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.