After exploring the villages of Zhonglu and Suopo, it was time for lunch. If you remember, our driver felt we should have stopped for lunch much sooner and was none too pleased when 10 am rolled around and we still hadn’t eaten, but he was in a much better mood now that we were finally asking him to take us back to Danba for some food.
Once there, we chose a Tibetan restaurant this time, while our driver went off on his own somewhere, clearly disapproving of our choice in dining establishments. I figured he was just angry we chose a place that wouldn’t pay him a commission, but we soon found out he stormed off on his own for an entirely different reason.
After lunch, we walked around Danba a bit, as we had not yet explored this side of town, before meeting back up with our driver. The second we were back in his van, he practically peeled out and sped up the windy road that climbed toward Jiaju, the final town we would be visiting that day. He was making it pretty clear he was trying to get rid of us and get himself the rest of the day off as soon as possible. He even tried to drop us at the bottom of the village, but we could see that most of the places that offered homestays were near the top, so we insisted he take us all the way up.
He stopped at the first place offering rooms and quickly said his goodbyes. In other words, he stuck out his hand expecting money to find its way into his palm. The problem was, we were expecting him to drive us around the area some more, since we had very clearly hired him for the whole day. It also turned out that the place where he was trying to dump us didn’t have any rooms available and it was quite a walk to the next one. I just had a small backpack with me, but the other two had large and heavy bags that they did not want to be lugging up and down the steep hills of Jiaju in the hot afternoon sun.
So we climbed back in the van while our driver busied himself muttering angrily about the injustice he was being forced to endure. The second we shut the door, he sped off, flying through the narrow, windy roads at a speed at least double what your average stunt driver would deem safe. He had apparently gone insane and when I told him to slow down, he refused and said we were all going to die. I thought about translating that for the Israelis for a second, but one look at their faces made it clear there was no need. The lunatic expression on his face and the way he was taking the sharp, blind curves like someone playing Mario Kart for the first time, pretty much said it all.
Somehow, we actually arrived at the next farm offering homestays in one piece, although he did almost take out two women who were walking on the road and several cows who had chosen a bad time for a nap on the sun-warmed pavement.
As soon as he slammed the van to a stop in a cloud of dust and flying rocks on the next gravel driveway, we jumped out and started laying into him, but he obviously wasn’t getting any of the English; I tried using the few Chinese swear words I know, but he wasn’t listening to anything we were saying anyway. He was pretty much flipping out completely at this point and that only got worse when he noticed the peanuts all over the back seat and floor of his van.
Apparently when you take turns with enough speed and force to make your passengers’ faces contort like an astronaut training in a centrifuge, peanuts will also spill out of their bag. That may seem like common sense to a lot of people, but our driver was clearly not any of those people. He was FURIOUS and it was at this point that I finally realized what was going on and why he had been so eager to get to lunch and also why he was so eager to call it a day now.
He was completely wasted. I was a little angry at myself for not picking up on that sooner, but like most hardcore alcoholics, he was very good at keeping it hidden.
We knew we couldn’t get back in the car with him, but we also knew that would mean quite a bit of walking before we found a place with available rooms. We all agreed we would rather walk up the mountain with all our bags than fly down it with our mentally deranged driver, so we told him we’d pay him half the agreed upon fare and he could go home early. That did not go over well.
I won’t bother going into the rest of this. In short, there was a bunch of yelling on his part and a lot of frustration on ours, but in the end, we paid him the full amount. Plus we left him a backseat full of peanuts to snack on. We didn’t like giving in, but it was definitely the smart move in this situation. It seemed likely he would have no problem getting violent and like most Tibetans, he was carrying a large knife.
We also knew that, no matter how right we were and how wrong he was, in the eyes of everyone around us, Chinese tourists excepted, we were in the wrong. No matter what. The second he had his money, he sped off and I we can only hope he managed to not hit anyone, but even if he didn’t on this day, there’s a good chance he will someday.
I’d like to say this was an isolated incident and you shouldn’t have any problems hiring a local driver, but I don’t want to lie. There is apparently a huge problem with alcohol among Tibetans in the region and not a few of the drivers have no problem attacking the mountain roads while completely drunk .
They are also generally very quick to resort to violence and just a few days before, an Australian backpacker had apparently been killed by a group of drunk Tibetans in another part of western Sichuan. This was actually another reason given for the closing off to foreign tourists of much of the region, although any reports like this need to be taken with a very large grain of salt, as the Chinese government is only too happy to report any violence on the part of Tibetans, while suppressing any and all other reports from the region.
Continued in part 4: Homestay in Jiaju Where A Film Crew Steals our Feast