So many things have happened to us
since I last wrote but a couple things really stand out. Several of our
pictures were bought by Sage Publications for inclusion in the upcoming
"Encyclopedia of Anthropology". The funds we received from this paid
for a well deserved dinner out for Cindie and me and the rest of the money
will be used for the printing of our second book. I would like
to thank Sage Publications for taking interest in our travels and finding
value in the content of our web site.
Another picture of ours was used by the nice people at
their new CD cover. The picture they chose was taken in southern
Argentina in the prehistoric Cave of the Hands. We were thrilled to
see it used in such a creative way. Please take a look at their web
site and check out their new CD.
We have safely left China and are
now in the southeast Asian country of Laos. As you will read below we
have tangled with the Chinese government several times during our nine month visit
and were slightly worried about leaving the country without incident.
I think we would still be answering questions at the exit station but the
computer was down and they did not know our history.
China is not a free country.
All media has to be approved by the government and all internet and email
traffic is scanned for unfavorable content. They jammed short wave radio
frequencies, blocked web sites, listened to phone calls, and stopped many of our emails from getting
out. I have never visited a country where I have enjoyed the people so
much yet had utter distain for the government. Chinese people only
know what they are told through their state run media and propaganda pushing
school systems. They are victims of human rights abuses such as not
being allowed to protest or speak out against the government. When
jailed for these offenses it is common that they are inflicted with torture
and forced into labor like a slave of days gone by. I do realize that
China is improving in these areas, we have spoken with people who had
visited the country 10 years ago and they described a much darker and
restrictive China. Maybe in another ten years we in the West will not
be wearing shoes made by an imprisoned college students who dared to speak
out in public. To me, "Made in China" means a lot more than it use to.
We know we have not received all of
our email while in China so if you have written us and have not heard back
from us, please send your letter again. We have lost contact
friends and business communications because of blocked email in the land of
Far from home
The best (and worst) thing about
traveling by bicycle is that it takes the rider to places never expected.
Many readers have asked, "What is the farthest away from home you have ever
felt?" I used to think of this question in terms of geography but my
experiences in communist China have given me a different perspective.
Now I answer this question in terms of freedom. The furthest I have
ever been from home is sitting in a Chinese military detention area being
guarded by armed soldiers. I know that if I ever find myself further
from home I will never come back. The story below happen in April 2005
when we first entered China and spoke very little Chinese. I waited
until now to send this story out because I did not want our web site blocked
while we were in China.
We were riding along on our
bikes and saw what we thought were a group of farmers in the field.
Cindie riding behind me yelled out, "Tim Tim take their picture". I
pulled over to the side of the road and took two photos of the
large group of farmers. It turned out that the farmers were actually Chinese prisoners working at forced labor. The next thing we knew
we had guards chasing us with pistols. We stopped and they
immediately took our camera and demanded both of our passports. Little
did we know that we were also standing in front of a secret Chinese military
academy. This is probably a place where young soldiers learn the art of
brainwashing and turning political protesters into slaves who make things
radios and blenders for export. We could not
read the Chinese sign informing all to stay away and not to take photos.
The Chinese government does not acknowledge that these secret prisons exist.
It is becoming known in the free world that they have many hidden prisons
where political prisoners are tortured and forced to work in factories to
build consumer goods for the west. It is a serious crime in China to
take photos of these prisoners or report in the news that such places exist.
We were now guilty of this crime.
As we were standing on the side of
the road, offering to delete the photos, we saw a platoon of soldiers
running in formation with their rifles. I told Cindie that army guys
run and exercise all the time and not to be alarmed. My heart sank as
I watched them run with urgency straight to us. They immediately grabbed our bikes and marched us off to a detention room
in the military academy.
I knew this was serious. We waited there for three hours, seemed
like eternity to me. They asked for our home phone number and I gave them my
parent's number. My parents had been called many times by teachers and school
principals when I was a kid but the Chinese military would be a whole new
level of getting into trouble. I told Cindie that even Generals are no
match for my mother. Later, we learned that they never called. During our detention the
guards were pleasant but we were not allowed to leave. Our bikes were
surrounded by a detail of armed soldiers standing at attention. In Asia, whenever the need arises Cindie and I
speak Spanish to each other. We never know who can speak English. In Spanish I tried to
reassure Cindie and tell her we would be back on the bikes soon. I
asked her where was the last place she left off in her online journal.
She said that she was caught up to yesterday when we updated our web site.
She knew that I was concerned about leaving a trail. If we ever
disappear Cindie's journal would be the best tool to start a search.
When we were asked about our unrecognizable English (Spanish) I told them that we have a thick Arizona accent.
Then a flurry of activity started.
All kinds of people showed up including high ranking officers from the local
police, army, national police (equivalent to the USA's FBI) and, the
scariest of all, quiet men in dark suits and sunglasses. These men were
the Chinese secret police much like America's CIA. I knew they were
high up because the low ranking soldier at the guard shack was very nervous
and constantly saluting. All the enlisted men were so scared it made
me uneasy. At this point I realized that they thought we were two
American spies in bicycle tights and helmets. They separated us and
began to ask questions. In the mean time they show up with a
professional video camera and began taping everything. Cindie had
several guys in police and army uniforms in her room. I had the
national police and the guys wearing dark suits in my room.
Cindie's interrogation lasted two
hours and they
questioned me for an hour more. I was asked the same questions repeatedly by
men who never removed their sunglasses even though it was raining and we
were indoors. They had brought translators but their English was so
poor I still did not know exactly what they were saying. They asked why we were in this country and on this
road. Their favorite question was, "Did I take a photo of military base?" My answer was no, I
only took a photo of what I thought were farmers and not the base.
They did not believe me. They were
convinced that we were either spies or human rights activists both of which
regularly get put to death in China. When they told me that we had
broken the law, I wondered what would happen next.
Then they marched us to our bikes
and asked what was inside. I was afraid that they would find our
computer. There was nothing incriminating on it, but I knew it would take
them forever to look through it. The camera and passports were time
consuming enough for them. The head military officer
pointed at a bag and told Cindie to open it. Of the twelve bags we
have on our bikes it happen to be the one with the computer in it.
Cindie instead recommended a closer bag with our tent hoping to stall for
time. They pulled it out and marveled at its aluminum poles and the tag
that had "Made in China" on it. Once they were happy that our tent was
not a threat to national security (even though it is illegal for foreigners
to camp in China) they pointed at another bag. Again, they unknowingly
pointed at the one with our computer. Cindie instead offered the
waterproof bag with our two sleeping bags in it. They were
impressed with the lightness and quality of construction but the party ended
when they read "Made in Taiwan" on the tag. Through the translator,
the 60 year old military official with four large silver stars on his
shoulder asked why the tag said "Taiwan" instead of "China". The Chinese
believe that Taiwan is just another province of China even though the rest of the
world accepts that it is an independent country with it's own
democratically elected leaders, currency, and standing army. I dodged
this potentially dangerous international incident by telling them that the
simply spelled China wrong or made a mistake. The search moved on.
I knew what Cindie was up to.
She had them
search the tent and sleeping bags first to wear them out.
We have been together 24/7 for years now and we know what each other is
thinking. We have wiggled out
of searches in the past with the same trick. When the officer asked
for another bag she offered her bag that had dirty clothes in it. While we
were still being video taped, she pulled out our medicine kit, pans, a roll
of US cash that she hides, and some paperwork. They were not
interested in money or medicine. They were very interested in the photocopy
of my passport. They were looking for some kind of documents to prove
we were spies. I held up the paper next to my face but they did not
think it was me. The paper was taken away to be analyzed.
Cindie continued to pull things out of her bag until her underwear was
laying on the ground in front of the crowd of officers who were turning red
(along with Cindie)
with embarrassment. An order was quickly barked out, the video camera
was turned off, and the search was ended. This is not the first time we
have used the dirty laundry trick.
Had they found our laptop they would have surely imprisoned us while they
took the time to look through it.
When the search ended they escorted
us back to the holding area and we had to wait for hours again. We finally
were shown papers hand written in Chinese and told these were our
confessions. The translator slowly read them to us. It
that we had illegally taken pictures of prisoners. We signed them and
were told we were going to be released. I asked for our camera and
passports back. They did not want to return the camera so I told them that I
would like to contact the US embassy in Beijing. I pointed at the Chinese
character in our phrase book meaning "embassy" so there was no mistake in
translation. I knew that in any large bureaucracy that poop rolls
down hill and no one in that room wanted a foreign embassy involved.
They reluctantly returned the camera. The IT professor
told the commander that the illegal pictures had been erased. I turned
the camera on and saw "format error" and assumed the pictures were gone.
I did not care and just wanted my freedom.
Later when I put the memory stick
into our computer I found that the IT specialist did not completely get rid
of the illegal pictures of the forced labor camp.
You can see these pictures by
When we were finally released it
was dark and raining hard. We rode two kilometers to a hotel room and
went to bed. The next day we were still in a state of shock. When we
left the hotel I thought someone was following us. At first it was
just a feeling but I quickly had proof. As cars slowly drove past us
we recognized the occupants as the people asking questions the day before
during our interrogation. They predictably drove black four door
sedans with tinted windows and were always frantically talking into a cell phone.
tried to act like they did not see us which made them even more obvious.
Everyone else (mostly poor rice farmers) stared at us because we were
probably the first foreigners they had ever seen. We stopped to eat in a small truck stop
restaurant and two trucks pulled in and blocked the view of our bikes from
the road. I think our friends lost us for a while. After lunch
another car passed us and stopped. A man with a cell phone watched us
go by and called in our location. I recognized him from the day before
as the man taking notes in my room during questioning. It gave me the
creeps but Cindie was completely unnerved. I tried to calm her down by
saying "Cindie, do not worry about them. If they really wanted us they
would just arrest us again and take us." Sometimes I can say the worst
things to her thinking I am helping.
We rode on and happened
to pass another military base. We knew what they looked like by now.
In front of the military base they had a large truck used to transport troops waiting for
us. I knew it was full of soldiers because I could see the outline of
gun barrels pressing against the canvas covering. We waved, what else
could we do. We could see the officer in the passenger seat call in our location. We stayed in a hotel a
few kilometers later that uncharacteristically did not ask for our passports.
Our followers did not see us go in the hotel. They lost us again but this time it was
near another army base. I wondered if they had a long night as they
combed the area looking for us. The next day we had a car pass us and
call in our location. Later in the day, I had a flat tire so we pulled off the road
to fix it. As I was fixing the flat
tire, a black sedan drove
by with a tinted window rolled down. I saw a 35 mm lens repeatedly taking pictures of us.
Just like in the movies. I thought
"Don't they have hours of video of us including Cindie's purple
underwear?" After three days of being followed like this, we rode into Yang Shou
where there are lots of foreigners traveling and
working as English teachers. To the police we blended in because to
them we all look
alike. We were not followed by secret black cars again but we were
always on the lookout.
I believe the above incident is the
reason we had trouble obtaining a legal travel visa extension and had to
seek out other means. We also had several smaller run ins with
the authorities in China. We were frequently kicked out of
internet cafes by the police for connecting our laptop or making telephone
calls. The police also had the habit of knocking on our hotel room
door after we had gone to bed. They wanted to see our passports and fill out a
form. There are many more stories to be told but for now I do not have
We loved China in many ways but are very happy to leave
because of the government. I really feel sorry for the Chinese people,
they can not leave. Someday I wish for them to all enjoy freedom as
the rest of us do.