Friday, July 26, 2013

One hell of a ride

Day 10

So where were we? Oh yeah, that 20-hour bus to Vientiane I keep complaining about …

I got picked up at my hostel in Hanoi by motorbike and he dropped me off at the side of a parking lot, saying he would pick up other people. After a while, we all took a minibus to the bus station and got on our bus – I’d rather not sit in the back because I heard the roads were pretty bad in Laos and it’s hard to get out to the bathroom and such. The seats are basically recliners with some space in the front to stretch out your feet, but I could see how someone even just a little taller than me (I’m 5’ 6”) would have to sleep with their legs bent or something. Again, a lot of Europeans on this bus with a few Vietnamese who automatically got the front seats. As with a lot of things in SE Asia, we always had to take off our shoes and put them in a plastic bag when boarding the bus, although we were pretty caked in mud by the end of the trip, so I didn’t know if it really mattered.

A Korean guy sat next to me and I could overhear him talking with his friends about asking me or the other European in the seat over to switch with them so they could sit together. I offered to switch with one of the guys who was holding a seat in the front, but as soon as I got there, the bus attendant shook his head and said it was his seat. I looked back and didn’t see any other seats, but turns out there was one in the very back in the corner. Great. Next time, no time for being nice traveler and I’ll just stick to the seat I got in the first place. But I did end up sitting next to four English guys (they’re everywhere!) and another Dutch guy, all of us in one row, a German guy and Indian guy in front of me, and two girls from Belgium in the second-to-last seats on the other side. We all sort of bonded through the trip and they always teased me for being American (“The window curtain fell off and it’s all the American’s fault!”). I also met a Pakistani guy who was an Economics grad student at Yale – we both used the “I go to school in Connecticut line” and that’s how we figured out we were both at Yale, SMALL WORLD – and his wife from San Francisco on the same bus. It was interesting to hear my seatmates’ conversations about traveling, especially backpacking through America. I’ve never really thought about traveling America that way because it’s home – if I have to go somewhere, I sleep in hotels, not hostels in America because the dollar makes sense to me and I have higher standards for accommodation. It was nice to hear some appreciation for America – the German guy talked about how most people didn’t realize how diverse it was and how more people should check out the Midwest (not just the NY/West Coast route) to really get a taste of it. Ahh, I would love to take like a one-month long road trip someday to see more of America – the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and other beautiful places in the Midwest.

5-seater in the back - but at least the company was good

Our first bathroom stop was one of those outdoor restaurants in the middle of nowhere in Vietnam, but the bathrooms were covered in cobwebs and spiders. The guys I was with were literally freaking out and said they’d rather go pee in the wild. That’s what I ended up doing too, even though I’m not too afraid of spiders. I accidentally got a lot of mud on my shoes, which stayed on throughout the rest of the trip – well, it kind of made it seem like I had been to places at least.

A little after 3 a.m., we arrived at the Vietnam-Laos border, but from reading travel blogs beforehand, I knew they weren’t going to open up until 7. Why did the buses leave so early from Hanoi then? Maybe just to queue early for the immigration line. So we were all stuck on a hot, miserable bus (they had turned off the air conditioning long ago) with the added danger of getting bitten outside of a major city, which could have meant malaria. I put on bug spray like crazy and gave some to the guy next to me. I couldn’t fall asleep because I had to go to the bathroom again, so I decided to make the trek out of the bus – I stepped on a few locals who were sleeping on the bus floor and they were pretty annoyed, but what else could you do? The German guy was already outside (he had jumped out of the window) and was scratching his head as to how I managed to get out from the back of the bus.

This little box of Vietnamese crackers sustained me through that hell ride

I was able to catch a couple hours before they woke us up for immigration. It was a pretty slow process, as it seemed the Vietnamese officials prioritized exit stamping locals first. Some of the people on the bus had trouble with their passports – the Indian guy had the wrong exit date written on his passport when he got his Vietnamese visa, so he spent a good deal arguing with the officials. He did get the stamp in the end without having to bribe them for it. Two girls also didn’t have enough USD for a Laos visa (they only take USD), so one of them ended up taking a taxi back to the nearest ATM on the Vietnamese side. That was a reckless idea, as she wouldn’t come back for another two hours and the bus had to leave the two of them in the end. The other people on the bus were all saying they definitely have offered them money if they had asked – sometimes, you shouldn't hesitate to ask for strangers’ help.

After we got our passports back, we were a bit confused as to where to go next, because we had seen our bus go past us. Turns out we had to walk about 1km on a pretty muddy road from the Vietnamese immigration office to the Lao one. The bus attendant kept pushing us to hurry up, but the Belgian girls got pissed off because they wanted to wait for everyone else at the Vietnamese office. We all made our way eventually to the Lao office, which was a lot quicker than our exit procedures and got back on the bus. The roads weren’t as bad as I thought, although it was pretty windy. I was able to catch up on sleep a bit. The only bad thing after that was getting bit three times in another bathroom on the way – I really hope they weren’t malaria-infected mosquitoes because my Yale travel health session didn’t give me malaria pills after I told them I was only traveling in major cities. If no symptoms show up after 40 days, then I probably don’t have malaria, but we’ll see…

We got to the bus station in Vientiane surprisingly early (around 3 p.m. instead of the projected 5 to 7 p.m.) and I got a jumbo (basically a bigger tuk tuk on the back of a truck instead of a motorbike) to take me to my hostel. I met some more Americans in my dorm (whoot fellow American travelers) and caught a much deserved sleep.

If I had to make the same route again, I’d probably fly. But I am glad I got the experience, met new people, and saved $150. Maybe someday when I have a decent job and some money, I can afford hotels and flights, but while I’m still young and broke, I’m sticking to the hostels and overnight buses because that’s an experience you can only get when you're this age.

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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Getting out of Laos (more visa issues)

Day 14

[Skipping ahead, but I want to post this now so my last post doesn't have to be about visa issues. I think I'd rather end on a good note in Laos]

Whew, just got hit with another day of full of visa hassles and I’m sort of stuck in Laos for the time being while my stuff for China is processing. I made the unfortunate mistake of thinking I could get into Beijing for 72 hours without a visa because of the new transit policy instated this year by the Chinese government, but because I make a domestic stop in China (Kunming) on my way from Vientiane to Beijing, I was only eligible for 24 hours of transit. I didn’t figure this out until the night before my flight to Beijing in my hostel in Luang Prabang when I was looking up transit procedures. Um, could the fine print about the domestic stopovers have been a little bit more noticeable? The only thing I could find was off an Air China website and things from Tripadvisor forums. The embassy notice about the transit policy regulations say nothing about this. I couldn’t sleep all night thinking of what I could do:

Plan A - at least talk to the China Eastern airline agents once I got to Vientiane and see if I could change around my flights at a reasonable price so that I would get back to Tokyo within the 24 hour limit
Plan B - get a rush Chinese visa ($160) at the embassy in Vientiane like I had done in Cambodia for my Vietnamese visa in time for my flight to Kunming at 2:50 p.m.
Plan C – book a cheap flight to Tokyo with another airline (I had spent hours the night before looking up possible routes and the best deal was maybe taking the bus to Bangkok or flying to Seoul and getting a flight to Tokyo from there, but it was still pretty pricey)

When I got to the Vientiane airport, I scurried around trying to find an agent for China Eastern. Too bad none of them show up at the counter til around noon because their only flight from Vientiane leaves at 2:50 p.m. I even went to their office in the back and it was dark and locked. After getting more nervous, I decided to chance it and try out a travel agency that could do Chinese visas I had found on a forum last night. Whenever I’m stressed, I don’t really think clearly about money matters, so I paid a good bit for a taxi back to town. I got to the travel agency as soon as they were opening, as well as some other Chinese tourists who were looking to get into Thailand. Of course, they were there first, but I couldn’t help feel a little panicky as I waited for my turn. But all the travel agency can do though is print out your flight itinerary and a temporary booking for a hotel to make it look like you’ve got lodging there, both documents required for applying at the embassy directly. They were nice enough to call the embassy for me and ask if a same-day visa was possible, but the reply they got was that it was only possible by 4 p.m. The travel agency said I could try at the embassy anyway and show them my flight itinerary, which clearly had me leaving Vientiane today. So I withdrew some quick cash from a nearby ATM and exchanged it for USD (which burned a whole in my pocket since most ATMs have withdraw limits of ~$130) and got a tuk tuk to the Chinese embassy (again not bargaining much gaah), which is pretty much out in the middle of nowhere but at least not super far from the city center.

I walked up to the cluster of people around the clerk and waited what seemed like forever for an application form. I asked the guy if it was possible to get a same-day visa and he was like, “No, no…” “Please, I have a flight at 2:50 p.m.” Still shaking his head. Crap. I grabbed the visa form anyway and got the tuk tuk driver to head back to the airport to see if the China Eastern people had shown up.

They still weren’t at the counter, but I went to the office again and this time, a light was on. I went in and a surprised agent peered at me around his cubicle. I started speaking in English but blank stare – switched to Chinese, but it wasn’t enough, so he got an Air Asia agent to translate for me. (Curse my deteriorating Chinese.) The Air Asia agent confirmed that it was only possible for me do 24 hours in China because I had a domestic stopover, so I had to change my flight route to fit that. The China Eastern agent motioned for me to go back to the departure lobby, and I thought we could change it right then and there, but in fact, he just got me an airport taxi to take me to the China Eastern airlines office in town. Oh god, not here again and not another wasted transportation cost. Well, the driver was nice, and when I got to the office, I was able to explain my situation in better Chinese after I had calmed down, so the agent there could understand. However, we had to wait around for the other agent to come around and make the actual booking. When she came, she looked up flights for me and said it would be pretty expensive for me to change my route to Tokyo because the flights from Beijing to Tokyo were full and I would probably have to pay for a business class seat. So I asked about just pushing my original flight from Vientiane to Kunming to Beijing to tomorrow, and she said it would only cost around $50. Great, a lead. Now all I had to do was get that Chinese visa by tomorrow morning… She called the embassy and they told her it was possible for me to go when it opened up for the afternoon at 2 and get it by 9 the next morning.

It wasn't even 1 yet, so I just ate lunch in the meantime, booked a room at the hostel where I had rented my bike the day before (it turned out to be just a tad sketchy) and tried to stay calm as I couldn’t do anything for the time being except fill out my visa application. I also went back to the travel agency to “book” another hotel for the next night. Finally, around 1:30, I got another tuk tuk to the embassy, but he didn’t speak English, so it was a little interesting trying to direct him the entire afternoon. We got to the consulate at 2, but even after 15 minutes, the gate was still closed. I walked up to the embassy building instead and banged on the door because I could see someone in the little building at the entrance. Luckily, he knew English, but he kept telling me the consulate had closed for the afternoon. I was really frustrated at this point, so maybe I came off super whiny, but I insisted China Eastern had phoned them that morning and received word that I could come at 2. He told me to go talk to the guy in the little building by the consulate, but that guy didn’t know any English at all. I went back and banged on the embassy entrance again; this time, he asked me who had called in and I told him my airline. I guess he went back and talked to someone because finally, the consulate gate cracked open a little. I rushed in and saw the same guy I talked to in the morning about getting a same-day visa. He seemed surprised and said they didn’t take any more visas for the day as they were closed, but again, I told him about the phone call. I must have seem pretty frustrated and desperate at this point because finally he relented. He gave me the $160 bill for the visa and told me to pay it at the ICBC bank (a Chinese bank) and come back with the receipt the next day to pick up my visa. Oh god, the biggest relief I’ve had all day.

I got back on the tuk tuk and we headed out to the city center again. On the way, the receipt for the visa flew out of my folder, and I flailed and yelled at the driver to stop as I kept an eye glued to where the paper was flying around on the road – it took him a while to get me, because again, he didn’t speak any English. I ran back and yes, it was still there as a motorbike swerved around me as I picked it up. Couldn’t help but laugh at everything that had gone wrong that day as I met up with my driver again, and his eyes were smiling too.

Things continued going a little awry - he dropped me off at the wrong bank first – as I walked back out, I asked a lady for directions, and she ended up driving up alongside my tuk tuk in her motorbike, able to communicate with him about directions. What a saint. We got to the right bank, said a lot of things in broken Chinese with my teller, but I got my receipt within a few minutes.

So while this day has been nothing but frustrating, I’ll list some things to stay optimistic – I could have ended up trying to check in for my flight and not had enough time to change things around, or worse, flown to China somehow and get deported for not having the proper visa. I made a list of things I had to pay for today because of all the changing plans, and while it’s a couple hundred, it’s better than shelling out god knows what for a business class seat. I’ll still get to go Beijing, see a couple friends, and get a taste of mainland China again, if only for few days. God knows I had to stretch my Chinese today. When I finally land on American soil (or any soil that is friendly to American passport holders for that matter), I can laugh about all this as it is a good story. And most of all, a lot of people were kind to me all day, even if they couldn’t quite express it in English.

Now fingers crossed that everything will go as planned for tomorrow. I’ll get to the embassy when it opens to get my visa, go back to China Eastern airlines office to confirm my flight, and then head out to Beijing!!

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