Bargaining in Kowloon

tazaAll my shopping has already been done in Kowloon.
For those of you who don’t know, Kowloon is one of the most popular shopping districts in Hong Kong and, though you can find there pretty almost anything, it’s mostly famous for mobile electronics and cameras (used or brand new), and for a large street market with clothing, houseware, complements and whatnot.
Now, I pride myself of being a merciless bargainer, but, no matter how tough I haggle over a given item with those street sellers, once we make a deal I can’t help the feeling of having been ripped off. As a matter of ract, it wouldn’t be the first time that, after bargaining a good price for something, a few barrows further I find that very same something for sale at a “start price” 10% lower than what I finally paid for it…
So, if you ever go shopping in Kowloon, follow my advice: be worse than merciless: be ruthless!

How I managed to cross to China

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.

visaShenzhen

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.
desdeArribaNow 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…

The 24 hours I lived dangerously

sellosChina
The situation was this: by accident, Willow had stalled in one of the metro stations while I kept riding a train towards Causeway Bay. We could not communicate. We didn’t know which would be each other’s next move, but we both knew what we expected the other to do. (Just in case you don’t know, there is a whole branch of game theory, plentiful with essays and research -involving maths, statistics and psychology- for dealing with such kind of problem, called The prisoner’s dilemma. So, don’t think it was so easy to sort out.) Besides, she didn’t have any money on her, and I wasn’t altogether certain that she knew exactly our destination stop. For the moment, I had decided to keep going and wait for her at Causeway Bay.
But once I got there I had second thoughts, deeming more advisable to head directly for the hostel: she might hesitate between Causeway Bay or the previous station, but wherever she got off, she couldn’t miss the hostel. In any case, it started making me nervous why I couldn’t reach her on the phone? All subway lines in Hong Kong have good GSM signal; she had now two mobile phones on her (mine and hers), both with Chinese SIMs; I had seen her making several phonecalls that very morning; but when I tried to call her, both lines were unavailable. Why?
As I learnt later on, though, it wasn’t much of her fault: it turns out that Chinese SIM cards don’t work in Hong Kong unless roaming is previously activated; which -by the way- is pretty odd, considering that Hong Kong is part of China, and that roaming is a term involving two countries. Or is it roaming when you call from England to Scotland? Surely not.
I couldn’t help worrying, but, as everyone will tell you that worrying does not help to sort out problems, I decided to take things easy and see to them calmly. So, I arrived to the hostel and booked a bed, settled in, took a shower, brewed a tea and then got online for summoning all my resources. I tried several other ways to reach Willow: via Skype, email and Whatsapp… to no avail. It was as if she had vanished into the blue. But what on earth was she doing, anyways? Nearly two hours had elapsed; she couldn’t possibly be still waiting for me in the spot where she stalled. True: she didn’t have a dime on her, but she was inside the tube with a valid ticket to Causeway Bay. I tried to imagine, were I in her shoes, what would I do? Very likely I’d go to Causeway Bay. There weren’t many options to choose from, right?
Just in case, then, I went out and scanned around Causeway Bay’s several exits, but no sign of her. Finally I thought: Pablo, she’s not a westerner; she’s a Chinese. And in China -same as in Cuba- people are not taught to think the same way westerners do; actually, they’re not taught to think too much. Thinking of your own is not encouraged in communist educational programs. Most of all college students: those are the most severely lobotomized. Therefore, unlikely and absurd as it might seem, she’s maybe still waiting were we parted. I decided to return to that station where I had lost her, after leaving a message for her at the hostal reception.
I hadn’t stop pinging her every fifteen minutes or so for the past two hours with phonecalls, all unsuccessful, but right before I entered the subway for the second time, I finally heard the sweet ring tones on my earpiece, and inmediately afterwards she picked up the call and answered: wei? I felt very relieved, and asked her where she was. She told me, on her way back to Shenzhen; and then started complaining that she had been so many hours waiting for me inside the metro, that she asked the metro staff about me (??), but I had abandoned her and… I hung up. No mood for reproaches.
I was angry at her, though I shoudn’t have been, because as I’ve said, Chinese lines don’t work by default in Hong Kong. I tried to be reasonable. Shit happens; that’s all. Letting my mood take me over would lead nowhere. So, I started addressing the main problem: how was I to enter China and fulfill my holidays? Difficult question. Asking Willow to stay with me in Hong Kong was out of the table: those exploitive Chinese companies are merciless, and she worked at a small one ten hours a day, six days a week, no holidays, no sick leaves, no health care, no nothing. So, I had to figure out how to go to Shenzhen myself.
Yahooing around, because I don’t google, I read some traveling websites and found two possibilities, though with a bit outdated information, like two years old: the first one was to apply for another visa at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ office in Hong Kong (which is quite weird, because you don’t have a Consulate of your own country in your own country; unless Hong Kong is not China; but don’t tell this to Chinese people), and this visa can be issued in as little as twenty four hours if you bring all the papers and pay the express service fee on top of the visa fee. The second possibility was to go to the border and apply there for a Shenzhen visa, which is a on-the-spot type you can get only in three of the several crossings between Hong Kong and China, valid only for visiting Shenzhen, with a maximum stay of five days.
As my return flight to Spain was for twenty days later, the second possibility didn’t make much sense: though Shenzhen visas are cheaper, I’d need to get in and out of China thrice, crossing the crowded border six times, which meant irreversible waste of holidays and wear of neurons. I have to confess that the idea of just bringing forward my return ticket and simply going back to Spain much earlier than planned crossed my mind a few times, but finally I ruled it out.
Thus, the decision showed as rather obvious: I’d try to get a new tourist visa the next day. There were some papers to download and print, some forms to fill, some buildings to find, some queues to wait and some money to pay; but if I managed to have everything ready early in the morning, I could get the visa twenty four hours later and be with Willow by Friday afternoon.
It was Wednesday evening, an exhausting long day, jet lag included, after a 17 hours’ trip, with almost no sleep in the Aeroflot airplane because next to my seat there were your typical group of four Russian blokes drinking beer and telling jokes all night long. So, I went to my dormitory and set to sleep quite early.
At 6 a.m. on Thursday I was up and working. The visa office opened at 9 a.m., and it turned out to be at a walking distance from the hostel; so, I had plenty of time for preparing everything. However, there were two different websites where to download the application form, and they difered in the form itself as well as in the documents to accompany. It took me a good while to tell which were the ones I needed. Once I had them in my laptop, I copied everything to a pendrive and asked the staff where could I print them. The manager told me a place nearby, an internet cafe on the 11th floor of a given building, but when I got there it turned out they didn’t open until 9:30. Dammit! Shit happens much more often than you’d expect. I went back to the hostel and, when I told the guy, he pitied me and said, ok, we’ll print it for you, just wait ten minutes for my staff to come.
The receptionist came not ten minutes, but half an hour later. It was already 8 a.m. She was much nicer and efficient than the manager, but when she clicked “print” the printer complained: NO INK. Shit! What a waste of time! She gave me the address for another internet cafe: 95-100 Lockhart Road. It looked pretty close in the map, but I was at the other end of Lockhart Road, so it took me half an hour to arrive, and then another fifteen minutes to find the building, because odd numbers were on one side and even numbers on the other side, which meant that there could not exist any 95-100 building. There was 94-100 on one side, and 93-101 on the other. I asked at a bar where a British  expat was in his third paint of lager that morning, but the bar tender had no clue about such building nor such cafe, while the Brit advised me to just drop by the National Library, only fifteen minutes drive by taxi, where I could print the documents if I showed some ID. I thanked him warmly. What a great piece of advice, dude!
By then it was already 9 a.m., the Chinese Ministry of FF.AA. office would be already opened and people lining in the queue (according to the web pages I’d read, it usually got pretty crowded). I started sweating. Asking further about the internet cafe, someone told me, yes, it was here, but it’s closed down. The place is now a brothel. Lovely. A prostitute wouldn’t do me any bad, probably. But I had to print those papers, so I went back to the other internet cafe on that 11th floor; it should be open by the time I arrived. And indeed it was; except that it wasn’t an internet cafe, but an accountant’s office. What the hell? When I was about to take the elevator for leaving the building and finding some hidden corner where to cut my veins unnoticed, I spotted a sign by the 9th floor button on the elevator’s button board: E-CAFE. Bingo! It was a neat place, with good, brand new computers, air conditioning, open 24 h (which means that two hours ago I could have finished, had I been properly directed), though no cafe was sold at all, and it was run by an extremely friendly guy who charged me black and white price for color copies. Finally a nice guy!
When I finally impersonated myself with all the papers at the visa office, which wasn’t hard to find, I saw not so many people there. No queue; just half a dozen folks waiting in chairs to be called, and another half dozen filling in forms. I felt relieved. I took an application form and went to the number expending machine, mastered by a boy who thought he was an admiral. When it was my turn, I asked him:
— Can you give me a number, please?
— Have you filled in the form? –he replied.
— No, I’ll fill it while I wait to be attended.
— No, you fill it first, then I give you the number.
Fucking idiot. I filled in the form and waited his queue again. I stretched my hand to get the number, but he asked:
— Show me your passport. –And, after inspecting it and the copy, added–: you need to photocopy your passport along with your entry to Hong Kong permit there –he pointed to a copy machine with a queue of people.
— Couldn’t you have told me that in the first place? Whatever, please give me a number.
— No, you sort out the photocopy first, then come back. –The guy was a full cretin.
In that moment, out of the corner of my eye I saw a sign on a column: Due to local holidays, this office will be closed on Friday and until Tuesday. My heart skipped a beat: today was Thursday. I asked the admiral: “by the way, if I apply today for the visa and pay the express 24 h service for tomorrow…” He didn’t let me finish: “Impossible! Nothing until Tuesday”, he said.
That was a hard blow. Bye bye Willow for now. I totally lost heart and, crestfallen, left the building with downcast eyes. I felt like sending China, Willow and my holidays to hell, along with all the diplomats and migration authorities.
Now, reader, tell me whether or not I had a good reason to consider those 24 hours like the stupidest of my life…
But never give up! If you want to know how I finally managed to enter China again, come along with me to the fourth and last chapter of this story.

The stupidest 24 hours of my life

shenzhen
(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

hongkongNight
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.