The stupidest 24 hours of my life

(Comes from chapter one: “The stupidest tour of my life“)
So there we stood, Willow and I, looking at each other with bewilderment drawn on our expressions, thinking like ‘What?’ For a while, we couldn’t even utter a word, until we assumed that there was nothing else for us to do there, and that we couldn’t but take one of the buses to Hong Kong city center and look for accommodation; at least for me, because she had to work early next day and she’d rather go back to Shenzhen in the evening. It was about 1 pm, so we could still spend a few hours together and try to sort out some solution, to improvise some plan B, though the setback had caught me so unawares that I was hardly able to figure out even how to address the problem.
Well, I mean: that particular problem regarding my visa, because we soon came across another one, to be solved much more peremptorily: as we expected to be in China, and as I had relied on that, we didn’t have any Hong Kong money on us; and there were no cash machines anywhere around that place, no currency exchange kiosks whatsoever, either. All we had was a fistful of euros in my pocket and a 50 yuan banknote in Willow’s wallet. That’s Chinese money, equaling to about 60 Hong Kong dollars. Each bus ticket cost only 11 HKD. Could we pay with the 50 yuan bill? Yes, we could–said the bus driver. However, and despite being Hong Kong a part of China, he wouldn’t give us change.
We had no option, and sadly dropped the banknote in the box, thus parting Willow with up to the last cent on her. Hopefully, though, that wouldn’t be a major issue for long, because the bus was destined to the city centre–or so Willow confirmed–where I could withdraw money from a cash point, besides booking a bed in a hostel we knew from my first trip to Hong Kong, a few months ago. So, silently we rode, each of us deep in our own thoughts…
Much faster than I had expected, the bus arrived to its terminus. But that was not the city centre. Actually, according to my off-line maps, we were still very far from the city centre. We had to take the underground and ride it for a long way yet; but now we didn’t have any appropriate money with which to pay for the metro tickets; only the euros I’d brought, but there was no change agent in the area, as a local told us. So, the only choice left was to search for an ATM where I could withdraw some dollars with my credit card; but, first, this had to be activated. It was a new card my bank had sent me a few days before, that I didn’t activate yet precisely just in case it got lost or stolen during my onward trip.
I took, then, my mobile for getting online and, with the help of my bank’s app, activate the card. But that was too optimistic of me: my Spanish carrier (Jazztel, be it stated for the record and their shame) did not provide any roaming service, as I learnt later on. Fortunately I’m a very foresighted man and I had brought with me three more SIM cards of different international phone providers. Unfortunately I’m not so foresighted a man as I should have been, because I had overlooked a small detail: to top up my German SIM; therefore, I couldn’t use this one. My other Spanish SIM acknowledged the network and data connection, but now it was my smartphone (well, I’d rather call it a dumbphone, as it runs Windows Phone 8, be it stated for the record and for Microsoft’s shame) which wasn’t able to set up the access point properly. So, I had to rule out this one also. Finally my Polish SIM card did the job and, when I at last was able to get into my bank and activate the credit card, it turned out I couldn’t read the PIN number because my dumbphone wouldn’t play Flash properly. Fucking Holy Shit!
All right; I still had a last resource: another credit card in my wallet, which I didn’t want to use in the first place because it charges sensibly higher commissions; but what the hell. And it worked! So, finally I was able to withdraw some yuan and we could at last take the subway. Our destination: Causeway Bay station, where the hostel was.
By the way, to stay in cheaper communication between us, Willow had brought for me a Chinese SIM card, but it didn’t fit my handset because it uses micro-SIM. Of course I also had a spare phone, which uses normal SIM, but this one I had to lend to Willow because hers was on very low battery. So, after all, if we wanted to call each other, we had to pay roaming costs.
Yes, you’re right: a pitiful chain of setbacks. But worse were yet to come: when commuting trains towards Causeway Bay, before getting into the next one I hesitated for a few moments in front of the carriage’s open doors as I was reading the stations on an upper panel, and, finally deciding it was the right train to take, I told Willow ‘come on!’, and jumped in at the last second; but her reflexes weren’t quick enough and she stayed on the platform, the double doors closing between us. Through the glass, before losing her sight, I made her signs to mean that she’d take the next train, which was the obvious move anyways, but she made another sign as if telling me to go back for her.
Not knowing now what to do, I got off in the next station and waited for the next train, believing she must have understood me and follow suit; but when the next train arrived and I got on it, she wasn’t there. The dilemma was now double: if I changed directions and go back to pick her up, by the time I arrived at the station where she got stalled maybe she wouldn’t be there any more, having opted herself for going after me; but if I kept going, maybe she had decided to keep waiting, and we wouldn’t catch up either. After considering it for a while, I chose to continue to Causeway Bay and wait for her there: after all, she knew where we were going, so that, realizing sooner or later that I wasn’t going back, she’d forcefully understand what she had to do. Meanwhile, of course, I’d try to call her or text her.
However, once more I was too optimistic; twice: firstly for relying on mobile connections, and secondly for relying on Chinese criteria. But I’ll give you a break, reader, because by now you must be either fed up with my misadventures or, if you empathize with me, about to cut your veins. I’ll wait you in the third chapter… or shall you wait for me there?

The stupidest tour of my life

Had it not been so distressing, this day could have even passed for funny; and I actually hope that later on, looking back, I’ll be able to laugh at it. But, for the moment being, I can only feel the frustration.
So, I had bought an airplane ticket to Hong Kong for visiting my girlfriend–or, well, sort of–in China. She lives in Shenzhen, right across the border; for you should know that, however much the Chinese government insists in Hong Kong being part of China, the truth is–well–not at all. Hong Kong has its own and very different government, police, borders, laws, currency, traffic rules, economy, and so on. And of course there is a border -and a very strict one, for that matter- between China and Hong Kong, besides immigration requirements being totally opposite in both countries. Europeans, for instance, don’t need a visa for traveling to Hong Kong, where we can stay up to three months as tourists with just the passport, whereas for China we need to apply for a visa in our originating country, and it will be issued -quite easily, that’s true- for a maximum stay of thirty days, single entry. But what’s even more bizarre: though Chinese citizens can, same as westerners, enter Hong Kong without a visa, they’re not allowed to stay longer than a week! So, that’s how much Hong Kong belongs to China…
But, being adjoining cities, international flights to Shenzhen are twice as long and five times as expensive than those to Hong Kong, therefore the obvious move for any westerner aiming the former city is to fly to the latter one and just cross the border. Which is what I did–or, well, sort of.
My girlfriend–we can call her Willow–was to be at Hong Kong airport for picking me up and leading me through the border crossing process. And indeed, there she was. For making things easier and faster, we took the expensive way: hire a shared private car from the airport terminal straight to one of the borders and, actually, across it. It’s a neat service that saves you the hassle and the queuing; or, at least, you can sit at the car while waiting. The driver collects all the passengers’ passports and hands you the immigration form for you to fill in along the thirty minutes’ drive. We headed for the Shekou point, across the bay bridge. Once there, we came to a first booth from the Hong Kong migration authority, where we officially exited this country, and took us only five minutes. Then we had to queue about twenty minutes in the nowhere land for passing the China migration. In none of the booths you need to leave the car: the officers check the passports and visas, and verify the faces through the car’s open windows. After that, the driver dropped us, along with our luggage, at a bus stop by a large building.
Usually, when you’re in a foreign place and led by a local, you don’t pay much attention to the particulars about directions or orientation: you just let yourself be guided. And that’s what I did. Willow led me to the building and we lined up in a queue, which I assumed was customs, as there were the standard green and red big arrows with nothing to declare and goods to declare written on them. Once we passed this, to my annoyment we had to wait yet in another queue, for new checks, stamps and whatnot. However, knowing how much of a hassle Chinese bureaucracy is, I was not really surprised. As a matter of fact, everything so far had gone too smoothly to be true; so, I meekly assumed that this was the real China playing tricks on the enduring victims.
But the last straw was when, after being examined with a kind of pistol pointed to our forehead (maybe some health inspection) and being asked if she was pregnant (as she’s not your typical skinny Asian) we still had to go through a fifth set of booths. What the hell? It was the most bothersome border crossing evar. I had never known anything the like before, in all my travels. Anyway, what else can you do but to submit to the procedures, however stupid they might seem?
When we finally we exited the building, we saw ourselves in a broad open area with a row of bus platforms, all of them signaled with big “Hong Kong” letters. Not a single bus to Shenzhen. The only sign to Shenzhen pointed to a wide corridor leading inside the building we’d just came from. And here’s where I started losing my patience and arguing with Willow. She suggested we followed the arrows with Shenzhen on them, and I protested that it didn’t make sense, because they led to the same building–only a different entry–we had just abandoned. ‘There has to be -I stressed- some way to the city.’ Unfortunately, when she asked an employee, he confirmed that Willow was right: the only way to Shenzhen was through the building. So, there we went again; but only to, at the end of the corridor, come across to–guess what? A sixth set of booths!
That was really too much. Way too much. Something was definitely wrong there. It’s impossible you have to pass six different checks (leaving aside the health inspection pistols) for crossing the border from Hong Kong to China. And, as I was thinking this, I suddenly realized what had happened: we were back in Hong Kong! By going into the building after the car dropped us, my girlfriend–or, well, sort of–had actually led ourselves through the inverse process, bringing us back again to square zero. I took a deep breath, in order not to be  rude with her, and, gathering up all my weakened spirits, I accepted my fate and prepared to cross the same borders for a third time and return to China, where the expensive but truly efficient car service had put us two hours ago.
But now, upon inspecting my passport, the migration officer told me: ‘sorry, sir, but your visa is a single entry one; you can’t get into China’…
And this is how I did the shortest tour of my entire life, and probably one of the shortest in the Universal History of Traveling. Trying to explain to the officer that we’d had just made a mistake, that we didn’t really mean a five minutes’ visit to China, or asking him to turn a blind eye on our little mistake, was useless. My visa -he made us understand- was expired, utterly and irreversibly void, and even if he let me pass, the Chinese wouldn’t. We asked him, what can I do now? Get a new visa, was the laconic answer.
Thus McFate tripped up my trip and, in this unbelievably stupid way, my holidays in China were ruined–or, well, sort of–before even having started. Little I knew then, though, that such a setback was only the first in a series of mishaps, some pretty whimsical, that conspired for the most absurd 24 hours ever.
But I’ll tell you about that in the next chapter. Enough misadventure for today.