Into China : The Book Smuggler of Hekou

Hekou Travel Blog

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Farewell Lau Cai and Vietnam "sob sob"...

“Do you have any books or magazines?”.

Darn it!  Rumbled right away.  Barely have I had time to form the thought “So am I in China yet?” and the game’s up.  No enquiries from the border guards as to whether I might be packing knives, a gun, drugs, explosives, noxious body odour, Oreos or any other dangerous contrabands.  Just “Do you have any books or magazines?”.

It’s ok.  I know what they’re after.  Lonely Planet.  I’ve come as prepared as possible for this situation.  In Hanoi about a week ago I had lovingly trimmed and taped the cover sleeve of Christopher Koch’s ‘Highways to a War’ to the outside of my ‘Lonely Planet Guide to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos & the Greater Mekong’.

... hello Hekou and China!! "Woo hoo!" :)
  It includes a section on Yunnan Province in China.  Where I now find myself.  China does not feel the LP love owing to the books recognising parts of the country that the CCP Government doesn't  (or vice versa) or some such scenario, so copies are often confiscated at borders.  Any closer inspection and a quick flick of ‘Highways’ will obviously reveal my duplicity; my scandalous complicity with a world written, ‘recommended’ and defined by LP! “Gulp!”.

The tell-tale black page-marker tabs tattooed down the page sides glare accusingly as I hand the offending article to Guard B whom I assess looks a little more disinterested in proceedings than Guard A, the enquirer.  I attempt to adopt a literary cluster bomb strategy with him, to bamboozle his attention.

Packed with tradespeople and wagon loads of goods ready for export across the bridge to Vietnam (view from guesthouse window.)
  I start to shower him with the bound and printed word.  Orwell’s ‘Burmese Days’.  ‘Angela’s Ashes’ by Frank McCourt.  Next Brontë,  Theroux, John Prendergast with Don Cheadle (of all people!) are thrown to the frontline in my defense ( ’The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, ‘Dark Star Safari’ and ‘Not On Our Watch : The Mission to End Genocide in Darfur and Beyond’ respectively ). A novelistic cannonade.  A biblio-barrage strategy.  Pleeeeease don’t spot the LP!

Guard B is flicking through the ‘Lonely Planet Guide to Christopher Koch’s Novels’ but miraculously does not seem to be recognising it for what it is… despite all the pretty pictures.  I’m not bothered about the possibility of confiscation (of course!) but rather the consequences of being caught at a border crossing with intent to smuggle the written word.

"Shhhhh! Please don't dob me into the authorities!" ;D
  Breaking THE RULES before I’ve even set foot in their country.  Their country that looooves its rules so much.

“Anymore?”.  F**k!  Ya know that scene aboard One-Eyed Willie’s pirate ship towards the end of ‘The Goonies’ where Mouth, jewel by hidden jewel attempts to conceal his riches from the malevolent prodding of Ma Fratelli?… well I feel just like that right now!  One by one, forced to hand over my guilty little treasures.  “Umm?  Oh! Actually there is this.”.  Damn it.  I reach down and hand over my little ( “Uh oh!”) Lonely Planet Mandarin Phrasebook.  It’s small and expressive of my intent to really get to know the country and my linguistic lifebelt so I pray this doesn’t get snaffled.

  “Ya see….uh?… it’s… um, ya know, to help me learn Mandarin… err?  I can’t speak any Chinese yet ya see! Nihou?  Ha ha!”  Nervous laughter.  No smiles.  Guard A has a good thorough flick through, he and a colleague he gestures over taking particular note of the map of China contained in the introduction.  “Gulp!”. 

Fortunately he seems content.  My Phrasebook’s handed back.  Soldiers Brontë, McCourt, Orwell, Theroux and Cheadle are recalled from the battlefield.  Their words live to fight another day.  Paperbacks back to barracks; back to backpack. ‘Highways to a War’ is also handed back by guard B.  “Phewf!”.  It’s a good book.  You should read it someday ;)

The rest of my day leaves me pretty much stranded in border town Hékou as after waiting some while at the bus station I’m informed that actually there are no buses any longer to Yuanyang today.

Public art in Hekou
  It’s only 10.00am.  Most people tend to bus straight up to the provincial capital of Kunming, even if they wish to go to Yuanyang, though geographically this makes no sense.  Therefore I am stuck here ‘til 6.00am tomorrow.  Still, I haven’t learnt a darned word of Mandarin yet so it’s time to get my head down for a few hours.  Ni, the kind guy at the bus station also assists me to a room for the night and lends me a ‘Lonely Planet Guide to China’ which he would like to sell to me (for a lot of money probably).  I imagine there’s probably a roaring trade in recycled confiscated guides in this here town.  A glut in the market so to speak.  Instead I spend several hours voraciously reading his guide, planning my China itinerary and making as many notes as I can from it…even sketching a map of the country in my pad.

I already have my flight from Shànghai to Larnaca, Cyprus booked for precisely 6 weeks from today.  So, unfortunately once more on my journey the clock - that clock I so thought would become an obsolete concept, a long forgotten tormentor of Time once ‘free’ and on The Road - is ticking again.  I better get goin’ and go see China!  “Zàijiàn!”. 

sylviandavid says:
Ni-Hou!..... great read as usual..... Love the Lonely planet story..... Sylvia
Posted on: May 23, 2009
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Farewell Lau Cai and Vietnam sob …
Farewell Lau Cai and Vietnam "sob…
... hello Hekou and China!! Woo h…
... hello Hekou and China!! "Woo …
Packed with tradespeople and wagon…
Packed with tradespeople and wago…
Shhhhh!  Please dont dob me into…
"Shhhhh! Please don't dob me int…
Public art in Hekou
Public art in Hekou
Park bench (abstract)
Park bench (abstract)
A perticularly friendly looking li…
A perticularly friendly looking l…
Lady in Red.
Lady in Red.
Hotel Boredom Self Portrait.
Hotel Boredom Self Portrait.
My first meal in China :))) Yum!…
My first meal in China :))) "Yum!…
The Corn Cob Princess of Hekou
The Corn Cob Princess of Hekou
photo by: Stevie_Wes