Modest to the last, I like to consider myself something of a queen – or at the very least minor royal – of layovers, and after this week I feel I have truly earned that title. After a gradual build-up via more commonly-frequented layover destinations such as Dubai and KL we went for the ultimate Asian layover – Beijing.
China is a notoriously bureaucratic and authoritative nation. It has (amongst other sobering statistics) the highest use of the death penalty in the world, executing more people per year than all other countries combined. It’s not a country into whose bad books you’d wish to fall. It’s also the fourth largest country in the world by surface area and the largest by population. It does not, then, immediately spring to mind as somewhere you could pop into for a mini-break, and yet that is exactly what we did.
In an attempt to encourage more tourists to come to China, it’s now possible to enter the country without a visa for a set period of time, (known as Travel Without Visa – TWOV), but this is not as simple as it sounds. Some cities allow a period of up to 144 hours, but the maximum you can apply for depends on which country you’re from; some require that you stay within a very limited region, others allow you to travel farther afield. Rules are subject to change, and the exact way that this entry permit can be obtained seems shrouded in unnecessary mystery. Anyway, we navigated it successfully so that, subject to arbitrary changes, of course, you can do the same.
We were transiting through Beijing en route to Tokyo, and planned a layover on the way back. Our experience at Beijing Capital Airport on the way there did not fill us with confidence, and anxiety about having to spend our planned layover trapped in an underwhelming airport was at the back of our minds throughout the holiday. On the way there we had two hours for a connection that was reduced to one hour due to an Air China delay (this seems common – on the way back my husband and I were inexplicably seated one place apart from one another, with an exhausted and sweaty Northerner sat between us – he was supposed to be on a flight that left 18 hours before, but missed this due to his flight from Bangkok being delayed. On asking when the next flight was, he was apparently told that Air China didn’t fly to London and that he would need to go home via Dusseldorf, before being handed a ticket and directed to our flight to Heathrow). Beijing Capital is illogical to navigate at best – it’s a beautiful airport, with its newest terminal opened in time for the 2008 Olympics, but unfortunately it feels a bit as though someone has sent them a lovely flat-packed airport but forgotten to enclose the instructions. Nothing quite works, and many of the processes haven’t been thought through. To transfer flights we had to go all the way out along with all the people who were leaving the airport, then back around and through the world’s slowest security queue, where the staff were seemingly obsessed with whether or not you had any lighters in your hand luggage. It’s also the first place I’ve visited where you had to take batteries (including portable chargers) out of your bag and put the into the tray separately. You are then patted down with rather too much familiarity and a lot of inexplicable shouting. There are signs that say that if you have a short connection time, but when we urgently told them we had just 45 minutes to make our flight we were sent to the back of the queue with a smirk and told “you will miss flight.” We made flight with just 5 minutes to spare, and only then because it was delayed. Again.
So, coming back, we were not filled with confidence. But we were wrong. The TWOV system was actually easy, but could have done with a bit of explanation. So, here it is:
- When you arrive the first thing you will need to do is give your fingerprints. There are lots of little and very efficient machines to do this, and they will give instructions in English if you choose that option. You’ll get a tiny little receipt confirming you did it – hang onto this!
- Next you’ll see some yellow immigration forms. We diligently filled these out, only to find that, in this form-loving country, there is actually a different, blue form that you need to complete if you want to apply for the TWOV. These are nowhere to be seen. We went to the TWOV desk but it was empty. Don’t worry – there is another one, but it involves doubling back on yourself once you are into the immigration part of the hall and going what feels like the wrong way through some desks whose purpose remains unclear. Tucked away in a corner is another TWOV desk, complete with the elusive blue forms and a lot of staff fulfilling the role of Standing Around Looking Important.
- Complete the blue form and join the queue of confused foreigners trying to obtain a TWOV from the one person behind the desk whose job is to Not Look Very Important At All But To Do The Actual Work. You should have with you evidence of a hotel booking (they are very suspicious if you say you’re staying with friends or family) and, most importantly, your onward ticket (i.e. a flight out of Beijing to somewhere else.)
- A few words of Chinese are helpful, especially Xièxiè (thank you).
- When you come back, make sure you have with you the other half of your blue form. Once again, there will be yellow forms for exiting the country and people will tell you that you must fill one of these out. You don’t need to – the blue form is your equivalent of this.
Beijing Capital looks nice, but it’s something of a facade. Unfortunately, it probably is worth coming back earlier than you think you’ll need to due to the chaos and general unpredictability of the security arrangements (the immigration, to our surprise, was the easy bit). We found the international departures area to be fairly calming, as it was vast and almost entirely devoid of people. Unfortunately it was also devoid of anything to do, with rows or vacant shops with optimistic signs assuring you that a new store would be there soon. We were doubtful if this was true. It’s good if you want to buy international luxury brands or, bizarrely, go to Pizza Hut, but if you want to buy tacky souvenirs (usually the highlight of my airport experience) it’s best to do it in the city. But, in summary, the TWOV process, as long as it stays in place, is impressive, and, hopefully, the more people who use it the less likely we are to lose it.