Friday, August 1, 2008

On the road to the Eclipse

A chaothic departure
Today I wake up with the joy of discovering something new, since today we are going to see an eclipse. According to scientific research I did over the Internet, the best place to see it is in Yiwu, a small city North-East of Kumul (Hami) in Oriental Turkistan. The Chinese authorities took advantage of the eclipse to set up a toll and have millions of tourists going to see the eclipse pay. The cost of the authorization is too expensive for us: 320 euros or 3200 Yuan. With dad, we figure that an eclipse is visible not only in one place and that the band of vision is wide and long. Looking at the map and on Internet, we notice that the eclipse is also visible from another small village. Dad calls the minibus driver he hired the day before and tells him where we decided to go. When we are finished putting our things away, we go have breakfast. I don’t know why, but today for breakfast I take only a hard-boiled egg and some Chinese bread. Yet, dad says that while traveling it’s always better to eat well when there’s the opportunity to, because we never know what might happen. When we finish, we put our things in the mini-bus that’s being driven by a fat man that always scratches himself and who’s called Karam. Coming out of the hotel, I see a robust man of about 65 years old who limps and has a four-day old beard. I talk with him and with his accent, fast-talking but more distinct than a British, I understand that he’s American. He tells me that he lives in Beijing. He came with his wife. She’s about the same age as him with white hair. She has the real attitude of a grandmother: she’s considerate of everything and everyone. Her son, in his thirties, speaks very good Chinese. They also came to see the eclipse. He’s very nice and before leaving, he looks at our license plate. He’s going to Xincheng like us and says that if we cross paths on the road and we’re in trouble, he’ll come and help us. Then he leaves. And so do we, in our mini-bus. But after five minutes, dad remembers that we have to prepare our train departure between Hami an Xi’an that will last more than 23 hours, just after the eclipse. He asks Liu Jia if she found a solution to buy the train tickets. She says no, but guarantees that we’ll be able to buy them in the evening when we return. Dad says that Xi’an, a popular tourist destination, will most likely be the next destination for the thousands of tourists that came to watch the eclipse. That’s dad’s experience as a traveler talking! He asks Liu Jia to find a solution now for the tickets or to have someone else buy them, but she has none. At that moment, our Indian traveling companion proposes that we go to a travel agency and have them buy the tickets for us. Dad says that it’s Liu Jia’s job to take care of these things, to take the weight off his shoulders in organizing this trip. I think he’s right and with everything he’s done for me, for the trip and for his Paris office and also for his association called Aina in Kabul, he has a lot of weight to carry, and to remove one means a lot. We then go to Hami’s big hotel where there’s a travel agency. We arrive in a small crowded room where a woman is typing information into a computer and another who has to sell the last six authorization tickets for the eclipse and had promised to sell them to ten people. Languages are mixed in this crowd: we hear Australian, British, American and even Chinese being spoken. In the middle of the shouting and stress of the woman selling the authorizations, Liu Jia asks her if she can book out tickets. She writes our train on a piece of paper and accepts. Dad and his genius sees that this poor woman, once the tourists will be gone, will only want to hang her head back, sigh and sleep. Since Liu Jia told me that she doesn’t care about seeing the eclipse, and although he’s sorry about it, dad proposes that she stays to buy the tickets if she doesn’t find another solution. Then, she answers with a sentence that I’ve heard a million times during this trip with her, which is: “It doesn’t matter.” She takes her things from the minibus and leaves. I can hear myself thanking dad and see Yang Dong relieved to finally be able to speak in Liu Jia’s absence, because she doesn’t let others speak and no one dares ask a question for fear of getting an answer in her voice that could blow out an eardrum. The driver starts driving at an odd speed, and we tell ourselves that he’s weird and at this speed, we’ll arrive in the village tomorrow morning, well after the eclipse. After a few minutes, he stops in front of a gas station where cars are lined up waiting to get gas. At that moment, dad protests and asks the driver to not waste his time and to find another gas station. He also asks him to buy Kumul melons that are reputed to be the best in the world. After driving in circles for 10 minutes, we find the melons but no gas. We buy three melons at 5 Yuan. Finally, we find a gas station at the end of a small sandy road and Karam fills up. When the tank is full he begins to drive at a normal speed and then I feel relieved. Then, I sleep while listening to Jacques Brel and think about a journey between Nîmes and Monaco during which I listened to Brel with my grandfather.

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