We could write a wrap-up blog post describing “what we’ve learned” on our journey, but we realize what hits us may seem trite and obvious to most of our blog audience: People who have little are generous to strangers, borders are rarely logically located, Europe is very small compared to Asia, the Alps aren’t as high as the Pamirs, and the food is delicious in France.
Instead, we’ll tell a bit more of what actually happened but which we did NOT write about at the time. We glossed things over or selectively omitted things from the blog as they happened.
Police Encounters in China
Our first police check was in Yunnan Province in February, and we described it in An Encounter with the Police. Chris took a cheerful photo of me with me and the two uniformed traffic policemen, but the non-uniformed fellow who can be seen beating a hasty retreat to the vehicle was the one who photographed our passports, and was a member of the Public Security Bureau. What I described in the blog as their “concern for our safety on narrow roads” was only a thin pretense for finding out more about our motives and intended movements.
Our policy – which we’d discussed beforehand – was to be completely forthright with them about our intended travel direction, because we know they are very suspicious of cyclists whose movements they’re less able to control and monitor than those of travellers who must take public transportation. Some cyclists succeed in entering Tibet without travel permits by slipping under barricades at night. We did not intend to do this, so handed them a card with our blog address. We knew from the Google Analytic that the blog was visited from the prefecture capital a few days later, and that we were soon being followed by a black car with the driver talking on his cell phone.
In March in Sichuan Province, we had quite a few more police encounters, which we deliberately under-reported on the blog. After the area we were in was closed to foreigners, I wrote in Goodbye Yak Butter Tea of the prefecture boundary incident where “we encountered a larger and better-equipped police presence.” The correct interpretation of this careful euphemism is that there were an awful lot of machine guns and even some artillery on hand.
In the blog I wrote of the later hotel incident:
“The PSB contacted us in our hotel room quite some time later.”
Contrast this wording with the private email we wrote:
“We tried to get the hotel to contact the PSB for us, so we could ask about our options, but they couldn’t or wouldn’t. Perhaps this is because the PSB contacts you. We went went to bed.
The knock came at midnight. In came three PSB guys and a hotel person. Passports examined. “Go back to where you came from” says Mr. Fatso. Do you mean Yunnan, Laos, Thailand, or Canada, I mutter? He repeats his dismissive command. I show the map. Can we go here? No. There? No. Chengdu? Yes, the bus leaves at: a.m.. So, we set our watches for : a.m. and pedalled to the bus station. There are a lot of police and army guys along the road to Chengdu, and trucks full of army personnel moving west toward Tibet once we joined the main road. The midnight visit is designed to be intimidating, and it is.”
We were unable to go back to sleep that night, and felt quite shaken as we rode the bus toward Chengdu. We also saw water canons being moved west towards Tibet. Our bus stopped at a military roadblock outside Chengdu, and a woman officer boarded so as to grill us (the only) foreigners about our movements. As she did so, another soldier with his machine gun at the ready stood in the aisle of the bus in case we should decide to try to run off.
As Canadians, we assume we have basic civil liberties, and we found it intimidating to be asked repeatedly if we were journalists. Our concern was such that I went as far as to ask a bicycle magazine in Vancouver remove my contributor’s page from their website, because I’d written some innocuous articles for them on a volunteer basis. We didn’t think the PSB was too likely to differentiate one type of writing from another, suspected they could and would use Google, and knew we needed visa renewals if we wanted to reach Central Asia. We also asked friends to refrain from making any comments on our blog that could possibly be construed as political, enabled comment moderation, filtered some comments, and made sure certain private emails describing the situation were deleted from the Asus computer we were carrying. We felt uncomfortable in Internet cafes when “staff” would hover behind us as we wrote to family and friends.
There was another police encounter just as we were being shown the factory that makes cypress walking sticks between TianShui and Wushan in eastern Gansu Province. A car load of Public Security Police stopped to make sure we weren’t going to go “on that road.” Well, “that road” had been carefully omitted from our paper map even though it showed on the GPS, and there was a military presence where it turned off, so it was unlikely we’d be going that way. However, if I were an investigative journalist looking for a place that held political prisoners for use as involuntary organ donors, I’d certainly have a good idea where to start snooping.
Access to this blog was blocked in China – along with all of blogspot – about the time we crossed to Kazakhstan, so our cycling friends in Chengdu and Lanzhou cannot read of our travels. Chinese citizens must be “protected” from avenues of communication through which political subversion might foment. I’ve just read on BBC news that “China wants to meter all internet traffic that passes through its borders, it has emerged. “ There is discussion of wanting to charge for international data traffic. I’m no techno-whiz, but a technique for metering traffic is surely closely tied to a technique for decoding data. I don’t believe for a minute that the primary motive is financial but rather is political and strategic. Big Brother has a very long arm in China, and would like to extend its reach even further by enhancing its monitoring capabilities.
Feeling we were at the mercy of Big Brother’s long arm was was new to us, and it was not a nice feeling.
Strong Military Presence in Eastern Turkey
We under-reported this aspect of Eastern Turkey so as not to raise undue alarm at home. We only briefly mentioned the military presence and our backtracking due to Kurdish separatist insurgency ahead. There were actually barracks, manned checkpoints, and troop trucks everywhere. The military presence was huge.
In China, our self-censorship stemmed from the feeling of being watched and potentially judged as undesirables. In Turkey, on the other hand, we self-censored for the benefit of home-front readership. We were at some risk of being caught in the crossfire between the Turkish military and Kurds. These latter would stop their vehicles to tell us very firmly that we were in “Kurdistan” – their homeland. We weren’t too disappointed to leave the tense atmosphere when we had to take the bus to Ankara, having discovered my passport was missing.
Whether or not our readership worried about us at the time, we were a bit worried about ourselves.