Oh no, wait, it is.
After a month of canvassing advice and ringing around numerous different 'visa agents', I'd finally found someone who said they could still arrange a Z visa for me. And his 'shell company' wasn't concerned about the new social security regulations, so the price wouldn't be too outrageous. In fact, if I applied from the UK while on holiday this summer, it would work out even cheaper - only about 20% or so more than I paid last year. After weeks of nothing but bad news and closed doors, this revelation was so exhilarating that I impetuously decided to move ahead with this option... even though I'm unconvinced I want to come back at all, and am pretty damn certain I don't want to be here for another full year.
Alas, this visa application would apparently entail that I would have to get a health check at the hospital specially designated for this purpose. I don't know what the regulations about that are: they are even more obscure and pointless and open to being completely ignored than most such Chinese legal requirements. I've been living here 10 years and have only had to do the health check twice, I think.
Still, my last experience of this had been pretty positive: a very swift, efficient, painless process. (Well, efficient in liberating you from your money. Pretty nearly worthless as a health check. They're really only interested in the blood screening for HIV. The ECG and the X-ray are a joke. And for the rest, the doctors just automatically tick or rubberstamp all the boxes without reference to your actual physical condition. The first time I went through this charade, the presiding doctor was challenged to try to enter an idiosyncrasy on the form and discovered that he only had the one stamp - 'No Abnormalities' - and was thus unable to record my friend's defective vision.)
I was almost looking forward to experiencing this quirky ordeal again, because at least the hospital is conveniently close to my new apartment, only about a 20-minute walk away.
Make that was. I hadn't realised, having somehow escaped the need to renew my health check for some 5 years now, but the hospital was relocated just after the Olympics.... to Xibeiwang Township. That's not in Beijing; it's one of the new 'satellite towns' that are springing up all around it. Still partly under construction and barely inhabited, this place DID NOT EXIST until 5 or 6 years ago, and it is in the exact middle of nowhere. It is outside the city's 5th Ringroad, which is the outermost limit of what can really be considered the city. It is several miles outside the 5th Ringroad. It is several miles from the nearest subway station.
Internet searches on the transport options to get there decline to return a bus-only option. Even the Beijing bus company's search engine insists that you should use the subway to get three-quarters of the way there. The problem with this is that the subway early in the morning is quite hellish - far worse than the buses. And the stations at the northern end of Line 13 - Shangdi, Xi'erqi, Lishuiqiao, I've had to use them often in the past - are a particularly unpleasant prospect: crowded, chaotic, overrun with aggressive 'black cab' (unlicensed) drivers.
I set out at the crack of dawn to try to avoid the worst of the rush hour, but Line 13 was already a maelstrom of seething humanity. And when I got to the 'nearest' station, even the regular cabs were all operating off the meter. The first couple of people I spoke to opened by demanding 100rmb for what I'd been told should be only a 15rmb ride. The asking price soon plummeted to 50rmb, but - after barely 4 hours' sleep and no breakfast (you're not supposed to eat before the blood tests, for some reason) - I just didn't have the patience for this rigmarole, and decided to try to use the bus instead.
A friend had done a Chinese Internet search for me to come up with the number of a bus route that was supposed to work. Unfortunately, she hadn't thought to specify where the stop was. It wasn't at the bus station next to the subway. Or anywhere nearby that I could find. (I eventually happened upon one - hours later - that was about half a mile away.) However, I spotted a bus with the number, heading in the right direction, and decided to follow it until it reached a stop. Well, it appears to have been some kind of 'express bus' that only stops every few miles (rather than, as is more usual with Beijing buses, every few hundred yards). Or I somehow managed to miss the next stop. Or the next several stops. I walked about five miles without seeing a stop for this bus, although I was still tracing its route - the route of the bus that was supposed to take me to the hospital. I appealed to numerous friends via SMS for help in identifying another bus number that might take me to the hospital. Most of them didn't get back to me for nearly an hour, and when they did, were only able to offer numbers which did not correspond to those displayed on the last bus stop I'd passed.
Still, it was a beautiful, beautiful day. I was quite enjoying the walk. I was willing to take a chance on being able to get there by foot, relying on dead reckoning and a not terribly convincing printout from Google Maps (with stuff that's only been built in the last few years, you can't rely on Chinese maps to be at all accurate). But after nearly 90 minutes, there was still no sign of the bloody hospital.
And then I thought to myself: "What the hell are you doing out here, 20 miles out in the countryside, searching for a hospital that quite possibly doesn't even exist? Why on earth are you going to all this trouble to get this stupid, bogus health check to apply for a visa to stay in this doomed shithole of a country?"
Perhaps it was just hypoglycaemic despair. But I like to think it was a moment of clarity.