How not to spend 3 days in Beijing
We had two nights in Beijing in between visiting the Grottoes in Datong and getting onboard the Trans-Siberian express. We had another of the early morning flights that we hate leaving Datong, but it would give us almost three full days in the city. We weren’t leaving on the train until 11pm on Saturday night.
This was perfect, we had planned to meet a friend who lives just outside of Beijing and was flying back into China the same day we were coming into Beijing, then finally getting in to see the Forbidden City after all our pervious attempts have had something come up so that we couldn’t get in to visit. The planning always seems so nice.
About a week before we were heading to Beijing our friend contacted us to tell us that he had been rerouted for work and wouldn’t be arriving back in China until after we were on the train. On a whim, or because there was the slight reminder of the issues we had leaving Vietnam once we received our new passports, Tina looked online and found something stating that you can’t enter Russia if your valid visa is in an old cancelled passport. I looked online and found messages from people who were saying that you can use the two passports when crossing – we know that it works fine to enter China with a valid visa in an old passport. But, the internet is sometimes hard for determining what is recent information and what is outdated, and with the potential that security would probably be increased due to World Cup, we decided that we should use our first afternoon to check with the Russian Consulate in Beijing just to make sure.
When arrived into Beijing just before noon, and luckily, we were able to check into our hotel right away. We quickly looked up the Russian Consulate only to find that they are only open to foreigners from 9-12 in the morning, so the idea of getting verification that Thursday was out. We tried looking up how to make an appointment, and that’s when we noticed that Russia had a different address for their visa services, and that it was open until 3 that afternoon. Perfect.
We get the address, send it in Chinese characters to our phone to make sure it’s clear where we are going, and we head down to grab a taxi. The doorman looks at the address and it trying to figure out where it is, we just want him to call up a taxi, but he just kept telling us in broken English that he doesn’t know how much it costs. Eventually I run out of patience and walk down to the street to hail a taxi, we show that address , they nod that they know where it is and then tell us it’d be 100 RMB ($16 USD), it’s a short ride we tell them no and when we point to the meter we only get waved off. We try three taxis, along with a guy that just pulled up and asked where we wanted to go – all between 100 and 150 – and one taxi that had enough English to say “In Beijing, taxi no use meter.” Thoroughly disgusted at this point we go back into the hotel and ask at their travel desk. Should cost about 20 RMB we are told, this is what the doorman was trying to tell us that he was looking up. We look at the map and see we can take the subway, that’s even easier. Back up to the room to verify the address with google maps (which doesn’t work in China), but once we highlight the location on the map we are back downstairs on now on a mission heading to the subway.
The subway is quick and easy, 6 RMB each, and then we are outside in the stifling heat in a section of Beijing we would never have expected to be touring. We follow the directions and my crude hand-drawn map, and it leads us into a residential apartment complex. That’s not right, we loop around the block and find the actual street we are looking for, and the building we find with the right number is another apartment building, but with some signs that make it look like there are some businesses operating inside. We go in and have no luck, but when leaving a guy is walking in and he is able to help us. Apparently, at the end of the address is the zone, and although we had the correct building and street, we were in the wrong zone of Beijing.
He points out the area to us and we head back to the subway to head to the correct zone, but this time without any knowledge of where exactly to go after we get off the subway. Getting off the subway we find some policemen to ask, we still have the address in our phones, so we know that we should be able to eventually find the place, we are just hoping to get there before they close. This is when we got to spend some time in one of the little police vans that are parked on the sides of the street, or on the sidewalk, throughout Beijing. We did notice a lot more police presence on this visit in Beijing, we aren’t sure if that’s a new normal or if it was a special weekend or something. But, with the heat they lead us into the air-conditioned van to try and help us with directions. Two guys with no English, but a strong desire to help gave us some passionate hand signals and kept stating some words we didn’t know but repeated back to them to let them know we understood sufficiently so that they would let us out of the van and back on our way to find the visa services center.
We find the street, but there are no numbers on the buildings, we ask a bus driver and he points us further down the street, then we stop at a serviced apartment building and get the same information – just keep going. We walk some more and ask a woman while we are stopped at a crosswalk, somewhere along the way we passed it. Heading back, when were about half way between the last to points of contact letting us we were on the right track, we ask a DHL delivery guy that is heading into an apartment complex. As he’s starting to point to a gate we are standing in front of, a white guy walks past us and asks “Are you guys looking for the Russian Visas? It’s in here”.
We head through the gate and find that there actually is a business complex tucked in the back behind the apartment buildings, and there isn’t any signage that would help you find it until you are inside. We get in, explain what we are looking for, and then a given a number and told to take a seat. There are maybe 10 people sitting inside, each of them apparently working for tour companies as each of them are handling stacks of 20-30 passports that they are requesting visas for. It’s about 20 to three at this point, we are hoping that as long as we are sitting there and have a number they won’t just close up and send us home to return the next day. We needn’t have worried, since we were there for an individual visa instead of processing groups our number was called in about 10 minutes.
We showed them our passports and the visa in the old ones and if it would it be a problem, and what would the costs be for transferring them. This is where unmoving bureaucracies suck. Basically, we were told we couldn’t use the visas in the expired passport for entry, we couldn’t use our fan-ID that provides visa-free entry into Russia since they had our old passport numbers, and that because the visas were issued from the Washington DC Embassy they would need to contact them before they could transfer the visas and that would take 10 days. This is not the news you want to hear when you are leaving in two days on the train to Russia.
We asked more, talked about expedited processes, asked to talk to supervisors, and were told the same thing every time. I think they had to memorize a book of responses to even get the job. The best answer we got was that we could apply for a new visa and we should be able to get that in 5 days, possibly 3 if they expedited it.
What great news, we left there feeling that we may be looking at the first really, really, expensive issue on our trip. We expected that at some point we are going to hit a travel snag, but I think we always thought it would be mistakenly double booking a nonrefundable hotel room or something that would suck but that you could laugh at in a few days, missing part of the biggest expense of your trip, the Trans-Siberian rail, was not one that I would want included in that bucket.
We went back to the hotel somewhat dejected but stating that we would get up early the next day and head to the actual Russian Consulate and see what they can do. We were hoping that they would be able to find a way to help, people lose passports and are able to get emergency help all the time, we should fall into that category. Also, I had just received an email from FIFA about being able to enter Russia on an electronic eFan-ID that they had introduced – I think a lot of people heading to the games hadn’t fully thought about the timing required to get the Fan-ID’s mailed to them before their trip.
Back at the hotel we looked online and found out how to update our passport information on the Fan-ID’s and we gathered all our information and sent that off in and email. We’re still not feeling good about they way all this is unfolding, but I’m hoping that it’s a good backup plan if it gets to the point that we need it. To their credit, they emailed back quickly to state that they will fix the problem, and to please wait. Tina emailed the tour operator that we booked through and asked about contingency plans, such as flying into to Irkutsk and meeting up with our travel itinerary 4 days into the 14-day trip if we have to get an expedited visa.
Friday morning we are up early and head off to the Russian Consulate, it’s a first come / first serve type of place and when we arrive 10 minutes before they open at 9 there are already four people waiting in the reception area already. When it’s our turn we go up and explain what we’ve got and ask about getting a visa transfer expedited to the same day. They tell us the sit down and wait and we can see them all talking in the back before disappearing into the other room. Twenty minutes or so later the girl comes back and calls us up to the window. “No worries” she assures us, they called the diplomat and were told that we can get into the country with the visa in the old cancelled passport. We look at each other and breathe that sigh of relief as she continues “but, who knows, with World Cup security may be different, so shouldn’t be a problem, but may be.” Well, that’s encouraging isn’t it? She follows up that she would just go as we are and tell them what she told us, but that if we wanted we could go out and find a Chinese travel agency to fill out an expedited visa request for us to submit and that we could pick up new visas on Saturday morning. They have to work that Saturday because Monday and Tuesday are Russian National Holidays. We decided that trying to expedite a visa service was too risky, it was now just about 36 hours before we would be boarding the train, and with her statements we felt like we were covered in that we did our part and verified that we could enter the country with the paperwork we currently had.
So that was Beijing, we didn’t see our friend which probably worked out for the best because that Thursday night we would not have been in the right frame of mind to catch up, as we needed that time just to sit and lay out what our possible alternatives would be. One again we didn’t make it to see the Forbidden City, but we did get to see the Russian Consulate and their visa servicing center, which now walking out with the understanding that the visas in our now cancelled visas will still be accepted as a better sightseeing day. We managed to use some of the spare time we had to do some wandering of the city, to express order laundry service so that we would have clean clothes on the train and to do some grocery shopping so that we wouldn’t need to rely on the dining car for all of our meals once we were on the train.
Saturday night we were picked up at the hotel and driven to the train station, from there we finally moved onto the Trans-Siberian section of our travels…