You can travel off the beaten path in China, but where will you sleep?
Imagine this: You travel to a new city, scour the streets looking for a good, cheap place to sleep, and when you finally find one you’re told you can’t stay just because you’re a foreigner. Now play this story out over and over again for 90% of the hotels you try to stay in and you have an idea of what it’s like to travel in China.
Technically, Chinese hotels are suppose to have a special permit before they can admit foreign guests. To get this permit they first must have the proper surveillance equipment installed — meaning a computerized registration system — and, or so it is my impression, be up to snuff and project the image of China that the government wants the outside world to see, which is to say: modern, developed, new, clean, and expensive.
These rules are nothing new, but, from my previous travels through China, I don’t remember them ever being enforced very readily. It has been my experience that one out of every two or three inns that didn’t have a foreigner’s permit would let you stay anyway. Like so, travel in this country was not that much of a hassle: when denied at one inn you’d just walk over to another until you found one that didn’t give a shit. But now this seems to be getting more difficult, for the first time in all my travels in China I was defeated when trying to find accommodation.
I can’t find a hotel in Jiangyin
I was riding a bicycle from Taizhou a hundred or so kilometers to Huaxi, the “miracle” village with a skyscraper, when I broke a peddle. I limped the bike into Jiangyin, and got it fixed up at a local bicycle shop. By then it was night so I figured I’d just sleep there and continue my journey the following day. I began looking for a cheap inn to bed down in.
I quickly found one and asked for a room. The lady running the place was shucking corn in the lobby, and she looked at me funny for a moment and asked if I was from China. I knew what was coming. I answered that I live in Taizhou in the crispest Mandarin I could muster. She asked me where I’m from. I responded that I live in Taizhou a second time, but it was of no use — I admitted that I was from the United States.
“You can’t stay here,” she spoke matter of factly.
“But I went to Zhejiang University, I live in China,” I tried to protest.
It wasn’t happening. I couldn’t stay in this inn. My foreign face and accent gave me away, and the inn would not give me a room no matter how much I pleaded. No problem, I’ll just walk on to the next one. I asked the lady at the reception desk if she knew of another cheap inn 旅馆 that I could stay at. She told me to go to a hotel 宾馆. The difference between the two is one little character, but the impact is colossal: it means the difference between spending $5 and $30.
I then began the march which all long term travelers and expats in China know so well. I went from inn to inn, cheap hotel to cheap hotel, trying to get one of them to let me stay. Most just said “no way” outright. Some were polite, others a touch rude. They all said, “go to a hotel,” as though spending exponentially more money for the same service was a simple solution.
The situation became futile as the night wore on. Even a Home Inn — a modern, Western style hotel chain — would not let me stay. At one point, when I was trying to talk a hotel manager into giving me a room a young guy got in my face and spoke Mandarin in a slow retard voice: “You. Are. A. Foreigner. You. Can’t. Stay. Here.” In another situation, an inn owner who previously denied me a room actually followed me outside and down the street to make sure that I wouldn’t find a different place nearby to stay at — I would walk into an inn and she would follow behind me making sure the managers knew that they couldn’t give me a room. I went to another part of town and found myself being given the boot from yet another hotel. This time I turned around and told the manager that I was from Xinjiang, but it was to no avail: “You’re still a foreign guest,” he said in a way that I could not tell if he was joking or serious.
I had probably requested accommodation at a dozen hotels, just to be kicked back out into the street by all of them. Usually, I can find an inn that doesn’t care about the permit, who doesn’t really know about rules, or wants my money enough to harbor me for a night or two. Sometimes I can get a room by explaining that I’m a Chinese resident, I live in the country, work here, study here etc . . . But nothing was working in Jiangyin.
The fact of the matter was that the only places that would take my kind in that city were the fancy hotels. I walked into one for kicks, and I was met with a big, welcoming smile and told that a room would cost 200 RMB ($32). That’s not a fortune, but it’s a large amount of money when the inns are charging a mere 40.
It was the time of a national holiday, so this may have had a play into why these hotels were so inclined to stick to the rules, but that doesn’t justify the fact that thousands and thousands of foreigners are living long term in a country that doesn’t permit them the liberty to choose their own place of accommodation.
Why does China care where foreigners sleep?
It is my impression that these are the reasons why China restricts foreigners’ access to accommodation:
- For public surveillance. It’s far easier to keep track of foreigners if they are only permitted to stay at a few well known places in a city rather than in any little rat hole set up as a luguan.
- For face. There is a MASSIVE divide between the image that China wants to promote to the outside world and the reality behind this front. China seems to view every foreigner as a potential ambassador, and likewise only wants them to see the modern, wealthy, powerful sides of the country. It’s my impression that the government feels they could lose face by having foreigners reporting home about the grubby hotel room they stayed in for $3 — by having foreigners see and experience a side of the country they pretend doesn’t exist. Having foreigners getting robbed, cheated, in altercations, or getting too close to local people and events is also not good for the country’s face
- For our protection. Foreigners in China are often treated as dumb children, as people who need to be watched over and taken care of. The Chinese seem to think that their language, writing system, and customs are too complicated for us to understand, and we may get ourselves in trouble or lost when traveling because of it.
- For money. There are literally seas of star-rated hotels all around China that are severely lacking guests. For one thing, they’re too expensive: most Chinese people are staying in the cheap joints. So to get some economic leverage foreigners are directed towards these places or international youth hostels. This is not as bad as it was twenty years ago, as there is now a good hosteling system and chains of mid-ranged hotels, but “government approved” accommodation generally cost more than the inns which catering to a local-only clientele.
- Social organization and bureaucracy. It is an understatement to say that China is a highly bureaucratic country. There are rules for everything, and overbearing organizational systems categorize and place everyone. Very often, the policies that stem from this system are ridiculous and unworkable in reality, but this doesn’t seem to change anything. Politically speaking, this is still a very Communist country. In this system it perhaps makes sense to have hotels for foreigners and others for locals. It’s just the way things are done here.
- Many small hotels and inns simply don’t bother getting the foreigner permit. These places simply don’t cater to foreigners, so why should they go through the hassles and pay the expenses related to getting a permit to house them? I don’t know how difficult or expensive it is for a hotel to get these permits, but, as many branches of big and wealthy hotel chains often don’t have them, I’m guessing that it’s no small amount.
China likes to keep it’s foreign population at arm’s length, but the reality of the matter is that we’re here, and we’ve become a part of the country — a fact the central government doesn’t really seem to know what to do with.
If they want to keep tourists away from seeing the underbelly of China, fine — I don’t agree with it, but I can understand it — but preventing people who live and work here from staying in the most economical hotels is more than a touch onerous. Being a tourist in a foreign country is like dating it: you go around and see its outward show, you see the good things it has to offer, you only experience its best side. Living in a foreign country is like you’re married to it: you see it’s dirty underwear, it’s bad habits, and what the place is really like beneath the surface. While it’s rather archaic for China to ban tourists from staying in their choice of hotel, it’s an insult that they do the same for foreign residents who live and work here.
500,000 to a million foreigners live in China, but the country doesn’t yet seem comfortable with this fact. Foreigners are all across China working, studying, renting apartments, buying homes, making business investments — living. Maybe there was once a day when foreigners would rarely get off the tourist trail here, but now we are stationed throughout the land. We are here in China, and we are everywhere — the locust have not only descended, but scattered. I have to laugh as I look at my daughter and think about how she could grow up in China, speak Mandarin and know local customs like a native, and still be turned away from most hotels just because she has a foreign face and was born in another country.
But this is just the way China rolls. This one fact shows how foreigners are viewed here: no matter how close you try to get, no matter how long you live here, you will always be an “outside guest” in this country. Most hotels may as well just hang up the little sign that says “no dogs or foreigners.”
One of the exciting things about living and traveling in China is that things are done differently here — this is truly a different culture that views the world in its own way. The desire to experience and learn from another culture is one of the main draws of traveling, and you get this in full in China. But to pick these fruits you also need to accept the occasional thorn and tolerate many rules, regulations, and customs that seem, simply put, ridiculous. This is just a part of the traveling experience here, and, from I can tell, it’s worth it.
As I rode my bike out of Jiangyin I knew I was defeated, but I wasn’t demoralized. Being cast out of a hotel and into the street from time to time is part of the price for watching the rise of China in person. I found some bushes next to a highway on the outskirts of town, laid down my tarp, made camp, and slept outside under a clear sky. There was no police registration out here, no checking in, no need to comply with xenophobic government policies, and no chance that I would be denied a place to sleep on the grounds that I’m a foreigner. But, perhaps best of all, there was also no bill.
“Am I safer out here?” I jested to an imaginary Chinese government official as I looked up into the night sky. “Can you monitor me better here? Were you able to sucker more money out of me?” On and on I joked about the contradictions of a country with one foot firmly planet in the future and the other in the stone age.
Wherever I travel off the tourist trail in China I know that there is a reasonable chance that I will not be able to find a good priced hotel that will offer me accommodation, so I must always prepared for plan B: camping on the sly, in the bushes with the birds and bugs.