We broke the law.
We didn’t mean to, really. We had planned to leave China on the last day of our visa. But although Mark loves his meals from street vendors, my stomach does not. I got sick. Really sick. So I slept for almost 30 hours straight while Mark celebrated Obama’s victory in a smoky internet cafe filled with gamers.
As soon I was able to stand without the room spinning, we got on an overnight bus to Hekou, a town on the China-Vietnam border. It was one of the least pleasant travels experiences I’ve ever had. Sleeper buses don’t have seats – they’ve got three rows of bunk beds. But calling them beds is a bit of a stretch – they’re more like petite coffins. They’re about 12 inches wide and from experience, I can tell you that they’re definitely less than 5’8″ long. One good thing is that there are bars that keep you from rolling out. But on the road to Vietnam, it was more of an issue of bouncing out. And once you’ve assumed the fetal position and have started getting used to buncing off the ceiling of the bus, the person in the bunk next to you starts smoking.
Somehow, the twelve hours passed and we arrived at the border. We threw our packs on our backs, walked up to the border and were ready to bid adieu to China. The border patrol person counted the days since we entered, doublechecked her math, and with a smile, asked us to have a seat. Uh Oh.
After 25 minutes of waiting, we were escorted upstairs to a small room by a nice young border guard and translator named Ivan. Ivan explained to us, after conferring with 3 or 4 other “high authorities”, that we had broken “Article 42, Section 1 of the Entry and Exit Immigration Laws for Aliens Visiting the People’s Republic of China.” Over and over again, we were pleasantly chastised for our blatant disregard of “Article 42, Section 1 of the Entry and Exit Immigration Laws for Aliens Visiting the People’s Republic of China.” Our punishment? A fine of 500 Chinese yuan (approximately $80) per person. Definitely not in our budget.
Mark had checked online to see what the laws were and found some indication there was a 10 day grace period for overstaying a visa. So armed with that knowledge, we hoped that the Chinese bureaucracy would show a sick American girl some sympathy. Plus, we had a secret weapon. In my wallet was the business card of Mark Thornburg, our gracious and gregarious friend who you may recall let us stay in his apartment in Beijing early in October. Thornburg happens to be an employee of the US State Department in the Chinese capital. Not only is his business card is in English and Chinese, it also has a shiny gold eagle on it. Very official looking.
So we flashed the card to Ivan, telling him politely that we just wanted to call our friend at the American Embassy in Beijing to double check the new law. Once again, the “high authorities” were consulted, and they walked out of the room, shiny gold eagle-emblazoned business card in hand. It was hard to keep a straight face throughout this – if we pulled this off, it would be a story almost too good to be true.
Two and a half hours later, the humor of the situation was gone. I was in need of sleep and we were still at least two long hours on a minibus from our destination. Ivan and the “high authorities” eventually came back with Thornbug’s magic business card, a stack of photocopies of our passports, and the weclome news that they would be able to waive the fine if we would admit in writing to violating “Article 42, Section 1 of the Entry and Exit Immigration Laws for Aliens Visiting the People’s Republic of China.” Deal.
So we quickly penned an apropriately apologetic letter and expressed gratitude for the Government of the People’s Republic of China’s understanding. We left the small stuffy room and headed downstairs to an office filled with eight more border patrol employees to sign an impressive stack of papers, which were then officiously stamped and re-signed by several “high authorities.” We were finally handed our passports, given a souvenir official document that says something in Chinese about how we violated “Article 42, Section 1 of the Entry and Exit Immigration Laws for Aliens Visiting the People’s Republic of China” with a big red star stamp on it and were sent on our merry way.