TRAVEL in CHINA
How to Not get a Chinese visa
21 May 2017
My last story ended with an impossibly exciting cliff-hanger, so I am sure you are all now basically falling off your chair out of excitement. Here it is folks, the follow-up, no more sleepless nights! Today we talk about the nerve wrecking process of getting a visa for world’s most bureaucratic country: China. Ready for some more bureaucracy?
Reminder: we are still in Sri Lanka, the country of possibilities. We enjoy the sun, the beach, the ocean. We are totally zen. Now continue reading.
After changing our Amsterdam – Asia itinerary for the 100th time, we had decided we would drive back home via China and the Stans. In order to do so, we had to pay a ridiculous amount to an tour operator to get us through China, but that was only one country, so we could manage that. Plus, we found an operator with the cheapest offer who turned out to be a very friendly guy, available 24/7 for all our questions and advice. His agency would arrange everything, including a Chinese license plate and a Chinese driving license. All we had to arrange was our own visa. Fair play.
The problem, however, was that we were not allowed to actually tell the Chinese embassy of our plans, as they would not grant us a visa for our travel plan. Why? We did not really know. If we are allowed to travel China by car as long as we are accompanied by our travel agent, than why would they not give us a visa for it?
But I guess you are not supposed to ask questions when it comes to Chinese policy.
Off we went to the Chinese embassy in Colombo with an impossible, fake travel plan. Our travel agent had provided us with a fake itinerary, describing a 13 day tour trough China, including an overland entry into China from Erenhot, Mongolia, a tour of Beijing and a flight from Shanghai returning us to the Netherlands. It looked quite good to us, but of course it was not sufficient. At the embassy they told us that alongside this travel plan we needed to hand in the confirmation of our flight to Mongolia, from where our “tour” was staring and a confirmation of the flight home from Shanghai. We also needed to hand in a confirmation of the fully paid hotel booking for every night spent in China. Last but not least, we needed to show our flight out of India.
Are you still following me? It does not really matter. What it comes down to is that we needed to show a lot of flight confirmations. Shit. Flights? We were not going to fly anywhere… And fully paid hotel booking? Our agent had some hotel bookings, but of course they did not correspond with our fake travel plan. Booking.com and other sites clearly state on their confirmations that you have not paid yet. Surely we were not going to spend a fortune on booking hotels and flights just to get into China, for which we have to spend a fortune anyway (tour operator & paperwork). What then? Not go to China?
Luckily we knew how to solve one part of the problem: the flight tickets. We already mentioned them as our saviour in my last story: Travel Visa Services, helped us out again. They supplied us with all the necessary flights, within a few hours, easy! We then contacted our travel agent who provided us with some hotel bookings, unpaid, that corresponded with our fake travel plan. Unpaid, it said. Luckily there are some effective photo shopping tools out there, so we pretty quickly turned our unpaid bookings into paid ones.
Armed with our newly added fake travel details we went to the embassy again. This time, they accepted our request! Great! We had heard that getting the Chinese embassy to accept your request is the difficult part, after you have handed it in, chances are high that you will be getting your visa. All we had to do now was wait. We got on a train to the South of Sri Lanka to do our waiting in style: on the beach.
A few days later we had just arrived on a (not so secret) secret beach after a long and difficult walk, when we suddenly got a message from my father, saying he had received a call from the Chinese embassy: something was wrong with our application and they had been unable to reach us. Shit. There we were on this beautiful little beach, quite far from town, with hardly any phone reception, stressing out over our visa application. What to do? We decided to order some beers.
After another round we realized beer was not going to solve our problems, although it did calm our nerves a bit, and we decided to head back to town where we would have better reception. When we finally got a hold of the embassy, the only thing they told us was that we were denied our Chinese visa. No matter how much we pleaded, we did not get more information. No why’s, now how’s, no nothing. End of story.
The next few days were spent stressing out over alternative options: we could try to get our visa in Pakistan? Or sent our passports home from Pakistan? But all of this meant a very narrow time frame, too much of a risk if you ask us. But we were left with no other choices, really.
Life goes on and thus we moved beaches, met some awesome people at a cosy hostel, swam with gigantic turtles, spotted some beautifully coloured fish and stalked the Chinese embassy. Somehow David had gotten a hold on a private phone number of one of the ladies working at the embassy and he sent her a message every day, asking whether there was nothing we could do. The stalker attitude paid off: we received a message saying that we were going to be interviewed at them embassy on Monday. We had to bring all relevant information and “come prepared”. Never mind the almost threat-like instructions, there was a chance! We did a happy dance and spend the next few days drilling each other on every aspect of our fake travel plan, trying to think of every question the embassy could ask.
On Monday we took the early train to Colombo, squished in one carriage with what seemed like half of the country’s working population. Once we arrived at the embassy, we were called to come to the back-office part where two embassy employees were waiting for us. We were asked to sit down and for a nerve-breaking half an hour we were questioned. Why were we flying back to the Netherlands from India to go to China two days later? Why not go directly from India? Why did we leave India and were we going back again? Why not stay longer the first time? Where were we working? Did we actually work there? Did we have proof? Why did we have a new Pakistani visa in our passport?
Luckily the embassy employees were very nice people, stern, but nice and after careful questioning and scrutinizing of our plans we were asked to leave in order for them to reconsider.
Phfew. It was not too bad. At least we were able to answer most questions, although our plans probably still seemed very peculiar. Some stressful minutes passed and we were called back in. They would grant our visa, but we would have to apply for an express procedure, as our flight back to India was leaving the next day (never mind we handed in the application more than a week and a half ago). At that moment, we could not care less about the extra charges, as we were getting our visa! No more stress. That is priceless, right?
All in all we cannot really complain that we had difficulties with handing in our fake travel plan details, because, well, they were fake, we were not telling the truth. And you cannot really complain about the fact that they make it difficult for you to hand in a fake travel plan. On the other hand, why are we even forced to hand in a fake plan if all we want to do is cross from Pakistan to Kirgizstan in four days? When we have even complied to their requirement of getting a tour operator to do so?
We found out the reason for that later. We would be driving through a province inhabited by one of China’s minorities, the Muslims of Xianjang. Like many other minorities, this group of people did not voluntarily join the Chinese state. Apparently this forced adoption of set province came and comes with such unsightly state actions, that certain officials do not want foreign eyes intruding. This means that if we would have handed in our real travel plan, we would have probably not received a visa.
What struck me most in this whole process is that you need to book everything ahead, flights, hotels etc., after which they can still turn down your application. Can you imagine we would have actually paid for the hotels and the flights and they would have turned us down? I do not think that is fair. Or maybe it is not a question of fairness, but I just find it ridiculous. All this trouble just because you want to visit a country, get to know its people and see what it has to offer?
In the end, I can say I would definitely love to visit China again, and stay for much longer than four days, but boy do I still hate their bureaucracy. People often ask us what our best experience was on this trip, but that question is just too difficult to answer. How can you choose between so many nice people, beautiful places and interesting experiences? I can however pick the worst experience so far and I do not even have to think twice: the Chinese border crossing. But, more on that in David’s next story! (Oh no…. Another cliff-hanger?!)