Dead End


This blog entry about the events of Wednesday, July 14, 2004 was originally posted on July 21, 2004.

DAY 270:  Up by seven, out the door by 7:40.  Another “working day” for me in Paris had begun, this time at the Chinese consulate in a nearby suburban area of Paris.  It was the last part of the puzzle in planning my Trans-Siberian/Trans-Mongolian Railway trip from Moscow to Beijing.

I arrived at the consulate by eight o’clock and there were tons of people on line already.  Some people had gotten there as early as six, and some of them were travel agents with groups of passports to process, meaning there were way more than just thirty people ahead of me already.  I got all this information without much effort from Xiaowen, a young-looking Chinese girl from Hong Kong living and studying for her MBA in Toronto, Canada, on vacation for a couple of weeks to visit her friend in Paris.  Being Chinese she didn’t need a visa herself, but was on line killing time for her friend’s visa, who was at work.  Xiaowen seemed to have a bit too much sugar that morning or something because she was as restless as a toddler strapped in a car seat with a lollipop just out of reach. 

“Watch my place on the line?  I want to go look in that store.”  “Hold my place?  I want to see what time the guys in front got here.”  “Watch my space?  I want to see if we’re on the right line” (when the line split into three when they opened the gates at 9:30).  “Wait here?  I want to count how many people are in front of us.  I calculate if each person takes five minutes, we will be at the window before noon.”  And so forth.  Each time she asked me to hold her place in line she scuttled off, ducking down underneath the shoulders and arms of people filling out their visa applications.  When she wasn’t doing that she was back in her spot in the line trying to do the cha-cha in the limited space available.  Her vivacious too-early-in-the-morning energy entertained me and this French teenager guy near us until I was near the visa window myself, after having waited three hours.

“Can you help me at the window?” I asked Xiaowen.  My French wasn’t up to par for an in-depth conversation with an immigration officer and I figured a Chinese translator would come in handy.  She happily accepted the task. 

“I CAN GIVE YOU THE VISA after you give me a carte de séjour of three months,” the Chinese female officer said from behind the glass in English and French.  I was unclear about that “séjour” thing so Xiaowen helped out using her native tongue.  She found out for me that I needed a residency permit of three months in France — Chinese policy for tourist visas is that one must apply for a visa into China in his/her home country (i.e. country of official residence).  The officer suggested I just go to a police station and apply for the form and come back.

“They won’t give it to me,” I told Xiaowen as we walked out of the consulate.  “I haven’t been here three months.  It’s only been three days.”

“I think she said that you apply to ask to be here for three months, but you don’t have to stay that long,” she said, leaving me to go shopping. 

I went over to the national police office nearby and requested the residence permit.  The officer just told me to get lost.

DEAD END.  Although I already had all my trains and visas through Russia all set, and a train reservation from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia to Beijing, China, the Chinese government wouldn’t let me in.  The Forbidden City really was the forbidden city!  In a frenzy I sent out e-mails to a bunch of Ulaanbaatar-based travel agents listed in my book, asking if a visa could be acquired there — I also asked my Siberian travel agent in Boston.  With the e-mails going to inconvenient time zones, I had nothing to do but wait.  In the meantime, I prepared for a contingency plan:  to do the ballsy and risky thing of FedExing my passport back to the States to have my Chinese visa processed there.

“ARRETE.  C’EST ICI L’EMPIRE DE LA MORT,” (“Stop.  This here is the Empire of the Dead,”) read the sign above the doorway I was about to enter.  No, I wasn’t at an attraction at the Disneyland Paris outside of town; I was 65 feet underground in the tunnels of Paris’ catacombs, a former quarry-turned-mass grave, a place for the bodies of the long departed to Rest In Peace after the cemeteries were overcrowded in 18th century.  I figured in light of the dead end of my attempts to get a Chinese visa in France, I’d walk amongst the dead themselves.  (It was a real stretch for a pun, I know.)

“Oh cool!  Look!” said a young American anthropology student to her aunt(?) when we passed through the door of the dead.  She was looking at two skulls in the corner revealed from the darkness by a hallway light (picture above).

“Don’t worry, there’s plenty more where that came from,” I said.  Down the hall were hundreds of thousands of bones and skulls, all piled up in an orderly fashion.  The tunnels of the dead went on for a little over a mile, leading me and several others through damp, dimly lit passageways, the same passageways once used as an underground bunker for the Resistance in WWII. 

AFTER WANDERING THE IMPRESSIVE LOWER CHAPEL of the Cathedral of Saint Chapelle and its even more impressive upper chapel, with its tall stained glass windows and statues of saints, I did quick walk-throughs passed the Palais de Congrès, Napoleon III’s famous Opéra house and the Bloomingdale’s of Paris, the Galleries Lafayette.  Then I did my responsibility as a Spiderman fan and saw the movie sequel at the big Les Halles cineplex in the center of town — with great power comes great responsibility (to see it) — which was in English with French subtitles (although Parisians asked for tickets in a French accent:  “Deux pour [Speed-dehr-mahn].”)  Superhero Spiderman web slung his way around New York City, my birthplace in my home country.  Sure wish Spider-man could swing me over that Chinese visa, I thought.

After watching the ups and downs of the life of a superhero on film, I became a sort of hero myself when I got back to my room in the Latin Quarter and met Ben, an American college student from Georgia who absolutely looked up to me and raved when I told him that I wasn’t just traveling through France, or Europe, but the entire world.  We were joined by another American dorm mate named Daniel, an interface designer from San Jose, CA (and fellow traveling iBook user) who spent most of his days in Paris just in the Louvre.  I entertained them with the stories of the ups and downs of a world traveler and told them about my dilemma of the People’s Republic of China and how I was possibly faced with being stranded in Mongolia.

THE NEXT MORNING, my “Spider-man” came in the form of an e-mail; a British agent in Ulaanbaatar said getting a visa into China from Mongolia could be done fairly easily in Ulaanbaatar, and that his company could handle the process for me when I got there.  The Dead End was lifted.  Just like in the catacombs of Paris sixty-five feet below the surface, there was a light at the end of the tunnel.

Next entry: To See The Bridge

Previous entry: What A Difference A Day Makes

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.

Comments for “Dead End”

  • FIRST, I love Charla.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/20  at  07:52 PM

  • Yippee!  First!

    Posted by Liz  on  07/20  at  07:53 PM

  • Ah man, markyt beat me ...  Yippee!  Second!!

    Posted by Liz  on  07/20  at  07:54 PM

  • LIZ - sorry…that was paul being a DICK….

    and to save face, I passionately dislike the charla/mirna team on AR5

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/20  at  07:58 PM

  • wow, the catacombs are awesome. i read about them a long time ago, always wanted to see them in person sometime. definitely a thing to do before i die. =)

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/20  at  08:14 PM

  • Metaphors are kickin’ bud. Yesterday’s pacing like a guy with diarreah waiting for a toilet, and now frantic kid in a car seat who cant reach his lolly. Nice.

    So glad you made it to Saint Chapelle. That place really amazes me. I mean I understand the theory behind flying butresses, but in that place you can really see how much they work—from the inside of the upper chapel there is nothing supportive—just glass and weight of the roof. [Did I mention I’m an amature art historian?]

    Also cool you went to the catacombs—very neat place. Did you get the creeps? The heebee-jeebees? The willies? Or did it confirm for you that cable TV has completely desensitized you?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/21  at  01:00 AM

  • All of this red tape! First the Russians, now the Chinese… They should make it easier. I mean, it’s not 1965 anymore!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/21  at  01:27 AM

  • TDOT - Yeah it’s 2004, so it should be even harder…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/21  at  01:29 AM

  • Xiaowen wasn’t high on sugar - that’s just how most Chinese behave, especially if it comes to standing in lines, you’ll see the frenzy once you get here…
    you’ll go MAAAAAADDDDD!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/21  at  03:59 AM

  • Wow.
    Your pics in this one are FANTASTIC! Thank yoU!! The Cathedral pics are WONDERFUL. And the Bloomie’s of Paris! And the bones (ew!)! And the Opera house - WOW! Thank you!
    Sorry about your waiting, but THANK YOU for the pics. Yes, I feel like a broken record, but I looked at this post and the pics with my jaw dropped!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/21  at  09:27 AM

  • CHRISTY:  Cable TV did it for me… actually perhaps it was Disney’s “The Black Cauldron” or “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/21  at  05:58 PM

  • i hate spamming advertisers.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/03  at  04:30 PM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

Praised and recommended by USA Today,, and readers of BootsnAll and Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree, The Global Trip blog was selected by the editors of PC Magazine for the "Top 100 Sites You Didn't Know You Couldn't Live Without" (in the travel category) in 2005.

Next entry:
To See The Bridge

Previous entry:
What A Difference A Day Makes


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