I’ve often wondered what the mathematical relationship is between how long something takes and how many people are involved. I’m not talking about moving 10 tonnes of rubble 100m with 50 labourers. That’s GCSE maths (and I didn’t do too well in that anyway). I’m talking about when time swings the other way; when every extra person involved increases the time it takes to do something. Decision by committee becomes the default and rumours shape your day.
I’ve got a feeling the maths function is to the power of the number of people involved, or somewhere in there that number is at least squared or cubed. This is because waiting in these situations just seems to go on forever. Even toilet requirements come in to play: Everyone is ready and we’re just about to leave…..then I need the bathroom. I went just before we were due to depart but now I’ve been waiting so long, those breakfast teas have passed all the way through and need to exit.
Our tour of China had been arranged by others and in many senses we were tagging along just to get from A to B each day. Often the entropy of 21 people seemed to suggest that A-B might not happen today then suddenly, bang, we were going for it! In a big, last minute, driving fast at dusk to beat the odds kind of a way. The itinerary we had all signed up for surprised many people during these weeks, as if this was the first time they had laid their eyes on it. It was a bit stupid. And dangerous. And amateur.
Our guide for the remains of the country was codename Yasmin and she did a fantastic job in the face of adversity. She quickly realised the baton she had been handed was in fact a chalice, and worked extremely hard to multilaterally bring the tour back on track. She knew about the follow-up rabies shot one member of the group needed, she knew about the pressing deadlines of another part of the group. She knew about the mechanical problems of some of the bikes and the dietary and budgetary requirements of everyone. She also knew stuff we didn’t but, Christ, would people listen?
After a few days (like a blur) in central China, we picked up the old silk road and entered Xinjiang province. Heavily Muslim and subsequently a heavily oppressed area, codename Yasmin knew getting fuel for the motorbikes would be difficult. It wasn’t that it was petrol not diesel, as petrol cars could fill up easily. It wasn’t that it was foreign bikes, as local scooters also had difficulty getting fuel. But some combination of these factors gave every person involved in providing motorbike fuel the equivalent of a divide by zero error. Blank looks, does not compute. Default answer was no.
One evening we quietly discussed with codename Yasmin how we could speed up the refuelling so that the whole group didn’t have to suffer these long waits. She spent about 3 hours, late into the night, speaking to a local policeman to acquire a refuelling permit. This permit could only be used in the tiny locale serviced by that particular police station in that city.
Before group departure the following day, codename Yasmin guided our three bikes to the correct petrol station and we pulled up next to the ram-proof fence outside. (N.B. There are no photos of the spikes, razor-wire and crash barriers that surround every gas station in Xinjiang and Tibet. Even if I had taken any photos, they would have been deleted by the police at the border.) She explained about the permit to the gatemaster wearing his standard issue bomb-squad vest and helmet. So he called the police. Then he said into the phone “There are three motorbikes here with no number plates trying to get fuel.” Codename Yasmin ran up to him waving her arms and saying “no, no, no, no, no, no”. But it was too late. Someone, somewhere had reached across their police desk and pressed the huge red-alert button.
Within minutes a number of teenage policemen with bayonet sticks and riot shields began to appear around us. Then I noticed the fucking armoured personnel carrier that had pulled up behind us, replete with guide car. This was all getting a bit silly. I had rushed my breakfast for this? Then codename Yasmin went with one of the teenagers onto the forecourt and began lengthy negotiations with the staff there. The policeman was not budging and clearly he thought he was the shit. Then more senior cops appeared and more arguing ensued until finally, they let us fill some watering cans and carry them to the bikes. In aggregate, this saved some time for the group, but this whole episode took over an hour and meant everyone was late leaving town. Where’s that mathematical function, eh?
Xinjiang was the straw that broke the bactrian camel’s back, in the end. The ridiculous security that flanked the local communities annoyed many of us and the fresh-out-of-school, armed riot police really made me wanna throw Molotov cocktails. In one night market we went to, the riot police outnumbered the civilians. At one large checkpoint at the edge of the Gobi desert, I took a piss under a security camera. Whistles were blown and police marched up to us and then tried to confiscate our passports. It wasn’t that they felt urinating in one of the driest parts of the planet was particularly wrong, it was the fear of retribution from their superior observers that drove them. The cameras were all they worried about. It was a shit show.
Our final destination in China was the ancient city of Kashgar. Home to the largest bazaar in Asia, the city has been an important trading centre for over 2,000 years. The mud-brick pathways form a labyrinth which is still home to many communities. Unfortunately, the police park their vans within earshot of this old town. They rudely search the residents and check their ID cards at each point of ingress. The sirens on the vans wail round the clock. This was the new water torture. For millennia traders have connected Europe to Asia using these cities and now you wouldn’t last 48 hours there without losing your mind. It was time to leave town, and China!