15 Mar 2009

Trouble on the Chinese Border

This is the story of how I came to be arrested after riding all the way to the Chinese border.
From past experience, having a gun pointed at you does wonders for your powers of concentration. It wasn’t a situation I was keen to replicate as I heard the word ‘police’ uttered.
‘Please don’t take me to the police!’ I pleaded, but my protestations were fruitless.
‘We need to take you to the police [or the Special Government Office as it was officially and ominously named]. Otherwise we get into trouble.’
It was immensely deflating and then very unnerving not knowing what would happen to me next. What happened was that I got arrested.
I had wanted to see how just how far I could go. Plenty of people had told me it wasn’t possible. This was after all a country where original intentions or ambitions were seldom realised. But I wanted to find out for myself where the road would take me. So I set off for the Chinese border.
After two hours of brisk riding I arrived in the town of Lashio, which is about as far as any foreigner in Myanmar is allowed to go. The road beyond Lashio, which makes it all the way to the Chinese border at the town of Mu Se, is deemed dangerous. As I left Lashio behind me, the road didn’t feel at all dangerous. It felt exhilaratingly scenic. I cannot say for sure at what point I decided to embrace the flow of the ride without being certain of precisely where or how far it would take me, but that’s what I did. And how beautiful it felt. A sparkling afternoon sun danced off lush green rice fields. Glimpses of serene and vivid beauty were all around me. How free I felt. How alive. Like a number of other things I’ve done in life, before I’d come to properly cross-examine myself, ‘should I really be doing this?’, it was too late. For better or worse I was being reeled into another unstoppable adventure of my own making.
Perhaps I should have picked up on it earlier than I did - I was concentrating hard on maximising my speed, pushing myself to my riding limit without crashing to reach somewhere I could stay before it got dark - but the road was crawling with men in uniforms, men with guns. And barely any of them looked twice at me, which was a little odd. Perhaps it was becasue I had my helmet deliberately pulled down and my sunglasses on. So I just kept on going, overtaking everything I could from lumbering trucks and slow motorbikes to plodding water buffaloes and trotting horses and carts.
Nearly every settlement of note I rode through seemed to have not just one police station but two or three. But the road was good and I felt no inclination to stop.
‘Mu Se?’ I kept asking people for directions. I’d try to speak a few words of Burmese to them before reminding myself that, being from different tribes with their own languages, they probably spoke as little of it as I did.
‘Yes. Mu Se.’ one boy I stopped to ask answered very affirmatively. So affirmatively that I found him clambering onto the back of my motorbike for a lift. I thought I’d asked him for directions. He thought I stopped to pick him up. So, with an extra unintended passenger slotted on to the back of, I had little choice but to ride on. Eventually, because of the extra weight, he was slowing my progress too much so I took him as far as I could and dropped him off in a village. He thanked me, pointed airily into the distance and uttered, ‘Mu Se. Yes.’
I thought it would maybe take two or three hours of riding. It took five hours and I was riding in the dark for two hours. I had sailed through a whole succession of police checkpoints without being stopped. In fact, on a couple of them I had accidentally entered the wrong toll lane, but the soldiers just waved me back around and flagged me through. Perhaps because I had a helmet and sunglasses on I didn’t seem to raise any great suspicions. It got cold over the mountain plateaux when the sun went down. With turning back all the way to Lashio not a feasible option, I was overtaking everything I could in my quest to reach the comparative civilisation of Mu Se.
The only vehicles to overtake me were a succession of heavily loaded motorbikes, which I later learnt were probably loaded with opium to be smuggled on into China. To cut a very long story short, I found myself entering Mu Se well after dark as the cool and winding mountain road finally yielded to built up civilisation. I felt an enormous sense of relief, but didn’t quite know what to expect next. The great irony of Mu Se was that, unlike all the major cities in the rest of the country, it had 24 hour electricity, clean pavements and well stocked stores. It was virtually Chinese.
Sometimes obtaining directions or getting anyone to understand was like one man performance art. With some local assistance I went into a number of hotels. All refused to take my money and let me stay because I was a foreigner and that was trouble for them. That’s when I ended up being taken to the Special Government Office. I coldly contemplated what might happen next. I had landed myself in something serious.
The keys of my motorbike were confiscated, my passport was surrendered and I was led away into a fairly ordinary looking building behind high gates.
‘Take off your shoes!’ a large fat man barked at me. He looked like someone who was used to barking at people. In fact his enormous girth and longyi skirt knotted around his fat belly like a tight bath towel made him resemble a sumo wrestler with clothes on. I didn’t dare even think of arguing with him. I felt like the naughty little schoolboy who’d just got caught and was being made to wait outside the headmaster’s office for his detention arrangements.
Yet as time dragged on and no one seemed to explain to me what was happening, I began to feel uncomfortable, frustrated and helpless. So I decided to be proactive.
‘I am tired, cold and hungry.’ I pleaded politely. ‘Where can I sleep tonight?’
‘Don’t worry, we’ll take care of that.’ he replied as he chewed relentlessly on his red betel paste. ‘You are illegal here. It is a big problem. You are the first person ever to do this and you should not be here. We need to make investigations and send report to the senior people.’
I protested again, seeking an answer as to what was going to happen to me. But the reply was always the same putdown: ‘Please sit down!’ said in such an affirming insistent tone that it was more a demand than a request.
Stupidly, I resisted the urge to sit down - ‘I’ve just spent seven hours sat on a motorbike. I’m quite happy standing up thank you very much!’ I replied, straining to keep a veneer of polite composure.
To which the response was an even firmer, ‘Please!’ It was the Burmese way of saying, ‘Please stop being awkward and do be quiet!’. Of course it was. While, ‘would you some more tea?’ usually meant ‘Let’s change the subject please!’
Questions were asked, too many questions. Forms were filled out. Time crawled. There was never anything less than a perfunctory lack of briskness. I went form being a little scared to annoyed to the exhaustion of blanking out.
‘Where did you get your bike from? What is his name?’
‘I cannot remember. I don’t know.’ I lied deliberately to protect the identity of the nice man who’d lent me a motorbike. I didn’t want him to get into any trouble.
Finally, late in the evening I was asked to go outside where a waiting vehicle and a couple of uniformed escorts would drive me somewhere. A nasty taste in my mouth took hold and I was sure I was heading for some sort of incarceration. My mind was weary but I tried to make a mental note of the streets and landmarks we were passing through. I feared the worst.
But the vehicle didn’t detour down any dark alleys or out-of-town secluded. It pulled up outside a hotel draped in glaring, gaudy riotous Chinese style neon. I looked around and a surreal air of familiarity washed over me. It was all casino lights, kitsch hotels and fancy jewellery stores within touching distance. [See my previous entry from last year for my experiences on the other side of the border in China]
‘Is this Las Vegas.’ I joked to the young officer next to me. ‘Shall we go play the casinos?’
By some twisted fate I was right on the Chinese-Myanmar border. It was the same identical gateway I had stood on the other side of some months earlier when I had been travelling around China. The peculiarly reassuring confirmation of knowing my bearings was confirmed by the intimate sight of green-uniformed Chinese soldiers strutting up and down a stone‘s throw away. Right there and then the familiarity of China seemed almost friendly and enticing like it had never remotely done before.
I was shepherded into a very Chinese looking hotel. Room rates were negotiated and lengthy instructions issued to the reception staff. This was where I was to spend the night under house arrest and, considering all other options, it was a very favourable outcome.
Compared to most of the guest houses I had stayed in - deliberately trying to avoid the expensive government run establishments so beloved by package tourists and morally bankrupt businessmen - this was very upmarket bordering on luxurious.
Room service was an unexpected novel luxury. In fact the room service options were so intimate and immediate they made me uneasy. I got no less than four phone calls from reception enquiring if everything was ok and if there was anything I might need. They were keeping an eye on me.
As was the man at the end of my corridor who was pretending to be some sort of janitor. After craning my neck into his office I noticed it was full of television screens. It reminded me of the time I was assigned a room in a state-run hotel - Iran I think it was - which actually had a microphone protruding from the end of the desk. I tapped onto the microphone and was rather startled to find a voice responding back to me. So I actually took the opportunity to order some room service and made a note to not say anything politically sensitive.
On going down to dinner I was greeted by a handful of over-eager staff keen to accompany my every move. Nothing was too much trouble for them. The vast restaurant was near deserted apart from a cotiderie of Chinese businessmen. After eating I asked if I could take a walk to see the town. This sent them into a mild panic. At first they tried to put me off the idea telling me the town was very dangerous at night, but I persisted, more to see just what I could get away with than anything else.
Eventually they uneasily relented. Two of them rushed to put coats on and chased after me as I set off out the door, not daring to let me out of their sight. When it transpired that I was not going to get very far at all without being watched I had to give in and decided to return to my room and go to bed. Beyond a retinue of inebriated Chinese businessmen the hotel was eerily empty and the words of the man at reception echoed in my head: 'We always know how to cater for special guests.'

6 a.m. I was woken by loud music. It was the Chinese anthem being blasted out from a few tens of metres away across the border. As I drew back my curtains I could see a large neon sign which blazed ‘CHINA DUTY FREE!’

From the hotel reception I was escorted to the police office across the road. It was a cramped slightly chaotic interior. The atmosphere was surprisingly relaxed almost casual. One of the officers seemed to spend the entire morning working hard casually playing golf on the computer. I watched on as a couple of others dealt with the passing border arrivals, mainly Chinese doing business or tour groups in transience.
Another man counted out a large pile of dollars.
‘Very rich man!’ I joked, looking up the appropriate words in my Burmese dictionary to pass the time. ‘He can now leave for China and buy a big house. Maybe we can go halves, split the money and I can go with him!’
Fortunately, the policemen laughed. After all they were just human beings like me, I figured.
So I went further and, as it helped to make time go quicker, I started to make jokes about the fat policeman and how miserable he always seemed to be - while he was out the room of course. I told them his sarong must be a tent and they laughed. It seemed I had struck a chord.
‘Nobody does this before. You are the first person to do this. The senior people in the capital, some of the generals, they are not happy. They want to know how this happened because you should not be here.’
‘Who do you make the report to?’ I asked out of curiosity and the desire to engage them. ‘Than Shwe?’ I joked, referring to the Burmese president. ‘No.’ the officer replied matter-of-factly. ‘It is to some generals below him in Naypyidaw.’
‘Would they like to speak to me themselves?’ I was half-joking.
‘Perhaps, yes this is possible.’ he replied, again matter-of-factly. ‘They need to know why you are here because you should not be here. It is illegal.’
I need to know why I’m here, I silently and ruefully lamented.
The most heart-stopping moment of my detention came when I heard very loud police sirens. I looked out the window and saw a convoy of military tanks with soldiers and guns protruding from the front of them. Lights flashed and guns were pouting in all directions. They began to slow down and everyone got up. My pulse pounded. Then they carried on through and I learnt that it was a very important general who was on his way somewhere or other and thankfully nothing to do with me at all.
People came and went, most of them in uniform and none of them appearing to do anything of purpose. Perhaps they had just come to gawp at me.
I was surrounded by dusty files. Plenty of stapling and tipexing seemed to be taking place. I managed to read the title on one of the documents which read rather ominously ‘Shining Path’. There were torn calendars and faded provincial maps.
I could only amuse myself for so long by making jokes. The rest of the time I was extremely restless. I wanted to know what was going to happen to me. What did these people want to do with me exactly? I got the sense that they didn’t know. As I waited to learn my fate they were certainly waiting for orders from higher up.
One of the officers offered me an entire packet of cigarettes. I’ve never properly smoked in my life but I thought I might as well have one as it was one of those peculiarly apt moments. More phone calls were made.
I strained my eyes to read the upside wording on the report form. It was in Burmese apart from my name which someone had corrupted in to Mr. John Alistair. Underneath in bold letters it read, ‘ILLEGAL’.
With weary reluctance I stared again at the iron bars across the window hole.
‘So I am prisoner?’ I asked, looking up the Burmese word for prisoner.
‘No not prisoner.’ came the reply.
‘But if I’m not a prisoner, then why can’t I leave.’
‘You cannot leave.’
Actually I learnt from one of the friendlier officers that they were actually more suspicious of me because they thought I could speak Burmese, which I really couldn’t.
I looked down at the floor and discreetly rummaged through a pile of discarded newspapers. One of them had an English Language Tips section which offered suitably colloquial English phrases. ‘It’s not your day!’ one of them read. No it certainly wasn’t feeling like it.

To cut a long story short, they eventually let me go. I was instructed to report to a number of police check points on the long ride back to Lashio. More paperwork and questions followed at each stop. I was anxious to ride back as quickly as I could, but the procedures were so laboriously slow. I was assigned motorbike escorts to ‘protect’ and ensure I didn’t ‘get lost’ on the way (code for wandering off into areas they didn’t want me to go and see) ‘When can I leave. I’m ready to go. Can I go now?’ I kept asking.
‘Not authorised. Need permission.’
One policeman took me behind a curtain in his office and demanded a large bribe. In a country where the police were only paid relatively poorly, collecting such fees was an important and accepted source of extra income.
‘How much money do you have?’ he asked.
I flatly refused to give him anything.
‘Look I have nothing.’
I emptied my pockets. He didn’t know where I’d hidden my money. I walked outside and started to attract film star like attention. Eventually they gave me permission to continue to the next checkpoint.
One of my motorbike escorts couldn’t keep up with me. But as he had my passport I kept having to wait for him. When I was passed on at the final police checkpoint just outside Lashio they had obviously learned their lesson and assigned me no less than two officers on motorbikes. They were certainly more clued up probably having been forewarned of my track record. One of them even paid to fill up my bike with gas for me. I managed to persuade them to let me have my passport back.
It was like a game of cat and mouse trying to get away from them. I’d put the keys into my bike ignition and turn the engine on as if to prepare to leave and he’d reach over, fish them out and temporarily confiscate them. When I’d got them back again I’d manage to start the engine. Then he’d come and stand directly in front of my bike to politely but firmly give me the message that we could only leave when he said so.
Eventually, I got the go-ahead to set off. Fearing that the two of them would be breathing down my neck, I rode quite cautiously for the first ten minutes or so. But then - as it was near pitch black dark on the road - an opportunity afforded itself to overtake a truck. I accelerated off, backed myself, pinned my ears back and never looked back. I rode as hard as I could for the best part of two and half hours all the way back to Hsipaw. I was cold, tired and hungry, which made me ride harder.
It was very dangerous riding at night because my front headlight was fairly weak and there was a regular array of potential obstacles: unseen potholes, clouds of dust, stray animals and dark shapes of people, roadworks, sudden twists in the contours of the road, wrong turnings, thundering trucks, motorbikes appearing out of nowhere with glaring headlights, my own tiredness.
I was wearing down my wrists from accelerating and braking. My knees were aching from being jammed into the same position. Various insects collided into my face every now and again. The blackest of skies were spilling over with the glisten of bright stars. It was just me, my faithful bike and the noise of my engine. It was as surreal as it was strangely magical.
It was with great relief that I arrived safely at the familiar rickety bridge which crossed the river back into the town of Hsipaw. There is nothing like the relief of arriving somewhere you know well and recognise, especially well after dark. I took my motorbike back to its owner ensuring the police wouldn’t come on to him. Then I went to eat in Mr. Food’s restaurant. Actually ‘restaurant’ is far too strong a word. Nonetheless, I was content to return to my guest house.
Sometime around 10:30 p.m. the manager informed me he’d had a phone call from the head of police.
‘He would like to see you?’ he told me.
‘Really? Why?’ I asked. ‘Its quite late now. Do I really need to see him now?’ I feared the worst again.
‘Yes’ he replied. ‘I think it would be a good idea for you to see him now. He wants to apologise to you for the police disturbing you.’
‘I’m sorry?’
‘He wants to apologise to you.’
So off we went on his motorbike to the police headquarters on the outskirts of town near the old royal palace. Inside I was greeted by a small welcoming committee of casually dressed policemen. Handshakes were undertaken. It was all very cordial and civilised. Tea was wheeled out. Chairs were shuffled. I began to feel like I was some sort of important guest rather than someone they wanted to detain.
And in the chief’s office I came across my two ‘bodyguard’ riders. They had only just arrived back. It was a good hour and a half after I had returned and they looked very weary and rather cold but served up warm smiles to me. We all sat down together and I listened as the man form the guest house translated for me.
‘He says to tell you that you are not a prisoner any more. He wants only to look after you and make sure you travel safely. He says he has to make a big report into this and many investigations because this never happens before. It is the duty of the Myanmar government to investigate this.’
Until then I had no idea of the magnitude of what I’d started just be riding my motorbike into places I shouldn’t have gone to.
The police chief and I sat smiling and nodding appreciatively at each other as the man from my guest house translated our words. He did indeed want apologise to me. He told me I was very welcome as a guest in his town and in the country. The next time I came back I was always welcome at the police station (I didn’t quite know if that was a good thing or not!). He wanted me to have a safe journey to Mandalay.
Looking him square in the eye, I thanked him for his hospitality and told him with great sincerity how wonderful his country was and how friendly the people were. When he mentioned about the generals needing to know about me, I offered to go to the capital to have a friendly meeting with them. He didn’t rebuff this and for a moment I envisaged a scenario where I might actually get to go the country’s closed off capital, Naypyidaw. How many countries in the world do you know of where foreigners are not allowed to travel to the capital? Only in Myanmar.
How I would have loved to have gone to have an audience with the generals. I even dared to suggest to the police chief that it would be a positive thing if the country opened up more and the system was less complicated. It would make life easier for him and for people like me, I diplomatically pointed out.
‘We are healthy and well with our complicated system, thank you very much.’ he replied.
‘Really?’ I thought to myself.
Eventually the ‘meeting’ was concluded with more warm handshakes and smiles.
‘So Mr. John, it was a pleasure talking with you. We have never spoken with an international traveller like you before. It was a pleasure for us. We are sorry again for disturbing you I this way. We want you to have good experiences in our country as our guest.’
‘Thank you again for your hospitality.’ I replied. ‘I would also like to thank you and your colleagues for some different and unusual experiences.’
More nods and smiles. I couldn’t resist the urge to make one more joke.
‘So tomorrow I go by motorbike, yes? I can drive?!’
The man from the guest house filled me in some more after we’d departed.
‘They say about you it is like you are flying on your motorbike to get here. You ride very fast. They call you the flying Englishman! I think they are sweating a lot because of pressure from high up. It looks very bad for them. Big problem for them especially as you are British. Anyone who is American or British, they are very afraid. Especially writers and journalists. You’re not a writer or journalist are you?’
‘No, of course not!’ I laughed.
‘Tomorrow, as a symbol of their welcome to you, they would like to offer you a car and driver to take you to Mandalay. You will not need to pay for this, it is free. You can leave any time you want. The car and driver will pick you up.’
‘Do I have a choice?’ I asked him.
‘It is better for you I think to accept.’ he replied in a very diplomatic way. I had little option but to accept.
The next morning at my designated time a car pulled up outside my guest house. My bags were carried for me and I was on the road back to Mandalay. They’d finally cottoned on to me and I was assigned four officers to accompany me this time. We passed a massive army base where 30,000 soldiers were based. Outside the entrance a giant sign proclaimed: ‘DO NOT DESTROY UNITY OF THE NATION’
Lunch was even bought for me. I practised a little Burmese with the officers and asked them questions. I learnt that there too many types of police in Myanmar to keep count of - city police, immigration police, special police, tourist security police (where were they?), intelligence police, military police, crime police and paperwork police.
The only catch was that in Mandalay, instead of being taken to my hotel, I was deposited at the main police station. My heart began to sink again. More form filling, mounds of pointless dusty paperwork, questions and confusion. I caught sight of an off duty casually dressed soldier wearing a dated top which was ironically emblazoned with ‘US ARMY’.
It was a hot afternoon and my fuse was short. I was fed up of spending so much time in the company of uniformed officials, however polite or obliging they were. Sometimes I felt like there couldn’t be anyone in these offices who didn’t seem to know or recognise me. I just wanted to be free to do my own thing again.
‘Please sit down sir. Please. Would you like a drink?’
‘I would like to be free to go to my hotel.’
‘Where are you going to tomorrow?’ he asked me.
‘I don’t know. Why do you need to know? Why are you keeping me here?’
I could tell I was beginning to irritate them slightly with too many awkward questions. He reverted to the old refrain of pretending not to understand my English before letting out an exasperated, ‘Please!’
‘It is security. Where are you travelling to next?’ the officer in charge enquired a little more assertively.
‘I don’t know. I’ll decide later when I’m free to go to my hotel. You said to me I am not a prisoner, but you won’t allow me to leave.’
‘But we would like to know. It is important.’
I kept trying to evade his question but he was persistent so I told him I planned to go to Bhamo in the north.
‘No Sir, it is not possible for you to go there.’
‘How about Myitchina?’ That was also in the north.
‘No Sir, this area is dangerous for you. If you want to go to Yangon [the capital] we can arrange for you to fly tomorrow. We will pay for your ticket.’
I was half-tempted. But it was a very polite but blatant attempt at deportation and I had no intention of leaving the country just yet.
‘But I don’t want to go to Yangon.’
I started listing various places where I would and wouldn’t be allowed be to go. In the end I had to settle for taking a boat trip to Bagan.
‘I don’t really want to go to Bagan.’ I protested mildly
‘You will go to Bagan.’ he announced with a flourish, as if satisfied that it would comply with his procedures. ‘It is very nice there and popular with tourists.’
Most tourists who come to Myanmar regard Bagan as unmissable. I had no great desire to go there - the remoter places in the north were far more appealing - but I was made to buy a boat ticket to go to Bagan. And with that I was almost back to being just another tourist again - quite possibly the only tourist in Bagan who hadn’t particularly wanted or intended to be there.
In the end I had sign my name to letter which made me promise to comply with the rules of the government of Myanmar and basically not make any more trouble. I had once done a similar thing in the Egyptian Sahara. Right to the end they kept getting my name wrong by misreading my passport and calling Mr. John. I was more than content to let them do that.
When you first arrive in Mandalay you could be forgiven for thinking, ‘Is that it?’ All that greets you is dust and beeping bikes. It is irredeemably scruffy and a good place to leave. I was glad to catch that boat to Bagan.
On the boat to Bagan - it was a leisurely journey and the relaxed air of being on holiday was rather unfamiliar to me - a middle-aged American lady saw me writing and asked me what I did. ‘You’re not a journalist are you?’ she joked.
‘No, of course not.’ I laughed it off and changed the subject.
‘I’ve taken so many great photos.’ she enthused. ‘Isn’t this country incredible?’
‘It certainly is.’ I smiled.

As an interesting aside, a few days later while reading up on the history of the country I came across some rather eye-opening information. To me, police checks aside, the road to the Chinese border had seemed very safe. Yet, in spite of my pleasantly benign passing impressions, the people who inhabited the areas of jungle close to where the road went through, were potentially more dangerous than I might have taken for granted. Known as the Wa people, apparently years ago they had a well deserved reputation for head-hunting (not of the business recruitment kind) with a particular penchant for collecting exotic foreign looking heads and placing them on large sticks on the main roads to ward off spirits.
So perhaps all the police were right in telling me this was a very dangerous area and giving me escorts. It made me think of the words of Rudyard Kipling about treating the twin imposters of triumph and disaster both the same:
‘If you can keep your head while all those around you are losing theirs…’

This is just one story from my time in Myanmar. In due course I shall write up a book about my time in the country and upload the photos on my website.