How NOT to travel in China

29 Oct

So, this may come to no surprise to most of you: when you are traveling in a foreign country, you should always have your passport. Seems simple enough. Travel=passport.

WELL. After you’ve been living in a foreign country for a couple of months, sometimes you… forget. You never forget that you’re foreign and different and not quite accepted, but you may forget about some of the more anal laws for foreigners. As a random example that has no bearing on the enjoyment of my weekend (OK maybe it does), in China you need a passport to perform simple travel tasks like buy a train ticket and book a hotel.

So let’s say I was leaving Tianjin for Beijing on Saturday morning. I was meeting some people in Beijing to go hike Xiangshan, “Fragrant Mountain,” where the red leaves would dazzle and the fresh air rejuvenate. I may have gotten all the way to the  train station in Tianjin, which is about 45 minutes away from my school, and realized that my passport was still nestled snugly in my desk drawer.


So I had a decision to make. Do I go back to my apartment and get my passport, which will add an hour and a half to my trip and cancel my hike at Xiangshan with potential new friends? Or do I try to play the “oh, I’m just a clueless foreigner” card and get everything I need, just with a little extra hassle? I opted for the latter–Xiangshan and hanging with new friends were the priorities.

I won’t pretend that I arrived at this decision lightly. I freaked out a little (a lot), and called three people to see if they thought I could make it work. I need to look each of them in the face and apologize for my mild hysterics.

So I managed to get my train ticket, with the cashier lady saying “You really should have your passport” over and over. At this point, I realized that my hostel might have some very deep reservations about letting me stay there. Every time you check in at a hotel, they make a copy of your passport and report you to the local police section. But I was hoping that since I had stayed there just a few weeks ago, they would still have my passport copy on file.

So that’s how I threw caution to the wind and went to Beijing without my passport.

Ensue short train ride, long subway ride, dropping bag off at hostel and agreeing to do the check in procedures when I got back, and another long subway ride to meet my friends.  From there, we chomped on some delicious homemade trail mix out of the Bucket of Joy and took a bus toward Xiangshan.

Toward, being the key word: this was a big weekend for Xiangshan, complete with a “red leaf festival” and tour groups and the typical Chinese fanfare. All of this made for atrocious traffic and a veritable sea of people.

We didn’t quite know what stop we needed on the bus, but when the traffic came to a stand-still, and all the other passengers started hopping off, we took that as a sign and completed the rest of the journey by foot.

We made our way through the throngs of hikers, Chinese restaurants, and tourist shops, finally arriving at Xiangshan itself. We alternately followed the crowd to try to find our way up the mountain and wandered away from them to snatch at a chance for privacy.

One epic Chinese guy was going up the mountain on crutches–well done, sir! While most of the leaves were still quite green (my friends surmised they were waiting for the National People’s Congress before turning red), the view of Beijing was quite profound. How’s that for some perspective!

When the sun began to set, we turned back and tried to find our way back to the subway stop. Unfortunately, a couple of factors made this difficult: every other hiker was also leaving the park, but most importantly, TRAFFIC WAS COMPLETELY STOPPED ON THE ROAD. No movement. Empty buses lined up on their way to the park, where they would turn around and haul back travelers. But there was no driving, and no turning around. Bus after empty bus was lined up for literally a mile or more, with their drivers laying back in their chairs, snoozing. The odd passenger car was thrown in the mix, and all the drivers were standing outside, smoking and looking bored. They clearly had been at this for a while.

So we continued to walk along the road, our feet feeling very tired by this point. A bunch of crazy people were piling into the random bus that went by every 20 minutes–sitting, standing, laying down, whatever made them fit in the bus. We didn’t feel like dealing with that, so we just kept walking and walking. We eventually saw the reason for the traffic jam: a little accident where a bus and SUV tapped bumpers. But with the road being a loop leading to the park then back, with no major roads intersecting, the cars and buses had nowhere to go until the accident was cleared out of the way. Genius urban design.

Finally, a motorcycle rickshaw approached us and we viciously flagged him down before some other travelers could get to him. We negotiated from 80RMB to 50 for the trip back to the subway station… totally worth it! Also, the fact that we fit three people into a two person rickshaw seat will always be the stuff of legend. Sorry for having to sit on you, ladies.

By this point we were starving to death, so we subway’d to a tasty Yunnan restaurant in a hutong and ate ourselves silly (the curry was a particular favorite!) Then we decided that there was exactly enough room in our stomachs for milkshakes. Grandma’s Kitchen was a surprisingly-authentic American-style diner. We ordered some supposedly Kahlua milkshakes that tasted oddly of butterscotch, but it still worked.

We checked out one more place before calling it a night: a hutong lined with every tiny shop you could possibly imagine, plus many a bar of all shapes and sizes. We landed at one that had a jazzy, cozy feel to it, mostly because they advertized mulled wine (YESSS!). The white cat sleeping on the fridge, plus the 100+ year old piano made it seem old-fashioned and inviting. And while the mulled wine was delicious, I was still shocked how everything in Beijing is easily twice as expensive as Tianjin. Big city living indeed.

My friends had work and obligations and things in the morning, so we called it a night and I returned to my hostel. At this point fear was bubbling in my stomach: I still wasn’t sure how troublesome not having my passport would be.

The receptionist was passed out on the couch, and the first time I asked him if he worked there, he told me no and went back to sleep. Very professional. I shook him awake again and made myself abundantly clear that I needed to check in, which finally woke him up enough to get up off the couch and to the front desk.

After that, things did not go very smoothly. I explained my passport-less situation, and he said I couldn’t stay. I told him how I had stayed there just three weeks ago, so they probably still had my passport on file. He said probably not. I asked him to look for it. He wouldn’t. I asked him to give me the folder so I could look for it. That finally encouraged him to take a cursory search, which revealed their records only went back two weeks. Which meant no passport. No can stay.

And that’s how I came to be homeless at 1am in Beijing. Since the receptionist went back to the couch and fell sound asleep, I was gratefully left with some options. I tried to lay down on a couch outside in the hostel courtyard, but the chilly fall temperatures and intense shivering quickly convinced me that that was a poor choice. So I went back into the reception area, found ahard chair, and did my best to sleep for a few hours.

The bad news is that I got about two hours of sleep. But the silver lining of the situation is that I didn’t have to pay for the hostel. Worth it? …. Nope.

I decided to skip out of the hostel early to avoid any awkward questions about why I was sleeping in the reception area. There was a 24 hour KFC down the road, where I got a rather disgusting chicken sandwich and mediocre but blessedly cheap coffee.

Even though I had been planning to stay in Beijing until Monday morning, the prospect of sleeping in a hostel lobby another night, or mooching off of friends were both terribly depressing options. So I braved the crisp but beautiful clear morning and headed back to Tianjin, tail between my legs and rather despising myself for thinking I could take a chance and get away with it.

On the plus side, Tianjin was lovely this morning. I took a walk around downtown to enjoy the view.

So yes. That’s how you DON’T travel in China. Always bring your passport, or for pity’s sake, just keep a photocopy in your bag in case you’re forgetful like me (I’m stashing a copy in my purse now as I type.) While foreigners really can get away with just about anything, some laws are holier than others and should not be trifled with. It’s quite sad that a memory lapse kind of destroyed my Beijing weekend, but I can be sure that my next weekend getaway will be approximately 5 billion times better. Le sigh.

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Posted by on October 29, 2012 in Beijing, Night Life, Travel


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