Bad China Day: Getting to London
It’s been a while. But I’ve been here for three years, so now only a highly irritating sequence of unfortunate events is enough to warrant a Bad China Day post. That time has come. It’s going to be a long one.
I’m sitting in Guangzhou’s Baiyun airport for a yet to be determined amount of time. Delays in Chinese airports are as common as blocked toilets in Chinese airports, so this isn’t really news. It’s more like the icing on the cake of these last two days, and the cake is mooncake filled with fermented egg. You know, the shit ones. Let’s unpack this and hopefully decrease my blood pressure before boarding my flight to London, if I do at all today.
Daqing to Harbin
The first leg of my journey was a bus from Daqing directly to Harbin airport. The bus left at 3:50PM and my first flight to Guangzhou was at 8:05PM. No reason to worry. Well. Feeling our momentum come to a halt roused me from a pleasant doze. Yes, I was a little hungover, but that’s beside the point. What I saw ahead sunk my heart. Complete gridlock, as far as the eye can see. A sea of red taillights to celebrate China’s National Day.
Almost as soon as we hit the traffic, I got a message in one of my several WeChat groups. A friend had just passed the accident, and it was apparently a gruesome sight to behold. Some lorry driver fell asleep at the wheel and ran into the incoming lane, killing several people. The carnage was apparently all over Weibo, but I opted out. Admittedly because I was more worried about my flight. Even Mao himself isn’t going to bring those people back to life.
We crawled for an hour and a half until we exited onto some village road in the asscrack of nowhere, bumping along at a glacial pace. At that point, I knew there was no way I’d be getting out of Harbin that night. I skipped contacting China Southern for help, as I knew I probably wouldn’t get it, and called Expedia. That $10 of Skype credit was one of my best purchases of 2016.
I spent the majority of the way speaking to representatives at Expedia, first in a call center until making my way up to a supervisor in the States. Because I was in Tier-88 where people still shit in ditches with their asses hanging in the breeze, my calls kept getting dropped, until I finally started talking to Supervisor Gary. I gave him my Chinese number in case Skype dropped again (it did) and we continued from there.
Very luckily, Gary was able to book me onto virtually the same flight the next day. Same departure, same arrival. It just sucked because that was one day taken from my holiday, one less precious day spent with Kate before I had to return to Daqing and await the winter alone. On the bright side, it only cost me around $100 to push the flight to the next day. All told, it could have been much worse.
After 6 hours on the fucking bus, I caught another bus from Harbin’s airport into the city, tracked down a cheap but decent hotel and conked out after the stress of the day.
Harbin to Guangzhou
My flight out of Harbin wasn't until 8pm the next day, so I had some time to kill. I left the hotel and made the waiguoren pilgrimage to Hamamas, a cafe renowned for its amazing coffee and Western sandwiches (which do not skimp on quality ingredients as 99% of “Western” restaurants in China do). Closed on Sundays. Prepared for everything to go wrong at this point, I walked further down the street to another cafe with a good reputation, The Most Cafe.
I worked, I puffed on my e-cigarette, I drank more coffee, stared out the window. Everyone was free to walk about and enjoy the last nice weather before winter firmly gripped Northeast China by the throat. It was the Golden Week holiday, which meant most provincial capitals throughout China would be empty, their inhabitants returning to their small towns to visit family.
I decided to get a fruity drink to get a little bit of nourishment before finally starting my journey to London. There was a familiar taste in my fruit juice. Cointreau.
“Hey, I didn’t know this drink has alcohol in it.”
“It doesn’t. You looked like you could use a drink.”
Ah, the hospitality of China.
I flagged down a taxi and agreed on a price to the airport. The driver and I had a nice conversation, and I accepted my first cigarette in a few months from him. With that smoke and a scam-free ride behind me, I had regained some of my confidence.
The airport wasn’t too busy and I checked in without incident. There was a guy in front of me wearing a hoody with the definition of “hoody” printed on the back. Amazing. I fell asleep on the plane, which is usually impossible for me. When I woke, we were making our descent into Guangzhou. The Pearl River Delta area is quite amazing from above at night.
Guangzhou to London
It was still hot in Guangzhou. It’s a good thing I didn’t arrive during the day. However, it was passed midnight and I was looking forward to just jumping in a cab and into my hotel bed for what few precious hours of sleep I could get before the final leg of my journey the following day. Guys, this is China. Don’t kid yourselves. Nothing’s that easy.
I get to the taxi rank - massive queue. Of course. I wait patiently. When it’s finally my turn, I recite the address that I’ve been practicing in my head for the last 10 minutes. I get the classic confused taxi driver look. I say it again, thinking he’s too focused on the color of my skin rather than the words coming out of my mouth (happens often). Nope. He has no idea. No idea where the Baiyun Airport Holiday Inn is. Major fucking hotel chain. It’s too much of a complication for that guy, so he tells me to get out.
Finally, I get some dude to just call the hotel and program the address into his GPS. Turns out it’s 30 fucking minutes away from the airport even though it’s advertised as in the “airport area”. We pull up to a red traffic light beside another taxi that also has a foreign passenger. And, apparently, we’re headed to the same place. They confirmed that they were both headed in the right direction, and we continue on.
As we pulled into the drive of the hotel, my driver decides to show his true colors. He asks the driver carrying the other foreigner, now gone, how much he charged him. This is a question that shouldn’t need to be asked as all taxis leaving Baiyun Airport are required to use the meter. 85 yuan, other taxi says. This guy has the balls to then turn to me and say, “Okay, 85 yuan”, despite the meter saying 60.
“Nope. The meter says 60. Here you go”. Hands over cash.
“No, no, no. Because we came from the airport it’s an extra charge.” Hands cash back.
“No, there isn’t.”
“Yes, there is.”
“Dude, I’ve been in China for over 3 years. I’m not stupid. I know you're trying to cheat me because I’m a foreigner”.
“Who’s cheating? I tell the truth.”
“Fuck off. Here’s your 60 yuan.”
“Okay, I’m gonna start driving you back to the airport if you don’t give me 10 more”. Start handing him 10 more just so he’ll fuck off.
“Now I want 20.”
That’s it. I’m barely awake and I want nothing more than to lay down and get what is now going to be 4 hours of sleep if I’m lucky. But fuck these guys. People like this ruin this country. I roll his 60 yuan into a nice little ball and bounce it off his forehead. “Take your 60, you dumb cunt”. And jump out of the taxi as quickly as possible.
I stroll at a leisurely pace, taking a photo of his license plate on my way, making sure he sees me do this. His only recourse is to shout a string of profanity my way. Was the battle worth $3.71? Probably not. Everyone’s got a breaking point, however.
The contrast of the lovely girl at the check-in counter and the infuriating situation I had just left caught me a little off-guard. I arranged a shuttle so I wouldn’t have to go through it again the next morning. I crawled into bed and passed out before my head hit the pillow.
My head was thrumming on the shuttle back to the airport, like a motor that was close to using up all its oil. How jarring it is to be woken up by an alarm when you’ve paid only a fraction of a massive sleep debt. Oh well, I’ll be on the plane soon, I thought. I can just pass out then.
Luckily I already had my boarding pass and all my luggage was checked through to London, so it was only a matter of going through security. Props to China on this one - security is much more painless here than in the US. Feel free to leave on your belt, shoes, watch, etc.
I went to a cafe and got a sad China sandwich - white bread, loads of mayo, processed cheese and some sort of spam-like meat. Knowing the joys of Pret a Manger, this just made me more anxious to get to London. Finally the boarding call arrives.
We piled onto a bus that would take us to the plane. This is relatively common if you’re flying internationally from China, and I would say 50% of the time you will be getting on a bus when you deplane in China. Slightly annoying, but no biggie. That is, until the bus driver stops driving after 10 minutes of circling the airport, and I see it. Although I can’t hear him from behind the bullet-proof glass separating passengers and staff, I see the confused smile and laughter all too common in China that signifies the perpetrator has no idea what’s going on.
Indeed, we are driven back to the gate with little explanation until both foreign and Chinese passengers demand one. We’re told there is a problem with the plane, but the gate staff don’t know what the problem is or how long it will take for it to be fixed. Should I really be surprised? This trip had already become an experiment to test Murphy’s Law. I’ll just be happy if the plane doesn’t explode upon take-off at this point.
And we’ve come full circle. Here I am typing and waiting. To be fair to China Southern’s staff, they’ve come around frequently while we wait, trying to give us updates as best they can. It’s going to be a 2.5-hour delay in total. I’m already a day late at this point, so it’s hard to get too flustered over it.
Let me, ahem, check my privilege before signing off. I am fully aware that if complaining about my flight to London is my biggest problem at the moment, them I'm in a good place. As with all of these posts, they are simply cautionary tales to those who are intrigued by China's mystery. There's a lot to discover here, but eventually, you will pay a price for your curiosity.