We had not been many days on our bikes in China before some police officers stopped us enroute to Jining. To our surprise we were caught in an unopen area, which required an alien travel permit. How could we know....
Caught on closed territory
We’re all sitting squeezed on a little sofa in a little police station in a little town called Aguit, about 250 km south of the border between China and Mongolia. The person talking to us is a Chinese policewoman. She speaks English well, but with a heavy accent. Almost like a robot in a science-fiction movie.
Two hours earlier we had been stopped by a small group of policemen, some with and some without uniforms, driving a large American four-wheel drive vehicle. They turned out to be immigration officers, not the smiling traffic police we had encountered many times before on our travels through China. Now there wasn’t a smile to be seen. One of the immigration policemen, a young man in civilian clothes, spoke a little English. Not much, but enough for us to understand that we were in an area that wasn’t open to foreigners. “You know, you unopen area”, the young policeman said again and again. “No, we didn’t know. We are really sorry”, we answered over and over.
We had to produce our passports, and they were scrutinized carefully. Especially our Chinese visas. We were all a bit uneasy. What will happen now? Will we be deported? After talking among themselves a little while, the policemen asked if we had copies of our passports. We only had one set of copies, which we had wanted to keep, but we didn’t really think we had any other choice than to give them up now. They told us to continue on our bikes without stopping or spending the night anywhere in the area before the city of Jining. Jining is open to the public.
So we rode on, unsure of whether or not we were out of trouble. Actually, we hadn’t planned on biking all the way to Jining that day. We had ridden a considerable distance the day before, about 100 km, and were very tired. Today the wind was blowing hard against us, sometimes slowing us down to just 10-12 km/hr. The wind was stirring up a lot of dust in the area, and it was difficult to see ahead for more than a few kilometres. From where we had camped that morning, it was all of 110 kilometres to Jining. Our encounter with the police had taken place after only 40 kilometres.
About 10 km further on the way to Jining, outside of the little town of Aguit, an unmarked police car stood waiting for us. It turned out that we wouldn’t be allowed to bike any farther after all. We were taken to the police station in town.
Luckily, the atmosphere at the station was relaxed. Sometimes there were as many as 6-7 policemen in the station at one time. It seemed as if they all thought it was exciting to have four foreigners on bikes for a visit. The boss, an older man in his 50’s, looked more like a kind grandfather than Head of the Immigration Police. He also spoke a little English. Sigbjørn pulled out the pictures of Norway we had with us, and the atmosphere became even more relaxed.
Chinese Law broken
Despite how nice the policemen were, they claimed that beyond a doubt we had broken a Chinese law. We had entered an area that was closed to foreigners and had to pay a fine.
The fine amounted to 500Y (NOK 530) per person, which we all thought was a lot. We didn’t have that many yen on us. After a little bargaining, the fine was reduced to 300Y per person. Still, that wasn’t much help, since we didn’t have that many yen either. Finally, it was decided that the police would arrange to transport the bikes and us to Jining, where we would be taken to a bank. The transport would cost us another 150Y.
Our bikes were put on a truck, but we had to squeeze into the unmarked police car that we were beginning to get a little used to. After about 55 km packed in a too little car, we arrived at the bank, only to discover that they didn’t accept foreign credit cards. Then the interpreter asked if we had any dollars, and in the end we somewhat reluctantly paid the fine in dollars.
The policemen were happy with this result, but we weren’t so happy, since it means that we have less money now to get along on.
We were driven to the outskirts of the city, where the truck was waiting with our bikes. While we were taking them down, the usual dozens of curious Chinese spectators showed up. The atmosphere was relaxed, and we parted with friendly farewells.
Finally someone who speaks English
We are biking up and down the streets of Jining looking for a place to spend the night when a young boy bikes over to us and asks in perfect English: “Can I help you?” The boy, who’s given himself the Western name, Frances, has learned English after studying one year in Xian. He comes from Jining, is 20 years old, and studies Social Sciences.
It’s great to finally be able to communicate easily with a local. Frances goes all out to assist us. After biking a little through some small streets, he finds us an all right hotel, which is also very cheap.
It turns out that the father of Frances’s girlfriend owns a small restaurant just 100 metres from our hotel, and we’re invited to eat there that evening. With all the talking and greeting the local heroes, it takes a while before we can eat. The food is tasty, and afterwards we talk with Frances outside the hotel until very late.
A unique couple
After a lengthy sightseeing tour of Jining on our bikes the next day, we are relaxing in our room that afternoon. All of a sudden there’s a knock on the door. When we open it, we see an elderly Chinese couple outside. After a few seconds of chatter in Chinese, Eric, the only one of us who knows any Chinese, understands that they would like to come in and talk to us.
It appears that this couple is keen on long-distance biking. In 2003 they biked the entire east coast of China for four months, about 100 km daily. They had heard rumours about these Norwegians coming to town on bikes and were very eager to talk to us. We showed them our pictures from Mongolia and China on the PC, while Eric did his best to explain them in Chinese. The other three of us have to admit that we’re quite impressed by Eric’s knowledge of Chinese. Invaluable for the whole group.
A little later we’re invited to the couple’s flat, which is just across from our hotel. What were the chances of our meeting maybe the only couple in China doing on long-distance biking? Not so big, we’re thinking. But now, here we are in their home, being served sunflower seeds, nuts and tea while the husband shows us pictures from their bike trip in 2003 on his own PC.
In time it becomes clear that the couple are retirees, both about 60 years old. Now they’re planning their next trip. This coming August they will start out again, heading south from Jining, but this time inland towards Gunnan-district and Hong Kong. They plan to be gone 8 months. We’re quite impressed. They also show us their bikes, which the man has built himself. 21 gears and as sturdy as can be. They probably can tolerate more banging around than our bikes. But they were also twice as heavy. We wish each other well and part for the evening.
Farther south – Datong
As of May 2nd we’re in Datong, which is a big city about 120 km south of Jining. We’ve decided to head south towards Xian instead of biking west towards the city of Hohot in Inner Mongoloia as originally planned.
Datong has more than 2 million inhabitants and all that a Westerner could possibly want in terms of material things. There are a lot of shopping centers, and nearly everyone is clothed in the latest fashions, at least in the city center. Outside the center in the suburbs, poverty is more prevalent. There’s more dirt, more pollution, and poorer housing.
The temperature here in Datong is around 25-30 C degrees. In other words, summer has come to this part of China. The leaves on the trees have sprung out and the lilacs and cherry trees are in bloom. Aside from sunburnt arms and noses, we’re all fine at the moment.