Monday, November 26, 2012

China, Part V: The Trip Back

...but I never got to do them.

The morning of my third day in Beijing, I was alerted to a small problem by the desk of my hostel: my visa was due to expire earlier than the period of time I had booked for that hostel. Oh, really, how did that happen? Well...

I had always planned to take the train into China, since it's cheaper than flying, and at least to me, more interesting. However, train tickets aren't sold in advance, so they're nearly useless for acquiring a visa, because the Chinese visa process requires all the details of your trip in advance. However, the visa doesn't require that you follow those plans, or prohibit you from changing plans, once the visa has been acquired. So taking some other people's advice, I got a plane ticket for the purpose of submitting a complete visa application, then cancelled it and bought a train ticket before I left for China. This is where the problems started.

I was issued a visa for a term of 10 days, based on the tentative itinerary I submitted. That was in fact an accurate estimation of the time I was actually going to stay IN Shanghai and Beijing, walking around and doing touristy stuff. But that's not what counted. Trains and buses move much slower than planes, and when I substituted them for planes, my total transportation time expanded from less than a day to five days (two of them inside Mongolia). Of course, your duration of stay actually starts counting from the time you reach the border, not when you arrive at your destination, and stops when you go back over the border, not when you  get on the bus from your destination. I had failed to factor in the time difference when I made my original plans. So I arrived in Shanghai fully intending to enjoy 10 days of tourism there and in the capital, when in fact getting there had already eaten up 2 of those days.

So, what do I do? I was directed to the police bureau to get my visa extended. The lady I spoke to explained that I could get my visa extended - for the same price as a new visa ($170). She justified this price as the price that the US charges for PRC citizens to get visas. I couldn't get it extended for just three days either. Surprisingly, given that they had individually tailored my original visa time limit to the exact number of days I was expecting to spend sightseeing in China, my visa could only be extended by standard blocks, of 10 days or 30 days. This was because there was a minimum processing time of 7 days. And oh, by the way, the PRC would have to hold my passport during that processing time. That means I couldn't leave the country; in fact, by Chinese law, I couldn't even board the train, or change my lodging, without my passport. I would be held captive in Beijing for 7 days. Considering the visa charge together with my projected lodging and food costs for those days, and assuming I didn't buy any souvenirs or join any tours, I calculated I would be left with $26 USD at the end of my trip.

Or I could leave. I chose that option. And in order to be sure I made it to the border in enough time, I had to leave that day.

I hurried to Beijing Station to try to figure out how to get the bus back to Ereenhot, but NOBODY, not the people selling tickets, knew where the bus station was (because they only dealt with the train, sorry). I was lucky that I attracted the attention of a middle-aged lady who knew some English, and then she asked around and found an old lady who knew the bus to Ereenhot. She offered to take me right there for $20 bucks, but I declined and ran with her information back to the hostel, where they told me where to catch the city bus that connected to the long-distance bus. They were even nice enough not to charge me anything for the extra nights I cancelled. And within 4 hours of realizing I was doomed, I was on my way out of the country.

No Temple of Heaven, no Summer Palace, no Great Wall, no opera, no lakes, no pandas. And I had already been thinking about how I would go back and brag about having taken a complete tour for less than $1000 - which would have been possible, except for stupidly overlooking one detail that nearly made me a fugitive from the Chinese law.

I did receive a consolation prize. My tour bus passed by the Great Wall for about 1/2 hour, and I was able to take pictures from the window.

The Great Wall, as seen from a bus
The Great Wall, as seen from a bus
Like the bus from Ereenhot to Beijing, the travel time was overestimated, and I arrived in Ereenhot in the wee hours of the morning. There were no cars across the border (I didn't even know where the cars picked people up) but a Mongolian family found me a hotel room and got me a car the next morning.

This car broke down at the last checkpoint, so again I had to catch another one to make it all the way to Zamyn Uud. The train station was out of tickets for that day, so I was stuck in Zamyn Uud for at least another day. There is a hotel affiliated with the train station, and fortunately not only did it have rooms but it could also arrange return train tickets for me. Unfortunately, they had no single rooms and I had to share a room with a traveling Mongolian businessman. He fell asleep, snoring, watching dubbed movies in our room, which ended and turned into grainy Mongolian porn. What bothered me more was that he wanted to sleep with the room's door open, because it was too hot (it's true, it was very hot and muggy, but c'mon), so I argued about that and left the movie issue alone.

This time I got a sleeper seat, so the next afternoon I could zone out in comfort the rest of the way back to UB. Once I was back safe, I wasn't upset anymore about having my trip cut short, because it made for a rather amusing story. And thus ends my trip to China.

1 comment:

  1. I am sorry that your trip to China was cut short but perhaps now that you know the "ropes" perhaps you can make another trip to see the sights you missed. There are very few peopled that could go through what you had to, in order to get back to Mongolia. Pat your self on the back.

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