Espionage is easy

I took my seat on the ferry and looked out at the high-rising dens of Hong Kong’s deal makers. The sun was low and amber – reflected in the windowed skyline, the effect was a city-wide inferno. The lighted screens atop the lofty financial centres were beginning to mark the dusk too. On the receding peer I spotted a collection of men in Santa outfits, late comers for the international event of Santa-con where participants dress up for a pub crawl. It begins in the afternoon, and is bound to raise questions from any six year olds near the action. ‘Mummy, why is Santa Claus being sick in his Santa hat?’

I planned to ride across China, to the pallid hinterland of Mongolia, a move that loomed like a leap into icy water.I’d spent ten days giving lectures around the city, at schools and the Royal Geographical Society, and I’d had the chance to visit the student protest site: a small city of tents and postered walls, with areas for the protesters to take study-breaks, and where gasmasks were tossed aside deckchaired young and old who read from 1984 and made chat with the procession of supporters, tourists and hacks. The mood was dark on the day the police had been granted permission to remove the last of the tents. ‘We’ll be back’ affirmed the signs in reproachful red paint.

‘Ready? Tha cwock iz ticking!’ said the zippy Lin Lin in my headphones, the irritating teacher of my one minute mandarin series of podcasts. I’d half-mastered the numbers and simple greetings but Lin Lin’s shrill incitements were now just rubbing in the fact that I’d failed at every other lesson. This wasn’t the matrix-style booting up I’d envisaged: Mandarin, it turns out, is quite hard. Pinyin is the form Chinese takes in the Latin script, only it’s not phonetic so you have to decipher this secret code first before you even start on Mandarin, and those piddly signs I’d overlooked hanging about the letters indicated tone, which in Chinese has something to do with that trifling matter of Meaning. And Chinese script? An educated Chinese person might know 6000 characters – don’t even bother. It wasn’t just the linguistic challenges ahead that worried me, it would be a bit nippy up north too, and Lin Lin hadn’t provided the Chinese for ‘please help, my hands are black and I seem to be missing a finger’.

On the boat I got chatting to the lady in the next seat, a sunny soul called Medina. After twenty minutes chewing the fat I’d been invited to stay in her capacious white house on a gated street of palms and close cut lawns in one of China’s many young towns. Medina and two friends took me out to dinner – a seafood hot pot, punctuated by the leap of the still-live shrimps and the Chinese compulsion to cheers before every gulp of beer. I spent a day pacing through that nameless town – counting the differences: toddlers adorned in panda and tiger outfits, mums in thigh-high leather boots watching over their infants with the same serene, wondering look someone might give the flames of a campfire. I thought ear muffs were a victim to the years beyond 1989, like mullets and roller-discos, not so in China. And for every high rise there were three in construction, their attendant cranes like giant insects, a shout to China’s rising star.

First I had to negotiate a route around Ghangzhou, a city of 14 million, itself in a conurbation of 44 million known as the Pearl River Delta – the most economically dynamic region in China for the last three decades. I muddled my way under high-flying expressways, through messy junctions and an industrial sprawl. In a tiny patch of edgeland I threw up my tent, Chinese motorists oblivious on the eight fly overs and elevated rail line I could see from my sleeping bag. Navigating mainly by compass I kept on northwards, energised by the new border at my back – pedalling deep into the Chinese night beside the spreading phosphorescence of metropolis. I crossed vast bridges under which container ships sailed and high speed trains shot, the night red-tinted by the scrawl of Chinese characters perched atop the tower blocks, Lexus showrooms, anonymous warehouses. I turned up the moody hiphop on my Ipod, an apposite soundtrack for powering through the urban bloom.

A fair chunk of my time in China is spent map reading, or more accurately squinting into maps and creating similes to help me memorize the first symbol in the name of the next town en route. ‘Man with box for head attacking giant spider’ I decide and then look up at a sign post, muttering ‘man with box for head, man with box for head…’ before giving up and choosing another town. ‘Dancing alien with scimitar, dancing alien… dancing alien…’ China is a country with roads and glyphs aplenty, and landing on the right road is cause to punch the air and sing the A team theme tune.

I kept to the minor roads on my map, still clamorous four lane affairs, dwarfed though by the expressways. Inside a roadside restaurant there was a break in the scoffing of chicken feet and liver soup as I approached – an adventure loomed. I shuffled to a table and scanned the menu – a scribble of Chinese script – and wondered briefly whether it was in fact something else entirely, a calendar maybe, and what the waitress would make of me if I pointed to April and gave her an expectant look. I looked about for inspiration, but there was more smoking going on than eating. The Chinese take cigarette breaks between courses, mouthfuls and cigarettes.

The language section in my 1055 page Lonely Planet was slimmer than I’d hoped, and was broken down into Cantonese, Mongolian, Tibetan and Mandarin. It is a ludicrous fact, and one befitting those dilettantes at Lonely Planet, that it contained no word in Mandarin for rice, and no word for noodles. It did happen to include ‘Where can I buy a padlock?’ and ‘how long can I park here?’ I’m not an accomplished mime artist, and after two beef impressions and a particularly ill-fated go at broccoli (a sort of static pirouette), I decided to follow the chef into the kitchen where I set to opening cupboards and fridges and pointing. It worked. I ate and paid up, leaving a train of stray noodles on the floor, victims to the treacherous wobble from bowl to mouth on a stick. Next, I needed the toilet, and the Lonely Planet had let me down again, which was particularly vexing because there is no way to mime this without resorting to a Borat-style pantomime and creating a roomful of disgusted diners. I stared glumly at the pages of my book. Where can a buy a padlock? The euphemism didn’t work.

Christmas Eve, and I was cold, cowering under a railway bridge aside a noisy highway having bungled my chance to find a quiet rough camping spot in the expiring dusk. The litter-strewn roadside was now disquietingly tempting. As I stood wondering whether to sneak over the crash barrier, a bright light turned on and found me in the centre of its glare. Did that camera move too? I imagined a man in Beijing looking into a monitor and then picking up a phone. ‘Sir we have an unregistered vagabond, sector 7G’.

I barely noticed Christmas pass, and any celebration, no matter how meagre, felt like it might ramp up my sense of loneliness; drinking cheap red wine in my tent, with a solitary mince pie, pulling my own cracker, would be worse than doing nothing at all. I couldn’t find the next town (‘Table with squid on top’) and China’s Great Firewall that has blocked google and facebook made it impossible for me to contact my family. I set my sights on Yangshou for New Year’s Eve where I knew they’d be foreigners celebrating.

I followed the Xi River under rain, days of it. A strata of steam-coloured hill appeared to my left and then a lake, green, with a mist performing over the surface. I stopped in villages scented with aniseed where worn-faced women with sticks balancing two loads off their shoulders scowled at me until I pulled the easy trick: a big smile, infecting everyone, and suddenly I was welcome around the games of cards, Mahjong and dominoes that command everyone’s attention and are played unendingly. The local laughter could have had many targets: my unconventional shorts and whiskery mug, my messy eating expeditions, my mandarinlish.

North of the Pearl River Delta the land gathered about me, spread with pine and the odd blotch of bamboo on the higher rises. Outside an eating house a Chinese biker with two panniers broke into a grin as I cycled up, and with no common language, we did some wild gesturing over a map before he gave me his Iphone and a voice from Beijing said ‘He want to cycle with you. OK? You go together now, you help each other’. He was heading for Tibet, the pilgrimage of many a Chinese biker – the only ones allowed to ride independently in the region.

We peddled off but soon paused by a rambling scene of sun-patched rocky prominences and pine forest. He sat on a stone wall, took a breath, and yelled out over the vista, an ‘into-the-wild’ torrent of jagged sound. I sat beside him and shouted too, as loud as I could, and for the next ten minutes we took it in turns, shouting in celebration of the wild space and laughing at our freedom to conjure echoes in it. Language proved overrated. In the afternoon we said goodbye at a junction. If we’d ended the day together I might have asked his name.

I pushed on, stopping only to shovel great hillocks of fried rice, broad beans, pig intestines and just-don’t-ask into my mouth. In China animals are frequently slaughtered roadside, cows with slit necks make their final moos, dead pigs are shaved and inflated with bicycle pumps and their faces sawn off for the most treasured cuts.

North of Mengshan I came to the world renowned karst formations – towering limestone prominences, once the walls of ancient caves whose roofs had long since collapsed: it’s the paradigm China, an apparition at once familiar thanks to images on the 20 Yuan note. The humps and towers of rock looked places to command ancient armies from. There were shark’s teeth, camel humps, great motionless waves, greened with foliage in place of the white of surf. A double peaked rock was like some leviathan eating its way through the earth, mouth to sky. They were staggering not just in form and scale, but in number too – stretching for miles, the road swiped at their bases and tunneled through clusters of them.

Yangshou is a place of cobbled streets, thronging with sightseers, beside Karst formations which are lit up with spotlights by night as the electronic flying machines and green laser beams of street vendors zip and dance around their lower reaches. I celebrated NYE with an international crew, beer pong and rice wine from a vat which contained a tangle of dead snakes. The hangover was reptilian.

A day after I left Yangshou I caught sight of something to my left which, after ten full seconds later, made me snatch at my brakes, halt in the road and consider a question: ‘Was that man using a blowtorch on a dog?’

The answer, I discovered on cycled back, was a lamentable yes. He was crouched down, in overalls, holding the blue flame of a blow torch to the paws of a dog in rigor mortis. As I watched he looked up at me – his expression was entirely befitting a man blowtorching a dog. A lightless and bleak scowl made me wonder who else he was ready to melt with fire. So many questions, so little desire to stay and ask them. Nobody near him said anything, or looked in any way perturbed. I’m not implying this is everyday stuff in China, this is the first time I have seen industrial tools being used on Labradors – so perhaps nobody could think of an opening gambit to use for a man burning the paws off Rover. ‘Hi Shen. So…., how’s the… how’s the family?’

I remained on small roads as I journeyed north through the state of Hunan: people smiled, the world was on my side. ‘Welcome to Joyful Dong Land!’ said a sign. The Dong people are a local minority group and their abode is a more traditional China: bamboo forest, visited by breathes of mist – the apt aesthetic for the realm of warriors and sharp-bearded sages. The fuzz of bamboo leaves was broken by rice terraces, and wide dark brown wooden houses about which men huddled, dressed in navy blue or black. The storied Wind and Rain bridges ranged over rivers and I cycled over them to explore small farming communities where I came to drum towers and bands of women singing – a rich tradition among the Dong. I camped that night by a stream; enjoying the fencelessness of communism, a boon to wild campers.

The next morning I sat around burning coals in an old car tyre inside an eating house, and then… police: three growling cars of them, disgorged officers, all jogging towards me. ‘You’re coming with us’ one seemed to be snapping, and an audience of Chinese watched them lead me away.

Inside the imposing white-tiled station a young officer explained in broken English – ‘restricted zone, no foreigners’. I had a hunch this was the case after leafing through my guidebook the night before. I decided to feign ignorance. Apparently this is an area where the Chinese keep their inter-continental ballistic missile system, a fact I’d noted with amusement in my diary in regrettably large letters.

I was told to explain my route and to show them my camera, which I give up in an instant – the shutter had broken near Yangshou and I hadn’t been able to use it since. I had to make a snap call about whether to reveal the new Go Pro Hero 4 Black video camera I’m using to film for the documentary series Exploration Challenge, and decided not to mention it: going through the video footage would be a drawn out job and they might delete it all on a whim, also it looked, unfortunately, a little like a device for espionage.

The tall officer who first approached me on the street began flicking through the images, I could see he had an X shaped scar beneath his left eye and it struck me as cartoonish and comically clichéd that he should also be the ‘bad cop’ of the bunch. A senior officer lifted up my Pynchon book and flipped through the pages like he was expecting a cut out and stashed recording device. It was when Scarface interrupted by bringing the camera over to the senior and pointing to an image in the viewfinder that I felt something inside me fall, fast, and settle in my guts. The Hong Kong protest site, the tents, the images of police brutality, the anti-Beijing slogans, fuck.

The young officer told me then that colleagues had been called and would be there in two hours. I must wait. Colleagues? Intelligence officers? Double fuck. I was glared at for the next half hour until the camera was returned: dilemma. I could format the card, but when these enigmatic ‘colleagues’ wanted to see the images it would look bad if I’ve deleted them, but not as bad as if they’re still there. I went for it but was relieved to discover I’d inserted a new memory card and posted the one with images from Hong Kong home. Two officers then arrived – a young woman who spoke English fluently enough to figure out my scribbled ‘ballistic missiles!’ in my journal, and her perpetually sour-faced senior. I was interviewed and my documents photographed in triplicate. ‘Now we take a look at your things’ she said with a half-smile. ‘Just looking, OK?’

My journal was not my only concern, there was the Go Pro I’d neglected to mention and my laptop which did have the Hong Kong protest site snaps and which would, at the very least, give altitude to some Chinese eyebrows. An officer went through every one of my possessions methodically on video camera, reminding me of the footage of drugs busts that grace the evening news. My Go Pro was found and removed with my laptop for investigation. I headed inside to find seven officers sitting around my computer. I was told to reveal where I had camped the night before and then driven to the spot, my car tailed by another of five more officers. At the stream I was filmed and, for some reason, the stony ground I’d laid my tent on was photographed.

It occurred to me during the search that they must know I’m an unlikely 007 considering they’ve retrieved a moldy muffin of indeterminate age from my front pannier, discovered I can’t keep pairs of socks together and that much of my stuff is a congealed damp-scented mess (it had been seven drizzly days without a break). I wasn’t expecting guests. And if they’d binned the theory that I’m involved in international espionage, then, I realised with frustration, they’re bored, and they’re snooping.

Eventually I asked to go and was told yes, I could, ‘but first you will join us for lunch’. Half an hour later I was eating some of the best Chinese cuisine I’ve ever tasted, and served before anyone else, whilst my mind worked on how I’d made the journey from criminal to honoured guest. ‘Where would you like to be dropped off?’ One officer enquired. I ate until I couldn’t manage another mouthful. I was still worried about the visa  extension I was relying on to cross China, but I was glad to be moving again without having a Taser come anywhere near my nipples.

The next night I stayed in a hotel which cost 10 full pounds, maybe the most I’ve ever spent on a night’s sleep. It was worth every penny. I spent at least an hour star-shaped on the double bed, shower-fresh, and clear-headed at last. The days after were spent following a river on small gravel roads before climbing up through mountains.

In the hostel in Changsha I met two dandified gents – Bruce had on a brimmed hat, scarf and waistcoat, and the other was wearing a beret and insisted in calling himself Cloud (‘not Claude?’ ‘No. Cloud, like the sky.’) We bonded quickly over tofu hot pot and a rice spirit in 128 ml black bottles that was 56% alcohol by volume and tasted like it was 80% at least. They both helped me score replacement kit and took me out for more Chinese adventures in dining and to ogle the massive head of Chairman Mao.

Thank yous – Medina, Rachel and Sheila, Rob and Christine, Simon and Liz, Bruce and Cloud, the members of the RGS and everyone in Hong Kong who helped me out whilst I was there.
Apologies for the paucity of photos this month, I have been doubly thwarted – first by China’s Great Firewall and second by my camera which has finally broken. Presuming I get another 30 days on my visa, next up will be the northern reaches of China, where it will be very, very cold. The fact that I’ve been shivering in base layers and a hulking down jacket since the tropic of cancer doesn’t bode well.

I did win the Pure Travel writing contest so thank you everyone for voting me into the final three. I have articles pending in various publications this month including a piece in Backpacker concerning the disaster on Annapurna so look out for that.

Finally there have been many Chinese signs that have won my chuckles, among them ‘Fuk Street’ (I’m 34 years old in case you’re wondering) and the label on a packet of bread (‘best enljoiyment in spite of your care. Tasting it still remains so exquisite, the fantastic feeling hovering above your head gives you colourful dream at that moment’) Wow, that’s some bread. But this curious one over a urinal is the most joyously befuddling:

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