The Urumqi Airport Aviation Hotel had a huge bug zapper behind the reception desk that gave off a piercing blue glow. I was handed a room key and a glossy brochure that brightened my mood considerably.
“Built in 1974, Airport Hotel locates in Urumqi ariartion airport that today is over 6000 meters! It joints the terminil building by a bridge. It is such a perfect hotel to choose if you traveling by air!..To have a tasteful meal here is dream here. According to your requirement, Airport Hotel restaurant might prepare you all kinds of local delicious…Other hotel services include beauty center, taxi, tour trip, Shopping, and complete checking in procedure arranging conference.”
My first meal in China was something of a blind man’s banquet. The Airport Hotel Restaurant had no English speakers or menu, so I had to resort to circling dishes listed in my Lonely Planet phrase book.I pointed to the Chinese characters next to five or six dishes but my waitresses kept shaking her head and eventually walked away. I was convinced that the warm Liquan beer I was drinking was all I was going to get, but just as I was about to get up to leave, she and two other servers arrived with five steaming entrees, a bowl of soup and a plate of cooked peanuts.
I was thoroughly confused but since Xinjiang Airlines was paying, I didn’t bother to send anything back. The Airport Hotel felt a bit like a very strange college dormitory in that most of the guests kept their doors open and had their television sets blaring. There were three channels – all showing a badminton match between Indonesia and Denmark.
My room had an assortment of odd signs, each containing various warnings. My favorite was one on top of the TV that read: “Don’t touch it yourself!”
How does one pass a weekend under de-facto house arrest in Xinjiang province? I decided to take a day trip to what the Chinese call Heavenly Lake – two hours to the east. Tianchi, (Heavenly Lake) is a majestically serene lake flanked by the 5,445-meter high Mt. Bogda, known as the Peak of God. The excursion and a relaxing Sunday spent chatting with novice English speakers at an Urumqi park helped me forget that I was a passport-less illegal immigrant, at least for the weekend.
On Monday morning, I rose early and sat in the lobby of the hotel, listening to the hum of the blue bug zapper as I waited for my parole hearing, which was scheduled for 9 a.m. I waited impatiently until about 10, when I received a call from a woman at Xinjiang Airlines who told me to call her Holly.
“Dayveed, we have problem” she said. “So sorry but we must come toomahwoaw. The cahmandeeng offisah not heya today, call back toomahwoaw.”
“Holly, I want my passport back TODAY!” I pleaded. “I want out of here, I’ve got to get to Shanghai! I’ll pay the damn fine! Please get me out of here.”
“Today is not paw-see-bull!” she said.
I slammed the phone down and went out to find a phone card to call the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Trying to find the number and figuring out the local phone system took some doing but the call produced immediate dividends when I got through to a local Chinese employee at the embassy who promised to look into the mater and then called me back a half hour later.
“Mee-stah Sem-eee-nah-rah, the Chinese said they’ll be there in 10 minutes,” she said.
I regretted that I hadn’t figured out how to call the embassy even sooner, and weeks later, I realized that the embassy’s intervention came less than 48 hours before the U.S. House of Representatives voted on granting China permanent normal trade relations. The Chinese were on their best behavior once I got the embassy involved.
Ten minutes later “Holly” and a colleague of hers from the airline, Miss Yang, arrived and greeted me nonchalantly. And five minutes at that, two Chinese soldiers arrived at the hotel.
“You must pay 1,000 yuan now,” Holly instructed, before pausing to add, “please.”
My de-facto captors wrote up a myriad of reports on a “Fancy Lion” notebook that had a cute image of a kitty on it. I was given no less than 5 receipts to sign, so if the penalty was a bribe they were going to have a serious paper trail to cover up.
I paid the fine and before the soldiers left I showed them an article in that morning’s English language, China Daily, a state controlled newspaper, which stated that the government had set the poverty level at 635 yuan per year ($76).
“So you see,” I said, “you have fined me more than one year’s wages for a Chinese worker, all for arriving here one week late on a perfectly good visa.”
The group studied the article for a few moments and then Holly interpreted the response of one of the stern faced officials.
“Yes, but he says that you are not a Chinese peasant,” she said. “You are American, and you have much more money. We think this is not very expensive for you.”
They handed back my glorious looking passport, which had never looked so resplendent. I was granted a 24-hour visa, and the girls from Xinjiang Airline agreed to accompany me downtown to extend it.
The visa office had a sign in English that was engraved on the wall, “strictly enforce the law – enthusiastically serve the people.” I was sold on the former but needed convincing on the latter as I plunked down another $40 for a month-long visa. As the three of us walked out into a steady rain, Holly tried to console me before saying goodbye.
“You know, we are trying to change but it takes long time,” she said. “Maybe the next time you come China, things will be easier for you.”
When my girlfriend arrived in Shanghai, I was there waiting for her with a bouquet of flowers and an outstretched fan with her name stenciled in Chinese characters on it. We were married the following year and shortly thereafter I joined the U.S. Foreign Service and found myself interviewing visa applicants on a daily basis. I never told anyone that I was once an illegal immigrant myself.
Read Part One of This Story Here
Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service.”