Friday, January 23, 2009

Beijing to Barcelona: Terry Plays the Mental Health Card

Chinese New Year’s is the biggest holiday of the year in these parts. In the words of a CNN segment I saw the other morning – “The greatest migration in human history” – which of course brings to mind those pictures we’ve seen of Wildebeest moving across the plains of Africa slowing down only to cross the occasional river where they get eaten by giant crocodiles.

Here, people move all over the country disappearing for weeks at a time. All manners of business from construction to language lessons are disrupted when everyone returns to the provinces to spend time with their families. Trains are sold out months in advance, the roads are jammed with cars and buses choked with people and the airports are mobbed. In short it’s a good time to not travel, but at the same time it’s a good time to go away because everything is closed.

We observe it at our job with three days of paid holiday and I had begun a few weeks ago to plan a trip out of town. Many flights leave Beijing for exotic places – Dubai, Frankfurt, London, Sydney, Amsterdam, Bangkok – and so I did a little planning and finally decided on a trip to Barcelona. I booked it with Expedia and made my plans.

One morning while lying in bed I had a thought – why not see if there was a reasonable means for My Lovely Wife to join me. While a trip en solo was appealing, what could be more romantic than for the two of us to travel from opposite sides of the globe, meeting in the middle? And so I presented the plan, made the arrangements and started counting the days. For her – Albuquerque to Phoenix to London to Barcelona and for me – Dalian to Beijing to Frankfurt to Spain. What an adventure, alone together.

I had booked an early flight out of Dalian on Friday morning but that aforementioned CNN spot spooked me. I didn’t want to think about the consequences of me getting stuck in that massive migration while she sat around enjoying Tapas and Paella. Plus the day before my departure, the weather changed with thick gray skies and a howling wind. So I got on the line with my helpful bilingual agent at Ctrip and changed my flight to that very night.

We took our entire work crew out for a pre-holiday lunch to a fantastic Sichuan place here in Kai Fa Qu. Too many dishes – 18 in total – all of them wonderful, or “hen haoche” as we say here. Best of all – cold spicy beef tongue, floating in red pepper oil. A worthy challenger to the tongue of Cottonwood Lane.

I packed up and left for the airport giving myself plenty of time. My driver asked me in Chinese if he could use the car over the holiday, a question of which I got about 10%. I agreed and was later barraged with a bunch of text messages from him and the car company making sure I had approved it. Before leaving, I handed him the traditional “hong bao” or red envelope, a little bonus/bribe for his past and future good service. For him it was a big deal, about 1/3 of a month’s pay.

The trip to Beijing was easy and fast. I ended up getting into an argument with the cab driver about the fee as he expected me to pay the toll as well as the meter reading. I didn’t really have a problem with that, it was only $1 but it made me realize how hard it would be for non-speakers to solve something this contentious and yet simple. I checked in and went to sleep.

This morning I took in the breakfast buffet to the tune of $30, the price you pay for a good hotel in a good part of town. I later managed to talk them out of the charge based on my status at this particular hotel. Again, it’s all about bluffing here – you ask and they generally give in.

I had a couple of hours to waste so I went out figuring I’d catch the subway to Tian’ Anmen Square, two stops down the line. It was absolutely freezing and I was largely unprepared as I was dressed for a cross between China and Spain. But I persevered pulling up my hood and power walked to the station.

Chinese subways are pretty simple to navigate and this was no exception. I bought my ticket, caught the train and I was on my way. Between two stations they had installed video screens on the walls of the tunnel, flashing advertising for Microsoft, timed so that you could see the ad as the train raced by.

I got off at Tian’ Anmen East and slowly walked up the stairs, allowing the roof of the Forbidden City to come into view against the deep azure sky. It was one of those moments that bring chills. Or maybe it was just the howling wind and my freezing ears. Whatever it was, it was wonderful.

I didn’t have a lot of time so I walked fast taking time to shoot a few pictures and enjoy the sights. I made my way up to the point where they collect fees, the second grand plaza and stopped to drink in the sights. A small squad of soldiers marched by, their olive uniforms contrasting with the deep red walls of the palace. But it was time to head back so I stopped only to buy an 80 cent knit cap to save my ears and beat a path to the subway.

Back now at the airport, the only interesting moment came at immigration when the agent did a double take at something on the computer and called over his supervisor who made a phone call. They looked, the first guy chuckled, he stamped my boarding card and sent me on. Who even knows what that was about, I suppose it will become clear later, or perhaps not.

I hung around the Business Lounge eating pumpkin soup and Kit Kats until it was time to leave. The gate was just down the escalator and off to the right and rounding the corner I had an immediate awakening – the Lufthansa flight was really an Air China flight. Now I’ve done this leg before, and it was a nice clean German airplane with a smiling, courteous blond crew, clean bathrooms and good food. I could only imagine what an Air China transcontinental was going to be like, and if you’re wondering too, I’ll tell you – it’s like a 10 hour domestic Chinese flight with the same bad food, the same drink cart and the same ill-behaved passengers. It all started with the boarding – a giant scrum of shoving people while the overhead announcement was telling us we would board by row numbers. The First Class line faded under the onslaught of regular passengers and you could see the people who paid $10,000 for their ticket standing there in silent shock. I did luck out with a bulkhead seat although the row number – 51 – had suggested otherwise. The guy next to me asked if he could have my aisle seat due to health reasons and I told him of my claustrophobia which put an end to that discussion. It turned out that he too lived in Dalian, working for a German automotive firm and was on his way home for back surgery. I did feel a pang of remorse, but I didn’t think the sight of me having a 10 hour panic attack was in anyone’s best interest.

The 10 hours went by reasonably fast, I waited at least 4 of them for people to get out of the rest rooms. As I have mentioned In the past, I just can’t imagine what people are doing in those stinky little closets for 20 minutes at a time.

Frankfurt as always presents a challenge to find one’s way around. It is a long, long walk from terminal to terminal and the routes usually involve a few elevators, escalators, stairs, shuttles and trains. I was happy to get a German immigration stamp in my passport, something I had managed to miss during my trips to and from Dublin through this airport.

So now I sit in the Lufthansa Business Lounge wondering where My Lovely Wife is (seems I landed after she departed) and reflecting on the day. It started at the Shangri La in Beijing, included two subway rides, a visit to Tian’ Anmen Square, a taxi trip, a mystery at Chinese immigration, a long haul on a short haul plane, extensive walking and now a piece of brown bread, a banana and a tangerine. And, it’s not over yet.



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