It's not my choice to go to South Korea today. I would rather go to Japan.
I actually have a ticket to Japan (Fukuoka), leaving at about the same time as my Seoul flight. But if I try to board the Fukuoka flight, I will run afoul of the Chinese authorities. I have been warned not to even think of doing that.
Besides, my boarding pass was stamped by an immigration official after she looked me up in the records. I didn't think she would stamp two boarding passes.
A Few Days Earlier
|Live map on my personal screen from Tokyo to Shanghai. We flew right over Fukuoka.|
I was being denied entry to China.
I had been planning to take advantage of a policy that lets people who are in transit to enter the Shanghai area for up to 144 hours without a visa. As long as I stayed in Shanghai, and left the country within 6 days, I was welcome to spend my money in China... or so I thought.
I had a ticket to take me back out of China to Fukuoka, southern Japan. As far as the official was concerned I had come from Japan and was planning to return to Japan. That does not fit the Chinese authorities' definition of "transit." I cannot return to Japan, I must have a ticket to a third country.
Stuck Airside at Pudong Airport
I had visions of being stuck airside for months like the Tom Hanks character in the movie, The Terminal. That movie was based on a true story, and I might be a candidate for the sequel.
I was led to a quiet area of the immigration hall to review the situation. At various times I sat with between one and four people: two immigration officials and two local Delta Airlines ground staff. They were all Chinese, but with a bit of effort we communicated quite well in English. They were in no hurry, they seemed relaxed.
I was surprised I did not feel anxious. The situation was pedantic, the young officials were kind but firm, and I knew I could buy my way out of this.
I believed I had come from the USA, not Japan. I did not fill out a Japanese landing card, I did not go through Japanese immigration, and my passport was not stamped in Japan. Between flights, I had remained airside at Tokyo Narita.
I tried to reason with them on all these points, but all I got were apologies because that is the way it is.
They asked to see my full itinerary, which I showed them on my phone. They found the rather wiggly trip around the world to be strange.
During lulls in the dialog, when an official had gone off to consult with another official, I tried to log into Expedia to explore flights out of China. Unfortunately Expedia is blocked by the Great Firewall of China. I have unblocking software (VPN) but it's illegal to use it in this way in China. I didn't want to use it in front of my handlers.
Playing the Cancer Card
Then, I'm ashamed to admit, I played The Cancer Card. I told them I'd had surgery, then 39 days of radiation, and I expected to undergo chemotherapy when I returned to the USA. This was my last chance to travel, the chemo will knock me out. I had so wanted to see Shanghai on this journey. I would see friends and family in the UK, I said, implying this was to say "goodbye."
Could they find it in their hearts to seek a waiver?
I was being tacky and manipulative, I overstated the chemo bit. I may have to undergo chemotherapy, but it won't prevent my travels. Touch wood.
But this clearly tugged at their heartstrings. One of the immigration officials said he would go and talk with his supervisor. A few minutes later he returned and asked if I had a doctor's letter.
I resisted pulling my shirt up to display the surgical scars. Instead I logged on to my medical record, which mercifully was not blocked, and showed them the evidence. They tapped medical words into their phones to get translations. I helped by pointing at an area of my body it is normally impolite to highlight.
I thought I had talked my way in to getting a waiver to enter Shanghai with onward travel to Fukuoka. But no, I would be admitted if I bought a ticket to a third country. If I did that, they would bend the rules and I would be allowed into China.
Phone calls were made, a seat to Seoul was found. I was marched at high speed through Immigration to Departures to a counter where an agent swiped my credit card and gave me a sheet of paper with the e-ticket details.
The fare to Seoul was $340. Had I applied for a regular single entry visa back in the States, the visa would have cost $140 plus postage. I was less than $200 out of pocket.
Note added May 14, 2017:
While reviewing credit card statements after the trip, I realized I had not been billed for the flight to Seoul. I went online to the record for my flight and realized that I had been issued the ticket at no charge. The people at Shanghai's Pudong Airport were all kind and respectful. This was one extra kindness.
The airport code for Fukuoka, appropriately, is FUK.
Once I got into China, I bought a ticket to take me from Seoul to FUK so I could stick to my original plan. Later I changed my mind and canceled the ticket. I decided this was an opportunity to experience South Korea. I'll return to Japan some other time.
Just this past week I've been getting messages from two strangers who are separately in Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan, basing their hikes on my My Kagoshima blog posts. Not walking those Kagoshima trails this week makes me ache a little more for that place.
I took the picture at the top of this post surreptitiously at Pudong Airport because photography was not allowed. The resultant image was rather poor, so I ran it through the Prisma app to tart it up and deemphasize the defects.