Bamboo, with Free Police Raid

I didn't plan on writing a blog series about my police raid experiences whilst in China, but there it is, I've now had a foot massage with a police raid, bought bootleg DVDs and Converse sneakers from locked back rooms during police raids, and been inadvertently involved in a magnificent biffo between five angry Russians and a child-sized but very fierce stallholder at the fabric market - in which the five Russians resoundingly lost - also involving the police.

How is it that yet again, I'm an unwillingly participant smack bang in the middle of a police raid, this time in the middle of the Li River on the back of a boat made entirely from PVC pipes lashed together with gaffa tape? 

This time, it happens on a hot day for our group of two families, off to the ancient town of Xing Ping in order to negotiate a boat ride to Yu Cun, an even more ancient fishing village downstream from Xingping on the Li River. It's accessible only by boat or a long hilly walk overland. This is going to be a great adventure, I tell everyone, because hardly anyone knows about this village and it's certainly not on any maps. We plan to negotiate with the local boatmen to catch a boat downstream, have the boatmen wait for us while we wander the 600 year old Ming Dynasty cobbled streets, eat some fish, then boat back upstream to Xing Ping. That, at least, is my plan.

Downtown Xing Ping
Xing Ping is a lovely old town with a vibrant twice-weekly market, and a transit point for bamboo rafts and hundreds of big, bigger and biggest boats that ply the broad Li River. Because of the good business to be had from boats, every vehicle arriving in Xingping (including our minibus) is met by a swarming hornet's nest of twenty women all buzzing around loudly touting for boat business.

"Hey! Bamboo! Bamboo! Hellooo! Bamboo!" they all yell, in so many different pitches and volumes it's hard to hear yourself think. "Bamboo", apparently both noun and verb, is the word used to describe any kind of floating conveyance, from a bamboo raft all the way up to a three storey cruise liner, or travel by such method, to anyone who is not Chinese. Every step we take, sideways, backwards, or forwards, the hornet's nest follows, yelling "Bamboo! Bamboo!" with every step. We try to lose them but they stick to us like glue, all the way down to the wharf.

I tell the head hornet - in a broad straw hat with a sparkling jeweled chin strap - where we want to go. She probably thinks Yu Cun is a god-forsaken backwater, because she tries hard to sell us 'bamboo' to every other destination on the Li River.

"Bamboo Yangdi?" she asks. "Went yesterday", I lie.

"Bamboo Guilin?" "Day before yesterday."

"Bamboo Yangshuo?" 'No. Bamboo Yu Cun."

The hornet's nest goes into overdrive with high-pitched arguing and back and forth scritching. I can barely catch a single word of their strong local dialect but I think they're discussing the price we've offered. Half of the hornets seem against it, the other half for it. In the end, it's decided by a small, wiry, nut-brown boatman who agrees to take us, two boats in all, for the sum of two hundred and sixty yuan, return. It's higher than the price I was told by my Chinese source, but hey, we're foreigners. We expect to pay more.

Rather than leaving from the main jetty, for some reason we need to take the local passenger ferry across the river to the opposite bank, accompanied by Jeweled Hornet, to meet our boats. I have paid her in full, against my better judgement (I usually pay half up front and half on completion, this being China). Once on the other bank, Jeweled Hornet takes us to meet our wiry nut-brown boatman and his friend, and eight of us clamber aboard the two rickety rafts, with four seats bolted to the PVC pipes and a flimsy canopy overhead. Once on board the floor of the raft can barely keep its chin above the water, and often sinks momentarily underwater to keep our feet cool and wet. Jeweled Hornet smiles and waves to us as we push off into the shallows. 

 The magic karst cliffs climb high from the water on each side, and the Li River flows fast and turbulent over the shoals, as we take off at full throttle downstream. There's a cool breeze out on the water, the sun is shining hot, and all is right with the world. For eight lovely minutes we're skimmimg along on our PVC rafts, anticipating a delicious fish lunch. I'm feeling faintly surprised and even a little self-satisfied that the negotiations went so smoothly, given that Yu Cun is not on any normal tourist paths.

Then our boatmen unexpectedly kill the engines, in an area of shallow water near a bend in the river. They manipulate the rudders until we have spun completely around and are now facing back upstream, wedged on a small pebbled beach. "Just a big boat coming through, I expect" I yell to our friends in the other boat. The boatmen are frowning though, and that's when I notice a small white motor boat with a Chinese flag flying from its deck. There are four men onboard, all in sunglasses and various coloured polo shirts, all smoking. They look like a group of businessmen out for a spin on the river, except they're not going anywhere. They're hovering, midstream and against the current, watching us.

"What's happening?" I ask our increasingly frowning boatman.

He ignores me, and without a word, pushes the boat back out into the water, starts up the engine, and heads slowly back upstream. Behind us, the second boat is following, and behind him is the white motor boat. Not a single word has been exchanged between the four men and our two boatmen. 

"What's going on?" I ask again. Ignored again.

Ten minutes later and we're back on dry land. Our boatmen wave us away as the white boat pulls in alongside and three of the Polo Shirts clamber onto our boat. Despite the lack of any identification on their boat, or any form of a uniform on the men, I'm beginning to think that these guys are the police, or some kind of Chinese water mafia. They remain stoically silent, sunglasses on, and stand over our boatman while he pleads pitifully with them.

The pieces are beginning to fall into place. The heated discussion amongst the hornets. The necessity of paying in full up front. The clandestine trip to the opposite river bank to meet our boat, away from the small blue and white police hut on the waterfront. No other boats other than the official Chinese Government owned cruisers downstream. 

But no-one's explaining, and our daytrip is heading badly down the gurgler, so I walk back over to the boat and yell out "What's happening?" to the group of men. This time a Polo Shirt looks up, laughs, and looks away. We've been duped. Our boat was never going anywhere near Yu Cun. Bugger. 

What happens next is that our boatman goes from pleading on bended knees, grasping the hands of a Polo Shirt, to sharing a cigarette with them. Some sort of agreement has been reached, and I haven't seen a single yuan change hands. The Polo Shirts have pulled out a huge wrench, and are now removing the engine from the boat, without apparent protest. They're confiscating the engines. First our boat, then the second boat. The engines are loaded onto a tricycle, and the two boatmen and three Polo Shirts start pushing them away from the jetty and up the hill. 

photos courtesy of R Smith

We eight foreigners might as well be invisible. This is clearly between the Polo Shirts and the boatmen, and not open to foreign interference. By now, I'm incensed - we're going nowhere, it's stinking hot, and we're down 260 yuan. 

"Forget it" my husband tells me. "You'll never get that money back!"

Never tell me never. I run after the police, my co-conspirator and Shanghai girlfriend RS by my side. She knows, as I do, that this is not about getting our money back. This is about the principle of the thing. Because if you dupe foreigners and get away with it once, you'll try it again.

The Polo Shirts have arrived with the two engines at a huge locked shed. Brazen now, and sick of being ignored, I shout "What about our money?" They look at us, two sweaty, hot, bothered foreign women with basic Mandarin, but this time they can sense something serious in our voices. 

"How about their money?" they ask the boatman. He shakes his head and empties his pockets. "I have no money" he says, and I believe him - Jeweled Hornet's got the lot. We need to find her, so once the engines are locked up (for the next two days - standard 'fine' for boating in an off-limits area we later discover), we follow the boatman back through Xing Ping's winding lanes to the bus-stop where we originally arrived a few hours earlier. 

Every thirty metres a different hornet steps out of the shadows, calling out "Hello! Bamboo! Bamboo!" Clearly the system of Chinese whispers works less well in China and they haven't heard about our current bamboo woes. "Missy! Bamboo!" "Bamboo! Hello! Bamboo!" We just shake out heads, and hurry to catch up with the boatman. 

Jeweled Hornet, however, is nowhere to be found. "Just wait, she'll be here soon with your money" we're told, over and over again. They call her mobile phone and scritch into it. Nothing. We wait. We sweat. Rivers of sweat. We're hanging around in the hot sun outside a steaming noodle shop with fifteen or so non-jeweled hornets, all pretending they haven't the slenderest idea of why we're standing there. Half an hour passes. They're hoping we'll give up and go and have a cold drink, but we can't back down now without a massive loss of face.

And that's when RS delivers her Shanghai style trump card. 

"You have five minutes to give us our money back, or I'll call the police!" she tells the assembled hornets. She pretends to be tapping a number into her phone. Incredibly, two hundred yuan appears in our hands almost immediately. "That's all we've got!" the hornets whine. I don't believe it. After two hours they are still trying to do a number on us. 

"That's it!" yells RS. She pulls her phone back out and calls a random number. "Jingcha!" she yells, "Police!"

The remaining sixty yuan appears faster than you can say lickety split. Done. 

"Good work!" I whisper, as we walk away. We feel very sorry for our poor boatman, who has made no money from this escapade and has had his engine locked up for two days. We look for him to at least pay him for his time and fuel, but he's disappeared. What a day. 

Later that afternoon, after a reviving lunch in a local Xing Ping restaurant, I ask the owner about getting to Yu Cun. "Oh, it's no problem after four in the afternoon" he says. "The police don't bother after four, four-thirty at the latest. Everyone knows that."

As our bus pulls out of Xing Ping we pass the hornets one last time, sitting outside the noodle shop. Jeweled Hornet has magically reappeared and is sitting front and centre amongst them. I wave and smile sweetly as we motor past.

Labels: , ,