If you made it to the end of my last post, you may have noticed that I alluded to “another story.” This is it.
I am trapped in a prison compound in the depths of China. Today I plot my escape.
Well, it’s not exactly a compound. It’s a villa. One of many in a sprawling hotel property dotted with lakes, trees, bridges, pagodas, and small mountains. We live in climate-controlled comfort, and can walk the grounds freely if we choose to suffer the flesh-melting heat.
But there are guards. Everywhere. They stand at attention when you walk by. They look stern. Until they say a friendly Chinese “hello” and sit down to drink their tea, check their phones, and have a nap. Not unlike Moroccan guards, except for the hello.
So, not quite a prison, but almost. And it is not exactly the depths of China. But it’s a very long drive to the nearest city, and no one knows exactly where we are — Google Maps being banned, and all, and the hotel staff being reticent to drop the tiniest clue. “It is very far.” That’s all we know. It could be the jungles of Vietnam, if the screaming crickets are any indication.
And although some would say that “trapped” is an overstatement, this word I insist on keeping.
There are buses parked everywhere, waiting to take people places; but we have no control over their comings or goings, or whether we will be on them when they leave. Sometimes they take us places (what places, we have no idea), and we sing on demand (under police guard) for a very few minutes before being herded back onto the bus and returned to our luxury barracks.
Prison transport is therefore out of the question; but there are green bikes everywhere for public use. I thought perhaps I could ride one around on the grounds, or maybe down the road, or maybe to the nearest sign of civilization.
“Oh, yes,” said the hotel staff. “It’s very cheap. But you need the app.” The elusive Chinese bike-riding app, which somehow unlocks my intended escape vehicle. Can I get the app? Yes. Can I use the app? No. I must put money on my account. I cannot get an account without a government ID. Therefore I may not pedal my way to freedom.
“Can I take a bus or taxi to the city?”
Oh, right. It’s “very far.” Very difficult to get a taxi. There is a bus stop but I’ll have to walk 20 minutes to get to it. Then it will take me 90 minutes to get to yesterday’s top-secret sing-on-demand location (which, I swear, was only 30 minutes away). But the bus announcements are all in Chinese. I won’t know where to get off. Or how to get back again.
Never mind. I am at the mercy of the Festival — which is really just a code word for “summer camp with a bunch of teenagers and their bewildered leaders.” Truly. We have uniforms. Bright blue t-shirts and baseball caps. We call them the “T-shirts de merde” in the privacy of our prison villa. “De merde” is my new favourite expression, by the way. If you don’t know what it means, don’t look it up. You’re better off not knowing.
Right. Summer camp. Teenagers. This is a youth festival. I am not young. So last night, when my fellow choristers decided to go and party with the Russian youth orchestra, I followed them half-heartedly, intending to be a good sport and practice my limited social skills. Then I had a sudden epiphany: “I am 43 years old. I do not need to follow a bunch of youngsters around like I did in junior high, trying to fit in. It’s 11pm, and I can simply go to bed.” And so I did.
And this morning I woke up and thought, “Enough. I am an adult in China. I am here to see China. I must plan my escape.”
So now, I consider my options for my remaining five days in this particular hemisphere:
- I could get a hotel room for the rest of the week in the forbidden city, and meet up with the choir when they appear there to sing on demand. If I can get to the city. And if I can get a hotel room. And if I can find out where the performances are. And if I can get to them. And find my way back. If.
- I could catch a flight to Beijing. Stay in the Happy Dragon hotel, which has maps and access to public transit. See the real Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. Ditch the choir altogether. They don’t exactly need me.
- Heck, I could catch a flight anywhere. Plane tickets are cheap in China. How about Mongolia?
- Realistically: I could spend a night or two in Qingdao, then catch a train to Beijing. Maybe stop for a night or two someplace in between the two cities.
The rest of today, apparently, is temps libre – endless hours of forced free time with nowhere to go and nothing to do.
Nothing for the others to do, that is. I have an expedition to plan. Tomorrow I make my break.