Travelling between Hong Kong and the Mainland?
You may have the proper visas, but do you have enough of them?
By Paul Oscar Hamilton
I could not have felt more helpless. I was standing in Hong Kong. My girlfriend was standing in China. We could clearly see the other’s desperate expression. But we could not touch. We'd run out of visas.
Hong Kong is now a part of China, as we all know, the British having long since handed over ownership. Despite the slogans, the two are not one. It is a nation divided by officers in hats, a bureaucratic line more impassible than the crumbling Great Wall. And I wish we’d known that a lot earlier.
Our plan had been to travel by rail through China, from Beijing to Hong Kong then back out on our way to Vietnam via Cambodia. With the understanding that Hong Kong and China were one country we naively expected to need only one entry visa to China- the thinking being that by going to Hong Kong we would not be leaving China proper and subsequently need no further permission to re-enter. We’d boarded the bus from Hong Kong after a lovely few days exploring that dynamic, international city. Heading to Shenzhen, the exploding border town that came into being with reunification, our packs seemed heavy in the sweltering humidity, especially after a respite of carefree wandering with little more to carry than our appetites and sunglasses. But the overland journey ahead excited our imaginations, as we'd be plunging into the interior wilds of the Far East.
Aurora, my paramour and intrepid guide, breezed through the border checkpoint, her male agent giving her a salutatory farewell. My border agent, a smiling female in stiff uniform appeared more circumspect in her appraisal. She asked me if I travelled a lot. Proud of my worldliness , I replied haughtily that yes indeed I had been fortunate to have been to many exotic locales. She quipped in her straightforward and polite English that that being the case, possibly I should have understood the simple need of proper documentation to transgress international borders. I pointed out that I was in possession of the necessary visa to enter China. She disagreed.
“You had the necessary visa to enter China once, but you do not have the necessary visa to enter again.”
“What country am I in now?”
“You are in China.”
“What country am I trying to enter?”
“What country did I leave in order to enter China?”
“Then maybe you can understand my dilemma. How could I have known that I would need separate visas to enter China from China?”
“You are a world traveler. You should know these things.”
I sat on that thought for a moment. A gift of Eastern Wisdom, perhaps? I looked through the Plexiglas at Aurora. My lovely girl. Standing there. Free.
“Well, why’d you let her through?”
I pointed at the red-haired beauty standing a few paces behind her, innocently waiting. The agent turned around to look. It took about two seconds for the guards to be alerted and for my sweet angel to have been cursorily expelled from China back into China. To this day her passport bares the scar of a cancelled stamp. My border agent informed her superior of her counterpart’s sloppy work and at least fifteen other agents stopped their transactions to stand up from their seated posts, point mockingly at the shamefaced culprit and publicly humiliate him with rebukes and taunts. Effective peer counseling, I thought to myself. Would that fly in the west? We were soon directed to another line, at the culmination of which we were redirected back from whence we’d come. No one wanted to deal with us. The only solution was to return to Hong Kong and apply for visas there. Unfortunately it was Labor Week and no governmental offices were open for a number of days and to expedite visa service would have been prohibitively expensive, not to mention the attendant costs of room and board at a moment’s notice. We settled on ditching the whole idea and simply flying to Vietnam, saving Cambodia for a later date. We slept the night on the couch of our kind hostelier’s living room. His rooms were all booked.
Ironically, as we headed out of the station to collect our luggage from the waiting bus that was to have continued the journey we could have simply got back on and gone with them. No one was looking. But I knew eventually at the next stop some such, and probably worse, debacle would have awaited us.
So it is with much hard won experience that I recommend delving as deeply as possible into your destination of choice’s arcane, inexplicable, anachronistic, oxymoronic regulations so you don’t end up standing with your passport in your hand.
And never rat out your partner to the authorities. They’ll never let you forget it.