How to break into China (literally…)

Ok, so just a couple of short decades ago, this would be an unimaginable title for a blog post, for a couple of reasons. For a start, blogs didn’t exist then, and who in their right mind would have wanted to break in to China?

Anyway, my family and I inadvertently waltzed out of Beijing airport a few years ago with no stamps or visas, so just in case you’re on the run and want to disappear into the PRC, here’s how.

Wonderful and charming

Step 1. Wait until China is hosting a major international event and there are thousands of extra security measures in place (in China, like pretty much everywhere, the more people involved in a single task, the less likelihood that anyone will actually have any idea what the fuck is going on). For us it was the Beijing Olympic games of 2008, which were due to start a week later.

Step 2. Arrive very early in the morning and say you don’t want to sit in the small holding area for several hours until they open the counters to check your paperwork before the next leg of your flight (travelling with an overtired infant opens doors, if you happen to have one handy). For some reason there is (or was on this occasion) another terminal that was already open for processing, so we opted for the half-hour walk and monorail ride, just to kill time (Beijing airport is not small).

Step 3. Weave your way back to the original terminal, through the maze of countless security checkpoints, up a few flights of stairs, around a few corners, down a few floors in an elevator, past lots of awkwardly worded advertising, and get screened and patted down far more times than seems necessary. During this particular trip through Beijing airport it seemed imperative that all travellers were to be made as disoriented as possible.

Awkward, but enthusiastic!

Step 4. Start looking for the smokers’ room (don’t worry if you’re not a smoker – with any luck you won’t be able to find one… I couldn’t). I could see two of them, on the floors immediately above and below where I was standing, though because of the overwhelming security presence I was blocked from using the stairs. Having already felt like a bunch of Chinese guys had repeatedly blindfolded me, spun me round 15 times and asked me to point due North, I also hadn’t had a cigarette for about five hours and was starting to get irritated.

Later I did find a smokers’ room. The Chinese are nothing if not pragmatic.


That’s about it really. After a five minute rant to/at my wife about ‘why the hell can’t I go upstairs for a bloody cigarette?!’, a nice cleaning lady with surprisingly good English (if all the cleaning ladies in China speak English as well as her, then China is taking over the world even more rapidly than they are letting on) kindly interrupted the raving idiot, flailing his arms about in the middle of the arrivals hall, and gestured behind me.

“Excuse me sir”, she said, turning me around. “Why don’t you just go outside if you’d like to have a cigarette”.

I hadn’t the slightest inkling, and I guess the 150 security guards didn’t either, that we had somehow been manoeuvred into the arrivals hall, bypassing all of the actual security that international airports usually employ to ensure people without any visas or paperwork don’t just wander out into foreign countries.

I wandered out of the airport with my wife and daughter for some fresh air (we’d forgotten Beijing doesn’t have that) and a cigarette, and for five minutes we were undocumented illegal aliens in China. Then we went back in, fought our way back through all the security stops (it was like they were trying to keep us in there – maybe they were worried people weren’t going to turn up for their Olympics), and found our gate just in time for boarding. As airport stopovers go it was actually pretty good… it felt like a lot less than four hours anyway.

Taking off from sunny Beijing


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