Drive Nacho Drive: Bloggers Navigate China By VW Bus And Kickstarter Campaign

brad and sheena van orden with nacho the carWe’ve heard of camping excursions and perhaps the occasional extended road trip in retrofitted buses, but what about an around-the-world adventure? That’s exactly what’s planned for Brad and Sheena Van Orden, an Arizona couple who has already trekked from the United States to the southern tip of Argentina and are now somewhere in Southeast Asia, plotting their journey west towards Greece in their faithful Volkswagen Vanagon, Nacho.

Here’s the quick and dirty: Brad and Sheena wanted a grand adventure before settling down to live the rest of their normal lives together. They saw a magazine article that extolled the virtues of traveling the country in a van. They bought one – enter Nacho – and plotted out a plan to save enough money for the trip.

Why are they asking me for money now? Traveling through China requires a pricey guide and special permits, a cost that will total nearly $20,000. So they’ve started a Kickstarter campaign. Find it here.

Why do they want to travel through China? If they skip China they’ll need to head through Iran and Pakistan, areas that are known to be dangerous to foreigners.

What do I get in return? The couple has written an e-book, and their Kickstarter campaign, which already has more than $7,000 in funding, promises everything from shoutouts and postcards to a personal visit with dinner and drinks, plus your selection of stops along the route, if you decide to contribute $5,000 or more to their fund.

Thanks to Autoblog for the tip. If you have some time, take a look through the post and the associated audio interview.

[Image Credit: Kickstarter]

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: I Was Once An ‘Ilegal Immigrant’ In China (Part 2 of 2)

urumqi airport aviation hotelRead Part One of This Story

The Urumqi Airport Aviation Hotel had a huge bug zapper behind the reception desk that gave off a piercing blue glow. I was handed a room key and a glossy brochure that brightened my mood considerably.

“Built in 1974, Airport Hotel locates in Urumqi ariartion airport that today is over 6000 meters! It joints the terminil building by a bridge. It is such a perfect hotel to choose if you traveling by air!..To have a tasteful meal here is dream here. According to your requirement, Airport Hotel restaurant might prepare you all kinds of local delicious…Other hotel services include beauty center, taxi, tour trip, Shopping, and complete checking in procedure arranging conference.”

My first meal in China was something of a blind man’s banquet. The Airport Hotel Restaurant had no English speakers or menu, so I had to resort to circling dishes listed in my Lonely Planet phrase book.chinese foodI pointed to the Chinese characters next to five or six dishes but my waitresses kept shaking her head and eventually walked away. I was convinced that the warm Liquan beer I was drinking was all I was going to get, but just as I was about to get up to leave, she and two other servers arrived with five steaming entrees, a bowl of soup and a plate of cooked peanuts.

I was thoroughly confused but since Xinjiang Airlines was paying, I didn’t bother to send anything back. The Airport Hotel felt a bit like a very strange college dormitory in that most of the guests kept their doors open and had their television sets blaring. There were three channels – all showing a badminton match between Indonesia and Denmark.

My room had an assortment of odd signs, each containing various warnings. My favorite was one on top of the TV that read: “Don’t touch it yourself!”

heavenly lake tianchiHow does one pass a weekend under de-facto house arrest in Xinjiang province? I decided to take a day trip to what the Chinese call Heavenly Lake – two hours to the east. Tianchi, (Heavenly Lake) is a majestically serene lake flanked by the 5,445-meter high Mt. Bogda, known as the Peak of God. The excursion and a relaxing Sunday spent chatting with novice English speakers at an Urumqi park helped me forget that I was a passport-less illegal immigrant, at least for the weekend.

On Monday morning, I rose early and sat in the lobby of the hotel, listening to the hum of the blue bug zapper as I waited for my parole hearing, which was scheduled for 9 a.m. I waited impatiently until about 10, when I received a call from a woman at Xinjiang Airlines who told me to call her Holly.

“Dayveed, we have problem” she said. “So sorry but we must come toomahwoaw. The cahmandeeng offisah not heya today, call back toomahwoaw.”

“Holly, I want my passport back TODAY!” I pleaded. “I want out of here, I’ve got to get to Shanghai! I’ll pay the damn fine! Please get me out of here.”

“Today is not paw-see-bull!” she said.

I slammed the phone down and went out to find a phone card to call the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Trying to find the number and figuring out the local phone system took some doing but the call produced immediate dividends when I got through to a local Chinese employee at the embassy who promised to look into the mater and then called me back a half hour later.

“Mee-stah Sem-eee-nah-rah, the Chinese said they’ll be there in 10 minutes,” she said.

I regretted that I hadn’t figured out how to call the embassy even sooner, and weeks later, I realized that the embassy’s intervention came less than 48 hours before the U.S. House of Representatives voted on granting China permanent normal trade relations. The Chinese were on their best behavior once I got the embassy involved.

Ten minutes later “Holly” and a colleague of hers from the airline, Miss Yang, arrived and greeted me nonchalantly. And five minutes at that, two Chinese soldiers arrived at the hotel.

“You must pay 1,000 yuan now,” Holly instructed, before pausing to add, “please.”

My de-facto captors wrote up a myriad of reports on a “Fancy Lion” notebook that had a cute image of a kitty on it. I was given no less than 5 receipts to sign, so if the penalty was a bribe they were going to have a serious paper trail to cover up.

I paid the fine and before the soldiers left I showed them an article in that morning’s English language, China Daily, a state controlled newspaper, which stated that the government had set the poverty level at 635 yuan per year ($76).

“So you see,” I said, “you have fined me more than one year’s wages for a Chinese worker, all for arriving here one week late on a perfectly good visa.”

The group studied the article for a few moments and then Holly interpreted the response of one of the stern faced officials.

“Yes, but he says that you are not a Chinese peasant,” she said. “You are American, and you have much more money. We think this is not very expensive for you.”

chinese visaThey handed back my glorious looking passport, which had never looked so resplendent. I was granted a 24-hour visa, and the girls from Xinjiang Airline agreed to accompany me downtown to extend it.

The visa office had a sign in English that was engraved on the wall, “strictly enforce the law – enthusiastically serve the people.” I was sold on the former but needed convincing on the latter as I plunked down another $40 for a month-long visa. As the three of us walked out into a steady rain, Holly tried to console me before saying goodbye.

“You know, we are trying to change but it takes long time,” she said. “Maybe the next time you come China, things will be easier for you.”

When my girlfriend arrived in Shanghai, I was there waiting for her with a bouquet of flowers and an outstretched fan with her name stenciled in Chinese characters on it. We were married the following year and shortly thereafter I joined the U.S. Foreign Service and found myself interviewing visa applicants on a daily basis. I never told anyone that I was once an illegal immigrant myself.

Read Part One of This Story Here

Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service.”

[Photo credit: Avixyx, Dayou X, on Flickr]

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: I Was Once An ‘Illegal Immigrant’ In China (Part 1 of 2)

chinese soldier with maoAfter three months of arduous solo travel along the Silk Road, I was ready to cross my final frontier. I’d been forced to deviate from my plan to travel overland from Cairo to Shanghai, and was on a Xinjiang Airlines flight from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, to the Chinese city of Urumchi when a moment of terror washed over me.

While leafing through all of the exotic visas in my passport, I began to recount in my mind all the border shakedowns I’d experienced on the trip. I had been denied entry at the Syrian, Kazakh and Azerbaijani borders, was hit up for bribes at the Moldovan, Turkmen and Georgian frontiers and had almost been refused the privilege of leaving Uzbekistan.

You hear a lot about how we live in an increasingly connected, borderless world where everyone speaks English, believes in free market capitalism and has minty fresh Dentyne breath. But on this trip, taken right after the turn of the millennium, I had encountered a big continent whose borders were patrolled by avaricious officials who washed their uniforms in Barf® brand detergent, ate horse meat pizzas and definitely did not speak English or take American Express.chinese visaRelieved that I was about to navigate the last hurdle with officialdom on a difficult trip, my reverie turned to panic when I discovered a line on my Chinese visa that I hadn’t noticed before. It read:

Enter before 00.05.11

barf detergentIt was May 19, and my heart began to race as I tried to figure out if the enter-by date referred to November 5 or May 11. I realized that I’d been granted the visa at the Chinese consulate in Chicago on February 11, before the start of the trip, and figured that I must have only been given 90 days to enter the country.

I’d never been to China before but knew that authorities there aren’t exactly renowned for their flexibility. Would they detain me? Deport me? Fine me? I had no idea but I was due to meet my girlfriend, Jen, in Shanghai in two weeks. My plan was to spend the fortnight crossing the country by train, with plenty of stops along the way.

The Bishkek-Urumqi flight left only once a week and if I was repatriated to Kyrgyzstan, how would I make it? I had already put our relationship on rocky ground by taking off for four months and feared that if I wasn’t in Shanghai when she arrived, we’d be finished.

As our plane touched down in Urumqi, a city of more than 2 million residents about 4,000 kilometers northwest of Shanghai, a panel above my head came unhinged and dangled from the ceiling in what seemed like a bad omen.

urumqi airportAll of the other passengers pushed and shoved as we made our way toward the passport control except for me. I was in no hurry to meet my fate. I tried to analyze the faces of the Chinese officials at the end of each scrum, but couldn’t decide which way to go as they all looked equally severe and uncompromising.

I felt nauseated when my turn arrived and the uniformed official leafed through my passport, pausing for only a moment to glance at my Chinese visa.

“Weah is yo vee-sah?” he asked, in English.

I pointed out my Chinese visa but he shook his head dismissively.

“This is failed vee-sah”, he said. “I must speak my leader.”

My heart sank as I was escorted away from the passport control area a few minutes later, after the crowds had gone home. A uniformed officer named Akbar, who could not have been more than 21, told me to sit down on the luggage conveyer belt, as there were no other seats.

Akbar, was an ethnic Uighur – a Muslim, Turkic people that once dominated Xinxiang province but now make up less than half its population. He was the lone Uighur working in the airport and said he would serve as my interpreter.

The Chinese are notorious for squashing any notions of independence amongst the Uighurs of Xinxiang, so as I waited to learn my fate I tried to not so subtlety win him over to my side by creating an us against them mentality.

“Is it hard for you, being the only Uighur working here?” I asked, rather clumsily.

“No, we are equal in the army and we are a national protected minority!” he said, defensively.

“But I read that there were some Uighur politicians that were arrested recently,” I said.

“Where did you read this?” he asked.

“In America,” I said.

“And you believe these things?” he asked, looking disgusted.

It was just my luck – I’d been set up with an Uncle Tom Uighur. Just as I was pulling out my photo album of shots from back home as we sat together on the empty airport’s lone luggage belt, three of his colleagues joined us.

The crew looked at my shots of friends, family and Chicago street scenes with rapt attention. I pointed to a photo of my girlfriend and mentioned that I was meeting her in Shanghai and thus would really, really prefer not to be deported.

chinese soldiersAfter what seemed like hours, a gang of more important and nastier looking soldiers beckoned us. The Uncle Tom Uighur and I were led into a room that had cheap folding chairs along the perimeter of its four walls. We sat down and I did a quick head count. There were eleven uniformed officers, all training their eyes on me, the American with the “failed vee-sah.”

One of the officers read me the riot act, in Chinese, and the Uncle Tom Uighur interpreted.

“You have violated our border by trying to enter with a failed visa,” he said. “You cannot enter China with this visa – you are an illegal immigrant.”

I took in what he said along with the flurry of angry sounding Mandarin that filled the room.

“Wait a minute,” I interjected. “I’m not an immigrant; I’m just here for a visit.”

He ignored me and continued.

“You must write down what you have done, and admit that you agree with what I have just said,” he said.

I was elated. It sounded like all they wanted was a confession. If a Cultural Revolution style self-criticism was all they wanted, I was happy to comply.

“What exactly do you want me to write?” I asked, eager to cooperate.

He relayed my question to the others in the room and several of them chimed in, but Akbar’s interpretation skills seemed to be lacking. I could tell by the look on his face that he was confused.

“You must admit to your crime,” he said.

Knowing full well that neither he, nor anyone else would fully understand my confession anyway, I decided to have fun with it.

Dear Xinxiang Frontier Border Control Authority,

“I David Seminara, who arrived on flight 718 from Bishkek, fully admit to the grievous crime of arriving in China a week late. I fully recognize the serious nature of my transgression, and its implications on China’s 1.2 billion citizens, who have no doubt been waiting with baited breath for my arrival. I am sorry if my delayed arrival has in any way jeopardized either Chinese national security or Sino American relations.”

The khaki uniformed guards began passing around the confession and it seemed to please them.

“Now you must sign your name,” Akbar said, thrusting my absurd confession back at me.

I was just about to sign when the thought occurred to me that once I signed a confession they could impose any penalty they liked. Maybe I’d seen too many American movies, but I didn’t want to sign it.

“I’m not signing it until you tell me what the penalty is,” I said.

My refusal seemed to touch off a storm of indignation in the room.

“You must sign, you have a failed visa!” Akbar yelled.

“First I want to know what the penalty is,” I repeated.

The group began to loudly confer for several minutes, and to me, they sounded like thieves arguing over how to split their booty.

“You must pay 1000 yuan ($125) and also you must buy a new visa,” Akbar said.

urumqi airportIn retrospect, the amount of the fine doesn’t seem exorbitant, but at the time, a dorm bed in a Chinese youth hostel cost just 10 yuan, and I was traveling on a razor thin budget, so it seemed like a king’s ransom. I assumed that it was negotiable.

“But the visa itself cost only $30,” I argued. “Why should the fine be $125?”

As Akbar interpreted my comment the room exploded in a cacophony of angry sounding Mandarin. My head began to swirl from all the menacing voices. I tried to haggle with them by pointing out that my visa hadn’t expired, claiming penury, and reiterating that I had to meet my girlfriend. I also showed them my plane ticket home, but they were unmoved. Visa applicants are supposed to apply in their home countries, but the Chinese law doesn’t account for people like me who leave the country and are gone for longer than three months before entering China.

I asked to see the amount of my fine in writing and this seemed to whip the room into an even more hostile lather.

“YOU MUST PAY OR GO BACK TO BISHKEK!!” Akbar shouted, clearly exhausted from the exertion of trying to interpret with multiple people talking at the same time.

Minutes later, someone produced a pamphlet, in English, that specified that fines for entering the country with an invalid visa ranged from 500-2000 yuan.

“Fine, how about I pay 500?” I asked, still hoping to save a few bucks.

At this, a young female officer, who had been silent until this point, spoke up, surprisingly, in English.

“Relations between our countries are not good now,” she said. “If a Chinese person tries to enter America with a failed visa he would be fined $500 and put in jail. You are an illegal immigrant – you must pay what we say!”

I asked to call the U.S. embassy in Beijing, but they claimed that the phone in the airport only worked for local calls. Exasperated, I offered to sign the confession and pay the fine, but Akbar and the gang weren’t done with me yet.

“You have to wait until Monday to get your new visa because the office in Urumqi is already closed today, and it is not open on the weekend,” he said.

urumqi airportIt was Friday afternoon at about 3 p.m. and I had no idea what they were going to do with me. The officers filed out of the interrogation room and I was told to sit back down on the conveyor belt. I had no idea who had my passport or what was going on until a portly man from Xinjiang Airlines approached us.

“We made a mistake allowing you to board the flight with a failed visa,” he explained, in English. “Since it was our fault, you will be our guest this weekend.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, suddenly wondering if perhaps my luck was turning.

“You will pay your fine and get a new visa on Monday but for the weekend, you will stay at the airport hotel and we will pay for your room and meals,” he said.

This sounded like a pretty good deal until I found out that the airport hotel was 40 km outside of town, in walking distance to nothing. I told them I’d pay for my own room in town, but they said it would be impossible for me to check in anywhere without a passport.

“Am I allowed to leave the city?” I asked. ” I planed to travel to the Heavenly Lake.”

“No, well, not really,” he said, clearly waffling.

I took that to mean that I was free to do as I pleased but without a passport, my options would be severely limited. As we walked out of the empty terminal toward the hotel, the reality of the situation began to sink in. I was spending my first night in China as a passport-less “illegal immigrant” under a kind of loose house arrest. What did the Chinese authorities have in store for me?

Read the final part to this story here

Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service.

[Photo credits: Ed-Meister, Upyernoz, Marc Van der Chijs, Isaac Mao, Eugene Kaspersky, Toasterhead, and Cornfed 1975 on Flickr]

Luxury Vacation Guide 2012: Baku, Azerbaijan

Alternately called the Paris of the East and the Next Dubai, Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, is poised to become the Middle East’s next big luxury travel destination.

Once the busiest harbor on the ancient Silk Road, Baku is the largest city on the Caspian Sea and in the Caucasus region. A recent flood of oil money has led to massive development in anticipation of a 2020 Olympics bid, and early 2012 will mark the opening of the Flame Towers, an iconic complex which will significantly alter the Baku skyline. With a design inspired by the natural gas-fueled fires that once sprung spontaneously from the Azerbaijan landscape, the towers will house offices, high-end apartments, and a new luxury property from Fairmont.

As a country, Azerbaijan is no stranger to progress, having been the first Muslim country to build operas, theatres, and a democratic republic. Baku’s walled inner city, which contains Shirvanshah’s Palace and Maiden Tower, was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000, and the city’s cultural agenda includes world-class ballet performances and philharmonic concerts. To boot, Lonely Planet recently ranked Baku one of the world’s top destinations for urban nightlife, alongside Buenos Aires, Dubai, and Cape Town.

[flickr image via teuchterlad]

Afghanistan reopens tallest mountain to climbers

The tallest mountain in Afghanistan, Mt. Noshaq, has reopened to climbersIn an effort to boost adventure tourism, and show off its spectacular natural wonders, Afghanistan has reopened its tallest mountain to climbers after years of conflict prevented travel in the region. The country now hopes to become a popular destination for mountaineers and adventure travelers seeking new challenges and unique experiences in remote places.

The 24,580-foot Mt. Noshaq is located in the extreme northeastern corner of Afghanistan, falling along its shared border with Pakistan. According to National Geographic, a team of climbers traveled to the mountain in late July to commemorate the reopening by making the first ascent of the mountain by foreigners in more than three decades. Noshaq was climbed by an all Afghani team for the first time in 2009 as well.

Noshaq is located inside the Hindu Kush, a spectacular chain of snow capped peaks that run across much of central Afghanistan and into northern Pakistan. Due to the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, however, many of those peaks have been off limits since the Soviet Union invaded back in 1979. Now that a level of stability and security has returned to much of the region, the country is hoping to lure climbers and mountaineers looking for new mountains to explore.

Mountain climbers aren’t the only ones to find new adventures in Afghanistan however. Trekking the Wakhan Corridor has also become an attractive option for adventure travelers looking for an escape to a very remote destination. This narrow strip of land runs between two towering mountain ranges and was once part of the famed Silk Road, an historical trading route that Marco Polo may (or may not) have used when traveling to China. The entire route takes a couple of weeks to complete, during which time hikers cross through high mountain passes, visit tiny villages inhabited by sheep herders, and witness some of the most breathtaking scenery on the planet.

Obviously Afghanistan still has a long way to go to convince travelers that it is a safe place to visit. But by reopening Mt. Noshaq and promoting treks like the Wakhan Valley, they have taken steps to demonstrate to the world that they are a first class adventure travel destination with untapped natural resources for those bold enough to experience it.

I’m definitely ready to go!

[Photo credit: Noshaq.com]