After an 18 hour train ride from Beijing, I got off at Xuzhou. A town in the southern province of Jiangsu home to Suzhou, the Venice of China. This would be the largest place I would visit during my two-week “peasant vacation". I had left Beijing with nothing “Western" except my camera and a Swatch. My garb was simple, PLA pants, a worn shirt, and black cloth shoes. I carried an old blue canvas backpack to stash my sparse belongings in along with one thousand Renminbi; approximately US$120.00. This would have to see me through the two weeks to come.
When I arrived at Xuzhou it was already afternoon and I had not decided where I wanted to go from here, I just knew that this was one province of the Chinese Four Corners. In this area the four provinces of Jiangsu, Anhui, Henan, and Shandong all come together in the shape of an “H", and I wanted to visit a village in each of the four provinces.
I still needed to get information about buses because there was no train service into any of the areas I was going. Today, it would be too late to get a bus once I found out what I needed to know, so I decided to stay one night in Xuzhou and leave first thing the next morning.
I needed to find a cheap room for the night and that would most likely be a “zhao-dai-suo". A Chinese hostel that rents beds, complete with a wooden locker and padlock, in a room with six to eight other people for around fifteen Renminbi. I took off on foot to find a zhao-dai-suo near by. I began looking around for signs that would help me find a place to stay. After walking for about a half-hour, I came to at a small alley. I could see signs for several zhao-dai-suo down the alley and I proceeded to check them out. I went into the first one I came to. The flimsy tin door rattled as I opened it and went into the small entryway with a shiny dark-grey concrete floor. There was a small white counter directly in front of the door and a young girl sitting behind it reading a book. I greeted her and asked how much a bed was for the night. The price was right, but they would not let me stay because I was a foreigner and they were not approved for foreigners. Each place I stopped the people were very welcoming, they were just afraid of being fined if they let me stay.
By this time, I had a small group of curiosity followers trailing me around to find out the outcome of my plight. After asking around at several places, someone suggested that I try the local Guesthouse where foreigners can stay. Xuzhou only had one at the time and I knew that it wouldn't fit my budget. But perhaps I could work something out with them. Usually the Chinese are flexible in quandary.
When I arrived at the Guesthouse I went through the double doors into a small dark lobby with burgundy colored indoor-outdoor carpeting. The reception desk was to the left and a girl in a red polyester jacket was seated behind the desk reading a newspaper. I walked over to the desk and inquired about the price of a room for a night. The price for foreigners was three hundred Renminbi per night.
"This was only my first night, if I spend three-hundred here that will leave me with less than seven-hundred, and I still have two weeks to go. " I thought to myself.
Then I explained to the girl that I could not spend that much and asked for the price for locals. It was 1993, at that time there were still large differences in prices between local Chinese and Foreigners. “Fifty Renminbi" she retorted.
At this point I didn't know what to do. I was in a tough situation and if I wanted to succeed at my “peasant vacation" I could not spend that much. I asked her if there was a Pai-chu-suo, district police office, near-by. She pointed me back to the alley I had just come from. I thanked her and walked back over to the alley, just at the entrance to the alley on the left I saw the sign for the Pai-chu-suo. It was a typical small sign placed vertically at the side of the main entrance. The rust-red colored steel gate was wide open. Inside was a two-story white concrete “L" shaped building.
My little entourage of curiosity seekers had grown to about ten strong. They followed me up to the gate of the Pai-chu-suo and stopped just outside the main gate, near a pile of dirt, and watched intently as I walked into the large dirt courtyard looking for someone to speak to.
An officer in the customary green uniform with a laminated “Gong An" badge safety-pinned to the arm of his jacket and not wearing a hat looked at me and asked abruptly what I wanted. I walked over to him and began explaining my situation but he did not show much interest.
He asked to see my passport and I told him that I didn't have it but handed him my green Residence Permit instead. He took me to a room on the first floor at the far corner of the building and told me to wait. He closed the door and locked it from the outside taking my Residence Permit with him.
I sat in the room and waited. It was a fairly new building; the walls were all whitewashed, the floor was tiled with a gray colored tile and there was one overstuffed sofa and two wooden chairs set around a chrome legged coffee table with a glass top. There was a dirty glass ashtray and two white porcelain tea cups with a blue design on the table and a green plastic thermos sitting on the floor next to the sofa.
After what seemed to be two hours, the door opened and two fully uniformed officers walked in accompanied by a short serious-looking cadre in a white shirt and dark pants. They closed the door behind them and I stood up. One of the officers introduced the gentleman to me as the director of the Xuzhou foreign affairs office.
The official asked me for my passport, I told him that I did not carry my passport and that the Residence Permit was sufficient identification within China.
He began to explain to me that the Residence Permit is not valid without a passport and asked again to see my passport. I told him again that I didn't have it and commenced to open my backpack taking everything out showing them that I didn't have my passport with me. At this point, he told me quite frankly that I was not an American and that I was definitely from Xinjiang trying to feign an American.
Now I had heard it all, this was absurd. I didn't know how I was going to get myself out of this one. I had had enough and I wasn't going to play this game with them any longer. I told the cadre pungently that he didn't know what he was talking about and that he was ignorant to his countries policies toward foreigners. I said sharply “Call Beijing and ask Gong-An whether I need to carry my passport. "
Finally, after going back and forth for about half an hour they left again, locking me in the room for a second time. I was furious. Here I was in some small town just trying to get a room for the night, and some idiot from the foreign affairs department is trying to tell me that I am a fake American. As the Chinese say; only the blind man knows how many sugar-balls he has swallowed. Well, I knew but they didn't believe me.
By this time it was already around seven o'clock, I was fearful that if they even did call, the offices in Beijing would be closed and that I would end up spending the night in this room. Of course, financially it would be fine but emotionally. . . all I could do was wait. In order to pass the time I began picking up my things off the floor and putting them back into my backpack.
After about an hour the door flew open again and the same trio walked in. I stood up again and the director of the foreign affairs office handed me my Residence Permit. He told me that he had arranged a bed at the Guesthouse for fifty Renminbi and that I must leave Xuzhou the next day. That was fine with me. He didn't say anything else nor did he respond to anything I said. He just moved to the side and by ignoring me directed me out the door.
As I walked out of the main gate my group of followers was still there. They all watched intently. As I walked out through the gate I told them all what had happened and what an idiot their Director of Foreign Affairs was. The three men were standing behind me as I walked out. They had lost face. My small following of commoners just watched and listened, getting all the details so they would have some good conversation for later.
The next morning I went to the bus station and bought a ticket to the first village on my sojourn to the Chinese Four Corners.