Exhibition At Berlin Wall Shows World’s Fortified Borders

Berlin Wall
Wikimedia Commons

The Berlin Wall has been a symbol of oppression and tyranny ever since it went up. When it fell in 1989, the world rejoiced and many hoped we would now live in a world without barriers.

As a new exhibition at a remaining part of the wall shows, however, that hasn’t turned out to be the case.

“Wall on Wall” is a photographic exhibition by German photographer Kai Wiedenhoefer. He has traveled the world taking photographs of barriers between people and nations and his exhibition features giant posters of his images plastered on the Berlin Wall. Large-format photos of walls between North and South Korea, the U.S. and Mexico, and Israel and Palestine cover a long stretch of the Berlin Wall on the flip side of the popular East Side Gallery.

The photos also show walls within countries that divide populations, such as those in Belfast and Baghdad. On my recent trip to Iraq I saw many of these walls, designed to separate Shia and Sunni neighborhoods in an attempt to reduce sectarian violence. Like the Berlin Wall, they’ve become a blank canvas for Iraqi graffiti artists.

“Wall on Wall” runs until September 13.

The Gatekeepers Of Asia: Face To Face With The Border Guards Of The Far East

India border guards
estetika, Flickr

In the West, randomness is a crucial, torturous pillar of border security. Those who have been to Asia know that active sadism is supplanted by bureaucracy, vanity and venality. In my opinion these are highly preferable alternatives. Once you know how land borders adopt these principals, they can be easily navigated with a bit of tact, patience and occasionally a small financial stimulus. I find these vagaries far easier to deal with than the gleaming desks and suspicious minds that protect Western countries against threats ex umbra. At least the caprices of Asia’s gatekeepers are motivated by personal incompetence, not institutional torment.

To make things easier, I’ve noticed after a long period of driving my own car around Asia, with all of the bureaucracy that entails, that there are some core motivations that drive Asia’s customs officials. These motivations result in eerily similar individuals from border to border. And so it is one of the peculiarities of driving overland for long distances that you can have a near-identical experience crossing the borders of countries so disparate as Iran and Cambodia.

I haven’t been to everywhere in Asia, so I can’t say these truths are universal. But the following four types of border official have shown up at almost every land crossing I’ve been to so far so it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if these were pan-Asian characters.The Break-Taker
These guys just left and won’t be back for a couple of hours, sorry.

Entering Pakistan from Iran was a long process. We signed gigantic registers with entries dating back to ’80s and traipsed from building to building over barbed-wire fences. When were finally ready to go, having been in the borderlands for hours already, we had to wait for our security detail. We stood impatiently in the rapidly warming desert waiting to get under way. And waiting. And waiting some more. Where was this guy?

“He is having tea, of course,” someone informed us. “Would you like some?”

Time has no meaning when you’re dealing with authority, so we sat down for chai and were off promptly when we finished.

Pakistan Security
Adam Hodge, Gadling

Later, in India…
“And so I can go now?” I asked, having laboriously acquired half a dozen stamps and bits of paper with Hindi scrawled all over them.

“You will have to get your car inspected by the safety officer.”

“And where is he then?”

“Oh, I am sorry sir, but he is unavailable right now. He is having his lunch and should return in a couple hours. Perhaps you would like some tea?”

Even later, in Cambodia…
“You cannot go,” the customs agent told me. “You need to have your car’s documents stamped by the head of customs.”

“Is he having tea?”

“No, lunch actually.”

“And when did he leave for lunch?”

“Two hours ago, maybe. He should return soon.”

Cambodia Border
rdockum, Flickr

The Wal-Mart Greeter
Oblivious to his country’s immigration and customs protocols, he welcomes you like an old friend, often to your detriment.

Deep in leafy green forest in northern Malaysia there is a small border post with Thailand. I stopped at the Malaysian checkpoint and they stamped my car’s papers and practically pushed me out of the country. I inched my car down the lane into Thailand, expecting someone to stop me and ask for papers, passport, where I was headed… anything. Ah! A Thai guard at the end of the lane was watching me from the security lane and he beckoned me toward him. I drove up and rolled down my window. He smiled broadly at me and indicated I should just keep on driving.

I pulled away from the border and drove slowly down the road. I noted Thai people buying fruit from stalls and walking around with the evening groceries. I was in a bustling Thai market. No passport check, no vehicle registration, no searches. I parked and walked back to the customs building and proceeded to confuse everybody.

“Hey there, can you stamp my passport?” I asked the immigration desk.

“Where is your Thai entry stamp?”

“That’s what I’m after.”

“When did you enter?”

“Three minutes ago.”

“You are leaving?”

“No, I’m coming.”

“Why do you come from Thailand?” he asked, seeing how I had walked over from the Thai side.

“I’m not sure.”

“Where is your Malaysia stamp?”

“Hold on.”

Of course, I hadn’t been stamped out of Malaysia either. I trotted back across no-man’s-land to the Malaysian office where I had more or less the same conversation with the border guard, who couldn’t understand why I needed an exit stamp when I was clearly coming from Thailand.

Later, in Laos…
A few months after, I entered Laos by way of vehicle barge, sharing the boat with two gigantic cargo trucks for the 4-minute ride across the Mekong. As I drove up the ramp to the main road at Huay Xai, I stopped and asked a uniformed man where to get a visa, showing him my empty passport. He only grinned and nodded. So I drove on, and I was suddenly in a town. I sat down at a riverside bar and drank a Beerlao, enjoying my minor transgression. Eventually I found the immigration checkpoint 3 miles downstream from where the barge had dropped me off. The customs officials seemed slightly perturbed because no passenger boat had come across for an hour, so where had I come from? This required a fairly taxing explanation, which they eventually and begrudgingly accepted.

Barge Crossing the Mekong from Thailand to Laos
Annika Lidne, Flickr

The Smuggler’s Dream
His only job is to check you’re not carrying anything illicit, but he’s either too trusting, confused, or it’s too hot outside today.

I don’t officially advocate smuggling or anything. But boy, if it isn’t tempting when it’s so easy.

Entering notoriously strict Iran from Turkey, I had done the paperwork dance, and it was time for customs to inspect my car. I nervously led a gruff-looking man dressed in fatigues to where I had parked. He barked at me to open the trunk, which I did in haste. He glanced over the heap of gear from afar, his eyes lingering on the possibly suspicious-looking photography and electronic equipment, camping gear, backpacks, and food.

“What is that?” he asked, nodding at the pile. “Clothes?”

“Well, yes, among other…”

“OK!” he interrupted, signing the form. “You’re good.”

Later, in India…
As I entered India, a small moustachioed official eyed my car suspiciously.

“You are from England?” he asked.

“No, the car is. I’m from Canada.”

“So you have some objectionable things then? Things from Pakistan?”

“Like what?”

“Drugs, other things…” he trailed off, his hand moving in circles to fill in the blanks.

“Uh, no, but…” I began, because I certainly did have things from Pakistan. But I was interrupted, as in Iran.

“OK!” he exclaimed, “You’re good!”

India-Pakistan Border
Adam Hodge, Gadling

Even later, in Thailand
In Cambodia I had picked up some fellow travelers and the trunk was packed with bags. The Thai customs officer looked through the window when we rolled up.

“What’s in there?” he asked pointing at the back.

I figured I’d keep it simple this time: “Just stuff.”

“OK!”

The Jailer
Lonely, bored, vain or incompetent, he finds a way for you to hang around much longer than you want.

After my inadvertent entry to Thailand and the subsequent confusion about visas, I still needed to register my vehicle to drive in Thailand. In a fan-cooled room in the Thai customs house I found a fat uniformed man melting into his chair, as if squashed by gravity and the weight of his immense responsibilities. He barked orders at two demure women as he fanned himself with my car’s customs documents. He seemed in no hurry to let me go, raising objections to every one of my attempts to move things along. After stonewalling my paperwork for a while, I realized the problem: he actually had no idea what he was doing, as he never did any of the work himself. With this established, it was a simple task to organize things with the two friendly ladies, who filled everything out and then deferred dutifully to the great squinting Hutt for his precious signature.

Later, again in Thailand…
When I left Thailand from the north, I realized the ghosts of customs past had followed me up the entire length of the country. The big man in the south had neglected to give me some obscure piece of paper that would allow my car to leave Thailand.

Thailand Border with Mekong
Adam Hodge, Gadling

I insisted to the guard on duty that I had no idea what he was talking about.

“You need to get the papers where you entered the country,” he told me.

My words came to me slowly. “But… that’s 1,300 miles away…”

“Not my problem,” was his response

“So wait, wait. You will let me drive back to where I came from without any permits, but you won’t let me leave?”

About halfway through my sentence he had turned and slithered back into his freezing lair. I leaned my head into the small window and another official batted me away like a stray dog.

“What the hell am I supposed to do, then?” I called after him, a question he dutifully ignored.

So I did what a dog would do. I stood there staring forlornly into the distance for 10 minutes, whimpering softly, until he came back. He had a document in hand, and he was smiling at me.

“Just fill these out and you’re good to go,” he grinned magnanimously.

He was now my best friend. I was on my way.

Laos Border Guards
Jeremiah Roth, Flickr

Bonus Guard: The Sleeper
The sleepers will do whatever it takes to get you gone so they can get back to their dreams.

I still had to get my car’s customs documents stamped first before I could leave Thailand. I didn’t expect this to go any better. I climbed the steps to the customs office and poked my head through the slightly open door. A young guy in uniform was out cold at his desk, his belly rising and falling in a peaceful rhythm. I cleared my throat and he awoke with a full body spasm. He looked mildly ashamed when he saw me, his wide eyes betraying the guilt of a lurid dream. I whipped out my form.

“You need to sign here, here, and stamp here and here.”

He shrugged and started stamping, offering me a self-satisfied grin when finished, as if there were no easier task in the world.

How (Not) To Walk Across The Costa Rica/Nicaragua Border

costa rica nicaragua borderYou can learn a lot about a country by walking into it across a land border. VIP’s enter at the airport or zoom through in a car, but when you walk across the frontier, especially in a developing country, you get a window into how ordinary people and traders travel.

Before leaving on a recent trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua, I tried to research the logistics of how we would get from the Liberia airport, where we were supposed to drop our rental car, to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, but found no definitive take on how much it costs or what the transportation options are. So when a cab driver I talked to at a gas station in Liberia offered to take us from the airport to the border the next day for $80, I wasn’t certain if it was a good deal but agreed to it nonetheless for lack of any better ideas (with my wife and children in tow, we weren’t up for taking a chicken bus).

Francisco, our courtly silver-haired driver turned up on time, but we soon realized that his A/C was broken.

“Too expensive to fix it,” he explained. “Sorry.”


cab driver in costa ricaNot a good sign on a sweltering hot afternoon, but he said the ride took only an hour, so I had no problem sweating it out. We puttered along in Francisco’s old pickup truck as swarms of cars passed us on the Pan-American Highway. I knew we were going slow but had no idea how slow because Francisco’s speedometer was also broken.

As we neared the border, we passed a few security checkpoints where police officers checked for illegal immigrants, guns and drugs. The homes on the side of the road were smaller and more improvised the closer we got to the border and even before we arrived in Nicaragua it seemed as though we’d left the middle-class comforts of Costa Rica behind.

Our hotel in San Juan del Sur, the terrific Villas de Palermo, hooked us up with a company called Iskra Travel that was supposed to transport us from the border to San Juan del Sur for $45. But the driver was supposed to meet us at the border at 1 p.m. and Francisco was sputtering along so slowly that we didn’t reach it until 1:30, and we hadn’t even cleared customs yet, so I had no idea if the driver would wait for us on the other side.

There was a long line of travelers waiting to get into Costa Rica but when we asked where to enter Nicaragua, people in line pointed off in the distance. There’s a no man’s land that must be a good mile long between the two countries with very little shade. It was sweltering – easily 90 degrees (probably more) – and we were transporting two small kids, a stroller and a few pieces of luggage.

By the time we reached a uniformed Nicaraguan border guard, my shirt was completely soaked through in sweat. Costa Rica abolished its army in 1949, so the border area isn’t the kind of tense frontier where photography is a problem. I took advantage of the loose atmosphere by snapping a photo of my wife as the Nicaraguan border control officer examined her passport.

I assumed we were going to be waved into the country in a matter of moments but the guard had a problem with our passports. My wife and I both have very mediocre high school Spanish and it took us a few minutes to realize that he wanted us to go back to Costa Rica to get an exit stamp.

He said we all had to go back, not just me, and I wasn’t about to walk the mile in the hot sun with all the baggage again, so I hired a rickshaw driver to cycle us back to Costa Rica (see photo below).

At first, I was annoyed by the hassle, but within just a few seconds of being on the rickshaw my mood brightened considerably. There was a light breeze and being carted around felt like a beautiful little luxury that was well worth the $8 (round trip) our driver asked for.

Back in Costa Rica, we were directed around to the back of the immigration building to a room that was empty save a few officers at their desks. Lots of people were waiting to get into Costa Rica but we were the only ones leaving.

nicaragua costa rica border“They sent you back for exit stamps?” asked the Costa Rican officer, watching the beads of sweat pore off my chin onto my T-shirt.

“Yep,” I said, and the officer and a colleague sitting next to him laughed, as if our exertion was the most amusing thing they’d experienced in years.

On the way back to Nicaragua, our rickshaw driver asked me how much I paid for my camera. Given the situation, I wasn’t eager to admit that it cost $1,200, so I lied and said, “$100” (see video).

“I’ll give you a hundred for it,” he said.

“No thanks,” I said. “I need my camera.”

“OK, $150,” he said.

“Thanks,” I said. “But my camera is not for sale.”

“But I need a camera,” he pleaded.




I just ignored him and soon enough we were back talking to the same Nicaraguan official and this time he stamped us in. But our brush with Nicaraguan officialdom wasn’t quite over. We walked another few hundred meters and then stood around in the hot sun wondering where to meet our driver from Iskra Travel. We were 90 minutes late and I assumed he’d given up on us.

A trio of young men came by to hector us about buying forms from them. I was sure it was a scam and ignored them, but my wife, who is from a small town in the Midwest and can’t help but be nice to everyone – even annoying pests and con-men – entertained their sales pitches.

“They have badges,” she said, “they seem official.”

I examined the peskiest guy’s badge and confirmed that he worked for some travel agency, not the government. He wanted us to pay $1 for immigration forms that were supposed to be free. We headed off to the east of the road toward a cluster of buildings and noticed two car rental companies: Alamo and National – good choices if you want to use a company that has offices at the border.

We gravitated to a line where we paid about $4 to a bored looking clerk who then pointed us to another line right across from his booth. As we stood in that line, my older son made a card with his birthday and half-birthday on it to give to the Nicaraguans (see photo above) and a mentally-disabled person began to emit piercing calls, followed by maniacal laughter and ear-to-ear smiles. My older son covered his ears and everyone else smiled nervously or gave him some coins. It was a welcome to Nicaragua I’ll never forget.

A man carrying a sign with my name on it emerged and I was thrilled and amazed that he had waited for us. We made it to the front of the next line and the clerk asked us for $48 U.S. to enter the country. I handed him three $20 bills and then struggled to understand why he wasn’t handing us back our passports.

Clearly there was a problem with our poor Spanish; we couldn’t for the life of us understand what it was. I confirmed once more that he wanted $48 and pointed to the pile of bills I’d given him totaling $60. After a few minutes of mutual incomprehension, someone behind us in line came forward to interpret.

“He says one of your $20 bills is no good,” the man said, before handing what looked like a perfectly good 20 back to me.

“What’s wrong with it?” I asked, totally confused.

“He says there is a crease in the bill.”

The bill looked fine to me but luckily I had another one in my wallet that he found acceptable. After much ado, we were finally, officially allowed to enter Nicaragua.

Within a matter of minutes, we could see the twin volcano peaks of Ometepe Island rising like pyramids across Lake Cocibolca and we were bathed in the lovely artificial frost of fully functioning A/C. It felt great to be in Nicaragua.

[Photo/video credits: Dave Seminara]

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: I Was Once An ‘Ilegal Immigrant’ In China (Part 2 of 2)

urumqi airport aviation hotelRead Part One of This Story

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.chinese foodI 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!”

heavenly lake tianchiHow 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.”

chinese visaThey 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.”

[Photo credit: Avixyx, Dayou X, on Flickr]

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: I Was Once An ‘Illegal Immigrant’ In China (Part 1 of 2)

chinese soldier with maoAfter 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.chinese visaRelieved 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

barf detergentIt 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.

urumqi airportAll 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.

chinese soldiersAfter 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.

urumqi airportIn 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.

urumqi airportIt 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 the final part to this story here

Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service.

[Photo credits: Ed-Meister, Upyernoz, Marc Van der Chijs, Isaac Mao, Eugene Kaspersky, Toasterhead, and Cornfed 1975 on Flickr]