Saturday, October 25, 2014

Sneaking into Tibet past the security checkpoint: from Aben to Chawalong

A view of Aben from above, taken on my previous visit in 2012
Everyone in Aben had a different opinion on how I should get past the police checkpoint  before Chawalong. One guy said I should go through early in the morning, before the staff came on duty. Another said I should hike on one of the trails around the back of the checkpoint. The most common advice was to go through at night, when the police went off duty, but even this advice was disputed by some of the people I met in Aben.

I'd arrived in the late afternoon of Saturday 4th October and was dropped off at the village from the motorbike by the kid from Qiunatong. Despite coming from the neighbouring village, 60km down the canyon, he seemed ill at ease among the Tibetans of Aben and wanted to leave immediately. He was a Nu minority kid and a Catholic from a village of log cabins. Here we were in a Tibetan village where the houses were sturdy stone fortresses decorated with colourful Buddhists frescoes. We had crossed a cultural divide.

The kid stayed just long enough to have a quick drink and to be paid off by me, in the courtyard of a guesthouse run by a cheerful, no-nonsense Tibetan woman. She invited me in and I told her of my aim to get up to Chawalong. She nodded non-commitally and said 'we'll see". I also told her that I was hoping to meet up with some foreign trekkers who were doing the kora and due to walk down from the Xinkang La pass above Aben that afternoon. The woman said she was expecting them as their Chinese liaison guy had already called ahead to books rooms. So after a much-needed beer I walked up Aben's twisting street to see if I could see them on the way down.

Aben was a strange little place - a community of about 15 households perched on a shelf-like horizontal patch of ground below the  high ridge of the mountains, and overlooking the Nu Jiang river. It was surrounded by a few fields growing corn and potatoes, but most of the landscape was steep and barren rocky mountainside that could not be cultivated. The locals were all subsistence farmers and were engaged in a variety of manual tasks such as threshing corn, milking cows and hauling heavy baskets of cut wood and vegetables up the hill, using a band around the forehead to take the load. It was a primitive and hardy place - no Shangri La, despite the epic scenery. However, Aben was unique among Tibetan villages in that it was a waypoint on the Kawakarpo kora.

As I hauled myself up the steep main 'street' I was passed by groups of jubilant and tired Tibetan pilgrims walking the opposite way, downhill, just arrived from their four-day round-the-mountain trek from Deqen. Like me, they faced another week of walking to complete the mountain circuit and return to the Mekong. Many of the pilgrims carried the stout staffs of thick green bamboo, decorated with a few strands of leaves sticking out of the top. Aben had several primitive guesthouses and rest sheds (little more than polythene sheets stretched over a few logs) to accomodate them. The pilgrims came in all shapes and sizes: there were Tibetan grandmas swivelling personal prayer wheels, young lads with hefty backpacks, family groups of parents and children, and parties of Buddhist monks and nuns bedecked in crimson and yellow robes. They all looked as exhausted as I had felt two years earlier after I completed the same long knee-jarring descent from the pass into Aben.

I walked to to the top end of town but could see no sign of the Whistling Arrow trekkers. I was accompanied by the young son of the guesthouse owners, a cheeky and talkative kid called Tashi, who brought his dog along. Tashi was  like any other 11-year-old, full of curiosity and guileless questions.  "Where are you from?" "Why have you come here?" "Why do you wear such big boots?" "What's it like in England?" "What kind of car have you got?" Tashi sat with me on the wall at the top of town, and babbled away quite unselfconsciously, telling me all about his family and his life. He was pleased because he had a long 10-day break from school, but he missed his older brother who was away somewhere up north.

Tashi told me proudly that his family sometimes went to big towns like Bingzhongluo and Gongshan, and his parents had bought him a mobile phone, which he demonstrated to me. He got me to play some of the music on my iPhone and he recorded it on his own phone.  I grinned at the thought of future visitors to Aben being greeted by the sound of the Bee Gees Jive Talking or Chic's Dance, Dance, Dance from my iTunes collection of 70s disco music. As we spoke a couple of 'real' trekkers arrived, a Chinese and a Tibetan guy who hailed from Zhongdian. They were very hip and laid back and told me that my "foreign friends" were at least a couple of hours behind them. And so I retired back to the guesthouse with Tashi, who showed me his Tibetan language schoolbooks, and got me to sit and watch an episode of Spongebob Squarepants dubbed in Chinese.

Word had obviously got round that I was seeking a ride to Chawalong, and a few local guys huddled around the table cracking walnuts, smoking and discussing the best way to do it. The guy who seemed the most sensible and reliable said he would take me to the town beyond Chawalong for 800 yuan. This would involve riding on the back of his motorbike at night, and he said I would have to get off the bike before the checkpoint and walk through alone for a hundred metres, because he could not take the risk of being caught smuggling a foreigner into Tibet past the police. Like everyone else, he told me "foreigners aren't allowed into Tibet without a special permit - there are signs everywhere along the  road saying this." The guesthouse manageress agreed. "It's much more stricter now because there is more traffic on the  road to Chawalong. It used to be just local people, but now there are people who come from Guangzhou and Shanghai in 4Wheel Drives to drive through the canyon. But if you walk through at night you will be OK. There is a trail round the back of the checkpoint," she assured me. I wanted to see what arrangements the commercial trekking group had made so I told them I might try the following evening.

But when the seven-strong Whistling Arrow commercial trekking party arrived in a bustle of activity at about 6pm, I learned that my hopes of going into Tibet with them were in vain. The trek leader Adrian had originally told me they also planned to sneak past the checkpoint into Chawalong at night. However, at the last minute his Chinese liaison manager Edward had been able to arrange a special Tibet permit for their group and a van to take them through the checkpoint the following day. I wasn't on the permit, so I couldn't travel with them. I would have to make my own arrangements. The western trekkers, mostly Hong Kong-based expats, busied themselves arranging their gear and getting cleaned up after completing the first  four days of their ten day trek around the mountain. It was strange to hear English spoken again after almost a week of speaking only Chinese, and I felt a little left out of this group who had obviously bonded during their arduous few days of walking over the Doker La and other passes of the pilgrim circuit.

We all had an early night and the western trekkers departed in their van the next morning, leaving me in Aben to contemplate my solo attempt to get past the checkpoint. The guesthouse manageress told me to keep a low profile and not to walk about the village now that the other foreigners had left. I was an 'illegal' - in Tibet without a permit, and she didn't want anyone to know I was staying at her guesthouse. If I stayed out of sight, the villagers would think I had gone with the other foreigners, she said.

And so it was that I spent a very dull second day in Aben, waiting for my motorbike driver to show up 'after dark'.  I read some books, mooched up and down the stairs, packed and re-packed my backpack and tried to wash a few clothes. But it is still very difficult to pass a whole day doing nothing - especially when you are apprehensively waiting to do something illegal. I felt like a condemned man awaiting execution as I counted down the hours to our departure. As the zero hour of 7pm approached I found myself pacing up and down the room and visiting the loo every ten minutes. I couldn't stop thinking of those four armed soldiers I'd seen at the Nidadang checkpoint the day before, standing tense and alert, ready to pounce on any errant foreigners. Their fingers on the triggers. "Take it easy. It will be OK," the manageress advised me over dinner of fried egg and tomato with rice. But I couldn't relax.

At last the sun went down and it got dark - it was time to go. "Zou ba!" said the motorbike guy, and he strapped my backpack to the side of his bike. Once again I contorted my legs to fit them to the small proportions of the bike footrests. It was a tight squeeze with two of us and a pack on the bike, but I felt glad to be going when we said farewell to Aben and rolled down the gravel road back towards the river.

Riding on the back of a motor bike at night was an even more nerve-wracking experience than in daytime. The weak headlight threw a small pool of yellow light on the potholed road and I hoped and prayed that the driver knew what he was doing. This new guy drove much faster and more aggressively than the kid from Qiunatong. He powered the bike over the bumps and rocks of the road, and the bouncing and jarring unseated me several times, forcing me to try wriggle back onto the centre of the saddle. And again I was scolded for moving and de-stabilising the bike. There were of course no streetlights or lamps in this part of the world but the quarter moon gave some illumination of the canyon when we finally got back down to the river after an hour or so. By this time I was once again in cramped muscular agony due to my legs being bent almost double to fit on the footrests. Sitting directly behind the driver I soon discovered another problem - he had terrible bad breath. Every so often he exhaled in my direction and I got a foul wave of halitosis, so bad it made me want to gag. I had to put my scarf around my mouth as a filter to breathe.

After another half an hour of bumping and lurching over the unseen hazards of the road I was actually looking forward to reaching the checkpoint so that I could get off, stretch my legs and put an end to the excruciating discomfort. The road skirted around a huge towering outcrop of rock and turned towards Chawalong. "Nearly there" said the driver. I braced myself for the next part of the plan, and told the driver that I wanted him to wait around on the Aben side of the checkpoint in case I didn't make it through. I didn't want to be left stranded in this huge canyon at night with a 30km walk back to Aben if I somehow didn't make it and got turned away from the checkpoint.

This pic from a Chinese website shows the old police checkpoint at Quzhu. New one is bigger!

But as we turned the next corner and the checkpoint came into sight, I instantly realised that the original plan for me to walk through the checkpoint was not going to happen. From pictures I'd seen posted by Chinese 4WD drivers on internet forums I had been expecting the checkpoint to be a small, anonymous hut with a police sign on it. And for it to be in darkness. Instead, what we were confronted with was a large whitewashed concrete bunker lit up with floodlights and with a flashing blue and red police light mounted on a prominent red and white striped pole across the road. I couldn't see any police on duty outside the building but the lights inside were on and the floodlights made visibility around the building as clear as daytime.

The driver quickly brought the motorbike to a halt and switched off his headlight. He peered through the darkness and was obviously sizing up this unexpected development and how he was going to get around the barrier with his bike and how I would walk through the brightly-lit surroundings without being detected. We sat in silence for what seemed like ages, but was probably just a minute.
Then without saying anything he released the brakes and allowed the bike to coast forward in the darkness - no lights, no engine. The road sloped gently down to the checkpoint barrier and we picked up a little speed. With no lights I was more worried about hitting an unseen  rock or pothole in the road and being flung off the bike. I didn't know what the driver had in mind, but it didn't look like I would be walking after all.

Within a minute we had reached the checkpoint and I could see ahead that the end of the red and white barrier pole was padlocked down. Would the driver dismount and try manhandle the bike under the barrier? No. As we approached it he pushed the ignition button and the engine hummed into life. With a quick twist of the throttle he gunned the engine and twisted the handlebars, aiming us off the road round the left hand side of the barrier. There was a narrow gap of less than a metre between the end of the barrier and some bushes on a slope that went down to the Nu Jiang river, somewhere in the darkness below. The driver manoeuvred us around the barrier, through the bushes and over some rough ground to the side of the road, the bike fishtailing as he put his feet on the ground and pushed us along.

The blue and red flashing light lit up the scene, and I momentarily froze, expecting the door of the guardhouse to open at any second and police to emerge and challenge us. I had my hood up and a scarf around my face but this was not a very effective disguise for a six foot high foreigner with a large backpack. In a moment we were back on the road and the driver opened up the engine and off we went, glancing furtively over his shoulder as we sped off towards Chawalong. We had done it! Past the checkpoint!

But the drama wasn't quite over. The driver seemed anxious to get away and he drove even faster than his previous aggressive efforts. We bounced around on the road as he revved the engine, and almost came to grief when we suddenly hit a patch of deep, thick grey clay dust that bogged down the wheels and almost tuned the bike on its side. The driver put his feet down and tried to 'paddle' us through this morass, until we emerged and sped up again on firmer ground. The driver now put the headlight back on, and also switched on his bike 'sound system' that blasted out wailing Tibetan karaoke music into the night. We blazed and bumped down the gravel road and I clung on to his waist as we tore blindly round corners  over more bumps and potholes.

This is what the final section of the road to Chawalong looks like in the daytime. Imagine doing this at high speed at night.

Once the initial euphoria of getting through the checkpoint had worn off, I once again began to notice the discomfort of my cramped seated position and longed for a chance to straighten my legs. The driver, however, had other things on his mind. He kept looking back over his shoulder and after a while I did the same. I was startled to see the headlights of a vehicle following just a few hundred metres behind. Was this a police car or just an ordinary local on their way to Chawalong? I quickly remembered that the checkpoint barrier had been locked, so this car must have just set off from beyond the barrier. It seemed to be driving slowly, but my driver didn't wait to find out what it was. He went flat out on the bike, tearing round more corners and even accelerating on downhill sections, then braking suddenly when a rock or a bump in the road loomed out of the darkness. I was terrified and was sure were were going to hit a boulder or rut and come off the bike.

And in this way, music blaring and buffeting around the rutted road, we proceeded on to the small town of Chawalong, about an hour away through the dark and uninhabited Nu Jiang river canyon. It was one of the scariest and most wearying hours of my life. We passed a large landslide that was a prominent feature of the gorge, and I noticed cactuses in the dark by the roadside. This section of the river was very arid and barren - a real contrast to the verdant green 'jungle' around the lower reached of the river near Bingzhongluo.

Not my photo, but you get the idea of how basic Chawalong is.

I felt a mixture of relief and trepidation when we drove into Chawalong. It was a like a scene from the Wild West - just a single dusty and churned up road running between two rows of bars, shops and official buildings such as schools. There were a few people milling around on the street and in doorways and I tried to hide my face. My driver made no attempt to slow down, but tore up the street at full throttle until he suddenly slammed on the brakes and skidded to a halt outside a karaoke bar-restaurant. He jumped off the bike and went inside, uttering only the word "xiuxi" (rest) in my direction as he departed. I painfully and slowly tried to unseat myself from the bike, and found that my legs could barely move, I was so paralysed with cramp and discomfort. I stood for a few moment, bow-legged like Charlie Chaplin until the feeling started to come back into my legs and feet. I shook them a bit and then went in to the restaurant.

I got a huge shock when I looked inside to find my driver, only to spy him sat at a table with a policeman. Was this a trap? A set up? The cop looked up from his rice and nodded at me. He was a burly Tibetan, and didn't seem at all surprised to see me.
"Ni hao!" he said. "Are you with all the other foreigners?" "Er, yes!" I mumbled. I looked at my driver for guidance but he was ignoring me, eating some rice.
"What are you doing here?" the policeman asked.
I told him we were doing the kora around the mountain.
"Oh, that's tough," he replied. "Good for you." And with that he returned to talking to his friends, and paid me no more attention. A waitress hovered next to me and asked if I wanted to eat, and again I looked at my driver. He just shrugged his shoulders, so I said no.

After waiting around awkwardly in the doorway for 15 minutes, my driver got up, said goodbye to all his friends and turned to me again. "Let's go ..."
I could only presume that the Chawalong cop was one of the driver's friends or relatives. He obviously had no interest in apprehending me or sending me back to Yunnan.
We got back on the bike and motored about ten minutes out of town and up the hill to a small village called Longpu. There we pulled off the road and into the courtyard of a large Tibetan house. The driver told me this was as far as he was taking me. Tomorrow another bike could take me up the road and over the minor Tangdu La pass to get to the next stage of the kora at a village caled Gebu.

I was ushered into a large room that looked like a shrine, as it had lots of Buddhist decorations and monuments on the wall. But it was simply the guest room, and I was welcomed here by several other Tibetan guys who urged me to sit and share some walnuts and their local brew made from corn, Shuijiu. It was quite sour, almost like cider.

And with that my Aben driver departed after extracting his fee. I was left in the care of a new group of Tibetans and felt a bit like a downed WW2 pilot being passed along the French Resistance smuggling line. I was now safely beyond the checkpoint and in the hands of another local network of Tibetans who promised to deliver to my next destination. The next day they would deliver me to the the start of the next stage of the walking kora - Gebu village.

1 comment:

cath said...

'm reading this in the wrong order - but it's brilliant !