In the winter of 1983, I was released from a Beijing detention center. The officer who walked me to the gate said: "If you cause any more trouble, we can make you disappear."
I went home, packed a water bottle, my camera and Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Since it was illegal to leave home without official authorization from the work unit, I sneaked back to my office and forged the necessary documents. Then, without saying goodbye to anyone, I left the red walls of Beijing behind and embarked on a three-year adventure to the most remote parts of China.
I had no fixed route. Sometimes I would hitch a ride on an army truck and go wherever it would take me; sometimes I would toss a coin at a crossroads to decide which way to head. When my money ran out, I found ways of making enough to keep me going. I became a fortune-teller, a hairdresser, a peddler of fake toothpaste and pink chiffon scarves. I helped make sofas in Guizhou province and fished for yellow carp on Qinghai Lake. In the cities, I would camp in flea-ridden hostels, in the countryside I would often just sleep on the ground.
A few months into the journey, I entered the Ordos Desert in Inner Mongolia, hoping to cut across the northern tip to the banks of the Yellow River. From the map, it seemed a few hours' trek away, but three days later, with no more food or water, I was still trudging through the dunes. At one point, I started running like a mad man and ripping off my clothes. When a plane passed overhead, I stared up hopelessly and imagined all the people sitting inside. To stay alive I drank my urine. Eventually I cupped a plastic bag over the hot sand and licked the condensation that collected inside.
As my body weakened, I thought of my grandfather who had died of thirst in a communist jail. I wondered whether I, in my freedom, was about to suffer a similar fate. Perhaps I was being punished for my lack of filial duty. I had contravened the ancient Chinese custom that dictates: "When your parents are still alive, don't wander far from home."
Throughout the journey, I was struck by the contrast between the beauty of the landscape and the ugliness of the people. I saw the hatred of the Han Chinese toward the Muslim minorities in western Gansu province. I saw a man being castrated and his house ransacked by a village family-planning brigade, because his wife had just given birth to a second child. Years of political oppression had left the Chinese people hostile and suspicious of outsiders. When I passed through remote villages, peasants would take me for a spy or a hooligan and report me to the police. I changed from being a traveler to a fugitive. The constant struggle hardened my heart.
After my three years of wandering, I finally reached Tibet and hoped that there, at last, I would find the answers to all my unspoken questions. But when I arrived in Lhasa and came face-to-face with the Potala, I stopped dead. I couldn't go in, because I knew that when I came out again there would be nowhere left to go.
Now that China has won the bid to host the 2008 Olympics, more foreigners will be visiting the country than ever. They will travel to historic sites and through the back alleys of towns and villages. The Chinese will prepare performances of Beijing opera singers, child acrobats and sword-wielding Shaolin monks to satisfy the West's "China dream," one that has so little to do with ordinary Chinese life.
People travel to see different lives so as to understand their own better. But it is hard for Westerners to enter the lives of the Chinese people. Not only are there cultural and linguistic barriers, but the Chinese are a cautious race. Without an introduction letter, they are unwilling to make new friends. They still view Westerners as rich, sex-crazed devils, harbingers of disease and dangerous ideas.
The Chinese have little interest in how Westerners live. When the 15th century Admiral Zheng He first sailed across the oceans, he returned to China with stones, ivory and wood. But when Marco Polo traveled to the Middle Kingdom, he brought back to Italy a wealth of information and discoveries. If he were to go to China today, he would probably return with no more than a Beijing opera mask and a badly stitched cheongsam.
Translated by Flora Drew
Ma Jian, a writer who lives in London, is the author of Red Dust: A Path Through China (Chatto & Windus and Pantheon)