Wednesday, November 30, 2005


6:30 a.m.

We were up with the sun for the second day in a row. I don't know how those pesky roosters had sniffed our trail for all those miles, but somehow they were there again, summoning us from dreamland with their obnoxious crowing.

Steve's an army guy. Being awake this early was his routine. I'm a college student on spring break, the last category of people you would expect to rise with the roosters. It took a lot to help me peel myself from that rock-solid mattress in our 80-yuan (about $10 U.S.) hotel room.

For one, the roosters were unbearable. They were like that pesky roommate who can't sleep so he makes sure no one else does either. Secondly, Steve's baritone voice had already pleaded with me to get up. But most of all, the call of God got me moving. I had really begun to focus on the urgency of the hour that we live in and my role in bringing the antivenom to a poisoned world.

There were people outside the walls of the hotel that would hear the gospel through the pieces of plastic I carried in my pack. Someone's eternal destiny could be hanging in the balance. Although I still struggle living and walking in that reality today, for the few days we were on mission, I grasped it. Was it possible to distribute some 1500 VCD's and see no fruit whatsoever? Of course. But it was also possible that one, two, or even three or more people would respond to the gospel presentation with faith in Christ, and in that instant, turn from eternal death and suffering to everlasting life and peace. Then, they could bring the peace and life they have found to surrounding villages, and revival could spread like wildfire. How selfish it would be if I let a little fatigue hinder me for fulfilling such a great calling. Success is not how many people convert, but how faithful we are with the task God has given us.

Jesus, being one with the Father, knew what would happen when he crossed the Sea of Galilee into the region of Gadara. He would soon be rejected by the town's inhabitants, men and women who feared his supernatural power and cared more about their pigs than a broken man's soul. But he crossed the sea anyway, just to reach out to one demon-possessedman. He liberated a Gentile, a man outside his fold, from spiritual oppression.

I find it interesting that the story above is found in Mark 5, the exact passage that was depicted on the VCD we were handing out. We were following Jesus' example, striving for the same kind of reckless abandon to the will of God, venturing out in love to people that don't resemble us at all culturally. Hopefully, God will honor our attempts to imitate his Son.

Good Night

The first order of business at the hotel, at least for me, was a shower. After taking full advantage of the limited supply of hot water, I emerged from the shower and put on some fresh clothes and my Teva's, which gave my feet some well-deserved relief. They had supported 30-40 lbs. more than usual today, and they had been trapped inside clunky Timberland hiking boots all day.

The day's events had really worked up our appetites, so we set out to find somewhere to eat. In this town, the only "fast food" they had were the stray dogs running down the street. There were no KFC's or McDonald's. As we thought about our options, we remembered our trainers' advice: "Food off the street is generally safe; you select the ingredients and they cook it in a big skillet right in front of you," they had told us.

Sure enough, about a block away from our hotel, an elderly woman had a stand set up with a large pot boiling on a wood-burning stove. On the table next to it, she had set up all kinds of unrecognizable foods and strange vegetables, spices, and meats. Steve hovered over the broad bowls. He squinted in the faint streetlight, struggling to make his selection. You could tell which items were the most popular, because some of the bowls were almost empty, while some were overflowing. I guessed that our best bet would be to go with the items that the locals weren't very fond of. Every time I eat in China, it seems like I can't stand the stuff they like most.

The woman nodded and smiled at me, revealing wide gaps where many of her teeth should have been. She waited patiently for Steve's request. Then they started conversing, Steve in his loud English and the woman squawking suggestions in Chinese, pointing to various bowls to answer Steve's questions, which I'm sure she couldn't understand. The two of them were quite a sight.

As entertaining as it was to watch, I felt obligated to intervene. I kept it simple and relatively safe, ordering chicken, spicy beef, and a variety of vegetables served over a bed of noodles with a side of fried rice.

A woman in her early thirties and her young son watched the exchange from a shop on the corner. A mixture of light from the fire and the lone streetlight danced on her face, which was clothed with an amused half-grin. I noticed that she had drinks for sale, so I walked over to purchase two large bottles of water. We would drink some with our meal and use the rest to pre-hydrate ourselves for tomorrow's hike.

The little boy peeked out from behind his mother as I approached.

"Ni hao!" I said, waving at him.

Although obviously a little sheepish, he mustered a "ni hao" of his own. His mother lovingly caressed his head with one hand and gave my change back with the other. Touched by their love for each other, I rejoined Steve at the plastic patio table where he sat. I glanced over at the mother and son every so often as we enjoyed a feast in the cool evening. It was great to be off the trail, and I couldn't think of a better way to end the kind of day I will one day tell my grandkids about.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Tired Sun

Sunset on a road next to the hotel.

Crouching Driver, Whistling Steve

Steve crouching next to our driver.

Movable Beds

We stepped out into a street bustling with activity as dusk settled in. Food vendors crowded the streets with little grills and pots, offering their greasy cuisine to everyone who passed by. The place was like a smalltown Chinese version of a mall food court. Some people huddled around tables, rested on stools or just stood there, but all of them were interacting with one another, sharing an evening with the community, not locking themselves inside their homes and hypnotizing themselves with TV. There was a buzz in the air, like something was about to happen. Or maybe it just felt like that because we had moved from the quiet bus out into an area overflowing with energy.

Steve and I stood there for a moment, just taking everything in. No one seemed to notice us until a truck honked to get us to move out of the road. We moved closer to the food vendors, and the smell of hot food was too much for Steve after all those Power Bars. He opted for some kind of grilled fish, skewered with a kabob on either side. I was too worried about finding a place to sleep to concentrate on snacking.

As Steve munched on his fish, I asked him if I could look at the map. He could only nod. He wiped his greasy fingers on his shorts and fished for the map in his pocket. He handed it to me, and I took a look. It made it clear that we were to continue down the road in the same direction the bus was traveling. Then we would make a few turns before arriving at the Dai minority park, the place where we were slated to stay the night.

According to our trainers, the minority park was sort of like an Indian reservation in the states. The Chinese government apparently pays Dai people to live there and carry on their indigenous lifestyle. Tourists from all over China come to visit the park to see how minorities live. If they so desire, guests can stay at one of the many traditional Dai homes located throughout the park, to experience authentic Dai cuisine and even help with a little farmwork. The park is famous for its elaborate celebrations of the water-splashing festival, the Dai minority's most important holiday.

The park was one of the main reasons Route 4 was my first choice. When I travel, I like to become more than a tourist. I like to understand the nitty gritty details of a society, how the people really interact with one another without all that canned, artificial nonsense they feed you at places designated for tourists. The way our trainers described it, I thought that even though the park was a popular tourist spot, it would be our best chance to get behind the outer walls of a Dai house and see from the inside how a household really worked.

After a few turns and almost a mile of walking, we turned left and were greeted with a huge, white concrete entryway with a booth in the center and traffic lanes running under two large arcs.

"This must be the park," I said.

Steve nodded, and we walked up to the window to pay the required entry fee. To our surprise, no one was monitoring the gate, which was standing wide open. Confused, we walked under it calling for help to any attendants that may have been nearby. Now that we were looking for people, we realized how desolate the place really was compared to the busy town.

Unsure of what to do, we started to venture into the park when a man with a security guard's badge cut us off. He didn't speak any English. Surprise, surprise. I did my best to tell him there was no one at the front office, and that we just wanted to sleep inside the park for the night. He seemed to understand, and I thought he said something about paying the entry fee upon our exit in the morning.

Steve butted in on our already frustrated conversation.

"Just tell him we want to look aroudn at the park for a minute, and then we'll come back to the gate," he said.

I relayed the message as best I could, and we started to walk in. A few seconds later, we had flagged down a three-wheeled motorcycle carriage, and we were heading away from the security gate and into the sights and sounds of the park.

It must have been off-season, because the inside of the park was just as deserted as the front gate. We saw a few Dai houses being erected on either side of the long, sinous road. We saw some large, ornate buildings that looked like restored Buddhist temples from ancient times. In the middle of the park, there was a round courtyard with a gilded fountain in the middle which we assumed was used in the dances of the watersplashing festival. All this, and almost no people.

We had been told the place would be hopping with activity. We thought there would be dancing and merrymaking, and music wafting over from one side of the valley to another. Unfortunately, the advertisments had been misleading, or at least meant for another time of year.

When our crowded vehicle pulled up to the authentic Dai house, we realized that there was very little about it that was "authentic." Steve and I had been traipsing through Dai villages all day. They were not about to pull a fast one on us. The wood on the house looked too new and manufactured, unlike the dark natural wood we saw in the villages. When we went inside, everything looked and felt plastic and generic, not like a home. The rooms were small, and they had no beds.

In Chinese, I asked the attendant, "Where are the beds?"

With a flurry of gestures and fast words, he conveyed that they would bring the beds in later. There's no telling what beds that could be moved that easily would do to our aching backs. I shot Steve a glance across the room, and his face said it all.

"We don't want it," I said in Chinese, and I walked outside and got back into our taxi. This was the most blatant tourist trap I had ever seen in China, and Steve and I were a little disappointed. It's not that we thought we were too high-class to stay there. Quite the opposite. We took one look at the prices and realized it was too high for our taste, especially with movable bamboo beds.

When Steve and the driver caught up, they asked me what I wanted to do. I looked up the word for hotel in the English/Chinese dictionary, and I told the driver to take us to the nearest one. In a few minutes, as we exited the park, we passed our friend at the security gate. He waved and smiled. In less than a minute more, the driver had stopped in front of a tall building. He pointed to it and repeated the word for hotel that I had just learned. I thanked him very much and paid him a little extra for his trouble. He still looked a little disoriented as he rode away, like he was confused about what had happened in the last 15-20 minutes.

I hope this place has real mattresses, I thought, and we trudged up the steps to our shelter for the night.

Blind Faith and Passes

When we pulled into the bus station, all four of us felt relieved. Steve and I were finally in a place we recognized, and we had 30 minutes to catch a bus to our next town. The Bills had one more night here, so they said a quick goodbye and hurried off to rendezvous with Brad and Evan, who had spent the day by themselves, pedaling around the countryside on rented bicycles.

I went up and bought a ticket at the window. By now I was a pro. I already had to do it once today, and I felt a little more confident with my limited Chinese after talking with so many villagers. Steve grabbed his ticket and began trying to match the numeral on the ticket with one of the license plates of the buses outside. Going from bus to bus, he squinted down at the ticket then back up at each license plate until he found ours. There were probably over 20 buses pulled into the station.

The driver, who was apparently waiting on paying passengers to fill his vehicle, had assumed a squatting position on the ground, a customary posture for relaxation in China. Steve, trying a little too hard to assimilate, mimicked him by squatting down next to him. The driver half smirked and half smiled, revealing a mild hint of both amusement and annoyance. They continued like that for another 15 minutes or so, until the last of the passengers found their way to the bus.

Our bus wasn't nearly full. I think there were 3 other people besides Steve, me, and the driver. It was a good thing too, because this "bus" was more like a 10-passenger van, with three or four rows of tattered, dusty brown seats and no aisle in the middle. Steve and I shrunk down in our seats with plenty of room, a pleasant change from our first two rides that had been packed to capacity.

Since we weren't carrying much weight, I guess the driver figured he could drive the van like Mario Andretti. About 15 or 20 minutes out of town, we began on a road that had us snaking around blind curves and clinging to the side of the mountain. Of course, there was no guardrail on the side of the incline, just rows of trees painted white up to about five feet for better visibility at night. It was not quite dark yet, but I was tired from our long day. After I watched our driver repeatedly pass people on the left going while swerving around a blind curve, I decided it would probably be better if I slept until we reached the town. The ride was only 45 minutes, and I figured the ignorance of sleep would be bliss compared to watching us catch two wheels on hairpin turns and narrowly evade massive collisions.

With the Lord's help (I don't see how we would have survived otherwise) we made it to our destination. Steve shook me awake right after he had frisbeed a VCD into a crowd on the side of the road. He watched a man pick it up and look at it curiously. A few minutes later, our bus was stopped, and Steve's squatting partner was waving us goodbye.

Monday, November 21, 2005

The Colonel

It wasn't even 4 p.m. and the day had already been exciting and eventful. Even with all the anxiety, Steve and I were having a blast. We looked forward to the rest of our bus ride, a time we assumed would be filled with tranquil reflection on the day and what we wanted to accomplish before it was over.

Just out of town, the bus stopped to pick up some passengers. I thought I saw a flash of white hair shimmering in the late afternoon sunlight as the passengers boarded the bus. Sure enough, it was bill Shorey, my pastor, followed close behind by Col. Bill Rieger.

Steve and I had staggered our seating (as if it wasn't obvious that we were together) for comfort and cover. When the Bill's made their entrance, we did just as we had rehearsed in Thailand, exchanging greetings in loud, clear voices, trading handshakes as though this we were meeting for the first time by coincidence.

Bill settled into the seat next to mine, and after a little more show, we began to quietly discuss the day's events. Bill revealed that he and Rieger had encountered PSB landcruisers on more than one occasion, and I told him about all the trouble we had catching our connecting buses.

It was a relief to see familiar faces, and we began to talk and laugh. Before too long, Shorey and I had to curtail our conversations to avoid giving off the vibe that we had come to China together.

Just then, the bus came to a halt. We heard stern voices outside bounce from one side of the bus to the other. Out the window, I caught a glimpse of what looked like the shiny black stock and barrel of some sort of automatic weapon. After further observation, I surmised that we had been stopped at a checkpoint, and I hoped this obstacle wasn't somehow linked to the questionable activities of the Bill's back in the villages.

Both of the officers looked young. I guessed that they were no older than me, but even so, they looked stern in those green uniforms, like they were not to be messed with.

The officer who stopped the bus boarded it, glaring at all the passengers as he asked for identification. His buddy stood watch outside, brandishing his machine gun. I wondered if he was trained to use it, or if it was just for intimidation. I didn't want to find out.

As the first officer inched closer to us through the crowded aisle, my anxiety started to build. Then Rieger, who was sitting in front of us, spoke up in a calm voice without looking back.

"I'll handle this. Don't give him anything yet," he said.

Shorey and I sat there dumbfounded as Rieger fumble through his bag. In a few seconds, he pulled out a paper copy of his passport. He was giving us commentary the whole time. I was tempted to laugh, but I kept my cool.

"Okay," Rieger said, "I'm handing this to him upside-down. Let's see if he turns it over."

Now, that's what training does for you, I thought. If the officer doesn't turn it over, it's obvious that he can't read anything it says.

The officer got frustrated with Rieger's antics. When Rieger handed him the passport, he didn't turn it over. We relaxed a little. If the guy couldn't even read English, he really had no grounds to do anything to us. Plus, if he asked us to come with him, we could play dumb, like we didn't understand anything he was saying.

"This guy doesn't know what the heck he's looking at," Rieger continued calmly, never challenging the man in uniform.

Soon, like a bear that had lost its appetite for American flesh, the officer turned and walked out of the bus, motioning to the driver that he was okay to continue.

As we began moving, the tension level in the bus was still high, like everyone was having a contest to see who could hold their breath the longest. Shorey and I both patted Rieger on the back, commending him for his quick thinking. Then we sat back in our seat and let out relieved sighs. After a few minutes of silently processing what happened, Bill looked over to me quizzically.

"Did that guy outside have a machine gun?!" he asked loudly.

"I think so, pastor," I said, "I think so."

We laughed together and rode a wave of adrenaline back to the city. In this situation, we were glad to have the Colonel on our side.

Another Helping Hand

We were unable to read the characters on any of the buses, so we hoped to get some help from the locals. Although we were in a hurry, I paused for a moment to take a picture of Steve next to a large hog wallowing in a mudhole in an alley branching off the main street.

I spotted a family sitting in front of their feed store, not doing much of anything but enjoying each other's company and watching the day go by. They looked friendly enough, laughing with one another and talking in that loud, animated style used so frequently by Chinese in their conversations.

A few of them went silent when I approached; the others continued their rowdy conversation. To the ones that paid me attention, I did my best to convey that we needed to get on a bus to base city.

"Bus...we go..[city name]," I said in flustered Mandarin.

The lady that I had approached personally acknowledged my words and told us to sit and wait a few minutes. From what I gathered, she said that they would let us know when a bus to our base city came by.

As we waited, a shirtless young man took a particular interest in us, joking with Steve about how big and strong he was. He lugged Steve's pack over to the scale in the feed store and weighed it. The reading he got astonished him. Then, like any macho guy would do, he heaved it up onto his shoulders to test his strength. The whole family applauded heartily as he took a few bumbling steps, and we all had a good laugh together.

Every time a bus would come near, we would get up from the midget-sized stools and get ready to leave. Each time, they would plead for us to sit down again. Apparently they were watching out for us. We had no choice but to trust them.

Soon, a purple and white bus crunched toward us along the gravel and dirt road. Steve's shirtless friend jumped up to check it.

They all shouted our city's name, pointing frantically to the oncoming bus.

"Thank you! Goodbye!" I shouted in Chinese as we lugged our packs across the street to flag it down. This wasn't an empty 'thank you'. It was a truly heartfelt expression of gratitude. I couldn't believe how hospitable they had been to us. Without their help, I have no idea how we would've selected the right bus and gotten back to our base city.

Just to be sure, I asked the driver if this was the right bus. He affirmed it, and I let out a sigh of relief. For the next few hours we would settle into some cushioned seats and save some strength for the next leg of our journey.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Our Chariot

My resolve was renewed after my dialogue with God, but that didn't change the fact that we still had a few more grueling miles to hike before getting back to town, where we could flag a bus to the base city.

It was almost 3:00 by now, and our pace was dragging after walking over 10 miles in over 4 hours. We had been up before 6 a.m. to catch the original bus that took more than 2 hours to get to our starting point.

I took one last look at the final village, its buildings gradually shrinking as we moved farther down the desolate dirt road toward the city. Our inability to follow the map had led us into uncharted villages like this one. I figured the detour was worth it because we had expanded our influence. Now, a few more people will have heard of the Savior. I just hoped taking on those last few villages wouldn't compromise our plan for the rest of the trip.

The prospects for getting back to base city in time to catch our 6 p.m. bus to our final destination for the night were looking pretty dim. We still weren't sure how far away the town was, and walking at this sluggish pace, it would take almost an hour to cover two miles. Our trainers had told us that if we wanted to make it back to base city in time to catch our transfer, we would need to leave this town by 3:30. To do that, we'd need a small miracle.

As I was pondering our helplessness, I heard the faint rumbling of an engine in the distance. I didn't get my hopes up. The noise could easily have been the firing of a tractor engine, and we could walk faster than those things could putter along. Even if it was a motorcycle taxi, there's no guaranteeing that it wasn't already occupied. A few had already passed us by, the passengers looking at us as if they couldn't believe someone could be stupid enough to trek through China's Death Valley on foot.

It seemed like an eternity before the driver was visible on the horizon. Sure enough, his standard red helmet peeked over the handlebars, assuring us that he was a taxi driver, not just some common farmer trying to get from A to B. As he got closer, though, we realized something: there was only one vehicle.

Now, when I talk about motorcycles in China, please don't envision a Harley. These dirtbikes were barely large and powerful enough to carry one of us with a pack. There was no way we'd both be able to hitch a ride.

But that was the beauty of the situation. Somehow, beween my limited Chinese and Steve's erratic gesturing, we communicated to the driver our plans. He would take me into town first, then come back and pick up Steve, bringing him to the same place he dropped me off. Although reluctant, he understood. Steve flashed his wad of Renminbi to assure the driver that his kind service would pay off in the end. Steve nodded toward the bike.

"Hop on," he said, "and stay put wherever he drops you. I'll be right behind you."

I nodded, straddled the seat, and tapped the driver to let him know I was ready to go.

Thank you Lord, I prayed under my breath as we left Steve in the dust. I didn't like the idea of splitting up, but this taxi may as well have been an angel chariot as far as I was concerned. I had the calm assurance that Steve and I would be reunited soon, so I took the time to relax and enjoy the ride.

I unholstered my digital camera, which had been strapped to my side all day without getting much use. I took a 15-second video of the ride, making a panorama of the horizon which was interrupted in part by the big red dome of the driver's helmet. After returning the camera to its case, I stealthily unzipped my fanny-pack. I had some unused VCD's left, and I wasn't about to waste them.

On the right side of the road, I saw a few small homes with children playing in the yard. I seized the opportunity to frisbee a few VCD's off the bike, praying they would fall into hungry hands.

A few minutes later, I dismounted on the side of a dusty, paved street lined with a variety of shops and vendors. There were people milling about everywhere, most of them minding their own business, some of them stopping to stare at me and wonder where I had come from and why. In Shanghai, seeing a white man is not a big deal, but this was smalltown China, the Mississippi of the Far East. Once again I was out of place, and this time, alone.

"My friend..." I said to the driver in Chinese, pointing back toward where we had come from. He nodded and turned his bike around. About 15 minutes later, the taxi returned, this time sagging under the weight of a smiling Steve and his hefty pack. I never thought I'd be this glad to see Steve.

"You ready to catch that bus?" he asked.

"Let's do it, Team Leader."