After three months of arduous solo travel along the Silk Road, I was ready to cross my final frontier. I’d been forced to deviate from my plan to travel overland from Cairo to Shanghai, and was on a Xinjiang Airlines flight from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, to the Chinese city of Urumchi when a moment of terror washed over me.
While leafing through all of the exotic visas in my passport, I began to recount in my mind all the border shakedowns I’d experienced on the trip. I had been denied entry at the Syrian, Kazakh and Azerbaijani borders, was hit up for bribes at the Moldovan, Turkmen and Georgian frontiers and had almost been refused the privilege of leaving Uzbekistan.
You hear a lot about how we live in an increasingly connected, borderless world where everyone speaks English, believes in free market capitalism and has minty fresh Dentyne breath. But on this trip, taken right after the turn of the millennium, I had encountered a big continent whose borders were patrolled by avaricious officials who washed their uniforms in Barf® brand detergent, ate horse meat pizzas and definitely did not speak English or take American Express.Relieved that I was about to navigate the last hurdle with officialdom on a difficult trip, my reverie turned to panic when I discovered a line on my Chinese visa that I hadn’t noticed before. It read:
Enter before 00.05.11
It was May 19, and my heart began to race as I tried to figure out if the enter-by date referred to November 5 or May 11. I realized that I’d been granted the visa at the Chinese consulate in Chicago on February 11, before the start of the trip, and figured that I must have only been given 90 days to enter the country.
I’d never been to China before but knew that authorities there aren’t exactly renowned for their flexibility. Would they detain me? Deport me? Fine me? I had no idea but I was due to meet my girlfriend, Jen, in Shanghai in two weeks. My plan was to spend the fortnight crossing the country by train, with plenty of stops along the way.
The Bishkek-Urumqi flight left only once a week and if I was repatriated to Kyrgyzstan, how would I make it? I had already put our relationship on rocky ground by taking off for four months and feared that if I wasn’t in Shanghai when she arrived, we’d be finished.
As our plane touched down in Urumqi, a city of more than 2 million residents about 4,000 kilometers northwest of Shanghai, a panel above my head came unhinged and dangled from the ceiling in what seemed like a bad omen.
All of the other passengers pushed and shoved as we made our way toward the passport control except for me. I was in no hurry to meet my fate. I tried to analyze the faces of the Chinese officials at the end of each scrum, but couldn’t decide which way to go as they all looked equally severe and uncompromising.
I felt nauseated when my turn arrived and the uniformed official leafed through my passport, pausing for only a moment to glance at my Chinese visa.
“Weah is yo vee-sah?” he asked, in English.
I pointed out my Chinese visa but he shook his head dismissively.
“This is failed vee-sah”, he said. “I must speak my leader.”
My heart sank as I was escorted away from the passport control area a few minutes later, after the crowds had gone home. A uniformed officer named Akbar, who could not have been more than 21, told me to sit down on the luggage conveyer belt, as there were no other seats.
Akbar, was an ethnic Uighur – a Muslim, Turkic people that once dominated Xinxiang province but now make up less than half its population. He was the lone Uighur working in the airport and said he would serve as my interpreter.
The Chinese are notorious for squashing any notions of independence amongst the Uighurs of Xinxiang, so as I waited to learn my fate I tried to not so subtlety win him over to my side by creating an us against them mentality.
“Is it hard for you, being the only Uighur working here?” I asked, rather clumsily.
“No, we are equal in the army and we are a national protected minority!” he said, defensively.
“But I read that there were some Uighur politicians that were arrested recently,” I said.
“Where did you read this?” he asked.
“In America,” I said.
“And you believe these things?” he asked, looking disgusted.
It was just my luck – I’d been set up with an Uncle Tom Uighur. Just as I was pulling out my photo album of shots from back home as we sat together on the empty airport’s lone luggage belt, three of his colleagues joined us.
The crew looked at my shots of friends, family and Chicago street scenes with rapt attention. I pointed to a photo of my girlfriend and mentioned that I was meeting her in Shanghai and thus would really, really prefer not to be deported.
After what seemed like hours, a gang of more important and nastier looking soldiers beckoned us. The Uncle Tom Uighur and I were led into a room that had cheap folding chairs along the perimeter of its four walls. We sat down and I did a quick head count. There were eleven uniformed officers, all training their eyes on me, the American with the “failed vee-sah.”
One of the officers read me the riot act, in Chinese, and the Uncle Tom Uighur interpreted.
“You have violated our border by trying to enter with a failed visa,” he said. “You cannot enter China with this visa – you are an illegal immigrant.”
I took in what he said along with the flurry of angry sounding Mandarin that filled the room.
“Wait a minute,” I interjected. “I’m not an immigrant; I’m just here for a visit.”
He ignored me and continued.
“You must write down what you have done, and admit that you agree with what I have just said,” he said.
I was elated. It sounded like all they wanted was a confession. If a Cultural Revolution style self-criticism was all they wanted, I was happy to comply.
“What exactly do you want me to write?” I asked, eager to cooperate.
He relayed my question to the others in the room and several of them chimed in, but Akbar’s interpretation skills seemed to be lacking. I could tell by the look on his face that he was confused.
“You must admit to your crime,” he said.
Knowing full well that neither he, nor anyone else would fully understand my confession anyway, I decided to have fun with it.
Dear Xinxiang Frontier Border Control Authority,
“I David Seminara, who arrived on flight 718 from Bishkek, fully admit to the grievous crime of arriving in China a week late. I fully recognize the serious nature of my transgression, and its implications on China’s 1.2 billion citizens, who have no doubt been waiting with baited breath for my arrival. I am sorry if my delayed arrival has in any way jeopardized either Chinese national security or Sino American relations.”
The khaki uniformed guards began passing around the confession and it seemed to please them.
“Now you must sign your name,” Akbar said, thrusting my absurd confession back at me.
I was just about to sign when the thought occurred to me that once I signed a confession they could impose any penalty they liked. Maybe I’d seen too many American movies, but I didn’t want to sign it.
“I’m not signing it until you tell me what the penalty is,” I said.
My refusal seemed to touch off a storm of indignation in the room.
“You must sign, you have a failed visa!” Akbar yelled.
“First I want to know what the penalty is,” I repeated.
The group began to loudly confer for several minutes, and to me, they sounded like thieves arguing over how to split their booty.
“You must pay 1000 yuan ($125) and also you must buy a new visa,” Akbar said.
In retrospect, the amount of the fine doesn’t seem exorbitant, but at the time, a dorm bed in a Chinese youth hostel cost just 10 yuan, and I was traveling on a razor thin budget, so it seemed like a king’s ransom. I assumed that it was negotiable.
“But the visa itself cost only $30,” I argued. “Why should the fine be $125?”
As Akbar interpreted my comment the room exploded in a cacophony of angry sounding Mandarin. My head began to swirl from all the menacing voices. I tried to haggle with them by pointing out that my visa hadn’t expired, claiming penury, and reiterating that I had to meet my girlfriend. I also showed them my plane ticket home, but they were unmoved. Visa applicants are supposed to apply in their home countries, but the Chinese law doesn’t account for people like me who leave the country and are gone for longer than three months before entering China.
I asked to see the amount of my fine in writing and this seemed to whip the room into an even more hostile lather.
“YOU MUST PAY OR GO BACK TO BISHKEK!!” Akbar shouted, clearly exhausted from the exertion of trying to interpret with multiple people talking at the same time.
Minutes later, someone produced a pamphlet, in English, that specified that fines for entering the country with an invalid visa ranged from 500-2000 yuan.
“Fine, how about I pay 500?” I asked, still hoping to save a few bucks.
At this, a young female officer, who had been silent until this point, spoke up, surprisingly, in English.
“Relations between our countries are not good now,” she said. “If a Chinese person tries to enter America with a failed visa he would be fined $500 and put in jail. You are an illegal immigrant – you must pay what we say!”
I asked to call the U.S. embassy in Beijing, but they claimed that the phone in the airport only worked for local calls. Exasperated, I offered to sign the confession and pay the fine, but Akbar and the gang weren’t done with me yet.
“You have to wait until Monday to get your new visa because the office in Urumqi is already closed today, and it is not open on the weekend,” he said.
It was Friday afternoon at about 3 p.m. and I had no idea what they were going to do with me. The officers filed out of the interrogation room and I was told to sit back down on the conveyor belt. I had no idea who had my passport or what was going on until a portly man from Xinjiang Airlines approached us.
“We made a mistake allowing you to board the flight with a failed visa,” he explained, in English. “Since it was our fault, you will be our guest this weekend.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, suddenly wondering if perhaps my luck was turning.
“You will pay your fine and get a new visa on Monday but for the weekend, you will stay at the airport hotel and we will pay for your room and meals,” he said.
This sounded like a pretty good deal until I found out that the airport hotel was 40 km outside of town, in walking distance to nothing. I told them I’d pay for my own room in town, but they said it would be impossible for me to check in anywhere without a passport.
“Am I allowed to leave the city?” I asked. ” I planed to travel to the Heavenly Lake.”
“No, well, not really,” he said, clearly waffling.
I took that to mean that I was free to do as I pleased but without a passport, my options would be severely limited. As we walked out of the empty terminal toward the hotel, the reality of the situation began to sink in. I was spending my first night in China as a passport-less “illegal immigrant” under a kind of loose house arrest. What did the Chinese authorities have in store for me?
Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service.“