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Visa question and itinerary tips

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Hey everyone. I searched the forum for info about visas to China and everything I found was either too old or regarding getting visas from countries other than the US. While I was looking at those posts I stumbled across some conflicting information which concerns me.

Do you have to have confirmed seat airline boarding passes in order to get a visa? I'm slightly confused by this one since Delta doesn't even let you check in before 24 hrs before your flight. Even so that wouldn't matter anyways because we fly standby. Which means that I can print out our confirmation number with itinerary and all of our names, but no airlines tickets until 24 hrs pre-flight and definitely not ones that are confirmed seats.

Do you really have to have confirmation for hotel stays for every day that you are in China? We were planning on booking the first day so we have a definite place to go when our flight lands and then winging it from there.

I really wish the consulate websites were more forthcoming. We looking into visas months ago and thought that the longest multi visit visa you could get is 1 yr as long as you have 6 months on your passport left, but now I have read that you can get 10 with 1 yr left on your passport. Unfortunately our kids' passports expire next year so we wouldn't be able to get the 10 yr for them, if the website had posted that then we could have renewed their passports early. How would that even work to get your 10 yr visa moved over to a new passport when you renew it?

I also found out that unfortunately Washington DC handles Utah visas (really???). Of course, the closest physical place to us is SF. I emailed the consulate earlier asking if we could go there or if we had to go to DC and I got this response:
"If you come in-person (not the travel agency) to our office, you can apply the visa here."

Now for the fun part. We will have almost 2 weeks. Yes I know each of our places could take 2 weeks by themselves, but we aren't worried about that, we can always go back and spend more time in one place on a return trip.

We are going to Beijing first, then to Shanghai and then hopefully we will have a couple of days left over to hand around in Tokyo on our way back to the states.

We definitely want to see the wall, Forbidden City and the other stuff in Beijing, the Summer Palace, maybe the Ming tombs. Is there anything among that typical touristy stuff that isn't worth seeing? Are there any places that are good to see that may not be highlighted in my tour books? We plan on using public transportation so we will probably be staying in a hotel central to everything or at least close to a train station. Is the zoo worth seeing?

We will then take the train to Shanghai. We can't decide though whether to take the 4.5 hour day train or the overnight train to skip a hotel night. Would it be worth it to take the train path that goes through Xi'an?

Not really sure what we want to see in Shanghai. Probably want to take a river cruise/tour. Any good temples/gardens/museums?

For Japan my kids are all about Nintendo and Pokemon (they play the card game in competitions), so we will probably go to the anime place. I was thinking Imperial Palace? Any suggestions?

Oh and my kids (11 and 8) can speak Chinese (Mandarin) decently well (although much slower than natural speakers) so we won't have as much of a language barrier as others might.

This is the first trip to Asia for the kids. DH and I have been to Bangkok.

Thanks :)

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