Archive for June, 2008

I am never asked what I think of gay marriage

June 18th, 2008 10:14 pm by ray from here

but here is my opinion of marriage anyway. I have spent a good part of the last week trying to change our departure date from Shanghai to Seoul from the 4th of August to the 7th of August.

People who haven’t been completely tuning me out, and I will understand if you are; I wish I could — will recall that last April the Chinese Government revealed that it would grant no visas longer than 30 days, period. This required a big change of our itinerary just to be allowed to apply for a visa, the change involving an extremely optimistic rush to Shanghai and flight out to the nearest place not-China we could find, which is Seoul.

The plan was, to find a taxi from Lake Barkol to Hami immediately after the sun reappeared, board the overnight train at Hami which leaves at 1:11 AM on the morning of August 2nd and arrives in Shanghai the next day, and fly out of Shanghai the day after. (The train actually gets to Shanghai before the first flight we could get from Urumqi would, and flights are way expensive.)

Then, three more things happened:

The Chinese government said that you could no longer buy a sleeper ticket from other than the originating station, which Hami isn’t. I suppose this has something to do with trains heading toward Beijing which would arrive in time for the opening ceremonies. Gee, I wonder if anybody is doing that.

Fine, said I to chinatraintickets.net, just purchase the tickets from Urumqi (the originating station) and we’ll get on at Hami.

Not so fast, said the Chinese government, you also can’t hold an empty seat. Somebody has to be in your couchette or we’ll sell it to somebody else.

In India, you quite often used to hire a boy to run and get you a seat on public transportation and hold it for you while the red-shirted fellows nudge their way on with you and your luggage. China also has such an option; but the nudge here is half the length of the State of California, and the dollar is not worth what it was in the days of the Raj.

In addition, there would have to be another show of tickets made to get into the train station at Hami. So we were looking at paying off Fake Ray Spears and Fake Dave Oppenheim to get on the train at Urumqi, while Fake Ray Spears 2 and Fake Dave Oppenheim 2 loitered about the train station in Hami and waited for a taxi to wind down the mountains covered with dust from the Northern Desert for Fifth Contact. This was going to run to the thousands of yuan renminbi.

But meanwhile; when we got our visas back from Los Angeles, they had both been issued for 60 days, without our even requesting it.

So that part got easier. There is a reason they call those little push-pull-nudge boxes “Chinese puzzles.”

Given the price increase to the train tickets, it might now be cheaper to move the flight out to a later date and ease all these sketchy connections.

China Southern Airlines issues paper tickets. The process of making a change to a paper ticket purchased through Travelocity, you don’t want to do that. It culminated in a 40 minute conversation this afternoon, most of which was actually NOT spent on hold, but just explaining and repeating myself, to Apu Nahasapeemapetilan whose voice was being done this week by Sasha Baron-Cohen in his Bruno avatar.

Travelocity moved its call centers from Clintwood, Virginia and San Antonio, Texas, in 2004. They are now managed by a company called WNS North America from Mumbai, Pune, and Nashik, Maharashtra. So will your job, soon enough.

From the standpoint of legibility to an English speaker, Texas to Mumbai represents about a wash. Indian English is a dignified and widely spoken dialect and anyone in California can converse in it, but this guy — he said “Thank you ver’ much” in perfect Borat, and sometimes Schwarzenegger’ed his w’s and the whole thing was a mish mash, for all I know he was a hacker in East Clintwood asking, Do you feel Lucknow? PLUS the phone connection was through a vo-de-oh-do underwater mike plug-in. I hope I’ve changed my tickets to the 7th. I might have changed them to Saturn.

I guess what I am saying is that Paper Tickets are a Covenant Marriage; and if it’s this much trouble to change an airline reservation, how much more careful should you all be on your non-refundable lives? Obviously I hope everyone will vote for Equality before the Law this November, but our change fee ended up being $79.95; how much does it cost Britney to unwind her sacred bands of God-sanctioned matrimony?

The journey of a thousand miles…

June 12th, 2008 11:55 am by ray from here

…begins with getting a visa.

Confucius was prescient. Passports for ordinary travelers are a recent development. Of course, so are ordinary travelers.

Even as late as 1911, The Encyclopedia Britannica described a passport as a “safe-conduct, in time of war.” 1911 was not a time of war; it’s about the last time that wasn’t. “Although most foreign countries may now be entered without passports,” it goes on to say, “the English Foreign Office recommends travellers to furnish themselves with them…”

That is so pre-6/28.

Getting a visa to visit China used to be a matter of going to the office, handing over a photo and $50, and having them stamp your passport. That was before the Olympics. The day that the Olympic torch arrived in San Francisco was unfortunately the day that I went to the Chinese consulate there. Protestors were scaling the Golden Gate bridge, the torch had been attacked in Paris, and the consular officers were in a bad mood.

I waited two hours in line and the man at window 8 would not even accept my application.

I guessed wrong about too many things.

I put down “Tourism Solar Eclipse” as my reason for going. In Chile, in Zambia, in the Philippines, this is a free pass to the front of the line, as the bureaucrats don’t want to impede scientists.

Not so, this guy. First he had to look up in his Chinese English dictionary what Solar Eclipse meant, and after that it became clear that he had never even thought of the possibility that the moon and the sun might have anything to do with each other and if I thought so, there was something afoot. Maybe astronomy is suspected of being a Falun Gong thing. You don’t get a foreign posting — San Francisco no less — under the age of thirty, even as a clerk, by spending time looking up at the sky.

Then he wanted to know why I checked One Year Multiple Entry rather than Three Months One Entry. I said, well, they cost the same. This is not an argument to be used to Communists, even ones for whom it does not, by decree, matter any longer if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice. It’s just a different way of thinking. Of course, we are talking about the civil service here. I don’t suppose American apparatchiki think in terms of economy either.

He made me go stand in another line, so I could talk to the lady who had come over behind the desk to tell him what she thought a solar eclipse was. She said I needed to bring her a complete itinerary. She was a bit incredulous, that I was going to be in China this summer and not at the Opening Ceremony. Wants me to prove it. They clearly did not want people at loose ends in Beijing. Or anywhere.

The next time I went, I brought a folder with all the printouts from my hotel reservations on Travelocity and a printout of the pdf describing Eclipse City and all. The lady was entirely dismissive. She said, “What for you want to go to Urumqi” and did not even listen to my reply. She said of all the printouts: “This is not itinerary. Anyone can type this.”

I asked her directly if independent travel was permitted in China. She said directly, no. If that is truly the case, it hasn’t been mentioned in Rough Guide.

She said she knew because she used to work for CITS. She wanted an itinerary from CITS describing my participation in a group tour, and nothing else counted.

After a couple of weeks of email with Eclipse City, I had a document in Chinese from CITS explaining that I was going where I was going. I had to trim our trip down to 30 days because everyone now agrees that visas for longer than 30 days are not granted, at least until the Olympics have passed.

But this time I did what I should have done in the first place: I went to a travel agent. In one week, for only an extra $30 handling fee and $15 FedEx, Dave and I had our visas to China. There was no charge for a “rush” order, though it came through that fast.

The FedEx fee was because China Travel Service sent our passports to Los Angeles, where they have better relations with the consulate. Angela, at China Travel Service, knew exactly what she wanted to know. “What window did you go to?” she asked me. By which she meant to ask, what individual did you talk to and did that person have prejudices that might interfere with the issuance of the document. In the end, it was better to try another office.

So bookmark this as the place to get your Chinese travel plans:

China Travel Service
930 Montgomery Street #501
San Francisco 94133

As a final irony, completely without asking, the Los Angeles consulate gave us a 60 day visa, good 6 months. But we’ve already got non-refundable tickets to leave Shanghai on Day 30; it would cost $500 to change that.

There is one other item on the agenda for summer. Our friend Dan, whom we met on the train in 1999 is getting married in Craiova at the end of August. Unfortunately Digidesign has made a product release schedule that requires Dave not to take the whole summer off; therefore I am going to see Dan on my own. I have also allowed some time to go see our friends in Iasi and Bucharest before coming home just in time for the rehearsal dinner of Dave’s cousin Ryan, who is getting married on September 14. Ever since they made it legal for boys and girls to get married, they all seem to want to do it.