China Visa Adventures

On Friday evening of the 29th of March my boss came upon the idea that I should join him on a business trip to China starting 9th of April in order to hold my “how to work with the JOEMs” training for our Chinese colleagues in our factories of Yantai and Shanghai. (The JOEMs are the Japanese car manufacturers Toyota Honda Nissan and so on.)
Um, sure, nice, overseas business trip is always interesting, but um, Germans need a visa for China. Dunno if I can get one so quickly, let’s try. So, on that same evening I asked the travel agent that we have to contractually use and they sent me necessary documents for Chinese visa application, which I started to fill out over the weekend.
I’ve been to China several times before, first time was in 2001 as a tourist when I visited Beijing and Shanghai doing the classic stuffs of visiting the Forbidden City and so on. Ever since I have been on quite a number of business trips to China, once Beijing, all other times Shanghai, and I don’t even remember how often I’ve been to Shanghai. For my previous position I went to Shanghai regularly once or twice a year for a yearly conference and also some trainings.
The one business trip I had to Beijing sticks out, since it was 2007, one year before the Olympics there and all the tourist street neighborhoods close to Tiananmen Square that I fondly remembered from 2001 were flattened and gone.

But back to the visa. For the previous visits, I always had ample time for getting a visa and left going to the embassy to the travel agent. It’s also been four years since I last went to China and I forgot most of how the visa application works.
This time, because time was so short, I eventually decided to go myself to the embassy, but before that I needed to get an invitation letter from our Chinese counterpart. Usually they want two weeks of lead time to issue such letters, I had two days.
The travel agency sent me only a PDF sample of an invitation letter. Upon asking whether they have a word version of the thing, the answer was no. After begging the Chinese counterpart, they made their own invitation letter. I sent it to the travel agent for check and they said it’s unusable, why didn’t you use the WORD format? Which WORD format???? You guys sent me only a PDF and then said you have no WORD . Turns out they misunderstood… arghhh. They finally sent me a WORD format, which I sent to China and begged again to fill it out. I got the new invitation letter and went to the embassy in Tokyo on Wednesday the 3rd. The lady at the counter checks everything and says. Your passport number on the invitation letter is written wrongly, we cannot accept it. Ahhhhhhhhh! Two numbers were switched around and I didn’t notice, the travel agent who “checked” the document the night before didn’t notice. They told me I have to get a new invitation letter, but at least they allowed me to fax it to them instead of coming in once more. So I rushed back to the office and begged the Chinese counterpart to issue yet a new letter. After much begging I got the third version of the invitation letter, which needed to be stamped and signed by a director, and faxed it to the embassy. They accepted it and promised to have the visa ready on Monday morning, one day before I was supposed to fly.


I am of course majorly pissed with the Japanese travel agent and they shall get a fat complaint from me after the business trip is done. They made three major mistakes, not to send me an editable invitation letter, then to claim they don’t have one, then to miss the mistake on the finished letter. What the heck are we paying them for? When I was told we cannot accept the Invitation letter by the embassy, I thought I was in Kafka’s Der Prozess (The Trial), lol. Brought down by bureaucracy! 😉
I find it extremely fascinating why Japanese nationals don’t need a visa to China (if they stay under two weeks). Chinese nationals always need visas to Japan. Why are the Chinese not returning the “favor” and let the Japanese into their country without a visa? Why do Germans need a visa? Anyway, another page gone in my passport now 😉 and I wrote this while sitting on the plane to Yantai.

From Russia with Love – Part 1

To post a day by day report on my quite epic trip to Russia would fill too many “blog weeks” and would also be too much detail, therefore I’ll try a summary under the following headlines:

1) Why Russia? And how to get there
2) Everyday life in Russia
3) History before World War II
4) World War II …
5) Ballet and Heavy Metal

Part 1: Why Russia? And how to get there
Most the time I use Japan’s golden week for island explorations, but this year was different.
Why did I go to Russia? Two reasons. When I was a kid, the Soviet Union was a very scary thing and not for the life of me could I imagine to be traveling there one day. Then came Gorbachev and he is kind of a personal hero of mine, because it is my firm belief that if it was not for him, East and West Germany would not have been united. He initiated some kind of mild romanticism for Russia in me, and I even took some Russian courses at an adult education institute before I left my hometown to study in Munich. There was always that thought that one day, I want to stand on the Red Square in Moscow.
It took me a while to realize the promise, but now i did it.

I flew with Aeroflot from Tokyo direct to Moscow and my has it changed. Actually, I flew Aeroflot during my very first trip to Japan in 1993 (No, no, no, I’m not that old ;-)) via Moscow of course, because I was a poor student at the time and Aeroflot was the cheapest thing around.
It was a horror trip! LOL. I sat in an old Ilyushin machine, with half torn seats and nets above your head like in a bus instead of overhead compartments. The plane went from Munich to Moscow and then the same machine would go from Moscow to Tokyo. I got only one boarding pass for Munich to Moscow and when I wanted to re-board the plane to fly to Tokyo, the lady at the gate didn’t let me in. “You no boarding pass!” She sent me to some office at the other end of the airport and I ran there past scary army guys with kalashnikovs. At the service counter some fifty people were shouting at one lone unnerved lady wanting something from her. I managed to get through, in complete panic, since pressed for time, fearing the plane would leave without me, and begged her for a new boarding pass. She took my passport and the print out of the ticket and left the booth! I stone-cold panicked that moment, thinking I’d be stranded in Moscow without a passport. Heaven thank, the lady came back with some paper and my passport and told me that would allow me to get back onto the plane. I thanked her and ran back through the airport to my gate and hallelujah they let me on board just in time. The return journey through Moscow went smoother, but I was scared shitless on the flight back. Ever since I did not fly Aeroflot again.
Nowadays Aeroflot is a member of the Sky Team alliance for more than ten years already. They fly Airbus and Boeing and behave like any other airline.
When I checked in online the plane was packed. Hm, so many people are going to Moscow? So many people are bothering with the horrendous visa requirements?
A word on those later.

The miracle was solved when I got to Narita airport. The plane went to Paris via Moscow. It was packed due to start of golden week and tons of people going to Paris.
Arrived in Moscow, 80% of the travelers went to the international transfer lane and a few lone Russians and some Japanese and myself went to the “stay in Russia” lane 😉
The immigration officer lady was super friendly. I’ve never had such a friendly immigration officer anywhere. She thought I could speak Russian and when she found out I didn’t (I’ve forgotten everything from my half year Russian course as a teenager) she was going like, oh, but Regina is a Russian name. I told her it’s Latin and means queen and on the British coins it says Regina Elizabeth all the time. That was news to her ;-). Since everything was in order with my visa, she let me through, wishing me fun. What a difference to for example American immigration officers who treat you like a criminal. Next up was customs. Customs? Those were the least existing customs I’ve seen after an inter-continental flight. There were no customs, you just walks through and the customs officer is not even looking at you. There were four people in uniforms sitting in a corner chatting.
There was only one negative thing and that is that I’ve been screwed over big time at the money exchange. A bank lady in Japan told me that it’s better to bring USD to Russia rather than Yen. So I exchanged to USD at Narita and there was one single exchange booth before customs where I exchanged the dollar to Ruble for a horrible rate. After leaving customs, there were more booths with much better rates. Argh…

I suppose more research would have revealed that, but I’m not a big researcher when it comes to traveling. I book a flight, a hotel and see what happens. I researched more than usual for the Russia trip already anyway, for example how to get from Sheremetyevo airport to the city. Maybe more research would have revealed that you do not not not exchange money before customs, but after it. Anyway, lessons learned for if I should ever go back there. I am not in the habit of visiting a place twice without having a special reason, but I still have this fantasy of one day going by train to Vladivostok = doing the Trans Siberian railroad ride.
But at least I had researched that you do not use the “official” taxis if ever possible but better take the Aeroexpress train which goes to Bellorusia station. I even had bought a ticket online for that train and it’s well marked inside the airport and I could brush past all the “official” taxi guys.
But now a word about the visa. Even for a simple tourist visa you have to go through quite a painful process. The corner stones being your flight ticket, the longish and demanding visa application itself, for some countries, e.g. Germans, you have to have proof of a travel insurance and the worst thing is, you need to have an itinerary with your hotels on them on a special Russian format. If you go with a tour, I suppose they provide that for you, but I went on my own and what you do then is you email your hotel and ask them for the thing. My main hotel in Moscow directed me to a website with a link to the format and they let you list up to ten places and hotels. You then pay about 15 dollars for them to issue this paper. When you have all that you have to go in person to the Russian embassy and apply for the visa. In case of a tour you can let the travel agent do that for you, but if you go as a private person, you need to show up at the embassy twice, to apply and to get your passport back. When the story with the paper from the hotels came up, I was almost giving up on the adventure, but then pushed through with it.
So, and finally the second reason for why I wanted to go to Russia. I took the opportunity of my favorite metal band (Amorphis) playing in Moscow as an incentive to go 😉
I didn’t have a ticket yet though, since the homepage of the venue was all in Russian.
More about the gig and everything in between arrival and the gig (which was on the last day of my stay) in the next blog entries