Trouble at the Chinese Border!

Oct 24, 2010

China is a fascinating country, culturally and otherwise. It is one of the oldest civilizations of the world, at par with the Egyptian and the Indian. Today China is one of the fastest growing economies of the world and a serious competitor to India. India has always had a rather interesting relationship with China both historically and culturally. When I was still in high school in the early 1960s our Hindi teacher always used to say: ‘bolo Hindi Chini bhai bhai.’

I did not understand then what that meant but now I know how the Chinese tricked our beloved Chacha Nehru into believing this mantra and then in 1962 invaded India and bit away a good chuck of the Indian Territory!! Chacha Nehru was so sad and distressed at the Chinese treachery, some say he never recovered and eventually died heartbroken.

The journey from Macau to Beijing is about three hours flying time. Since travelling from Macau or Hong Kong would cost a fortune, as it would be an international flight, my friends bought me a domestic ticket from the closest Chinese airport in Zuhai, which meant that I had to cross two boarders - Macau and the Chinese.

The taxi from my hotel to the Macau border took just over 20 minutes and I paid MOP 40 (about Rs 200) as I alighted from it. It was just about 8.30 in the morning and there was a huge crowd crossing the Macau boarder into the Chinese side. Thousands of Chinese from the main land cross into Macau which is a Special Administrative Region (SAR), just to visit the casinos. The Chinese are great gamblers; their normal pastime is playing Mah-jong, a game which can go on and on till the early hours of the morning. Gambling in China is illegal but it is legal in Macau. Now that Macau is a territory of China the Chinese love to visit Macau only to enjoy their favourite pastime, gambling.

Macau has beaten the American city of Las Vegas which has the notoriety of being called the Sin City of America. The largest casino in the world, the Venetian is located in Macau and thousands of tourists visit Macau just to enjoy gambling. My local friend who is the F&B manager of the Venetian and the Sands, told me that after the Chinese it is the Indians who are known to be the most aggressive gamblers! No wonder then that I met several Indians visiting Macau on package tours, some happy and some sad, depending on whether they won or lost!!

While crossing the Chinese border (immigration) I had a rather interesting experience which was nothing new to me. As I handed in my Indian passport to the Chinese immigration officer, he looked at me several times trying to confirm whether the picture of the guy on the passport was the same one who was now in front of him. He kept shifting through the pages of my passport from left to right and again right to left, looking at my face from time to time. I knew there was something wrong here! After a few minutes he handed over my passport to his colleague, a lady officer who took me aside for questioning. This is how the interrogation went:

‘You go Beijing?” asked the lady officer.
“Yes, I am going to Beijing,” I answered politely.
“You money?’ she asked, extending her hand as if wanting to see money.
“Yes, I have money.” I answered.
“One hundred dollar day night” she asked.
“Yes, I have money,” I said and showed her my hotel booking and the plane ticket. She scrutinized both the documents and asked:
“You go back to Macau from Beijing?”
“Yes,” I said, “I go back to Macau from Beijing.”
“You go India after China?”
“Yes, I go India after China.” Her English grammar was contagious and I was about to get into a ‘Chinglish’ (Chinese English) mode.
‘Show me money, show me dollar,” she said without any emotion on her face.
I showed her five one hundred US dollar bills which seemed to satisfy her.

She browsed through my Indian passport once again, looked at me from top to bottom and handed over my passport to the Immigration officer who stamped it with the Chinese entry visa. I went through the Chinese border gate and surprisingly was not much agitated. This was not my first experience of being asked similar questions and this won’t be the last either.

An Indian passport does not carry much weight in the international scene; hence one should not feel bad if one has to go through similar experiences. Passports of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Philippines and a few other Asian countries don’t carry any weight and if one possesses any one of these passports one can expect to have similar experiences. I’ve had several such experiences in my past 20 years of international travel and am used to such treatment! May be I will tell you about it next time.

Now I was inside mainland China: “China here I come,” I said to myself, and walked straight down the stairs to Basement II to catch a taxi to the airport. Once outside the immigration office it was as if you had arrived in one of the railway stations in Mumbai - people, people, and people everywhere!! Where did they come from? Oh yeah, China has two billion of them!!

Travelling in China is cheap compared to India. The taxi from the Chinese border on the Macau’s end to Zuhai airport, a distance of over 25 kilometres was exactly 85 RMP or Yuan. Multiply it by Rs 6 and I paid Rs 510 which is, comparatively, cheap considering how expensive a taxi ride can be in Mumbai or Indore where I live at present. But the return journey was quite the opposite, very adventurous I must tell you. Wait till I tell you all about it later.

Zuhai airport on the southern border of China is very impressive for a border airport. It is larger and more sophisticated than the present Bangalore International Airport, which the Kannadigas claim is the ***th wonder of the world! I say, my Indian compatriots should travel outside India before making such preposterous claims! Anyway, suffice it to say that the Zuhai airport on the southern border of China is very impressive.

China Airways flight to Beijing was on time: 12.45. Once it took off the staff began to serve us soft drinks, juice, water or coffee. I asked for Chinese tea as I had a cold and the staff smilingly obliged. Later we were served food and I opted for chicken with noodles. I wish I had not chosen that. Anyway whatever you would have chosen to eat, all tasted alike: Chinese, no salt, no chilli, no masala and plenty of... you know what... ajinomoto. I chose not to eat anything and tried to get some rest.

The flight was full and crowded. The Chinese are very noisy and for once I thought the Chinese government should offer some basic lessons in air-travel. People were shouting from one corner of the plane to another as if they were in a bazaar. I wanted to pee and went to the toilet. Seeing the green signal on the door which said: ‘Vacant’ I pushed open the door only to find an elderly lady still sitting on the throne. She had not latched the door from inside hence the signal on the door read: ‘Vacant’. This was most embarrassing!

Later having eased myself I returned to my seat, fastened the seat belt, stretched out on my seat and tried to sleep as the journey ahead was a long three hours, and I wasn’t too sure about the safety record of the China Airways! As usual I started my regular routine to get into a sleep mode; I started not to count from 100 backwards, but the Rosary, a simple medley of Hail Marys! During my past air travels I have always found reciting the Rosary a very effective sleeping dose! By the time I was on the second decade, I was fast asleep, a state which even the airhostess did not want to disturb.

Beijing Capital Airport is very impressive. The recently concluded Beijing Olympics was one of the best organized Olympics and since the airport is the first touchpoint for any foreigner, one gets a good impression of the place. I collected the luggage and asked for some guidance at the information counter to get to my hotel. There were two young ladies in blue uniform at the counter, one playing something on the computer in front of her and the other reading something. “Excuse me,” I said, "can you tell me how to get to the Beijing International Hotel?”

Well, she didn’t care.

“Excuse me,” I said, to the other lady, “can you tell me how to get to the Beijing International Hotel?” She too didn’t care and continued playing on the computer.

I went back to the first lady and said, “Excuse me, how do I get to the Beijing International Hotel from here?”

The lady picked up a map, spread it on the table in front of me and tried to say something in Chinese. She didn’t understand a word of English! Tell me, this was an International Airport which had hosted the recent Olympics and the people at the information counter didn’t understand a word of English! Or was it just that they understood English but didn’t want to speak? Make a guess.

“Beijing International Hotel,” I said. She directed me to the next lady who was busy playing on the computer. When I went to her she looked at me and said, ”Taxi, bus,” and hand-directed me to the left side of the room.

“Jesus,” I thought to myself, if this was the quality of communication at the Beijing International Airport what could be the ‘halat’ once I get to the city. I took the elevator going down, following the sign ‘Taxi’ and stood in line to catch one. Once inside a taxi, I showed the driver the map of Beijing where it was written in Chinese 'Beijing International Hotel.' He knew immediately where I wanted to go and nodded his head. “Thank God,” I said to myself, at least this one understands Chinese if not English!

The drive to the city is about 30 kilometres and throughout the long taxi ride we encountered heavy traffic due to rains. The highway from the airport to the city is very impressive. I came to know later that the highway was built recently for the Olympics and the quality of the road was excellent. After around an hour the taxi arrived at the main lobby of the Beijing International Hotel, my home for the next three days.

The lobby of the Beijing International Hotel was very impressive. I went to the reservation counter and holding my reservation document said, "Excuse me, I am Dr Mark Mathias and I have a reservation for today."

The lady did understand English. She took my reservation papers and after a few minutes looking into the computer screen said, “I am sorry sir, we have no room for you at the moment. You have to wait till 8 o’clock.”

I was shocked. I had booked a room a fortnight back, paid the money to the agent at Macau and now I was told, no room at the Inn! I wasn’t going to accept that although my students in Macau had warned me about the Chinese hospitality. "Can you check once again please?" I said a bit irritated, "I do have a reservation and have paid for it ahead of time."

"I am sorry sir, you want a non-smoking room but we do not have a non-smoking room at present. You have to wait in the lobby for a few hours till the guest checks out."

I wasn’t willing to wait anymore. “Excuse me,” I said, “It is already six in the evening. The check-out time is 12 noon, so how come you still have a guest in the room who has not checked out? I think you should do something about it. I am not very happy about this,” I said showing my irritation.

“Okay sir,” said the lady at the counter, “I will upgrade you to a deluxe room. Would that be okay with you, sir?”

“Yes, of course.” I said, “I do not want to wait at the lobby for another few hours. That would be fine.”

Fortunately for me I was upgraded to a deluxe room and as my luggage was being taken into the room later, looking at the size of the room I thought to myself, the little argument at the reception counter was worth it. I had a lovely room for the next three days. I just couldn’t wait to get outside the hotel. After all the trouble at the border I was now in China. I thought to myself, Bolo Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai! My first outing the next day would be the infamous Tiananmen square, Beijing!


Fr Mark Mathias - Archives:

By Fr Mark Mathias, SVD, Indore
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Comment on this article

  • Sandhya, Mangalore/ Melbourne

    Tue, Oct 26 2010

    Fr. Mark, I have just come back from day trip to Beijing and I thought I will share my experiences with the readers here. You have covered most of what we experienced.
    1. The Chinese people are extremely friendly. However, they do not speak any English. You'll be lucky if you find a University student here and there. This can be quite frustrating at times.
    2. Travelling by Subway is easy but all station names look and sound similar since they all have x,y and z in them!!!
    3. Never ever buy anything from a streetside vendor. You could get cheated. We bought souvenir items at the Tiananmen Square, 2 books actually, and were given Russian currency as change!! Little did we realise that our currency had no value until we went and gave it to a lady at the counter as entrance fee!!
    4. Do not bother arguing about anything to them as they will neither not understand you nor get angry. They never lose their temper!!! You could land up losing your cool and spoiling your health.
    Hope these titbits will help you all when you travel next to China.
    A must see place!!

  • Fr. Mark Mathias, SVD, Jalamel, Shirva

    Tue, Oct 26 2010

    Thank you for your comments Walter. I had a chance to visit Shenzen from Macau but did not make it. I will certainly visit the place next time. I was told its a great place for shopping. My friend Vincent Fernandes has some business there and promised to take me there. Next time. Thanks for your sharing.


    Tue, Oct 26 2010

    All said and done time will tell where Inida will stand in the world arena in fututre, cos it is China who has made the Chinese so enterprising but it is the Indians who are making India an enterprising economic power.I wait with pride to see India on top.........I donot have to wait for long

  • santhosh suvarna, mangalore/west africa/cote'd ivoire

    Mon, Oct 25 2010

    well said sirAntony Herbert Crasta, Mangalore/Sydney,Australia
    i am in west africa in ivoire coasty i too feel the same like biggest problem here is communcation these people are ruled by frence .so they speak only theere local language . they know english but too they dont speak .some time i think in indians how we treat oursider like our family members
    so in indian we should make visia compusor to every one and they have speak only hindi our language
    that time these ourside will know the value of language

  • adshenoy, mangloor

    Mon, Oct 25 2010

    The chinese culture like Indias is one of the oldest one. The chinese are hard working people as well. The chinese use both communistic capitalism and less socialism unlike India.
    In terms of Indias advance in the modern era is slow and sustainable economically speaking. The China power balance mainly is secretive. While it is holding uSa's debt, it technically controls Americas domain in economics. BEcause of Chinese dominence in world scale in enonomics and military many nations are ignoring human rights and democarcy in China. Anything against china by chinese living is unacceptable and punished by the authorities.

    Indias story is different. We are people who are open , and democrtaically matured. We even openly condemn India and speak ill aginst the country-democratic way, Our government does not put us in jail for saying so unlike China. Only problem with Indians is the true patriotism. Indians always see the grass greener somewhere else.
    On Indian passport, some Indians are even prepared or want to throw away Indian passport. They have no respect for it. Another hurdle they say it is difficult to travel because they need visas. The problem is not those countries who request visas . It is with Indians most of the time Indians once land in other countries seldom want to come back degrading Indians as a whole.
    There will be a time when indian passports will be desirable and many may not be in a position to get them.

  • Walter Pereira, Manglore

    Mon, Oct 25 2010

    Very well written article Fr Mark.
    I worked in China from March to June 2010. The place was Shenzhen.
    These are the specialities of Chinese people:
    - In the evenings, almost all of them get loaded with booze (rice wine beer), but no one fights.
    - Food is very cheap and delicious.
    - Massage parlours are at every street corner.
    - Almost none of them know english!! this makes life difficult. I had no choice but to know working chinese to get around.
    - You can get anything duplicate starting from Cartier watches to Mont Blanc pens for a song
    - Here are the few dishes I recommend to people travelling to China:
    Pickled eggs (transparent green!)
    Garlic fried prawns.
    Steamed fresh water fish.
    Chicken fried with red chillies.
    Tofu (with lots of red chillies)
    And rice, of course!
    I recommend readers to travel to Shenzhen for the following:
    There is a place which has the miniature of the world (try google search: shenzhen window of the world)
    Pyramids, Eiffel tower, Buckingham palace, Manhattan and almost all historic places in the world.

  • Cdr GP Mallya (retd), Kinnigoli/South Korea

    Mon, Oct 25 2010

    An interesting travelogue Fr. Mathais...his treatment in China were amusing...however I disagree with him about the weight of Indian passport..I am an avid traveller myself...and been to more than 2 dozen countries...the perception about India has changed a lot over the years...I should say for the better...It might not allow you a visa less travel like the Australian passport does round the world...but one feels proud when people do complement India..say in an hotel elevator in Melbourne...or on the Eiffel tower...Bollywood seems to be going places ...from what I hear from foreigners in Korea too...

  • A.S.Mathew, U.S.A.

    Sun, Oct 24 2010

    Fr. Mathias, it is a very intersting travel journal, with
    some lessons for the readers in
    their future travel plans.

    Even today, we can't really understands their mindset: how the Chinese think while they smile and
    talk with us so friendly. Their
    blood is fully saturated with one
    thing "business and survival".

    Your experience at the Chinese
    customs is not rare. With an
    American passport, while boarding
    a plane from Heathrow to Chicago,
    one tiny Chinese girl working for the
    American Airlines began to question
    me with questions, which I never had been faced with in life. I was greatly irritated by hear repeated questioning, but getting mad at her
    can make the trip into trouble so
    kept the cool by the grace of God.

    Another thing you have indicated about the weight of the Indian
    passport is somewhat true. Now,
    India is emerging as a super
    economic power, but some officials
    at the customs in other countries are still looking
    at the Indian passport with less
    weight. I have witnessed that
    paradox of mistreating Indian
    passport holders by some customs
    officers in the gulf countries.

    It was an interesting article.

  • Clara Lewis, Kemmannu/Dubai

    Sun, Oct 24 2010

    Good travel article by Fr.Mark Mathias, in China very few people speak and understand English, In India majority people speak and understand english mainly because our first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru give importance to this language.

  • nav, manglore/amman

    Sun, Oct 24 2010

    Nice article.The issue with Indian passport is not always true.I do agree they question people regarding why they are in that country,it may be a bit more with the Asiansbut its equally true that Indians have good respect, though we cant expect the same treatment as the Europeans or Americans.

  • Antony Herbert Crasta, Mangalore/Sydney,Australia

    Sun, Oct 24 2010

    I am not surprised at all the cold reception the writer received at the Chinese border and at the hotel. While Westeners from countries like USA, Canada, UK, Europe and Australia, NZ, etc., fairly receive good reception and treatment, it is the general experience that sadly, Indians, because of various reasons, are yet to gain any credentials in China, and therefore, have to face some of the problems cited by Fr.Mark. Moreover, English is not understood and spoken in China by majority of the people, and travelling, thus becomes, all the more difficult.

    One would therefore, do well to learn a bit of the local language, especially when visiting a country like China, Japan, or France for that matter. In Japan for instance, using the modern toilets is very cumbersome as the operating instructions are in Japanese and one doesn`t have a clue as to how to handle them. In France, where they dislike English, if you don`t speak their local language French, you are completely lost, as the locals are very rude or may completely ignore you. It is from the personal travelling experience that I write these comments. When I was holding the Indian passport, a few years ago, while travelling, I used to come across the same hurdles and problems as cited by Fr. Mark, but now that I have the Australian Passport, the things have drastically changed for the better. By the way, it has been interesting reading the travelogue so far and I wish Fr.Mark good luck during his remaining tour.

  • Steven, Sharjah.

    Sun, Oct 24 2010

    This reminds me Konkani weekly KANI in POINARI and Rakno. Waiting for Dr Marks's advanture's tour to China!!

  • Vincy, Shamboor/Bangkok

    Sun, Oct 24 2010

    Good coverage by Dr Mark Mathias about Macau-Zhuhai-China and more to come. The chinese check our passports for the only reason that we all look same for them.I travel to china twice a month and never have trouble at immigration and I am proud to carry my Indian Passport.

    I feel that the Indian passport has more weight compared to other country passport.We should not forget that every foreigner need a visa in advance to enter India unlike we are allowed visa on arrival in many countries like Thailand,Indonesia,HK,Macau etc.They know less English and we Indians make better use of the situation and do exim business in China.

  • Jithendra, Dubai

    Sat, Oct 23 2010

    The narration was really quite good laden with humour , iam sure the travelouge is not completed, looking forward to the remaining.

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