Monday, November 5, 2012

Having a Wonderful Time, Please Send A Chinese Visa!

Now that our Chinese visas are firmly in our passports, I feel secure enough to complain for a minute about the process that got us here (6 attempts and many wasted days and changes of plans later).

Attempt #1: Tried to apply in New York. I arrived armed with the train confirmation, all our hostel bookings, and a plan for which train to Tibet we would take. I was told a confirmation was not enough, she needs to see actual train tickets in (which were waiting for us in Mongolia) and out (not on sale yet). Also, my hostels were a little too cheap by her standards so she wanted to see our marriage certificate to prove we would be staying together. Also we needed the Tibet permit to get the visa, although the Tibetan guides all say you need a visa to get permission.

Attempt #2: We bought plane tickets in and out of china (fully refundable, just in case), strike Tibet off the itinerary, and firm up a bunch more hostels. Unfortunately, the embassy was closed for some Chinese holidays and we would not get our passports back in time to leave.

Attempt #3: I find an agency in London who will get the visa for us, we ship them our growing stack of support documents overnight when we land in Liverpool. We had asked for a double entry visa so we could make a pass through southern China at the end of the trip. The agency calls us two days later and says they would need the full itinerary for the second trip. Fine, we'll take a single entry, but now we need it rush.

Attempt #4: The Chinese embassy in London doesn't feel like doing a rush visa, even for the extra 20£ each they would get from us. We don't have time for regular processing before the flight to Kiev.

Attempt #5: We change our Trans-Siberian schedule, essentially eliminating our time on Lake Baikal (the only stop many Trans-Sib travelers make) so we can get to Mongolia early, and go to the Chinese embassy in Ulan Bator that is only open Mon, Wed, Fri. We submit our applications and the lady at the desk asks for our Chinese Invitation Letter. We don't have one, we tell her, because we have plane tickets in and out and all our accommodation booked instead, as per all the official embassy websites. Too bad, she wants an invitation, with an official stamp. 

There is only one lady who accepts applications, and according to the people in line and at the hostel, requirements vary widely depending on when you get her. Russia also requires an invitation, but there are scores of companies on the Internet willing to invite you for a fee. This requirement for tourists to China is new, or not widely enforced so that service does not exist. 

We spend the rest of the day emailing and calling hostels we are staying at, hotels we would stay at, companies we could book a tour through, etc. We checked Linkedin and Facebook to see if anyone we knew had moved to China. We were waiting for the west coast to wake up to look into asking my brother's in-laws for a favor (in fact, he has a 4 week old baby so he was probably up). We finally find a tour company who will do it for a fee, and after multiple emails and calls we think we are in business.

The UB Chinese embassy has a reputation for sometimes not doing rush visas, so we are already cutting it close time-wise. They charge an extra $30 for rush, which is significant for all the other nationalities who pay $30 for their visa. For Americans the visa fee is $140.

Attempt #6: Come Monday morning our letter had not yet arrived, and the embassy closes at noon. After yet another call to the tour agency we set off to the other side of town. We ducked into an Internet cafe across the street from the embassy and thankfully found the letter in my email. We rush to the visa office and hand over the (now enormous) application at 11:50. For some reason not only was the lady offering rush processing, but urgent (same day) as well. We could get our visa that afternoon, for a fee. She told us they would be calling our inviter (luckily I didn't let Matt photoshop a letter) and to come back at 4.

Bracing ourselves for denial we came back after having arranged for the payment at a local bank (476000  Mongolian Tugriks). We joked with an American ex-pat and a French couple we knew from the visa line who had been struggling like us and giddily watched as our visa were pasted into our passports! Finally!

As for Tibet, we will see. The Chinese restricted tours to minimum of 5 people of the same nationality (which is why I'm traveling American) last summer, and by September were not letting any foreigners in. The guides we have talked to told us to contact them again after the change of power on the 8th to see if things have changed. A guy from Hong Kong we met gave us instructions on how to sneak in, but considering that 'Matt & Bree's Rules of Travel, rule #2 is: Don't get thrown in jail' we probably won't attempt it.

- Bree