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Apr 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, October 1999 Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

A half-mad dash to Hkakabo Razi seemed like a good idea at the time. And hey, how tough can it be to sneak past the Chinese Army?

By Mark Jenkins

I feel the lorry slow down and press my face against the metal slats. We are passing through a black forest. In the walleyed beam of one headlight, I make out men with rifles standing in the road ahead.

"Keith!" I croak in the darkness. "Steve! Cops!"

The three of us burrow beneath the canvas tarp in the bed of the truck, just as we've already done at a dozen military checkpoints. Bruce, our Chinese interpreter­cum­flimflam man, is riding up in the cab with the driver. He'll pass the cash and crouch on the floorboards.

We're en route to Burma (officially known as Myanmar) via the most beautiful path possible: across eastern Tibet. Our traveling companions in the bed of the truck are Tibetan pilgrims. Stoic inside their huge sheepskin coats, eyes closed, black ponytails lifting in the cold night wind, they're pretending to sleep. When we hide underneath the tarp they slide their leather-bound bundles on top of us. Eastern Tibet is generally closed to foreigners—especially foreigners like us, with no permit to travel. Were it not for the quiet help of the Tibetans, our journey would be impossible. Like all people who live under foreign occupation, Tibetans are rebels. They countenance those who thwart authority.

The truck jerks to a stop. Through the slats I watch three Chinese soldiers approach the cab. They bark orders at the driver, and he gets out. The soldiers, bundled in quilted fatigues against the October cold, are belligerent and friendly and drunk. I don't know what's being said, but I know what's going on. The driver gives each of them a handful of bills and takes a swig of beer from their bottle. Then he climbs back into the cab and fires the engine.

The truck begins to lumber forward, heavy and loose-jointed. I think we're home free when one of the soldiers bounds up onto the running board. Suddenly he is shouting—he's spotted Bruce. He swings his rifle through the window and the driver cuts the motor.

I can hear Bruce opening his door and talking fast, but it doesn't help. The soldiers climb up into the bed of the truck and peel back the canvas with the muzzles of their weapons. Bruce makes one more valiant effort to bribe them, but what's beer money compared to capturing three lao wai?

We're taken to a sleepy commander wearing an enormous green trench coat, a fur aviator cap too small for his round head, and muddy bedroom slippers. He sits behind a rickety desk in an unheated barracks. Bruce does the talking while we do our best to look bewildered and guileless.

No money changes hands—a bad sign. Money is the smoothest lubricant on earth, liquor a close second. With both, many an ungainly situation can be coaxed to glide along. With neither, it's like trying to push a safe through sand.

The commander's face betrays nothing. He is neither overtly brutal nor fatuously easygoing; he is officious, distracted, disinterested, and cannot be bought. So why has he been sent to this end-of-the-world outpost? On second thought, unbribability may be a career liability in the Chinese Army.

Eventually the commander waves his hand, lazily, like a king, and the soldiers escort us outside. I ask Bruce what's going on.

"Is not so good. He say interrogation begin at midnight."

The moon is glimmering on an archipelago of puddles that will be frozen by morning. Mountains black out most of the starry sky. The soldiers from the checkpoint march us through the village on log planks laid in the mud, the lorry heaving along behind like a forlorn elephant. Outside a walled compound the Tibetans hand down our gear.

Inside the compound we're put into a room with wooden beds and straw mattresses and told to wait. The moment they leave we huddle to get our story straight.

Whenever you are arrested, anywhere in the world, you have to have a story. This is fundamental. As with stories for other occasions, the tale need not be the truth. What it absolutely must be is believable. Verisimilitude is the god of all good stories. The truth is often complicated and not always particularly plausible, so you have to decide whether it's really the tale you want to tell.

In our case, the truth is that we're on a clandestine expedition. Our plan is—or was—to slip down to the southeastern tip of Tibet, cross the border, and make the first ascent of Hkakabo Razi, at 19,260 feet the highest peak in Burma. After the climb, assuming everything was still going well, we intended to walk the legendary Stilwell Road—a military highway built by the Americans during World War II and then abandoned to the jungle in 1946—until we crossed back into China or were arrested and deported. We're heading to northern Burma by way of Tibet because the Myanmar government refused to even consider our expedition.

This is the truth. A wildly implausible story that implies we are premeditated lawbreakers. Bruce suggests we claim to be ordinary feebleminded tourists who have no idea how we ended up 400 miles beyond anyplace we're allowed to be.

For the next few hours we do whatever people do when they are waiting for something that just might not turn out to be hunky-dory. Keith, tall and strong as a Giacometti sculpture, fiddles incessantly with the straps of his backpack. Steve, his mouth sealed even tighter than usual, glares blankly at the blank walls. Bruce plays with his thin mustache and smokes one cheap cigarette after another. I scribble in my journal.

At the stroke of midnight, having let our imaginations run wild, we're fidgety. At 12:30 we stop holding our breath. At 1 a.m. we uncork our sleeping bags and go to sleep.

I wake just before dawn. Not a soldier in sight. Inertia and ennui are the two most wonderful loopholes in any bureaucracy. Combined, they often form a hole big enough to crawl right through.

I tiptoe over and shake Bruce. "Let's get out of here."

Bruce blinks, looks around, and trills, "Jailbreak!" He's learned half his English watching bad American movies. His full nickname is Bruce Lee, although he is too out of shape to fight, doesn't climb, and can't hike worth a damn. The name refers to his quickness of mind and tongue, not body.

"Out of sight, out of mind," I say. Bruce loves American idioms.

"Ah, good one," he says.

The four of us slip out of the compound, Bruce bribes another never-sober trucker, and we're on the lam.

Illustration by John Harlin

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