Thursday, 10 December, 2009
Charles Withington
17th November 2007 - I am sitting in the "holding room" at Guangzhou station, where I have been for the last two hours, and will probably be for the next two hours.
How, might you ask, did I end up in this predicament! Well, I arrived here and was asked at immigration for my visa. Having had it confirmed by the travel agent as to visa requirements both telephonically and in writing that I did NOT need one, I have now discovered that I do. To say China is different is an understatement - arrive there on your own and by train, and suddenly you understand the true meaning of "moving outside your comfort zone". But, like they say of the Free State, you cry on two occasions, the day you arrive and the day you leave!

Here follows my guidelines when visiting China - a really difficult place to get into but once in, known for their super hospitality.

Lesson One - Do visa research YOURSELF

This scenario could have happened in any country (imaging doing this in the USA), and possibly more dramatically in some. This comes down to the travel agent, but once you're are looking into the inscrutable face of Chinese passport control you can only think of one thing: this is seriously, NOT funny!

They bluntly told me that as I did not have the required entry documentation, I was to get on the train AT ONCE and go back to Hong Kong (I had just spent two hours on the train getting here) and apply for a visa and come back again. My remonstrations and even showing them the email for the travel agent, were to no avail, as were my entreaties that I have been travelling for 24 hours.

So there I am - functionally "illiterate" and unable to understand the language, I can't even understand the body there a flicker of hope or am I in for the real high jump or are they just determining the height of the bar?

Lesson two - If you can't read, write or understand the language - plan accordingly!

This is a place where you want zero defect on your papers. The ray of light was that I was here for an official exhibition and this is where Shan Shan (the Chinese importer waiting at the other side of customs and wondering why I was taking so long to get of the train!) was an absolute miracle worker. She managed to persuade them to let me apply for a visa. Next problem, I needed a photograph to go on the form and nothing I had in terms of passport or driving licence was good enough. So, undeterred, Shan Shan managed to get a photographer to come complete with camera and printer and take a photo of me in the holding room.

Not unexpectedly, a faxed copy of the visa was not good enough, it had to be an original and this had to come by hand. I waited another two hours for the original to arrive.

And then the coup de grace! I needed to pay for the visa! This came to about R590 in China money but being in my little room, the ATM on the other side of customs could have been a million miles away and obviously, not having set foot on Chinese soil, I had no Chinese cash. The four hour wait fortunately gave me so time to both pray and ponder a solution to this.

It finally came from the least likely source - after an hour one of the Immigration Officials asked me to buy two bottles of duty free brandy for her and presented me with 800 Chinese Yuans (about R800) in cash. Voila! I paid with my credit card and now, with Chinese cash I could pay for the visa when it eventually arrived.

I was in China to attend a wine fair in Guangzhouon on behalf of Niel Joubert wines. Shan Shan Duan and Dana Jiang of South Africa Valley (Importers) were my hosts for the event.

Well, when we talk of "platteland hospitality" we generally reckon that we as South Africans are unbeatable...and we are, almost!! However, I must admit, I have never experienced anything like the way the Chinese cared for was truly a humbling experience.

Four days later, and departing again from Guangzhou emotions could not have been more different! On reflection, it might just have been worth the ordeal in the beginning!