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Janine quickly gets physical, but I’m still a little too upset with Air China to fully embrace the Olympic Mascot/Powerpuff Girl in Beijing’s Terminal 3 Airport (more photos)

How do you say “Bird’s Nest” in Chinese?

– Dave

Janine has a delightful little Marge Simpsonesque “Hrmmm” that she utters when vaguely disconcerted.

“Hrmmm,” Janine uttered, looking at her watch as we taxied down the runway of Beijing’s shiny new Terminal 3 airport after an uneventful red-eye flight from Delhi.

Well, uneventful for me anyway. Towards the end of our Madagascar trip, a friend had given me one of those traveller’s sleeping blindfolds, generally sported only by supermodels and cast members of “Dynasty”. As an incredibly macho guy, I’d initially been sceptical. But after secretly testing it (with feelings of misgiving similar to those of a man trying on silk panties), I’d discovered that it affected me in the same manner as a tranq dart in the arse of a grizzly bear. A little confusion, a violent leg wobble, one last roar of defiance and I was out like a light. Now I’d become a total convert, slipping on my little sky blue blinder during every long bus trip and airport layover, drooling off to dreamland with greater ease than I’ve ever experienced travelling before.

Janine thinks I look silly. But it’s easy to ignore people making fun of you when you’re in a mild coma.

In any event, within 7 minutes of taking our seat on the 3 a.m. flight out of sweltering Delhi, I was snoring away to visions of the horses and steppe that we would soon see in Mongolia. So I failed to notice that we took off 45 minutes late. WIth only an hour scheduled between our arrival in Beijing and our connecting flight to Ulan Bataar, that posed a problem.

“I’m sure they’ll hold the flight for us,” I told Janine confidently, wiping the sleep from my eyes and rummaging through Air China’s version of a continental breakfast – a miniature Dove chocolate bar, a juice box and something looking like a cellophane-wrapped squash ball.

Still, we hustled to make the flight. After successfully miming our tight schedule to a Chinese speaking flight attendant (we’re really getting good at miming), we were whisked off the plane before the other passengers and ushered into the sparkling confines of Terminal 3 – one of Beijing’s newly-opened showpieces for the games. Like everything else in this city, it’s massive, modern and designed to impress. “We’ll have to admire it on our way back to Delhi,” I huffed fatefully to Janine as we jogged down the sparkling concourses, a little surprised at how empty the place was for day 2 of the world’s biggest party. Flatscreen televisions blared the Olympics from seemingly every corner. Good luck reading a book or catching a nap in this place (unless you have a sleeping blindfold of course).

Security for the games being what it was, we passed through two searches before making our gate. While waiting for my hiking boots to come through the security scanner at one stop, I finally had time to ask a Chinese official the question that had been bugging me all morning.

“What the hell is this?” I said, holding up the breakfast squash ball.

The red-clad security woman looked at the black ball and then me suspiciously. “It’s an egg,” she said, politely leaving out the word “stupid”, which I could tell she wanted to append to the end of her response.

I looked at the black ball acutely, searching for any sign of eggdom. I was not convinced.

“Is it an egg from a bird?” I followed up.

She looked at me again and nodded patiently.

“Is it an egg you can eat?” 

She nodded again, maybe a little more curtly this time.

“Would you eat it?” I offered her the ball.

She smiled and said no. With Janine tugging more forcefully on my forearm with each question,  I collected my boots, exited security before the search got any more personal and deposited the squash ball in the next garbage bin. The final dash to our departure gate was on.

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Last call my ass.

“We made it!” Janine puffed triumphantly, jogging to a halt at departure desk, above which another large flat screen television bore our flight information and a flashing “Last Call” boarding sign. Outside the gate, a bus with 6 or 7 other passengers waited to whisk us over to our plane. Four other passengers waited in line ahead of us with more coming up behind us by the second.

“I’m going to take a picture of the ‘Last Call’ sign! Great souvenir!” Janine said happily, reaching for her camera bag. For once, my Murphy’s Lawdar relaxed and I consented to this fingering of fate.

The first couple at the check-in counter were handed their boarding cards and hopped on the bus. Then, I kid you not, with another couple ahead of us and 4 more people behind, the boarding agent pressed a button and the flashing “Last Call” sign changed to a “Gate Closed” sign. The bus closed its door and drove away.

This is a family friendly blog so I won’t list all the expletives that escaped the remaining passengers’ lips and headed in the general direction of the boarding agent. But the general tone of it all was, “I hope you can explain yourself within 4 seconds because that’s how long it’s going to take for us to get around this desk and strangle you.”

A manager arrived in sufficient time to prevent bloodshed, explaining that due to our Delhi flight’s delay, all the passengers on it had been removed from the connecting flight to Ulaan Baatar. Apparently, thanks to Terminal 3’s slow baggage transfer times (which we would get very familiar with later) our bags would never have made the connection anyway. Rather than fly us to Mongolia luggage-less and simply send our bags on the next flight, Air China preferred to put 8 people up in a hotel for the night, leave those seats on the current flight empty and fly us out the next day. 

Remind me why so many airlines have trouble making money?

***

The Chinese symbol for “crisis” contains within it the word “opportunity”.  I found myself pondering this idea after I’d finished cursing Air China, about 45 minutes after our connecting flight left. We had been excited to reach Mongolia and the manner in which we’d missed our connection had been frustrating in the extreme. But if we could not catch a flight until the following day, that meant that the Chinese would have to give us a 24 hour visa. The very visa that had, until now, alluded us until we’d given up hope of visiting China altogether.

Standing in one of the many lines that Air China was to make us stand in over the next 3 hours, I turned to Dave and Valerie, a delightful couple from South Africa and France respectively, who’d also been shafted on the Ulan Bataar connection and with whom we were fast becoming friends.

“If Passport Control will stamp my passport,” I whispered to them confidentially, as if the Chinese secret police could swoop down on us any second for even suggesting it, “I’m going to the Olympics tonight.”

Dave bore the tired look of a man who’d been on a 7 hour red-eye flight, missed his connection and was now stuck in an airport for a hazy period of time. But his eyes suddenly brightened. “Really?” he said, leaning in and sharing the conspiracy. After a quick look across our huddle at Valerie he looked back at me. “Let’s split the cab.”

I was delighted. With a European and a South African joining us, we’d now have at least 3 embassies to call if arrested for violating Chinese immigration laws.

***

Air China must have sensed our excitement at the prospect of a free night in the Olympic city. Immediately after giving us our visas, it directed us to a featureless room of the airport to await our baggage.

We waited for two hours.  As the afternoon faded, I saw my Olympic dream fading with it.

Two pretty Air China attendants had been assigned to see us all get our bags and reach our hotel. Every time I asked them how much longer it would take for our bags to arrive, they told me “20 minutes”. Now, after sitting on a baggage cart long enough to have acquired a second arse crack, I approached them once more.

“Do you know the Fleetwood Mac song ‘Tell me Lies’?” I asked them.

They stared at me blankly; boredly.

“It’s been three hours since we landed in Beijing,” I said. “Please get our bags. Please don’t tell me it’s going to be another 20 minutes. If you do, I’m going to have to start singing this song to you.”

They stared at me blankly; boredly.

“Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies. Yeah tell me lies (Tell me! Tell me lies!). Oh no, no-o-o you can’t disguise…”

We had our bags 5 minutes later.

***

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I’m convinced I could have dominated the 40kg Body Building category if I’d only qualified. Thanks a lot rigged stool sample!

The imaginatively-named Beijing Central Airport Hotel was the nicest hotel we’d stayed in since, well, actually, it was the nicest hotel we’d stayed in since leaving home. Our room had a big t.v., a shower with water pressure, beds with mattresses and sheets you didn’t mind sleeping in without a full suit of clothes on.

We couldn’t wait to leave.

With a thrill of naughtiness (reinsert “man in panties” allusion here), we met Dave and Valerie in the hotel lobby. While I took out yuan from an ATM, Dave pored over a city tourist map with the hotel receptionist and tried to figure out how to tell our taxi driver what Olympic venues we’d like to visit. A few minutes later, we were in a cab and driving down Beijing’s broad, deserted boulevards, a strict air-pollution control effort keeping what must be most of the city’s motorists off the streets. The centre of the world’s attention seemed more than half-empty. Combined with a steadily driving rain, it was a rather eerie introduction to China’s capital.

But the excitement of seeing the Olympic Stadium changed all that. At our first view of the famous Bird’s Nest, all the morbid thoughts, all the fatigue, even all the strains of “Tell Me Lies”, which had been on a constant loop in my head for the past 5 hours, vanished. 

We were at the Olympics.

Or at least, we were near the Olympics. A heavily-patrolled security fence ringed the Olympic grounds and kept the unwashed and unticketed masses a kilometer away from the venues.  But the buildings were large and magnificent enough to mostly make up for that. In the grey evening light, the Olympic flame flickered above the steel basket-weavery of the Bird’s Nest while the “Water Cube” shimmered a brilliant blue alongside. Chinese couples and families strolled hand in hand beside the fence, admiring their country’s architectural achievements and snapping pictures on cell-phones. Despite their contentment, I couldn’t help but feel a little sad for these people. Beijingers had obviously worked so hard and sacrificed so much for these games and now most were being excluded from them. Even a pedestrian bridge over a nearby highway which would have afforded a lovely view of the Olympic buildings had been purposely covered in “Beijing 2008” banners, leaving people peeping through tiny gaps in the posters for a good look at the games.

The rain intensified after an hour. Even full of Olympic Spirit, we started to get tired. Finishing our circuit of the security fence, we dove inside a cab and confronted its slightly bewildered-looking driver. “Tiananmen Square please!”

The driver continued to look bewildered. I considered using my miming prowess to re-enact a tank rolling towards a lone protester but then thought better of it and remembered the tourist map Dave had gotten from the hotel. With this, some frenzied pointing and a few thumb’s up signals, we were soon motoring towards Beijing’s best known and most controversial landmark.

Just when we thought it couldn’t pelt any harder, the rain started pelting our taxi even harder. After 15 minutes of driving which saw the streets turn into glistening black rivers, our driver pulled over on a dark side street and looked at us with a silent nod. “Tiananmien,” he said.

We looked out the streaming windows. “I don’t see anything,” Janine said.

“I don’t know if I want to see anything,” I said, enjoying the dryness of the cab. “It looks friggin’ terrible out there.” Dave and Valerie nodded agreement. One chance in a lifetime be damned. No one wanted to walk around in this weather.

I turned back to our driver. “Ummm, I don’t suppose you could just drive us around Tiananmien square a bit then take us home?” I combined this incomprehensible gibberish with the miming of hands on a steering wheel, a down-the-drain twirling motion, a happy face and a thumb’s up.

The driver looked at me stonefaced for a minute and then started the car again.

We must have been parked close to the square, because rounding the next shadowy corner, it seemed we were suddenly thrust into the bright middle of the square in all its glory. Through the furious window wipers, we could see the monuments, the imperial compounds, the stark communist-era buildings, and over it all, the great portrait of Chairman Mao gazing sternly through the rain. Once again, we were buoyed and gave a spontaneous cheer. This caught our driver off guard for a moment. But then he regained himself, smiled and nodded vigorously.

“Yeah!” he said thickly with a thumbs up sign, “Tiananmien!”

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Mao through the windshield

***

Something about that moment changed our driver. He finally seemed to grasp the concept of a sight-seeing trip. With a palpable energy, he started detouring and pointing out the wonders of the new Beijing, smiling happily each time we oohed and awed at the newly minted skyscrapers and innovatively designed buildings which seemed to be sprouting from every corner of the landscape. By the time we got back to the hotel, I felt a combination of awe, puzzlement and perhaps some vague disconcertion towards this great, empty, sparkling metropolis.

Had I been Janine or Marge Simpson, I might have uttered a happy but tired “hrmmm” about the whole thing. Instead, I fell silently, exhausted and a little damp into my fluffy bed. With a quick prayer of thanks to the travel gods for another unforgettable day, I fell asleep on the instant, blindfoldless, dreaming of exciting and enigmatic Beijing.

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