BEIJING – Chen Guangcheng's blindness was a help and a hindrance as he made his way past the security cordon ringing his farmhouse.
He knew the terrain — he had explored his village in rural China as a blind child and moved as easily in darkness as in daylight. He was alert for the sounds of people, cars and the river he would have to cross.
But he stumbled scores of times, arriving bloody at a meeting point with a fellow dissident — the first of an underground railroad of supporters who eventually escorted him to safety with U.S. diplomats.
A self-taught lawyer who angered authorities by exposing forced abortions, Chen is now presumed to be under U.S. protection, most likely in the fortress-like American Embassy in Beijing. Details of his improbable escape — making his way last week through fields and forest, then being chased by security agents in Beijing — are emerging in accounts from the activists who helped him.
Chen and his family had been harassed and kept under house arrest since the summer of 2005, except for a four-year period when Chen was jailed on charges of disrupting traffic and restrictions were eased on his wife and daughter. The couple's young son lives with his mother's sister.
After Chen's release in September 2010, the family was again placed under house arrest, their movements severely restricted, with even 6-year-old daughter Kesi subjected to searches when she came home from school. Chen and his wife, Yuan Weijing, were beaten several times.
The 41-year-old activist hatched his escape plan months ago with a simple idea — he would just lie still, said Bob Fu, founder of the Texas-based rights group ChinaAid and one of a handful of people to speak to Chen since he fled his village.
For weeks on end, Chen stayed in bed, saying he was too feeble to rise.
In fact, Chen wasn't well; his stomach was bothering him as it had for years. But he exaggerated his condition to lull the guards into a sense of complacency.
The ruse worked. The guards didn't look in on him constantly, assuming he was still bedridden, and when he escaped under cover of darkness, it took three days for them to notice.
"He did a darn good job. ... He prepared for months, at least two months," Fu said. "He didn't really move much, just laying in bed and making the impression that he couldn't move."
The night was cool with just a sliver of crescent moon in the sky on April 22 when Chen slipped out of his farmhouse in eastern China's Shandong province. Blinded by fever as a child, Chen grew up exploring the nearby cornfields and dirt paths sightless, so he had his bearings.
It wasn't the first time he had run away from Dongshigu village and his bitter, nearly decade-long feud with local officials.
In 2005, Chen, his wife and a friend made a dash out of the village, running through a cornfield to evade guards. He and his friend got all the way to Beijing, where they met with diplomats and journalists, but his wife was captured. Days later, Chen was seized by security guards on the streets of the capital and returned to house arrest.
On that brief escape he had been helped by his sighted friend; this time Chen was alone.
He followed a path to a field and from there took a road he knew would lead him to a narrow river. After crossing it, he entered a wooded area that gave way to less familiar territory, ground that continually tripped him up. He fell at least 200 times, he would tell his supporters.
He walked for hours, trying to put as much distance between himself and his heavily guarded home as possible before daring to slip a battery into his mobile phone and call He Peirong, a Nanjing-based English teacher-turned-activist who had promised to help. She was waiting with a car.
When she finally found him, Chen was wet, covered in mud and blood, and had numerous cuts and bruises.
"He was in very unbelievable shape when he was picked up," said Fu, citing a conversation with He. Chen "was trembling, was physically weak. ... But he was determined to escape from that miserable condition."
Fu said Chen took a few days to recuperate before making a video appeal.
Uploaded to YouTube and Boxun.com five days after Chen's escape, it showed the blind activist wearing a Nike wind breaker and his trademark black sunglasses, looking relaxed and sounding strong. In it, he pleaded with Premier Wen Jiabao to punish the local authorities who had subjected Chen and his family to 20 months of house arrest, repeatedly beating them.
It was apparently taped in Beijing after He drove Chen north and handed him off to another activist, who brought him to the capital.
He herself was detained Friday by police. Hours before, she told The Associated Press she had been in contact with Chen's relatives, who told her that when the local village chief discovered Chen was gone, "he was furious."
They beat Chen's wife, his brother and his adult nephew, she said.
In Beijing, Chen was mainly aided by Guo Yushan, founder of a think tank set up in 2007 in the capital's university district.
He also met with prominent activists Hu Jia and Zeng Jinyan, posing for smiling snapshots with the couple — pictures they later posted to Twitter. They discussed Chen's plan, saying he wanted "justice and freedom," and insisted he had no intention of leaving China.
Zeng said he seemed thinner and his hair was grayer than she remembered it, but that he was full of conviction.
"He was very certain and very clear," Zeng said. "He wants justice for his case and his family and he doesn't want to go abroad, doesn't want exile."
Despite his desire to stay in China, Fu now says China and the U.S. are close to a deal that would see Chen and his family given asylum in the United States. It could be announced within days, he said Monday.
Several others besides Guo helped Chen in Beijing, but Zeng and Fu declined to name them for fear they would be rounded up by security agents.
He, the former school teacher, has not been heard from since her detention Friday; Guo was detained and released but did not respond to a request for an interview. Colleagues said it wasn't "convenient" for him to talk, suggesting he is under pressure from authorities to stay silent.
Zeng and her husband also were questioned, with Hu spending 24 hours in custody.
The only tidbit Fu dared to offer about Chen's experience in Beijing was that he was involved in a car chase by security officials while being driven by a fellow dissident. But the agents were after the driver and didn't even know Chen was in the car.
"If they had known Chen was there, they probably would have shut down all of Beijing's traffic," Fu said.