Sunday, January 20, 2008

A handful of domestic travel moments

Yesterday was a travel day, leaving Dalian and flying down to Shanghai. I had decided to go a day early in order to better use the time on Monday for work items and so I needed to change my tickets.

The hotel had a ticket office so I went in and sat down and had a 10 second conversation with one of the agents who told me that her system could not look at any intinerary that had been initiated outside of China. Her recommendation - head across the street to the China Southern ticket office. I didn't feel like going back upstairs for a jacket and so I went out into the arctic air for the short walk.

It's amazing how much we rely on our outerwear when we move about in a deep freeze. For this distance - across 4 lanes, I suprisingly fine in my sweater. I only began to panic when I reached the office and couldn't open the door - it was blocked by a mop jammed through the interior door handles. I stood there and stared slowly beginning to rue my choice of clothing until some men standing in a foyer off to the right beckoned me to come it. They pointed me to a short jog to the right and I was finally inside.

There was one fellow already at the counter along with the three of us. No one would look up or acknowledge our presence, a typical occurance in China and I suspect it's because few speak English and they simply don't want to get into a conversation that they cannot participate in. Five or so minutes passed and Matt went up and spoke to one of the agents who went from indifference to abject terror in the span of 15 words. She choked out a "please wait for next agent" and went back to pretending to read her monitor.

My turn finally came up and I began the task of trying to explain what I wanted to change. I got through that, but the fact that three of us wanted to do the same thing required some additional explanation. Once that was clear it became necessary to provide passports, of which I was the only person who had theirs, the other two headed back out to retrieve theirs and the women in the office broke out into fit of giggles about the foreigners going outside without jackets.

A couple of more iterations and exchanges and instructions as to which part of our printed itineraries were our names and which were our addresses and we were done. Well, at least we thought we were done because they handed the sheets back to us and simply stopped talking. I asked if we were in fact done, and we got hung up on what exactly the word "done" meant. Complete? No more work? Nothing seemed to work until I broke the impass with "is this it?" Apparently the indictor was the little official PostIt that she had stuck on our paperwork.

I told the agent "good work" which made her frown and blush which made me wonder what I had actually said but she smiled again when I thanked her. I think they were glad to see us go.

The trip to the airport was typical, a video game cab ride with plenty of bobbing and weaving. After checking in at a gate which was not supposed to be open for us for another hour, I decided to go over and get a China Southern frequent fliers card. At my first stop I was met by another agent ignoring me until I won the staring contest. I asked for "Sky Pearl" which she couldn't get, despite this being the name of their program. She handed me a piece of paper and asked me write it down which put me to wondering if she could read it, why couldn't she understand me saying it. It finally sunk in and she sent me down to desk 6, using Chinese, and I made it about 10 steps before going back and asking her to repeat that. This time I got it and off I went.

There was one person in front of me at the Sky Pearl desk and whatever she was asking for was taking forever. I was waiting when a young couple came over and essentially bulled their way in front of me. This is typical over here - line position is simply not respected and it doesn't bother anyone. Except me. I just put myself between them and the agent and kept on waiting. I think it helped that I had about 12" on the young man and my snow boarding jackets makes my arms look like tree trunks. They asked for a membership card and I countered with a request as well. I upped the ante by starting to fill out the card in advance of getting the agent's attention and they did the same. It was an escalating battle of wits at this point and I was not about to lose. Finally the woman in front of me concluded her business and I handed my card in and waited. The rest of the process took a couple of minutes and I was on my way.

Domestic security here is not quite that rigid, aside from the fact that my atempt to stand to the side of the podium while my passport and ticket were being checked was met with a firm order to get back in front. I set off the metal detector due to my watch, belt buckle and a 1 yuan coin in my watch pocket which resulted int he same full body scan that everyone gets. I produced the coing and I was allowed to go inside.

The thing to always remember about domestic flights in China is that the departure gate if often nothing more than a recommendation. My ticket said Gate 11 at 10:15. Two guys I knew, going out at 10:00 had Gate 7 printed on theirs. The monitor said I was leaving via Gate 13 and that they were heading out of Gate 11. Their plane did leave from 11 and mine as it turned out did leave from 13, this despite the fact that the monitors at the gates reflected a 3rd reality. Entirely different cities at entirely different times. Just remember to trust the monitor unless a better option presents itself.

My gate was situated at the far end of the airport concourse, down a short escalator that ran in a power conservation mode until you stepped on it which caused a rapid increase in speed. If you have ever desired a tangible demonstration of the sinking properties of cold air, Dalian Airport is the place to see the evidence. 3 meters lower and 10 degrees colder. You could see your breath.

The gates down at that end have no jetways and so you ride out to the plane on busses. There was no plane in sight from our vantage point so I was a bit surprised when a quarter past ten rolled around and the doors opened presenting us with a 10 mph head wind and a -30 windchill. The busses were about 10 feet lower than the platform (in the US, they move up and down) and this slight problem was solved with a series of tiny marblesteps. This made rolling carry-on luggage a genuine liability and I wonder what they're like when it's icy. Lacking heat, the busses were essentially rolling Frigidares, the only saving grace was the heat generated by the closely packed bodies.

Once loaded, we started driving back down the direction we had walked, essentially back to the region of Gate 11 where we had thought we were leaving from in the first place. I guess the ticket was right, in a roundabout way.

Out of the busses and into a scrum surrounding the bottom of the jetway. No organized line here, we just inched forward until the chance to elbow someone in the chest presented itself and when mine did, I capitalized on it. As I was about to hand my ticket to the agent at the bottom of the stairs, I wondered how funny it would be if we missed the hand-off and the wind took it away.

The scene on the plane was typical - people walking back and forth, with and against the flow of the traffic. If you stopped to put your bag up, people climbed right over you. I got into my seat and out of the stampeding herd.

Up in the air on time, the only hitch being the exhaust fumes that were filling the plane. That finally stopped once we achieved cruising altitude. Lunch came along - beef with rice, a cold dinner roll, a package of pickled radishes and the best tangerine I have ever tasted. Apparently I took too long to decide on my beverage because the flight attendant (male) punched me in the arm to let me know he was in need of an answer.

Across the Bao Hai (sea) and down across the delta of the Yangtze where it was pouring cats and dogs, a big difference from what we left behind. The exhaust fumes returned. We landed and drove up to the gate and recieved a big jolt, the pilot having perhaps driven into something immoveable. No problems in the airport aside from luggage claim where mine did not seem to appear even to the point of nothing left on the belt. I made one last desparate scan and saw a bag of the correct size heading back into the luggage unloading area. I ran down the wet marble floor and grabbed it and sure enough - it was mine. I had once again been fooled by the bag being placed upside down on the conveyor. Long ago, I chose Tree Frog Green luggage for the expressed purpose of it being unique and recognizable, two features rendered useless when the bag comes out with the black side up. This is not the first time I've been skunked by this as My Lovely Wife will attest.

The taxi line was busy but not overwhelming. We elected to wait as opposed to taking the Maglev Train as we knew it would be tough to catch a cab at the other end and no one wanted to do the subway since it would mean a 10 block walk in the pouring rain from the station to the hotel.

As I stood in line I saw a demonstration of synchronized smoking - three right-handed men lit up and started smoking in perfect unison. Hard to put into words, it was amazing how these three fellows lined up in actions and time.

Our turn came up and we tried to load our gear into a standard cab. The propane tank in the trunk pretty much prevented that so we were shuttled over to a waiting van. This is a pretty cool feature of cab riding at the Pudong Airport - they always have a handful of vans waiting in the queue for groups with a lot of bags.

No problem fitting in there and so we were on our way.

One of the interesting traits of Shanghai cabbies is that they all drive the same way regardless of what type of vehicle they command. As you might expect, a Toyota van does not handle the same at 100 KPH on a rainy road as a Volkswagon Jetta. Most of the time you feel like you're up on two wheels. In and out and back and forth he juked that beast much to the disatisfaction of my stomach. I began to wish I had passed on the pickled radishes.

The driver followed the standard route but eventually exited the highway and bombed down the bus lane along some major boulevard. He sensed our confusion and pointed to an upcoming gas station. He pulled in and parked and jumped out. In an amusing singsong voice, he called for the attendant "xiejie, xiejie" the Chinese word for "Miss." That didn't work, so he started whistling, as though for his dog. We were roaring.

A young man came over and started to pump the gas. As the tank filled, our driver and the attendant hunkered down and stared into the gas pipe. Click, click, click, the attendant tried to squeeze a couple of more drops in. The driver implored him to continue. When it appeared that was all that could be forced into the pipe, the driver put both hands on the top of the van and started rocking it back and forth - I guess he was trying to settle the gasoline. While it makes sense for sand, Cheerios and pecans, I can't see the benefit of settling a liquid.

Satisfied that there was no room left, he climber back in and we continued the journey ultimately arriving safely after a handful of close calls and staredowns. Nothing more than another typical day on the road.

We had dinner at the Face Bar, an elegant restaurant and bar located in a 1930s mansion that once belonged to a British commissioner. I've mentioned this place in previous blogs and it is such a treat to go there. Our reservations this time were at Lan An Thai, my first visit. The last time I was there we had Indian because the Thai place was booked. We had drinks in the bar while we waited for our table. I had a Gin Gimlet, chilled to perfection in a martini glass with a paper-thin slice of lime floating on the surface. Expats came and went and the atmosphere slowly drifted back 80 years to the peak of the colonial period. Dinner was upstairs, the room was dark and spacious and it was not much of a reach to conjure up an evening in the drawing room reading the daily dispatches from the Home Office while enjoying a glass of gin.

Dinner arrived and the dishes were given to the wrong people. The fact that the various "colored" curries of Thai cuisine are rarely their advertised hue didn't help matters much as not even we were sure whose was whose. Matt ended up enjoying my green curry chicken so much that he refused to hand it over. His yellow curry was not that bad and I was ultimately compensated by desert, a dense chocolate mousse infused with rum (Chocolate Rum Pot.) It was not far off from another cocktail and it was the perfect end to the day.

(Here's a picture of Matt and his new pair of Dalian street market glvoes. Spiffy, eh?)
















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