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December 16, 1998
It was late. I was asleep in my hotel room in Yining, China. There was suddenly a pounding on my door.
"Mr. Tayler Jeffrey! Open please open!"
I lurched awake and rushed to the door.
"You Mr. Tayler Jeffrey? Foreign Affairs of the Police."
A dough-faced woman with a bowl haircut and a body like a sack of flour stood flanked by two beefy, dough-faced men in brown polyester suits. The woman coughed in my face.
Stepping back, I said, "Yes, that's who I am."
They pushed past me and entered my room. The men took seats and the woman, after more coughing, held out her hand.
"Passport. Where you been today? You been to Chapucha'er, Mister."
I had indeed spent a couple of hours in Chapucha'er, a town on the border with Kazakhstan, talking with Xibes. The Xibes were a people descended from the Manchu warriors sent out to this remote region to guard the frontier.
"Yes, I have been to -- "
She coughed and blew her nose. One of the men belched; the other yawned pungently. It occurred to me that my room was poorly ventilated. She went on.
"You violate the law of the People's Republic. You deny it?"
"You cannot go to Chapucha'er without permission. You violate law in your own country, Mister?"
"I had no idea I needed your permission. Nothing is written in my guide book about the law, the hotel people knew I was going there and told me nothing, there is no sign anywhere, and -- "
"You violate the law in America?"
" -- and, excuse me, a police officer stopped my cab on the way and looked inside and checked my passport and waved me on. How was I to know?"
The reforms of the past decade and officially promoted tourism notwithstanding, China is still a police state: visits to a number of places require permits. It was not particularly surprising that Chapucha'er, a border town, would fall within a restricted zone, but I had no way of knowing for sure that it did.
"Ignorance of the law not the fault of Foreign Affairs. Please be opening now baggage."
She moved toward my suitcase but stopped short; her eyes fell on a letter I had written to my mother describing my disgust with a number of Chinese personal habits, spitting and uncovered coughing among them. She picked up the letter and held it inches from her nose, coughing and peering at me and looking back again at the letter. She sounded out a few words and stopped short.
"Who you been talking to in Chapucha'er?"
"No one." I saw no reason to make her job easier.
"You been talking to people, Mister. What you been talking about?"
"I talked to no one."
She took out her handkerchief and blew her nose violently again. She spoke to me as she cleaned out her nostrils , which made her voice sound as though she'd been inhaling helium.
"We must fine you. You a violator."
We all stared coldly at each other.
"Fine only three hundred yuan [about thirty-five dollars]. We can fine up to five hundred, but for you, only three hundred."
I insisted that I had not known about the law; that, in view of the official campaign to promote tourism, this was a ridiculous way to treat a foreign guest. She hacked and called me a violator; the men wore expressions bespeaking the fatigue engendered by contact with a multitude of infinitely inferior beings. After a while I saw there was no point in resisting. I moved to hand her the yuan. She refused them.
"You come to police station to sign report."
"A report? You mean a confession?"
"A report saying you a violator."
I told them to take their money, but that I wasn't about to sign a confession: I hadn't known about the law. Her face remained implacable.
"You a violator, Mister, and you coming with us. We can fine more or take other measures."
The two officers stood up. No more arguing. They marched me through the lobby to a gray van; the hotel personnel looked down, the other guests stared at me. I felt vaguely ashamed.
At the station the woman showed me the relevant sections of the law of the land and wrote out a straightforward transcript of our meeting, which imputed to me the tenseless English she spoke, but which was accurate in content. I signed it, and was driven back to the hotel.
"Thank you and God bless," she said when we arrived. "Have good time in China."
I walked inside the lobby. The hotel staff lowered their eyes as I, the violator, mounted the stairs to my room.
Jeffrey Tayler is a freelance writer and traveler based in Moscow. He has recently written on Greece, Moscow, Siberia, Transylvania, and Zaire for The Atlantic Monthly. He contributes regularly to Atlantic Abroad.
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