Getting visa to China has been an interesting experience. Any time you try to deal with large countries who put a lot of different stipulations on their visa requirements, and especially if they have parts of the country where foreigners are either prohibited to visit or require special permission, you have potential issues with visa.
China is one of such countries, and Tibet region is restricted for travel. Our trip to China is going to be very short and we are not planning to visit Tibet. Plan is fairly simple, we fly to Beijing and spend a few days in the capital and around it, then we get ourselves to Urumqi in Xinjiang province, from there we fly to Alma-Ata Kazakhstan. Urumqi and Xinjiang is not really like the rest of China. It is remote, it is not 100% Chinese, it is predominantly populated by Uyghur ethnic people and other minorities. Last year they had demonstrations and protests against Chinese rule and against Han’s. So, I think most Chinese are not very familiar with that region, they do not understand it and treat it with suspicion. At the same time, the city of Urumqi has an international airport with daily flights to Alma-Ata, weekly trains to Alma-Ata and even a bus service. Best to my knowledge Xinjiang is not on the restricted list of places, so one would think that visiting Urumqi should not be a big problem and getting visa to China with plans to visit Xinjiang is not a big deal.
We just received our visas to Kazakhstan. It was easy and quick, no hassle process. I was expecting the same for China.
Chinese visa office in Washington DC is very efficient. You come in, get an assigned number and wait till they call your number, you go to the application window and give them your paperwork. Easy enough. Visa application requires to show all cities and provinces to be visited, in chronological order. So of course we put Beijing and Urumqi on our visa application as places we plan to visit. The Chinese girl at the embassy looked at it, consulted with another girl on her left, wrote next to Urumqi the Chinese translation (pinyin is Wu Lu Mu Qi), and declared that in order to visit it we must get special permission from some tour agency. Huh? I asked her what is she talking about. She started to tell me that Urumqi is the capital for Tibet region and anyone visiting there must get special permission. I’m thinking to my self, “you girl have no idea what you are talking about, Urumqi is not a capital of Tibet region”. Usually it is not wise to argue with government officials, especially if they hold the key to your access into their country, and she is a Chinese official working on the application. I knew that she is totally wrong and have no clue what she is talking about, I was annoyed and at the same time I was starting to worry that getting Chinese visa might be not as simple as one would hoped for. After telling me that we need to have special permission she was trying to give my application back to me. Not so fast. I asked her if she was positive on her assertion of this requirement, I told her that Urumqi is in Xinjiang and has nothing to do with Tibet. She was positive and she pulled out large folder and showed me the agency name that will fabricate special visitor permission.
Now, if you start thinking about it. I’m at Chinese embassy trying to get visa for entry into China and they are telling me that I need to go somewhere else to obtain permission to obtain permission to apply for visa. Haw crazy is that? Shouldn’t it be a one stop shop? After all, this is the Embassy and Visa Office, they should be able to give you whatever permission is required.
She mentioned something about specific dates and places we’d stay at and such. I quickly asked her about transit visa requirements and if that would eliminate special requirements for visiting Xinjiang province. I was not leaving the window and was not giving it up so easily. She decided to consult with another girl on her right. They chatted back and forth while giving me quick looks. My girl wrote a few things in Chinese on the scrap of paper and then told me that if I present our application with exact schedule, with booked travel and booked hotels then they don’t need any special permission for me to travel to Urumqi. Aha, good progress, after all she didn’t have a clue about Xinjiang and Urumqi travel requirements. All of this happened probably in the span of less than 5 minutes, first me giving her applications with full believe that I’ll depart with claim ticket, a few minutes later realizing that we might not get visas at all and finally agreeing with her on their requirements to show exact itinerary for the trip. That’s fine, I had to purchase tickets soon anyway. She was happy to get rid of me and I had to make some travel arrangements.
Up to this point we did not book our flights to and out of China yet. I didn’t want to book it, just for the reasons of some bureaucrat at Chinese embassy would not like my name and refuse the visa. For the last month we looked at different options and routes to take, none of them are cheap and prices fluctuate a bit as well. So now I didn’t have a choice but had to book all tickets, that is if I wanted to visit China. I booked our inbound flight to Beijing on United, booked hotel in Beijing for about one week, booked flight from Urumqi to Alma-Ata on China Southern Airlines, booked hotel in Urumqi and finally booked flight from Alma-Ata back to US on BMI. All in all, for 3 people about $7,000.00 in air travel expenses, ouch, I’m still turning in my sleep when I think about air travel price tag. But if you pay attention to our route, you realize that this is around the world trip. Nice.
The next day I showed up back at the opening time with my applications and printouts of all the bookings I did the day before. As my luck is, out of three application windows my number was called to the same one with the same girl. She was surprised to see me again and so quick. She looked through applications again, she looked through all my travel arrangements and asked how we are getting from Beijing to Urumqi. I didn’t make any travel arrangements for that leg of the trip yet. I told her that we will do this by train and buy tickets in China, at the same time thinking that she would find this unacceptable. Next she collected all paper work and went to back office behind closed doors, I guess to consult with someone who has more authority on visa issuance process. She came back about five minutes later telling me that everything is good and that she needs my cell number where they can reach me if they have any questions. Visas should be ready in 4 days.
Four days later, and another $390 lighter, I got our passports back with regular tourist Chinese visas. Chinese visas ain’t cheap.