourists/businessmen on this particular April evening.
The Great Wall of China ends just outside of Dandong and we climbed that earlier in the day, sweating in the sun as we traipsed the stone steps like thousands of workers and soldiers did many years before. At times more of a climb than a walk, the wall helped work off the hangover from the night before, alcohol and sweat perspiring from every pore. From my vantage point at the top of the wall though, North Korea didn’t look a lot different from China – except that there seemed to be a party over on the Chinese side of the river. It was like China was the house full of young people having a party every second week and North Korea were the grumpy old neighbours who secretly wished they’d been invited.
At the end of the day’s events we went to a nice restaurant and then to a bar, which was populated by some seemingly bored young ladies who appeared to be directed to make our night more interesting. But after a few lighthearted attempts to communicate and a couple more drinks we decided to head back to our hotel. The hotel we were staying in was cryptically named the Pearl Island Golf Club Hotel. Cryptic because it was neither on an island nor was there any golf club in the vicinity.
Because there were seven of us (the five guys plus our two Chinese translators who were wilder than all of us put together), we hailed two taxis. Four guys got in the first taxi and I sat in the second one with one of my colleagues and our Chinese translator, Ken. Confusion rained over the whereabouts of the hotel as the driver had no idea where any golf club was – let alone one with a hotel.
Ken handed the driver a business card of the hotel so he could read the address but the driver handed it back to Ken and said something that made Ken laugh – then they exchanged a few words in Mandarin and took off.
“What’s so funny?” I asked Ken as the shops and slowly moving vehicles flashed past the windows at break-neck speed.
“He didn’t know the name of the hotel so I gave him the card to read it in Chinese. But he said he was too drunk to read it and gave it back! I had to tell him again.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but did you say the driver said he was too drunk to read the card?”
“Yeah! He said his eyes were all fuzzy from wine.”
I looked over the driver’s shoulder and tried to get a look at his face. I could see the tell-tale signs of alcohol poisoning – burst veins in his nose, bloodshot eyes, a maniacal grin on his face as he dodged in and out of trucks and cars.
“Oh,” Ken added, “I also told him there’s an extra 100 RMB in it for him if we beat the other taxi back to the hotel.”
I was too tired to argue. Beer and wine and a hectic schedule invoked resignation rather than protestation. I just sat back in the cab, my fingers gripping on for dear life into the vinyl seat in front of me. There were no seat belts in the back of the cab and every lane change had us meet in the middle of the cab as we slid across the seat.
The moisture of the fog turned the four-lane esplanade into an ice rink. The obviously bald rear tires of the cab sliding across the lanes like a rally car on a mission. There were two lanes each way, no median strip between them. On one side of the road was the dark and filthy Yalu River – by day a brown and unwelcoming breeding pit of disease, but by night it was a pitch black cavern of death waiting to swallow any racing taxis driven by drunk taxi drivers with appalling wigs.
Oh yeah, his wig! I forgot to mention his wig. It shone with a deep black radiance that revealed tinges of deep blue and purple as the lights flashed by. It sat on an odd angle, obviously ill-fitting and had worked its way loose over several hours of drinking and God-knew what else the driver had been doing prior to picking us up. I doubted that the wig was even his – perhaps he had won it in a card game of some sort. It wouldn’t have surprised me at all.
On the other side of the road was a long concrete wall that protected row after row of apartments from the noise of the traffic. We were in a chute – a slippery barrel of oncoming death as we ploughed ahead.
The speed limit was 60 km/h but, from my vantage point, I could see the speedometer nudging 120 km/h. We rounded a slight bend in the road and overtook the other taxi, which had slowed for some reason.
Then the reason became apparent – a police car was right next to him.
Our driver, completely oblivious to anything else on the road (and to life in general I think), sped right on past the taxi and cop, switching into the oncoming traffic to avoid rear-ending them both.
The road veered left and we followed it, turning into oncoming traffic on a blind corner… On a slippery road… In the fog… At twice the speed limit… In a cab driven by a guy so drunk he could barely see past the front bumper.
It was no surprise, therefore, that we suddenly found ourselves drifting around in circles with absolutely no control and heading through the traffic towards the concrete wall.
This was when I said “Oh fuck”, resigned to my fate…
How we never hit anything coming the other way was a minor miracle. I felt the wheels hit the curb as we spun around, the rear of the car now heading towards the wall. My grip on the seat in front of me was complete. My fingers had torn into the vinyl as I held on for dear life. The cab was filled with screams and I’m pretty sure some of those were mine.
Then, by some strange quirk, the rear bumper of the car hit the wall and spun the car around further – facing the oncoming traffic. The hit was soft – almost like a metallic pinball hitting the rubber flipper in a pinball machine.
The cab stalled and I pulled my fingers from the vinyl seat – the marks left there would be there forever as evidence of the panic and mayhem experienced. The driver was plastered to his seat – the wig was even more askew and had slid halfway down the side of his perspiring head like some sort of slowly migrating animal – a hairy beret perched precariously on the edge of his face.
That was when the laughter began.
Even after the police arrived and took down our details – deciding that the driver was solely to blame and bundled him off into custody – my laughter would not abate.
It was the laughter of relief.
The three of us hitched back to the hotel, eventually sitting in the back of an open truck and saturated by the humid moisture that rolled in even thicker after midnight. I needed a cleansing ale to finish the night off – calm the nerves a little bit.
One more Tsingtao.
One last Scotch.
I went up to my room, undressed and showered. I washed the smell of cigarettes from by eyes, my pores. I washed away the fetid taxi smell of body odour and of close proximity sweating. I washed away spinning cars, flashing headlights, oncoming walls and deathly black rivers. I washed Dandong nightlife out of my hair, my skin and my mouth. I could taste the city on my tongue, its essence seeped out of out my pores. I wreaked of third-world progression and cheap alcohol.
When I collapsed into bed, the exhaustion hit – the exhaustion of emotion.
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