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Under the bridge

We had our first Chinese camping experience last night, albeit an unplanned and forced one. Government officials here, it seems, are about as flexible as an arthritic grandmother when it comes to interpreting registration procedures.

The day had started out rather well. We completed over 100km to the provincial capital in record time, aided by a decent tailwind most of the way and grabbed a sneaky serving of McDonald’s for lunch.

Then the trouble started. We tried 5 or 6 hotels in the center but they were full or well out of our price range. Fed up at the lack of success and with most of the afternoon remaining we headed out of the city, hoping to kill two birds with one stone: achieve better results in the next small town, and give ourselves a shorter distance to cover the following day.

The small town wasn’t all that small from what we could tell, a smoky sooty, dustbowl off the main highway similar to many we’d encountered over the last few weeks.We’d previously found accommodation in similar-sized places without major difficulties. After some asking around- the usual case of phrasebooks, broken Chinese and gesturing – we were directed to a rather decrepit hostel for guest workers. The peeling paint and ramshackle exterior indicated that it wasn’t the Ritz, but after 145km we didn’t care. It was a dirt-cheap (if you’ll excuse the pun) had a roof and working plumbing, (sort of), so it was good enough.

We hauled our bikes up to the third floor – it’s always the third floor- and began the process of unpacking and settling in. Barely had we finished when there was a rap at the door. It was our landlady, brandishing our money and with an English-speaking guest in tow.
We couldn’t stay, they said. The hostel didn’t have the correct permit so foreigners were not allowed to stay. We protested, showing our visas, but it was no good.

Initially I thought it was an angle to get more money, but it quickly became apparent that it was fear of getting in trouble with the authorities, rather than some sly scheme, that was in the forefront of her mind. We asked if there was anything that be done, anywhere we might go and ask someone who COULD authorize our stay. The poor press-ganged interpreter suggested we try the town’s government office, as he’d sorted out his own paperwork there. But, the landlady stipulated, we had to pack up and leave first in case the officials were unable to help.

Yes, I thought it was a polite, face-saving way of telling us to get lost, as did Katie, but Jared seemed to be enjoying himself so we went along with the charade.

We hurriedly packed up and followed our interpreter, him in a taxi and us on our bikes, to some government offices several streets away. It quickly became apparent that no one there had the slightest idea what to do with us. They called a more senior official, which took time as she’d gone home for the day (it was now after 7pm). When she eventually returned she looked at our passports and went off to another room, ostensibly to make some calls. This process was repeated three or four times.

They were very polite and offered us tea and snacks while we waited, and waited, and waited. Eventually, sometime after 9pm, another official appeared. He explained that because the hotel lacked the proper permit, and was not of sufficient quality for foreigners” we could not stay. Our assurances that anything better than a pigsty would suffice our needs fell on deaf ears. He then tried another approach, saying that the local police felt it would not be safe enough for us. We countered by asking if we could sleep in the government building, surely a safe enough place, but this, as expected, did not compute either.

The official’s suggestion was that we leave our bikes in the offices overnight. They would drive us all the way back to the city and show us to a hotel there. We could return the following day by public bus and collect our bikes. A win-win for them, if not for us, allowing them to both follow regulations and wash their hands of us: out of sight, out of mind.

We were not overly enamored at the thought of going back rather than forward – half a wasted day in busing back to get the bikes and potentially running into the same problem at another small town if we didn’t make the next city in time. So we opted for plan B, stealth camping. We thanked the officials politely, saying we would try to find another town, and set off into the night on our bikes.

As we left, we noticed a van following us through the streets. Whenever we turned, so did it. When we stopped, it stopped and dimmed its lights, though never entirely. Subtle, eh? We were a little peeved by this effort on their part. Jared and David actually walked up to the van and asked the occupants, two minor assistants to one of the officials, to go away. The lackeys were just following orders so they ignored our request and continued to follow, this time at a slightly more discreet distance.

There was never anything sinister about it, just annoying. Their “concern for our safety” was merely to cover their own asses, clearly indicated when the van stopped after over half an hour of tailing us, exactly under the sign marking the county line. They’d followed their orders to the letter and seen us off the property. Not their problem anymore.

Free at last, we rolled another five minutes up the road to make doubly sure and finally made our camp under a highway bridge within earshot of the railway, where trains continued to pass by throughout the night and trucks rattled noisily overhead.

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