Hong Kong: The Shambolic Visa Run (03/01/16-12/01/16)

After almost a year of cycling around the world it was pretty weird to get on a flight. It felt a little surreal. After so many months of moving tiny distances on the map I was suddenly being transported hundreds of miles away in just a couple of hours. Had I cycled from Chengdu to Hong Kong it would have taken about 6 weeks!

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The hustle and bustle that is Hong Kong

I’d known I was going to be flying out the country for a month – so it was hardly a suprise. Having said that, it was only on the day of departure that I finally settled on a plan. The idea had been to take my bicycle and two panniers with me so that I could fly to Taiwan (after getting my Chinese visa in Hong Kong) to spend a month there waiting for the worst of winter to pass in central China. But when I weighed my bags I realised that there wasn’t a chance I’d be able to get enough of my stuff with me without incurring a nasty excess weight surcharge so I gave up on the idea and left all my stuff at Sarah & Scott’s place in Chengdu.

Fortunately I had a good place to base myself – with Jacques & Chloe, a French couple who hosted me on Warmshowers. I couldn’t have asked for a nicer pair to stay with! I’d barely gotten four hours sleep in (my flight was in the middle of the night) but I summoned up the energy to join them for a hike up the mountain behind their flat as soon as I arrived.

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The view from my hosts’ flat

I’ve actually been to Hong Kong before (about five years ago when I was backpacking in China) which means it’s the first familiar place I’ve seen since Berlin ten months ago! I loved it last time round for the same reasons as now: one minute you’re in bustling city and the next your wandering in the jungle.

Within 10 minutes of leaving their little flat we were hiking up towards Hong Kong Island’s peak. My brain couldn’t handle the temperate change – the transition from days below 0C on the Tibetan Plateau to days at 10C out of the mountains in Chengdu had felt dramatic to me. Suddenly it was a further ten degrees warmer and I was in shorts and t-shirt complaining about the humidity!

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Hiking Hong Kong Island
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View from Victoria Peak

The next day I went to the Chinese consulate to apply for my new visa. I’d heard about people getting second visas recently and so was confident that everything would go smoothly, despite the fact that I’d literally just left China having already extended my first visa. The Chinese are clamping down on people working in China illegally, a lot of whom play the system in the same way I’m doing – getting simple tourist visas, extending them and then doing a ‘visa run’. I knew that my situation might look dodgy but I was optimistic. Optimistic to the point that I didn’t swap my passports, even though one of them was ‘China-free’. I figured that they could just type my name into the computer and see that I’d just been in on another passport which would look even worse. And finally, the visa is much cheaper on a Danish passport than a UK one.

The girl in the office didn’t like that I didn’t have flight bookings in and out of the country (I had all my fake hotel bookings and itinerary), but I explained that I was exiting overland because I had to collect my bicycle in Nanning and that it was impossible to book the international connection in advance. She seemed happy with that and let me apply. I was told to return in four days.

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Roasted chestnuts

I arrived in Hong Kong at a good time in my trip. I almost felt like I was back home – people were driving sensibly on the left hand side without beeping incessantly, the roads were lined with the same markings as they are in England, the supermarkets’ shelves were labelled in English and people could talk the same language as me! I could drink tap water and flush toilet paper down the loo – been a while since I could do that!

I felt like the perfect halfway-house between the UK and China (which I suppose you’d expect, seeing as both countries have ruled here).

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Walking around Admirality

It was the small things that made me smile – Queen Elizabeth’s face on the old coins, the double decker buses and the rubbish bins labelled ‘litter’. I could have a chocolate digestive with my afternoon tea while updating my Facebook page without going through a tediously slow VPN. Now I was in a ‘free country’ with fibre-optic internet and those painful Flickr photo uploading sessions now just took a few seconds.

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Wow – a proper BLT for lunch!

There were foreigners everywhere and not just whites – Africans and Asians from all over the place. Finally I was in a country where no-one stared at me, I was just another lifeless face squeezed onto the metro – and that was fine by me.

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Man Mo Temple
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Lighting incense sticks

The luxury came with a price tag though. When I spotted Marks & Spencers I got excited about finally grabbing the easiest lunch in the world, the good old-fasioned ‘meal deal’. But when I saw the price tag at about £5 I decided to go home and make a sandwich myself. By the time I’d bought a couple of bits and bobs in the supermarket I’d spent nearly a tenner. That was a painful re-adjustment. I realised how lucky I’ve been the last few months – never spending more than a couple of quid on my fruit & veg, liberally getting a 30p beer every time I pass the shop and just ‘treating’ myself to a bought lunch (breaking the bank at under £1 a meal). My life has been incredibly cheap but now it’s like being back in London – scratching my head every time I get on the train wondering where that tenner I put on my Oyster card the other day went (only difference is that it’s an Octopus card here).

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Lamma Island
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Lamma Island
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Beach time!

I made the best of the good weather. When the wind was blowing from China is was a smoggy affair, but when it came from the sea everything shone under blue skies. I took a boat to Lamma island and spent the afternoon strolling around the mountains.

It wasn’t so long ago that I was passing the ‘Continental Pole of Inaccessibility’ – the mathematical point on Earth furthest from the sea in NW China. Now I had my toes in salt water!

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Lamma Island

It was time to pick up my visa, but when I arrived it was bad news. ‘Rejected’ said the woman when I went to the pay desk, pointing me over to another window where an equally un-sympathetic woman sat. ‘You’ve been in China too long. You must apply home country’. ‘Too long!? I had a month long visa which I extended once. I haven’t over stayed. You can see my itinerary and all my hotel bookings. I can show you my flight bookings?’ ‘No. Re-apply home country’. That was that then. Shit.

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Night time skyline

I went to a travel agent down the road but she couldn’t help me – they’d have to send the application through the consulate and there’d be a nice big X next to my name now. I found another travel agent to ask who filled me with a little more optimism – he reckoned I could try again on my other passport and bypass the system. I found it hard to believe that they wouldn’t find my name on the system (I guess I’d have to lie where the application form asks ‘have you ever had a visa application rejected?’) but most importantly was that I’d need to have an entry stamp to Hong Kong on the new passport. Fortunately there was an easy solution to that problem: taking a boat to Macau (a seperate country) 50km away, stamping out and then coming straight back in on my UK passport.

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Central Hong Kong

I tried one last travel agent who’d been recommended to me by another cyclist who’d found herself in a similarly sticky situation. His office was in the place I’d stayed on my last visit – Chungking Mansions. I remembered the place immediately when I arrived, a real hell hole. An Indian guy asked me if I wanted to buy a watch and when I politely declined he offered to sell me cocaine.

The building is crammed with annoying salesmen, from guesthouse owners to mobile phone sellers. I remembered the worst part – waiting for the slowest elevators in the world. I queued up to get in, only to set off the weight limit beeping when I stepped inside. Two African guys pointed that I needed to get out and wait, despite the fact that they’d filled the thing up with boxes and boxes.

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Chungking Mansions!

The travel agent Mr. Fred reckoned he could sort me out. Had the consulate accepted my initial application it would have cost me 200HKD. Mr Fred’s magic touch would cost me four times the price, but I didn’t have much of a choice if I wanted to see my bicycle again. He asked me to come back in a few hours after he’d made some phone calls to see what he could do.

When I returned he said ‘No problem. Come Tuesday. 90% sure you get visa’. How could he arrange a visa for me when the others couldn’t? I wasn’t convinced and kept my hopes well below 50%, despite what he said.

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Hong Kong – a land of juxtapositions

I had a few nervous days to pass in Hong Kong while I waited over the weekend. Fortunately Jacques and Chloe were happy to have me stay a little longer. I got an email from my Dad with some good news, HMRC had sent me my tax return for last year. I knew I was owed a little, but not £286! When you’re trying to cycle around the world on the cheap that’s the kind of letter dreams are made of. I deserved some good news.

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Late Christmas!
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Sunset on Lamma Island

That would pay for this holiday/nightmare and then some. I treated myself to a Kindle as a late Christmas present and tried to enjoy life as a ‘non-cyclist’ whilst formulating a series of back-up plans (that I won’t bore you with) for worst-case visa scenarios.

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The iconic horizon
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Taking the famous ‘Star Ferry’ across the water

If I was rejected again I’d need to try again on a new passport, but it would look a bit dodgy if I was recognised as the guy who was in just in the consulate the other day.

I found an easy solution to that… cutting all my hair off. It was about time, anyway. Hanging out with all the trendy Hong Kongers made me realise how stupid I looked.

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Before…
The hair has all gone!
And after!

One evening I went to a swing dancing social/taster session with a Jacques and Chloe. I was crap at the dancing but having a nice pint listening to live music was perfect – the kind of evening I miss most from my life pre-cycling.

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Good beer and live jazz. Living the classy life again!

The Hong Kongese are a bunch of scaredy-cats. There are warning signs everywhere about the silliest things like ‘how to walk up a mountain’.

On the metro I saw one guy get on and spend about 30 seconds wiping the seat down with a tissue before he would sit down.

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Panic!

I kept my legs in shape by making the most of the hiking opportunities on the outlying islands. One of the stomps we went on over the weekend on Lantau island was my favourite excursion. There is something magical about Hong Kong. A charm that lies in its vibrant contrasts, whether they be Western/Oriental or urban/nature.

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Jacques & Chloe leading the way down the mountain
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Could be in Scotland!

On Tuesday I nervously made my way back to Mr Fred’s office. The news was good! Words can’t describe the relief – that had been a stressful affair. God knows how he wrangled it. I think he may have sent the passport over the border to be processed in China, but I’m not sure. Nor do I care.

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Big Buddha in the distance
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Hanging out on Lantau Island

There was a cheap flight back to Chengdu that evening so I wasted no time in getting back to where I wanted to be.

I can’t wait to be back on that bike!

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Goodbye Hong Kong!
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