I slept like a log last night and was phsyched up to get my blog up to date. Tuargun doesn’t have much in the way of eateries, so I bought some tasteless mutton steamed buns and nan bread and ate some of those for breakfast. Man, how I miss a bowl of cornflakes with milk for breakfast…
I figured with all the photos uploaded, it was time to take a break before getting back into the daily posts after lunch. The internet cafe owners recommended a place just over the road for good noodles (noodles again). So I nipped over and ordered a big bowl. As I was waiting, a police officer wandered over from the police station next door. Can I have a look at your passport? I handed it over and he took a few moments to flick through it. Without handing it back, he called someone on his cell phone and I caught the words ‘foreigner’ and ‘doesn’t have’. It was at this moment that I began thinking that comething could be amiss with the situation.
A few moments later two more police officers arrive, and my passport gets handed around some more. They ask for my ‘travel permit’. “Um, what is a travel permit?” I ask.
This is greeted with air sucked through teeth and general silence. “Is there a problem?” I ask.
“Yes.” the officer across from me says.
They scribble down in Chinese characters the characters for “foreigner” and “closed area”. By this time I have figured out that I am in one of those infamous “closed to foreigners” areas that I have read about in other travel blogs. How the hang are you supposed to know? I had no issues in Houxia or Balguntay…
They take my passport, and tell me to come to the police station after I have finished my noodles. From here, I’ll write from my diary:
2pm: Currently sitting in police holding room with a guard carving at his desk with a razor blade. I understand that a translator will not be available until 4pm, so I need to wait here. What will happen? Bad idea to go to that restaurant next to the police station for lunch. But I had no idea, so no need to be hard on myself. It would be nice to know the implications of the situation…
3pm-ish: Have been asked some questions such as how much did I earn a month in Japan, when am I leaving this town.
3:30pm: China Unicom guy arrives, he can speak English. Doesn’t appear to be the interpreter though. Just a curious local. Officers trying to ride my bike. I hope they don’t break it. Passport passed about, even to non-police people.
4:15pm: Translator has arrived, a local English teacher. It appears that I know more Chinese that she does English. We move to the ‘questioning room’ and I am formally asked questions that I have already answered informally in the holding room. Large table with pale blue checked table cloth. I am at the head of the table, translator and her cousin who speaks very good English are on my left, officer and pleb on my right. The atmosphere is jovial with a hint of the officer trying to make things seem formal.
5:30pm: I sign and fingerprint my statement. It basically goes that I am in China on holiday, I have been to these places on these dates, and I am in a closed town without a permit. I am told that I must go to Xinyuan, a city 35km away, tonight. I am not allowed to stay here. Once in Xinyuan, I must go to the police station and register there. Am told all towns between here and Yining are closed and I cannot stop there, even to buy things. Am also told that I need to pay a 500RMB fine for breaking the law. I physically do not have 500RMB on me, so it is agreed that I can pay US$60 and 20RMB.
6:40pm: Have been waiting here in the pale blue checkered table cloth room since 5:30pm. Apparently the official bill/receipt for the fine needs to be driven from Xinyuan in order for me to pay the fine. I cannot leave and receive my passport until I pay the fine.
6:50pm: It is now too late for me to go to Xinyuan tonight. I can stay the night here.
7pm: Still waiting. Very hungry
8pm: Still waiting. Apparently this police station only yesterday received indepth training about the law concerning closed towns. According to the translator, if I had been in this town only a few days earlier, I may not have had any issues.
8:30pm: Finally bill arrives, I pay the fine. I cannot leave however, because there are problems with the computer to process the bill.
8:38pm: Finally get the OK to leave, however am called back just as I am leaving the building because I need to re-sign and fingerprint my statement that has been rewritten because some sentences did not fit the protocol for fomat of the statement.
So after more than six hours ‘under arrest’, I guess, I can leave, have dinner, and return to my motel.
I arrive back to the motel and am greeted by the owner who is almost in tears. He explains that he has to pay a fine of 500RMB and do community service for allowing a foreigner to stay at his motel. This is not a rich family. I almost break down crying right there, and am gutted that I have caused this much damage for his finances. It is obvious that 500RMB is a big blow to him. I offer him US$50 (about 400RMB) in cash to help compensate. At first he does not accept, but later accepts to take the cash.
After giving him the cash, I begin wondering why on earth they did not tell me that this is a closed town? I had dinner and a beer with the internet cafe owner, and even chatted with a local court worker in English. Surely they know that the town they live in is closed to foreigners. I don’t have the courage to ask him tonight, however in the morning the next day I asked, and he said of course he did not know. “You didn’t know, I didn’t know, and yet we must pay a fine”. He made a few gestures that described his feelings towards the local authority…
So it was a very expensive day. I leave very early tomorrow morning and head for Yining City. No stopping in towns for 200km.