Vibrant blue and yellow prayer flags were wrapped around an ugly metal pylon. The thin fabric shook frantically in the wind, as if electrified by the current surging through the wires. Our small jeep turned a corner, and my hair stood on end. I may as well have grasped the live wire myself. It was my 22nd birthday, and I’d just seen Mt Everest.
We stopped at a roadside security checkpoint. The surly Chinese driver lit a cigarette, and our Tibetan guide fumbled anxiously with his seatbelt. “Passports!” The three passengers – all students of Chinese language at a university in Chengdu – filed out and queued up at the checkpoint. I reached the front of the queue when my phone rang. I declined the call. It rang again. And again. And again.
‘Ghost’ phone calls were a usual thing in China, but this one was impressively persistent. The more I hit ‘decline’ the more it rang. When the incoming number changed and then rang over and over with the same insistence, I apologized to the young, timid Chinese soldier who was holding out his hand for my passport, and stepped outside to take the call.
On the phone was WangXu (named changed), the most senior official in charge of international department at our university. Speaking in English, she told me that I must come to her office immediately. I told her I was in Tibet, and couldn’t make it. “When are you back?” “Monday” “You must come to my office at once when you return.” “Why?” “We will talk in my office.” And then she hung up.
In those early China days, the country was like a black star. Mysterious, opaque, and filled with a menacing, incomprehensible power. What could she want? My mind raced with paranoid reasons: There’d been a problem with my residency permit. Or perhaps I’d been overheard making critical comments about the Chinese government over beers with fellow students. Or perhaps they’d found out that I’d been circumventing the Great Fire Wall and using Facebook via a VPN.
Mt Everest base camp was approaching, and we were short of breath from the altitude. That night we slept in a yak’s hair tent, and I woke gasping for air, as if I’d sprinted up a flight of stairs.
The Be Continued…