If you read my previous post “You’re Deported” about nearly being sent back to Dubai from Kabul, you know how close I came to being deported early in this trip. I never thought I would have a second major border crossing incident, but sure enough there I was at midnight on the frozen Kazakhstan/China border being interrogated like a terrorist by the Chinese.
Here is the story;
The train from Almaty, Kazakhstan to Urumqi, China is operated by Chinese employees and was 100% sleeper cars (about 8 of them) with no dining car. The sleeper cabin has beds for 4 people, two lower and two upper. During the day, all 4 sit on the lower bunks. I shared my cabin with only one other passenger, a 60’s Kazakh lady who lives in Urumqi. She spoke no English and insisted on repeating words (either in Kazakh or Chinese, who knows) to me over and over again in hopes I would miraculously gain linguistic enlightenment and understand her.
My roomate, the burper
She (I never even learned her name, that is how tortured our language barrier was) turned out to be somewhat of a eccentric roommate.
I knew we were in trouble the first night, when she prepared for bed with an extremely long series of burps. It seems that’s how she prepares for sleep. I don’t know what she ate for dinner, but it produced a lot of gas. It didn’t bother me because I was still keyed up and not ready for sleep, so I watched the moonlit steppe pass by our window to the accompaniment of her digestive sounds.
At 2 am I walked down the passageway and noticed all the cabin doors were shut except ours. SHE wanted our door open to the lighted passage way. Sensing a security issue, and bolstered by a sense of conformity, I closed the door. When it clanged shut behind me, she uttered a verbal objection of some sorts, but I didn’t reopen it. Next thing I know she was sitting up staring out the window, burping and humming a song. I hadn’t realized it, but she must have been claustrophobic. I fell asleep to her humming sounds, and when I awoke, the door was cracked open just slightly.
The next day our train motored northbound all day. I could tell this by the rising and then setting sun. I didn’t have a Kazakhstan map with me, but I knew China was northeast from Almaty. Sure enough we were running parallel to the border.
At about 6 pm that day we approached our first major city and entered a rail yard where our whole train was lifted up, passengers included, by hydraulic jacks and the Kazakh wheels were replaced with Chinese wheels. It took several hours, and when we started down the track again the former “klakidy…klak” of Kazakhstan was replaced by a smooth rhythmic shuddering of the new Chinese undercarriage. Don’t ask me how or why, but the new wheels, or maybe a combination of the new wheels and a new track ahead of us, made a big difference in the sound and feel of the train.
At about 10 pm we approached the Chinese border, which is when the fun really began.
At first it was very friendly. There was a squad of newly minted green-suited Immigration officers waiting for us at track side. They were standing at attention in ranks in front of a pretty young TV news reporter who was being filmed by a cameraman.
Chinese TV Reporter outside our cabin
When they entered the train I figured out this was the graduation exercise for the rookie Immigration officers. The young woman officer who entered our cabin was obviously confused by my US Passport, especially the yellow fever certificate I have stapled to it. Her instructor showed her how to conduct a proper interview, and the next thing you know the TV reporter and her cameraman entered to interview the only “white guy” around.
Of course they spoke no English, and my burping roommate was no help, so our neighbor in the adjoining cabin, a 20 year old Kazakh student on his way back to Shanghai University, was pressed into service as an interpreter. Ansagan told me to say something about Christmas. I was aware the Chinese New Years was about to happen, but I knew nothing about Chinese Christmas. Thinking Ansagan may have mixed up the two holidays, I looked into the camera and jabbered away about both Christmas and New Years and wished all of China a happy holiday. Then the senior immigration asked me to say something about the quality of the interview I had received. Ansagan interpreted, but I could tell what he wanted without translation. The woman reporter was just holding the microphone at this point. I made some nice comments about the female officer’s thoroughness and politeness. That ended my 30 seconds of fame on Chinese TV.
Then things got serious.
The camera crew departed and the here-to-fore friendly Senior Immigration office solemnly entered my cabin and asked to look at the Lonely Planet China guidebook on our table. He went right to the colored map in front and pointed out that the city of Taipei in Taiwan had a star, as did Beijing. “This could not be correct” he said. “China is one country and there can only be one capital.”
I really didn’t think it was a big deal, but I was dead wrong. Just the fact that he could explain this problem in English should have tipped me off that this was a government priority issue.
After quite a long time and visits to our cabin by a number of green-suited immigration officers, including one woman who searched my suitcases and located my computer and another map-bearing book (“China Road” by Rob Gifford), I began to sense this was getting serious. I did what seemed to be the logical thing to resolve the issue; I took the Lonely Planet guide from the officers hands and summarily ripped out the map. His eyes got big and he seemed to be shocked. This was the wrong move. I had crossed the line from being an uninformed tourist to some sort of an anti-government subversive trying to hide my true intentions.
About the same time the woman officer booted up my computer and found a file on the desktop labeled “Aman” which contained pictures from Afghanistan taken by my Bangladesh associate from BRAC named Aman. It contained all sorts of photo’s of me surrounded by obvious Muslims. The Chinese officials at the border of this semi-rebellious predominantly Muslim region of Western China were all Han Chinese. Things were going from bad to worse.
Incriminating photo from the Aman file
Finally the senior Immigration Officer, who services I had just praised on TV, told me he would allow me to keep my books, but warned me the Custom’s officers would seize them.
Sure enough the green suits departed and a wave of blue-suited Customs Officers descended on the stationary train next. Several came straight to my cabin like bees returning to the hive, obviously well briefed on my subversion. They came not as friends.
The succeeding interview took so long that one official had time to leaf through almost all 1,000 pages of the guide book looking for offensive maps of Taiwan and Tibet. He carefully looked at the UPC symbol on the back cover to see where the book was published (I presume that is so, because we were speaking different languages, except for the scripted comments in English about one country and one capital). He was obviously frustrated at not finding the map until someone informed him of my map ripping and he discovered the incriminating remnants of the torn pages. I could tell he didn’t like me.
The computer came out again and the Aman file was opened which resulted in much Chinese chatter.
At this point I had to make a stand. I was about to enter China and then cross the whole damn country by land. They wanted to take my only guide book and leave me with just my large China map, which passed inspection because Taipei was shown as a provincial capital. I knew I was about to enter a country where English was not spoken and the alphabet was different, so I had to have a guide book. There is no way I would be able to find a conforming English language guidebook in Urumqi where only Chinese and Uighur were spoken. Without my Lonely Planet I was S.O.L,, as they say.
On the other hand, I was on the extreme western border of China and my flight back to Chicago departed from Shanghai on the eastern edge of the country. If I was denied entry, I would have to take the train back to Almaty and buy a ticket home from there, from half way around the world.
I stuck to my guns and insisted on keeping the guidebook, which after all, was cleansed of the offending map. In their defense, I suspect the customs officers presumed the unintelligible English words in the 1000 page text must have claimed Taiwan (or Tibetan) independence somewhere.
The next thing I know I was ordered to gather up everything, luggage, computer and all, and follow the blue suits off the train to the station. It was now midnight and cold and dark. I asked Ansagan to confirm that I would be allowed to return to the train before it departed across the border. He said the train would wait for me, but remembering the New Years vs Christmas confusion, I wasn’t confident about his interpreting.
Inside the station I was ushered to a bench in a Soviet style scene outside an drab office. The station was empty except for me and a whole bunch of blue suits. They were chattering busily, I presumed about my cartographic subversion and Islamic friends.
There were 4 or 5 Chinese officials in the room when I entered. I was told everything would be searched, including me. One guy, who seemed to be the English speaker in the group asked about another book I was carrying…Marco Polo by Laurence Bergreen. “Who is Marco Polo?” he asked. Here we are, smack dab in the middle of the Silk Road, which the whole reason for me being there, and this Han Chinese brain surgeon doesn’t recognize the name Marco Polo!
One of the officers turned on my computer and after about 5 minutes turned the screen toward me with a throbbing red STOP warning. Somehow they had opened a critical Dell file and were about to do something very wrong to my hard drive. I kind of lost my temper at that point and demanded “no one touches the computer again but me”. The Marco Polo questioner pointed to the “Aman” file on the desktop, so I opened it to another round of excited chatter.
The officer behind the desk was entering information from my passport and visa into an official hand written ledger all the while. When I told them the Aman file was from Afghanistan, they all seemed to repeat “Afghanistan” in unison. I figured my goose was cooked at that point, but suddenly the senior guy said I could repack my suitcases and go. He stamped my passport and I returned to the train, waiting impatiently for it to move across from the border.
So that is my second “You’re Deported” story on this trip. The first one, in Afghanistan, was all my fault. I arrived two days early and the officials there would have been just enforcing the law if they sent me back to Dubai.
In this case, I had no warning of my offense and the repercussions of being denied entry would have been very expensive. In retrospect, I don’t really think they were going to send me away, particularly since my visa was in order (tourist) and I had no contraband in my luggage. But at the time it was all unfolding and I was insisting on keeping the map-less Lonely Planet guide, I was quite concerned about being stranded at midnight on the frozen western border of China, which is a very long way from home.
Eight hours later I disembarked at the train station in Urumqi. It was cold. I had no Chinese money, and, as I anticipated, no one spoke English. After some effort I was able to find an ATM machine several blocks from the station and then get a cab to the recommended “Super 8” hotel. For the first time on this trip I was all on my own, and thankful I fought to keep my Lonely Planet Guide.
Ever since entering China I have been unable to reach my blog “Drew Kinder in Asia” or even search Google for the term “Drew Kinder”. Its probably a coincidence, but who knows what secrets are held by Chinese state security.