Whenever a Chinese holiday roles around, I usually like to travel by bike. The hassle of using public transportation along with the rest of the country is the biggest reason, but it’s also cheap and you stumble on places you’d never see otherwise. It has plenty of drawbacks though.
Maybe one of the most frustrating things about living in China in general is seeing how flagrantly some of the most important laws are ignored (ie – Article 35 of the Constitution) while the most arbitrary and pointless rules are carried out to the letter.
In the past when going on these trips I’d just find a hotel each night, but China has a law that foreigners can only go to specially-licensed hotels. Nearly everyone in big cities has the licence and villages are too small to be concerned with it, but the mid-sized towns are a problem.
One night last year I ended up in a town about 30 miles north of Beijing with only one hotel allowed to house foreigners; which is often the case. As you might guess, it was outrageously expensive – 780 yuan ($122) per night. But since I left my briefcase of cash in the trunk of the Maserati we laowai all have, I tried to find another place.
If you think this is just a paper law to be circumvented with a little sweet talk and extra money at one of the many non-registered hotels, think again. Every place was the same story: A computerized scanner that checks the ID of every single guest. If a foreigner is caught in the hotel during one of the frequent checks, it’s a 10,000 yuan ($1,567) fine to the proprietors. Three places turned me away before one offered to call up the police station. They explained that I was a student traveling by bike who couldn’t afford the approved hotel and asked if they could make an exception just this once. The police officer said absolutely not and offered to give me directions to the expensive hotel.
I rode around some more, passing two brothels operating in broad daylight. I tried about five other places, offering a more pathetic and desperate story each time. Just when I was on the verge of settling for a park bench, I found a hotel willing to let me stay…provided I pay 50% more than the standard rate, leave at sun up the next morning and house myself like Anne Frank on the empty top floor – draping myself in curtains in the event of a raid.
This National Day vacation, as a remedy and a form of silent protest, I decided to buy a tent. But that didn’t make things especially easier. Every park or apartment complex I asked permission to camp at had the same answer: Bu xing (No way). Back home in the states, even if you’re technically not allowed, you’ll still usually find about one person in five who will say something like, “You’re not supposed to, but just don’t make any noise.” or “If my boss comes, I never saw you.” Surely these people exist in China, but I didn’t meet any.
At one apartment complex, my girlfriend asked the guard if we could camp in the courtyard. He was immediately pissed off and just kept yelling, “To do what?!” each time she tried to explain what we were doing. We then rode outside and saw “Kill son of a bitch developer Li” and some quote from Mao about land-distribution spray-painted on all the fence posts. The complex was luxury apartments that had just recently been built. I’ll let you connect the dots on that one.
Eventually we just started setting up wherever looked good and learned an invaluable lesson: Never ask permission. After that decision we never had any problems. I’m certain several places (especially public parks) where we were refused do allow campers, or at least have no explicit rules against them. To refuse us though was the safe, no-liability answer.
But with most China frustrations, a counter-balance will quietly present itself somewhere. While we were biking we struck up conversations with three separate strangers who offered to let us stay at their house for the night – something I can’t imagine happening back home. The timing never worked out for us to accept any of their generous offers, but next time we know to spend more time chatting up friendly-looking strangers rather than scouring hotels or places with a decent patch of grass.
As arbitrary, and dare I say awful, as China can feel sometimes, recognizing these counter-balances when they appear is important to staying sane and understanding just how the hell this society has managed to stay afloat for 5,000 years.