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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Anonymous said...

Craziness. Glad you got it worked out.

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