A Canadian in Beijing: Nightmare Travel Visa Just a Dream

I had nightmares about getting my travel visa for China. I imagined large halls filled with children and people everywhere, line-ups barely visible in the human density, thick air filled with the sounds of late-winter coughs and sniffles, hours on aching feet, shuffling along but barely progressing – you can picture it, I’m sure. My dream state was so powerful that it made me procrastinate. I put off getting my visa until it was just a week before I was planning to leave Canada for an entire month of U.S. shows making it impossible for me to apply for my travel visa from within Canada before my trip to Beijing.

You see, you have three choices: either you send in your passport via an accredited travel agent and then wait the four processing days not to mention the postal time before you get it back; you go in to the Chinese consulate yourself to drop it off and still wait those four business days (which works great if you live in a city with a consulate office); or, you go into a consulate office and pay an expedite fee in order to get it within one business day. I was forced to go with option no.3.

To be perfectly honest, being without my passport makes me anxious. I didn’t want to be without it for more time than absolutely necessary and I was willing to pay for the peace of mind to avoid the separation anxiety. As a traveller, I need it regularly. It is my key to being able to work outside of Canada and that key is vital to my career.As I don’t live in Toronto, I made the five-hour trip to the city and planned to stay a couple of days to connect with friends before hitting the road with my band again at the end of February and for the whole of March. I arrived Sunday night and then bundled up in the blustery cold and walked the whole two kilometers to the consulate early Monday morning. The walk was refreshing and I felt invigorated and ready for the day. In fact, I felt redeemed from my procrastination as though the early morning and the crisp air had clarified my agenda and brought me back to task.

The date was Feb 19th. Brilliant choice for an East Asian Studies grad and one who feels rather confident about her knowledge of East Asian Culture. Why? Well, Chinese New Year was Feb 18th this year and all of the Chinese government offices were closed for two days following Chinese New Year. And rightfully so!

When I arrived at the very locked and formidable gates of the Chinese consulate office on that frosty morning, I felt like an idiot. I stood there a moment in complete disarray. I peered through the rod iron and read the sign on the consulate door three times. I scuffed the slush on the sidewalk and squinted at the sun’s reflection on the dormer windows of the Victorian buildings all around me. I turned three hundred and sixty degrees and studied the roof lines of the neighbouring homes and business offices and noted the angles against the sky and how the turrets jutted upwards as if reaching for spring. I looked back at the sign one more time and then I walked to a nearby café and sat down to think.

There was nothing to be done except wait.

I extended my stay in Toronto to accommodate the Chinese holiday and I decided to treat it as the holiday that it was meant to be. I fell into reunion mode with friends and had a great time.

When Wednesday arrived, I assumed that I would repeat my Monday morning trek, but I actually stalled (again) and didn’t make it to the consulate until about three in the afternoon. I had no idea if I’d be able to pick up passport the following day, but my plans quickly depended on it. I was scheduled to depart the city the following morning, so I was playing with fate (and crossing my fingers) that I’d be able to pick up my passport Thursday a.m. before departure. We were scheduled to cross the border into the states for a weekend of Ohio dates. All this to say that this was an example of irresponsible risk-taking, which isn’t usually my style.

Why did I stall that morning? I’m not sure. The rhythm of Toronto had sunk back into my limbs and I had a spontaneous coffee date with a friend in the morning and switched a dinner date to a lunch date with another at noon. I was in the swirl of socialization and I was enjoying the spin of my own Chinese New Year celebrations.

The consulate is in a historic area very near to the University of Toronto, just north of Bloor Street on St.George. When I arrived, its gates were graciously open and I could see a crowd inside. I held my breath as I mounted the steps, expecting my nightmares to be accurate, and when I took my place in line – a line that was so long that it was spilling outside – I was only there for a moment when a kind gentleman behind me asked if I was picking up my passport or submitting for my visa. I explained that it was the latter and he pointed me to a wicket that had no line-up and just a woman behind the bulletproof glass ready to take my forms.

What luck! No one in line! Apparently, the same-day service is very popular but the overnight service is less so. I was able to drop off my passport with all of my documentation within less than five minutes. I received a pink slip for the following morning and was back out in the melting snow and sunshine before I could even really take in the surroundings of the waiting room.

The next morning, I picked up my passport in almost the same fashion, only this time the line-up that was spilling outdoors was for the wicket at which I had dropped off my passport the afternoon before. The pick-up window was perfectly clear! I could have danced for joy right there, but the stern and irritable faces of those in line made me control my feet. There was much coughing, shifting of weight, and audible sighing. I slipped out unnoticed.

Now I’m all set.

The plane leaves tomorrow.

Beijing… here I come!