“THE BOXES WERE FULL OF ILLEGAL DRUGS AND I WAS GOING TO BE STAGED AS A DRUG TRAFFICKER...”
Knowing I had a long day ahead, not kilometre wise, but in terms of elevation, some 6,200m, I decided to set off early. I had been told by locals that my target destination, an Ancient City in the middle of remote central China had fantastic night markets and I was adamant that I wanted to explore upon arrival.
A longish day on the bike, some 10.5hrs later I arrived at around 4pm. I hunted long and hard for a hotel and eventually found a beauty at the top end of town, close to the markets and the bustling nightlife I had been promised.
Upon arrival at the Lobby, I was instructed that I must check in at the Police Station so that the Chinese Authorities knew of my whereabouts. One thing that became more apparent as I explored further south and deeper into the remote Chinese Mountains, was that my ‘whereabouts,’ from a local authority perspective, was of more importance. Looking back, this is fantastic, and in terms of my safety, useful information given the significant number of earthquakes in the area just days before my arrival. At the time however, I remember being nervous that I was at risk of being extradited from the Country.
I boarded the pillion seat of a local scooter en route to the police station, weaving in and around the small roads with my passport, visa and divers license clasped tightly between my palms. I hadn’t yet eaten since finishing for the day and so was concerned about my recovery and the following day’s ride. I should have been focused on the task at hand and presenting well to the police, but I was more concerned about where I was going to find a Bubble Tea (my go to Asian recovery drink.)
On arriving at the Police Headquarters, I was whisked away by a handful of policemen. I wasn’t sure what to expect looking back at it, but I recall thinking that it was far more serious than it should have been. I hadn’t broken any laws (to my knowledge) and I had a visa allowing me to travel around China. Why did things suddenly feel so grave?
I was taken into a small concrete room, one dim yellow bulb hanging in the centre of the ceiling providing light. It was just like what you’d expect to see in an interrogation cell. A man walked in casually dressed, a suit jacket, jeans and loafers. It turns out that this was the Police Chief. The Chief started speaking in Chinese…speaking no Chinese myself, It was difficult to communicate. A quick phone call to the Chief’s wife (who happened to be an English teacher in a nearby city) and we were in business.
As it turns out, I wasn’t in trouble at all, the Chinese were going through their due-diligence and registering that I had arrived in town. They wanted to know my previous location and my plans for the coming day. In the event of an emergency, I could then be quickly located by the Australian embassy. On a slightly more serious note, given I was close to the Tibetan border (forbidden land) there was some concern that I may be a spy looking to venture across into Tibet. The penalties for this can be huge…
Feeling cheeky, and still eager for bubble tea, I typed into my translation app, ‘Where can I get bubble tea?’ I showed the Chief. The Chief laughed out loud and typed back into his phone, ‘do you want to have dinner with me?’ This was the last thing I was expecting and it caught me a little of guard. One thing I’ve learnt about my adventures is to go with the flow, and as such I responded ‘Of course.’
What came next, signalled the internal alarm bells. As we exited the dark cell, a new officer appeared from another room along the passage way. The officer was carrying two small boxes (picture 2 tissue boxes taped together and that’s the approximate size of each box.) The boxes were stacked on top of one another, each encased in brown cardboard and taped heavily with brown tape. My immediate thought was that the boxes were full of illegal drugs and that I was going to be staged as a drug trafficker. My heart rate increased and my palms became sweaty. What made matters worse is that I couldn’t simply ask what the boxes contained. In any other circumstance, I would have jokingly made a remark about the boxes in order to obtain a feel for what was inside. In this instance, I was out of luck.
Before I could type a question into my translation app, an SUV appeared at the front of the Police Station, the Chief signalled that I get into the rear of the car. He jumped into the front seat and ‘the boxes’ were placed carefully into the back of the car, right next to me... I was now in the back seat of a heavily tinted SUV with the Police Chief of an ancient Chinese City and what appeared to be a substantial quantity of illegal drugs. I did not like where this was headed.
We weaved in and around the busy streets for about 15 minutes and eventually ended up down a small alley at a bright red door. I figured that my fate was about to be decided and so took a deep breath. The Chief hopped out of the car, went straight to the rear of the vehicle and signalled for me to collect the boxes. Still convinced that the boxes contained illegal drugs, I made the decision not to touch them. The last thing I wanted was for my finger prints to be on the box. I jumped out of the car, pretending I hadn’t noticed the Chief's gestures and walked up towards the red door. I opened the red door and we walked up a long, tight, flight of stairs. The carpet was old and smelt rotten, I can remember it vividly. At this point in time I recall questioning why I hadn’t checked into another hotel…None of this would have happened.
At the top of the stairs I was surprised to see another glass door, behind, which was a table of local Chinese, in what appeared to be a fancy restaurant. Confusion struck. We entered and were greeted by the locals at the table.
What I remember next, was the sound of the Chief ripping the brown tape off the boxes to reveal what was inside. Time slowed, the Chief looked at me and smiled as he tore away the tape and cardboard encasing the package. Deep down, I was convinced that a cloud of white dust was about to be revealed. But I was wrong…there was no white powder. What came next was a complete shock. Out from within the boxes came six packs of Belgian Beers, Chimay believe it or not!? My heart almost stopped…
The Chief reached into his pocket and grabbed his phone, he typed into his app, ‘I import the Belgian beers because I prefer the taste.’ My worry immediately turned to joy. I hadn’t had a beer in a few weeks, let alone an authentic Belgian beer and I was no longer at risk of being locked up as a drug mule. Success!
The night proceeded to turn into an absolute laugh. One beer turned into about seven beers and we drank late into the night. I didn’t speak any Chinese and my dinner compatriots spoke no English, yet we drank and ate dinner together like we were old friends. Admittedly things got out of hand and we began sculling the beers out of the restaurant dinner bowls, chanting encouragement to see who could finish their drink first. Having ridden for 10+ hours earlier that day, I was affected heavily by the beers and soon found that I was incredibly pissed.
Following dinner, the Chief and his mates gave me a short tour of the Ancient City and we capped things off with a few rounds of Karaoke. Unfortunately, the only English tune on offer was ‘Diamonds’ by Rihanna, so I gave the Chinese a fantastic rendition…or so they thought!
What did I take from all of this? When you’re in China and the Police Chief in an ancient city offers to take you out for dinner with his mates. Say YES!