Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Russian visa headaches

Change of plan for trying to get a visa to Russia. Further research has led me to believe that it would not be any easier trying to get it from the Russian consulate in Beijing. And couriering all the paperwork back to New Zealand is complicated, costly, and time-consuming. So I am falling back on one of the other options, namely getting it from the Russian consulate in Hong Kong. Apparently they are much easier to deal with and they will give visas to non-China residents and those like me on tourist visas to China of only 30 days. Before jumping on a train to Hong Kong, however, I am trying to find someone in Hong Kong who I could send my paperwork to and for them to take it into the Russian consulate. I've checked with the consulate and it is not necessary for the applicant to apply in person. I've contacted some travel agents to see if they would do it for me but no luck so far. A friend is contacting his friends in Hong Kong to also ask. Does anyone reading this blog have a trustworthy contact in Hong Kong who might be willing to receive my documents and spend an hour or two taking them into the Russian consulate and then couriering them back to me in Shanghai? If so please email me at . I'd pay all costs of course and will additionally reward for their time. This is pretty urgent so if I don't hear of anyone in the next day I will have to get on the train to HK myself.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Frazzled in Shanghai

One of my missions here is to get a Russian visa for when my girlfriend and I take the Trans-Mongolian Express from Beijing into Mongolia and Russia and eventually through to Moscow. I set out to do this today. Unlike all the other visas I've had to get on this journey, I had outside help with this one. My girlfriend has done all the hard work in the extraordinarily complicated task of getting a visa to Russia. One must have an invitation from a Russian travel agent and several other completed forms. There are no visas-on-arrival, one must get it beforehand. My girlfriend had secured the invitation and the other forms for me and emailed them. So I thought I'd be all set for the fairly simple process of printing the paperwork out and taking the forms into the Russian consulate here. The omens were bad when last night I asked the hotel to let me use their printer to print out the forms and they simply said 'no' without saying why. After pleading with the hotel reception staff they eventually let me but I was surprised how difficult this seemingly simple task in the process turned out to be.

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

On Being Censored

Hello readers. I made it to China just fine and spent one night in Nanning, a small town of 2.5 million people. I seemed to be the only foreigner there and was stared at by everyone so was pleased to get on an overnight train to Shanghai which arrived this afternoon. The ride was pretty comfortable. I had a hard sleeper because the soft ones were all sold out, but I managed to get some sleep, although I had a sore back in the morning. Diverse scenery along the way: mountains, rice-paddies, tiny villages, leafy suburbs, and huge industrial cities.

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

Last Day in Vietnam

My visa to China has arrived and so I'm to board a bus in the morning for the four-hour trip to the Vietnam-China border( just beyond the town of Dong Dang on the Vietnam side) and then a further four hours through to the city of Nanning in the Chinese province of Guangxi.

Soaking up the culture

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


July 14

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.’

‘APEC Hotel?’

‘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.

Monday, July 12, 2010


The bus from Saigon was really slow. What was supposed to be a 30 hour ride was going to take 40 hours by my estimation. I spent one night on board but didn't get any sleep because the road was terrible, so I got off the bus in a city called Da Nang - third largest in Vietnam - and stayed a night. Of course I had to stay another night because I wanted to watch the World Cup final which was on at 1.30am local time! I did so in a pool/billiards hall with a dozen locals. Now I've gone on to Hue where I'll stay a night before continuing my journey to Hanoi.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Saigon, Vietnam

I've been here for a couple of days now but don't have much to report. Severe exhaustion struck me again while I was in Phnom Penh. I don't know if it's the dengue fever or heat exhaustion or a combination of both but I felt so tired in PP that I just rested in my hotel and saw almost nothing of the city.

Two days ago, I caught a bus that went through the border from Cambodia to Vietnam. My hotel had arranged a Vietnam visa for me but the formalities at the border took nearly two hours but once in Vietnam it was only a couple of hours to Saigon. My cousin and her family live here and so I'm staying with them and resting up. The first night here, I slept for over twelve hours and still felt tired the next day. Today I can feel I'm getting back to normal so I might try to explore some of Saigon but only very lightly.

I'm going to book a ticket today on the train that runs from Saigon to Hanoi, a train sometimes known as the 'Reunification Express'. It takes 30 hours and I will probably do it in one go leaving tomorrow since I have to hurry to get to Beijing by the beginning of August. Hanoi is a very hot and humid place. Yesterday the temperature was 38 degrees there and sometimes it gets into the 40s. I think I will probably not venture out much and rest up some more in an air-conditioned hotel.

Update: all the trains were booked up for the next four days so I've booked a sleeper on a bus instead. I never knew there were buses with sleepers. Not sure how comfortable it will be, but I guess I can always hop off if its terrible, stay in a hotel, and then get on another bus. Its about the same speed as the train, taking 34 hours from Saigon in the south to Hanoi in the north.

Sunday, July 4, 2010


Cambodia seems to be the hottest place on my journey so far. Darwin, Indonesia, and Malaysia were hot but I could still do things. Thailand was mild by comparison. Then I arrived in Siem Reap and the heat was intense, beating down on me whenever I stepped outside. I would sit still in the shade and still be sweating. I had to curtail my activities because of it, only managing a couple of hours outside in the daytime before having to seek out airconditioning. Perhaps I'm still run down from the dengue fever which means more sensitivity to heat? Anyway, I've arrived in Phnom Penh and sought out a hotel with a swimming pool. But as soon as I arrived it started pouring with rain. Everyone else ducked for cover but I enjoyed the coolness of the rain. Will still go swimming in the pool even if rain continues.

It's a great hotel I'm staying at, even apart from the swimming pool. They are booking me a bus to Ho Chi Min City (Saigon) and arranging the visa for me! Which is just as well because lonely planet's information was frustrating: there are no visa-on-arrivals for Vietnam, whether you go by air or land. You have to have a visa in advance. Lonely planet then says that these visas in advance are easy to get in Phnom Penh but they don't actually tell you HOW to get one. I was anticipating seeking out the Vietnam embassy and spending a couple of days getting the visa, but I now realise that what lonely planet mean by it being easy is that many hotels and travel agents are willing to do it for you.

Angkor Wat again and 'In the Mood for Love'

I went to Angkor Wat again because I wanted to pinpoint the exact spot where the final scene in the great film 'In the Mood for Love' was made. If you've seen the film you'll know the scene I mean and how important it is. If you haven't seen the film, too bad, I'm not explaining (though it is on youtube here: )

Well here is the pivotal spot:

Floating Village

Floating Village

With the benefit of hindsight, I can tell that my lethargy from a couple of days ago was probably due to heat exhaustion. I'd spent several hours wandering around Angkor Wat in the middle of the day and was drenched in sweat. A couple of days resting in an air-conditioned hotel room has restored me. Yesterday I visited Angkor Thom, another bunch of old ruins near Wat, and they were great. One called Bayon was particularly fun with lots of crazy passageways to get lost in.

This evening I had a sunset dinner on Tonle Sap Lake where there is a floating village. This was great, contrary to my lonely planet travel book which dismissed it as 'too popular'. There were other tourists but not too many and it was interesting to see how people live on floating huts which they move up and down river depending on the season.


Thursday, July 1, 2010


Angkor Wat was amazing but I'm feeling a bit flat at the moment. Feel like I've been seeing too much and am not too excited about seeing other things. Maybe I need a break. Feeling a bit lonely and homesick too which I guess is understandable since it's now been four-and-a-half months since I left NZ. It might also be the dengue fever making a resurgence - I read somewhere that it can come and go for six weeks. So I'll take things easy for the next few days.

I can't slow down too much though because I have to be in Beijing in early August to meet my girlfriend there who is flying from NZ. We're going on the Trans-Mongolian Express through to Moscow and St Petersburg during August and September. So I'll have to rush through Vietnam and do quick visits to Hong Kong and Shanghai on the way to Beijing.

Angkor Wat


June 28
I crossed the border from Thailand to Cambodia today. The border was chaotic. I had to hunt down the immigration offices, they were not easy to find. I could quite easily have just walked across the border without getting my passport checked by anyone. Once I had got my passport stamped on the Cambodia side I managed to find a bus to Siem Reap to spend a few days in the Angkor Wat region.