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.
"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.
"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 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.
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