Part 1: In Which We Lose All Our Money and Survive Entirely on Mama Noodles
Just over a year ago, the bear and I embarked on a long, perilous, chaotic journey across Thailand, China, Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Turkey.
I wasn’t able to blog about it at the time, partly because I was busy posing as a hapless tourist rather than an equally hapless journalist in front of the authorities, and partly because we spent a fair bit of time either in remote gers (yurts) or trapped on endless bus journeys across the desert, stopping only so the driver could proudly take a dump next to the window in the snow.
But now that the story we went out there to write is published – and more importantly, I’m now at a comfortable distance from the Chinese secret police – It’s probably safe to divulge the sheer absurdity that shaped much of this trip.
The purpose of the adventure was to research a story about a persecuted Turkic minority in China and the convoluted chain of events that connected years of crackdowns by Beijing to a horrific gun attack in Istanbul on New Year’s Day 2016 – a plan that finally came to fruition in June, when our piece was published in Quartz.
The *Original* Plan
Well, actually, that wasn’t the original plan. The original plan was impulsively mapped out nine months before that, over Frontline cocktails on the balcony of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Phnom Penh, when the bear (at that time my BFF rather than the all-purpose life, love and work partner to which he has since been upgraded) was about to LEAVE CAMBODIA FOREVER, and I was musing aloud about an idea for a documentary I wanted to make.
The documentary idea was pretty straightforward: I wanted to look into the story behind the Bangkok bombings earlier that year.
The entire Thai investigation had been bizarre; at one point, a government PSA claimed to show a photos of a ton weapons seized from the apartment of a suspect, but a simple reverse image search showed that some of the pictures had been nicked off an American customs website (the Thai government then issued a ban on mentioning this, or re-broadcasting the original PSA with the faked images, which is definitely totally above board behaviour that shouldn’t raise any eyebrows at all).
Meanwhile, the suspect (“yellow shirt man” as he was generally referred to in news coverage) was variously described as being Turkish or Chinese Uyghur; the Uyghurs are a Muslim minority in Western China that’s ethnically Turkic, and whose then-country (East Turkestan) was taken over by Mao’s army back in 1949. But the Thai government couldn’t seem to decide whether this was Islamic terrorism, or retaliation by Uyghurs because they’d just sent back a bunch of refugees who were fleeing for Turkey, or – as they decided in the end – a revenge attack by human traffickers who were making money smuggling Uyghurs into the country.
The story seemed to change every time the Thais realised that their previous explanation might impact tourism or bring attention to their human rights record, and the version they settled on seemed both far-fetched and a tiny bit too convenient to be true.
Anyway, I digress. The point is, I wanted to do a documentary on this, and in the space of about 25 excitable minutes, I somehow convinced the Bear (who for context, was at that stage working in human rights law at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal and had never picked up a camera), that he should come back later that year and we would make it together.
Which he did.
The NEW Plan
Only, by the time we embarked on our journey, two things had happened. Well… three:
- The eight month aftermath of a traumatic breakup had left me totally broke and realistically unable to invest in much-needed new kit;
- Our research into the Uyghurs was making it clear the bigger story was in China and Central Asia;
- We’d been invited on a trip to Mongolia, which borders the Chinese region of Xinjiang (which used to be East Turkestan)… and we really, really wanted an excuse to go.
So we did what any reasonable people would do. We completely changed our plans, gave up my lovely flat, and bought two tickets to China.
It All Goes Wrong
For various reasons, we’d booked our flights to Beijing from Bangkok. The idea was that we’d spend a week in Bangkok researching the bombings, sort out our visas for China and Mongolia there, fly to Beijing to meet our friends, take the train with them to Ulaanbaatar, have two weeks’ trekking in Mongolia, then cross by ourselves back into Western China to research the bulk of our story.
Almost immediately, the situation began to go tits up.
It took forever to figure out where to go for our Chinese visas (clue: it’s not the embassy!) and when we found it, queued for hours and finally saw someone, we were told there were things missing from the two inch stack of paperwork we’d provided, and we’d have to come back the next day.
Never mind, we thought: we’d get our Mongolian visa in the meantime. It wasn’t until we had just handed over payment in the Mongolian embassy and they asked for our passports that we realised: crap! We can’t apply for both visas at the same time!
Luckily there aren’t scores of people waiting for Mongolian visas to be processed in Bangkok, and we calculated that by the time we’d got them back, we’d just about have time to get the Chinese ones, if we paid extra for the fast-track service. We wait a few days, get our Mongolian visas, and reapply, paying for the express service.
Two days later – and the day before our flight – we go to pick up our passports and are told that our visas have been rejected. No real explanation, just: they’ve been rejected, but if you apply again in a few days, you should be fine.
The way the China visa works is that you have to book all your travel and accommodation before you apply. The cheap(ish) flights we’d bought were non-changeable and non-refundable, and we couldn’t get hold of English-speaking staff anyway – so all the money was lost.
After much agonising over our much-depleted meagre budget, we decided to take the risk. This time we booked with AirAsia (which had let me change flights before without too great a penalty) just in case.
Two days later: rejected again.
Now we’re really panicking. I start calling round anyone that might have any answers and am eventually told by the Chinese embassy in London that China has temporarily suspended ALL VISAS from being issued outside the person’s country until the end of the G7 Conference, which has just begun. We had missed the boat by couple of hours when we first applied.
Screw You, AirAsia
We call AirAsia and try to push back or cancel our flights, but are told that it’s less than 48 hours until departure, so we have to pay a small fortune to do this. Hours of arguing achieves nothing.
By this stage, sunk cost fallacy has well and truly kicked in and we can’t face giving up, so we pay the fee and push the flight back by another week or so.
That leaves us, though, with a budget of about £9 ($12) per day between us – at least until an invoice I’m waiting for clears. There’s no way we can survive in Bangkok on that, so we bus down to Trat, where I have friends, and then ferry across to an island called Ko Chang, where I know a place we can share a room on the beach for about £6 a night, leaving our shared £3 a day for street food and 7-11 Mama Noodles.
Inexplicably, instead of killing each other, we discover that we’re now a couple.
Part 2 coming soon…