“Why does your form look like this?”
The stern, slight woman at the visa agency looks pointedly at me and then back to the patterned background on my application form. I'm standing in a small, hot and sweaty room on the first floor of an anonymous office block just off Oxford Circus. The woman in question, clearly in charge, and her two colleagues are frantically trying to deal with a room full of people and their assorted paperwork.
Although I've downloaded my application form from the official Chinese Embassy website and meticulously filled it in, I can tell from the 'I've been doing this since before you were born' look in the chief's eye that there's no point in arguing and set about filling in the 'official' form that is now thrust in front of me. Fifteen minutes later, and a quick trip to a photo booth to produce ID that will pass muster, and two fast-track visa applications are on their way.
The project in Chongqing has clearly got off to a good start and a short-notice visit has meant the Cambridge team has had to go through an agency to acquire visas in time. I'm obviously excited to be going on my first trip to China so soon, but something tells me that this won't be the last short-notice change of plans. Our flights and accommodation aren't even booked yet, but the team leader, Professor Short, has done this before and assures me that everything will be fine.
A few days later and I return to the agency to pick up the visas. I'm the only customer this time, although the closed windows and musty smell rising up from the carpet mean the atmosphere in the room is just as stifling. I'm informed that I've only been granted a single-entry for my first visit, and will need to reapply for the repeat visits that the project will demand. My first reaction is frustration, but the no-nonsense look on the chief's face reminds me that I wouldn't be going at all without her help. This, of course is true. Two visas (mine and Professor Short's), delivered on time and with arguably less hassle than some eBay transactions.
Feeling like I've got my first taste of China, I board the train back to Cambridge. It's Wednesday and I'm due out there on Monday. The flights aren't booked yet, but something tells me that in a few days' time I'll be stepping onto Chinese soil for the first time.