On the China-Myanmar Border Continued: Ducking to China

Continued. In case you forgot. (It’s been a while–I did!)

Muse, Shan State, MyanmarI don’t remember waking up. Just standing out on the street with my bag, saying goodbye to my no-need-to-name-here Burma Driver, and thinking: Hey, my back and joints actually feel pretty good this morning. Last night’s tendon-stomping, human-trafficked masseuse (and I’m not saying that to be funny) must have know what she was doing after all.

My head was another story–the result of yesterday’s dehydration and this morning’s hot sun. But nothing that a cup of Myanmar’s sugar-slushed, condensed-milk-swirled variant of “coffee” couldn’t fix. I sat down at a nearby tent serving breakfast, downed four gulps from a dirty cup in between bites of a fried oil-bread stick (油条), and before I knew it I was out in back, looking for a good place to squat amid the mess of trash, flies and filth. Just another Myanmar morning. 

That done, I was on to my next task: Finding a way to kill some time wandering around Mu-se. The sun was already up and getting hot, but the border didn’t open for two more hours. I was in no mood for hoofing about, but here I was, with two hours left in this fascinating but currently completely dysfunctional country, and probably (certainly) never coming back. I asked for another dirty cupful of coffee-flavored syrup, watched a few minutes of a televangelist-styled monk on TV angrily lecture the viewer about something (I think he was telling people to donate more money, or maybe to just attack any Rohinga Muslims they knew), settled my account for the sugar sludge and fried oil-stick, and then set out.

As luck would have it, there was something to do that morning. The five-day market was in town. As best as I can understand, five-day markets in these parts (in the regions around Mu-se, Namhkan, and beyond) are troupes of merchants that rotate between five towns on a five-day schedule. The one here in Ruili was huge, but the only sign of it from the main road was the congregation of trucks and tuk-tuks and a glimpse of a few tents down the alley. Once entered, however, it stretched on endlessly, branching into other alleys and circling back in on itself. The scene was also interesting for the diversity found there: not only Shan people and the usual Bamars, as well as Chinese, Dai, etc., but also darker-skinned folks from the Indian Subcontinent, seemingly washed up at one time by the currents of British colonialism, then stranded in these hills at the edge of Yunnan, like dark driftwood, when the tide suddenly receded.

To mis-use another water metaphor: Dropping myself into this current of mismatched peoples flowing down the narrow lanes, I felt completely ignored. It wasn’t until I passed a table of old men sitting around drinking that I got called out. I shrugged at them, and tried a Ni Hao.

Sure enough, they spoke Chinese. “Hey!” One of them called. “Where you going?”

To China, sir!

“We too! But the border’s not open yet!”

I know!

“Well, come have a drink!” A bottle of stinking baijiu, raised in one hand, glinted in the bright sun.

What do you do in China?

“We work!”

Today?

“This afternoon!”

It might have been an interesting conversation to pursue. However, I wasn’t sure they really wanted me to sit and drink, and in any case I was sure that I sure didn’t. I re-joined the human river and let myself get swept onward. There wasn’t much to stop and examine; mostly junk from China and the same farm tools and produce brought to markets everywhere across this swath of Asia. The only indication this market was even outside China at all was, again, those out-of-place South Asians, and of course Myanmar’s ubiquitous “phone booths,” those old corded phones atop shaky folding tables, the primary means of telecommunication in this last country without cellphones.

Eventually I found myself outside the market. Nearby was the border: a single wrought-iron fence, separating two parallel roads, more like a suburban median than the so-called bamboo curtain. (Does anybody really call it that?) I walked along the fence, noting the one-by-one sameness of the shops on the Chinese side, and the gargantuan, half-finished apartment buildings rising behind them. (Along one block: two noodle shops, two Sichuan eateries, four jade shops, each establishment looking almost identical to its competitors.) On the Myanmar side it was obvious that much land had also been cleared, ready for a similar development scheme. But the overgrown, empty lots indicated that whatever project was in mind was, for now, on hold. Considering that the backers of whatever would take place here were most likely Chinese, I wondered if recent political developments had caused the apparent delay.

Then I noticed people coming and going. Through the fence.

As I got closer, it became clearer: people were crossing at will from Myanmar into China, and from China into Myanmar, through three or four person-sized holes in the simple iron fence. They would round a corner of a nearby building, look over their shoulder for half a step, and then stride on through. On both sides groups of men with motorcycles waited around, providing taxi services to these international travellers. On the Chinese side there was even a police car, parked not even twenty yards from one of the openings, its windows darkly tinted.

Being vaguely aware of the no-shit horrible human trafficking situation in these parts, and having also skimmed a couple excited guide book paragraphs about this area’s drug smuggling history, I wondered if I was witnessing more than just some day laborers avoiding a long line at customs. I couldn’t believe how openly it was happening, with no apparent concern on anyone’s part for avoiding outside observation. My camera was slung around my shoulder, and I figured I might discretely snap a couple shots as I passed by. You know, because this was a hell of a lot more interesting than that market.

But I did not go unnoticed. A couple burly Bamars stepped out to face me, not even noticing the camera.

One spoke some English: “Where you go?”

“Uh, over there,” I said, pointing, well, over there. “Farther down the road.” Farther along the fence.

“No.” The same one did the talking. “Are you tourist?”

Yes. And I have a permit. I scrounged for the piece of paper.

“You need guide. Where is your guide?”

My guide? He’s… eating breakfast.

Where? Where are you staying?

Uh… don’t know the name. It’s back that way. Who are you?

A couple of them exchanged looks. “We are government.”

“The government?”

“Yes. Police. We are police.”

“Oh. Uh… okay. Can I keep going?”

“No. This way? Closed.”

“Can I go that way?” I pointed toward a slightly different course, down another branching road.

“No. That way is also closed.” Then he pointed back the way I’d come. “You can go that way.”

Not my preference, but hey, given the situation, this seemed reasonable enough to me. “Okay, thank you for help!”

“Yes. Welcome to Myanmar.” Quick smiles and long glances all around. I turned around and didn’t look back. The border crossing–well, the one I’d be using, anyway–was opening soon. It was time to get in line.

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