10:00am the moment we’d been waiting for. Kristina pulled out of the Xi’an Bell Tower Hotel car park. The truck tour had begun and everyone was buzzing as Willie Nelson’s “On The Road Again” played out in the back.
We drove all day; it really was great to be on the road.
We arrived in Pingliang at 4pm and it was immediately obvious that westerners were a rarity in this town. As we drove in some of the locals smiled, some waved, but most just stared. Even so, we couldn’t help feeling welcome, everyone seamed lovely.
We met for dinner at 7:00pm, Stephen didn’t show but he was still feeling the jet lag so we assumed he was sleeping.
Everything and everyone stopped as we entered the outdoor food market, I swear even the dogs stopped biting at fleas and stared. We sat outside one of the small restaurants as locals plucked up the courage to say “neihow” or just nod at us.
Mylse’s phone rang and he chatted for a while in Chinese, then stood up. Mylse has a good grip of the British sense of humour, so we all laughed when he said, “Stephen has been arrested by the Chinese Army.” Mylse laughed along for a second, then stopped, then ran in the direction of the hotel.
There was a few seconds silence before Noel asked, “is he serious?”
An hour later I had to race back to the hotel for an emergency toilet break, I found Mylse, Stephen and a very serious looking military policeman sitting in reception. Mylse was arguing frantically on the telephone.
Stephen explained that he had been for a walk round the town and accidentally wondered into an army base.
“Did you take any photos?” I asked
“Just one, but they’ve already confiscated my camera.”
Mylse came off the phone and spoke to Stephen, “this is a very serious matter, a very, very serious matter.”
He explained that he’d been talking to a high ranking official in Beijing who’d spelt out why it was being taken so seriously. Firstly the gates are guarded 24 hours a day, Stephen had walked in at the exact time the guards were changing watch and the entrance was unattended. Next, there were six security cameras covering the base and Stephen had managed to avoid all but one of them. Also, the base was built like a maze with roads running in all directs, most of them dead-end and only one route through. Stephen had taken every turn correctly to find his way through the base. And finally, the single photo Stephen had taken was of the top-secret intelligence building.
“So what does all that mean?” asked Stephen.
Mylse sighed, “they say you have prior knowledge of the base.”
I’d read a bit on how the Chinese government are paranoid about journalists, especially in areas close to Tibet. If you’ve even studied journalism they wont issue you with a Tibetan entry permit. Just having a good camera is sometimes enough to raise suspision and be declined entry. Stephen’s expensive looking Canon lay on the table in front of the MP.
“Jesus, they think you’re a journalist!” I exclaimed.
Mylse jumped in, “No Stephen, they think you’re a spy!” the room went cold, “a senior officer is coming to interview you later, you may be detained at the police station.”
The hairs on the back of my neck stood up with fear and I wasn’t even involved. Stephen looked broken. The Military Policemen ordered me to leave.
The group returned about 11:30pm. Stephen had now been joined by the higher-ranking officer and was in his fifth hour of interrogation. We were not allowed to stay and were ordered to our hotel rooms.