The Case of the Lost-and-Found Passport

{In which my guests and I leave Chengdu on the journey that will take us to Lhasa:}

While driving through rush-hour Chengdu bears more than a passing resemblance to piloting a bumper car, crossing the surrounding Sichuan Basin is far less exciting. Mist/smog often obscures anything further than fifteen metres from the edge of the flat, straight roads. So as we reached Dujiangyan, after two hours hemmed in by the fog, it came as a surprise to see the faint outlines of the Qionglai Mountains looming ahead of us, improbably steep and deeply forested.

The Qionglai Mountains line the border between Chengdu City and Ngaba Prefecture, and mark a region that was utterly devastated by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Five years on, reconstruction is still ongoing, the relief efforts hampered by rainy-season mudslides each summer.

We were taking a route (the S303 to Wolong) that has only been intermittently open since the ‘quake. At one point, as we crawled along behind a digger through an unlit, roughly-hewn, seven-kilometre long tunnel, the road lined with dramatically cracked kerbs that had broken during the big earthquake, I questioned whether it really ought to be open even now. Regardless, another earthquake (Lushan, 2013, 7.0 on the Richter scale) had closed any alternative routes, so we were stuck in this tunnel, behind this digger.

Tunnel, Sichuan

That tunnel. Sichuan © Jo James

Scary tunnels aside, our journey actually started very smoothly. We emerged unscathed from Chengdu’s morning traffic, switched mist/smog for blue skies and sun as we climbed into the hills, and crested a 4,500-metre (14,800ft) high mountain pass without any altitude problems – an all-around excellent start.

On the third day, as we set out from Rilong, a village nestled at the foot of the Four Sisters Mountains, we had a scenic, straightforward drive ahead of us with plenty of time for stops. Take a stroll around a quaint-looking village? Sure! Stop to buy apples from an elderly Qiang lady? But of course! It was also an auspicious day for weddings in the Tibetan calendar, so we stopped at one of several weddings we passed to take photos of the beautifully dressed guests.

Tibetan Wedding, Danba

Tibetan wedding style, Danba © Jo James

As we came to leave the wedding, a British guest, Bob,* came up to me. “I don’t want to worry you,” he opened, portentously, “but I can’t seem to find my passport.” After a cursory look around his car, I decided to move everyone on for lunch in the next town, primarily to give myself some time to figure out what to do – besides hoping that the passport would be miraculously discovered by the time we got to the restaurant.

After reaching our restaurant, Bob still passport-less, I chewed my nails and tried calling the British consulate in Beijing for advice. After some brief consideration as to whether the situation constituted a real consular emergency or not, the automated switchboard operator informed me that: “Our consular emergency section’s office hours are 9:00am-12 noon, Monday, Wednesday, Friday and 1:30-4:30pm on Tuesday and Thursday.” It was 12:45 on a Wednesday. (Pity the Brit who gets arrested in China on a Friday afternoon.)

Fortunately, calls to the British consulate in Chongqing were more fruitful and a helpful lady explained what we needed to do if the passport was actually lost. First, we needed to report the loss to the local police, who would give us a ‘Lost Passport Report’. Then Bob and this piece of paper would need to make their way back to Chengdu to visit the provincial Public Security Bureau to get another piece of paper. Then Bob and his assorted paperwork needed to go to Chongqing to apply for a new passport from the consulate, either the emergency kind (which takes a few days) or the proper kind (which takes a month). Assuming he went with the emergency passport option, Bob would then need to apply for an exit visa from the Chinese authorities, which would take a further five working days.

Hair, Danba

More beautiful wedding style, Danba © Jo James

Honestly, I knew that losing a passport was inconvenient, but I had no idea just how inconvenient.

We decided that Bob, accompanied by Dorjee – our Tibetan tour guide, and Mr Wu – our driver, would retrace the morning’s drive in a last-ditch attempt to find the missing passport, while the rest of the group continued along our route as planned. So, on I went with the remaining six guests and had a beautiful afternoon on a particularly pretty stretch of road, wending our way through a deep valley, the slopes above us aflame with autumn leaves.

A few hours later, in a rare moment of mobile coverage, I received a text message from the tour operator’s office in Hong Kong: “A guest’s passport has been found. Please call this number…” Relieved, but confused as to how this information had reached Hong Kong before it had reached me, I called the number. It was the police station in Xiaojin, a small town that we had passed through earlier in the day. Someone had found the passport and traced us down within the hour – Sherlock Holmes eat your heart out.

Scenery, Danba

“While you were out passport hunting, we’ve been enjoying this…” © Jo James

Having thus far revisited the apple-seller and the still-partying wedding guests (where six young men volunteered to comb through the rubbish collected from the street), Dorjee and Bob were able to pick the errant passport up shortly afterwards, and managed to join us in time for dinner that evening, when I heard the full story.

Apparently the passport had dropped out of Bob’s car earlier in the day at a brief stop outside Xiaojin. Later, two Tibetan boys riding a motorbike on their way to work spotted it and picked it up. Realising that it was a foreign official document, they turned back towards Xiaojin and took it to the police.

Whenever anyone – local or foreigner – checks into a hotel in China, they are required to register with their ID. Until recently, the particulars were simply written down and filed, but now all this information is entered into a computer system. By searching for the passport number, the Xiaojin police were able to find out where we had stayed, and by contacting the hotel they found the tour operator’s Hong Kong telephone number, which led to my text message. I’ve always mildly resented the hotel registration process, but it was wonderful to see it at work on this occasion.

When Bob and Dorjee reached the Foreign Affairs Office in Xiaojin, they were able to thank the two boys in person and to hear their part of the story. Bob tried repeatedly to give them some money as a reward, but they refused every time, saying, “You’re a guest here in our homeland, we simply did what we ought to do.”

* Bob is not his real name 😉

5 responses to “The Case of the Lost-and-Found Passport

  1. Pingback: The Last Town in Sichuan | Little Yak·

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