The bus ride from Chendgu to the small Tibetan city of Kangding (~12 hours on a bus on winding and at times bumpy mountain roads) was not a particularly pleasant one, but as Kelsi wrote in her post, the hassle was well worth it. When the time came to leave Kangding and return to Chengdu, we resigned ourselves to another 12 hour bus trip, loaded up our phone with podcasts, and made sure to arrive at the train station at 7am to ensure that we got on one of the the earlier buses.
Returning to Chengdu proved to be not be so simple.
Riding on buses in China can be a bit tricky. Notably, we have yet to find a reliable schedule for buses anywhere. Most of our bus information comes from asking at our hostel or referencing guidebooks. We were burned a little bit getting to Kangding when the staff told us that "buses leave for Kangding all the time, like every half hour." When we arrived at the bus station to buy our ticket, we found that the next bus didn't leave for two and a half hours.
When it came to buying tickets to leave Kangding, one bus schedule at a hostel listed seven or eight different buses which matched the schedule provided in our guidebook. Based on this information and our conversation with the hostel manager, who told us that by arriving at the station early we were unlikely to encounter problems, we showed up early the morning of the day we were to leave Kangding.
As we walked into the train station, dozens of Tibetan men surrounded us at the doorway calling out various city names -- "Chengdu!" "Shangra-la!" "Ya-an!" "Danba!" "Tagong!" Having no desire to pay markup prices to these ticket scalpers, Kelsi and I pushed our way through into the station and walked up to the ticket counter. The conversation went something like this:
Kelsi - "Two, Chengdu," holding up two fingers.
Ticket woman - "No Chengdu, no bus."
Kelsi - "No Chengdu?"
Ticket woman - "No Chengdu, no bus."
Us - *mutual glance of surprise and alarm/muttering of choice swear words*
In hindsight, I think this was due to high demand from coming a few days after the national holiday and some decrease in the normal number of buses that day, but we'll never know why there were not tickets available. We HAD to get back to Chengdu that day, as we had a flight booked out of Chengdu in two days and needed the day in between to see the pandas. Waiting a day would mean missing out on this big event.
We stood in the ticket lobby only 20 seconds after being denied bus tickets before we were approached by a Tibetan man who had been waiting outside. "Chengdu Chengdu?" he asked.
"Yes," we told him.
He gestured to himself. I realized that he wasn't a scalper, but instead an informal businessman who ran his own minivan for hire. I had read that you could hire a minivan, but had never considered it until that moment.
"How much?" Kelsi asked.
The man pulled out his cell phone and brought up the calculator function. Many times in China, calculators or phones have been used in place of language (since we can't speak Chinese) to display and haggle over prices.
As he began to type in the price, my stomach sank as I knew that we would need to negotiate. In principle, I don't mind negotiating and in some other instances I have become reasonably good at it, but this was not a situation that looked good for us. The man had two pieces of knowledge to his advantage: First, what a private ride to Chengdu should cost (we only had a vague notion based on the bus ticket and didn't know what the markup for a private minivan should be) and second, that there were no buses to available to Chendgu that day. He and the other minivans were the only game in town. Kelsi and I both felt that we were destined to get ripped off, but accepted that we had little in our power to prevent it.
He typed 280, meaning he would want a total ¥560. Having paid ¥140 a person for the bus out, we knew this was the expected sky high opening bid.
We scoffed visibly. He immediately erased what he wrote and wrote 260.
We knew this was still an incredible number for the trip, still nearly double our bus trip out. But we were nervous and knew that we had to return to Chengdu that day. And really, as marked up as it was, ¥260 was less than $90 for the both of us and, while ridiculous, was something we could pay. We looked at each and then nodded to him. We asked how soon and he said we'd leave at 9am, nearly two hours from then.
Our new driver led us outside the station, working to shield us from other drivers offering rides. As we followed in him out, I moped defeatedly, having felt shame in our poor negotiation. I knew that as obvious Westerners that we would have to pay a markup, but even not knowing what the price should be I knew we paid too much.
The advantage of being in a place where you don't speak the language is that no one else understands you either. As we walked behind our driver, Kelsi and I openly discussed how we had agreed to too much and talked about tactics for re-negotiating. We then stopped our driver and told him that he was charging too much. He pulled out his phone and showed us the price again: ¥260.
Kelsi took the phone and gave our counter offer -- ¥400 for both. He declined and we passed the phone back and forth and finally resolved at ¥430 for both, or ¥215 a person.
Feeling marginally but not entirely better about our new price (because if you don't know what the price should be you never feel that great about a negotiation), Kelsi and I exchanged phone numbers with the driver, communicated sternly that we wouldn't pay until the minivan arrived in Chengdu, and then wandered over to a nearby noodle shop and had ourselves a noodle breakfast.
While eating our noodles we discussed how we hoped that we would leave at 9am. Minibuses like ours do not leave on a schedule, only when the driver can find enough passengers to fill the car. We would only leave if our driver managed to find more business - and we could see him walking back and forth across the street hollering "Chengdu!" which at least gave us confidence that we would indeed end up where we hoped. At one point, our guy even came over to check that we were still game, and said that he might send us in a bus with "his brother."
As we picked the dregs from the bottom of our noodle bowl, we were pleasantly surprised when our driver came looking for us frantically at 7:30am, saying that the minivan was ready to go. When we walked over to his minivan it became apparent that it wasn't his minivan that was ready to go, but another. Like a broker selling a contract, he sold our business to another, and we observed some hushed negotiations between him and another man as we were told to load up our bag in back. Since we were ultimately leaving early, we didn't mind too much.
One thing that did not occur to us in the negotiations was to negotiate for a particular seat in the minivan. We were relegated to the third and last row of the minivan in seats that were too short for either of our knees and with a ceiling low enough that I could not sit up straight. In these seats we passed the next 12 hours.
Safety in a situation like this was a concern. There were two things that put me at ease. First, the driver appeared fairly skilled as we left town and was not passing everyone on the road, only some of the other cars. Second, I saw the driver's phone and it had a picture of two children. Perhaps the logic was a bit stretched, but I figured that a man with two kids wouldn't drive that recklessly.
Most of the trip passed uncomfortably but without incident, save for two hours sitting at a road closed by the police for still unknown reasons. With 2-3 hours left in the trip, the driver began pulling into autobody shops along the road, interrogating the vendors, and then driving off in frustration. We realized later that his GPS was broken, and that he didn't actually know how to drive us all the way to Chengdu. After an hour or so, he figured out how to make it work with assistance from a roadside snack vendor.
At this final pit stop, our driver also took out a tissue, coated it with water, and then slapped it on his license plate. It stuck there, obscuring some of the numbers. We had discussed earlier in the ride about the possibility that the minivan service was illegal; seeing this we knew that we were in a van doing something shady, but given that we were in the middle of nowhere and needed to get back to Chengdu we kept our mouths shut and piled back into the car to finish the journey.
Upon arrival in Chengdu it was clear that the driver still did not know where he was going and couldn't read his vehicle's GPS very well. At one point, he parked beside a highway, grabbed a ¥100 bill from his wallet, and wandered off for 20 minutes. When he returned, he had hired a guy off the street with a motorcycle to lead him through the city to one of the other passenger's destinations. When it came time for us to get out he stopped the car and summarily motioned for us to get out. It turned out he left us in the wrong part of the city, but the metro system of Chengdu meant that we were able to get to our hostel without incident.
A small bright spot appeared at the end of the exhausting ride. We had spent the final hour of the ride in foul moods over both our sore behinds and our increasing conviction that we were radically overpaying (Kelsi: "I bet everyone else is paying, like, ¥80.") to a driver who didn't even know where he was going. As we finally exited, however, we saw our back seatmate pay the driver ¥200 before walking off. We were shocked, but this meant that our ¥215/person fee was therefore an almost negligible markup, costing us about $2 more per person. That is the level of tourist markup that we feel no qualms in paying. In the end, our negotiation wasn't that bad. Yes, it was more than normal, but all prices during the national holiday period were high.
We've been told that if you have enough friends to fill a minivan and can negotiate, taking minivans can be the cheapest way to get around China. After our experience, however, I can safely say that Kelsi and I will be sticking to public buses and trains whenever possible.