I enjoy traveling in China overall, but that enjoyment does not generally extend to the accommodation search outside of popular destinations. Only hotels with the proper license are allowed to accept foreign guests and the Chinese government does not seem to hand out many of those licenses in less visited destinations. In many small towns only one or two places will be allowed to house foreigners and finding them can often be a huge hassle. I spent much of my most recent visit to China in less popular areas and the hotel search was always a major annoyance. Nowhere was my quest for a room more frustrating—and ultimately more successful—than in the northern Sichuan town of Ma’erkang.
After my visit to the beautiful Danba area, I was unable to head any deeper into the Tibetan regions of western Sichuan due to a government on foreign visitors, so I decided to make my way through the Tibetan region of Aba in northern Sichuan and head toward the famous Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve instead. You won’t any long distance buses on this less-traveled route, so I was stuck using a succession of minivans and small, local buses. This made for some very slow progress, mainly due to the time wasted dealing with the minivan drivers.
They don’t get many foreign tourists in this area, but they are clearly used to ripping off those that do pass through. Every time I got to a new town, the drivers all quickly informed me I would have to hire a whole van for myself and when I pointed out that the locals were obviously not doing this to travel between villages and asked them to just point me toward the shared minivans or the bus station, they always refused. In the end, I had to walk all over town and ask a few store owners, until I found them myself.
In one town, the drivers were all busy insisting that no such thing as a bus station even existed, when a bus pulled out of a side street directly across from us. After I told them I was going to see what was up that road, they bombarded me with “It’s a long walk to the next town,” and “That’s just a school bus,” and “That bus is for Chinese only!” The bus station ended up being 200 meters down the road and I was able to get a ticket on a bus leaving an hour later. I decided to get something to eat and on my way back past the minivan drivers one of them simply asked, “So, did you get on the 2 o’clock?” Knowing there was no chance I was going to put their kids through college by renting out one of their vans, they were suddenly very helpful and even pointed me toward a great noodle place.
With the slow progress I was making, I realized I would have to spend at least one night in a town along the way. Everyone I talked to recommended I stay in Ma’erkang as it was by far the largest city I would pass through. That was the final stop of the bus I was on anyway, so it sounded like a good idea to me.
I ended up at a bus station on one end of Ma’erkang and quickly learned that I would have to go to a different bus station on the other side of town about 10 kilometers away to buy my ticket for the next leg. I waited for the city bus, but gave up after 10 minutes and hailed a taxi. I knew it would be less than a dollar so I didn’t see any point in waiting around. Once at the other station, I bought a ticket leaving at 6 AM the next morning. Then the fun started.
I asked people working at the bus station where I could find a place to stay for the night and they all recommended the little hotel located inside the station. Most Chinese stations have these, but I knew from experience that they rarely accept foreigners. All the people I talked to ensured me it would be fine, but when I actually went and talked to the reception desk, I was quickly turned away. I asked them if they knew which hotels in town did have the proper license and they gave me a name. I asked a few more people, including the next taxi driver I flagged down and they all came up with the same name. I had my taxi take me there.
I was pretty sure this place would be ridiculously overpriced and as soon as we pulled up, I knew my fears would be confirmed. I talked to reception anyway, but even after bargaining, we didn’t come anywhere near a price I might consider reasonable. Naturally, they told me they were the only hotel in town licensed to accept foreigners, but I decided to go find out for myself. Even if they turned out to be right, I was pretty sure I would just sleep outside on a bench before I stayed at that place.
The downtown area of Ma’erkang is quite stretched out, so I did a lot of talking over the next two hours, talking to one front desk clerk after another and being turned away or quoted outrageous prices every time. The ones that turned me away all pointed me back to the one hotel I had already decided I didn’t want. Eventually I gave up on this strategy and started asking other people: restaurant owners, convenience store clerks and anyone else who might know of some less obvious hotels.
After half an hour of this, I felt like I knew the whole town personally. Surprisingly, I also got a lead on a hotel that might give me a room, despite not having the proper license. This news came from a restaurant owner who pointed upstairs to the fifth or sixth floor above her ground floor restaurant. Sure enough, when I squinted, I could barely make out a little sign with the Chinese characters for ‘hotel.’ I never would have noticed this place if the woman hadn’t pointed it out.
I climbed up the stairs, passing increasingly shady businesses on my way up: first your standard filthy internet cafe, then a gambling joint, then a few places I couldn’t identify and was probably better off for it. The hotel itself looked pretty sketchy from the outside, but was actually quite nice inside. When I asked if they had any rooms for me, the owner actually pulled out the government form for the registration of foreign guests.
It turned out he had just received the license allowing him to accept foreigners a week or so before and I was the first guest to make use of it. It also turned out his hotel is quite a bargain. For around six dollars I got my own room with a TV, very slow internet access and a nice view over the town below. For once my hotel search in China had turned out well; this didn’t happen often.
The only complaint I had about the hotel had nothing to do with the hotel itself, but with one of the other guests. He was a Buddhist monk and he would not leave me alone. He insisted on explaining to me how pure and holy his life was and how much I would benefit from a stay at his monastery. This was the first time I’d ever dealt with a Buddhist missionary and let me tell you, they are just as annoying as every other missionary I’ve ever encountered.
Actually, missionary might not be the right word here, since I got the distinct feeling he was running one of those monasteries that attracts a certain kind of foreigner; the kind who is easily talked into spending a bunch of money to live in a drab room, get up before the sun rises and do grunt work all day long, all in the name of spiritual enlightenment (and a new car for the ‘holy man’).
Annoying monk aside, the hotel room was great and I enjoyed my stay. I even had a comfortable mattress and pillow—a rarity in China and actually a drawback when you’re trying to get up early to make a 6am bus. Somehow I made it up despite the comfort and even had enough time for a quick breakfast, before hopping on the bus toward Songpan, the next overnight stop on my journey toward Jiuzhaigou and a much more touristy town where I can’t imagine any foreigner has ever been turned away from a hotel.