Travel in the Time of Trump: How to Build Two Thousand Years of Hate

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A Google Maps guide demarcating the line of the Great Wall across China. The white far above it is the Chinese-Mongolian border. Source here.

When you travel through hostels so often, you go through the same conversation with different people over and over. The questions follow an unwritten script, with little variation: Where did you come from? Where are you going? What have you seen? Where are you from? You ask and answer these same questions every day, getting to know the flow of people through your room, trying to understand who they are and how they see the world.

Last night’s companions were a trio of Mongolian women here on holiday and one stayed in last night, where we played through the unwritten script with her, asking and answering. She was here with her small governmental department on vacation; the whole group decided to head up here to Ulan-Ude and Lake Baikal for the Mongolian national holiday of Naadam. She asked about our travels and we told her about the world trip, although she was sad to hear we had passed over Mongolia. I explained it was because of flight prices (it was actually cheaper to fly to Ulan-Ude than Ulan Bator), but that Mongolia is on the list of dream destinations. We spent the next hour talking about Mongolia, the woman telling us about the vast open plains, the vivid nature, the nomadic people, and the delicious food.

At some point the question of my identity came up, and I explained that my father is Chinese and I am half Chinese. The woman was a bit taken aback, but she exclaimed, “Yes, I can see it. You don’t look quite European! You would fit in here with the Buriyati or even in Mongolia.” I laughed and told her, “I know. I look like a local girl almost everywhere.”

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A bronze statue in Ulan-Ude representing the nomadic Buryati tribes. The Qin Dynasty built the Great Wall ostensibly to keep similar Mongolian tribes from invading China.

In the morning, the Mongolian women rushed to pack and leave the hostel for Baikal. As she was leaving, the woman we talked to last night bade us farewell and excitedly hoped we would come to Mongolia one day. Her eyes twinkled and she had a warm open smile. “But please…” she exclaimed, “maybe don’t say anything about being part Chinese! Because in Mongolia, we don’t like the Chinese people. When people insult each other, we say that a person is a son of Chinese.”

Her imminent departure made her speed rushed, but also deeply honest. “I have nothing against you. But I want you to be safe. And you see how the Chinese treated us. They built a giant wall at our border to keep us out. And now where is the wall? Very far in Chinese territory, no? Because they have taken so much from us, we hate them.” She paused, but was still smiling. It seems the contempt for Chinese people did not translate to contempt for Chinese (or half-Chinese) persons like me.

Then she was gone and I was left to parse the feelings of the interaction. My enthusiasm for visiting Mongolia wasn’t dampened, but her words about the Great Wall rattled around in my head for a while. For most people, the Great Wall is an archaeological and architectural marvel, amazing if only for length alone. To find out that it was a symbol of hate for Mongolians was surprising, although in retrospect not all that weird. If your neighbor builds a big, unfriendly wall bristling with weapons pointed at you, you certainly aren’t going to view it dispassionately; you’re going to think they’re a dick and you’re going to hate that neighbor. So the wall, maybe at first borne out of mutual hatred, becomes a symbol of that hatred.

The China-Mongolia-Great Wall story might be a well-timed allegory for us in the United States. Trump wants to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, which he argues will solve problems for the U.S., such as immigration and violent crime. But let’s set that aside and remember that this point in time is only a moment in Mexico-U.S. relations. If we do build a wall, even if it is successful, what is the cost of that success? Like the cross in Christianity or the American Flag, a wall would become a symbol of our country and a message to our neighbors. It might be a long-lasting, dark stain on our relationships. So no, I can’t tell you that the wall wouldn’t solve some of the immigration problems. But I think that it would be good to remember that the last huge wall built created two thousand years of hate.

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The bronze statue’s twin, a Slavic-looking man on a horse that represents the European settlers in Buryatia, looks out to the horizon.

Tokyo ->Shanghai->Beijing->Ulan Ude

Today we’ll be doing a marathon of traveling, from Tokyo to Shanghai and then Beijing, with an overnight layover and a flight the next morning to Ulan-Ude in Siberia, Russia. It’s going to be a rough trip. But on the bright side, this flight itinerary wouldn’t even be possible fifty years ago.

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We wait for our next flight at Shanghai’s Pudong Airport.

We board a China Eastern Airlines plane at Narita Airport and make our first stop in Shanghai. Technically, we’re still on the same ‘flight’ on to Beijing, but we’re all forced off the plane to go through customs because we’re coming from another country. The airline slaps bright blue stickers on us as we leave. The stickers have a string of numbers and letters codifying our flight written on them, followed by “Beijing” in both Chinese and English. I turn around and whisper to Stoytcho: “This is so we don’t get lost.” We weave through long lines at immigrations, then pick up our luggage and head to a customs that fifty years ago would not have been, with China just emerging from the throes of the Cultural Revolution.

After customs and immigration, we’re shepherded to our next gate and onto our flight by way of buses around the airport and across the tarmac. They’re crowded affairs, crammed Chinese and foreigners of all ages. A few are older Chinese ladies, who fifty years ago probably never guessed they would board a plane.

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Looking out the window of our plane at the airport.

One flight later we’re in Beijing for our overnight stay, where we try to find food and a place to sleep for the night. After deeming the airport hotel too expensive, we hunt around for a quiet stretch to lie down. We want to get as much sleep as we can to be prepared for tomorrow’s flight to Ulan-Ude. We’re not sure how Russia is going to be, so we want to be awake and have our wits about us. But it can’t be that bad. Fifty years ago, with Leonid Brezhnev leading the Soviet Union, we almost certainly wouldn’t be welcome.

We bed down on a line of chairs with no armrests, curling up and preparing for sleep. In the row of chairs on the other side, two guys are doing the same. One offers us a cookie and we whittle the time away with talk. The two are brothers from Iran, doing something with oil technology. They’re returning home. Because it’s my dream to one day visit Iran, I ask what the country is like and where we should go. They tell me about the ancient cities and rugged mountains and thick jungle. They ask about the United States, and what it’s like there, and I tell them about the gleaming cities and rugged mountain and towering redwood forests. We swap emails. “You should come visit us!” one of the guys tells us, and I shrug and reply, “Maybe one day. It’s almost impossible for us to visit Iran.” Without thinking I add “You should come visit us, though!” The guys laugh, “It’s impossible for to visit the U.S.” Oh right, of course.

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Our bed for the night at Beijing’s Capital International Airport, where travelers from around the world can meet and converse.

Today, I can’t visit the country of these two guys that I’m conversing with at an airport. But fifty years ago, the Shah ruled Iran and U.S. citizens could visit Iran mostly unfettered. Fifty years ago, the Cold War was at its height and both Russia and China were off-limits. Fifty years ago, no one had ever landed on the moon. Now, we’re suddenly in possession of unimaginable technologies and we’re bedding down at an airport in China and tomorrow we fly to Russia. And as I stare down at their email address written on my phone, I think about how we now send emails from devices containing more computing power than even the most powerful computers fifty years ago. Who knows what changes another fifty years will bring?

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An air traffic employee on the tarmac at Pudong Airport, which didn’t exist fifty years ago.

Travel Update: Chinese Visa Issues

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This is a brief message from the present, where we are currently holed up in Hong Kong at the infamous Chungking Mansions in Tsim Sha Tsui. We came to Hong Kong originally to get visas to mainland China, but after corresponding with a local visa agency, we ran into a problem: we can’t get the visa we want with what we currently have.

Here were our options:

  1. A standard tourist visa, good for at least 30 days and single, double, or multi-entry. Requirements: application, passport photos, copies or proof of ant previous Chinese visas, current passport, and old passport if your current passport was issued in 2015 or later. 
  2. A “group” tourist visa, good only for 30 days and single entry, but we must enter within 15 days of receiving the visa. Requirements: application, passport photos, and current passport.

This left us in a bit of a pickle because we didn’t bring our old passports along for our trip, so option 1 was a no-go. But if we chose option 2, we were committing ourselves to entering China within 15 days, which would make our trip to Japan less than 2 weeks. It was also risky to be on such a tight schedule. Flight delays could result in us arriving after 15 days had passed, invalidating our visa and throwing off our travel plans.

So we opted not to get the visa to mainland China, and we’ll instead hop over to Taiwan for a week or two. I’ll get to practice Mandarin a bit, which is better than not at all (although I will be an illiterate peasant, thanks to my education in simplified characters). From there we will head on to Japan, then fly to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia to start the trans-Siberian railway mid-June. It’s a shame we can’t take it from Beijing all the way to Moscow, but I think Ulaanbaatar to Moscow will be plenty of railway for us.

For people looking to get a visa here in Hong Kong to mainland China, here are some details that are current as of May 2017:

  • We have U.S. passports, although from talking with others it sounds like many of the things mentioned in this post apply to all passports that require a visa.
  • We worked with Forever Bright. They were professional and honest throughout the process. Though we ultimately couldn’t get a visa and made no payment to them, they were still willing to help us.
  • If you want a tourist visa and your passport was issued in 2015 or later, you will need to bring your old passport for the visa application process. Forever Bright suggested a copy would work, but I’m not sure if that’s just a copy of the first page or all of the pages of the passport.
  • If you have visited Turkey, it will be an issue and you may not be able to get a visa in Hong Kong, so contact a visa company in advance to find out more. This problem is due to the somewhat strained Chinese-Turkish relations.
  • If you come here to Hong Kong hoping to get a visa to mainland China and failed, you can always drown your sorrows in amazing food. Go out for dim sum at Tim Ho Wan (formerly the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world) or Dim Dim Sum, then relax and repeat.