Permanent Vacasian

The traveller sees what he sees; the tripper sees what he has come to see. – G. K. Chesterton

There’s No Place Like Home

July 26, 2009
by Tina
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Jakarta, Indonesia – The final stop on our nine month journey was Jakarta. From there I would fly home just in time for my Neurotech appointments and Stuart would travel solo for three more weeks in Borneo. We decided to travel the seven hours to Jakarta via train. It seemed fitting to end our trip the same way it began – riding the rails. We felt like old pros until we almost got off at the wrong station in Jakarta. What a rookie blunder!

There was a big convention in town, so our picks for lodging were slim. We ended up at a decent, but shabby hotel located in the tourist ghettos of Jalan Jaska. Not the prettiest part of town, but I don’t think there is a pretty part of Jakarta. It’s pretty much your typical big, ugly city and was just a point of departure for us anyway. But we got in a few more great meals and a lot of last minute shopping for gifts.

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Good Mid-afternoon Vietnam!

January 2, 2009
by Stuart

After spending a few days in Nanning waiting for our Vietnam visa to be processed, we boarded the 8:00am bus on Thursday to Hanoi. The ride was pretty uneventful, but the border crossing was pretty amusing. This was our first time crossing a border by bus, so we were used to the relative ease of crossing by train – where the officials do all the work. This crossing involved two buses, two shuttle carts and intense scrutiny of Tina’s passport photo.

The bus to the border from Nanning was only about three hours – including the multiple breaks taken about every hour. Once we got to the border, everyone had to get off the bus, grab their luggage, then hop on a shuttle cart (a golf cart that sat 12 people) and get carted about 300 meters to a building where we had to fill out an exit card for China. We then went downstairs to have our passports stamped and luggage scanned.

Now, you loyal fans of this blog have noticed that I have not kept the same clean cut appearance that I sported in SF – which makes me closer resemble a homeless Berkeley hippie then the guy in my passport photo (taken eight years ago). Tina, however, still looks pretty dang close to her passport photo – which is only a few years old. But the customs guy didn’t look at me twice. Yet when Tina got to the counter, he made her remove her glasses, change her hair and even called someone over to help him decide if it was really her.

Once they accepted Tina’s visual legitimacy, we had another another shuttle ride to the next building where we filled out all the paperwork for Vietnam. The paperwork was pretty simple, but the arrangement of the building was confusing: the window with the customs paperwork was at the far end requiring you to swim upstream back towards the entrance to hand in your paperwork and wait for the stamp (Westerners served last, thank you).

Then you went to the middle window to get a “medical exam” where they declared you in perfect health provided you had the right amount of money – which we didn’t, but some nice Canadian girls we befriended on the bus helped us out. Behind the counter at the medical exam desk, there was a computer screen that had what looked like a sonogram that changed when either of us moved, and there was also a digital thermometer reading that seemed to fluctuate wildly.

Since our (us and the two Canadians) passports were processed last, we were the last to board the bus which had plenty of room in the rear prompting us to holler, “Westerners in the back!”. Once we were seated, the bus pulled out, and we resumed our trip to Hanoi. The scenery seemed to change right as we crossed the border: it was more lush, more tropical plants and endless rice paddies with farmers in the conical hats bent over picking rice out of the ground.

China Visa Extension Tension

December 10, 2008
by Stuart
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Once I got back to Beijing I headed over to the visa office to start the extension process. I had my passport, photo, application filled out and a receipt from the hotel proving I was staying in Beijing. But when I got up to the counter the woman helping me asked where my birth certificate was. Stunned, I repeated, “birth certificate”? She affirmed that was correct, so I asked where in the heck I get a copy of my birth certificate in Beijing?! From a bank, I was told. She then pointed to a sheet of paper that was a certificate of deposit from a bank. Turns out she was saying “bank” and not “birth”. When I asked if she wanted a “bank” certificate – accentuating the “k” – she gave me a glaring “yes” then moved to person next in line.

I went to the information officer and asked what the bank certificate was about. She said that in order for me to extend my visa, I needed to have $3,000 USD in a bank account in China – $100 a day for 30 days. This was to prove that I could support myself while in China. I tried to explain that currently I was living off of about $25 a day, but she didn’t seem impressed with my thrifty self.

There were so many problems with this bank business. 1) how was I going to get $3,000? You can only withdraw about $250 a day from an ATM, so it would take over a week to get the money. 2) wiring money internationally would be really expensive, plus I have no idea how that works. 3) can I even open a bank account in China? 4) I only had two more days left on my current visa.

So after calling my mom to ask if she could transfer money from my account to me if needed, I called Tina to come up with a game plan. We decided that Tina would bring over $3,000 in cash and I’d put it in a bank. Dang she’s smart.

Then I went to some banks to find out if I could open an account, and more importantly, get my money out without penalty and in a timely fashion. The only catch was that if I opened an account in Beijing, I’d have to close it here, too. That would mean at some point I’d have to come back here just to close my account. And I still was clear on things because I was never sure they understood what I was asking, and I kept being transferred to someone else.

After talking to the banks, I went online to the official site of the Beijing police and read that they also accept traveler’s cheques. Sweet! Tina thought this would be a safer option so we decided on that. But when she got here, and we went back to the police, they refused the cheques and demanded a statement from a bank.

So we went down the block and opened an account at the Bank of Beijing and asked to deposit the money. This took an hour. They said they would accept the cheques and asked me to sign them all in front of the cashier (I had 30 $100 cheques). Then she said I could only deposit $500 unless I had the receipt for the cheques – and if not, I could take the cheques around to other banks and resign them, get cash, then come back and deposit the money. Oh, and I needed to use the hotel’s address for my account.

After explaining that for security reasons you don’t carry the cheques and the reciept, and that since I signed them in front of her, I could only cash them with her, they let me deposit all the money as long as I returned the next day with the reciept. She then asked when I wanted to close the account. I remembered that the infromation officer at the police explained they need a certificate because during the approvial process, lots of people check to make sure I have the money, and if I took my money out too soon, I won’t get my visa extended. So I said I’d like to get my money out the same day I get my visa – in a week. She then informed me that until then, my account was frozen.

Wasting My Time In Lanzhou

December 10, 2008
by Stuart

Snowcapped peaks of the Qilian Shan range.

Snow-capped peaks of the Qilian Shan range.

Wanting to save time, I decided to fly from Kashgar to Lanzhou. This cost a bit more then taking the train, but gave me about three more days to see things instead of sitting on the train. As a bonus, the airline, In a effort to increase customer goodwill, included a free night’s hotel stay with my flight from Kashgar to Urumqi (the most inland city in the world, btw). But after our baggage took two hours to come out, and the bus ride to the hotel took 45 minutes, we arrived at the hotel around 2 am. Then the clerk wouldn’t check me in until the locals all got taken care of, leaving me to share a room with some businessman. He was nice enough, but it was kinda awkward. Especially when he said we would be waking up at 7 am for the bus but turned out it was actually 6 am.

The flight to Lanzhou was nice – we got tons of food and because I had a window seat, I got a good view of the city and the dunes when we flew right over Dunhuang and then some beautiful mountains and snow-covered valleys.

Some of the foothills near Lanzhou.

Some of the foothills near Lanzhou.

But my mood that morning was quickly changed when I started trying to check into a hotel. I must have checked five or six hotels and the only room they would give me was an expensive double. They all had dorm rooms and singles listed, but I was told I couldn’t have one. At the last hotel I checked, I was so frustrated that I asked what room I could have if I was Chinese. The clerks blushed, and kinda look at the floor – one couldn’t even look at me anymore – while the other sheepishly pointed to one of the less expensive rooms. So I went back to the first hotel – the cheapest option – and checked in, determined to get my money’s worth by taking the world’s longest shower that night.

*   *   *

There isn’t much to do in Lanzhou. My purpose in going was two fold: extend my visa and take a bus to the town of Xiahe which has the Lebring Monistarty – the biggest outside of Tibet. The travel desk at the hotel said it was closed to foreigners because of some political problems and recent events had put tourists at risk. But the British guys I hung out with in Jiayuguan were going and that was only a couple weeks ago. Even all the forums I checked online said it was closed and tourists were stopped by police and turned back. Then I found a random AP story from a week earlier that said it had been opened for a month.

The only way to be sure was to go to the bus station and try to get a ticket. Since it was late at night, I could only find out the times (7:30am, 8:30am, 2:20pm) and was told to come back in the morning and I could get one – but since I wanted to get my visa extended first, I decided to try for the next day instead.

Farmland just outside Lanzhou.

Farmland just outside Lanzhou.

On the way home I stopped at a hotpot place for dinner. No one spoke English and the menu wasn’t in English but it did have pictures. So after trying to figure it out I ordered the one with the smallest stack of sliced beef I could get – 18 pieces. I know that seems like a lost, but once they cooked down, it wasn’t all that much meat. The waitress help me order more food which turned out to be a mistake. When they brought out the broth, it had about six different kinds of peppers floating around, and the dipping sauce had a few more.

As I started eating the beef, they just kept bringing food – carrots, cabbage, quail eggs, noodles – stuff I’m not even sure I even ordered. But I was hungry, so what the heck? Part way through the meal they brought a glass of this warm milk-like substance. But it was a bit sweeter – like tapioca flavored – and I think used to calm the fire in your mouth. I’m glad I didn’t drink that much because when I went to use their bathroom before leaving the restaurant, all three urinals were filled with puke that looked and smelled exactly like that drink.

*   *   *

The next morning I decided that I needed to get my train ticket to Beijing as well as get my visa extension done first. I researched some times for the trains then went to the train station and got my ticket then took the bus over where the local PSB (police) branch that handles visa extensions. The LP guide said they can do it in one day – turns out the need five. And the extension starts the day you apply, not the day your current visa runs out (so when you apply for an extension of 30 days, the first five are spent waiting for them to process your extension). But since Tina wasn’t going to be back for a week, I didn’t want to use up a week of my extension without her so thanks, but no thanks.

Street vendor cooking up some noodles.

Street vendor cooking up some noodles.

After stopping at a bookstore, getting bus insurance (which the British guys needed before they could get bus tickets, and the RG guide mentioned), then having some steamed beef dumplings for lunch, I went back to the hotel to spend the rest of the afternoon reading and watching Chinese TV – which I am addicted to. There was a night market a few blocks from the apartment so I went  to a little stall and had some noodles while watching some gory Chinese war movie with the staff.

I got up to catch the 8:30am bus down to Xahie planning to come back the next afternoon then catching my train to Beijing the next day. So I checked out, got the station only to find out that I needed multiple copies of my passport and visa (which I didn’t have) and that I didn’t need that insurance after all. So as I was being handed off to person after person – none of whom spoke English, and the bus leaving in about five minutes – I pointed to my watch and said I didn’t have time to make all these copies (not sure where to do that) and make the 8:30am bus.

Pig's feet? Clams? Some weird parts of chicken?

"If it comes from a pig, I got it".

Not to worry – turns out there wasn’t an 8:30am bus that day anyway! – the next bus wasn’t until 2:30pm. And since it takes about four hours to get there I would be getting there at night, only to have to leave early the next day. Totally not worth it. So tired of wasting my money and time in this town, I walked out of the bus station, and took the bus back to the train station, begged them to change my ticket to Beijing to that day, and got the last bed on the 12:20pm train.

I did learn the most valuable travel advice for China: the only actable information is from the person you are dealing with at the moment. Not something you read or that someone else told you before. And even then, it’s wrong because they don’t really know either.

Ya Had Me, But Then Ya Lost Me

August 31, 2008
by Stuart
Comments Off on Ya Had Me, But Then Ya Lost Me

Due to the Summer Olympics in Beijing, China made some changes to the visa application process making it a bit more complicated. You now need proof of travel in and out of China and hotel reservations for your ENTIRE stay in China. This is to discourage independent travel and encourage traveling with a tour. And because Tina has to come back to SF while we are in China, she needed proof of her flight from Beijing to SF and back for her multi-entry visa.

Getting our train tickets from Mongolia to China turned out to be a problem because you can’t book train tickets online (it also costs more buying them over here). So instead, we got one-way flights from Ulan Bator, Mongolia to Beijing, then from Beijing to Bangkok.

So last Thursday, I got up early and drove to the Chinese Embassy in SF. There was a long line but I finally made it in and waited in another line. Once I got up to the window and handed in our paperwork, the woman “helping” me starting going through all the forms circling dates and highlighting names and checking them against our passports. She started asking me questions through one of those speaker things like at a movie theater box office. Except her’s didn’t work that well. And neither did her English. So I couldn’t really hear her. But when I could, I didn’t really understand her.

Turns out I had left some pretty crucial information back at the ranch. Thankfully, the ranch had a fax machine – or at least Tina’s office did. So I got outta line and had Tina fax her flight information to the Embassy. Then I got back to the window and we started it all over again – the highlighting, the circling. When she asked where my hotel reservations where, I explained that Tina had made them and that I was going to be staying with her. She gave me a long cold stare. It was then that I noticed, right in front of her,  a big stamp. The size you use when you really mean it. Or when you don’t want someone to enter your country. Ever. With the bold, red letters, “DENIED“.

After understanding me about the hotel reservations, she got curious how we were getting to Mongolia in the first place. We were taking the train from Russia, I explain. She asked where our flight info to Russia was. Wondering if she was gonna need anything else, I asked if she cared what we did after China. “No”. So, I got outta line again and had Tina fax our Russia flight info to the Embassy. When I got back to the window she asked where the train tickets were. Again I notice the stamp. I explain that we don’t have them because they’re hard to get over here. Cold stare. Have I mentioned the stamp yet? She asks me to write on the Mongolia to China flight reservation printouts that we are taking the train from Russia to Mongolia.

Apparently that was good enough – she finally approved our application. So I left the Embassy, walked past some guy praying for Tibet, got into my car and wondered if it’s not too late to get my job back.