Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Hello, Goodbye Shanghai

Megan and Sean, this timely post is for you:

I've been saying for weeks that I'll talk about my random adventures in Hong Kong. It turns out that as a non-EU resident, I cannot apply for a Chinese visa while in the EU. Surprise! Luckily, I went to the states for two weeks prior to returning to China. So, I figured it would be no problem to swing by the Chinese embassy during my week in DC. You only need a minimum of 24 hours to apply for a visa.

Enter Snowmageddonpocolypse. The Chinese embassy was closed almost the entire week I was in DC. The one day it was open, public transportation and taxis were shut down. As I was lacking in Iditarod supplies, I couldn't make it across town. No problem, Lauren! You still have a week before your flight leaves! Problem. The following week was Chinese new year, during which all embassies and consulates were closed, due to open the day my flight left for China.

The logical solution was to switch my ticket to the next day, or even any day within the next week and then drive to New York for the day. Not so! I was informed that unless I wanted to spend $3000 plus on buying a new last-minute ticket on a different airline, the next available spot to switch my ticket to was at the end of March. Meaning I would STILL be in Boston. Good gracious. I tried calling China. I tried calling the state department. I tried calling three different airports and the airline that I was flying. No visa, no dice. The woman at Delta offered to pray for me. Grand.

After careful perusal of the Chinese embassy website, I came across a loophole saying you could apply for a special transit visa on arrival if you were transferring to Hong Kong or Japan and had bought the ticket 24 hours before your first departure from the States (or whatever your country of origin). Hong Kong doesn't require American citizens to obtain a visa, hallelujah! But, I discovered said loophole after the 24 hour mark.

I bought my ticket immediately and then proceeded to stress immensely. In Boston, the lady at the ticket counter had to call immigration, the state department and the Chinese government. Seems this is an underused loophole. Eventually she gave me a handwritten note - basically a second-grade hall pass - and warned me of the bajillion fines and deportation that awaited me. At the gateway in Detroit I was pulled out of line and my passport taken. Then we had to call immigration, the state department and the Chinese government. Eventually I was let on the plan with warnings of imminent deportation.

When I landed in Shanghai, the desk to apply for transit visas was unmanned, as it was past 5. So, a helpful janitor told me to just go through customs. Still not sure if this was correct, but that's what I did. At the customs desk there was massive confusion as to my lack of visa. I again showed my hall pass and the print out of the embassy website. Then I was escorted to a dimly lit, windowless room and my passport was taken away. About an hour wait later, it was returned, with a handwritten scribble on the visa page that apparently authorized me for a 24 hour stay in Shanghai. I had 12 hours until my Hong Kong flight, so I thought about swinging by my apartment with all my luggage, but was too afraid to leave the airport.

The next morning my flight to Hong Kong was delayed, but I made it! Upsetting though, since I was too late arriving to get to the Chinese consulate in time for visa application before the weekend. Had some difficulty finding my hostel, but eventually got there as well. I was a little too excited about riding on the top deck of the bus (Emma, you know how I feel about those), and stopped paying attention to the stop announcements. (Also a fun British holdover: all that free credit Tesco always puts on my British SIM finally got to be used before expiring!). Anyway, the hostel was great, and they upgraded me to a private room because they ran out of dorm space. I was originally sad about the lack of social life, but it ended up being amazing since I was beyond jetlagged.

[Hong Kong has a truly beautiful skyline]

The next morning Sean came back to Hong Kong and took me sightseeing. We went to the top of the peak via fununcular (as loyal readers know is one of my all time favorite modes of travel). Excellent planning as this turned out to be the only clear day of my visit. The view is spectacular. Then we took one of National Geographic's 50 places of a lifetime across to Kowloon. The waterfront in Kowloon was amazing for three reasons: 1. There was a Haibao. 2. There was a Chinese band playing a painful cover of Rihanna's Umbrella. 3. There is the Hong Kong Walk of Stars. This means I got to put my hands in the prints of Jackie Chan AND Bruce Lee. Enough said.

[One of the 50 places of a lifetime!!]

[Jackie Chan!!]

We also went to the Hong Kong museum and learned about a statue of people perched on really, really tall chairs through the magic of iphone and 3G (which absolutely without a doubt doesn't exist here).

The next day Sean had to work, and I had to get my visa. I'm glad I went to the consulate early. I was first in line and got some quality reading in. My application was done in 5 minutes once they opened, and when I left there was a line of at least 200 people that wrapped around the block. After this superfunness, I went to see the Giant Buddha on Lantau Island. Since I was really into alternative transport and circuitous routes on this trip, I took the ferry + scary mountain bus there. The buddha is 112 feet tall and is affiliated with the adjacent Po Lin Monastery. Don't be fooled, this is no ancient relic of Hong Kong - it was built in 1992. It's still pretty cool looking, especially since the weather was misty and the buddha was shrouded in mystery. Plus, there's a piece of the Gautama Buddha inside! I was thiiiisss close. I had a vegetarian lunch with my new pengyoumen from the bus ride and then headed back to the island by the incredibly more convenient MTR to meet up with Sean, tour guide extraordinaire, for dinner.

[Big Buddha]

Tuesday meant I got to go pick up my visa! I was pretty giddy. So much effort for that silly little pink paper. Then I had the whole morning before my late afternoon flight. The weather was nice, if a bit hazy, so I just sat outside and read and absorbed vitamin D, and got painfully sunburnt. Met Sean for lunch and said goodbye, then headed for the airport.
[View from my sunburn:]

Delay, delay, delay again, cancelled. Will I ever get to China!? Finally someone at the desk came up to me and the 3 other foreigners on my flight and told us that we would have to come back Wednesday morning. We whined and he offered us 100 yuan. Then he turned around and offered the far more irate Chinese passengers hotel rooms for the night. Then denied doing so when I called him on it. Just because I'm white doesn't mean I don't speak Mandarin. More arguing, and the foreigners got hotel rooms too! Only to arrive at the hotel and be told that we were expected to all room together, because as foreigners we must know each other, right? No thank you, I would prefer not to room with the three strange men who happened to be on my flight. More arguing and then I got the nicest hotel room I've had in a long long time. Glorious! And then I befriended my other weary foreign travelers (who were all there on visa issues - if you have a resident permit in China, you have to leave the country every three months to keep it valid).

Drinks at the hotel bar turned into clubbing in downtown Hong Kong, which turned into KTV, which turned into the most random night ever. Got back to my beautiful hotel room around 5, approximately 4 hours to takeoff. But, I made expo friends and had to speak in Spanish most of the night because it was the only shared language between myself, two French guys and a Spaniard. Who knew I remembered any Spanish? (Suck it, Senor Abadia).

Back to the airport where my flight was (obviously) delayed again. Finally made it back to Shanghai exactly one week and two hours from when I left Boston! Welcome to the 21st century! I had been sending hourly updates to my boss with what was going on. She only responded once, and briefly: "The world is flat but the roads are not yet paved."


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