Taking a taxi in Lhasa, Tibet, is an adventure into the unknown at the best of times, but this particular trip encapsulates the madness of it all.
We have an important meeting with a local government official, as part of a process of obtaining a marriage licence, and we are acutely aware of the importance of being on time - as this is our fifth attempt.
After receiving our summons to attend by SMS, we rush down to the street and seek to wave down our taxi amongst the weaving throng. Frantic waving eventually sees a taxi slew across the street, coming to rest at a crazy angle to the footpath. An intenseive verbal exchange ensues about our destination, between the Tibetan member of our group and the Chinese taxi driver. I muse on the difference between this long discourse and the brief exchange that occurrs in the west, and wondered what on earth could be the subject of so much animated dialogue - we simply want to travel north along the same road for one kilometre.
With our destination sorted, we lurch forward into the stream of traffic with the horn blazing a path before us as if it was a gattling gun. Once into the main stream, consisting of three lanes of traffic, we look through the windscreen, past the various bobbing ornaments, at the bedlam in front of us.
To describe them as lanes, however, is not really very accurate.
The vehicles, a mixture of buses, taxis, trucks, cars, motor bikes, electric scooters, bicycles and pedal powered carts, all weave in and around each other - flowing forward like a widly assorted school of fish in a fast flowing stream.
Our member of this jumbled school is intent on getting to the front, and seeks every weakness or gap in the flow ahead of us - darting left, then right, braking hard, then surging forward. Each movement is accompanied by a blast of the horn and sometimes by a flash of headlights, to create additional importance to the action at hand.
Everyone else seems to be doing the same, so the school resembles something more akin to a noisy, wild stampede. Interspersed into this flow is an occasional sideways entry of a vehicle - who seem to launch directly into the flow like some suicidal salmon. This assault results in a flurry of braking, swerving and furious horn blowing as the school swarms around the entrant with millimetres to spare.
Adding to the general mayhem, a police vehicle is participating in the flow. It has a louder, more insistent horn that sounds similar to a large dog barking. This is being used constantly and rises above the general din like smoke. The police add to the controlled panic by constantly shouting instructions through a huge megaphone mounted on the car, in a language that I do not understand. As far as a I can ascertain, the school acts as if the car either doesn't exist or as if it is shouting at them in some weird Martian dialect.
Following a particularly insistent entry by a large four wheel drive, an opening is created in front of us and our driver surges to the left, seeking to exploit the opportunity. Another driver does the same, shooting towards the same opening. I shut my eyes, mentally willing some sort of quantum effect where we both exist at the same place and time at once, without any clash of metal or flesh.
Horns, brakes, lights - violent turns. I squeeze a look through squinted eyes and see that we are miraculously both in the gap, like sardines through the eye of a needle.
At this point the incident occurs.
Suddenly there is the horrifying screech of metal on metal, as in apparent slow motion freeze frame, a large bus side swipes our taxi, raking down its left side with the force of a rhinocerous plundering into a stream of fish.
The bus continues on, oblivious to the damage, pushing forward through the traffic - and at least twenty heads pop out of the side windows and look backwards with wide eyes towards us, to survey the damage that it is leaving in its wake.
We realize at this instant, that each and everyone of the heads is sitting atop a body that is bedecked in blue uniforms - they are all policemen, and this is, indeed, a police bus.
This fact dawns as well on the driver, who mutters something unintelligible and sinks lower into his seat - understanding that the eyewitness accounts of twenty policemen will seriously outweigh any other version of events. The driver gestures vaguely in what seems a submissive stance, indicating I think, that the event, in his view, never occurred, and instead he is focussing on the real task at hand. In this one instant I realize how important it is in such countries to not be noticed, to not stand out, to avoid getting into a maze of arbitrary justice.
We proceed onwards to our destination, the incident quickly receding into the wake behind us.
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