The bearded stranger shared a Chengdu hotel room with us for a few nights, though we didn’t share much language. We looked at his guidebook and could identify most of the pictures: we explained this by miming to him that we were long-distance drivers. On his map I showed him where we came from: Dege, in Sichuan Province on the border with what the Chinese call the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
There was a picture of a Tibetan monk in the book and he must have noticed we looked similar. We wore the same clothes, purple/brown cotton skirts which extend up to wrap over the shoulders. I demonstrated how these allowed us to sit over a flameless charcoal heater to warm our legs in winter, though when travelling we wear trousers. I showed him our beads and the large silver container for my holy relics; he took a close look at my hair, pulled tight into a topknot.
The stranger came into the room one evening to find me and my companion hunched over a short-wave radio. We couldn’t read the instructions so the stranger helped us, using the ‘computerised frequency control’, to find Radio Taipei.
The next evening I asked him to do some writing for me, a foreigner’s handwriting would be more convincing. I dictated the names and addresses and he wrote them on the envelopes in English. He realised they were all Tibetan names, and the addresses were in Bhutan and Himalaya Pradesh, in India. He’d just been in Tibet and seemed to recognise one of the names, Dzonghsar Khyentse.
He hadn’t been to either of these places, where Tibetan exiles live in large numbers, but he showed me where he had been in Tibet and the route he had travelled to get here, to the capital of Sichuan, from Yunnan Province. He looked puzzled when I mimicked a machine-gun firing and fell down, as if dead – my friend was in hysterics on the bed. With a few English words and a lot of acting I somehow managed to explain: in Yunnan the authorities like to shoot Tibetan nationalists and activists like me.