Tuesday, March 1, 2011
Applying for a Chinese Visa
Gaining access to China in the 1960s was nigh on impossible without an invitation from the Chinese Government but I was determined to get there somehow.
Since the establishment of the Peoples’ Republic in 1949 nearly all foreigners had been expelled and there were relatively few countries that maintained diplomatic relations. Two academic friends had succeeded but they had letters of introduction from Chinese contacts whereas I had nothing. Despite that I still decided to give it a go.
I had been told that the only visa that I could expect to get was a transit visa and that would be for 14 days. When you think of it, there was really no reason why China should grant any transit visas for travelers from Europe so I had to create something.
The Soviet State travel bureau, Intourist was happy to sell me a ticket on the Moscow – Peking Express, so that was stage one. The next step was to send a reply paid cable to Luxingshe, the Chinese State travel bureau, requesting hotel accommodation in the capital.
Needless to say the Chinese did not reply but they did have my money for the replied paid cable.
With these two items in place I rocked up to the Chinese Embassy in London to apply for a visa.
As I approached the building I noticed that all the blinds on the windows facing the street were drawn and it looked as if the embassy was closed. However, when I rang the bell the door was opened and I was pointed up a long staircase to reception. There sat a man in a black Mao-style suit with a pair of scissors in his hand, cutting up papers. ‘Visa’ I said? And was wordlessly passed a form to complete. I filled in my details and attached two photographs and waited, and waited while the receptionist continued to cut paper. Nobody came and nobody went. Nothing happened. It was like waiting for Godot. Closing time came and the receptionist indicated that I should leave. I left.
The next day, Friday, I arrived at the opening hour and the blinds were still drawn. I climbed the staircase and said good morning to the scissor man and waited. At lunchtime he indicated that I should leave and pointed to his watch. I returned at two o’clock and continued to wait. Closing time came and once again I was politely evicted. The only interruption to my reverie had been the arrival of the post and a courier. This was real isolationism.
I returned on Monday morning and resumed my wait. After about two hours a man came out and explained to me that it was really not possible for someone to just decide they would like to visit China. ‘But, but, but’, I said, ‘I have bought a ticket from Moscow to Peking; tried to book a hotel, even sent money for the reply paid cable so at the very least the Peoples’ Republic should repay me that part’. The man nodded and walked out. Closing time came and I left the embassy.
The next day (Day Four) I resumed my place facing the scissor man and maybe an hour had gone by when suddenly in swept a new person.
‘Mr Blackall’ he said. ‘You are a nuisance’. His English was impeccable. ‘Why don’t you take the train straight across Siberia?’
‘Because the ports are all frozen up in winter.’ I didn’t know this to be true but he seemed to accept it.
‘Oh, all right’, he said. ‘Have you got enough money?’
‘Yes, yes’ I said, making a pile of Persian reals, Russian roubles, Japanese yen, a few hundred US dollars, and other assorted currencies. It was a large pile but the value was insignificant.
‘Give me your passport and come back in an hour.’
With passport and visa in hand I literally danced along the street.