Sometime in the mid 1400s there was a glorious sight in Beijing. Thousands of people waited patiently in line to purchase fireworks for the massive New Year’s celebration. Even without modern day queue ropes the lined weaved beautifully like the hundred foot paper dragons that danced among the crowd. The Emperor on his perch surrounded by advisors and concubines, although the whole crowd wanted desperately to see him. They waited patiently, knowing everybody would get a chance to cast their eyes on the most powerful man in the world. All of a sudden, from the back of the line, a man breaks rank. “AHHHHHHHHH!!” He screams as he sprints to the front shoving gaping spectators aside. Once at the front he presents his money to the shocked vendor. All eyes watch the transaction as the vendor, programmed for years to serve the person directly in front of him, takes the payment and hands over a box of fireworks. The crowd goes berserk. Children are trampled. Grandmothers are left to fend for themselves. A mad rush to the front ensues and the elegant Chinese queuing system was forever lost.
I feel my left elbow connect with the toothless gums of a lady that looks like she might have been born during the height of Qing Dynasty. I look back and scowl at her as a teenager to my right tries to shoot the gap between my side and my arm, I squeeze down on his pimpled face but somehow he navigates his lower body past me and squeezes his head through as I move my arm to defend my exposed ribs from a baby carrying mother assaulting me with her free hand.
Day one in China I refused to participate in the chaotic, barbaric, and occasionally crippling task of fighting for your spot in line. Ollie and I looked at each other, laughed at the carnage in front of us and said “We’re all gonna get bus tickets, this is ridiculous.” Twelve hours later we were substantially further away from the front and were so far back that people would often give us a cheap shot on the way in just to get warmed up for the bloodbath they were diving into.
A month in and we were experts, if you chose to wait in line for everything in a land of 1.3 billion people you’d see adults waiting at the hospital for their umbilical cords to finally be cut. You want something in China, you go get it. If there’s a small child in the way, don’t hold back, if they are tall enough to heel stomp your instep they are a threat. If there’s an old lady nearby, watch out her purse is full of rocks and possibly a live cobra.
The queue is a life of itself in China. Early in my trip, at a bus stop, I saw a fit guy elbow a hobbling old woman out of the way. The whole crowd passed her crooked frame and I expected her to get left behind. Fortunately for her, we could still breath and no one’s eyeballs had popped out so there was clearly plenty more room on the bus. The lady got on and ended up standing next to the man who had discarded her on the sidewalk moments earlier. I couldn’t hear the conversation over “Jingle Bells” blasting on the radio as the late summer sun lurked somewhere in the smog covered city. I expected to see an exchange of icy glares and a few harsh words but instead they appeared to have a cordial and delightful conversation, laughing and chatting the rest of the trip.
Here at Chongqing Central, Ollie and I had only been battling for an hour or so and were quickly working our way through the crowd. I towered over the thousands of other ticket seekers and could use my frame to hold back the armies behind us. My size advantage came with a severe drawback, puffing my chest out to take up space meant I was in contact with 7 or 8 people at all times, each of them with an opportunity to find a weak spot and strike. I was constantly wincing as fists connected with my sides, elbows with my thighs, and purses with my groin. My arms stayed moving, swimming through the throngs.
Once at the counter we were by no means in the clear, you’d think the queue would ease up at the front, everyone is tired, bloody, bruised, and certainly going to get a turn. In a proper line, Ollie and I would be next. Here, I am grasping both edges of the ticket window, enveloping the small old man in front of me and using powerful hip checks to ward off people trying to sneak under my arm. Finally the man in front of us finished his transaction and Ollie slides into place.
“Chengdu, two” Ollie says holding up two fingers and gesturing to the two of us.
The lady shakes her head.
“Chengdu” Ollie says louder.
She shakes her head again. Someone nearby must have noticed we were having issues and started yelling.
“Chengdu!” I insist as the crowd froths behind me.
She shrugs. People are LOSING THEIR SHIT. I feel the pressure on my back increase and the aggressive blows, usually reserved for line positions two through ten thousand are now being directed at us. I see Ollie attempting to dig in his bag, arms smashed against the ticket window, he extracts the Lonely Planet and wills his arms back up to the counter. The blows to my kidneys and ribs keep coming while Ollie leafs through the book, he thrusts the page, finger on Chengdu at the lady behind the counter. The yelling behind us intensifies as high pitched battle cries rile up the wannabe travelers.
“Oh, Chengdu,” she says parroting the word we had insisted several times while shaking her head at the silly unintelligible foreigners. Exasperated at our heinous grasp of the tonal language and the ticket vendor’s inability to decode our frantic yells, we take our tickets. The crowd parts for us with nothing but smiles for the now benign tourists. As we leave the crowd closes instantly behind us, the war carries on as one more eager group purchases their tickets and ten thousand more hopefuls fight to the brink of death for the right to do the same.