So this is gonna be my only Beijing post, unfortunately. I originally came here for one purpose and had intended to do some sightseeing along the way, but I didn’t anticipate that single purpose consuming so much time.
I think I said in my previous post with my travel plans that I came to Beijing specifically because Turkmenistan has an embassy here. If I didn’t, well there you go. Turkmenistan is one of those countries where tourism is generally not done, so the process for getting a visa is quite difficult. The biggest reason is that you have to apply for the visa directly at an embassy. Since they don’t maintain an embassy in Kathmandu, that made Beijing my first stop (though I would have preferred to go to Shanghai).
So let’s recap what I’ve had to do for this visa in the last four days.
Saturday: The First Visit to the Embassy
I’m going to preface this by saying I was an idiot for even attempting to go on Saturday. But the positive is that I actually found the embassy, which turned out to be a lot more difficult than I was expecting.
In Beijing, most of the embassies are in the northeast quarter of the city. My hostel is in the dead center, close to Tiananmen Square. That meant a long subway ride with several transfers, and then walking for nearly an hour after that. And that’s assuming I find it right away, which I didn’t.
I’ve come to notice here in China that locations on maps aren’t always reliable, even with official places like embassies. Add in the extra factor of different map programs disagreeing on basic things like whether or not certain streets and buildings even exist, and you have quite the scavenger hunt going. The bonus is that very few people speak English here.
I got off the train and followed the street to where the embassy was supposed to be. The street that the map showed wasn’t there, so I kept walking. Once I knew that I was well past where it should’ve been, I turned back to see if I somehow missed something. To my eye, I hadn’t.
In need of a better map, I went to a hotel’s Starbucks a few kilometers away and got on the wifi. I got my map, went to the updated location a few kilometers in the opposite direction, got lost again, went back to the Starbucks for more wifi, and then returned once more.
This time I saw a fancy building with few signs out front that looked very embassy-like, so I went inside. In reality, it was about the nicest French restaurant I’ve ever seen. Thankfully, a waitress spoke French (as do I) and I managed to find that the embassy was down a street a few hundred meters away. She called out bon chance to me as I left.
I went to the gate of the community I assumed she was pointing me to and tried to talk to the guard, who spoke no English. If the embassy was there, I assumed he’d at least recognize the word “Embassy” or “Turkmenistan” in English as he was guarding the entrance to it, but he did not. I went back to the Starbucks a third time, downloaded a translator app, and returned armed with technology. I showed him the Mandarin characters and he immediately nodded and let me inside.
The area is called King’s Garden Villas, and is the Olympic Village from the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. Now it seems to be an especially bougie neighborhood for embassies, diplomats, and wealthy Chinese citizens.
I walked to where the map said the embassy was, but found nothing. I walked every alley and street but still nothing. Everyone I tried speaking to spoke no English. I was close to giving up when a little Chinese girl, no older than 4, was walking towards me, alone on the street. One shoe was on her foot and the other in her hand. When she reached me, she held up her shoe proudly.
“My other shoe is still wet!”
Without waiting for an answer, she kept walking. But that told me that someone nearby spoke English. I had been searching nearly five hours now, so this was a fantastic development.
I rounded another corner and sure enough, I found a block party made up mostly of expats. I asked if they spoke English, which they did, and if they knew where the Turkmen Embassy was.
“Oh, next street! But…why?”
I practically ran down the street. It was 4:30 and I assumed it closed at 5:00. The street was empty except for me, and when I rang the doorbell, a very creepy song played for a full minute before a confused-looking Turkmen guy materialized behind me.
“You know the embassy is closed, right?”
“Oh goddamn it. Why?”
So there’s that. I’m an idiot for trying on Saturday but at least I found it.
Monday: The Second Visit
I arrived earlier on Monday, documents in hand, determined to apply. Inside, there was a Turkmen couple filling out some forms under the stern glare of the consular official behind the desk. A young Turkmen guy sat in the corner.
I approached the desk. The official looked back at my stoically, saying nothing.
“Um…I need to apply for the transit visa.”
Angry Embassy Man stared but said nothing.
I pointed to the example forms on the wall.
“Transit visa? English?”
Finally, he spoke.
I nodded, and he, without breaking his stare, produced the forms from behind the desk and shoved them through the hole in the glass. I looked at the young guy in the corner, who gave me a look in return.
I sat to fill out the forms. It didn’t take long as there were only a couple pages, but the official wasn’t satisfied. He wanted color photos of my passport and visas, not the black and white ones I provided.
Then he gave me a little slip of paper.
“Ten dollar application fee.”
I started to take a US $10 bill from my wallet, but he stopped me.
“Pay at Bank of China. You need to bring a receipt here tomorrow.”
Then he went into the back room, not to be seen again, and I left, hoping to get to the bank before it closed.
The trip to the bank was actually quite easy, and the payment was fast. I of course still had to return to the embassy a third time, but at this point I was just happy to be making progress.
Tuesday: The Third Visit
I made the long commute to the embassy one last time, new color passport copies and payment receipts in hand. The couple from the day before were also at the embassy.
I gave my documents to Angry Embassy Man, and he grunted in approval. He stamped something, and for a brief moment I thought I had been approved.
“I will email you the decision in twenty days.”
And then it was over. This was likely my only chance to apply. In 20 days I’ll be close to Kyrgyzstan, and 20 days after that I’ll be in Azerbaijan (I think). It’s a visa that depends heavily on the mood of the official, so I’m not optimistic. I have a plan B, but let’s see how it goes.