Chinese visa policy changes on a seemingly weekly basis, but one aspect that remains constant is the frustration—frustration with the bureaucracy, frustration with the inefficiency, but mostly frustration that a country as large as China only allows visitors to stay long enough to see about one percent of it. I felt that frustration again on my most recent trip to the country.
I had previously spent two years living and working in Shanghai and had done some traveling to other parts of the country during my vacations, but I left China feeling like I had only scratched the surface. I figured I would be back one day and, sure enough, in the summer of 2011, I once again found myself in the Chinese immigration office in Hong Kong. I was hoping to spend up to six months in the country, but the longest visa they were handing out at the time was a thirty day, dual entry. That meant I could stay for sixty days, but would have to leave and re-enter China after the first thirty.
I spent the first month in Guangxi and Yunnan provinces and planned to spend the second in Sichuan. Ideally, I would have taken a bus north from Shangri-la in Yunnan to Chengdu in Sichuan, a journey of around 1000 km through some apparently pretty spectacular scenery. Instead I got to make a little detour—a 4000 km detour, to be exact. To put that in perspective, that’s a few hundred kilometers less than the distance from New York to Los Angeles or from Berlin to Baghdad.
Two separate bus rides got me from Shangri-la to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, without any problems. I even got there 5 days before my visa expired to leave me plenty of time in case I had trouble finding bus tickets. I didn’t think for even a second that I might actually get train tickets and a quick glance at the availability board showed me I was right in that assumption—everything was sold out for the next ten days. I managed to get tickets on a sleeper bus to Shenzhen without too much trouble though, so things were looking good.
I ended up staying in a hotel, since all the hostels were full. Don’t ask me why I can never be bothered to make a reservation, despite knowing from my previous visit to Kunming that I probably wouldn’t find a free bed in a hostel. It ended up working out in my favor though.
After several hours of talking to virtually every hotel near the main railway station only to be told they did not have the proper license to accept foreign guests, I eventually got a room for 100 RMB (10 Euros) per night in one of the somewhat nicer high-rise hotels in the area. That’s considerably more than I would have paid for a dorm bed, but a pretty good deal for a single room during the high season, especially one so nice. It almost made me wish I could stay in Kunming a bit longer. Little did I know that wish would come true.
When I showed up at the bus office an hour before my scheduled departure, I was promptly informed that the bus had been cancelled. Worse, they had no available seats on any buses for the next week. I spent a few hours talking to every bus company and travel agent in the area, but the earliest ticket I found, was on a bus leaving two days later, the same day my visa would expire. It was beginning to look like I might have to splurge for a plane ticket.
Then I hit on the brilliant idea to try a hostel. It didn’t seem brilliant at the time, because I wasn’t really expecting them to be much help, but you never know. I had stayed at the Hump Hostel during my previous visit and remembered their ticketing fees being low and people seeming happy with their services, so I hopped a bus to try my luck.
And what do you know, they came through with a seat on a bus leaving the next day. Yes, a seat, not a bed. It was not a sleeper bus, so I would get to enjoy a nice relaxing 30 hours sitting nearly upright with my kneecaps being ground to a fine powder on the seat-back in front of me. I was also going to Guangzhou, not Shenzhen, but I would get there in the morning on the day my visa expired, giving me enough time to hop a train to Shenzhen and cross the border before it closed.
The ride was about as fun as 30 hours in a seat can be, but unlike some of my other bus rides in China, I got stuck next to a great guy. He was skinny, didn’t smell and had no interest in talking to me whatsoever—the perfect neighbor.
When I got to Guangzhou, I checked into a hostel that was really just a guy’s apartment. Apparently Guangzhou has a bunch of these illegal apartment hostels and I was actually told at check-in to say, in the event of a police raid, that I was just a friend in town for a visit. It seems these places get raided quite frequently and I really wanted to find out more, but I needed to get out of there and get on a train to Shenzhen as soon as possible.
I got a train straight to the Luohu border crossing in Shenzhen and walked across into Hong Kong. Leaving China was easy; finding my way back proved to be slightly more difficult. Once out of China, you’re basically funneled directly to the trains leaving for downtown Hong Kong. I had no intention of going all the way to the city or even of taking the train one stop and then returning. The immigration lines for China were one floor below me and it seemed to me, I should simply be able to take a flight of stairs and return to China.
Naturally, I couldn’t find a single staircase. I did find an elevator, but it was locked and meant for officials only. I asked a number of them to unlock it for me, but not seeing a benefit to themselves in doing so, they refused. After an hour of trying to go down a single floor (yes, an hour!), I eventually decided to just hang out by the elevator and wait.
I wasn’t waiting long, before the next official showed up and when he unlocked the elevator and got on, I quickly jumped in after him. The expression on his face was hilarious—he clearly had no idea what to make of this. As I quickly pushed the button I needed and let the door close, I began explaining myself in horrible Chinese—not to help him understand, mind you, but to distract him until the elevator arrived at my floor.
When the doors opened again, I simply got off and thanked him for his help. It was obvious he still didn’t quite understand what was going on, but I figured he wouldn’t really care since I was still outside of China and still had to go through immigration. I was right and he just walked away. In fact, he seemed only too happy to get away from me.
Getting through immigration was easy after that and after picking up a suitcase I had left at the station a month earlier and getting some lunch, I returned to Guangzhou. At Guangzhou Railway Station, I decided to look into tickets on the off-chance I might actually get one and I did! The train would leave in two days and would take me to Chongqing. I wanted to go to Chengdu, but it was close enough and it turned out, I actually kind of liked Chongqing, apart from the horrible smog (read about my time in Chongqing).
While everything worked out all right in the end, by the time I finally arrived in Chengdu, almost two weeks had passed since I had left Shangri-la. Any way you cut it, the trip was a huge waste of time and I really hope they’ve since done away with the ridiculous dual-entry tourist visas.