Getting Out of China for the National Holiday Hassle

With October 1st (China’s national week-long golden holiday) rapidly approaching , it was time to buy flight tickets two months ago.

I’ve been stuck in the country since February’s Cambodia trip ,and my poor blue backpack is moaning from the closet , various Lonely Planet guidebooks are constantly rattling the bookshelves, and I’ve got an intense itch in my soul (maybe I should get that checked out?) . I want  need to get out on the road. Sure there are lots of places within China that I need to see still but the genius of giving everyone in the most populous nation of Earth time off at the same time is pure chaos. Forget trying to travel in China. I can see lines and experience a crowd jostling for position almost anytime I like. The only problem with trying to get out of China is the airlines are wise , and prices skyrocket accordingly.

It’s also a bit harder for me to travel now since I can’t leave the Chinese girlfriend back in the mainland. For those of us with coveted American , fancy European Union, and ASEAN passports , we can easily forget how hard it is for nationals of less prosperous countries to get around.

Our original intentions were for a week-long trip to Taiwan , starting from Taipei and working our way south to visit my American friend doing the whole TEFL thing in Tainan. China considers Taiwan a part of it , right? Should be easy for Chinese to visit , right? Get ready for it …… WRONG!

First up we would have to visit the city of Nanjing where my girlfriend’s household registration permit is stored at her university. The university is closed on the weekends so this entails taking Friday off. The household registration permit must be taken to the Entry Exit Administration to receive a travel to Taiwan permit. This is no big deal , a bit of a hassle but easily done. However, then an Taiwan entry permit must be applied for with a tour group. If you go with a tour group this isn’t so hard but will still cost nearly $200 USD. Now I’m not a fan of tour groups and I despise Chinese tour groups. I do not want to crowd in a bus with a bunch of spitting , smoking , loud middle-aged people , herded off the bus , and given 2 minutes to snap some photos before being forced back onto the bus to go “see” another site. I want to travel at my own pace , do my own things , make my own itinerary , and see my friends.

Tour companies can, however, get a permit for a solo Chinese traveler to visit Taiwan. With fingers crossed we began the process of trying to find out some information. Some tour agencies in Shanghai turned us down saying since my girlfriend’s household registration is in Nanjing we would have to use a Nanjing based company. Hmm , ok. Calling Nanjing tour companies left us devastated as we would have to prove my girlfriend makes 120,000 rmb / year ( nowhere close) , showing proof of household ownership (hah!) , and/or having 50,000 rmb in a bank account that will be frozen until her return to the mainland (no way).

We put Taiwan plans out of our minds. Impossible. Now the mad scramble to find a destination began.

“Holy Sh**!” ” All the tickets are in the $600-900 range for each round trip ticket to most of Asian destinations. Even Manila , which I’ve paid $380 roundtrip was hitting $650. One diamond shining in the rough was a roundtrip to Seoul , South Korea at $350.

Guess what the problem is?

Uh-oh developed wealthy country makes it tough for her to get a visa. It seemed actually possible (unlike Taiwan) but we weren’t guaranteed the visa. We needed to buy a ticket somewhere now or else we weren’t going anywhere.

Whoa awesome deal (compared to other places during October 1st Holiday) popping up on Orbitz , $559 to Bangkok! Let’s do it!

*Click Book Flight*

Screen flashes back ” Sorry due increased demand at this time these seats are not currently available.” “This current flight is now $800”.

We tried place after place , combination after combination of different departure times , and finally settled on a $600 flight to Hanoi, Vietnam. I wait too long every single Chinese holiday and each time have chosen my destination based on the least expensive ticket. In order for this to be the least expensive ticket , it’s usually the most inconvenient , sometimes downright awful , combinations of flight times. For example , we arrive in Hong Kong at my 9:40 pm on the 1st and make the connecting flight to Vietnam at 4:00 pm on the 2nd. Giving us an 18 hour lay-over in Hong Kong. This isn’t so bad as it gives us a chance to see HK a little bit (both have never been) but staying the night in Hong Kong adds up. Hostel beds are like $20-30 a piece at the cheap , tiny , not so nice places in ChungKing Mansions. A place noted for having drug dealers , prostitutes , being the base of shady things for Hong Kong , and if that isn’t bad enough is also a deathtrap if case of fire. Score! On the way back from Vietnam we will make another stop over in HK from 1 am-ish the night of October 8th until 12 noon. Enough time to make it to ChungKing Mansions , sleep , and make it back to the airport to undergo security checks and board our flight.

But you know what? I don’t care. I’m going to Vietnam in a month and a half! Wooo hooo!

We don’t have our visas yet but they are easily obtainable from the Vietnamese Consulate in Shanghai , take 4 days to process , and hit the wallet a bit hard at 400rmb a pop.

Looks like it’s time for me to tighten the belt up a few notches , quit buying pricey imported beers , and eat vegetable soup for a while to afford this trip. ( Good thing DVDs are so cheap here)

Bring it on ‘Nam!

Observations from the Real Ride to Luang Prabang

So the bus ride from Kunming, China down to Luang Prabang , Laos didn’t have any improvised mines , rebel attacks, malarial outbreaks, or even monkeys flinging poo. Merely a small child with a plastic automatic rifle that shoots out pure annoyance and irritation instead of bullets. But hey it was alright , I made it!

A couple of observations on the way down:

China has an excellent road (G213) paved from Kunming down to the border, once you cross the border the road loses the fancy G2 and is merely called 13. Along with the prefix the road also loses quality and gains potholes (craters), dirt, and mud. The roads also now are very windy and the bus is constantly turning on its way through the mountains. Dense , lush , and verdant foliage also now surrounds the roads. It’s a bumpy ride.

After we crossed into the tropical district of Xishuangbanna , China, which borders Laos, at every parking lot/rest stop we stopped at you can count on money changers being there. They will come up onto the bus and in chinese say “huan qian” (换钱)followed by a “change money” in English. While it may seem shady to do trade with these random strangers and their thick wads of (kip) Laotian currency and calculators , I recommend it. The rates they offered were very close to the official rate encountered on the internet and much to much better than any rate I encountered while actually in Laos. I figured I would get a better rate in Laos so I only exchanged a little bit . Next time I know what to do. The rates are so close its hard to figure how these traders even make money. I wish I would have made a note of it but the profit margin for them was tiny.Now be smart and make sure you know the rate and make sure the math is correct and inspect and count the bills but don’t be afraid of this transaction.

1RMB = 1,257 Kip , $1USD = 7,980 Kip. This was the first time I’ve been a millionaire! The largest Lao note is the 50,000 Kip bill , so its only worth about $7USD. I thought having the 100RMB ($15) note in China was bad enough. So if you are changing lots of money be prepared to have a fat wad of notes.

At one stop a gambler came up to the bus with three small round covers and a coin. The coin was placed under one of the covers and they were all scrambled around. Two people gamble and try to find the coin. One of the Chinese guys on the bus pulled out a stack of 100RMB notes and ended up winning a couple hundred. High-roller!

As you go further south down into Xishuangbanna, signs in towns and on roads start having Laos script written underneath the Chinese. In stores there are more and more Laotian groceries and in the cooler next to the Dali beer Beer Lao starts making appearances as well!

The further down south the more palm trees. The more palm trees the more appearance of a laid-back calm environment.

Once you make it to the border you have to get on and off the bus a maddening number of times. First to go through Chinese customs and get your exit stamps then on the bus for 30 seconds , then off again ( I don’t even remember why) , then on and off again to pass through Laos customs and get your Laos visa.

At the Laotian customs there is a large book full of prices for visas on arrival. Every nationality has a different price. There are also different prices marked for different currencies. Americans are supposed to pay ~$35 USD but I had only Chinese RMB and after I did the conversion I had ended up paying $50 USD.

Bring two small photos with you to the border , fill out a small application , hand over the application with photos, cash ,  and passport, two minutes later receive your passport with a new visa stuck in it! Walk ahead and get your passport stamped and then its back on the bus.

The Lao Visa is a very cool and psychedelic with purple and pink hues , with a trippy silver holograph seal.

The Chinese customs looks all hi-tech and futuristic and bids goodbye  , while in Laos a big old-looking golden temple is the first thing that says hello.

After crossing the border the toilets in rest stops are more expensive to use  , 2 RMB versus 1 RMB (but in Kip).  I had to pay 2,500 Kip to piss. Hahahahahaha two thousand five hundred to pee.

New varieties of snack foods , (lays squid potato chips) , more variety of energy drinks. Lots of dried fruits. A snack station making sandwhichs out of loaves of bread. First real sandwhiches I’ve seen in Asia. Thanks French influence!

Finally , after 28 hours , my bus finally pulled into Luang Prabang. This was the first semblance of any large center of civilization. Up until now we had only passed through a few small villages and encountered little huts on the side of the road. Wow, it felt great to be done with the bus! I hopped off the bus and onto a Tuk-Tuk and it was off to the center of town to try and find a guesthouse……