Across Continents

Ken's Blog

Inspector Knacker

March 10th, 2012

In the corner Inspector Knacker of the Yard was being chummy. Probably not a hack as they’d be off covering the Levenson Inquiry. Or on the run. And it was plain old coffee rather than a bit of bubbly and a brown envelope. Tough times for all. I’d stopped off in a small cafe opposite New Scotland Yard. Made better time with my errands than I’d thought, and disliked the idea of getting to Paddington too early for my train back to the Westcountry. Instead, passing the time listening to PC Plod making the inexcusable schoolboy error of not picking an establishment with alcoves. Sharing their indiscretions with anyone inclined to listen.

I was pleased to be heading over to Somerset. It was my home of course. And it wasn’t Corby-by-the-Sea. I’d not quite been declared persona non grata. Not yet anyway. But had been gentled teased that a few friends and acquaintances had seen through my especially feeble efforts at concealing its real identity. Busy sharpening their pitchforks I’d been told. Some people. No sense of humour. Which had surprised me. Living there.

The guard on the train was from Exeter. He said so over the tannoy. Very proud of it. We’d probably have guessed anyway. Affable chap. Softly spoken. Something of a favourite uncle. I’d met him as I’d boarded. Quiet train he’d said to me, smiling. I’d nodded appreciatively, struggling to stow my bulging rucksack before the other passengers caught up with me. His modest enthusiasm was infectious. Cheery. Masking the tatty upholstery unchanged since I’d commuted on the same line over a decade ago.



Surveillance society

December 27th, 2010

Police - web

A seasoned British journalist, veteran of conflict, political turmoil, civil unrest, had recently returned to report once more on China. Expecting interference from the State apparatus. Shadowy plain clothes individuals deterring others from approaching a foreigner. Surprised to discover he was able to go about his business without hindrance or obstruction.

His was an expectation I’d shared when I’d first arrived in China. Cautious with the video camera. Discreet. Not because I was doing anything wrong, anything to offend, intentionally at least. Just didn’t want to draw undue attention to myself. To be misunderstood. Not that I was a foreign correspondent. But still careful to describe the blog as an "online diary for friends and family".

If the Police were a measure of the State apparatus, mine was a surprisingly similar experience to that of the journalist. If anything, finding them a help rather than a hindrance. Coming to my aid to search out rooms for the night in small villages. Advising me of dangers on the road ahead. Taking me out to dinner with friends. At the very least a friendly wave. Curiosity rather than suspicion.

There was the usual bureaucracy. Nightly registration with the local Police. An obsession with official stamps. But, for the most part, this applied to everyone. Not singled out for being a foreigner, an alien. No more onerous than in other countries I’d passed through. Besides, similar requirements apply in the UK for some visitors.

Did I feel watched? Viewed with suspicion? No. Not by the Police at least. Seemed pleased that I’d decided to come to see for myself what China was really like. Besides, with over half a million visitors a year from the UK alone, keeping tabs on everyone was never going to be practical proposition. And even if they were keeping an eye on me, would I know?


Back at the Bureau

November 24th, 2010

The solitary policewoman. Still looking bored. I’d returned to the Public Security Bureau to collect my new visa. I hoped. After the protracted efforts to submit the application, I’d a suspicion it mightn’t be as easy as just walking in, handing over the receipt, and departing with another three weeks in my pocket.

Xian visa

I was wrong. Quickly checking the visa was all in order, the obligatory signature, and I was off. Having thanked the officer profusely. She’d never know quite how overjoyed I was to be reunited with my passport. I’d become quite attached to it. Back outside, the obligatory taxi back into the city. And a driver I’d met previously. How could I be so sure? I’d recognise that dermatitis anywhere.

[Author’s note: If you are remaining in the same location overnight as for the previous day, ensure your hosts re-register you and your new visa with the Public Security Bureau. Insist on this – it’s a legal requirement in China]


Stanley and the stamp

November 15th, 2010

Time for some more armchair adventure. Wrestling with officialdom, a less than useless guidebook, flurries of taxis, and an evasive stamp. Struggling to smile. Masking frustration an unenviable necessity. No matter how tempting it might be to do otherwise.

Progress hadn’t been what I’d hoped for. I’d always known it would take the best part of two to three months to cross China, comparable to my journey through Europe. But a few bouts of illness now meant I was running out of time on my current visa. Not an unsurmountable problem. Entitled to apply for a further thirty day visa whilst still in China. Not as much as I’d like, but it would do for now.

So, consulting my dubious guidebook, it was off to the local Police Public Security Bureau. I’d done my research. Photocopies of my passport. And my bank cards to show I could support myself without being a burden on the State. Couple of mug shots and a pen. What could be simpler? Quite a lot it seemed. For one thing, a friendly policewoman explained, yes, this was indeed the Bureau. But they no longer processed visa applications. Hadn’t done so for a while. That was now done at the Traffic Police Headquarters outside the city walls. Obvious really. So, helpfully provided with the correct address in Chinese, I headed off to find a taxi. First of many.

Eventually finding the right building, found myself in a large hall, packed with passport photographers, photocopiers and long queues. Quite bewildering. It was going to be a long morning. Or it would have been, had someone not encouraged me to wander up to the next floor. The visa office for foreigners. Manned by a solitary policewoman. She looked bored.

“Yes”, she said nodding, “You can apply for a new visa here”. Provided me with an application form. But my photocopies weren’t quite in order. Had to be A4. And I’d need a copy of my ’Aliens Registration Form’ from the hotel. Seemed reasonable enough, plenty of time to put everything in order and submit my request before they closed for the day. So, off I went. Another taxi.

A little while later….. and another taxi

Back once more at the PSB, the mornings helpful policewoman had been replaced by a policeman. This time there was a problem. My registration form from the hotel needed an official stamp. Smiling with gritted teeth, I enquired as to when the Bureau would close for the day. “Perhaps four” he suggested, a little shrug of the shoulders. I doubted I could make it back in time. A day lost. But surely a problem easily fixed. Return first thing in the morning.

Back at the hotel….

The hotel did have a stamp. But it was in Shanghai. Which is nowhere near Xi’an. This was not going well. I enquired as to whether John Lei, the hotel manager I’d met on my first night, might have one. Stanley, the front desk manager, assured me he’d try and contact John, away until the next morning, and see what could be done. Fingers crossed. Resigned to a frustrating evening of waiting, of hoping. Then a phone call. From reception. Problem solved. With what looked like a very shiny new stamp. Back on track.

Stamp - web

The next morning. Early

Same solitary policewoman. Still looking bored. But very helpful. And impeccable English. All was now in order. Just had to pay about sixteen pounds for the visa. Another office. Return with the receipt and I’d be finished for the day. Took about ten minutes. Return in five days to collect my passport. Things were looking up at last….

[Author’s note: Despite the term ’visa extension’ being widely used, it’s a misnomer. What you actually get is a new visa – a zero entry one as you’re already in country – obtainable from the local (Police) Public Security Bureau (PSB).

In theory, you could apply anywhere but, unless you’re a fairly competent Mandarin speaker, I’d recommend locations, such as Xi’an, where they’re used to dealing with foreigners. And where they speak English. Note that your thirty days starts from the date you submit your application, processing normally takes five working days, so once you get your passport back with the new visa, you’ve usually got just twenty three more days.

If you want to find the PSB in Xi’an – about four kilometres outside the city walls – just show the following to any taxi driver. About £2 each way from the city centre:

PSB - Xian - web

Worked for me!]


Lipstick and ladybirds

October 3rd, 2010

Synchronised swimming

I thought the judges a bit harsh. I’d definitely rated the Kazakhstan contingent a bit ahead of their Russian counterparts. Maybe I’d been influenced by their garish lipstick. Choices had been limited. Synchronised swimming or a stalker movie in Uighyr with Chinese subtitles. Helped to take my mind off my recent excursion to the second worst pit toilet of the expedition. First prize went to one about ten miles back. So terrible I’d wretched.

I’d ended up in a small settlement south of the city of Hami. Last outpost of habitation before the Gobi proper. Secured a room for the night behind a cafe for a few pounds. The sort of place that was often reluctant to admit foreigners lest they incur the attentions of the authorities. But not tonight. I’d enquired at the nearby toll station as to whether there was anywhere to stay. Produced the magic card. Encouraging signs. Waited patiently amidst the clouds of ladybirds. Then a Police escort. Right to the door.


Shenanigans in Shanshan

September 18th, 2010

Shanshan was a disappointment. I’d ended up in a hotel designated for overseas visitors. Pleasant enough. But not my first choice. I’d been asked to leave that one whilst still moving all my kit up to the room. No explanation given. And the manager too much of a coward to speak to me directly, instead leaving it to a very embarrassed receptionist to offer apologies. And directions to a more hospitable establishment.

DHOV - web

If I’d an inkling as to why I’d been asked to leave the first hotel, that was reinforced at the second. Seemed the local police diligently enforced the requirement for proprietors to register aliens with them. Together with ensuring overseas visitors stayed only in designated hotels. That’s their prerogative of course. Just as it’s mine to suggest the whole experience doesn’t exactly engender a warm welcome. More shades of paranoia.


Making a run for it

September 9th, 2010

Making a run for it from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

Ken describes his plan, despite continuing gale force winds, to run for the Turpan


Abrupt halt

September 4th, 2010

Abrupt halt from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

Forced by gale force winds to pull up abruptly for the day, Ken describes the experience, and the dubious flea pit he’s forced to spend the night in

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