I regretted the words the minute they were out of my mouth. No, I hadn’t been snippy with Dale, or snapped at the girls. I’d done something much, much worse…
I had tempted fate.
The day before heading to China, our final stop on our ’round-the-world (RTW) adventure, Dale and I were reminiscing over the previous four months. That’s when I uttered the fateful words:
Do you realize we’ve been traveling over four months without a single hiccup? Not a missed connection–not a goofed up hotel reservation–not a single visa issue–nothing has gone wrong. It has been flawless!
Apparently, the travel gods (like the Greek gods) don’t care much for hubris.
China’s 72 Hour Visa Free Policy
From the beginning, we planned to take advantage of China’s new 72 hour visa-free policy to visit Beijing. This new policy would allow us to visit China’s historical highlights–the Great Wall, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square, and Summer Palace–without the hassle or expense of a tourist visa. The rules seem pretty simple: fly into and out of the same city (Beijing for us) with your onward flight, to another country, scheduled no later than 72 hours after your arrival. Easy enough.
Unfortunately, there are no non-stop flights to Beijing from Bali. All flights require a connection somewhere, so we book the flight with the best combination of schedule and price on China Eastern Airlines.
Prepared for a long travel day, we awake before dawn to meet our driver at 4:55 a.m. We are eager to depart Bali for a new country. A smorgasbord of illnesses–including two wicked cases of Bali Belly and high fevers–plagued us during our final week in Bali.
We arrive at the airport at 5:30 a.m., two hours prior to our scheduled departure. We quickly proceed through his-n-hers security lines (as required in Muslim nations), and make our way to the China Eastern check-in line where we wait.
An hour-and-a-half later, we (along with scores of other passengers) are still waiting to check in. Finally, a China Eastern employee begins walking through the line collecting passports. A few moments later she returns with our boarding passes to Shanghai, but not the passes to Beijing. We eventually make it to the counter where they check our bags, and nothing else. No questions asked.
That’s odd, I think. The airlines always verify entrance requirements (visas, onward flights, etc.) before issuing boarding passes to another country. I don’t think much more of it until later.
Once in flight, I keep glancing at my watch. China Eastern’s inefficient check-in process has resulted in a delayed arrival into Shanghai. Our connection is going to be close. Very close. Our instructions to the girls are succinct: Stick together and move quickly. We can’t miss the connection to Beijing.
Things go wrong at Chinese immigration
As we fast-walk through the crowd, we are directed toward Immigration. As we approach the Immigration officer’s window and hand over our passports, she greets us.
“Yes. 72 hours,” I reply.
“Onward flight confirmation?” she requests, and I show her our flight confirmation from Beijing to the U.S. three days later.
“This is from Beijing,” she states.
“Yes, I know. Our tickets are to Beijing, not Shanghai,” I reply as I hand her our confirmation to Beijing. “It’s one reservation from Bali to Beijing. Please look.”
Her expression tells us there is a problem, and she quickly summons another Immigration officer. A reasonably friendly-looking officer approaches. Again, we explain the scenario: We have tickets to Beijing. We are flying home from Beijing. We are simply connecting through Shanghai.
And before we can count to sān, he confiscates our passports and turns us over to an imperious Chinese Immigration officer. This particular officer is on a power-trip looking for a place to happen. Sadly for us, we are going to be that place.
Without a word, he herds us into a corner of the Immigration area. Now under house arrest, we are left under the watchful eye of a guard. We’ve only been there a few minutes when another officer brings three young Swedish men to join us. With raised voices, they explain their situation to the officer:
“Our tickets are to Beijing. We were told it was okay to get off the plane! We didn’t even know the plane was stopping here!” It turns out, their 72 hour visa plan was very similar ours: They had tickets from Japan to Beijing, then another flight from Beijing to Australia three days later.
Just as we are getting acquainted, a Russian woman joins the party. She, however, has no visa plan at all. When the Immigration officer asks her how long she was planning to stay in China, she shrugs and says, “A month or so.” Wow. Not too long after, she is escorted away and not seen again.
The worst airline
Three nationalities. Three itineraries. The only common denominator between the three groups is China Eastern Airline.
So the seven of us, three Swedes and four Americans, are left sequestered in the Immigration area with three chairs to share. A long hallway extends from our corner to an employee entrance. Freezing, smokey, polluted air pours into the building each time the door opens. The security employees working in this area wear coats and masks because the air inside the building is so cold and polluted, yet we are not allowed to retrieve our bags containing our coats. Shivering on the cold tile floor, I tuck my face into my shirt to filter my nose and mouth. After two hours, I ask the guard if we can have some water. He calls the airline requesting water (apparently, we are China Eastern’s problem). An hour later, two mini-bottles for the seven of us arrive.
Meanwhile, our conversation with the Swedes goes like this:
Them: Where are you from?
Us: We’re from the U.S.
Them: You’ll be fine. We’re from Sweden. It won’t be good for us.
Us: Are you kidding? Everyone hates the U.S. No one hates Sweden. You’ll be fine; we’re hosed.
After 2 1/2 hours, the Immigration officer and a China Eastern rep approach the group, look at the Swedes, and announce: “It’s all straightened out. We talked with your embassy. You’ll be on the next flight to Beijing.”
With hopeful skepticism I ask, “What about us?”
“Oh no, not you. You’re not going to Beijing. Just the Swedes.” And that is when we are given the American options:
1) Pay $2,800 to change our flight to the U.S. to depart from Shanghai, instead of Beijing, and we can spend three days exploring this pollution choked city, or
Depart Deport China, fly to another country at China Eastern’s expense (Hong Kong would qualify), then pay an additional $1,400 to fly to Beijing from there.
It is at this moment that my daughters learn the definition of “asinine,” with emphasis on the first syllable.
Although we “choose” option 2, it takes another 2 1/2 hours for China Eastern to figure out which flight to put us on. They promised to put us on the 5 p.m. flight to Hong Kong, but since it is now 6 p.m., that obviously isn’t going to work out. They try to force us on a 9:45 p.m. flight to Hong Kong arriving after midnight. We have been up since 4:30 a.m., and we refuse.
After hours of talking in circles with the China Eastern rep, Dale lashes out, “Don’t you care how you treat your customers?!”
The China Eastern rep’s response: “No, sir, I don’t.”
That’s when Delaney and Riley saw me do something they had NEVER seen in their 14 and 12 years of life…
I’m not talking about a few tears rolling down my face and a lump in my throat; I mean a full on I-think-Mom’s-having-a-breakdown kind of cry. Reversing roles, the girls console me and wipe away my tears. Then we share a dramatic family group hug amidst many stares in the Shanghai airport.
Five hours and $1,400 later, we have confirmed seats on the next morning’s flight from Shanghai to Hong Kong, and seats on an Air China flight from Hong Kong to Beijing.
Finally able to move about without a guard, we make our way to the airport hotel and get a room for the night. Sleep eludes me as episodes of Locked Up Abroad run through my head. Morning arrives quickly and our flight to Hong Kong is without incident. Our check-in with Air China is pleasant, efficient, and professional. They promptly check our travel documents and submit the 72 hour visa notice to Beijing (although we will now have only 48 hours). If China Eastern had acted with the same professionalism, the previous day’s drama could have been avoided.
Arriving in Beijing a day late and $1,400 poorer, we hold our breath until we make it through Immigration. Queueing up outside for a taxi, we have a new reason to hold our breath:
48 hours in Beijing is no longer disappointing.
We awake early the following day to make the most of our only full day in Beijing. Our driver picks us up promptly at 7:30 a.m. to make the 1 1/2 hour drive to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. Even this far out of the city, the pollution is oppressive. After a couple of hours in the freezing, filthy air, we are ready to leave. Making our exit down the steep walkway past the souvenir stalls, Riley squeals,
“Look! It’s the guys from the airport!!”
Forget the Great Wall, Forbidden City, and all the other historical sites of Beijing–the highlight of our visit to China is the unlikely reunion with our Swedish immigration detention buddies.
Tips to visit China visa-free
If you’re not lucky enough to hold a Swedish passport and you still want to visit China using the 72 hour visa-free policy, here are some tips:
1) make darn sure that your flight to China is non-stop from another country, and
2) do NOT fly China Eastern Airline.
As for me, I’m going to spare my lungs and my nerves and just use Google Earth next time.