Friends: One of the advantages of traveling with a companion is having someone to let you know if you have a smudge on your nose or a streak on your cheek or a fly at half-mast. If Stephen had still been along, we would have been kept busy all day during the clam chowder fog day alerting each other that our faces needed a scrubbing.
The thick fog that hung so heavy over the land that day did not cleanse the air of all the wicked particulates that make the air in China a virtual soup that one could ladle. Rather, all the dirt and dust and smoke and every pollutant known to man clung and bonded to the thick, misty fog, turning the air into a sludge that plastered my face and streaked my hair and splotched my clothing.
I had no idea I had been transformed into a sub-Saharan African until I looked in the mirror of my hotel room. Then I knew why I had been refused accommodation at nearly a dozen hotels in the sizable city of Xingtai. I was an unholy mess. I looked as if I had emerged from months in a cave. I had no clue as to my state, just happy to have arrived in this city right at dark after a most draining day of riding with limited visibility nearly from start to finish with only a short mid-day interlude.
I passed a couple of neon lit hotels that actually had "Hotel" in English on their signs before I spotted a budget hotel, recognizing it not by any sign, but by the receptionist's desk I could see peering in through a pair of glass doors. The posted rates had the cheapest room at 70 yuans, but when I showed the receptionist the phrase "economy room without toilet" in my Lonely Planet book she indicated I could have a room for 40 yuan. She took my money and started examining my passport. After paging through it several times, I showed her where the Chinese visa was. She looked at it closely and then made a phone call. She handed back my passport and money and said the police said I couldn't stay there, I had to stay at the 5-star hotel down the street.
Instead, I went in search of another budget local's hotel. After trying a couple of side streets and asking a couple of shop owners, I found another about ten minutes later. It was truly grungy, more of a flop-house than a hotel, but fine by me for thirty yuans. Two smiley older ladies sitting behind a glass-slotted window took my money, then began perusing my passport. One took it and left. She returned with a guy who told me I had to go elsewhere.
This city was stuck in the China of the old days when foreigners could only stay at specific hotels and had to check in with the police at every town they stayed at. This was my first taste of such restrictions, other than my venture into the Forbidden Zone. I tried to indicate to these kindly-looking folks that their hotel was perfectly acceptable to me in case they were concerned that it wasn't suitable for a Westerner, but they would not relent.
A guy in the lobby offered to lead me to another hotel on his motor-bike. It was even more grandiose than the couple of nicer hotels I had passed, with blazing neon and a pair of liveried attendants out front. That definitely wasn't the place for me. I showed my escort a piece of paper with 40 on it. He understood and led me several blocks to another budget hotel. Upon entry I was immediately told "full." I wasn't surprised to be turned away, but I was surprised at the use of English. The guy on the motorcycle had left, so I was back on my own. I found another hole-in-the-wall hotel a few blocks further. I was promptly and brusquely inflicted with the word "full" here too, by an unsmiling, hulky, middle-aged man who I had no wish to argue with.
This was getting ridiculous. Pangs of hunger were knocking. I was desperate enough to start trying the high-priced hotels. I went into five of them and not a one would even look at my passport, immediately waving me off. If only I had glanced in a mirror I would have noticed how beastly I looked and could have wiped my face clean and no doubt gained admittance into the next one I tried. Little did I know I had changed my race, and had done some time-travel to the American South of not so long ago.
Desperation sent me back to the second hotel I tried, one that initially accepted me and whose receptionists seemed to have some humanity. I was so accustomed to people going out of there way to help me, I figured if I gave them a second chance, they'd be like just about everyone else I've encountered. They didn't need to bend over backwards, just say yes. But once again, they stubbornly refused me.
My search had been going on for over an hour now. It looked like I'd be camping. I had rolled up my tent that morning with fragments of ice sill clinging to it. I should have opened it up when I'd had my tubes patched earlier in the day, but I wasn't anticipating needing it this night. So I unrolled my tent on the sidewalk in front of the hotel that had twice rejected me to shake out the ice and water, a final, last-ditch effort to win me some sympathy and favor, giving them one last chance to reconsider. It made no difference, but it did dry my tent a bit. The ice hadn't melted, so shaking it out left the tent somewhat habitable. A soaking wet tent might have been the death of me. Then I had the challenge to find my way out of this city and out into the country.
A couple blocks past the most grandiose of the hotels I had tried, I came upon another hotel with the generic look of a chain motel. I didn't expect any more luck at this place, but I was helplessly drawn to go in and let these people reject me too. Shockingly, I wasn't summarily ordered out. The rates were posted on the wall. I did not try to barter down the 100 yuan price. There were three women behind the counter. When the older manager made a phone call my heart began to sink, and then plunged a little bit more when when she handed the phone to me. It was an English speaker who told me I had to pay a 200 yuan deposit to stay there.
Stephen had warned me this was common at nicer hotels, as we had experienced at the resort hotel we stayed at, but this was much more of a deposit than normal. But that was okay. I had a place for the night to dry out my gear and shower and fully warm up. Not until I got to my room did I know how desperately I needed a shower. Even after I showered, my eyebrows were still black. Scrubbing my face with a wash cloth turned it black, digging out all the dirt and grime deeply embedded in my pores.
After that experience I resolved to resist peeing along the road, stopping instead at gas stations for the opportunity to give myself a look in their mirrors, when they have one. Even though my search for a hotel was eventually rewarded, I didn't care to subject myself to a similar such run-around last night and opted for the much easier search for a campsite despite the sub-freezing temps.
I just passed the 240 kilometer post to Beijing. It's getting exciting knowing I'm almost there and I may pull this off. I was a little worried this morning when all the moisture in the air turned into flecks of ice and snow seemed imminent, though it wasn't in the forecast. I put on my booties, but the precipitation was a false alarm. Another heavy snow storm could delay me longer than I can afford. The mounds of snow are getting higher and higher. They had 18 inches of it ten days ago along this stretch, the region's heaviest snow fall ever.
Beijing offers the added bonus of Julie-Ann. She lost her job in Xian the day after I left, but she found another in just a few days working for a company in Beijing that is building cinema multiplexes around the country. She's been staying in a hotel, but moves into her apartment tomorrow. Now we have the challenge of connecting in a huge metropolis of 15 million, four times the size of Xian.