Issue Five - February 2003


By Richard Ward

Karen was crying. As I walked along the rickety balcony that led past her room on the second story of our hotel, little more than a grey-brick family compound around a cluttered courtyard, I could hear her sobbing. Through the open doorway I glimpsed her, seated on the bed, her face in her hands. I supposed she and Kurt were having a falling-out. Backpack travel is stressful, and couples sometimes have rows in hotel rooms. I had heard more than a few stories about lovers splitting up on the road.

But Andy was in the room with Karen and Kurt, looking serious and diffident, as usual, and I wondered why he hadn’t left. Then Tom Finecane appeared and asked if I’d heard that Karen’s camera had been stolen. The police, our tormentors of the night before, had been informed, and one of their responses had been to threaten our anxious but hospitable landlady with a fine of five thousand yuan. Karen blamed herself for having left the camera in the room the night before when we’d all gone out for dinner, after which we were rounded up and taken to the police station.

We were in Xiangsheng, on a mountainous route known as “the back door to Sichuan,” in southwestern China. Opened to foreigners in 1993, the road from Zhongdian, in northern Yunnan Province, northward into Sichuan Province begins high and rises higher, first through forested valleys and then into and mountains, finally climbing onto the Tibetan plateau and ending in Litang, a dusty outpost on the southern route from Chengdu to Lhasa. I’d been in Zhongdian in January, 1994, with another group of adventurers, but we were blocked by a snowstorm from proceeding further. Now it was late spring, three years later, and I’d fallen in with a small group of Litang-bound budget travelers who had assembled in the Tibet Hotel in Zhongdian, a clean, family-run hostel with four-bed dorms and a pleasant little restaurant where the road-weary could relax and trade tales.

Karen Sherman was a robust American in her late twenties, traveling with Kurt, a lanky German given to laconic commentary. Tom Fincene was a Brit, ruddy-featured with greying blond hair, in flight from his career as an accountant, and Andy Fidler was a recent Cambridge graduate, high-strung, troubled, very bright, in flight from a very demanding, impulsive, and promiscuous English girl he’d met in Thailand. Also with us was a silent Japanese guy, maybe thirty, isolated by his shyness and lack of English.

We’d spent the day before on a rattlebang old bus grinding over the passes from Zhongdian. Besides a lunch break at a ramshackle roadside eatery where we shared tables outdoors with an odd assortment of Chinese hillbillies on their way north, our only stop had been for a burst tire, replaced by one equally worn. At the end of the day we dropped into the narrow valley leading to Xiangsheng, the arid hillsides lit up by the late-afternoon sun as we passed, one after another, the white-plastered walls of Tibetan-style houses, each displaying the elaborately carved and colorfully painted window frames and doorjams one sees all over northwestern Yunnan, western Sichuan, and southwestern Gansu, areas shorn from Tibet after its “liberation” by the Chinese during the 1950s.

Now it was the next morning. We’d been out in the town for breakfast in the small eateries near the main square, an expanse of cracked concrete surrounded by the drab Chinese-style buildings now so common in rural towns all over China. Travelers call them “bathroom architecture,” as white rectangular tiles are used to cover their concrete walls. Most merchants were Han Chinese, nearly all locals Tibetan or Sichuan minorities. We knew we had a day’s wait for the next bus north to Litang and were planning to stroll into the countryside to the clusters of Tibetan houses strung up and down the valley, but now there was a crisis over Karen’s camera and our concern about the terror expressed by our gaunt but solicitous innkeeper, who had set us up in her little dorm rooms the night before, equipped with soiled quilts and weak lightbulbs hanging from dubious wiring. We’d shared rooms with some of our bus-mates, mostly poor folk headed north, their luggage mostly shopping bags and bedrolls, and with others headed south, awaiting the early-morning bus to Zhongdian. One was a Tibetan monk, his maroon robe soiled around the collar, a growth of salt-and-pepper hair sprouting on his bare head. Only he among the local travelers acknowledged us, with eye contact and warm smiles.

But this was our second crisis. The first had occurred the night before, when my roommates and I were awakened by local police, wielding flashlights and demanding to see passports, which they briefly inspected, then pocketed. Chief among them was one in plainclothes, the usual dark cotton trousers, army surplus shirt, and olive-green sneakers so common in rural China. He motioned us to dress and follow him and his blue-uniformed comrades. We shuffled up the main street of Xiangsheng and mounted the steep concrete stairway into the only well-lighted building in town, the police station. Kurt and Karen had been rounded up from a little restaurant, so they had already been informed of their crime and interrogated. As we were led into the little office, Kurt pulled me aside and said, “They want us to pay 300 yuan each, but we already got them down to one-fifty.” I was bewildered. What for?

We stood or sat on rickety chairs, facing a semicircle of cops, all but Officer Plainclothes seated around a large desk. The eldest was a belligerent bulldog who seemed to set the tone for the others. “Wenti shi shenme?”, I asked. “What is the problem?” My speaking skills in Mandarin are poor, but my listening skills are even poorer, so I did not understand the answer. Bulldog seemed angry.

“Evidently we are in a closed area,” Kurt said.

Then I remembered how, early that morning, at the bus station in Zhongdian, while lining up to board the bus, we’d been confronted by a Tibetan punk wearing dark glasses, a cigarette dangling from his lips. Somehow he conveyed to us that we were not allowed to board the bus. The road was closed to foreigners. I remonstrated. The road had been open for four years, I said. Yes, but closed now, he said. My resistance led to his withdrawing from his shirt pocket a policeman’s badge, or what looked like one. I suspected a shakedown was underway, so I asked if we could “fu yidian qian,” pay a little money for a permit.

“Bu keyi,” he said. “You cannot.”

Quelling my irritation, I asked who could authorize our going. Only his boss, he said. “Where is your boss?” In Kunming, he said. Kunming is hundreds of miles from Zhongdian. “Maybe you could telephone your boss and ask him if he would permit us to go to Litang?”

He hesitated, then said no. Suddenly the manager of the bus station intervened, speaking rapidly to our disheveled gendarme, who immediately relented and said we could go, so long as we listed our passport numbers. That quickly done, we loaded our packs onto the roof of the dusty old coach and found seats inside. Soon we were off.

There in the Xiangsheng police station my mind raced. Petty extortion is rampant among rural policemen in China. I smelled a rat. “Since four years ago many foreigners have come here. Why are we not permitted to now?” To Bulldog’s left was a young, pretty woman, officious in her uniform, the brass buttons and stiff epaulets giving her a theatrical presence. Speaking Chinglish, she burst into the rapid-fire denunciatory invective so common in China, her forehead wrinkled in stage anger, as Bulldog rose from his chair to pass to me a pamphlet opened to a page of regulations, in English. I read its brief paragraphs quickly. They simply said that foreigners were not to travel in unauthorized areas.

‘Keshi zheige difang dou kaile,” I said. This area is open.

Heads shook. “Closed,” said Pretty Woman. She looked tough as a pork rind. I sensed that she was new on the job and eager to demonstrate sternness.

“When,” I asked.

“Zuotian.” Yesterday.

Tom and I conferred. “They just want our money,” he opined. “It’s a scam.” Kurt and Karen noted that they had our passports and had already come down to 150 yuan. The Japanese guy sat in attentive silence. It wasn’t much money for us, about eighteen dollars apiece.

“This is bullshit,” I said. “What would they do with us if we didn’t pay?” I felt rebellious. I knew the fine would not be recorded or sent on to provincial headquarters. A big enough stink could get these shysters in trouble, especially if foreign embassies got involved.

“It’s not worth it,” Tom said.

He was right, I knew, but I liked holding out a little longer. Some of the officers rocked a little in their chairs, looking around embarrassedly. Even Bulldog seemed a little on the edge of his seat. I had become the spokesman for our group simply because I could manage a little more Mandarin than the others, but he clearly regarded me as some sort of trip leader. Accentuating my already prounounced expression of disgust, I pulled open my money belt and threw 150 yuan on the desk, glaring first at Bulldog, then at Pretty Woman. Plainclothes was obviously relieved and smiled as he collected cash from the others.

Tom and I pushed out of the room and strode the half mile back to our hotel, having to rouse someone sleeping in the courtyard to get in. Not long afterward the others showed up.

“As soon as they got all of the money, they seemed very happy,” Karen reported. “They said we could stay as long as we liked, but not to take any pictures.” Pretty Woman had been especially friendly, showing Kurt and Karen photos of her family and of her graduation from the police academy. We all turned in, our long day having been extended into the early hours of the morning.

Now it was a bright morning. Kurt emerged from his and Karen’s room. I asked how she was. “Oh, she’ll be okay. She blames herself too much, and the landlady is pretty scared. Most of all, she lost some photos that were important to her, of Dali and Lijiang.”

Just then we heard sirens and could glimpse the white-and-blue Chinese-made Jeep Cherokee roaring by, dust boiling up behind, “They are going to chase the bus going to Zhongdian,”Kurt explained. “They think the thief is on it.”

We agreed to spend the day walking to the villages downvalley, and Karen soon had herself pulled together and ready to go. I put my camera in my daypack, and Kurt said, “You know, they said we couldn’t take pictures here.”

“Well,” I replied, “I am not going to leave the camera in my room, after what happened, and besides, for 150 yuan I’d damned well better get a few pictures.” Kurt agreed and packed his as well.

We descended to the river on an ungraveled road and crossed a concrete bridge. From here the road turned downriver and narrowed to little more than a trail. Above us, to our left, were fields, and ahead we could glimpse the whitewashed walls of farmers’ settlements. Kurt revealed that he was feeling a little weak, due to an ongoing bout with travelers’ diarrhea, but we kept a good pace nevertheless, joking a bit with Karen about the difficulties men have with women.

We approached the settlement from the riverside trail, ascending a series of stone steps until we found ourselves in a narrow street between rammed-earth walls, where several old women, heads shaved, each fingering a rosary, sat in the shade of a tree. Two were holding infants, silent little forms whose untroubled eyes gazed at the outlanders, perhaps more exotic to them then they to us.

The women gestured for us to sit mong them. Karen offered to hold a child, and soon we were presented with food, tsampa and something like seeds. We reciprocated with cookies and chocolate. Kurt asked the women to show him their necklaces and rosary beads and one of the dusty grandmothers offered to sell him some of her silverwork.

“Duo shao qian?” he asked. How much? She glanced at her sisters seated on the ground and held back a nervous smile. She crossed her two index fingers, then crossed them again.

“Ten?” Kurt asked.

“I think she means a hundred,” Karen broke in. I thought so too. Crossed fingers mean ten, and perhaps she meant ten tens. But maybe only twenty.

“Xie Xie. Bu yao,” Kurt said. Thank you, but I don’t want.

I felt my usual eagerness to get photos and sensed that rapport was now sufficient for a request. I held up the camera questioningly and pointed at the oldest woman, her soiled robe the resting place for an equally soiled child. She nodded, without smiling, and sat as though enduring my pointing a 200mm lens at her were an obligation of sorts.

Kurt also snapped some shots, while Karen tried to communicate with the women. I wondered what they thought of this foreigner who seemed to appreciate them so much and be so glad to hold their brown little naked boys.

I motioned uphill to where the tiny lane left the collection of houses and curved out of sight. “Keyi bu Keyi qu nar?” May we go there?

The women assented by motioning with their hands, and we rose, put away our cameras, and set off for the sunlit slope above.

The higher we walked, the broader our view. The river purled below, and massive white cumulus clouds sit on the ridgetops. We passed a picturesque complex of Tibetan houses, their whitewashed walls leaning inward, firewood piled on the flat rooftops. But no one was about. Soon we glimpsed ahead an area of disturbed earth, scaffolding, and busy activity. As we approached we could see that a large house was under construction. A rammed-earth wall was going up, timbers were being adzed into shape, and a basement of sorts was slowly forming as workers excavated it to provide soil for the walls. Once we were in view, we were waved forward. We climbed into the excavation, where lines of women, most wearing the woven apron that signals its wearer is married, waited first to have their baskets filled with soil, then to ascend steps notched into a log leaning against the wall until they reached the top, where they dumped the soil between parallel boards held in place by stout poles rising from opposite sides of the wall and roped together at their tops. Standing on the wall were the men, each with a heavy wooden tamper which was rhythmically pounded on the fresh dirt, while others sprinkled the soil occasionally with water to give it some adherence.

I was motioned to climb the wall, and once on top was handed a tamper. Soon I found this was hard work, and monotonous, but the friendliness of my co-workers kept me at it for a while. Karen and Kurt were still down in the pit, hanging out with the children who scampered about the site, but after I rejoined them there Karen also ascended the wall, carrying a load of soil and nearly spilling it as she navigated the steep, notched log to the top. The women below cheered her effort and one assented to my request to take a photograph. She smiled that same, squarish grin one sees all over Tibet, her basket held by shoulder straps and a tumpline, and as I drew her in with the telephoto until she was a portrait there in my viewfinder, I knew I had a good one, a strong, clear image that I could share with friends at home.

We climbed out and walked along an irrigation channel, pursued by teasing boys, until we visited the adjacent wood-yard, where the posts and beams were being worked into the needed dimensions. Where did the logs come from? The surrounding hills bore nothing so large, but I remembered then the logging camp we’d passed the afternoon before, in the mountains north of Zhongdoan, and assumed they’d come from there.

The shadows were lengthening as we descended toward the river. We varied our route back to the bridge, sometimes crossing terraced fields and we climbed the road back Xiangsheng in shade. After finding Andy and Tom, I went with them to a large dining hall, run by a Han couple recently moved to Gangsheng.

Our host and hostess wanted to talk, so a conversation developed. They expressed contempt for the police and made the motions of drinking from a bottle when we reported that we’d paid the officers a fine: the revenue would be consumed in a binge, it seemed.

On the way back to the hotel we stocked up on edibles for the next day’s long ride to Litang. The available snacks were the usual in small-town China: canned juices and coconut milk and packaged biscuits of suspect antiquity. In our rooms we pulled our things together and packed them, as the bus would leave before daybreak, and electricity was cut off from midnight to dawn. Tom and I had adjacent bunks, and we wondered there in the darkness whether the police had had any success in running down the bus to Zhongdian. It seemed unlikely, as so much time had passed.

Then we heard the siren. It grew louder, than abruptly stopped. There was a commotion in the courtyard, followed by heavy footsteps on the wooden staircase. We rose. I had on my mountaineering headlamp, my only flashlight. Just as I opened the door to our room Plainclothes appeared, presenting me, whom he evidently took to be some sort of chef d’voyage, with Karen’s camera. He grinned jubilantly. The landlady chattered beside him, apparently exonerated. Karen appeared, then Kurt, wearing only shorts. They were told they had to appear in the police station to fill out a report. Before Tom and I got back to sleep, they returned, having been told to come the next morning for the rest of the paperwork. They would have to miss the bus, which meant waiting in Xiangsheng another two days.

What’s the story? we asked. Karen had learned the police had overtaken the bus only on the outskirts of Zhongdian. Everyone had been made to get out, and all were searched.

“Who took the camera?” I asked.

“You won’t believe it,” she said sadly. “It was the monk. The Tibetan monk that was in the room next to ours. He had it in his luggage.”

Copyright © 2003 by Richard Ward