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Part V: The Final Expedition

As I counted down the days until my Final Expedition into the foothills of Tibet (on a Saturday night), I had time to pray and ponder the many amazing blessings we had already experienced during this difficult season.

Besides being given twenty-five “free days” between my arrest and deportation (instead of being kicked out immediately), many more Answered Prayers come to mind.

Here are just a handful:

1) Our ministry team escaped, free to return again

2) In the aftermath, the police never searched our home

3) The police never interrogated any of our family or friends

4) My visa was the only one cancelled (no one else from our team)

The mountains and the rivers remind us of the righteousness and faithfulness of God (Psalm 36)

Memory Lane

It is difficult to describe what this journey meant to me. It was a drive that I had undertaken literally hundreds of times in the previous 13 years, but this time was (possibly) the last time. I did not yet know, as I do now (which I will describe in Part VI: Deportation Day), for how long I would be banned from China, or if I would ever be allowed back again at all. 

So this final journey, along a route that I know as well as the hallway in my own home, was always going to be emotional. It was literally a trip down Memory Lane. Every tunnel, temple, valley, village, mosque and mountain reminded me of a story, an adventure, an opportunity to share God’s Word. 

As I take you through that sleepless night, I will attempt to share a few of those memories along the way.  

Moonlit hills on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau

Violating Parole

When night finally came, it was time to hit the road. But first I had to load up my car with all of the Christian “contraband” that needed to be taken to the safehouse. Most of it was hidden away in secret compartments within our apartment, or stashed on roofs of nearby buildings. I didn’t want to take any chances, so I remember using the top of our highrise to access different doors down to the parking lot, in case our neighbors were spying on us. 

Once everything was loaded, the greatest potential obstacles would be found just outside our neighborhood. That is where I would run the greatest risk of getting stopped or pulled over at a random checkpoint. Once I got past a certain point on my route, I knew from experience that there would be no more stops and no checkpoints. I wasn’t too worried about the guards who manned our neighborhood gate, as they never seemed too concerned with me or my car. So I drove out into the city undisturbed, already thinking about the first potential trouble spot just a few blocks away. 

“Praffic” is not a new word, just an unfortunate misspelling 🙂

There is one major intersection where police are almost always doing spot checks on vehicles (mostly large trucks) leaving or entering the city. I was rarely ever stopped there, but when you are violating “parole” and your car is full of contraband, the risks appear greater than they otherwise might be. I breathed a sigh of relief after craftily snaking my way through traffic, using a few big trucks as my “linebackers”, completely avoiding the side of the road nearest the police.

One More Obstacle

One final trouble spot remained, and it was the most worrisome. A couple miles after getting on the expressway, the highway narrows to a large toll booth. The nearest exit was either backwards (against traffic), or about 20 miles beyond the toll booth on the other side of the mountains. The police often use this natural funnel (and slowdown of traffic) to stop random vehicles, performing document checks (license, insurance, registration) and searching for other contraband like drugs (and illegal religious materials, although these are so rare that I doubt the police ever expected to find any).

(Our usual way to get through safely was by keeping our speed up, and purposefully aiming for the toll channel furthest away from the police. This usually created sufficient distance to avoid being waived to a stop, especially if they were busy with lots of other vehicles.)

With a little creativity, you can probably figure out what “Tool Gate Slon Doon” is supposed to mean.

As the toll plaza came into view in the distance, I could feel my heart pounding as I strained my eyes to see. Traffic was light so “hiding” was going to be tough. But as I approached, a smile (about like this kid) spread across my face when I saw that the checkpoint was empty. The officers had already gone home for the evening. I immediately relaxed and tried not to act too excited as the friendly toll lady handed me the plastic card (like a hotel key card) that would be used to calculate the cost of my journey. 

(You might wonder why I didn’t worry about being seen by the toll attendant, or by the cameras that film the vehicles inside the toll booth. All I can say is that in hundreds of previous trips, we have never gotten in trouble due to one of these workers. They are completely separate from the police. They seem to “stay in their own lane” and we try to do the same!)

I pulled away from the lights of the toll plaza, pressing the pedal hard to begin the steep climb. My final journey was really gonna happen!

This picture was actually taken on the return trip the next morning, but it fits the scene.

A Different Point of View

I am going to try something different and attempt to describe the following part of the journey in the first-person, alternating between what I was thinking as I sped along, followed by a few simple explanations, where necessary. So, in what follows, my thoughts will be italicized, and my commentary will remain in normal font (and sometimes in parenthesis).

Here we go! I wonder if I can get any speed up with so much weight in the back? Hopefully. These suitcases and boxes of tracts still don’t weigh as much as people, and usually I’ve got a full crew packed into this little car.

The initial climb is extremely steep, even on the expressway. Only with a nearly empty car was I ever able to drive “normal” highway speeds uphill. 

Oh, if only the moon were brighter! What I’d give for a view of these mountains in full moonlight tonight.

(I can make out the silhouette of the ridge hovering in the distance, but not much more.)

Same mountains, different road. This is the normal view during the daytime.

This iconic view usually blows people away. Only miles from a major city, thousand year old terraces climb steeply up the mountain slopes like a patchwork quilt, while forests of impenetrable brambles cloak the summits. 

Not far to the tunnel now. Ah, I can’t believe I’m gonna have to slow down to 60 kmp (36 mph) when there are literally no other cars on the road! When are they gonna change these crazy speed limits?

In China, tunnel speed limits are usually only about half of normal highway speeds, even with every other factor the same. And they ALL have speeding cameras. Chinese tunnels can also be quite long, with this one in particular punching nearly three miles through the top of the mountain range. 

These mountains all have an arid side and a lush side, due to higher levels of direct sunlight and quick evaporation.

Finally! Out of the tunnel and into the moonscape. Unreal how desolate this side of the mountain is. I can’t believe we’ve never stopped here for a hike. Always in a hurry to get somewhere… just like tonight.

On the “other side of the mountain”, the landscape transforms into a localized desert dry enough to rival the Sahara, and with the dim light of night you might as well be driving across the moon. There is a complete lack of terraces, farms, or vegetation of any kind, just barren wasteland.

I’m enjoying some real speed on this long downhill section, although I have to remind myself that the nearest speeding camera is only a few miles away, waiting in ambush in the dark.

I can feel the stares of a hundred stone dragons frozen in the darkness of the sculptor’s patio down the hill to my left, as lights from a nearby town appear on the horizon. 

The “sculptor’s patio” is one of the first buildings you see on this side of the mountains. The carved dragons stand at attention, waiting to be carried to the city, where they will spend decades “protecting” a bank, government building, or temple with their mere presence. 

Valleys and villages begin to float by in the darkness, and in the distance, a large pile of rounded mountains appears in the moonlight. I can’t believe ol’ dude walked up and down that peak in one night!

Can you imagine walking up a mountain like that, in the dark?

The mountain range that came into view is one of the most rugged in all of west-central China. These mountains are not the tallest around, but they are steep, and the winding and folding of the ridges are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. In 2017, “ol’ dude” (my buddy Zeke) hand-delivered dozens of tracts door to door in a Muslim village at the top of one of the main peaks.

The River Between the Worlds

The mountains draw closer and a river appears, barely visible in the soft starlight beneath the overhanging cliffs. The expressway veers left and runs parallel to the river (and mountains). That muddy river, only about as wide as a football field, is the dividing line between two distinct worlds.

This is a satellite picture (taken in winter) clearly showing both of the worlds I am describing.

The “first” world is located on the near side of the river, where the expressway snakes along, and tens of thousands of Han Chinese populate hundreds of rural towns and villages. They have been here for millenia, and although most are relatively poor and quite superstitious (as the many Daoist temples reveal), they are quite privileged over their mountain neighbors on the other side of the river.

The “other” world is across the river, where hardy mountain people, somehow both friendly and fierce, sit enthroned on a massive stack of winding ridges spread out in nearly every direction. This Muslim people group has survived in these stark, arid “hills” for centuries, with no other arable land available to them. Instead of watering their farms by the river below, they must rely on sparse rainfall and spectacular irrigation efforts to funnel water from distant snowy peaks. 

My vision is flooded with memories of countless journeys on both sides of this river, and especially of the mountainous Muslim kingdom towering above me on the right.

Lord, bring salvation to these souls and use the tracts we have distributed to open their eyes. May all these peoples read Your Word, and trust in Your Son!

This mosque in the moonlight was taken by a team, evangelizing in the region that I am describing.

Counting Mosques

At the place where this corner of the mountains comes to an abrupt end, the highway takes a hard turn across the river, and begins to slowly climb up another long valley. So much has happened here in this region. 

The memory triggers start to come a bit faster…

There’s the spot by the river where my youngest daughter and I sat in the van half the night, hiding from passing cars and snuggling to stay warm, waiting for the team to get back from covering Jihad Village with tracts.

Just down the street from that exit is the best hand-pulled noodle restaurant in the county, where even my parents and their friends once joined us for a meal, while dozens of bearded and veiled Muslims stared and smiled.

And there’s the road where I nearly got run over on my motorcycle way back in 2005, when a pickup tried to overtake (race) a semi, leaving me screeching to a terrified halt as they both whizzed by me on either side, full speed ahead.

So many mosques. Too many to count. Every village, every valley. Some even built right up next to the expressway. 

I remember the time my wife took the bus with a visiting friend, and then attempted to “count all the mosques”. She fell sound asleep. 

The orphanage used to be up on that plateau to the left, overlooking G—- (the highest density Muslim city in the region). Our first visit was with a small team of crazy (“lekker” crazy!) South Africans way back in early ‘06.

Town after town passes quickly in the night, and I am peppered with memories of bygone days and decades…

Evergreen Mountain

The highway climbs up to yet another tunnel, this one always bittersweet. I remember Evergreen Mountain before the hole bore through its top. Those were the days; when there was no way to go “through” the mountain, only over, via a beautiful set of switchbacks climbing through the pine forests and patchwork terraced farms. When the thought of a picnic was as irresistible as the view from the top, where snow capped peaks stretched as far as the eye could see.

How long since our last picnic on Evergreen Mountain? 

We’ve got to make it back again some day.

These mountains (and more) are visible from our picnic spot on Evergreen Mountain 

A Son is Born

Out of the tunnel. Nope, no traffic camera this time. They’re not gonna get me again, not here at least. Downhill. Nice and smooth (watch your speed, son) with city lights glimmering in the distance between the gap in the hills. I can’t believe it’s been over twelve years since Gabe was born!

This is not just any city. My son entered the world here. I first visited in the spring of ‘03, and had no idea I would ever be back again. I returned by motorcycle (with my young wife) on a freezing day in early ‘05, and we got drawn in. Our first child arrived just before Christmas that same year. According to the locals, he is still the only American baby ever born here.

I fight the urge to take the exit and drive through the city, just for old time’s sake. But not today. I am now a wanted man in these parts. If I can avoid meeting my old pals from the local PSB, everything will be a lot easier.

My father took this picture of me high in the mountains outside the city, just a week after my son was born.

Stretching My Legs

Just before entering the tunnel which will quickly route me around the city, I quietly pull over to the side, at a spot where the expressway passes within yards of a hillside village. I don’t want to waste this final opportunity to personally take God’s Word door to door, before being locked out of China. 

I quickly climb over the barbed-wire fence, and wade through the thick grass to the little feeder road that runs down to a few houses. I relish the freedom, drinking in the cool mountain air and smiling at the stars blazing overhead. The world is asleep, but sunrise will bring the knowledge of God’s Son to all who read the little booklets hanging gently on their doors. 

After strategically placing a handful of tracts, wishing I had time to do more, I hurried back to the car, vowing to send a team back here again soon.

Further Up and Further In

Passing through the tunnel, another large valley appears in the dim light of the setting moon. In the distance, the “real” mountains are starting to take shape on the horizon. This is the true beginning of the Tibetan Plateau. Up until now, everything has just been foothills. Now it’s really time to climb.

This is a daytime view of the area described in the previous paragraph.

Further up and further in!

I’m in Tibetan territory now. Buddhist monasteries (not mosques) adorn the hills. I’ve visited most of these monasteries before, distributing Tibetan language tracts and Bible portions door to door, temple to temple. 

Oh, man. What year was that? 2008? My son was so tiny. I can’t believe we drove right up in the middle of that monastery, tossing “shots” (little bundles of tracts) over the walls in front of every door. What was I thinking?!

Ha, wait! That was nothing compared to when Mike and I got caught red-handed by the monks in the other little monastery. I still can’t believe they didn’t realize what we were doing there or call the police. Crazy! 

It’s a miracle that we never had any police trouble along that whole stretch of mountain highway, with all that was done over the years.

Looking for a place to leave a Tibetan Bible, in the middle of the day (2012)

My Favorite Road in the World

Leaving the expressway behind, I entered the “home stretch”. I know this section of highway literally like the back of my hand. Even as I sit here typing, I can feel each turn. I find myself visualising every curve, every bend in the river, every village, every temple, every lake, every mountain. I’ve driven this road at every hour of the day and night, and in (almost) every condition imaginable. I used to go way too fast, but I’ve mellowed with age and now usually drive it like a responsible father who wants to see his family again someday. At this point, I’d give nearly anything to be able to take that road just one more time, no matter what speed or mode of transport.

Chang Shitou (Tall Rock). There she is already. Wow, that was quick. Even in the dark I can make it out. Almost to town now. Better watch out for the cameras by the gas station…

Ok, good. Road’s all empty. No traffic, no police, no checkpoints. 

Work to be Done 

I finally pulled into the entrance nearest our “place” and maneuvered the car as close to our door as possible, to minimize the distance I would have to lug all of the literature.

(I am being vague on purpose about some of the details, so as not to “draw a map” that a curious Communist internet sleuth could someday attempt to follow.)

I don’t remember how many trips it took me to lug the heavy bags and boxes up multiple flights of stairs, but each trip literally took my breath away (the altitude was much higher here). 

Saying Goodbye to an Old Home (and Lotsa Books)

After getting everything upstairs and inside (as quietly as possible, as I was trying not to let our neighbors know anyone was home), I was able to get all the “goods” safely stored away. Then I sat down and took some time to organize my thoughts, pondering which personal things I needed to take with me, knowing that I might never be back again. I not only had quite a few clothes and some outdoor gear, but also lots of study materials (like my first Chinese dictionary) and most of my personal library (500+ books). 

So I quietly went through everything and tried to pack, attempting to say goodbye. I needed this silent night for my own soul. I had spent countless days and nights in this place, living as family, recovering from adventures, fellowshipping with dozens of teams. I can still picture every nook and cranny, each piece of old furniture, every corner of every room.

To be honest, the rest of the night is a blur. One of the last things I did was take pictures of all my crowded bookshelves, so I wouldn’t forget which books were left there. I loaded up the car, albeit with much fewer things than I had come with. I attempted to take a brief nap, to try and refresh myself for the return trip. I said one final goodbye and departed just before the sky started to brighten the eastern horizon.

I’m gonna miss this valley. 

Good Morning, Mountains!

My late night drive was punctuated by floods of memories, but the return journey, with the sun rising, was full of incredible scenery, with minimal commentary running through my head. 

But by morning my thoughts had slowed, as anyone who has tried to start a new day without having slept the night before can attest. I was just trying to take it all in; to bask in the beauty of the Tibetan foothills. I just knew I needed to stay awake, enjoy the amazing views, and pray that I’d make it home safe one more time.

The Overlook (aka, The Tee Box)

I made a couple of short stops, however, just to stay fresh. The first was at a spot where we would nearly always stop for a break, no matter who was with us or how in a hurry we were. Time permitting, we would hike down, play in the river, or explore the mountains. If time was short, a few pictures would have to do. And a few golf balls…

There are hundreds of old throwaway golf balls buried throughout that river valley. The ridge top was our tee box to take aim at the world.

Taken from the “tee box”, this gorgeous valley serves as a graveyard for old golf balls.

Looking Back (But Not Like Lot’s Wife)

The second (and final) stop was on a large elevated portion of expressway situated in the middle of an intersection of valleys, with panoramic views of the mountains I had just come out of. I needed a moment to take it all in. I’ve stood in nearly every corner of this valley under the light of the moon, literature in hand. This was a day to bask in the sunlight. And simply pray.

Fighting Wanderlust

Approaching a major crossroads on my journey, I had to fight off a very real temptation: the desire to take the “long way” home and drive a few more of my favorite roads one last time. The battle raged in my tired brain, but not for long. In the end, the reality of my exhaustion helped me make the wise decision to simply return home as soon as possible. Time to thank God for a safe overnight expedition, sleep, and live to travel again another day.

Stay on the expressway, or head for the hills, that was the question: smooth sailing or one final rodeo?

Sunday Morning Nap

Arriving home around 8am, I was able to take a long nap before running a few more errands later on Sunday afternoon. (It still wasn’t safe for me to attend our normal church with the family.) It was important to do all of this “running around” on the weekend because I was technically on “parole” and forbidden to leave the city. The chances of the police checking up on me on a Sunday were slim, but would increase dramatically come Monday morning. 

Only One Thing Left To Do

With most of my “goodbyes” behind me, about the only thing left “to do” was to be deported. I didn’t really know what to expect, having never been deported before. Let’s just say that Deportation Day turned out to be a surprisingly emotional experience that I will never forget.

On that same Sunday, I took a pic of this Communist propaganda “decorating” the city: “The people have faith, the nation has hope, and the country has strength.” Doesn’t sound so bad, until you realize it was written by China’s dictator, Xi Jinping, with the Communist Party as the object of this unholy trinity of “faith, hope, and strength”.