Great Tour of China.
2015/16 was a season of unpredictability in Europe, ultimately disappointment with an early exit from the Champions League and then from the Europa League last 16. When I summarised my season of travels in March I was optimistic about United’s chances of securing a top 4 finish and with 3 games of the season left there is still a glimmer of a chance of making it. Either way, we’ve almost certainly got a place in the Europa League with 5th/6th in the league virtually guaranteed and an FA Cup final still to compete in. It’s not the level we’d quite like to see United compete at but it still provides an opportunity to travel to some of the smaller footballing nations of Europe.
First, however, comes United’s preseason tour, this year a shorter 2 match stop in China. As United’s promo banner above details, the games take place in Shanghai on the 22nd July against Borussia Dortmund, and the second against City in Beijing 3 days later. The opponents offer little excitement in terms of seeing new teams and players; it seems odd that the ambitious Chinese Super League, which has had ridiculous sums of money pumped into it over the past year, didn’t try and get involved in a match against United, however the three European teams competing are all probably keen to continue trying to tap into the massive China football interest for their own commercial reasons. For me though, it presents a first opportunity to travel to Asia, and all the joys that come with it.
Travelling to China seems like a bit of a daunting task; a combination of the distance (and therefore cost), language barrier and sheer size of the country all made me think I’d struggle. With less than three months to go until I plan to travel there I’m now a lot more confident that I’ll manage, I did afterall negotiate Moscow without a hitch! Like Russia there’s a requirement to obtain a visa to visit China. This can be a challenge online, with so many dodgy looking third party sites selling the same service at an inflated rate. The two sites to reference are the Gov.uk hub, which provides some top level details, and then the UK Chinese Embassy site which goes into the specifics about applying.
There are 16 types of “ordinary” Chinese visas (excluding diplomatic, courtesy and public service), whilst that seems like a bit of maze there’s a fairly clear tourist visa, the ‘L Visa’. To apply for this you need a booking for a round trip flight, proof of a hotel reservation and the regular personal details. Thankfully, unlike when preparing for Russia last year, there’s a Chinese visa application service centre in Manchester, as well as in Edinburgh and London (the Russians did subsequently open a Manchester centre in March this year). The application form can be found at VisaforChina.org as well as details on the cost, a slightly staggering 151 quid all in, with a £66 service fee added to the £85 visa cost. Steeper than the 88 quid I paid to enter Russia.
Before the Visa, it’s the flights and accommodation. With no aspects of my trip booked yet, I decided the best order to sort it is flights > hotels > visa (match tickets still to consider). There’s no catch 22 as such, the visa does require the first two being confirmed, but with the most expensive item sorted I’ll have got the ball rolling. Hotels in Beijing and Shanghai seem to be in good supply, with a brief search suggesting prices in central Beijing locations start from around £50 a night and Shanghai slightly more expensive from £60. Even the hotel decision is something I’m debating. Given I’m looking to see the historic attractions in and around Beijing, a more sociable and cheaper option is a few days in a hostel, which look to be £25-30/night if you’re prepared to travel a few miles to wherever Hotels.com consider the city centre. From here I plan to travel north of the city to see the Great Wall of China as well as the other main tourist hotspots, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, Ming tombs and the rest. That stage of planning is all still to come.
Flights to China certainly seem a lot more reasonable that I’d expected. Given the logistics of the 2 games Shanghai is the obvious starting point – a mere 5,700 miles from Manchester. None of the flight options I’ve found offer a direct route; the familiar Lufthansa and Scandinavian Airlines go via Frankfurt and Copenhagen respectively, there are a few options on each with Lufthansa starting at around 700 quid and SAS from 600. I do feel that either would give me a sense of security, in that they’re European operated airlines that I’ve used regularly in the past, however this trip gives me the chance to try an alterative. The Chinese Hainan Airlines are currently the cheapest option at 519 quid, this is a flight from Manchester to Shanghai via Beijing; a 10 and a half hour first leg, followed by just over 2 hours on the internal flight. An added attraction being that this flight is on the Airbus, something I’ve never experienced before with shorter European based trips. There’s often a little apprehension about travelling on unknown airlines, with good reason given the poor safety record of some in parts of Asia, however it’s very unlikely that a long haul flight like this would have any problems. That aside, sampling the in flight entertainment on a Chinese operated plane could be fun!
Travelling around internally opens up a few more options. The 732 miles between Beijing and Shanghai can be easily done for £60-70 (one way) on a flight lasting a few hours, but for the same price I’d be daft not to take a ride on the Bullet train. This looks like a slightly longer but more scenic journey; there are two different lines from Shanghai with the older track a 909 miles trip to Beijing, the newer a shorter 819 miles. There are still further choices to make with this, either a 4.5 hour ‘quick’ bullet for around 65 quid or the overnight sleeper, close to 12 hours but for just 35 quid. Given I’ll be travelling between Beijing and Shanghai a few times I could opt to try both, enjoying the speed and sights of the quicker train and the interesting accommodation of the sleeper.
The Golden Ticket
With a 57,000 capacity at the Shanghai stadium and 80,000 at the Beijing national stadium (aka the Birds Nest) that’s just enough tickets for 0.01% of China’s population. Given how focused United have been for years to market to that part of the world, I’m sure they’ll be keen to ensure all of the tickets make it into Chinese hands. With that in mind I’ve no idea if I’ll get a ticket for either match; other than signing up for updates on the United website I’m none the wiser. I’m trying to speak to the right person at the ticket office to guarantee a ticket for at least one of the games but as it stands it looks like I’ll be part of the melee when they get released in the next month.
After that it’s the search for some Chinese hostels, a full agenda of sights to see and polishing up on my Mandarin. But first, full European qualification for United to push for and then an FA Cup Final to enjoy!