Happy Chinese New Year!
As you may remember from our last post we decided to take a couple of months out from our busy pedalling schedule and return to the UK for December & January (and, as it turned out, half of February too), arriving back in China on their New Year’s Day at the start of the Year Of The Snake. We’ve used the time off to do some necessary business-related things, some enjoyable friends-and-family-related things, and some useful trip-related things, in particular a long overdue clean of our sleeping bags and my down jacket (thanks to David at Mountaineering Designs in Cumbria for an excellent service). We also bought new tyres (Schwalbe Marathon Plus) for both the tandem and the trailer, picked up a new tandem frame to replace the one that had cracked and been re-welded back in China, sorted out new travel insurance, got jabs and anti-malaria tablets for SE Asia, and got visas for our return to China.
Getting back to China hasn’t been as straightforward a process as we’d hoped it might be. First of all, we’d assumed that getting a Chinese visa from our home country would be easier than getting it on the road, but because we’re not typical tourists and were not able to provide evidence of our homeward flight nor our hotel bookings for each night of our stay in China we ended up having to provide a letter of invitation, kindly provided for us by one of my brother’s Chinese friends and saying that we would be staying with them for the duration of our trip. We were at least able to apply for more than a 30 day visa and so now have 60 days here before we need to worry about extending visas or exiting the country.
Once in possesion of a visa our second hurdle was getting out of the UK.
Our route was to be a coach from Chesterfield to Heathrow, and then flights from Heathrow to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Guangzhou, and finally, Guangzhou to Chengdu.
The coach journey was fairly straightforward. The trouble began at Heathrow.
We were booked on the 08:40 flight to Amsterdam, but there was also an earlier 06.35 flight going the same way and the check-in was heaving with late comers. We waited patiently until the furure had died down and then went through to the check-in ourselves. We were only entitled to two bags in the hold, but had been unable to wedge the tandem frame and spare tyres into our rucksacks so had ended up with 3 bags. This was the first problem. At one point our check-in lady wanted to charge us £87 for an extra bag AND £87 for it containing part of a bike. Keith was rapidly becoming irritated by her manner and going to great pains to explain the difference between a bike and a bike frame. The check-in lady was giggling like a cretin and trying to liken it to us wishing to travel without a limb but not wishing to be classed as a whole person. In short, things were rapidly descending into the ridiculous.
In the end she charged us just the one £87 (well, we knew there would probably be some penalty for an extra bag) but then also made us sign a waiver to say that the bike frame was improperly packaged and it wouldn’t be their fault if it was damaged. When she diligently asked us if we’d deflated the tyres we nearly imploded with irritation, as the only tyres in the package were not attached to wheels and didn’t have inner tubes in them because we were transporting a frame and 3 spare tyres, not a bl**dy bike, which if she’d been listening to us at all she’d have realised.
Anyhow, problem number one was finally resolved (to little satisfaction on our part) and then problem two arrived as she then realised we were going to China but didn’t have a return flight booked. So despite us having acquired a valid visa she said she needed to see bank statements proving how we would finance ourselves in China and also wanted proof of exit from the country….neither of which we could provide as we a) hadn’t expected to be asked for financial details and b) were intending to get our Laos visa at the border (way easier than trying to get one from Paris, which is the nearest Laos embassy to Chesterfield). In the end I had to be taken into a back room and log onto one of their computers, access my gmail, download the letter of invitation we had sent to the Chinese embassy and print that out for their files.
What a palaver. The manager explained to us that it is IATA rules that if we land in China and are refused entry the airline will be fined £5,000 as well as having to fly us home, so even though we had a visa, they still needed to ask for all the information (and more besides!) that we’d had to supply to get the visa in the first place.
We then set off the alarms at security as we were carrying an extra battery for our netbook….and then we discovered the gates to our 08:40 flight weren’t going to be opening until 09:30 – it transpired that the flight out of Amsterdam had a mechanical problem and they had to swap to a different plane…..so right from the start our journey to Chengdu was not going smoothly.
We got a free coffee and sandwich as compensation for the delayed departure, but still arrived in Amsterdam just as our flight to Guangzhou was leaving and had to go to the transfer desk to discover how they planned to get us to Chengdu.
In the end we were put on a flight to Shanghai and then a later flight from there to Chengdu, and assured our luggage would be going the same way as us.
We were given 10 euro each to spend on lunch and thus whiled away our time in Schipol Airport. The flight to Shanghai was due to leave at 17:10 but snow had begun to fall and we had to wait to get the wings de-iced so in the end it was well after 6pm before we took to the air. The plane was only half-full so we had a comfortable flight, but at the back of our minds we were rather anxious about our reception at immigration, given the huge fuss made by H’row check-in staff, and also rather worried about the impact of the delayed departure on making our flight to Chengdu from Shanghai. As we descended to Shanghai, the airline staff handed out immigration cards and told us that we needed to pick up our luggage before going through immigration.
The immigration forms, with classic Chinese logic, asked us to state the purpose of our visit by ticking just one of the following: business/conference; visit; sightseeing; visiting friends/relatives; plus a couple of others that I can’t remember. We decided that ‘visit’ should cover us, even though sightseeing and visiting friends/relatives also applied.
We went to baggage collection as instructed, but after watching everyone else get their bags it became apparent that ours weren’t there, so we had to go and fill in some forms and be told our bags were still in Amsterdam – no explanation of why, but we were assured they’d get to Chengdu by Monday afternoon, 24hrs after our own arrival (it’s now Tuesday am and they’re still not here).
Despite all the fuss at Heathrow we sailed through immigration with no trouble at all, but then had just 45 mins to check in for our Shanghai to Chengdu flight, so found an assistant who took us to the front of the .check-in queue, but then we were delayed at security as Keith’s 6inch metal ruler that he keeps in his diary and has been through countless security checks with no trouble at all was suddenly perceived as a knife. Drama over we legged it over to the gate and made it onto the plane.
For our final flight we were in seats at opposite ends of the plane and I ended up sitting next to a young Chinese guy who wanted to practice his English. Curiously, he asked what colour the sky was in England. “Blue of course, like it is here,” I replied. He laughed and said the sky was never blue in China. I’d forgotten about the pollution, which has become worse than ever in our absence. Chengdu is cloaked in a white/grey smog. There’s not a scrap of blue sky to be seen anywhere. Even skyscrapers just a couple of kilometres away are indistinct through the scungy atmosphere. I miss the clear blue Peak District sky already.
Duncan’s friend Matt kindly picked us up from the airport and has looked after us splendidly – we had roast yak for dinner last night – whilst we await further news on the progress of our baggage, which according to yesterday’s email update “will be arriving in Shanghai on 10 February” ie two days ago. This morning Keith managed to speak to someone who says our bags have indeed reached Shanghai and will be put on the next flight to Chengdu, to arrive here either today or tomorrow.
It feels like it was easier to cycle to China than to fly here.
Update on 13 February
At last! 72 hrs after we reached Chengdu our bags finally joined us. It took a number of conversations with various people to have the bags delivered to us at Matt’s apartment (apparently they were not going to deliver them to us as it was apparently our fault we hadn’t picked them up in Shanghai….even though they were in Amsterdam when we were in Shanghai). But they’re here, unscathed, so now we can rebuild the bike and plan our route into SE Asia – Laos first or Vietnam? Decisions, decisions.