This is a story with a happy ending, reader. Or, well, sort of. Happy if we don’t consider the irreversible emotional damage caused by the loss of the first visa, the failure to get a second one, and the vanishing of Willow into the blue.
After the unsuccessful visit to the Consulate office for getting an express visa (that’s in chapter III), I realized that, much to my regret, I was doomed to apply for the 5-days valid Shenzhen visa at the border. But I didn’t have the spirits to try that same day, most of all because Willow told me that the border used to get extremely crowded, queues being sometimes longer than four hours. Besides, there were many questions to ask yet, many sides of the enterprise to consider and to be anticipated. Lastly, I had already booked a bed in a hostel for that night; a different hostel, with my own private bee-cell and a working internet connection. I would give Friday to chilling out and planning the Chinese invasion.
Though the information I’d found on the internet for normal Chinese visas in Hong Kong was more or less clear and consistent, this was not the case for Shenzhen visas. Not many westerners seem to have traveled that way and written about it in their blogs; therefore, I had to do a thorough research and, picking some hints from here and there, try to get a global picture of how it worked.
Apparently there are only three border crossings where you can get a Shenzhen visa; and, despite being very far from Willow’s appartment, the easiest one for a traveler like me, ignorant of Chinese, was Lo Wu, where subways of both countries (oops!, sorry) connect; and for a foreigner it’s usually easier to get through by metro than taking buses. So, I had to travel to Lo Wu, the last stop in one of Hong Kong metro lines, from where I should first exit Hong Kong, then apply for the Shenzhen visa in a hidden corner of the No man’s land, then cross the Chinese border and take the subway to Sea World, my destination stop.
I spent most of that Friday trying to gather any piece of information, in order to not leave anything to improvisation. Let me get you acquainted, reader, with a particular about getting around in China that you normally don’t think of until you’re there: not just in China, but in any of those Asian countries, even the most basic step is not as straightforward as it seems; for instance, the simple instruction “take metro until Shekou station” involves several problems: how do you get a ticket in metro?; ticket vending machines are in Chinese only, and you don’t know how ticket prices work; and you definitely don’t have a clue about how “Shekou” reads in Chinese. Or, when taking a given line or making a transfer, you don’t know which direction to take, and the fact that most metro stations seem to be called Something-Wan doesn’t help, as you can’t tell one Wan from another Wan, pun intended…
So, several times that day I emailed Willow asking for details about how to get the visa, how to get to her workplace from the border or how to contact her once I arrived, but all I got were hints like: here I send you the phone number of visa office (as if they spoke any English); metro from your hostel to the border takes 37 minutes, ask for a Hong Kong metro map in any station, you can use your mobile’s GPS; find free wi-fi in any Starbucks; buy a SIM card upon arrival, etc. And my favorite one was this: Darling, I’ll go to the metro station and tell the stuff you’re arriving. Poor Willow; she’s infinitely naïve!
Seeing that not much help would come that way, I tried to sort out everything on my own. First I went to an Indian’s for exchanging a few HKD into Yuan. Then I went to a Seven Eleven for buying a prepaid SIM card, but this I didn’t fulfill, because the tender didn’t speak any English (who said that everyone in Hong Kong can speak English? Was it me? Then I hereby rectify and apostatize) and couldn’t tell me if those cards would work in China, nor how to enable roaming. Anyhow, as Willow told me that there was a Starbucks right at the exit from metro, with open wi-fi, I thought that would do for a Viber or Skype call. For the rest, I tried to get a bit acquainted with Shenzhen’s metro map and stations, to memorize the directions I found in a website, and I finally prayed a couple of prayers I remembered from the my childhood, when I didn’t know I was not a believer.
All these arrangements took me so long that it was well past midnight when I went to bed, and therefore I didn’t wake up very early on Friday morning. My main concern was the crowd: as it was a holiday in Hong Kong, maybe twice as much people would be crossing the border that day. But then again, I didn’t solve anything by worrying, so I just got mentally prepared for it.
It was about 9 a.m. when I set off. At the beginning there were not so many people in the metro, but the closer I was to Lo Wu, the busier the train got, until it was literally packed with passengers and their suitcases. Once we arrived to the terminus station, people hurried towards the exit, and soon the flow stalled. Several lanes were signaled in Chinese and English: “Nationals”, “Mainland visitors”, “Visitors other than mainland”. I wondered, what the hell was I? A mainland visitor?, or a visitor other than mainland? Did mainland visitor mean a visitor from China mainland, or someone visiting mainland China? (They call “mainland China” to what is actually just China, for nursing the popular belief that Hong Kong is China as well.) If the former, who were nationals, then? If the latter, how could someone be crossing a mainland border for visiting other than mainland?
Also, everyone I saw in a uniform, I asked: Shenzhen visa? But all of them pointed me to keep going, no lingering. Apparently it didn’t matter which lane you took. Of course it didn’t: I had forgotten that such a crowd was still trying to just get past the subway turnstiles! Once outside, there was a wide corridor with similar signs: “Handicapped and foreigners”, “Nationals”, “Diplomats”. No wonder they grouped foreigners and handicapped under the same lanes, as being a foreigner in China you really feel handicapped. In this corridor the crowd thickened and flowed extremely slowly, as if it was an only body having the consistency of a viscous liquid, a lava flow. We were literally packed like sardines in a can, moving forward an average two steps per minute. Very inadvisable for claustrophobic persons. Once you got into the flow, you were trapped, and could only follow the human river, being literally carried by it. I queue-crowded towards the Handicapped and foreigners zone; after all I’m a handicapped person: I have a medical certificate so satating. That’s why they gave me an early retirement at work.
Anyhow, as I got closer to the desks, I realized that nobody paid attention to the boards: all kinds of people were resulting into any of the check posts. I realized it couldn’t be otherwise, as once you’re part of the flow you can’t drift aside. Yet, it wasn’t that slow. One hour later I finally saw myself in the No man’s land, where I started looking intently for a hidden escalator somewhere to the left, as I’d read in one of the websites. And, indeed, there it was, though I almost miss it. I climbed up and entered a room with several windows, marked “Apply”, “Pay”, “Retrieve”. Seemed pretty clear . There was also a big notice: FEE PAYMENT ONLY ACCEPTED IN CHINESE RMB. The tariff was 168 RMB, but I had only 160, because I -too boldly- had relied on Hong Kong dollars being accepted, because, as everyone knows, Hong Kong is part of China. Fortunately there was in the room a foreigner, veteran looking, who was kind enough to give me some of his RMB in exchange for my HKD.
Ten minutes later I had the Shenzhen visa sticker in my passport. Yes!! Hence, crossing the Chinese border was a matter of another ten minutes: the queues were much smaller, the crowd having scattered as if by magic. I was finally in Shenzhen.
Now, how to get to Willow? Fortunately the names of the metro stations were written in Christian letters as well as in Chinese characters. That was the pro. The con was, there are basically only two kinds of subway signaling: those assuming the passenger knows by heart all and every station, line and direction in the tube network, and those which don’t. Madrid is an example of the latter; Shenzhen is an example of the former; therefore, when making the only transfer I had to make, it took me quite a while to figure out which way to take. But, finally, after a more-than-one-hour ride, I exited the underground at Sea World station.
I checked to see if any of my SIM cards worked: the Polish one did, but I had run out of credit because of the previous days’ expenses. I found a McDonald’s and checked the wi-fi: it was an open one, but only for China mobile phone owners: you have to submit your Chinese number, then they send you a code by SMS and you can get online submitting this code. Otherwise, sorry, no internet. So, I moved to a Starbucks, but then again it was the same system. Quite xenophobic. What about aliens? No “free” wi-fi for us? Thanks God, one of the waitresses in Starbucks was extremely nice, and she handed me her phone for getting the code.
Now that I had a working internet connection, it was just a matter of calling or texting Willow, who would be impatiently and eagerly expecting my call, with all her radars on. But I was quite mistaken: her phone was offline. How welcoming! Therefore, no SMS nor call, no Whatsapp nor Viber, no Skype either. I sent her a brief email with an ultimatum, then bought a tea (for the price of a full meal, greedy Starfucks), and started reading a book. Half an hour later, Willow’s smiling face showed up…
The rest, reader, is not interesting as a traveling story. I’m now in the 31st floor of a skyscraper, watching Shenzhen at my feet, submerged in the smoky mist. I can only stay in Shenzhen for five days, then I must leave China again… unless I convince some migration servant that I’m within the thirty days’ stay allowed by my first visa, the one I got in Spain. But that will be the matter for another adventure, if it ever happens.
If you wonder, by the way, how did Willow manage to go back to Shenzhen when she didn’t have any money on her, she told me that the Hong Kong metro staff were so nice that they let her travel further than her ticket allowed. But they also photocopied her ID and made her sign and promise that she’d go back to Hong Kong for paying the difference: 15 Yuan, (barely 20 cents) Yes, those Hong Kongers are so nice! But that’s not the funny part; the funny part is, Willow is so honest that she wants to go and pay her debt…