It’s a fact of life for many foreigners in China, the visa run. Despite improving visa rules over the last several years (including the recent change to 10-year multi-entry tourist visas), many foreigners are still obligated to physically leave the country every so often to reset their time in China.
The Bearded Giant is here on a tourist visa, procured at the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco. My visa allows me to be in China as many times as I like over a ten year period, but no stay can be longer than 60 days. So every 57 days or so, it’s time to pack a bag and find a border to cross.
Despite China’s size, the options are fairly limited. Sure, if you are independently wealthy, it’s an excuse to do a vacation in another country every couple months. Go to Taiwan. Fly to Thailand. Head to Japan. Get on a plane for South Korea. All great options. But all are relatively expensive. When your daily food expense might be just $4, it’s hard to justify dropping $900 on a weekend trip every couple months.
As a U.S. citizen, there are several common options. Flying to Hong Kong is usually cheaper than other international destinations. And while Hong Kong is technically “part of China”, for immigration purposes it is not. So a visit there counts as an exit and entry to reset that 60-day clock. For those staying in the south of China, a ferry to Jinmen Island, off the coast of Xiamen, is another popular option. The island is Taiwanese territory and is an hour ferry ride away from the Chinese coast. Easy enough to make a trip over, spend an hour, turn around and come back. Yes, I said spend an hour. Visa runs don’t require any minimum time in your destination. Just that you have left the country.
For those in Beijing, a trip to Erenhot in Mongolia is an inexpensive choice. Transportation to and from the border is fairly cheap (much less than a plane to Hong Kong). Here in Dongbei (northeastern China), the closest neighbor is off limits to Americans. North Korea is just a couple hours away by train, and would be a very easy option to leave and reset. But U.S. citizens are not routinely permitted, and specialty tours that can skirt the regs are prohibitively expensive. The other close neighbor, to the North, is Russia. But unlike the other choices mentioned, Russia requires a visa of its own. So that’s a trip that requires more planning. The Bearded Giant plans Erenhot, Jinmen, and Russia for his future visa runs. But this time, it was Hong Kong.
First up is the plane ticket.
For nearly all travel in China, Ctrip is the website of choice. Ctrip offers a website in English and has nearly every train, plane, and hotel option you could want. If you’re trying to take a train from Beijing to Shanghai on August 19th, leaving around lunch time, your options are just a click away.
That particular line is one of the busiest in the world, with 100 million riders annually. But every train line in China is quickly found and booked on Ctrip. Tickets can be picked up in person at the departing station (or delivered to your hotel if you are so inclined). When it comes to train travel, Ctrip is the way to go.
For planes? uhhhh…
I started with Ctrip. Because why wouldn’t I?
I was a little late in booking this particular trip, and knew I would pay a small premium as a result. I was trying to find a way to make a Xiamen trip work, but toyed with that for far too long and ultimately had to book Hong Kong on a week’s notice instead. No worries. Ctrip to the rescue… right?
Alright! A little more than I was expecting. Hong Kong flights can occasionally be found for around 1500-1600RMB from Changchun. But my fault for delaying. And what’s 300RMB among friends?
Sweet. Payment complete. I can start looking for hotels. Maybe make some other plans. Maybe Disneyland.
*45 minutes later*
“Yes. This is The Bearded Giant… I see… And what does that mean?… So you don’t have a seat for me at that price after all?… Why is it on your website then?… Why would I want to call the airline to book a ticket, when I was trying to book through you guys?… So I should book a different flight?… OK… And what happens if that seat “isn’t available”?… I see… Yeah… Thanks…”
Back to the search page.
*45 minutes later*
“………. yes, I understand you are telling me there isn’t a seat. I got that the first two times. This is the second ticket I have booked. Why is your site showing tickets you can’t sell me?… So what are you suggesting I do?… Seriously?… You are suggesting I continue to book new tickets?… And what if those aren’t available either? Do you not see why it would be annoying to book, wait 45 minutes, be told it didn’t work, and then book again, and again, and again? My visa might run out before you guys even sell me a ticket!… No, I don’t want to call the airline. I wanted to give YOU my business. I am a customer trying to spend money with you. You have offered me plane tickets. I am trying to buy them… No… No, thank you… Yes, your customer service has been fantastic. Thank you so much for your help. Have a nice day.”
*30 minutes later*
Well, Ctrip? I tried to give you my business.
And yes, it’s true. There were no tickets available for 1800RMB. But it’s also true that when telling me the 1819RMB ticket was not available, the Ctrip folks were telling me they could just go ahead and run my credit card for 3000 for the itinerary I originally asked for.
So Kayak got the business instead.
Moral of the story? Ctrip is a poor choice for last minute flights internationally. They may be fine for flights two months out, and they are certainly fantastic for trains no matter when you book. But last minute flights their system doesn’t update properly.
I gave them an opportunity for my hotel booking, but a peculiar issue popped up. Ctrip is strongly catered to the domestic Chinese customer. So 80% of the “good” hotel prices displayed were specifically limited to PRC identification holders only. I would search for hotel options, see rooms in Hong Kong for 240RMB, and then discover that rate was not available for foreigners. Given the challenges in finding prices I actually qualified for, I used a different site after all. Ultimately I wound up at the Best Western for $52 a night.
Flight and hotel booked, it was time to book some fun. And what is more American than Disneyland on the 4th of July?
Hong Kong uses its own currency, the Hong Kong $, and the exchange is around 7.7 per USD. A 2-day Disneyland pass is just HK$680. I bought the 2-day, as my flight was scheduled to arrive around 2pm. And I figured after clearing customs and riding the train, I could still reach the park by 4pm or so. Enough time for a few hours of Disney and a fireworks show, then return on the 4th for a full day of Disney fun.
Knowing this was just a quick trip I planned on no suitcases. One backpack would be more than sufficient, especially in summer, for two days clothes and some sundries.
Early in the morning of July 3rd, I was heading to a main drag to hail a cab to head to the airport. The airport fare is a prime trip, and “random foreigner wearing a backpack before 6am” screams airport fare. Sure enough, rather than having to flag down a cab, I was still 20 yards away from the intersection when a taxi looked down the side street, saw me coming, slammed on his brakes, stopped, and backed up to where I was headed. I nodded at him as I walked, and I could almost hear the voice in his head saying “Qi-Qing”.
The cab ride was either uneventful, or really freaking strange… depending on how much time you have spent in China. During the ride (and before we had left the main part of the city) I shot the video below with my phone. You can see that lanes are merely a suggestion, “right of way” means something entirely different in China, but somehow everything turns out alright.
After watching that, you might ask yourself, “Why did the taxi suddenly pull all the way over against the curb?” You might think we had broken down, or that something had gone horribly wrong. But no. The answer to this question is the same as the answer to nearly all such questions. “Because China”.
Near the end of the video, you can see our taxi pass another taxi that has its hazards on. Setting aside for a moment the incomprehensible idea that a Chinese taxi would have working hazard lights in the first place, it’s natural to wonder what was wrong.
Simple. The fare wanted to go to the airport. The driver didn’t.
Wow. You are quick on the uptake, dear reader. Jumped right ahead to the ending of the story. Yes, you are correct. Another taxi flagged down my taxi, while it was driving, and somehow communicated through hazard lights and a wave that he wished to transfer a passenger in my cab. And my taxi driver agreed. We sat for a moment while the passenger paid for his first taxi, then haggled with my driver on an appropriate fare, got in, and joined us the rest of the way.
(continued in part 2)