Since going on a 'once in a lifetime' tour of SE Asia for my 60th birthday and, just over a year later, a smaller trip through Myanmar it seemed like I'd picked up a taste for more adventurous destinations in my advancing years. With my work situation stabilising and my bank balance picking up I decided that another exotic holiday was a viable prospect and began leafing through brochures & online travel sites. The 'small group with local guide' format had suited me well and the company I'd used before (Exodus Travels) had the right mix of comfort & adventure so I started with their selection.
All ready to go in the case
But where to go? After two trips to Indochina it felt like I should be looking elsewhere but somehow nothing felt quite right. Too expensive, too conventional, too touristy (yes, I appreciated the irony), too much driving, too many cities, too long - there was always something that didn't sit right with me. Eventually I found a couple of possibilites but neither felt compelling. Thinking back about recommendations from fellow travellers (another perk of the small group format) several people had suggested China but warned that the cities were big, modern & crowded and that the popular sites (Great Wall, Forbidden City, etc.) were packed with tourist groups, something I'd seen at Ankor Wat. Going back to the Exodus brochure I found a trip to Yunnan Province in the far south of China, visiting more remote & more obscure parts of the country. An extra attraction was that by going in early March (a time that suited me nicely) I could include a side trip to a Fire Sacrifice Festival which only happened once a year. When I saw that it bordered Vietnam, Laos & Myanmar, places I'd really enjoyed on previous trips, my mind was made up and I booked myself a place.
Success! My Chinese visa.
Visiting China requires a visa and, unluckily for me, you now needed to have your fingerprints taken as part of the process, which ruled out applying remotely. There was an online application form that had to be completed before you could make an appointment at the visa centre and although this wasn't too difficult to fill in there were several sections where the details of the tour didn't fit cleanly with the questions. For example, we were visiting eight places but there was only space for five destinations and no indication of how 'more than five' could be indicated, a bit of a concern as there were serious warnings about supplying wrong or incomplete information. On top of which you needed to upload a picture with a white background and even taking a selfie with flash in front of a white wall wasn't enough to satisfy it (eventually I found a website that would process your image into one that would be acceptable, which surprisingly worked). Exodus were unexpectedly unhelpful with the process, mostly advising me to use their recommended visa application service with it's £50 charge which seemed excessive as I'd have to visit the visa centre myself anyway. Eventually I found enough information online to complete the form and made an appointment to apply in person.
The procedure at the visa centre in London was, by contrast, pleasantly straightforward. An initial check at the reception desk made sure you had all the required forms & information with you, then there was a short wait before being called to a counter where someone scanned through your application, asked a few confirmatory questions, then sent you on to pay the fees (which came to an eye-watering £180, more than I'd ever paid for a visa before). A few days later my passport dropped through the letterbox with the colourful visa printed inside.
After my previous visits to the area I'd amassed suitable clothing, protective gear, sprays and potions and had a pretty good idea of how much to bring with me. When packed my check-in case was light enough to easily carry (we'd been warned that we'd be hauling our own luggage at times) and had space for holiday purchases to be added - I was determined to bring home more keepsakes & gifts this time around. The early evening flight departure meant an easy daytime train trip to Heathrow and before I knew it I was on my way.
(Most of the pictures can be expanded by clicking on them.)