Monday, November 23, 2009
Dunhuang, Microlighting and The Jedi Mind Trick
Upon arrival in Dunhuang, it was quite easy for us to find a nice hostel tucked into the trees beside the edge of the desert. And the Lonely Planet was absolutely correct about the town being convenient for foreigners. But, I started ahead of the real story...
Early in the morning, before our arrival, I questioned Tom about his visa status. I knew that China mostly grants one month tourist visas. He had been traveling from Beijing for a couple weeks before I flew into Cheng Du and we had already spent about two weeks together. So, I casually asked him while we were both half awake on the sleep-filled train, "When does your visa expire?" This question seemed to rouse his curiosity. He sat up and pulled his passport from his bag.
"It expired yesterday," was his reply. Both of us were slightly nervous about the implications of such a situation. The resolution was to first find accommodation and then find the passport/tourist office in Dunhuang as soon as possible.
When we arrived at the hostel, they would not give us a room because of the expired visa. Luckily, it was midday. We asked the man at the desk to call us a taxi to take us directly to the passport/visa office.
As the taxi pulled into the Dunhuang Police Station, I saw the expression on Tom's face change from inconvenience and disgust to one of uncertainty and slight terror. The Chinese Police are not the ideal type for understanding misunderstandings.
We walked into the lobby and there were three police officers lounging around in their socks, chain-smoking cigarettes, and watching the replays of the holiday celebration in Tiananmen Square from the day before. There were trucks with nuclear rockets and tanks in formation and millions cheering on the screen.
One of the men told us to sit down and wait. He made a phone call and then resumed his position on the sofa next to the massive ashtray. About fifteen minutes later a woman in a pantsuit arrived and escorted us to an adjacent office.
To make a long story short, Tom convinced me of a theory that I've maintained since childhood: the Jedi mind trick is not a fictitious invention.
At first, the woman said it would be no problem to get a month visa extension. It was printed out on the spot and pasted in his passport. Then she came to the subject of price. Tom's visa extension would be 160 yuan (approx. $26 U.S. dollars). She then proceeded to tell him that he was two days past his expiration date. Each day came with a 500 yuan penalty. Thus, she concluded that he owed her 1,160 yuan.
It was at this moment that I actually witnessed the Jedi mind trick for the first time in my adult life. Tom, being the master price negotiator that he his, proceeded to tell her that the day before was a holiday and that he had no way of obtaining his extension. Therefore, it should only be a one-day penalty. She agreed.
"You're right, it's only a one-day penalty," she repeated after Thomas.
"And I was on an overnight train, as well." Tom produced our post-midnight train stub from Shandan and presented it to her. "I could not do until now. So, there should be no penalty."
"Okay, there is no penalty," she again repeated the words from his mouth.
Tom paid her the 160 yuan and we walked out into the street.
As soon as we were around the corner I burst into belly-full laughter fits. Tom had gone from scared pale 60 minutes earlier to bartering with the woman about the price of his extension. And he had won.
He threw up his arms in a manner that spelled V-I-C-T-O-R-Y. I told him that we were going to get the most expensive western-style meal we could find and that it would be on him. There were no objections.
We spent three days in Dunhuang. It truly is a lovely town. The streets are tree-lined, well-paved, and the girls are slave to fashion (as in much larger cities around Asia).
We went micro lighting, which is quite possibly the single scariest thing I have ever done, yet also one of the most exhilarating. It's basically a boxcar with a fan that is tied to the bottom side of a hang glider. It takes off completely vertical and loves to wobble (the only thing holding you in is a car seatbelt).
We also saw The Old City, an ages-old dynasty fort that has been turned into a quasi-amusement park much in the same vein of Old Tucson (for those who are familiar).
All in all, Dunhuang was a lovely place. We met some nice Canadians at the hostel and even had a barbecue with some of the locals.
We exited by sleeper bus to Golmud. The next week needed to have us preparing our Tibet permits for the earliest possible departure (according to the sign mentioned earlier, October 9th).
Despite all of the excitement, we were getting antsy for Lhasa and, of course, Everest.
Link to short microlighting clip on Youtube: