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Many Adventures of a Nomadic Poet A young poet with Asperger's makes travel his passion, and away he goes...

Headaches & Heartaches

CHINA | Monday, 23 November 2015 | Views [511]

Do I look like a happy camper here?

Do I look like a happy camper here?

Whilst I definitely found some good in China, across the board it's problematic, disorganized, and bureaucratic. All along I've said with China "if there isn't a rule they make a rule, and if there isn't a problem they create a problem." The language barrier doesn't help the situation much (though I can't complain too much about that).

First, let's start with getting a Chinese visa. My plan was to spend 10 or 12 days in China and possibly hitchhike from Beijing to Hong Kong via Xi'an. Initially I applied for my Chinese visa in New Zealand, sending my passport to the Chinese embassy in Wellington. It was sent back, stating that I had to send it to the consulate in Christchurch since I was on the South Island. The consulate's website clearly states that it only processes applications for NZ passport holders but when I called the embassy I was told it has changed. Interestingly, I could have had mailed it to a friend in Wellington and they could have dropped it off on my behalf but I couldn't mail it directly to the embassy from Queenstown. Since I was flying to Melbourne I didn't have enough time to re-apply and I was only in Christchurch for a day. Applying in Melbourne wasn't possible since I only had four days and I was there over a weekend. Learning there's a Chinese consulate in Bali I figured I'd just apply there, only to find out once in Bali that they don't have the authority to issue visas. They told me I had to go to either Jakarta or Surabaya. Going to Surabaya would have been possible but it's a 15-hour bus ride and I didn't want to fly. Another option would have been to apply in Korea. The website for the Chinese embassy in Seoul states that it only processes applications for Korean citizens yet the consulate in Busan doesn't have the same restriction, so I opted to fly into Busan and start my Korean adventures there for that reason. Once I got to Korea I was told I had to apply in Seoul! China sure loves red tape! Without enough time to get to Seoul, apply, and wait for my passport to get back to me, my last-string option was the 72-hour visa waiver. Whatever way you apply for the visa, Americans have to pay at least $200 and can be considerably more depending on how quickly you need it. In addition, the cost of the visa for Americans is the same regardless of it being a 30-day single entry or a one-year multiple entry. When you apply you need a mountain of paperwork and a booked flight or ferry into and out of China, making it tricky to have a flexible itinerary. The visa waiver is free but doesn't come without its own heartache to go with loads of restrictions. You can only use the waiver to fly into and out of China, negating my plan of taking the ferry from Incheon (Korea), to Qingdao (China). You must have a ticket to a third country already booked, and you must fly into and out of the same airport straight out of China. Furthermore, only four cities in the entire country allow you to fly in on the visa waiver, and Beijing is a pretty expensive city to fly into. In doing my research I've discovered it's much cheaper to fly into some of China's smaller cities (e.g. Jinan, Xiamen) than into Beijing or Shanghai. In my case it was difficult to apply for my visa too early because once visas are issued you must enter China within 90 days. Fortunately I was able to find a cheap flight from Daegu to Beijing on Jeju Air (much to the surprise of a middle-aged Korean man wondering how as a foreigner I even knew about Jeju Air) but on the first end of the DPRK trip I had less than 12 hours in China, enough for a brief glance at Tiananmen Square and a ride on the metro. They're very strict with the 72-hour rule and I've been told of at least one person missing a trip with Koryo Tours due to Chinese bureaucracy. The visa situation didn't give me the best first impression of China but the silver lining was that I'd get to spend more time in both Korea and Hong Kong. 

China sees itself as a global superpower but as one expat told me "you only have to scratch the surface a tiny bit to see it's still a staunchly developing country." It's true: China is packed with Starbucks, Adidas, and Apple stores yet it's about the most disorganized country I've ever been to! There's a train only about once every three hours to the Great Wall, which is interesting, considering it's one of the world's most famous landmarks. Nick and I would arrive this morning hoping to go to the Great Wall, arriving at 10:30 AM only to find out the next train doesn't leave until 1 PM and people were already lined up 500 metres long. Nick received a text saying his flight was delayed until 9 PM so it gave him (what he thought was) a final opportunity to visit the Great Wall. Nick would later find out he was supposed to show up at the airport anyway because they could have put him on an earlier flight and if he missed it, he'd be screwed. What's the point of receiving a text to let you know your flight is delayed? In other words, you're supposed to hang out at the airport for the better part of a day when you could be out exploring. Nick was put on a flight at 3 PM today, and if he missed it he would have overstayed the visa waiver. Nick reminded me that I'm on a fearless journey and he was encouraging me all along to make the Great Wall happen. Dejected and tired, I gave up. I really wanted to get to the Great Wall and I failed; failing because I couldn't get the visa and I simply ran out of time. I tried everything and we missed out on the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, and a lot of other places because we used the majority of our time and energy trying in vain to get to the Great Wall.

Another complex issue in China is money; there is practically nowhere to change money. In places like Melbourne, Bali, or Queenstown you can change money nearly everywhere and there are signs all over the place advertising their rates. Searching around Tiananmen Square much like how I'd search at Circular Quay or in Kuta there isn't a single place to change money. One person told us the only place to change money is at Bank of China. The language barrier doesn't help as I couldn't easily ask somebody to point me in the direction of a branch. After speaking to a man whom I thought was an expat he was visiting for business but was able to use his phone to get us in the direction of a bank. Once there the process is anything but quick. You need to bring your passport and there's a lot of paperwork to fill out, and then you have to wait about 45 minutes (seriously!). It's nice to have some money but why all the hassle? When you're stuck for cash it's not a matter of "I'll just whip out my credit card." It's shocking how few places accept credit cards, and thst includes even places like Burger King. The only place that I can depend on to accept credit cards is Starbucks. Withdrawing money from an ATM is no easy feat either as most ATMs only accept local cards, and even if I could I can only imagine how expensive it'd be.

By the end of the night I was very well fed up with this place. Getting to the airport is a breeze but it turned out my flight leaves from Terminal 3 even though it said online that it leaves from Termainal 2. A free bus operates between the terminals but it's about a 15-minute drive so it's not a quick skip and a hop if you're running late. The airport is disorganized and I had trouble figuring out which line I had to go to check in, and then I found out my flight was delayed more than an hour. As if I hadn't been through enough, I had to wait for some reason for a long while at immigration. Wondering what the issue was I figured it was something to do with entering on the visa waiver. Suddenly, three officials came up to me and showed me a piece of paper asking where I was staying and why I didn't register with the police. Unfortunately I didn't know that there was such a requirement, and if you stay at a hostel or hotel the registration is automatically done for you. None of the officials spoke very good English and I didn't know Danny's number off hand. The wifi at the airport wasn't working properly and I tried everything in my power to log into CouchSurfing so I could get Danny's number. He speaks a smattering of Chinese so that'd be helpful. Showing the officials on a map where Danny's home is located didn't suffice. My flight had already been delayed and the time was rapidly approaching the new flight time. After nearly and hour of trying to log into CS or whatever site I could think of the officials were like "whatever" and just let me through. The line for security was a kilometre long by then so one official took pity on me and escorted me to the front of the line. Without enough time to get a coffee before my flight I was on the plane, yet we'd be delayed for another hour longer. I'm so glad to be out of China! Even with all the heartache and headache involved I'm likely to end up here again since I'd love to visit Xi'an, Tibet, and the Tiger Leaping Gorge as well as do the journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway. My total time in China was only about three days but that short time did not give me a great impression of a country of which I hear many complaints about. The DPRK on the other hand is very organized and I had no complaints, and in fact I thought for a short while "where's a plane ticket back to the DPRK when I need it?" 

On the plane I'm thankful to be out of China. The plane would drive round in circles on the slushy tarmac for more than an hour, and the flight to Hong Kong would be about the most hair-raising I've ever endured...

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