Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Tuesday, July 27, 2010
Anyway, this morning I set out in a taxi to the Russian consulate with all the paperwork, still confident that all would be well. This was the third taxi I'd been in in Shanghai and like the others (and most of the taxis I've been in in Asia actually), the driver drove like a maniac, much too fast given the dense congestion of the traffic and pedestrians in the city. As we were hurtling towards an intersection with a zebra-crossing for pedestrians, there was a man halfway across the road but who suddenly changed his mind and walked backwards just as the taxi was going past behind him. I gave a yelp as the taxi thumped into the pedestrian. We slowed, the taxi driver looked out the rear window and saw that the man was still standing but rubbing his arm and leg, and then the taxi driver continued. I took a deep breath, wondering which was more incredible, that we had hit the man or that we hadn't even stopped.
Just as we got to the Russian consulate and I escaped from that death-carriage, my phone rang. It was my bank in New Zealand telling me that they had messed up. They were supposed to be sending a replacement ATM card for the one that was stolen in Indonesia (I've been using only a credit card since then) to my girlfriend who was going to bring it over with her. Instead they have sent it to my post office box in Christchurch. So they are cancelling that one and needed to issue me with a new one. For some reason this had to be done right then, probably to get it sent to my girlfriend in time before she leaves, so instead of entering the Russian consulate, I sat in the cafe in the lobby of the nearby Astor Hotel and went through the bank's convoluted process of ordering a new ATM card which involved a phone call with an automated service, hanging up and waiting to be phoned back by the automated service.
Once that was done I entered the Russian consulate, past a Chinese guard on one side of the gate and then a very Russian-looking official on the other side. After some queue-chaos (in which voices were raised including my own) I got to a window and handed over my passport and forms. The official looked through the forms, thrust the invitation back to me barely looking at it, flipped through my passport and said 'sorry you cannot have a visa.' 'Why not?' 'We can only issue a visa if your China visa is for more than 90 days.' My China visa is a typical 30-day tourist one. I couldn't quite believe it so asked him to repeat what he had said. I have read through the visa sections in several travel books and done some searching on the internet to investigate getting a Russian visa from China and I had never heard of such a rule. Other people at the consulate were elbowing their way to the window and I stumbled away somewhat dumbfounded. There was an American there and a Belgian and a Tunisian and I asked them if they also had such a problem but they were all living or studying in China for a year or more. I went back to the cafe in the Astor Hotel, did some more searching on the internet and still could find nothing about this rule so went back to the consulate to ask again. Again the same official gave me the same answer.
I've tried to work out what my options are and have come up with this list (in no particular order):
1. See if I can get an extension of my China visa to 90+ days and then go back to the Russia consulate. I already looked into this and it's highly unlikely.
2. Go to Beijing and try the Russian consulate there, hoping they don’t insist on same rule. Apparently different embassies have different rules.
3. Send the visa application by International Courier to NZ for urgent same-day processing and then have it sent back to me in Beijing.
4. Try for a Russian visa in Mongolia and hope they don’t insist on same rule.
5. Try to get a 90+ day visa for Mongolia, then apply for a Russian visa in Mongolia.
6. Go to Hong Kong and apply for a Russia visa. Apparently it is easier there, but this would involve getting a visa to Hong Kong and then another visa back into China.
After mulling these options over along with my friend here in Shanghai, I've narrowed them down to two. First, I will cut short my stay in Shanghai and go to Beijing to try the Russian consulate there, hoping they do not have the same rule. Second, if that fails I will ask the travel agent in NZ who has been helping my girlfriend get her visa if I can courier my documents to them, get an urgent process, and then have it couriered back to me. That seems to be the most rational thing to do but if anyone has any other suggestions, they are most welcome.
So as you can see, it was quite a stressful day with the taxi incident, the bank botch-up, and the Russian visa saga. Then I also had the ordeal of getting a train ticket to Beijing as early as possible, but I had my friend to help me with that, though not without some major headaches. By late afternoon I was ready for a beer and tried to be philosophical about the day's events.
Saturday, July 24, 2010
Once I got to Shanghai it was a nightmare finding accommodation. The World Expo is on which I knew about but didn't know it was such a big event that all the hotels would be full. I have a friend who lives here to help me and the place which he thought he had booked for me turned out not to accept foreigners so we had to look elsewhere. After much wandering around and phoning, we finally found a place just outside the French Concession area of the city. I could only get one night here but at least they have internet so I managed to book somewhere else for tomorrow.
It was interesting to discover that my blog is blocked in China. Apparently the communist government doesn't like what I have to say. I thought that was really cool and felt like some kind of revolutionary writer until I discovered that all of the 'blogspot' sites are blocked. And so is Facebook and lots of other sites. I've managed to find a way around it through a proxy site, hence this blog entry, and hopefully the Chinese government won't be monitoring this and throw me out of the country. Stay tuned and find out.
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
While waiting for my Chinese visa to arrive I’ve had plenty of time to enjoy some of Hanoi’s attractions. The first place I went was the Temple of Literature, founded in the 11th century for the study of Confucius’s works. As well as a statue of Confucius, on the grounds are 82 ‘stele’ - a stone tablet on the back of a tortoise - which represent the 82 examinations that were held from the 1400s to the 1700s for doctoral candidates. Behind the temple is the Fine Arts Museum. I was intending on paying only a quick visit here but stayed longer as I became engrossed in the large collection. On the ground floor are incredibly detailed wood carvings from the tenth century, colourful statues of Buddhist monks, and a sculpture of a thousand-armed and thousand-eyed goddess. On the floors above are contemporary art but these were not nearly as impressive - painting after painting of revolutionary soldiers or ‘Uncle Ho’ playing with children and all of them in murky greys and browns. Judging from this museum, one might think that even if socialism is good for society, it is bad for art.
The triumph of socialism in Vietnam is the main theme of the Museum of the Vietnamese Revolution. Although there weren’t many labels in English, it is a fascinating collection of photos and artifacts from when the Vietnamese started rising up against the French colonial government in the second half of the nineteenth century, encompassing the formation of the Communist Party in the 1920s and its connections with the Soviet Union, and the armed struggles against the French and the US after the second world war. A more long-term history is found across the road in the History Museum which includes human bones and items found in Vietnam that are 400,000 years old. Nice collection of Champa sculptures too.
The hotel I’m staying in is just around the corner from the St Joseph Cathedral and I dropped by when a service was happening. I sat and listened to the 30-40 Vietnamese singing Christian hymns for a while. One middle-aged woman must have thought I was a Catholic and she seemed very pleased that I was there.
I also went to a Water Puppet performance. The stage is made of water which the puppeteers stand in but behind a screen manipulating the puppets that have poles attached to their bases. Seems a very awkward way of holding a puppet show to me but it was fun to watch. I couldn’t discern any story but there were dragons and fish and kings and peasants portrayed.
Not sure if this counts as a cultural attraction of the city but something I’ve acquired here are DVD collections of some of my favourite film directors such as Fellini, Godard, and Antonioni. These are incredible value - the Fellini one contains thirty films and cost 150,000 dong which is about $10. They’re pirated of course but I still don’t understand why pirates think box-sets of the films of Jean-Luc Godard could possibly be a money-spinner.
Sunday, July 18, 2010
I arrived here a few days ago and have been resting up after a fairly hectic journey north from Saigon. I’ll be here for a few days more because it takes some time to get a visa for China which is my next destination. There is a Chinese embassy here but apparently they don’t issue tourist visas so I’ve had to go through a travel agent. The visa is supposed to arrive on Tuesday 20 July and I’m booked on a bus to take me to Nanning over the border on Wednesday. I was hoping to get to China more quickly than that but there seems no way to expedite the visa process so I’ll just have to wait. Anyway, it’s nice to have a few days to explore a place rather than pass through in 24 hours or so.
I’m going to have to change my plans for China since I have less time. Originally I intended to visit Hong Kong and then Shanghai before reaching Beijing in early August, but now I will skip Hong Kong and go straight to Shanghai where I have a friend to visit and then go on to Beijing. Anyway, I discovered that Hong Kong is treated as a semi-autonomous country by China in that if I were to go there and re-enter China I would need a double-entry visa for China, which are tricky to get. So I’ll just give Hong Kong a miss for now.
In Hanoi I’m staying in the Old Quarter which is very touristy and at times it feels like Westerners outnumber Vietnamese here. The typhoon which has affected the Philippines arrived here yesterday and although I heard it hit the coast of Vietnam hard, here in Hanoi it was just strong winds and a lot of rain for about twelve hours.
Frustratingly, I lost of whole lot of photos when transferring them from my iphone to my laptop. Most of them from when I arrived in Saigon until now.
Saturday, July 17, 2010
This city is about halfway between Hue and Hanoi. After a seven hour train ride from Hue, I arrived in here mid-afternoon. Vinh was bombed by the French and the Americans and so most of the city was built after the 1970s. As a result, the roads and footpaths are wider than most other cities in Vietnam. It was nice to stroll along the side of the road without having to duck under food stall canopies and weave around parked motorcyles and piles of rubbish. The city was also strongly supportive of the communist regime - Ho Chi Minh himself was from the region and there’s a gigantic statue of him in a park in the city centre.
When I arrived and got off the train I jumped in a taxi and asked to be taken to the APEC hotel, a place that’s recommended by my guidebook. The conversation between the taxi driver (who spoke no English) and I went like this:
‘APEC Hotel please.’
‘Yes, the APEC Hotel. Do you know it?’
‘Ok, I know. Hotel APEC?’
‘Yes Hotel APEC or APEC Hotel, however you want to put it.’
‘APEC, APEC, ok.’
‘Great, APEC hotel here we come.’
Fifteen minutes later we pulled up to a place called... the Media Hotel. I tried to tell the driver that it was not the APEC and he said ‘Oh APEC’ like I had never mentioned it before. We drove back the opposite direction and finally arrive at the APEC Hotel. He pointed at the meter which read 88,000 dong. I lost my temper and said ‘I’m not paying that, you took me to the wrong place! No, I’m not paying.’ He was grinning and pointing at the meter. I handed over 70,000 dong and said ‘that’s all I’m paying’ even though he was still wanting more. I nearly lost it completely, swore under my breath, grabbed my bags and got out of the taxi, slamming the door behind me.
The next day when I got another taxi from the hotel back to the train station, the fare was only 45,000 dong.