My spring semester ends this Friday. Next Tuesday Alex and I leave for northwest China, to a province that borders eight countries. I really hope that we can go visit one of them. Our most likely options are Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, or Pakistan. I went on a wild goose hunt to figure out what an American needs to do to get into one of those.
It turns out that next door to the American consulate is the office for the Pakistani consulate, so with a little trepidation (since I didn't actually know how to say "Pakistan" in Chinese) I went to go talk to him. Surprisingly, when I greeted him in Chinese he gave me a blank stare and then said in English that he didn't speak Chinese. That set the tenor of our talk. He said obviously I would need a special passport, and began giving me instructions that included more than a $100 fee and a month wait. Pakistan was out.
I next went to find out information about Kazakhstan. There are travel agencies by the American consulate, but they all acted like it was obviously that an American could go wherever he wanted. One guy was ready to book me a plane flight to Kazakhstan, but since I had gotten the same line about Pakistan, I wanted to figure out what was what.
I decided to go ask people at the American consulate. That was an interesting experience. The building is guarded 24 hours a day by Chinese guys trying to look intimidating (but no one carries guns in China). You're not allowed to walk on the sidewalk, and there's always a line of Chinese people trying to have something to do with America. Turns out I just had to walk up and show my passport and they let me in.
I went through some security procedures, walked to a different building, and went to the window for Americans. The girl had passable English, but a really annoying habit of nodding her head as she talked so that it seemed patronizing. I gave her my spiel about wanting information on how to get in to Kazakhstan, then disappeared behind the counter. When she came back, she told me, in as matter-of-fact a voice as everyone else I had talked to, that of course they wouldn't know about America's relationship with Kazakhstan, but she had pulled up the phone number for the Kazakh consulate in Beijing and I could call them.
I left a little miffed at how the American consulate didn't know about American visas, but decided I might as well call the Kazakh office in Beijing. The lady answered in English, so I started talking, and before I finished my sentence she had hung up on me. I called again a few times today with the same result.
If anyone can tell me offhand what America and Kazakhstan think of each other, I'd appreciate it. I bet Alex and I are just going to have to wait until we get to the province that's near those countries to have any solid information, though.
On a positive note, my language partner got her visa to go to college in the States this fall. I thought this was interesting: apparently, Chinese people need to make an appointment about visas, and to do that they have to call ahead, and they have to call with a special calling card that you can only buy at one bank in town, and that card costs more than $5 for 8 minutes. Hao mafan, my language partner said. I agree, visas are way too much trouble.