Burma or Bust

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?


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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 interpreter-cum-flimflam 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.

Eastern Tibet has been unofficially closed to unguided visitors since 1962, when the Chinese, having successfully conquered Tibet, got the wise idea that they should take a chunk of India while they were at it. They crossed the Himalayas east of the Brahmaputra and barely made it into India before they were pushed back. Which means that the Chinese aren’t protecting anything more strategic in eastern Tibet than their pride—certainly nothing that warrants more or less cordoning off one of the most spectacular landscapes on the planet.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that this expedition to Burma was half-mad from the beginning and that the chances of success were perhaps small. So what? If you’re sure you can do it, what’s the point?

We picked up Bruce Lee, master of chicanery, in a large city in central China, and flew to Lhasa, where Bruce found us a truck driver who for a cool $500 was willing to hide us in the back of his lorry and lie his way through one military checkpoint after another. Three hundred miles later we switched trucks and roared on, right into our first arrest and escape. Three days later, we’ve holed up in the tiny Tibetan village of Rawu, waiting for another truck to take us south, but we’re now so deep in the hinterland that only yaks appear to use the road.

Steve is flat-eyed and somber. Keith, on the other hand, is gradually loosening up. He makes faces at the kids who follow us everywhere and chases them in play. He’s still gamely convinced we’ll reach Hkakabo Razi and climb it. Bruce is anxious but unhurried. He spends his time drinking tea and making friends with the locals.

I am ridiculously happy. Rawu is a Tibetan village you can no longer find in central Tibet. The waterwheels that turn the stones that grind the barley are still made with hand-carved cogs. The women still thresh the barley on their roofs by hand, singing rhythmic songs that sound almost African. The mountains rising in every direction are unspeakably gorgeous, and as far as I know every single one of them is unclimbed. I while away the hours wandering around the village trying to buy potatoes or eggs using my Tibetan dictionary, mangling the words so badly that the children, hiding behind their mothers’ woolen skirts, giggle hysterically. Finally a truck. A traveling salesman with a load of brass pots and pans. We grab our bags and clamber up on top, hunker down among the kettles and ladles, and again begin slipping through military checkpoints.

We travel beneath peak after peak after peak of sheer ice and rock, most rising above 20,000 feet. Over high passes, through Tibetan villages so remote they speak a different dialect, have a different architecture, still wear handmade clothes of leather and silk. I watch the landscape roll slowly by and dream about spending five or ten years wandering here.

After two days, when we’re less than 50 miles from the northern border of Burma, the truck halts in a dirty village some distance off the road. The next checkpoint is at Zayü, a military stronghold almost on the border. The driver will take us no farther. From here on, we’ll have to bushwhack.

Bruce hires the village mule-skinner and his donkeys. We aren’t up the path two miles before the mule-skinner pops the slipknot on our loads and demands more money. We haggle, he wins. The next morning he pulls the same stunt. We haggle, he wins. The following day he refuses to go farther. He points south, holds an invisible machine gun in his hands, and mows us all down. No amount of money will make him cross the border into Burma.

Steve groans. He now believes this was a half-baked expedition from the beginning. He decides he’s going home. We’re so close to the border it only makes sense that Bruce go with him. The mule-skinner is delighted. He repacks the loads, leaving Keith, me, and two hundred-pound backpacks crammed with climbing gear plus food and fuel for ten days.
We shake hands all around. Bruce Lee grins. He has done what he said he could do and knows he’ll see us again. Keith and I shoulder our packs and stagger toward a snowy pass.

Given the terrain—brush-tangled mountain slopes—and our absurd loads, we have trouble making three miles a day. At that pace, we will be out of food before we even see Hkakabo Razi. In less than a week we realize our only alternative is to hook back, re-provision, find new pack animals, and then carry forth.

We maneuver ourselves to a mountainside vantage point overlooking Zayü and wait for nightfall. After dark, we slip around the sentries and begin slinking from one Tibetan vendor to another procuring supplies. Just before midnight two plainclothes Chinese security men spot us. We take off stumbling down a dark alley, but it’s buffoonery—like trying to run with a piano on your back. The cops quickly catch us, one of them grabbing my shoulder and spinning me violently around. I am still thinking we have some chance of escape when the cop with his fingernails in my shoulder suddenly pulls out a stun gun, a small black device with needle-points on the end, and holds it against my neck. That’s when I suggest to Keith that perhaps we should buy these gentlemen a beer.

This time the interrogation is not postponed. We’re taken to the commander’s office and stripped of our passports and our backpacks. The commander sits behind a large wooden desk and doesn’t smile. He also doesn’t speak English, so an interpreter is brought in. We’re grilled for two hours. Why were we here? How did we get here? Who were we really? For a while the commander thinks we’re spies, but especially stupid ones. No guns, no deadly knives camouflaged as pens, no secret documents.

We tell him we were tourists who got caught in a terrible blizzard and have been lost in the mountains for weeks. He assumes we must be hungry and has crackers and tangerines and a thermos of hot tea brought in.

The entire interrogation is duly recorded in longhand Chinese by a scribe, a four-page confession that we can’t read but are obliged to sign and date before being escorted to a cement cell.

In the morning we’re again hauled before the commander. He rubs his eyebrows and speaks slowly through the interpreter. Unfortunately, he says, his is a very remote military base. Here there are no phone lines, no possibility of communication with any of his superiors. He is almost apologetic. Without any direction, he continues, he is at a loss as to what to do with us. It occurs to me that we have passed beyond the pale—that in a sense we don’t exist in any way that can be assimilated by the officialdom here. I take the hint and humbly suggest that he show his magnanimity and international goodwill by simply letting us go. He looks dubious, but then I add that as far as we’re concerned, we’ve never been here.

He smiles for the first time, gives us back our passports, and gets us each a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon for breakfast. Then he seats us in a jeep, waves good-bye, and has his soldiers drive us back up the road and drop us off smack dab in the middle of nowhere.

Keith and I could have waited for nightfall, turned around, and tried once again to sneak through Zayü. We talked about it. We created scenarios and developed strategies for escape and evasion, but it wasn’t going to happen, and we knew it. We’d pushed it right to the edge and were lucky. Not lucky enough to accomplish our grandiose goal, but lucky enough not to be killed or imprisoned. If our stratagems failed, and were the Zayü commander to see us again, he might invite us to stay for a few years cleaning toilets in manacles.

Even if we did manage to cross the border, we risked being captured by the Burmese military. They might not be as forgiving as the Chinese. Visions of the mule-skinner and his imaginary machine gun haunted us. We could disappear from the planet as easily as ants underfoot.

It took Keith and me almost another month to get out of Tibet. We walked untold miles. We accomplished the first ascent of a nameless peak higher than Hkakabo Razi. We ate tsampa and swilled yak-butter tea. We hitchhiked over dozens of wintry passes. By the time we got back into China proper our visas had expired and we had trouble getting out of the country.

By all external measure the expedition was a failure. The team fell apart, we hardly achieved a thing we set out to do, and we frequently put ourselves at risk for no clear benefit. And yet this journey remains one of those I cherish most.

Sometimes the best trips are the ones that go wrong. You tend to learn more. How not to spill your tea during an interrogation. How to tell an outrageous lie with a winning smile. How you’re never too old to play hide-and-seek.