“You’ve got to be kidding me” I said, eyeing the cop car pull up outside the hotel.
The troop of Chinese officers who got out forced their way past the hanging curtain of the hotel’s front door like they were on a drug bust. “Bu!” they yelled, pointing fingers at me. From behind the check-in counter, the hotel owner received an animated lecture about why she couldn’t host foreigners like us at her establishment. When the cops left, she looked at us with helpless eyes, motioning us to pack our stuff and go back out into the below freezing temperatures.
“AHHHHH!” Morgan yelled, storming up the stairs to retrieve his bags. I unlocked our bikes. In the space of an hour, it was the second hotel we’d been kicked out of in the nameless highway town. The place was dirty — a trucker’s stop, not a tourist destination — and apparently the police wanted us to move on to a more foreigner-friendly city. “It’s okay! — the next tourist hotel is only 37 kilometers from here!” a junior officer told us. He just didn’t get it. I looked outside, and saw it would be dark in 20 minutes. With the bikes, we had no choice but to camp in the freezing cold. And without enough time to get fuel and camping supplies, we bought a couple of cold rice buns from a sidewalk stand that we could eat with peanut butter after we found a campsite in the dark.
Still, I couldn’t help but laugh. “The bike touring days are back my friend!”
Despite the situation, or maybe because of it, Morgan turned to me and grinned. The difficulties were so typical of our method of travel, and in a way I think we both missed them. We’d been off our bikes, waiting for visas and covering stories in Kyrgyzstan and Northern China for more than a month and a half. It was time for another cycling adventure.
Day one didn’t disappoint. Even before the hotel hullabaloo, we got all the elements of a proper bike tour. There was an escape from a major city – Lanzhou — whose 3 million Chinese motorists fought us for space on the roads. There was a brutal hill climb, with steep switchbacks revealing stunning views of terraced corn fields and Buddhist pagodas. There was a desperate search for a lunch spot, which finally went down at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that cooked us up a delicious lunch of homemade noodles. And then, of course, there was the hassle with hotels.
It might not have been an issue if the first hotel owner could read our passports. He had to fill out registration forms, and because the police station was conveniently located next door, he figured he’d just ask the head officer there for some help filling it out. “Oh no no. Don’t do that. I can explain!” I tried to say. But he just smiled and waved for me to come with him.
The police captain was busy slurping a bowl of rice noodles when we entered his office. He looked annoyed at first, until he noticed me standing behind the hotel owner. In seconds, I watched his expression morph from surprise, to amusement, to stern determination. He picked up a phone and started making a flurry of calls. The only words I could make out in Mandarin were Zachingcha (bicycle) and MeGwo (America). Occasionally, he would look up at me and nod gravely. We’re totally screwed. I thought. And we were.
After the officers busted us at the second hotel in town, Morgan and I commenced a search for a campsite. It was no use; we couldn’t find open land anywhere. Within kilometers, we entered another town that never seemed to end. Trapped in a concrete jungle, we dodged carts and pedestrians with the dim lights of our head lamps.
Like all things bike touring, though, it did turn out alright in the long run.
“Chris, I think we’re out of that police station’s jurisdiction by now.”
Morgan was right. Even though we’d only gone a few kilometers from the truck stop, the new unnamed town felt like a different world. Suddenly we were surrounded by opulent mosques and Chinese Muslims walking around with felt hats and head scarves. A call to prayer bellowed above the bustling of the street. Women looked away from us shyly, while men tucked at long beards suspiciously as we passed. Gone were the round-faced truckers and stern policemen of the truck stop. So we decided to try our luck finding a hotel in the Muslim city. The police there might not know of our embargo just a few kilometers back.
It worked. An hour later, after some more confusion with hotel owners over how to read our documentation, we were finally checked in. The day was over. We could relax, and we tossed away the cold rice buns in favor of wolfing a huge bowl of steaming noodles. Then we collapsed onto our beds.
Day one of bike touring in China: Conquered.
It feels good to be back.