Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Rule Britannia

The only people to come out of this well so far are the British consulate. Well that's not quite true but they have been a shining beacon of light in this murky bureaucratic world of pointless bits of paper, red ink and inexplicable delays. But to explain all this would be jumping the gun rather. Back to where we were, three days and 4000km ago I was in Kashgar. It had all seemed relatively straight forward, I would collect my police report on Monday and head off to capital city to sort myself out. But of course it wasn't so easy. My first problem was the last minute replacement of my highly efficient English speaking interpretor. I was just on my way out the door when he was called back by his boss. It seemed that he was needed for a secret mission to the Taklakaman dessert (or is that desert?). So whilst Atawulla was digging for oil or testing nuclear weapons, I would be accompanied by an interpreter who was different in many ways. I'm not sure if the fact of her gender or the standard of her English was the biggest difference but there wasn't much in it. Her manager was confident that her English was better than his and that her Chinese was quite good too. As the Uighurs (the traditional residents in this part of China) have their own language and many don't speak Chinese at all I was not filled with confidence. She was pretty though. Anyway, I digress, predictably there was no police report, no sign of the officers I'd seen on Friday and just a stern talking too from the officer on duty. Apparently they must investigate the loss before anything was done. Of course, how stupid of me. So back tomorrow, maybe Wednesday. The PSB (foreign affairs department) made my police buddy look like the most helpful man in China so the less said about them the better. By now I had waved goodbye to my companions and I was beginning to consider how I might deal with living in Kashgar forever. Maybe I'd start a yorkshire pudding restaurant or something, it looks like they need one. After I quiet drink in the afternoon I was advised by a Brazilian girl of two different PSB's in town. My inital excitement was dampened when I visited both to discover they were the two places I'd already been to. However on turning off a sidestreet by the police station I made a wonderful discovery. The gaudy, Chinese fronted, advertisment filled boulevard was gone and I was in a completely new (or old) city. The multi-coloured shop fronts were replaced with simple brown buildings, horse carts were the most common transport and language was no longer Mandarin. There were also children around who wanted to kill me. Or at least nearly kill me and have it imortalised forever on my camera. Driving a heavily laden tricycle directly at me, at high speed and vearing out of the way at the last second may have been exciting for my new 11 year old acquaintance and his buddies but for me.... well I felt it best to say my goodbyes quickly. On Tuesday I was granted a new interpretor, the last one having been deemed too advanced a linguist. As I was struggling to exit the cramped taxi my new helper remarked that I was "too beautiful to fit in the taxi". Obviously this remark can work on many different levels, and it's probably true, but I had to assume that this was not a cheeky compliment(or indeed insult) but infact a frightening example of the sort of translation that I would be experiencing later. Fortunately it didn't matter as there was an English speaking officer on duty and it only took a few minutes to obtain my pathetic police report. Less than an A5 piece of paper, thin as tissue with a big red stamp on it. Four days I waited for that!!! I had to be careful though as this was effectively my passport and visa, without it I could not travel, stay in a hotel or play Blackjack in Las Vegas. But for now I could book my flight out. I decided on flying to Urumqi (the region's main city) that night and onto Beijing tomorrow. I'd be at the consulate by lunch time and maybe have a passport in time for afternoon tea. Just time to book myself a night in Beijing, visit the 3rd biggest Chairman Mao statue in the world and meet some more crazy kids in the old town (you can see the back to Mao from the steadily decreasing old town, kind of sums up what's happened here). Arrived to Urumqi at around 2am, I'd decided to try to spend the night at the airport as I had an early start next day. A kindly hotel tout advised me that the police would throw me out at 4am and offered to take me to his comfortable and cheap airport hotel. Well it was cheap but not quite like the photos. The room was bizarre, very sparten with two beds (no mattresses) and an enormous TV. But outside my door I could have sworn that I was already serving time for visa offences. The corridors were dark and forboding, buckets (for slopping out?) were outside most doors and the floors were seperated by prison style bars. The woman? on reception wouldn't even give me a room key as it was "too dangerous". I locked myself in, used the blankets as a mattress and waited for the inevitable... I guess that dawn is inevitable and I was back at the airport safe and sound (although unclean as I dared not use the bathroom). Chinese provincial airports are tricky for the foreign traveller as there is little if any English signage, little if any queuing (imagine buying a drink in a packed bar at ten before closing) and a disturbing lack of security. The previous night everyone had burst on to the plane completely unchecked. The confusion this engendered in the casual observer (me) was only heightened as once on the plane to Beijing nothing much seemed to happen. The odd Chinese announcement was made and an hour later everyone stomped off the plane. Not really knowing what was going on I followed the crowd upstairs to find a complimentary Chinese airport breakfast (lovely....). Then back down, onto the plane for another hour, and off again. No-one seemed to know what was happening. A stewardess mentioned something about a military situation which was a bit ominous but that's all I found out (later it I heard that the whole of northern Chinese airspace was affected). It was an incredibly frustrating experience and I didn't get in to Beijing until 7pm. So no afternoon tea with the ambassador for me. Of course my accommodation reservation didn't exist either even after the taxi driver had eventually found the place. But it's easy to sort those things now.

Today I witnessed efficiency, no not taxi drivers (I was dropped off 1.2km from my destination by mistake), but the British consulate. Suddenly the whole British Empire made sense. The recommended waiting time for a new British passport is 8 days. With a little sweet talk, a tug of the old school tie and a fistfull of documents I was the proud owner of a new (and sadly empty) British passport in just over 4 hours. Well done chaps (actually well done ladies). That four hours gave me time to visit a medical centre for continuing health problems. Rather entertaingly I was advised not to drink alcohol and then was prescibed (amongst other things) a traditional Chinese remedy that should only be taken with alcohol, 4 times a day!!!! That was worth 50 quid. Other than that I've had my photo taken with all manner of unexpected Chinese tourists in front of the Forbidden city, seen some acrobatic acrobats and found an extraordinarily helpful couple of travel agents in a posh hotel. Maybe I'll get a visa tomorrow..... Stay tuned

This was originally written on 04 August 2005. It is from my summer trip to Central Asia, China and Tibet.

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