After midnight, Friday 3rd August 2007, Dubai International Airport
Having flown in and out of Dubai on Emirates Airlines a good number of times on my way between Uganda and UK, flying to Beijing from there was an old / new experience, and I found it hard to believe that it was only a 7 hour flight, only a little longer than to Entebbe. China has always seemed so far away, yet I am used to 6,7 or 8 hour flights depending on which airline I used for Uganda. Suddenly it seemed so near. I guess also the long-dreamed-of reality of visiting Asia for the first time began to kick in. Dubai is a modern airport and the current main terminal building appears to be built around a vast duty-free shopping mall. There are not enough seats, but otherwise it is pleasant enough. It also has a free internet café – with no seating, and it is next to the barely enclosed smoking area!
As we took off and headed for Beijing, I wondered what had I let myself in for, putting myself in the hands of a fella I met on the internet only 15 months before? Not to mention culture shock, food shock, jet-lag! I have only a vague memory that the man who I sat next to on that flight in the early hours of Saturday 4th August 2007 appeared to be Chinese and non- English speaking. But I was determined to have a good time whatever happened, whatever my fertile, slightly paranoid imagination might come up with. Besides I like Chinese food, even though I know that ain’t really what my local Chinese take-away gives me on the rare occasions I go there. And, I don’t do too bad with the chop sticks either, “ethnic”, see …
I do remember that before landing we were given three forms to fill in – one for health, one for customs and one for immigration; communist bureaucracy lives on on the 21st Century! The health one was collected and not read at one of the barrier gates, likewise the customs one attracted little interest; Immigration however was a big hall with many desks and long queues. My Visa was in order and when I eventually presented my passport and myself to the official he looked at everything carefully. There was a line of buttons with which I could indicate the amount of my appreciation for his services on a score of 1-5 I think – each appropriately labelled. However it was not possible to do so until the passport was handed back and he pressed a button himself. This I suppose saved the potential embarrassment of pressing a button saying something like “this took far too long” and annoying him so that he took even longer! And, yes the signs were in English as well as Chinese – well it is an international airport.
My debit card being Maestro, and having been advised that money could be had from a VISA machine, I had duly applied for and received my very first Credit Card so I could avail myself of this modern phenomenon; I was surprised, however, to see an ATM machine in the air-side of the arrivals hall. In case this was the last one I would see for ages I thought I had better use it (in fact I spotted another one on the land side of the arrivals hall shortly after and there are many all over Beijing). Would I be able to use it? Wonder of wonders, English again. Though I am not used to being asked the kind of account I am wishing to withdraw my money from, it turned out to be easy enough to use. Then as now the exchange rate is about 15 China Reminbi (RMB or Yuan) to the GB Pound. So I decided to withdraw 1500 RMB at a time in order to help me keep track of my spending. In fact I ended up with two VISA cards as my new current account (which I thought would give me a VISA Electron Card, not as universally accepted as other VISA cards) actually gave me a full VISA Debit Card, and I had already applied for the Credit Card. Overkill? We might think so, but wait and see.
This trip was hoped for several months in advance. I had always wanted to visit Asia, and having a good internet chat friend in China for more than year (they mostly don’t seem to last that long) it seemed a good place to start. I had originally hoped to accept a long standing invitation to the USA that summer, and do the rounds of friends there, but mutually acceptable dates were not to be had. My daughter was going to Uganda to stay with her mother for 4 weeks, and I did not want to spend that long there, though I did need to spend a little time there, not least to update my residence status which had to be done before mid-August – this was in fact the primary reason for not putting off any trips there for me until 2008.
So, decision made in principle, could I find suitable flights at suitable prices to get me and daughter to Uganda, my to China and back, and both of us back to UK? Especially bearing in mind that we were booking only a couple of months in advance due to funds not being available earlier. Well, yes, and from Manchester, our preferred point of departure. Ethiopian would have been slightly cheaper than Emirates from Entebbe to Beijing and back (and slightly quicker) but I could not book on them as my VISA credit card had not yet arrived (and that was what they needed). So, Emirates it was. Middle of the night in Dubai? Not as difficult as in some places, we’ll cope, I’ll cope, done it before.
Oh yes, the VISA and the visa, how to distinguish? Would that we could get a visa from a VISA machine! A visa for China necessitated a day trip to Manchester, for the nearest Chinese Consulate. Trying to be efficient I downloaded a visa application form from the Internet and duly filled it in, having first contacted my friend Jia to ask his street address. I had to leave Bangor at an ungodly hour, arrived at the railway station with little time to spare only to find that the nearest machine to pay for the parking was broken and the train was coming, so I did not have time to run to the other end to use the other one; nor did I notice at this point that it can be paid by text from a mobile phone. I spent the first half hour on the train on my mobile, trying to get the appropriate number for National Car Parks and ringing several different possibilities, but to no avail. On arrival in Manchester it was pouring with rain and I had to walk at least half a mile in the wrong direction to find an ATM, then back to get the bus. Next find the Consulate – walking past it coz I had the wrong street number in my head didn’t help. Met a young Chinese couple:
Are you looking for the Chinese Consulate? I asked.
No we have just been there!
So they directed me.
NOTICE: Please use the new Visa Application Form available here.
Unlike the downloaded one (duly photocopied), it required Jia’s email address, which I had to dredge up from a part of my memory hitherto unused. I still don’t know if I got it right. Oh, and I could pay more to get it done within three hours.
Will you post it after the three days if I don’t pay more? I asked.
No, you have to come back and collect it.
I paid more. It had stopped raining, so a now pleasant walk to the coffee shop. But it’s a long time to make a cup of coffee and a few samosas last. A little wandering around Rusholme, Manchester M5 then; pick up passport with visa duly stuck in, stamped and signed, bus back to railway station. Train cancelled. Wait on platform an hour. Will my car have been clamped? It wasn’t, nobody had even checked! Did I go and pay the £3 anyway? Well, I thought about it.
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