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.
Ahh, the sweet repose after a days hunt for a bed. Missionaries I can handle, Camino de Santiago pilgrims are another matter.
Sounds like you’re having a great time there Daniel – did you run across any of the plastic birds I’ve heard about yet?
Daniel McBane says
I never came across any plastic birds in China…I’ve actually never even heard about them….
If the Camino de Santiago pilgrims are worse than your average missionary, count me out.
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This is actually what I don’t like about China – not being flexible with budget hostels. I never had a problem with booking a guesthouse in Beijing or Shanghai, but it’s impossible in rural areas such as Fenghuang or Zhangjiajie. The prices in small cities or towns are up to 10 times higher than in touristic areas. I remember paying over 200 RMB for a night in Xiushan which is located in Chongqing province whereas a night in dorms costed me only 30 RMB in Beijing .
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Daniel McBane says
It was always my biggest frustration, too. And it’s not like budget hotels don’t exist everywhere; they’re just not allowed to have foreign guests. I kept hoping the government would come around and change that ridiculous policy, but no luck so far. The hotel everyone kept pointing me to in Ma’erkang actually wanted 355 RMB for a night. There was no way I was paying that much…it wasn’t even that nice.
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And… the take away from this bit of McB babble is:
“…but I decided to go find out for myself.”
Ain’t that the truth.
Rarely do I ever take a single – or even multiple , oh-so-kindly folks’ word for some travel info I seek (be it other travelers or locals). Bottom line: Far better that I should simply go and find out for myself!
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Daniel McBane says
You’re right and that’s especially true for directions, which I’ve learned the hard way on more than one occasion. Even when people are genuinely trying to help, I’ve found that not many are able to give accurate directions and I’m always best off having my own map. And when people stand to profit from providing false or misleading information, like that front desk clerk in Me’erkang, we’d be idiots not to be skeptical.
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I don’t understand the rule about needing a special license to lodge foreigners. At inflated prices no doubts (what’s the markup over regular Chinese hotels?). Imagine the hoopla if we did that in N. America?
I’ve never travelled to China (except Hong Kong) and your post highlights some of the complaints I’ve heard from other travelers that I’ve heard about China – sounds like everyone just looks at you like a walking $ sign!
Good post, always enjoy your stories Daniel!
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Daniel McBane says
There’s no markup over other hotels; it’s just that the ones allowed to put up foreigners are almost never budget places. The decision which hotels get the license is entirely up to local government officials and I’m sure they consider a number of factors…and all of those factors are spelled Y – U – A – N.
Like anywhere else, you get treated like a mobile ATM in touristy parts of China, but unlike many other countries, domestic tourists actually get it even worse and outside the touristy areas, you pretty much get left alone. I was hounded for money far less in China than I was in Thailand or India.
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Hi Daniel. recently come across your blog while travelling China and makes for great reading. We are travelling to Ma’erkang from Songpan in a few days and wondered if you knew the name of the hotel or even the restaurant it was above. Any help or advice would be greatly appreciated!!
Daniel McBane says
I’m sorry, I don’t. I was racking my brain trying to remember as I was writing this post, but I was in Maerkang long before I started my blog, so I didn’t even think to take any photos or write down any info. I remember it was on one of the main roads (Tuan Jie Road, I believe) and about half-way down on the north side. They may have added an English sign since I was there (and raised their prices). They had just received permission to accept foreign guests, so it would make sense for them to begin advertising that.
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Gary Dover says
That’s ok Daniel, thanks anyway. We’ve found out also that there is a budget (we’ll see how budget tomorrow) hotel just a 5 min walk round from the bus station so I guess a few more have poped up since your visit. Also it’s so cold in these parts now that kipping on a park bench is definitely not an option :-). Thanks again & safe travels.
Daniel McBane says
I remember checking out a budget hotel near the eastern bus station (there are two stations, one on each side of town), but they couldn’t accept foreigners. Maybe it’s the same place and they’ve since gotten permission to take on foreign customers. Either way, I’m sure you’ll find a room and I hope you have a great trip through Sichuan!
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I went through Ma’erkang this summer and found a guesthouse that takes foreigners near the west bus station for around 50元 a night. It’s called 和平旅馆. The facilities are minimal however. The owners also own the small hotel across the street and they might be able to get you a discount on it (such as from 150 to 100).
By the way, when did you go? The entire region is closed in late February, all of March, and early April due to 1959 and 2008 Uprising anniversaries. I was hitchhiking around in the area in the summer for a month and had very few problems. Only times I was turned away was when I was trying to go to Yarchen Gar (亚青寺), a remote monestary/city, on the Dalai Lama’s birthday.
Daniel McBane says
I was there in the summer of 2011. It must have been around the beginning of August. From what people were saying, the shutdown was caused by the Panchen Llama touring the region and/or an Austrlian backpacker getting killed in a bar fight with a bunch of Tibetans. This was just second-hand (or third or fourth) information from other tourists (mostly Chinese), so I really have no idea why they kept closing different areas seemingly at random. I don’t think anyone really knew.
That guesthouse sounds like a good find (the Chinese says Heping Lüguan if anyone wants to try and find it; it means Peace Hotel). My bus was leaving very early from the other bus station, so I never bothered to check the western side of town. The place where I stayed was basically right in the center, so not really that conveniently located for either station.
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