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I'm a USA citizen/resident traveling the world through multiple countries and interested in visiting where a friend of mine lives.

Can I apply for a visa from a Chinese embassy/consulate in one of the countries I'm visiting (e.g. I'm in Istanbul next week). Or do I have to return to the USA to apply for the visa?

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In general, you cannot apply for a Chinese visa from a country of which you are not a citizen or permanent resident.

Specifically for Turkey (my emphasis):

(3) Proof of legal stay or residence status(applicable to those not applying for the visa in their country of citizenship)

If you are not applying for the visa in the country of your citizenship, you must provide the original and photocopy of your valid certificates or visa of stay, residence, employment or student status, or other valid certificates of legal staying provided by the relevant authorities of the country where you are currently staying.

You'll note visitor is not a valid status. This means that you'll have to apply in advance for your visa from the US.

Although the link in my answer is to chineseembassy.org, apparently this is the official domain for foreign missions as per the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' website.

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    This actually varies from country to country, as the definition of "legal proof of stay" is different in each embassy location. In some countries you only need to have a tourist visa and hotel verification, in other countries you need a long stay or work type visa. The OP needs to check with the Chinese Embassy in each country he visits to see if it is possible there. – user13044 Aug 23 '15 at 1:32

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