Category Archives: writing lifestyle

China’s New 72-Hour Transit Visa: I Did It, And Yes, It Works

For ten months now, I’ve lived a one-hour subway ride from Mainland China but have never been there.

It’s more logistics than anything – as an American, applying for the visa is a pain and it’s relatively expensive for a double entry. While I plan to spring for it next year, this year it just wasn’t in the cards.

But wouldn’t it be great to get a couple days in Shanghai or Beijing without all that hassle?  See the Wall, the Forbidden City or Asia’s tech hub?

Well good news, impatient or poorly-prepared U.S. citizen: you can! In 2013, the People’s Republic started a new program that allows onward travelers to stay 72 hours visa-free in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu and an ever-expending list of other cities. There’s no pre-registration, no visa, and best of all, no repeated trips to the Chinese consulate – you just book your ticket and go.

While I’d known about this program for awhile, no one I knew had used it yet, and whenever I brought it up among friends I frequently encountered skepticism that it could possibly be as easy as the ads described.  But when one of my friends visited Hong Kong and our plans for a Thailand side-trip fell apart due to high temperatures and an inconveniently-timed military coup, I suggested we book a flight to Beijing instead.

Having done it, here’s the good news: provided you read the requirements, it really is as easy as it’s described. While I’d recommend you look at the actual text or a good summary of the program, these are the basic requirements:

  • You Have to Be a Citizen of Certain Countries: But it’s a 51-country list that includes the U.S., U.K. and Canada, so if you’re reading this in English you’re probably golden. Still, check.
  • NO ROUND TRIPS: This is a transit visa, so you can’t fly round trip – i.e. no Hong Kong to Beijing and back to Hong Kong.  You can fly from Hong Kong to Beijing, stay 72 hours, and fly on to Singapore.  The neat trick here is that Hong Kong and Macau count as two different countries – but more on that later.  Note that you have to have an onward ticket already booked when you arrive in China.
  • You Must Arrive and Leave by Air On a Direct Flight and Can’t Leave the City: The visa is only available in airports, and you can’t travel to another city during that 72 hour period. Your flight can’t have a layover inside China either on the way there or back (a layover outside China is fine).
  • The 72 Hour Period Starts on Takeoff and Landing (Varies): This actually varies by airport, but in general your 72 hour period starts once you land/get issued your transit visa.  In my mind it’s better to just make sure your tickets fall within the 72 hour period to avoid ambiguity – so if you arrive in Shanghai at 10:00 AM on Thursday, your flight needs to leave before 10:00 AM on Sunday.  Check the requirements for your airport.
  • Tell Your Airline You’re Using the 72 Hour Visa: They’ll inform immigration that you’re coming. Apparently you don’t have to do this for Beijing, but we did at check-in anyway.  We did it verbally and didn’t have to fill anything out.
  • Once You Arrive, You Need to Register: If you’re staying at a hotel, you don’t need to worry about this step as the hotel staff will do it for you.  But if you’re staying with a friend, you have to register at a police station within 24 hours of arriving.

 

SO IS IT REALLY AS EASY AS IT SEEMS?

Yep, I’ve confirmed it: it’s certified easy.  Provided you follow the fairly minimal rules, it’s a no-hassle experience – in fact since the program isn’t well known yet, we got through the 72 hour visa line faster than people with standard visas. When you arrive at your destination, have your passport, itinerary and arrival card all filled out and ready to go.  The itinerary is to prove you have an onward ticket, and in our group we used both itineraries printed off email and those printed by the airline – neither caused a problem. The only issue is that since the program’s new, the immigration officer may need some walking through what you’re doing – ours didn’t speak great English, so be prepared to smile a lot and point at the relevant parts of your itinerary. Our guy rang his superior to ask a question, but let us through after that. The whole process probably took 90 seconds per person.

 

HOW TO FLY “ROUND TRIP” WITH THE HONG KONG-MACAU STRATEGY

The biggest sticking point for most people is that you can’t use the 72 hour visa on a round trip, meaning you need to chain your China visit with a longer travel itinerary or eat the cost associated with a triangular flight path. But there’s a way around that if you’re living in or visiting Hong Kong or Macau. Both Hong Kong and Macau are Special Administrative Regions of China, but they have independent legal systems and different immigration requirements. That means for the purposes of this program, they’re considered separate countries – which is great, because they’re also 45 minutes apart and connected by a cheap ferry. So when our guests visited, we worked it like this: we caught a flight from Hong Kong to Beijing, stayed 72 hours, boarded a flight from Beijing to Macau, and once we arrived in Macau partied until we lost energy and took a US$21 ferry ride home to Hong Kong. Since Macau’s entry requirements feature a free visa-on-arrival for U.S. citizens, you can basically just show up without any notice.  And who doesn’t want to see the Las Vegas of Asia?

 

OKAY, BUT IS 72 HOURS LONG ENOUGH TO SEE BEIJING?

It depends.  If you’re trying to embed yourself in the culture and get a thorough appreciation for what China means then no.  But if you want to see the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Temple of Heaven, and buy live scorpion-on-a-stick at Donghuamen Night Market, then it’s totally adequate. But remember that it is a condensed schedule, so book a hotel near the things you most want to see.  Transit represents wasted time, but it can also can drain your energy if it’s around rush hour and you can’t afford to tire out on a packed itinerary.  Thankfully Beijing has an efficient and cheap subway system with stops near popular tourist sites. It’s preferable to cabs, since drivers will quote you a price that’s three to four times what a trip should cost. Best of luck travelers!  And if you’re going to sling ink while you’re there, remember to pack your writer’s travel kit.


Confession: I Write With My Pants On

“I’m a writer because I can go to work with no pants.”

Ha! No pants. Pantsless. Sans pantalon.

Cue laugh track. Classic.

We’ve all heard this one. The joke’s been around for ages but has gained popular cachet in the age of bloggers, tekkies and work-from-home culture. What used to strike us as figurative truth (that writers pick their own uniform) has taken a hairpin turn into literality: In all likelihood that co-worker you’re emailing or chatting with is, most probably, in their boxers right now.

The gag’s especially caught on with the new generation of tech-connected writers – the wordsmiths-cum-webmasters – who fuse the worlds of tech and fiction. Chuck Wendig’s the most notable when it comes to outright revelry about pants-burning, though I’ve heard it from others. Women writers tend to substitute the more modest “please don’t think about me in my underwear” term pajamas, but the joke functions the same way – being a writer means not having to dress for the job. Being your own boss. Asserting your independence.

But here’s the thing: I always wear pants while writing, and you might want to consider it too.

For hygiene’s sake at least. Especially if you have a cloth chair. I mean, c’mon, even nudist colonies ask you to put down a towel. Jesus, this place smells like a hippo enclosure.

But the main reason I wear pants – apart from minimizing my Scotch Guard budget – is that getting dressed reminds me I’m here, at my desk, to work.

Next week marks my first anniversary writing full-time. It’s been an astonishing experience, but like any new endeavor, the first year has been as much about learning as it was about marking accomplishments. And one of the biggest things I learned was that I very badly need a separation between my work life and my home life. You hear this all the time from writers who talk about writing space and designing your environment, but in my experience personal grooming plays a big part in that.

Maybe it’s because I started my working life at decidedly white-collar law firms and research companies. Maybe it’s because I come from a buttoned-up family. Whatever the case, I can’t just roll out of bed and hit the keyboard. If I do, my writing comes out unfocused and inattentive. Slouching in a rumpled T-shirt and pajama bottoms tells my brain, “weekend” even when it’s Tuesday and I’ve got a deadline.

But throw me in a shower, scrape me with a razor, and put me in a nice clean shirt and pants? I’m golden. That mental switch flips. I’m at work, it says, Time to write some words.

It’s a ritual, and we all do it. Some workers brew that first mug of coffee. Others listen to psych-up music on their commute. I’ve need to put on work clothes. Sure, sometimes they’re the most lax work clothes on the planet, but even if it’s a T-shirt and shorts they’re at least clean and new. It’s the act of putting them on that works magic, not the clothes themselves. The ritual’s the thing – I can’t just wake up and type words in the same way the Catholic Church can’t just pass out crackers and wine. The act loses its meaning when you don’t remember why you’re doing it.

This ain’t grape juice, it’s the Blood of Christ. This ain’t wacky-slacky-watch-latest-Moviebob-time, it’s work time.

When you embrace them, clothes can be a powerful tool in your writing life. I used to wear a big felt Stetson when I had a hard time focusing. I called it The Writing Hat. The rule was that if the hat was on, I had to be writing. No checking Facebook. No outlining. I was only allowed to put words on the screen. I’ve also used wardrobe changes as a re-focusing technique. Oh, you can’t seem to buckle down on that article this morning, eh? Out of the Tees and jorts, buddy, into the khakis and button-down. It’s grindstone time.

The truth is that clothes serve a psychological purpose. While they marginally control how others see us, they also regulate our self-image and mental state. Soldiers don uniforms to leave the civilian world and adopt military values. Brides wear dresses to help them feel more beautiful than they ever have before. Vestments remind priests that they represent a higher power. We all do it, in our own way, when we get dressed up for a night out. Sure, we want to look good, but it’s more important that we feel good.

Which is why I’m a pants-on writer. I may be an office of one, but yeah, I have a dress code. It glitches my brain into work mode, which is exactly what dress codes are supposed to do.

Will it work for you the same way? No idea. Maybe you’re more productive when you’re über-comfortable in your boxers. For me, comfort’s a progress-killer. An external spur keeps me on track.

Because being your own boss also means being your own employee – and seriously, you gotta watch that guy, because he will slack right the hell off if you give him the chance. Let him come to work sans pantalon and soon he’ll be taking two-hour lunch breaks and spend his afternoon looking at Tumblr photos of cats caught in venetian blinds.

And no one likes to be that boss, but sometimes you have to be. Sometimes you need to drop by and say: Seriously buddy, go home and put on some pants. Come back when you’re ready to work.

Next time, it’s a write-up.


Cooking For Writers

So here I am, stuffing a bunch of jarred spaghetti sauce mixed with angel hair pasta into my maw, and I begin thinking: what exactly is the best food for writers?

This question has become more apparent for me now that I’m writing full-time, since I now have to interrupt my writing every day to fuel the petty bio-needs of lunchtime.  These regular interruptions have given me a lot of trial-and-error of what works and what doesn’t, and here’s what I’ve learned:

It Either Needs to Cook Fast, or Really Slow

Hard boiled eggs.  Toast and jam.  Salads.  Sandwiches.  Anything you can make in under ten minutes is great writer food.  These dishes minimize the amount of time you spend cooking, which can be important if, like many writers, you’ve got the attention span of a teething puppy.  Alternately, they also allow you to get going straight out of bed in the morning, which is crucial for upping your word count.

But there’s a lot to be said for slow cooking, too.  I’d have never survived writing Critical Intel while carrying a day job if it weren’t for my crock pot.  Crock pots are the perfect thing for a writer – it’s almost impossible to overcook anything, which is important since we have a tendency to wander off and become absorbed with the bot boiling or a pizza in the oven.  I ruined a lot of pots and set off many smoke alarms before figuring this out.  With crock pots you just chop up the meat and vegetables, crank it up and let them sit for a few hours while you work.

Soup Is The Devil

Don’t eat soup while working.  It requires two eyes and both hands.  Gets all over your manuscript pages.  Makes it almost impossible to read when you’re trying not to spill it.  I know it’s tempting to eat so-cheap-and-actually-quite-good soup at your desk, but unless you’re taking an actual break from writing for lunch it’s not worth it.  Go for something one-handed you can eat absent-mindedly like a sandwich, a salad or even stew.

Nutrition: Kind of Pretty Important, Actually

What you put in your body matters, full stop.  Nasty, fatty food makes you feel nasty and fatty, and it makes your brain run slow.  Don’t exist  on pork rinds and mac n’ cheese unless you want what comes out of your brain to grease up the page.  Hit the vegetables and lean meats.  Change up your cooking patterns.  I learned to stir fry recently, and I’ve been eating a lot more vegetables due to that revelation.  If you don’t like vegetables, try spritzing them with a squeeze bottle of lemon juice.  Anything to avoid too many carbs or fats that’ll make your mental clock tick slow.

Vary Your Routine

If I eat the same thing too many days in a row, I start getting restless and thinking Maybe I’ll just nip out for lunch, hit a restaurant, get some ramen.  That always seems like a good idea – hey, take the computer! get some work done at a coffee shop! – but often it means I waste time in transit, linger too long at the restaurant or get caught up in an added-on errand.  I avoid this by cultivating a decent culinary repertoire – not only having the ability to make something different when I feel like it, but making sure I have ingredients on hand that can make a variety of different dishes.  Today’s stir fry is tomorrow’s soup.

Cook In Advance

Cooking great cauldrons of food and eating them down all week can be a really good idea.  My wife and I are fans.  We’ll make chili or soup on the weekend and eat it one meal a day until it’s gone.  Chicken soup is a my personal favorite, since you can get one of those rotisserie chickens from the store, eat it for dinner, then throw whatever’s left in the pot.  BAM.  One meal becomes three or four – great for the budget-conscious scribe.  Plus, pour it over some steamed rice and it’s chunky enough to eat while working.

Anyone else have good suggestions for writer food?  Recipes?  Kitchen gear you can’t live without?  Let me know.