Sunday, February 21, 2010

Shanghai - Rains, fireworks, and India Visa Frustrations

Feb 10 to 17, 2010 (by Swiss)

Shanghai Pearl Tower

Wed, Feb 10: Time to say good-bye to Xiamen and head north to Shanghai. Shanghai is oft described as a very modern Chinese city with many western influences, and with over 20 million inhabitants, is China's largest city. It's located about a ~80 minute flight north of Xiamen, which we got to do courtesy of a booking from Spring Air. Shanghai would also be our base during the Spring Festival scheduled for Feb 14. Not knowing what the lodging situation would be during that time, we had reserved a room months in advance to negate any potential shortages in rooms. Those fears ultimately proved to be unfounded, but we nonetheless were planning on hanging around for a week or so.

Travel Day
As mentioned above and in Jason's prior post, we had tickets leaving Xiamen Wednesday in the latter parts of the afternoon. Spring Air, based in Shanghai, is China's oldest low budget airline, and as with most airlines of that type, offered very little (ok, no) frills. Instead, Lawton had to pay extra for his bag being over 15 kg, the aircraft sported no reclining seats, and passengers without iPods or ear plugs got to enjoy a constant sales pitch coming from the front of the plane. On the flip side, tickets were cheap and the flight was on time, which is all you can ask for.

Upon deplaning, we headed to pick up our "overweight" luggage, and to our bemusement found that the airport has a repository of lighters confiscated from boarding passengers by the airport's security team. Those lighters are then made available for free to passengers leaving the airport. Now that's some sweet communism right there :)

Free lighters after you collect your luggage at Shanghai airport

While taking a cab would have been the easiest way to get to our hostel, we decided to chance it and opt for the bus/subway combo. That quest turned out to be successful, and was fairly uneventful save for a lady vomiting right next to Jason in the very much overcrowded bus. Poor lady, although both Jason and I admired the amount of product she managed to produce. Two short stops on the very efficient subway, and we were within a 5 minute walk to our hostel, the Shanghai City Central Hostel. We had booked for eight nights, and were informed that for a fee of 30 RMB we could sign up for the Utels hostel network, saving 10 RMB per night. Although both of us sport Engineering degrees, we didn't really have to draw too much on our diff-eq classes to conclude that this was a good deal.

The Shanghai City Central Youth Hostel itself was nice, with clean rooms, friendly staff, communal bathroom and showers, hot water (both for showering and tea), and a heater in the room (a must this time a year.) The hostel also offered free wireless internet in the lobby, and a restaurant/bar offering western as well as Asian dishes at reasonable (though not dirt cheap) prices. For you beer drinkers, beer was sold at the bar for 5 RMB, or about 74 US cents for 600 mL. The biggest downside of the restaurant/bar, as with most eating establishments here in China, was that it was a tad smoky when heavily patronized. Beds were also on the harder side of things, but no worse than what we've had along our travels thus far. To our surprise, breakfast was included in the price, so our 50 RMB/night rate seemed quite reasonable. Overall, I think we both enjoyed our stay, especially since nobody else ended up checking into our four bed room for the remainder of our visit.

With bags unloaded, we were off into the rainy night to score some food. Our lack of Chinese language skills was compounded by the quickly approaching lunar new year, somewhat limiting which establishments were open. We settled on a Muslim shop sporting fresh noodles (as in home-made right there) and a large picture menu. I had soup, Lawton had dry noodles, it was good and cheap.

First dinner in Shanghai, noodles, freshly made!

Consular Mission - part 1
Our rain and cold theme continued into Thursday, with us awaking to yet another cold and rainy city-scape. Much like the US, we are not really increasing our chances of sunny warm weather as we continue to travel north. Lawton has had enough of the cold and was determined to find himself a good winter jacket, while I remain stubborn in my goal to make it through Japan without dishing out good money for a bulky garment that won't fit in my bag. More to come on that subject as our travels progress, I suppose.

Speaking of goals, my goal for the day was to visit the Swiss consulate in Shanghai to arrange for a new Swiss passport. Although I am traveling as an American, it occurred to me that it would be nice to have a second passport just in case, and my old Swiss passport had expired. Plus, in some cases, it will be cheaper to use my Swiss passport. For example, Brazil charges US citizens 195 USD for their visa, Swiss citizens get in for free.

We shall see, though word on the street is that using more than one passport on this trip might be a bit of a no-no. Regardless, I want it anyway, especially when traveling through Europe. Thanks to my dear Mother's communication with the Chicago consulate, where I am registered with 'ze Swiss, I was able to apply for my passport in the Shanghai consulate and have it sent to New Delhi for pickup. After forking over just under 1000 RMB, my application for the passport and Swiss ID was processed and I hope to get the passport upon my arrival in India. Cool beans, and very friendly staff at the consulate.

Next up was the Indian consulate, which we hoped to seek out for our Indian visa. We did manage to find the closed office after a frigid 30 minute walk, and were determined to return early the next day to apply for our visa. This was also before Lawton found out later in the day that, unless you carry a special passport (ambassador, etc), India outsources their Visa application process to a third party. The "non-VIP visa office" is actually housed at a different location, so our trip that day was in essence a waste of time. And before you ask, we have no idea to whom India manages to outsource their work and both found the concept loaded with irony. But more on all that later, it gets better.

The remainder of the day was once again spent looking for food establishments with picture menus, before heading to Carrefour, which is a french grocery chain somewhat prevalent around these parts of the world.

Carrefour, everyone's favorite cheap French superstore

Our shopping list was simple: Deodorant (me), Padlock (Jason), Detergent (me, but to share), and perhaps some food. We'll start with the D's: Deodorant is extremely hard to come-by here. I spent a good 10 minutes searching the store, finally stooping to walking up to a customer service rep, raising my left arm, followed by alternating motions of pointing my right hand at my left arm pit and smelling said pit with my centrally located nose. As Jason later laughingly admitted: "I just wanted to see how you would explain to her you were looking for deodorant." But here's the kicker: Their selection (for men) was essentially nil. A giant multi-level store (see pic above), mind you, but only one or two deodorant products, none of which were solid sticks, my preferred method of deodorization. The only reasonable conclusions at the time were that a) there is little demand by Chinese men for deodorant or b) it was a French store, and they just had to perpetuate the stereotype about French deodorant usage. Later attempts at other stores/pharmacies make me lean toward conclusion a), as to this day I've been unable to procure a solid stick of deodorant in this country.

On to the second D: Detergent. We've been alternating with who purchases detergent, and since Jason's bottle was finished, it was now my turn to purchase some. Contrary to the deodorant situation, selection was plentiful. Western characters, however, were not. So we spent some time looking at various products, eliciting a recommendation by another member of the sales staff for a large bottle of detergent. Upon examining the bottle, we were quite confident that it was the product we wanted. The problem was, we wanted a small bottle (still packing light, ya know.) To our amazement, the small bottle, easily half the size, was MORE expensive than the larger bottle. I tried to convey my confusion to the staff member, but she seemed to consider it perfectly normal. Alas, we were stuck paying more for less of the same product, all in the name of efficient traveling. In hind sight, we should have just bought the larger bottle and transferred it to a smaller water bottle. You live, you learn.

Other than that, the shopping was uneventful, although Jason was not successful in procuring a padlock. We did score some cheese and bread for later consumption, which is how I satisfied my dinner needs while Jason sampled the food at the hostel. To our amazement, as we left the store, we actually managed to get hailed on. China in winter, it ain't all it's cracked up to be.

What the F, India? (aka Consular Mission - part 2)
Ok, time for a rant. Sorry, but it has to be done, and I don't care if I sound whiny because of it. We'll just call it "therapy." So this entire trip we have been most concerned about getting into China, having heard horror stories about visas not being issued outside your home country, the process being slow and expensive, to the point where we actually visited the consulate in SF in hopes of getting a visa before our departure.

Those fears, other than the fact that we only got a 30 day single entry visa and China charges US citizens more, proved to be largely unfounded. In fact, the process that we went through in Saigon was quite streamlined, and entry into the country was very smooth. We'd therefore figured that the worst was over, as the remainder of the countries on our list seem to be fairly tourism friendly. Jason had heard that India, at least back in the day, used to issue long term multiple entry visas to Americans with very little effort. Compounding this, while we were in SE Asia, we were bombarded with countless television ads promoting how great it was to visit India, concluding the spots showing a western guy visiting various famous sites with the tagline/jingle "Incredible India." Cool, can't wait to come visit.

/official rant start

Now on to the rant. As mentioned above, India outsources their visa application process. No big deal, we figured, although the irony was admittedly not lost on us. We checked the required documentation, which included an itinerary, our passport, proof of onward journey (we had booked our onward tickets back in Laos), some money and three pictures. So, armed with our pictures, passports, and computers (we didn't have a paper copy of our plane tickets), we headed to the visa office hoping for a quick turnaround. At this time, we were scheduled to leave Shanghai the following Thursday, giving the consulate essentially just under 4 business days to complete our request. Worst case, we figured, we could delay our departure another day or pay an expedite fee. Other consulates, including China, had our visas back in 3-4 days.

So we arrived, took a number, picked up the application forms, and were quickly called to a counter. The clerk asked for the required documentation, some of which we said we had in e-format on our computers. She said she needed a paper copy, A4 format. This was a first to us, as none of the other countries even asked for proof of onward journey, let alone an A4 paper copy of it. Ok, we continued, we will have to return later in the day with this info. (paraphrasing now) "Is there a place where we could go to print the documents?" "No idea, just walk around", was her response. "How long will it take to process our visas?", we then asked. "Six business days", which coupled with a holiday the following Monday, brought the ETC to the next Monday, a full four days after our planned departure. "Can we expedite?", "No, 6 days is it." How about applying here and sending the passports to Beijing via courier for a later pickup? "Don't think so, and we don't really interact with the Beijing branch." "Any other options?", "Not aware of any." So what you're saying is that we're basically stuck here in Shanghai for 10 days, or we have to get to Beijing extra early and apply there? "Yup. Although I can't say how long it takes in Beijing." Why can't they expedite? "Because we send the application package to the consulate, and if no negative response is received within 4 business days, we issue the visa."

So it boils down to this: The contractor is a glorified paper collection agency with zero power to accommodate visitors on a limited time schedule and bound to a script provided by the consulate. Instead of getting feedback from the consulate, they wait a certain period of time to not get feedback to then issue a visa. Efficient. And my favorite part was the requirement of a detailed itinerary (can be handwritten) signed by the travelers, which in essence is a copy of the "places to be visited" form on the application page.

I sure hope India is saving a lot of money sourcing this stuff out, because from a customer perspective, it is very off-putting. Please don't go around promoting how great it is to visit your country when applying for a visa on the road (note that we didn't have onward tickets when we departed the US) results in a comparatively long and inflexible process. Other countries do it within a week, and in 1-2 days with an expedite fee. We met a British lady later that evening that was facing the same issue and was just planning to fly to Nepal and hope for the best. And no, I don't know how long it takes Indian citizens to get a US Visa, let alone the paperwork required. So I'm well aware that this post is potentially (likely) hypocritical. Though the last time I checked, money buys you almost anything in the US, such as the one time I got my passport renewed in about 4 hours in Chicago due to a international flight the following day.

/rant over

Angered and somewhat disappointed, we grabbed a copy of their checklist and left to ponder our alternatives. A call to the Beijing bureau enlightened us to the fact that the time there is "around" seven days, again with no expedite options. Good thing we didn't have to submit a detailed, signed itinerary when we applied for the China visa, as our itinerary here was bound to change :) 

So we were in somewhat of a pickle, weighing the pros/cons of applying in Shanghai vs Beijing. Air travel was likely going to be out during the application period, as India would have our passports. A quick check with our hostel later that evening confirmed that in order to check in other places, a copy of our passport and visa would be sufficient. That, coupled with the ability to get a full refund if checking out early (nice!), led us to apply for our visa the following Tuesday and book train tickets to Nanjing for Wednesday. Plan was to hit Nanjing, then Hangzhou, before looping back to Shanghai to pick up our visas on the 23rd. Not perfect, but manageable. Still not happy with India.

As for the rest of the day, it involved strolling down Hhaihai and Nanjing streets toward the Bund, which sports beautiful architecture along the Huangpu river. Along the way, we were asked by some students to take a survey on the subway system, which prompted this little group picture.

We filled out a survey for these students

Our walk was shared with quite a number of Chinese people, which I guess makes you fully appreciate the 1 billion plus folks who live in this country. It was also allowed us to take a picture of the following sign, the significance of which we didn't realize until the lunar new year hit the following day:

In the middle of Nanjing Lu

Nanjing Lu all decorated for the New Year

We arrived at the bund in the latter parts of the afternoon, where some more pictures were taken. Unfortunately, construction was underway along the river, somewhat limited the scenery. We also opted out of the sightseeing tunnel.

European architecture and what reminds me of SF bus power lines

Shanghai Pudong skyline

We once again ventured for local food near our hostel, where our dinner order was somewhat lost in translation despite the use of my home-made Chinese/English picture dictionary. We got plenty of soup, though :).

Happy (lunar) New Year!
New years eve day (does that even make sense?) would be a mix of planning and sightseeing. Having an agreed upon path forward in regards to our India visa, we first visited the Shanghai train station to figure out train ticket option. Since most Chinese head home for the new year/spring festival, we found the train station to be packed.

Lunar New Year's Eve in front of Shanghai railway station

We searched in vain for a foreign (English) ticket counter, but luckily ended up discovering automated ticket machines that had an English menu. It was here that we discovered that we could book a high speed train ticket to Nanjing for under 100 RMB. We would check with the hostel for other alternatives, but were pretty happy with the find.

Next up was a quest for soup dumplings, a recommendation we had heard from many people. We also heard about Xintiandi mall, where you can supposedly get said dumplings. What we hadn't anticipated is that most of the restaurants were closed in observance with the holidays. In fact, it was almost eerily quiet outside the chaos that was the train station. We did find that the memorial site of the first congress of the people's communist party, located right by Xintiandi, was open. So we checked that out, which was a lot of fun and offered some insight to how the party was formed. Oh, and it was free, although tickets are limited to 2000 per day. As for Xintiandi, it turns out to be a very modern, well designed mall that likely caters more to people with actual jobs than an unemployed traveling bums like ourselves. It was very well done, and worth a visit in the future. Especially on a warmer day.

Beautiful work at Xintiandi

With soup dumplings out due to numerous restaurant closures, we settled on mall Korean food instead. This was after a visit to Peoples square and stroll through part of the city where they are gearing up for the world expo starting in May.

Haibao, the mascot for the Shanghai Expo 2010

Zoom in for a view of some of the pavillions for the upcoming Expo

Shanghai Skyline and Music Hall

I'm crushing this tower

Buildings surround People's Square

Our lunch was so-so, although I just have to post the picture of Jason's scrawny meat stick (that's for you, Alvin.)

It was shortly after lunch where Jason scored the win of the day. He had been looking for a warm jacket for while (we have both been freezing for the last few days), and lo and behold, we stumbled upon the Polo Villae store. Don't ask me what Polo Villae is, but they have a store. It was in said store where Jason managed to find the jacket shown below for a price of 99 RMB, or just under 15 USD. His life was now complete, while my stubbornness continued successfully.

It looks more green in person, the flash is deceiving, but the best 99RMB I ever spent on a jacket (that I only need for 4 weeks!)

Oh, and for every win, there shall be a fail. This one is courtesy of M$ Windows and a building display:

The Windows error message really ruins the design on this building

That night we decided to head to the other side of the Huangpu river to hopefully witness some fireworks over the bund. While most fireworks were not witnessed until later in the evening, we did get some cool shots of people lighting and releasing lanterns for the new year. It was an especially cool sight with the Bund lit up in the background. The eerily quiet atmosphere continued, with closed restaurants, abandoned malls, and empty subway trains being more of the norm rather than the exception. We wondered if this is what it's like to be Jewish around Christmas, with the exception that eating Chinese food wasn't really an option for us :)

New Years Eve and the Shanghai Metro is nearly empty!

This shopping mall was empty before 8pm!

Lighting the Red Lantern

Shanghai and more lanterns

Shanghai and more lanterns

We returned to our hostel area to score food, which at the time was limited to McDonalds or KFC. We hoped to get a bucket of chicken, but alas, they were all out and about to close. So Mikey D's it was. The night continued on with fireworks going off all over the city, irrespective of time and locaton. We quickly began to understand the significance of the fireworks sign we had seen earlier, an understanding that turned into envy when people started setting off fireworks right outside our window (2nd picture.) Fireworks/crummy nights of sleep would continue on throughout the week as the Chinese continued to celebrate spring festival.

New Years Eve fireworks in Shanghai

Lazy days are here again
And so we awoke Sunday after a less than optimal nights sleep to do something that we needed to to: Laundry. It was new years day, most places were closed, and it was raining. I managed to stay indoors all day, we both worked on some blog stuff, and we were generally lazy. Jason, new jacket in hand, actually managed to make it outside, though his attempts were short lived. I'd write something exciting, but there literally isn't anything worth mentioning.

Which brings us to Feb 15, still an official holiday in China. After checking some other transportation alternatives, it was decided to take the high speed train to Nanjing. So we first went to the train station to score tickets. Next up was a search for soup dumplings, which once again resulted in failure. Well, sort of. We got dumpling soup. Close. The weather was crap, so it was decided to check out a nearby mall and movie theater. The mall was so-so, Jason scored some cheese from the Carrfour in the basement, and moved on after discovering that the movies playing at "cloud nine" movie theater were of little interest. The rest of the time was spent hanging at the hostel and getting ready for our Indian visa event the following day.

Wrapping up and moving on (sort of)
Tuesday was Indian visa day, which was of course first on our list. Armed with our package of documents, we arrived bright and early for them to start processing our paperwork. We asked to get confirmation on the six day processing, given that we wanted to book some plane tickets to Xi'An for the following week. Not surprisingly, they wouldn't commit to the six day turnaround quoted earlier and just gave us a website to check the status of the request. Again, most other countries give you a receipt with date and time to come pick up the visa. Apparently India isn't into that, leaving us to gamble on a plane ticket or wait until we actually get our visa into our hands. Oh, and for the record, we decided to gamble, although we did give them almost one full extra day for processing by booking an evening flight.
Next up was a visit to the old part of town, which was absolutely packed (we figured due to the holiday.) We had heard that soup dumplings can be found there, which we did. The small streets, traditional architecture, and occasional ham hanging from the windows were and enjoyable alternative to the more modern parts of the city. So enjoy the pics.

Entry to the tourist part of Old Town Shanghai

The Year of the Tiger

Holy crowds Batman!

Happy New Year with crowds :)

Drying the laundry...and some meat I guess

We got up Wednesday to consume our last free breakfast before heading to the train station for Nanjing. Our plan is to return on the 22nd to pick up our visa. Wish us luck!

Boarding our train to Nanjing

Our train to Nanjing


Unknown said...

Meat stick looks delicious, although quite small - I guess Jason must be working hard at trying to lose more weight than me! Sorry to hear about your trials and tribulations with the Indian visas - I'll have to vehemently complain to our Indian representatives in the office. :)

Anonymous said...

Just my 2 cents on your rant about Indian visas.. you mention "dont know how long it takes for an Indian to get a US visa" the answer possibly never. You are lucky you an American can get an Indian visa on the road in China in 10 days... for your blessed country.. we Indians have to be in the place of residence to get one. And that could be never.. coz the amount of red tape and formalities involved, you could possibily never fulfil the requirements. I have a visa, my husband has one and we plan to visit our daughter for the summer. But there is no way my 18 yr old son can accompany us..coz he is a 'risk'. Can you comprehend that... we got visas and have travelled thru 12 countries in this wide world.. end of my rant. I was happily reading your blog since the last 5 days.. a real pleasure. Thank you for sharing though. Regards Angela

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