Tuesday, July 04, 2006

TIBETAN HERDERS STOLE MY BICYCLE

Everything I've written below is true. Photographic evidence is included.

To properly tell this story I need to start a day earlier. I had just ridden over the fourth consecutive pass of the day when the thunder storm that had been chasing me for the past hour caught me. I was tired. It started pouring as I put on my soft shell, covered my rear panniers with my rain coat, and opened my umbrella to protect my front bags. I continued slowly downhill in this awkward fashion, noting that lightning was striking the ground nearby, and I was on the biggest chunk of metal for miles. Then I saw a little shack right off the road, with a little curl of smoke promising a warm and dry break. A 10 year old boy beckoned for me to come in, and I happily did so.

Inside it was clear that the ten year old was in charge, as there were only a seven year old and a three year old besides. I sat down and asked where MaMa and BaBa were, to which they just gestured out into the wet hills. The boy stoked the fire and put on some tea.

When the rain slowed up, we all went outside to check out my bike. They were particularly interested in my blue umbrella, which I quickly learned the Tibetan name for as they discussed it's merits. Nyigdugs.

Then came a whispering session in which my nyigdugs was often mentioned. Soon after the oldest boy told me that he had to go fetch water, and could he borrow my nyigdugs? Well, it was still raining a little, and I'm no man to let a little guy get more wet than needed, so I lent it to him. I went inside and sipped my warm tea. He sauntered in a few minutes later. He looks at me. I look at him. He casually stokes the fire. And the umbrella? Following this question came an elaborate pantomime, the meaning of which seemed to be that a gail force wind had ripped the umbrella out of his hands and blown the umbrella into oblivion. I pointed out that there wasn't a breath of wind, but this only lea
d to a repeat of the prior performance. I implored him to go get my umbrella. I begged. Eventually he started ignoring me.

I have often found myself in situations similar to this while teaching english. My angry face is apparently not very convincing. I appealed to sympathy, pointing out that I had no home and that if it rained, I would get very cold and wet. Nothing. A motorcycle with two grown men stopped soon after. Now I've won, I thought. I explained the situation to them. They spoke with the kid, and he gave them the same explanation. I told them that he was a liar, and please get me my umbrella back. They looked at me. I looked at them. They drove off without a word.

I searched in some of the obvious places for a minute or two, and then left the little bastards in their hut.

So it goes.

I rode on for another ten km, and knowing that the next town was over 70 km down the road, started looking for a place to camp. I passed by a small group of herders on the side of the road. In all there were about eight black yak hair tents. I noticed that these folks, like the past few groups, did not seem very friendly.

I rode on another 2 km and found the perfect campsite. It was perfect because it was a depression, well off the road, hidden from all view. I set up my tent in the last minutes of light and went to bed
soon after.

I woke up to a "woah" (it's like "hey" I think). "Woah" I replied. The zipper zipped. This is not unusual. Most people in China have no concept of privacy (this reminds me of my third night in China when I found that hotel managers literally hold all the keys, and will open your door without knocking to deliver hot water while you are watching T.V. in your underwear). Anyway, I was not alarmed, and I opened the inner door though I had not been awake half a minute. The man outside my tent looked at me and my tent and gestured that I should come with him and have some food.

This is also not unusual. Almost every herder I pass invites me into have a tea or some food. Thoughts of butter tea and tsampa filled my head. I was still dazed from sleep, but I agreed to go with him. I dressed and grabbed the bag that I keep all my most valuable possessions in (my money, camera, mp3 player etc... I just may be a "flashpacker").

Above is a picture I took of my new friend, whipping rocks at straggling yaks we managed to herd back to the camp.

We went in his tent and he quickly poured me some butter tea and prepared the tsampa. To make a good bowl of tsampa, follow these instructions.

1.) Fill a bowl about two-thirds with barley flour.
2.) Add a good sized chuck of yak butter.
3.) Cover the flour with butter tea.
4.) Add sugar to taste.
5.) Mix with your hands, forming golf ball sized chunks to pop into your mouth.

After the third bowl of butter tea, and a bowl of curd to follow the tsampa, a friend arrived. He could speak much better Chinese than my first friend, and so we got into an indepth discussion about the finer things in life. Herding and biking.

Friend #2 invited me back to his tent. Inside, I met a young boy. He reminded me of someone... My nyigdugs! It was the ringleader from yesterday.

"Who is he?" I asked friend #2.

"My son."

Oh shit.

"I've met you before," I said to the kid.

He grinned.

That's friend #2 on the left.

And his son in a cowboy hat. Who would suspect him?

Half an hour later I was heading back to my tent. I took some fine pictures of their camp through the fog. I struggled for a few minutes to find my campsite, but I soon found it. Everything looked cool on the home front until I went around behind my tent.

My bicycle was gone.

The loudest expletives that this part of the Tibetan Plateau has ever witnessed followed over the next few minutes. I found that my panniers were also gone. More expletives followed as I remembered that my portable harddrive, which holds every picture I have taken over the past four months, was in one of my panniers.

I should say that I locked my bicycle to my tent through a nylon loop.

The lock was smashed.

At least, I thought, he hadn't ripped my tent.

Eventually I lay down on the wet grass and yak shit to think about what I should do. At this point I own a tent, a sleeping mat, a sleeping bag, my leatherman, and a piece of bread. They also left me my three books, which was nice. Of course I still had my money which, along with the fact that I know hitch hiking is dead easy here, were my only consolations.

What to do?

I remembered that while I chatted with friend #2, friend #1 slipped out. I assumed he went to tend to the yaks. About 20 minutes later I went outside to take more pictures of yaks, and I saw friend #1 return on a motorcycle. I had my culprit. No one could have just stumbled across my campsite.

I summed up my assets: I had pictures of my two friends. I had three really heavy books. I had an awful lot of money. I had my leatherman?

Unsure that the police would be of any help - and beside they were at least five hours away - I decided to employ a diplomatic measure common in this day and age.

I'm speaking about bribery of course.

Don't get me wrong. I was scared. I decided that I should stay on the road away from the camp, and that I should not get really angry or make accusations. These guys carry twelve inch blades on their hips you realize.

This plan quickly fell through once I got close to the camp. I found friend #2 talking to a new man on the side of the road and immediately launched into some of the most fluent and emotionally charged Chinese I've ever used. It went something like:

"We've got a big problem. All my things are gone! My bicycle is stolen! I know you know who did it! I know who did it! Where's your friend? Tell him that if he returns my things, I will give him 500 yuan. My things are very important! You have one hour. I will wait on the road. If you don't return my things, I will call the police. Many many police will come. Many many! One hour!"

I didn't give him a chance to respond. They looked quite stunned. I turned around and dragged my things to a spot with a good view of the camp a couple hundred meters away. I sat down and opened Thoreau... I believe he was writing about the virtues of the savage.

I was quite confident at first. I set my alarm for one hour. This confidence faded after half an hour.

I should say that 500 yuan is a ridiculous sum of money in Chinese terms. I would guess that it is nearly a months salary for a peasant. It is about 60 American dollars.

Two motorcycles came roaring out of the camp. I thought they were doing a runner, but they turned in my direction. They pulled up and gestured for me to jump on.

Not on your life.

They insisted. Friend #2 said they would get my stuff, and that I should jump on. I told them that I was scared of them. I would walk. They took off up the road and I slowly followed. I walked about 2 km up the road, and finally saw one bike cruising across the plain towards the road. Friend #2 pulled up with all of my bags strapped on the back of his motorbike. My bicycle remained missing. He took off again and I continued up the road, looking a little strange I'm sure, barely managing to carry all of my bags. I really felt like I was in a bad movie.

I crested a hill and sat down to wait. A car load of Chinese tourists stopped to take some pictures of the view, and a passing monk strolled by and stopped to stare at me. The movie got worse. Everyone watched quietly. What the hell was this hapless foreigner up to?

I saw Friend #1 riding my bicycle across the plain towards us. "Oh shit," I thought, "these tourists are going to blow the trade". Friend #1 saw the crowd and veered off. There being a lot of witnesses, I got up and started after him. "Is it fun!?" I yelled. Seeing the situation, he thought better and turned back towards us.

Soon after I had my bicycle.

Everyone continued to stare. With the 500 yuan I had prepared still in my pocket, I started putting my panniers on my bicycle. My sweet sweet bicycle.

More staring. I finished. I looked around. The friends rode off, and a minute later so did the car load of tourists. Only the monk remained. We smiled at each other.

I decided that if I took off, they might get angry and follow me. I rode back towards the camp. They were waiting on the side of the road. I was being very cool about the whole thing since the yelling. We were almost like friends again. We all stood quietly.

"Do you still need money?"

"Only a little" replied friend #2.

I think they were relieved that I hadn't ratted on them. I gave them 50 yuan and went on my way.

I couldn't stop smiling for the rest of the day.

So it went.

If you're interested in reading a somewhat similar, though surely better and more tragic story, check out this telling by the famed Brit 2wheels, a.k.a. Edward Genochio. "Mongolian horsemen stole my bicycle"

4 comments:

Simone said...

Yikes. glad you got the bike back.

Sparks said...

I was waiting for the Leatherman to be implicated in the saga! I hope your hard drive is unscathed.

imnotchris said...

Oh my! My heart was pounding, I was thinking to myself, "what can we do? we can't let aaron go on cycling with no bicycle! We'll need to get this man some money on the double. Quick, pass the hat to everyone you know, if everyone throws in a five spot, he'll have his new bicycle in no time..."

If the ending would have turned out different, I would have sent you mine. I wonder though, would it have made it?

marcandorkylie said...

wow! well played man. hey, where are you posting from anyways, an internet yurt? you are presenting an unspoiled alpine world at odds with your thoroughly modern apparently ubiquitous connectivity.