Two Thefts
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I’ve always been too square to steal things. I did no teenage shoplifting. I never lifted tenners from my mother’s purse. But I was an accessory to petty larceny, once. It was spring of 1993 and I was 18. I was on a gap year – pre-university ritual. People did it so I did. I had had no dreams of travel. But a boy at my school I knew a little, Mike, had the idea of travelling overland from Hong Kong home and asked me if I’d like to go with him. We weren’t close friends. I expected that made us ideal travelling companions so I went.

We were our clichés. Lanky public schoolboys, not worldly, with fleeces and Gore-Tex boots and the sort of rucksacks that you hate when you encounter them on the tube. In those rucksacks were malaria pills, iodine, four-season sleeping bags, optimistic condoms, the Henry James novels from my reading list, diaries, robust water bottles, copies of Lonely Planet and toilet rolls whose cardboard tubes we had removed. Someone had told us that for the best use of space you should unroll them and reroll them without the tubes. Rerolling a toilet roll without the tube makes it about fifty per cent bigger, it turned out. We should just have squashed them. As I say: not worldly.

I was intending to grow my hair and see if not washing it made it – as rumoured — clean itself. It didn’t. But over several weeks we made our way up the east side of China, and across, and up the Yellow River, and in due course up into Tibet. My memory of Lhasa is that, for a place in the mountains, it was as flat as a tennis court; sky cold and very blue and mountains at the end of every street, Potala Palace rust-red above it, locals red-faced, salty tea disgusting. I can still smell the yak butter candles in the temples.

The idea, after a week or so eating greasy dumplings and banana porridge in the traveller hangouts, was to take a local bus across the high passes and down into Nepal. It would take three days. We hadn’t liked China. This was when there were still two currencies – FEC (foreign exchange certificates) and the local RMB, and my diary records that we spent a lot of time haggling with black marketeers. Anyone you met who spoke English was out to fleece you – and more to the point not, as in more tourist-oriented economies – with the good grace that made it palatable. We’d been fed up with the grift and graft, the institutional obtuseness, the constant sense of our own alienness.

Leaving Lhasa was a scramble. We couldn’t figure out, in the bus station, where the bus was – if we missed it we were sunk — and while we were shouldering through the big crowds of locals someone lifted my wallet from an outside pocket. I solemnly noted what it had contained (student card, donor card, emergency credit card, nine dollars US, 60 yuan local (about a tenner) and a couple of photos of my girlfriend) in the back of my diary and spent a disproportionate amount of time, later, trying to get a notarised loss report for the insurance. I have no idea why: it was valueless. I was filled with impotent rage.

That diary – I called it a “journal” – is almost unreadable. Not the handwriting, though that too. The affectation. I was very taken withOn The Road so long, rhapsodic, paratactic sentences were the norm, overdescribed and underpunctuated. Everything was material for my writing. I didn’t represent myself in those entries as I was, but as I was trying to be – which leaves it, I suppose, an inadvertently exact rendition of what I was.

Anyway, we got on the bus. This is how I recorded the set-up:

Our bus is full of oil drums & great canvas sacks & pilgrims & soldiers in their loose green PJs & a little boy sprawled up on the engine hood with his woollen hat who delighted in playing with the pressurised bus doors. His dad in a huge long-sleeved Tibetan dressinggown coat sat up on his right, long pigtails tied on the back of his head across each-other like half-tied shoelaces & a cap on: the busdriver to his left in brown leather jacket & beret: a stocky, round heavyfaced guy with a scar on his face. M & I  managed to sit with an empty seat (possibly the only one on the bus) between us for legroom. Only drawback: positioned bang behind the empty seat is a huge drunk with fat hands and a drooping, dribbling lower lip, a too-small jacket and those shapeless jeans worn too low as if to display a dockyard cleavage. This man, only at best semi-conscious, insisted on flopping horribly forward onto the seat in front of him (ie between us), elbows overhanging & fat lower lip drooling grotesquely down the seat back. He smoked more accurately when asleep than when awake & managed to remain fucked out of his skull for the entire 60 hours of our acquaintance. Awesome.

We stopped in Shigatse, the first night, as planned, then went on to Tingri – by now not far from the Nepalese border — where we expected to stop at a guest house. They left, I recorded, a Japanese traveller in a long multicoloured coat by the dusty side of the road. We were in the high Himalaya: middle of nowhere. No other traffic had passed us all day. The bus started again and trundled away from the town. We didn’t know where we were going.

Late in the evening the bus pulled in to the place we were to stop for the night. It wasn’t a town. It wasn’t any sort of guesthouse. It was a Chinese military installation: a barracks of some sort. We went through a guarded gate into a courtyard and the bus stopped. I don’t to this day know why we were there. Some sort of racket.

Most of the local Chinese and Tibetan passengers elected to sleep on the bus. It seemed quite possible they would freeze to death overnight. The handful of Westerners on board debouched and there were negotiations with uniformed men. Money changed hands and rooms were found – a couple of unfurnished concrete barrack-rooms in which we slept three or four to a room. We were issued with slips of paper – receipts of some sort — and a couple of blankets. Someone brought plates of noodles. It was perishingly cold. The girls took the beds. The rest of us were on our sleeping bags on mats on the floor.

At some point in the evening a pair of soldiers – one with a peaked cap on, apparently more senior — came in and started arguing with us in Chinese. They gestured at these scraps of paper. One of them tried to take the blanket from one of the girls. She didn’t have a sleeping bag. They seemed to be saying we hadn’t paid for the blanket. We, tired and cold and angry, were sure we had. The argument got heated. She was frightened of spending the night without a blanket. A sort of tug of war ensued.

The junior of the soldiers advanced on the girl, slightly menacingly. Mike, a nicely-brought-up boy from Windsor, stepped in and gave the soldier a push on the chest to tell him to back off. But he underestimated how much stronger he was than the slight Chinese man, who staggered backwards. The weather in the room changed. The senior soldier prodded Mike with some sort of truncheon and as he did so – or just before, or just after – there was a crackle and electricity sparked blue across it. A warning? Mike hadn’t been tased but the truncheon was some sort of cattle prod.

I don’t remember how the stand-off ended, but it did. The girl ended up keeping the blanket. They, perhaps, knew that a full-fledged fight with Westerners would be trouble, or too much paperwork. We didn’t want to get electrocuted. It struck us, perhaps not fully then, that we were for the first time in our lives in an environment where the privileges and protections that had cloaked us since birth did not apply – or if they applied, they did so penumbrally. Nobody knew where we were. There was no record of us being there. We had no mobile phones, no idea where we were, and we were in the power of a distant outpost of the vast army of an alien culture.

I lay down with my sleeping bag zipped up to my nose and my feet like blocks of ice. I woke up and my feet were tolerably warm. That night – or perhaps it was the morning – we had taken what I memorialised in my notes as “the instructive pettiness of our revenges – a free dinner [we must have failed to pay for one of the bowls of noodles], a smashed plate, tea-leaves in a bed, a stolen blanket”.

The blanket went into Mike’s rucksack. We’d be long gone, we thought, by the time they noticed our little acts of vandalism and theft. But outside the bus wasn’t leaving. The diesel had frozen in the tank, and we waited for about an hour while the driver tried to melt it by leaning under the bus and playing a blowtorch across it. I stood back at first, but the blitheness of the way they were doing it suggested this was routine. Cold – still, as cold as I’ve ever been – we got into the bus. I don’t know why, but a moment of anxiety caused me to take the blanket out of the rucksack and stuff it under one of the seats in the bus – a couple of rows in front of us.

I hadn’t long done this when another capped soldier came out and marched everyone off the bus – wretched locals, indignant Westerners and all. We were lined up. He seemed very angry. Coldly angry. We didn’t understand what he was saying. But he grabbed one strap of Mike’s rucksack and pulled it away. Mike grabbed the other. He was stronger, and the soldier grew angrier. It became clear that the bus wouldn’t go anywhere until Mike did what he wanted.

Mike unlocked the padlock of his rucksack and there, on the frozen ground in front of everyone, the soldier pulled the contents of the rucksack out: malaria pills, 19th-century classics, playing cards, rolled and compressed socks; ragged little zeppelins of toilet roll. He searched if very thoroughly, still angry, not satisfied. Various others were rousted. The driver started to make clear his impatience. Eventually Mike was allowed to repack his things and we reboarded the bus and we were off. They didn’t search the bus. If they had, I wondered, would the blameless Chinese or Tibetan traveller under whose seat I had stashed the blanket have been taken off the bus and imprisoned?

As it was, we were vindicated. We’d won. We’d been shown to be innocent in front of everybody. We weren’t. I recall very clearly the feeling of sitting in that bus, as I recorded it: “at the threshold of my leaving China, sailing into the sunshine and snow with my feet frozen and ‘FUCK CHINA’ melting out of the frost on the inside of my window”. We kept the blanket. I wonder if, like me, they filed a loss report.

A couple of months later, stuck in Pakistan, we discovered that we wouldn’t be able to cross into Iran as we’d planned. We didn’t have the time or the money or the balls to go through Afghanistan, then as now a war zone. So we flew home. I called my parents from a phone box in Heathrow and told them we were in Tehran. I wanted to surprise them. When we got back to Victoria Station – still dressed like Tintin in Tibet — Mike went one way and I went the other. We had an awkward hug – the first time we’d done that. The occasion seemed to merit it. After that we went back to being acquaintances. I haven’t seen him for 20 years.

'Arete is a journal as exquisite in its execution as in its intentions.'
John Updike

'Vous m’avez donné un grand plaisir … votre revue m’est très sympathique et proche.'
Milan Kundera