Friends: I felt no alarm, nor even surprise, when a couple of police officers standing along the road, on the outskirts of a small town in the mountains, motioned for me to stop. I was more surprised that it hadn't happened before in the 1,200 miles of China I had cycled so far. I had fully expected to encounter an occasional officer or police checkpoint requiring a look at my passport. That was common in the not too distant past, but not any more.
I had been the one approaching police officers and going into police stations to ask for directions. Not once had any had of them asked to see my passport nor been overly inquisitive about where I was going or what I was doing. None had been less than genial and helpful, such as the officer who led me to an Internet cafe and paid for it. These officers too seemed perfectly amiable, without a hint of hostility. They were stationed at a distant outpost and just seemed to be performing a perfunctory duty, more out of curiosity and boredom than anything else. In times past anyone traveling in rural China had to regularly check in at police stations. That era of fear and suspicion of outsiders seemed to be long gone.
I was a little concerned though that a glance at my passport wasn't enough to let me be on my way. Instead, the officers gestured for me to follow them over to their police station across the street. I presumed it was simply an excuse for them to be hospitable and to take advantage of this rare occasion when a foreigner passed through their town to get to know him a little. They took me into an office and let me sit on a couch while they repeatedly paged through my well-stamped passport, not seeming to find what they were looking for, even though my Chinese visa filled an entire page. Perhaps the extra pages I had added in South Africa earlier in the year had them befuddled, as they probably hadn't seen such a fat and filled passport before.
While I sat and they paged, an officer brought me a cup of hot water in one of those flimsy ultra-thin plastic cups that most of the restaurants use. Soon after a young man not in uniform bustled into the room and announced, "Hello, I'm here to help you. You have entered a Forbidden Area. Where are you headed?"
"I'm visiting a friend in Xian who works there. I have her phone number if you'd like to call her."
"Yes we would."
I went out to my bike to dig up Julie-Ann's phone number, but when they called it they couldn't get through. I told them I had a number of another Chinese friend in Guangzhou. They tried that as well, but said that number wasn't connecting either.
I brought my map back with me from the bike and showed them the route I had already come and wondered if I had been through any other Forbidden Areas. Like many who have taken a look at my maps, the officers and the young man, the local English teacher, studiously, with an almost fiendish curiosity, examined the map as if they had rarely seen such a thing. They said I hadn't passed through any other restricted areas, not even the 125 mile stretch I had just biked through the mountains where there had been virtually no traffic.
I traced my intended route for them and asked what alternative I could take. They said I could still pass through Shiyan, about eighty miles away, but that I would have to backtrack some twenty miles and swing up around towards it. In my atlas I have a copy of the story The Reader did on me a few years ago and showed them that. That occupied their attention for several minutes as the English teacher translated some of it for them. I was hoping that might generate some goodwill, and they might relent and let me continue on this road to the town of Fang, thirty miles away, and then turn north to Shiyan, another fifty miles. But they were unbending. I asked if it was possible to take a bus, or if maybe they would give me a lift. There were half a dozen officers in on this. Surely one of them could spare some time. But they wouldn't even consider it. There were things in this region not for my eyes.
After having failed to connect with Julie-Ann and May, I asked if I might try contacting them via email. They agreed to that and led me into another room, where they turned on the computer. I emailed both immediately. The officers let me peruse my email while we waited for a response. I searched out the email from Julie-Ann with her phone number on, but when I reached it the body of the message was blank. That was the case with other older emails as well. I feared the Chinese Internet police had infiltrated my yahoo account and had begun censoring. I couldn't imagine they'd find anything to censor, but I couldn't be sure. Maybe they were busy deleting anything I'd written about China.
The English teacher asked if I was hungry. I actually was. A few minutes later a woman brought me a bowl of fried rice, which I ate while tinkering further on line, but to no avail. At this point I was resolved to having to double back and take the alternate route. It was strange though that none of the handful of people I had asked directions from yesterday towards Fang waved me off and pointed out the other route. I asked the English teacher why the stretch ahead was forbidden. He said he was forbidden to say.
When I said I was ready to go, they said I couldn't bike back, that I would have to take a bus. I didn't particularly care to do that, even though it was a somewhat demanding up and down route, but through a most beautiful gorge. They said it would be no more than half an hour wait until the next bus and that it would take me all the way to Danjangkou, about a three hour bus trip. I didn't wish to go that far, especially since it took me out of my way, but they said I had to go to this larger city and check in with the police there.
While we waited for the bus a crowd gathered outside the police station to catch a glimpse of the foreigner. The English teacher said none of them had seen a foreigner before. He had gone to school in the large city of Wuhan and had some foreign friends there. He returned to teach in this small town as it is where he had grown up and where his parents lived. He said he played a lot of scrabble at college, but he had no one to play it with here.
He told me if I had any problems in my travels to dial 110. "Its like your 9-1-1," he said.
"How did you know about 9-1-1?" I asked.
"I learned it from the TV show 'Heroes.' Its my favorite show. I learn a lot about America from it."
When the bus showed up, the bus driver had no choice but to let me put my bike in the rear hatch, which was barely big enough to hold my bike and my duffel stuffed with my panniers and tent and sleeping bag. The bus was less than half full, and fortunately no one was smoking, though a couple of men had cigarettes stuck behind their ears, a common site here, ready to light up when the need struck.
An hour-and-a-half later we stopped at a large city. I asked the driver which one it was on the map. It was one city before the intersection to Shiyan, well before the city I was being taken to. I hoped the driver would let me off at the earlier city. I bought three hard-boiled eggs at the station. When I opened my wallet to pay for it, the driver's assistant looked closely and noticed some American bills. She wanted a closer look. I showed her a one. When I returned to the bus she came back to me and held out a five yuan note wanting to trade it for the one. It was two yuans short, but I let her have it.
That favor may have earned me some goodwill, as I was not charged for the bus ride and my escort let me off earlier than the distant town I thought I was being taken to. When we came to the town at the intersection to Shiyan, we stopped at the police station. It was lunch time and no one was at the station. My escort pulled out his phone and made a couple of calls. Several minutes later an officer showed up. He didn't seem interested in me. While the bus waited, I kept hinting that I'd like my bike and gear. We went to a second police station in the city, but no one was there either. My escort decided to relinquish me and my gear, though I was on my honor to wait and check in with the police before I continued. It was 1:30. I was willing to sit around until two.
The rest I was getting was much needed as I'd had my worst night's sleep the night before, the first time I had stayed in a hotel. A deranged rooster outside my window crowed at the moon all night long. I opted for the hotel as the gorge I was bicycling through showed no signs of camping possibilities. When I came to a small city fifteen minutes before dark a young man on a motorcycle pulled up alongside me and said, "Hello. Where are you going?"
I stopped to show him my map, but more to ask him if there was a hotel in this town. If there was, I knew it would not be some over-priced luxury hotel. He said there was one a little ways back and he would take me there. It was a wise decision not to camp, as it was a two mile climb out of the town, that I wouldn't have finished until after dark. If my instincts hadn't led me to a hotel I could well have had to ask someone for the first time if I could set up my tent on their property.
Though I didn't get much sleep, I got my first shower of the trip and was able to sort through my panniers and do some house-cleaning. I had to use the small mirror I brought along to trim my beard as there wasn't one in my room or the toilet down the hall or in the locked shower room on the floor below. The only amenities were a pair of slippers and a large thermos of boiling water, so well insulated the water was still hot in the morning.
As I sat waiting for the police to return from lunch I finished off my hard-boiled eggs and some tofu I had bought in the market the day before. At five minutes before my deadline, two officers pulled up in a squad car. I had my map and passport ready for them. They weren't interested in my passport at all. I told them I was going to Shiyan, and they just warmly pointed the direction, thinking that I was simply asking the way.
So I've had my encounter with Chinese officialdom, as inevitable I presume as being robbed in South Africa or having the Israeli military find my wild campsite while camping in the Golan Heights.