Part 3: FREEDOM!
Part 3 of the epic adventure of regular contributor Matt Bowen as he manages to free himself under the mountain of bureaucracy to start on his bike ride to Tibet
July 4th 2004
I had no idea what to expect. No idea whatsoever. Going north with the group felt like driving out into the country side. Leaving for Tibet on the highway felt like I was trying to escape. The day before I left I received an excited call from the foreign affairs officer Mr. Wang. “You must come to the office before you leave!”.
I had previously mentioned to Mr. Wang that I was planning on driving my motorcycle to Tibet and apparently it had just occurred to him that I might be serious. He handed me a piece of paper and asked me to list every place I plan to travel to and which hotels I will stay at. He wanted a detailed travel itinerary. I told him that I hadn’t booked any hotels, and I was bringing a tent with me. He stared at me like I was from another planet “You must give me your itinerary”. I told him I didn’t have one except to drive to Tibet and back. He told me “write down all the information you have, when you will return etc…” I grabbed the paper and wrote “I am driving my motorcycle to Tibet, I don’t know when I will return.”, signed it and bade him farewell.
Mr. Wang and I had our moments together. Though he would always smile at me when I saw him I’m not sure if he ever actually liked me. Mr. Wang was a short bald guy who wore wire rimmed glasses. He was around 45 years old and had extraordinarily rotten teeth I guess in large part because he chain smoked and drank tea all day long. He also couldn’t speak a word of English. At that point my Chinese language ability was still pretty basic so the majority of the conversations between Mr. Wang and I were through whomever was nearby and could speak some English. Sometimes it was an English teacher but usually it was a student. We made good use of the dusty old English/Chinese dictionary he had on his desk. It was never easy communicating with Mr. Wang.
I am not sure what exactly qualified Mr. Wang for his position as Head of Foreign Affairs or what his job was exactly but I definitely didn’t make it easy for him.
The winters in Baotou were brutal, and one of the biggest reasons was the general lack of heating. If a building contained no water pipes, like many of the school buildings, they were only minimally heated, and it was necessary to wear a heavy coat. And in many of the offices were placed a small coal stove that was perpetually heating up an old rusty tea pot. The smell of coal burning is distinct and sharp and it coloured the days and nights of winter in northern China. Mr. Wong’s office resembled his teeth, stained brown and faded with years of chain smoking, steaming tea kettles and the ubiquitous small coal burner in the middle of the room.
During the first few months at Number 9 Middle School I spent a lot of time in Mr. Wang’s office. I needed to get a criminal record check. I needed a health check at the local hospital. I needed to have my TESOL certificate and resume be notarized and translated and sent off to the police somewhere to be approved and stamped and issued a residence permit, a work visa and a foreign expert certification.
I was not the first foreigner to have worked at Number 9 but I was the first to be left alone. I was told that the previous foreign teachers lived in the teacher’s building on campus. I met many different foreigners while I lived in China. In Baotou, there were not many other foreigners and among the ones I met there was quite the range in personalities.
The first foreigners I met in Baotou were just before I left on my journey. I was sitting in a restaurant eating dumplings and reading a book when I glanced up and saw a white guy riding a bicycle past the restaurant window. I quickly paid the bill, rushed out of the restaurant and jumped on my motorcycle and caught up to him. He told me that he was living in Baotou teaching English at the other end of town at the 2nd rated high school in Baotou. We exchanged numbers and he invited me to his birthday party which was scheduled for the following day at a popular baozi restaurant “Gou Bu Li”.
At the party there were 5 or 6 Americans, they were all in their 30’s and 40’s, very religious – a lot of “gosh”s and and “darn”s etc.. – and were probably the most boring people I had ever met. Their conversation was almost entirely focused on complaining about the quality of everything compared to the US, something I find to be highly tedious. After our lunch we parted ways and I never heard from them again. I presume they finished their time in Baotou, went back to the states and from time to time tell a story about how awful it was in China, and how great the USA is, of course.
The previous foreigners at No 9 Middle School only ever left the school during school sanctioned and approved trips. Mr Wang was not prepared for my aggressive level of freedom, and I think was in a state of denial after I left. It was not until I called him from Xi’an, about a thousand km’s south of Baotou, that I think he realized I was serious about driving to Tibet.
First part here
Second part here
Twitter: Matt Bowen @mattbowen78