I’m a congenital traveler, had been long before I wrote my first book. I took my first plane ride when I was two weeks old (taught me to travel light) and haven’t slowed since. Other than the frequency of travel (you want me to come to China and you’ll pay for it? Granada and Madrid, really?) what has changed since I’ve officially become a writer is that I’m now given social license to do what I’ve always done. I’m no longer stupid and slightly insane; I’m eccentric and dedicated to collecting stories, compulsive even.
In March of this year, I was at a literary festival in Chengdu, China. On my last day, having finished all my festival obligations, an Irish troublemaker (redundant?) took me out to lunch. My flight out was later that afternoon. Since it was the anniversary of the Tibetan uprising, he asked if I wanted to eat in the Tibetan part of town. It was sure to be heavily policed, he said.
How could I refuse? Batons and yak butter tea.
The motorized rickshaw driver wouldn’t take us there. I didn’t understand a word he said, but it was apparent that he was nervous and upset that we’d want to go to that neighborhood. A taxi drove us, but not before the driver asked a few times where exactly we wanted to go.
Traffic was heavy and flowing on a thoroughfare, but a side street was blocked by a number of machine-gun toting policemen dressed in engorged navy. Bullet proof vests are never slimming, that’s for sure. So, of course, that’s the street the Irish provocateur had to go through.
I only know two good restaurants in the area, he said, and both are on this street.
Tibetans were allowed through, police watched them like cats watch caged birds. We came along and the cats descended upon us, five of them, fully armed. Now, I have to admit I was a little nervous, but really, not all that. I’m from Beirut, you see.
They asked rapid questions in Chinese (Mandarin, not Tibetan, one presumes). My Irishman valiantly tried to reply. They were able to communicate. I hoped we wouldn’t get arrested since I had a plane to catch. That’s when two earpiece-wearing plainclothes, a man and a woman, joined our celebration. I smiled, trying to look friendly and dumb. Lunch, I said. Déjeuner? But no one was paying attention to me. Sign language, I thought. I rubbed my stomach, pointed down the street, and licked my lips. The plainclothes were explaining to the Dubliner that he couldn’t go through. I uttered the one food word I learned on this trip, pork bun (steamed, of course). One of the policemen looked at me as if I had special needs.
Oh, well, said my new friend. They’re not going to let us through.
My crazy friend and I walked another street trying to find a restaurant. The street looked like a tourist trap with old shops selling Chinese baubles and knickknacks. Street food vendors sold skewers of strange looking creatures.
You should watch your wallet, the Dubliner said. Everyone around the world thinks Tibetans are gentle, loving people, but in this city, they behave like most persecuted minorities everywhere. They resort to crime.
At which point, two monks appear on the street, and my friend begins to chat them up. I resume my idiotic smiling act, and slowly, I begin to walk a few steps behind them. I’m not that stupid.
They’re going to take us to a place for lunch, my seemingly rational friend said. Good Tibetan food. We have to walk behind, though, because we’ll get arrested if we’re with them.
We followed them for a bit, and of course, they led us right to the street. The police let the monks through, but as soon as we approached, the felines pounced, the same ones. I recognized their machine-guns. Blah, blah, blah, you can’t get through, blah, no way, no how, blah, blah. We must have lunch. Tell them it’s my last day, I said. I want to have Tibetan food before I leave.
One of the policemen, tall, recommended a restaurant around the corner. He seemed intransigent for some reason.
No one knows how many Tibetans died on the street the year before. The clashes were extremely violent. No reporters or television crews were allowed anywhere near this street. Monks immolated themselves, their souls moved on unwitnessed except by their unmoved persecutors. Many of the citizens of Chendu, whipped into frenzy by radio and television, believed foreigners and expats supported the uprising. There were large demonstrations against foreign businesses, a couple of French supermarkets were torched. Expats were stopped on the street and beaten up.
Were you hurt? I asked my new friend.
No, not really, he said. I was beaten up only twice. Walking home from work.
The restaurant we ended up in was exquisitely good. The policeman must have been a foodie. There were at least three tables with Tibetan monks having lunch. My Irishman began to talk to them. I collected stories.