Saturday, April 23, 2011

you can't simply walk into Mordor

Im gonna catapult your memory back to the day I left for the Sichuan trip, and in an especially self-depreciating manner, eat those words which suggested that Sichuan would be easy to travel to simply because it wasn't tibet. 

 It was with a good-natured (if anything, immature) arrogance that we presumed our plans around the southwest of China could not come to harm simply because we stayed outside of the Tibetan borders. I guess one thing about border conflict is that the borders get blurred. The borders between Tibet and the rest of China are blurred to hell. Technically it is China, but that’s exactly the problem. Anyway.

We were leaving to Leshan on this particular morning, and because we were going to catch the bus to Leshan from the big bus station, we stopped past the hostel travel desk on our way out, enquiring nonchalantly into the best way to purchase bus tickets to Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve. We were gifted with an incredibly polite response of –
     “Oh, I’m so sorry, you can’t go to Jiuzhaigou at the moment.”
     “What?” We replied in earnest and unpleasant surprise,
     “The road north from Chengdu is closed for repairs.”
     “The whole road?” I asked
     “Yes, I’m afraid the whole road is closed”
     “The entire road is closed?”
     “For everybody?”
     “When is it closed?”
     “For a while.”
     “What does that mean?”
     “The road to the north is closed for a while.”
(Oh, I see. Now I understand. Thanks for the clarification.)
     “How long is a while?” - I tried specificity.
     “When do you leave Sichuan?” She asked,
     “Next Tuesday”
     “The road will surely be closed until Tuesday.”

     “Hang on,” I said, “Is the road closed for everybody?”
     “So the road isn’t really closed?”
     “I don’t think you can go north from Chengdu.”
     “But the road isn’t closed?”
     “Mmm,” she paused for the most imperceptible of moments – “the road is closed.”

Wow. I could see this conversation was really progressing. My friend stepped in and enquired about our backup plan, a trip west along the Sichuan/Tibet Highway to the town of Ganzi-

     “So how about tickets to Ganzi?” He asked.
The lady smiled apologetically, with a clearly detectable sense of embarrassment,
     “I’m sorry but I think you also can’t go to Ganzi.”
(Oh oh oh! Let me guess!)
     “The road is closed.”
     “The whole road?” I ask again,
     “Mmm, yes.”
     “For everybody?”
She paused, avoiding eye contact. I bobbed my head down a little so it was directly in her line of vision, and pulled my best dad-meets-daughters-new-boyfriend facial expression. (Extreme suspicion mixed with doubt, disappointment and healthy dash of authority.) So she sees my face and quickly looks away, reaching for a map. It’s a map of Sichuan. She starts pointing –

     “So now we are in Chengdu,” she says.
(This woman is brilliant!)
     “Yes, I’m quite sure of it.” I reply with a little too much exasperation.
     “Mmm. You cannot go here (points north) or here (points west).”
Wow, I feel like I’m reaching enlightenment.
    “Why not?” I asked. Almost laughing by this stage.
    “Because it’s-”
    “Lemme guess, closed for repairs?”

I decide to try a different approach. I’ll be frank with this woman. Treat her like a reasonable adult, get her to level with me.

     “But if it’s totally closed for repairs, how do the Chinese people get from place to place?”
     “Mmm.” She pauses again.
Come on, come on, whats going on, she’s totally going to tell us, comeoncomeoncomeon-
    “Mmm.” Now she looks at us. Really looks at us and our faces. “I think the road is not really closed-” (my heart leaps!) “-but you cannot go to these places.”

Let’s try again.

     “Why not?” I ask. Now I’m just irritated.
     “Actually, the government is not letting any foreigners go to rural areas now.”

Wow, ok, here we go, finally, some truth!

     “Why not?”
     “Because it is not safe for you.”

And here, you can clearly observe a government mouthpiece in her natural habitat.

    “I know there are two people, today, who are trying to go to Kanding.” She volunteered this information quietly. “So maybe when you get back tonight you can know if they were ok or not.”

Well. There was nothing we could do until tonight, so we thanked her continued out and got ourselves taxis to the bus station. Lining up for fifteen minutes at the ticket desk, we bought our Leshan tickets and I also asked the lady (in Chinese) if we could purchase tickets to Songpan-

     “Meiyou!” (Don’t have!) She replied loudly.
     “You don’t have tickets to Songpan?” (in Chinese)
     “Really? Are you sure?” (in Chinese)

Wow, yep, okey dokey. No tickets to Songpan. Gotcha.

We had twenty minutes until our bus left and so popped into the Tourist Information Centre next to the bus station. Here we met a lovely young lady.

    “Hi, we want to go north to Songpan and Jiuzhaigou. Do you think we can?”
    “Actually right now it is very difficult for foreigners to travel in Sichuan.” She replied.
Incredibly perceptive of you.
    “Yes, we noticed. Why is that?”
    “Because now it is April, and in April the minorities and Tibetans celebrate independence. So the Chinese government doesn’t want people to travel to these places.”



Hearing those words made me feel like I’d died and gone to heaven! Well, not necessarily heaven, maybe just some lovely democratic country where people don't lie to you. Not China, anyways.

    “Ohhhhhh. Ok. So they probably don’t want us in Songpan then.”
At least she’s honest.
    “But what about Jiiuzhaigou? Because it’s not really a city, it’s just the nature reserve. Do you think we could get to Jiuzhaigou?”
    “Ahh. It depends on whether you can get a bus ticket or not,” she says matter-of-factly, "but Jiuzhaigou would be better than trying to get to Songpan."
This is baffling because we have to go through Songpan to get to Jiuzhaigou, but I'm not going to bring it up.
    “And if we can buy the tickets we can get there?”
    “Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe they will stop you and tell you to go back.”
The logic is failing…
    “Do you know where the checkpoints are?”
    “I think maybe there will be checks all along the way.”

We thanked the lady and returned to the line. This time we asked the woman for three tickets to Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve – and after a little bit of banter in Chinese, asking her about her breakfast and if she's been to see the place - we succeed!!! The lady sold us three tickets for the first (and only) bus to Jiuzhaigou the next morning.

Now we feel positively exhilarated. The three of us are from Finland, Norway and Australia – all three very democratic and very free countries. All of us are uncomfortably aware of the status of the government of the country in which we are currently living. The idea that the government is trying to prevent people from celebrating independence is so revolting to our ideas of what it means to be a free and liberal nation. Why would the government continue to act in ways which make it ashamed to truly reveal itself to foreigners? Why does this government presume that they can actually hide their actions forever? The sheer level of arrogance alone is baffling, but what I find most difficult to understand, is why the Chinese government is so forceful in trying to claim people who clearly don’t want to identify as Chinese. The land has no incredible resources that cannot be found anywhere else in China, autonomous Tibetans and minorities would never pose a political or militant risk to the greater Chinese country, and China is certainly not in need of more mouths to feed. I will not continue this discussion here, but I encourage you to look into it if you are in a place with uncensored internet access.

We had a wonderful trip to Leshan that day, as you have already read. When we got back to the hostel we went straight back to the travel desk, and were greeted by a young man. This time we knew where to start.

     “We know two people tried to get to Kanding today. What happened to them?”
You would have thought we were the Spanish Inquisition by the look on his face. Once he had recovered from his shock, he looked at us and sighed and sat up in his chair, elbows on the table, head in hand.
     “They were stopped by the police two hours out of Chengdu.”
We were silent. He continued –
     “They were sent back.”
     “And their passports were recorded and put on file.”
     “I really suggest you do not try travelling to rural areas at the moment. You really can’t go to those places.” He was dead serious. Genuinely concerned.
     “What about the north road? Is it just the west road that is closed?”
     “No, all those kinds of places are closed to foreigners. There are police checks everywhere. Maybe until the end of the month.”
     “****. So what are we supposed to do!?” I’m annoyed now.
    “Chengdu is famous for it’s pandas. We can arrange a tour to the panda rehabilitation centre for you!”

Jesus christ. This conversation wasn’t going anywhere. And neither, apparently, were we.

We thanked the young man for his time, assuring him that if we wanted to see pandas, he would be our first port of call. Now we went to the bar, got ourselves some Snickers bars, White Russians and settled in to discuss our options. Or lackthereof. Serious lackthereof.

This was one of those best-case/worst-case scenario situations.

Best case scenario: We are allowed on the bus, and then make it out of Chengdu, and don’t get stopped on the way to Jiuzhaigou and then manage to get a bus ticket to Songpan from Jiuzhaigou and sneak our way into the remote village on the way back toward Chengdu.
Sounded a lot like wishful thinking.

Worst case scenario: We aren’t allowed on the bus.

Worst case scenario: We get stopped two hours out of Chengdu.

Worst case scenario: We get stopped twelve hours out of Chengdu.

Worst case scenario: We get stopped twelve hours out of Chengdu and get dumped in the middle of nowhere in winter in the snow with no way home.

Really bad worse case scenario: We get stopped twelve hours out of Chengdu get dumped in the middle of nowhere in winter in the snow with no way home AND get our passports recorded and entered onto the national records.

It was that last part that really worried us. We could handle a bit of necessary hitchhiking or a hefty last-minute bus ticket to get back. We all had warm clothes and mobile phones. The really bad thing was this whole on-record thing. My Finnish friend did a lot of work with her embassy in Beijing, my Norwegian friend plans on applying for a residents permit to live here next year, and I have to renew my students’ permit this July for my second semester here. Any mark on our records would seriously jeopardise our plans in China – both long term and short term.

We were stuck. I was pretty damn pissed. If there is one thing I can’t stand, it’s people telling me I can’t do something. And when a faceless, unjust, dick-of-a-government tells me I can’t travel because they are embarrassed by their own violence and control, then I feel very angry indeed.

So basically the next two hours involved all of us trying to convince ourselves to go, and then all of us agreeing we shouldn’t risk it, and then all of us being one hundred percent sure we wouldn’t get recorded, and then all of us saying we were daft if we thought we wouldn’t. It was all very useless, so we decided to go to bed.

On our way back though, we passed a new girl at the desk and I thought I might just ask her for a spot of clarification…

      “Hi. We know travel at the moment is difficult, but we really want to head north, and we were wondering how likely it is that our passports will be recorded if we get stopped by the police on our way?”
Her reply was unflinching – “Oh not very likely at all. If they see you they will send you back, but they won’t record your passport details or anything like that. And even if they ask to see your passports, just don’t give them to them.”


The decision was made then and there. Unanimously. We would go.
Well, we would try…

Waking at 5:00 am the next morning was not difficult. Intrepidation catapulted me out of bed. My bag was packed, my shoes and socks were laid out and my hair already in plaits. I was so happy. So excited by the idea of doing exactly what I wanted to do. I just felt so determined and free. All the years of reading as a child, crying that I would never have adventures like my heroes. Crying that there was no magic in the world. I had not been chosen for Hogwarts, nor was I a knight of the round table or a Jedi master. Finally, I was doing something my ten-year-old-self would be proud of. Like the fulfillment of a prophecy, I was standing tall and living large. Things would go well, I could feel it in my bones.
Arriving at the bus station in good time (but with not too much time) we walked confidently through the terminal. Met by curious glances by the lady at the gate, she double checked our tickets before showing us to our bus. The driver was waiting outside with another man, talking and checking passengers. He saw the three of us with our backpacks and stiffened. I handed over our tickets.

He began speaking in very fast, officious Chinese, “where are you planning to go?”
      “Jiuzhaigou” I replied in Chinese, “we are told that it is the most beautiful place in Sichuan.”
He eyed us carefully, “when did you buy these tickets?”
      “Yesterday,” I replied, “yesterday when we went to Leshan we also bought our tickets for today. Is everything ok?”
The man beside the driver piped up in pleasant Mandarin – “Your Chinese is very good!”
     “Thankyou!” I beamed, this was a good sign, “we are Fudan Students all the way from Shanghai.”
     “Students?” The bus driver glanced between us again.
I smiled at the driver.

We held our breath for a moment.

Finally he sighed and stepped back, unblocking the entrance to the bus. We wasted no time shoving our packs into the luggage compartment and slinking down into our seats. Waiting impatiently for the bus to fill, I kept an eye on the driver.

When the bus finally started moving I felt so relieved, I paused for a moment to look out the window and appreciate the beautiful weather. We were waiting for the boomgates to open so we could drive out and I was an instant from remarking what a shame it was that we would be on a bus all day, when something caught my eye.

Or rather, I caught someone else’s eye.

A police officer pacing the station had seen me and my Finnish friend on the bus. He looked at us and instantly shifted his gaze to the front of the bus – the destination sign. Anger flashed over his face, and he immediately began walking towards us. He was furious. Striding towards us, the space between us shrinking so quickly. At ten meters, the bus lurched forward with an impatient shout from the driver who clearly had not noticed the officer. Relief washed over us as we turned the corner. Almost out of sight, I took a chaste glance back to see the officer berating the young man working at the boomgate box. That was close. Very close.

I was sweating. No kidding. The back of my neck was slick with perspiration. You should have seen his face, it would have made me pee my pants if I was actually my ten-year-old-self. But I wasn’t. I was nineteen now, and I was adventuring. Hardcore.

After that all-too-close encounter, we wore beanies and sunglasses. Police seemed to be everywhere in the city. You don’t realise just how many police officers there are in China until you are trying to hide from them. Within half an hour though, we had made it out of the city centre and were relaxing little by little, but there were frequent toll gates along the road. The bus was forced to slow down to pay the fare and there were almost always police at these intervals. The officers would glance at the bus, but we had no way of knowing if they were actually on order to look for foreigners or not. After about four hours of intense tenseness, though, we felt ourselves tiring. There was only so long you could keep vigilant watch.

The scenery had changed dramatically within a few hours. At first I only realised how relieved I felt every time we drove through another incredibly long, unlit tunnel. Normally I don’t like tunnels, but these were so long and so dark they were the only chance I had to relax because there was no chance of anyone noticing us. In the middle of one of the longest tunnels, when I actually stopped to think about how many we had passed through, I realised that we must have been driving through very mountainous lands. I looked up just in time to see the driver start overtaking a massive truck in front of us, and with only two lanes, by the time we pulled out to the left it was too late to tell if the bright filtered light in front of us was coming from headlights or the ending of the tunnel. My heart skipped a beat like missing a step in the dark. There was so much dirt and dust and fog and smog in the air that only basic shapes could be distinguished, and I breathed an audible sigh of relief when the light smacked my eyes signaling the end of the death trap. Now I hated the tunnels.

As soon as I could see again, I really looked around. Massive, towering mountains rose up almost vertically on either side of us and in front of us stretched to the horizon was relentless construction work. The landscape was almost completely grey, the air being so full of pollution and dust from the work, and the trees and grass appearing dead on account of the winter. The rock was almost pitch black, and the kind that splintered off into thousands of sharp points with every break. Piles of frighteningly recent fallen rocks scattered the road, obscuring our path frequently, and when I looked up I realised that it was impossible to see the tops of the mountains – they were too high and the air was too dirty. Groups of workers were heaving heavy things from one place to another and digging with shovels and bashing at the ground with picks, all wearing black. We passed whole bridges that had broken in half and plummeted to the gushing freezing rivers underneath, left there unrepaired since the earthquakes in 2008.  I was frightened and repulsed by all the visual information I was receiving – it was the bleakest, most harsh of atmospheres imaginable. The whole picture was just devoid of life, completely lacking of humanity. And I was so stressed about being found. It’s true what they say about not being able to just walk into Mordor. All these workers were like Orcs, tolling for the government’s gazing Eye of Sauron. And we were certainly not able to just walk in. I did not find comfort or amusement or even excitement at this idea, though. Mordor was never a place I wished to travel to. Sauran is not something you want to be discovered by…

After another few hours of exhausting fear, I drifted into an uneasy sleep. I woke up each time the bus slowed for a toll gate and sped up to overtake. Each time was without trouble though. Twice, I saw what I knew was surely a checkpoint and caught my breath and heart in my chest. Police were stopping vans and cars and taxis, checking not only who was in the vehicle but also what goods they were carrying. I never saw busses stopped, though, and then I remembered that the two people who were stopped trying to get to Kending had hired a driver instead of a bus. I realised that police probably presumed that foreigners wouldn’t be able to buy bus tickets, or would be less likely to take the crowded, smelly transport anyway. It was reassuring to know that our student-minded frugality had probably saved our journey.

I was unsure of how much time had passed, but I noticed that the further we travelled, the more Chinese flags I saw flying from the roofs of houses and huts and bulldozers. As we drew further from Chengdu and deeper into the rural areas, almost every single house in the occasional villages we passed sported the bright red marker of China. It was such an obvious attempt at compensation, such an obvious indication that the government had been, was, and will continue to exercise its strange and strong kind of influence on these places. Brand new billboards appeared each time a small village did, each one probably costing thrice the price of a house nearby. They depicted shining faces of workers looking up and out optimistically across the land as though they were straight out of a propaganda campaign. Big red words appeared alongside the exemplar citizens. All I had time to be able to read was something like “safe and beautiful one big country family.”

Even weirder than this, was the fact that all the small villages we passed were brand new. The houses all sported bright white new paint, and perfect roofs and new hedges and transplanted trees. Like mini, rural, Asian Stepfords. I considered that the 2008 earthquakes ravaged the area, and perhaps there were the rebuilt houses, but none were even close to being three years old. I also remembered that many Tibetans and minorities were originally nomads – a concept which clearly doesn’t align itself with a capitalist, private property driven state. Nor does it align itself with the government’s wish to keep everybody under constant surveillance (read: control). I think perhaps the government builds these incredibly manicured villages in order to house and thereby control the people with naturally nomadic wills. Two flags per house would suggest so, and that’s exactly what I start seeing after another hour.  

We arrived at Jiuzhaigou at nightfall without hassle. We had made it. The police in the small hotel/hostel area outside the park eyed us curiously, but so long as they didn't arrest us, we were too tired to care about their facial expressions. We checked in to our room, got ourselves some local beer and dinner, then crashed for the night.

1 comment:

  1. Whoa! The suspense was killing me the whole time I was reading this!


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