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UNLOCKING CHINA

Pointers on tickets, maps and visas

September 16, 2007|Susan Spano, Mary MacVean

LAST CALL FOR TICKETS

CoSport, (877) 457-4647, www .cosport.com, is the official U.S. distributor for tickets to the Olympics as well as travel packages that include tickets.

A final round of ticket sales begins in October. During the first round of applications, which closed June 20, the Beijing Olympic Commission received 4.7 million ticket requests, which are being filled.

-- Susan Spano

VISA: REQUIRED

Americans need a visa to visit China. Getting one is an experience not unlike visiting the Department of Motor Vehicles. The lines can be long, the office dreary, the process confusing. The cost has recently increased to $100 per person.

One recent morning, 15 minutes before the 9 a.m. opening of the visa office, which is just off Vermont Avenue west of downtown Los Angeles (Third Floor, 500 Shatto Place), the line was only about 35 people long. Around 11 on another morning, it was more than 100 people deep.

Applicants take numbers and sit in long rows of chairs, watching a Chinese TV network on three screens with no sound, reading and chatting with strangers. No appointment is needed. Applicants can send someone, such as a travel agent or a visa service, in their place.

Even though the people-watching is entertaining -- monks, tourists, families, professors, business folks -- stay away at lunchtime, when there are fewer open windows and longer lines.

Workers behind windows call out numbers in Chinese and English, although a sign says applicants should come close to the windows when the line is five numbers from their own.

Hand in a passport, photo and a visa application (available from www .china-embassy.org/eng/hzqz/zgqz/ t84240.htm and at the office). If all goes well, a worker will hand through the window a flimsy piece of pink paper, a "receipt for pay and pickup," which means the visa is being processed. In a few days, the passport is returned with a single-entry visa pasted in. (Make sure your passport has at least six months remaining and blank visa pages.)

At one window, a sign says, "Questions will not be answered." Believe it.

But I had a problem with the paperwork for a journalist visa and had to return to the office a few times. In response to my distress, the people working there could not have been kinder, and one woman even called me on a Saturday at home to reassure me that all would eventually be well. It was.

For more information: (213) 807-8088, www.china-embassy.org/eng/.

-- Mary MacVean

SURVIVAL TACTICS

Here are some tips for navigating Beijing:

Toilet paper is not routinely supplied in bathrooms, although there sometimes are dispensers outside the stalls. Always carry tissue with you and keep it handy to avoid having to root around for it if you are using a squat toilet, which is still common.

The floor around squat toilets is often wet and filthy, which means trouble if your trouser legs are too long.

On the up side, there are free, safe, generally clean public toilets on almost every block in Beijing. But there's no getting around it: They stink. So carry Tiger Balm and dab it around your nose before you go in.

In practice, at least, vehicles have the right of way, even when they're turning and pedestrians are crossing. Especially at intersections where there are no walk lights, play it safe: Cross with an older Chinese person between you and oncoming traffic. (Old folks in China still get a little extra respect.)

Taxis in Beijing are cheap and convenient. In advance of the 2008 Olympics, the city has mounted campaigns to get cabbies to deodorize their vehicles, stop smoking and spitting out the window and learn a little English.

But don't count on being able to communicate with your driver. Before you go out, have someone write your destination in Chinese characters, and always carry the card for your hotel with you.

It's not a bad idea to sit in front with the driver. This makes it easier to see and give directions and sets a nice egalitarian tone.

When you are given a menu in a restaurant, the waiter or waitress will stand at your table waiting to take your order. This is considered polite, even though it gives you no time to study the menu. Try asking the server to wait.

The dishes will arrive in no particular order, and the rice often comes at the end.

I did not find a satisfactorily detailed map of Beijing in English. The good ones are all in Chinese. The best with some English is Periplus Beijing Regional Map, third edition, which I found at the big Foreign Language Bookstore on Wangfujing.

To avoid the crowds at the main entrance to the Forbidden City on Tiananmen Square, use the northern entrance across the street from Jingshan Park. Renovation work on the gate there will be completed by the end of 2007. Meanwhile, visitors can still buy tickets and rent audio guides there.

-- S.S.

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