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What do you mean the Train Wheels are too Small? Gettin’ into China

25 Sep

It’s September 23. Friday. 11:23 AM. On the train. About three hours away from Beijing. I’m sure you are so sick of another damn train blog. I’m tired too. I’m on the top bunk. Stomach pains. Smelling cig smoke. Listening to the door bang and bang and band. Our compartment saddles up next to the working toilet. They say the air condition is on – so all windows are bolted. I’m becoming desensitized to recycled cig, urine air.

Sitting here. Watching China reveal herself to me. A lot of building going on in Northern China. Then, you hit nothing – looks like scenes in Avatar. Spotted the great wall an hour ago. It was built in Northern China to keep the barbarians out – and the annoying Khan family from Mongolia…

We boarded the “to” China train yesterday AM. Last night was the highlight. Leaving Mongolian was easy. We had a two hour stop. No bathroom. No leaving the train. After the Mongols wished us well – we headed off to China border only 30 minutes down the road.

We pulled up around 9 pm and left at 1 am. Not only had they check our passports, but also take apart each car and change the wheels. That’s right. Change the wheels. The train tracks are smaller in China. They took our passports. Locked the toilets. Locked us in the train. They ripped apart each train and drove it into a tunnel where they jacked us up about 10 feet.

It was a weird sensation, watching other trains being lifted up into the air by over sized jacks or whatever they’re called… And watching the many, many Chinese changing the big wheels. (Job security) When it was our turn, they slowly lifted us up. We could not feel a thing. We were not moving. But, we were – then we here major clanging and the metal scrapping. The train jolted. Jolted. And, it was silent. They lowered us down and then they slowly started reconnecting the train. There’s a new restaurant car – selling Chinese food instead of Mongolian. Bring on the rice baby!

Next stop is Beijing.

Visiting Visas – Russia, China, Vietnam

29 Aug

Whether Maslow meets my traveling physiological needs – breathing, food, water, clean bathrooms and constant body temperature  — or not is really of no bother to me.  It is when I’m challenged by a high-school drop out or thug managing border security is when I become unglued.

Because of this, you would think securing a Visa prior to leaving would be a priority.  Nope.  Clothes and accessories were my only priority.

You see, I had planned to be in London for 2 weeks.  All the consulate offices are there so, the thinking goes, I’ll  just pop in and they’ll stamp my passport.  All will be good.  Easy Breezy.

On day two of my stay in London, I Googled  Russian embassy and mapped out its location on the subway (Tube).  Instead of going to the Russia Visa application center, I was knocking on the door of the Russian ambassador. First mistake.

Ironically, I walked right passed security and was only approached when I came closer to the ambassador’s front door. Some man said,  “Can I help you?”  Well, of course, “I’m from the United States of America and need a Visa to Russia.”  The man’s expression went from helpful to annoyance.  Not another one. He told me that I am in the wrong place and that was that

Several Tube stops later, I arrived at the Russian Visa application center – little KGB.  It is what you imagine.  Grey building.  No windows.  And, bad-ass blonds out of a James Bond movie working behind the desk. These women look violent.  I took a number and waited. My number was called by KGB agent 345.  She pointed in the direction of a computer. “Go fill out application.” And, boom, dismissed.

Thank GOD there was a young boy of 19 managing the computer.  I will flirt and he will help me, right?  The answer is yes.

When we got to the question of “what did you study in college,” my heart started beating faster.  Shit.  I studied politics?  The red head of anxiety raced up my neck.

I told tiny teen I studied the Science of Politics and asked if  that is “Ok.”  I tried to make it sound less threatening and more academic by placing the word science in front of politics.  He said, “why, yes.”

He asked me, “what organizations do I belong to?”  I momentary forgot.  Mead Garden gardening club?  Public Relations Society?  YMCA?   Tiny teen has a follow up question, “what does the YMCA stand for?”  UH NO.  It’s a Christian based organization, what if the rowdy Russians are anti-christian — boot me now?  I responded – “Young, Men’s Christian Association.”  I probed his eyes.  Did I notice a change in color.  Did his pupils dilate?

Tiny teen said, “oh, just curious.  I walk pass the sign everyday.”

I enthusiastically offered, “you should look into joining.  It’s a great organization.”  What the he—.  I’m schlepping YMCA memberships to a Russian in London.  Stop the madness.

Tiny teen went on to ask me about my terrorist activities and if I have enough money to get out of Russia. Passed the terrorist questions with flying colors.  Money?  Really?  Do you think taking a one-way train across your country to China is a red flag that I’m here stay?  This question made me laugh – I mean, my face muscles hurt from the Chester-cat grin.  “This TallGirl does not do cold.  And, Siberia and Mongolia is a little brisk in September.  You have nothing to worry about.  Not defecting to Russia.”  Humor does not translate.  His lips did not curl. His pupils DID dilate.

Tiny teen turned from sweet and fragile to stony and cold.  KGB  was kickin-in. “You need to show me that you have money in your account.  Bring me your bank statements.  Your bank must be in the UK.  And, then we can process your Visa. Oh, you can not use this computer or printer.”

First, pray that BOA has an office in the UK.  Second, I had to find a place to  use a computer and a printer.  This is what you have to embrace about traveling.  Nothing is easy.  And, it’s this inconvenience that makes the experience memorable, right?  Not up for a Russian Visa experience on this day…

Walked up to randoms on the street — b/c this is what dirty, smelly travelers do – and asked where to find a computer with WiFi and a WORKING  printer.  Some dude in overalls directed me to the YMCA.  The name YMCA twice in an hour — It was a sign.  And, hell, I was the advertising/ marketing muse at the Y back home so it’s time to cash in on that card.

Sauntered in with an air of arrogance and announced that I used to work for the Y in Central Florida and could I PLEASE use their computer/printer.  Petite girl with large brown eyes stared through me and smiled.  Too bad. Soo sad.  Our computers aren’t working.  Well, that had a familiar ring to it.  She said the shop with a yellow sign may help me.  She gave me the “make a left, make a right, make a right and around the corner” directions and off I went…

The shop with a yellow sign charged me $5 to download and print the bank statements.   It’s called extortion in the states, but I’m desperate.

Tiny teen reviews my statements and asks me to return in 10 days or so.  The part about “or so” got me.  I said, “well I need the passport by August 5 because I’m going to Lebanon.”  He said, “that should not be a problem.”

Did I just hear a conditional verb, ‘should?’  No. No. No.  We need active, definite verbs here.  Can’t mess with the passport.  Then, out of no where and with no filter, I said, “Should is not a verb I like… I need my passport…. and I know where you work….”  Then I smiled my big pearly whites… Wait, did  I just threaten, unintentionally, a Russian visa agent – possibly KGB?  Nice one.  He just looked at me.  I walked off — fast.

Fast forward ten days and a trip to Scotland, I’m back at KGB central.  The Bond ladies are  there.  They look more violent than before.  On this day, I’m to meet my friend Betsy at her flat for some celebratory cocktails and dinner. I’ve given this whole Russia Visa thing about 2.5 hours round trip, including tube stops.  It is more than enough — or so I thought.

Walk in.  Security guard with a big Russian badge offers Visas aren’t given out until 4 pm.  Excuse me?  No one ever told me this.  Nor, was this on the website or posted anywhere in the building.  Maybe it is a new rule for that day. I graciously thanked him for his bad news for it was 2:30 and I have 1.5 hours until I can get in line for the Visa pick up.  I’m to be drinking cocktails at 4:30 with Betsy.

Shiny badge guy guy handed me number #862.  I flew out the door in search of WiFi.  This time, I brought my laptop.  Now, I need to let Betsy know I will be late for drinks and to get started without me….  I spied a Starbucks.  Fab.  This is going to be easy.  Starbucks must have WiFi.  I bought some of their laced coffee with extra stimulates and and inquire about WiFi.  No Wifi in this location.  Shit.  I sat.  Stared at the window.  Exhaled.  Chugged the S’bucks. And, mentally prepared for the journey to locate WiFi in London.  I have 49 minutes.  Did I mention London is one of the financial capitals of the world?

Back to the YMCA – again.  Nope, internet is down today.  Looks like all Ys across the world are the same.   Went into a few shops run by lovely Indians and asked if they have a computer, WiFi — anything.  Nope.  Then, marched over to the yellow sign shop.  Put down another $5 and used his computer for 29 seconds.  Extortion.. I told Betsy to hold the liquor — things have changed.

I go back to the windowless building.  Plopped in a plastic chair. And,  take in my surroundings.  Where am I?  Yes, the KGB Bond girls are all blond, beautiful and exude violence dressed in fitted tailored shirts, tight skirts, high heels and tan legs.  Hair is pulled tight off their necks for severity or flowing down their backs.  The all look like they would put Sean Connery to the ultimate test. Or, win an ultimate fight challenge.  Either way, they win.

To my left are four Russian men wearing black or white t-shirts speaking in low voices and ogling over these girls. I think one KGB girl started to purr at their attention.   About a half dozen “customers” are in the waiting room, yet the place is humming with energy.  My eyes set upon the Russian propaganda of “did you know” facts.  “Did you know the Russian Federation comprises of 83 federal subjects?”  Their way of communicating Russia IS democratic and not really a totalitarian-Putin regime.    “Did you know about Southeast Siberia’s Lake Baikal contains 20% of the world’s total unfrozen fresh water reserve?”  Need to remember to pack a jacket.

The  numbers are moving.  KGB girl screams, “number 672”  . I’m 862. There are 6 people in here. This is interesting. I kick my feet up and watch.

She continues to count.  No one moves.  We hit the 700’s…next is 800’s… Finally, my number.  I hand KBG girl my ticket.  She takes it without smiling or making eye contact.  She walks to the box and quickly thumbs through the envelops, not once, twice but four times.  That is when I knew we had a problem.  She walks back.  “You have a problem.”  No, I don’t think so sister.  I smiled, “No, you have a problem.  The email sent said my passport is ready.”  She starred at me — ice blue eyes rested on mine.  I’m ready for war…Lebanon is calling.  Her voiced rang out and her counterparts all stopped and looked at her.  She abruptly turned on her heel and stormed off in the back room.  Great.  I thought, “I’m stuck in London. Journey over.  I haven’t even gotten my blog up yet…”

Twenty minutes later or so, she pushed the door open, looking even angrier.  She goes through the boxes again and again.  I was not leaving.  Finally, she pulls out an envelop and smiles and even, giggles.  She hands it to me and then says, “good bye.”  I translated her gestures as the passport was filed under Ms. instead of my name.  Who cares.  I got my Visa and passport and I was off to Lebanon.

Next Visa is China and Vietnam, which will be taken care of while in Krakow, Poland.  To make a short story longer, I’m sitting under four wool blankets freezing my ass in Gliwice, Poland praying that I will have a passport upon my return to Krakow.  It’s August, and yes, I’m COLD!

I decided it is much more efficient to Fed-Ex my passport to some agency in DC who can secure my Visas in a matter of days instead of dealing with the harassment.

So, how did I get here?  I decided to stay in a nice hotel in Krakow, Poland, feeling certain that they had access or knowledge about express mail.  Ha.  Another joke in the traveling journal.  The receptionist told me that Fed Ex just entered the market, so they know nothing of Fed Ex.  They only use DHL, which is closed Friday afternoons and opens again on Monday.   I arrived on Friday afternoon.

Next day, I bribed some kid $40 to drive me to DHL terminal in the middle of some field – about 75 mins outside of Krakow – on a Saturday so my passport and Visa applications will be sent on Monday, arriving by Thursday to passport central in DC.  We got lost.  He pulled over and asked an older man riding a bike with baskets on the front and back about DHL’s location.  No clue.  The guy appeared snockered…

We knocked on someone’s home.  No clue. Never heard of DHL.   His GPS indicated DHL was in front of us — but all we saw was a green meadow with yellow flowers.  I sat back,  Smiled.  This is in God’s hands.

Don’t ask how, but we found the place.  No one spoke any English.   It is at these times where faith in God and trust in your fellow man comes into play. Really, what are my options?  I filled out some forms.  Smiled.  Handed the lady my passport and prayed.

The goal is for the passport to arrive by week’s end.  I sent my passport to DC and while I’m filling cracks and mixing cement in Gliwice, Poland for Habitat, they are working on securing Visas for China and Vietnam.  When I arrive back in Krakow next week, my passport will be at fancy hotel – Visas completed – without a problem.

Reality is — someone in DC has my passport.   If my passport goes MIA, it looks like I will be extending my trip in Poland. Or, God will just open another door.  Maybe, I’m too marry the HOT, Polish, tattooed brick layer and, together, we fill cracks with concrete, live off sauerkraut and Vodka and have magical Polish sex for the rest of my life. God has a plan…And, I need to keep my end of the bargain of having faith…