Travelling Without A Passport In China (Part I)

I know. what you’re gonna say.
It sounds like a dumb idea. Right?
I can’t blame you.
After all, who goes travelling without a passport? To the North Korean border on top of that?

But hear me out, it’s nearly not as stupid as it sounds. At least, that’s what I thought when I first had the idea to do it. This was before I ended in two police stations two nights in a row…..




It all began when I started looking for places to go during China’s October holiday. Since I had already seen most of Changchun, I was feeling the urge to explore other parts of China.

The thing with the October holiday is that the entire country is off work. 1.5 billion people, all travelling at the same time. Most trains and flights to go anywhere are either completely booked, or prices get obscenely expensive. Anywhere but the city of Erdobaihezhen, situated near the China – North Korea border. So, why not head there?

What happened to my passport?

The day before the holiday, my employer decided that it was the ideal time to apply for my work residence visa, which meant having to leave my passport at the immigration office for about a month. In exchange, I received a piece of paper which would serve me as ID until I got my passport back.

Can I take the plane with this?
“Yes”, they said.

The train also?
“Yes”, they said again.

Even if I’m travelling without a passport?
“This is passport”, they said one last time.

This was my only valid ID

Hotel-less in Baishan

Semi-confidently, I booked a train to the city of Baishan where I arrived at around 12:30 AM. As I stepped outside in the freezing cold, I took the first taxi I saw and showed the driver the location of the hotel. The taxi didn’t seem sure where the hotel was and made a sign to call the hotel. So I dialed the number and handed him my phone.

After a short conversation, he handed me the phone back, and shook his head as if saying “no”, and said something in Chinese.

I obviously didn’t like that….

I showed him my reservation, which was written in English, and with the best broken Chinese I had at 12:30 AM I tell him, Wǒ yùdìngle zuòwèi (I have a reservation).

He waived his hand at me again….

Somehow, I managed to ask him to drive to the hotel anyways so I can verify this overbooking for myself. After all, this could be one of those scenarios of “your hotel is full, let me take you to one where I earn a commission” type of situation.

We arrived at the hotel and I got through the door first. The guy at the reception looked at me like I had just asked him for a ride to the airport. I showed him my reservation, which he looked for half a second before shaking his head.

I told him, both in Chinese and in English, that I had a reservation. He only shook his head at me.

I wanted to argue, and I wanted an explanation. But I was stuck at 1:00 AM in a hotel with no vacancy, with two individuals who I couldn’t communicate with. It was then that the taxi driver made a sign to follow him. I understood that he’d help me look for another hotel.

We go to another one a few blocks from the one I had reserved……full.
Second hotel, same story…..full!
Third hotel, no luck…..FULL!

It was almost 1:30 AM, it was cold and I was completely exhausted from a 9-hour long train ride from Changchun to Baishan. Finally, the taxi driver pulled over to what I thought would be another hotel…..but no. We stopped at a police station.

Travelling without a passport in China

Train stations at night certainly have no charm

First Encounter With Chinese Police

I would’ve asked what we were doing there, but I would have only wasted my breath.

A police officer came out and seemed to ask the taxi driver what it was we wanted. They spoke in Chinese for a while, me standing clueless by their side. Finally, the cop asked me where I was from, then proceeded to tell something to the taxi driver before we left.

We drove to another 2 hotels with the same result. No rooms!

We drove to a second police station, where the taxi driver shamelessly woke up the night officer, who started to yell at the driver.

The both of them started to argue in front of me, in Chinese. The officer kept pointing at my direction, which my only guess is him saying “how is he my problem?!?!?”.

I felt bad.
I felt tired.
I felt alone.
I felt hopeless.
I felt like I just wanted to sleep.

Give me anything. A bench. A prison cell (don’t lock it). A chair.
Really, anything would’ve done at that point.

But it wasn’t to be.
It was 2:00 AM, and we drove back to the first police station. This time, the officer asked for my passport, and seemed perplexed when I gave him the piece of paper. He looked at it as if I had just handed him something written in Arabic. I explained to him what it was (after getting the translation off my phone); incredulous, he took a picture of it and handed it back to me. This time, he came inside the car with us.

We drove to 3 more hotels without any luck.
I was really starting to hate Chinese holiday week, and Booking.com, and everything that had made this journey so terribly bad.
Most of all, I was cursing my decision to start travelling without a passport! What was I thinking anyways???? How was this a good idea????

Nothing I could do about it now. I’m in a taxi in a city I don’t know, in a country as an expat travelling without a passport, with a cop and a driver who I cannot even communicate with at 2:00 AM on a very cold Tuesday night.

Thoughts of returning to Changchun the following day started to pop in my head.

Travelling without a passport in China

And then a miracle!

Finally, a hotel with an available room. And not a shady one on top of that!

The police officer spoke to the person behind the counter, who happened to speak a bit of English. He explained to me that many hotels in China cannot take in foreigners, and that (apparently) a few of the hotels I had been with the driver before would not take me in because of that.

But none of that mattered now. I had a place to stay! I had a bed! and I had a bus to catch at 8:00 AM…… 5 hours from then. The last thought I remember having that night was:

Only way is up from here!!!

Or so I thought. I still had to get to the city of Erdaobaihezhen, on the China – North Korea border. There, I would find out that I couldn’t have been more wrong…..

Don’t miss the second part to this disgraceful misadventure in a couple of days! Subscribe to receive an alert once it’s out!!!



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