Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Is it always this hard to leave a place you like?

Sometimes I wonder if it’s just me. Or does everyone have these little adventures, things easily avoided if only you had enough information to prevent them from happening. Of all the people I know I am the most detailed planner when it comes to traveling, yet time and time again, stuff just happens. Rarely serious, unless you consider racing to catch a plane to be that; normally just little things that make me glad I get to the airport early.

I did an accounting the other day and realized I had more than 30,000 Yuan to my name. Not exactly a princely sum when you consider the 6.83 exchange rate, but enough to get me thinking that it might be time to start spending it, lest I end up like other expats I know with 100,000 in the bank on the day their assignment ends. Some of it is necessary like the 7000 I keep in my safe in case I need a CT scan. The bulk of it is the result of reimbursement for business travel because when you come to China, you cease to be an American employee. The money you spend is returned to you in the local currency leaving you to pay your bills with your personal money and starting the collection of lots of Yuan. The system is pretty stupid and I’m glad I don’t have a lot of corporate travel because that is a one-way ticket to becoming a Yuan Millionaire, something that no one should strive for unless you plan to live here forever. Things are cheap and it’s a challenge to unload the cash unless you decide to go completely native and start blowing it on Mojitos at the Havana Pub and pizzas at the Brooklyn Bar. But even then I doubt I could drink and eat enough to make a dent.

When I had a plan to go to Tibet I agreed to pay for the tour in cash so I was slowly building up a stash of 6500 Yuan. It takes a few days, or even a week if you’re not dedicated to the task because Wells Fargo only allows me to take 2000 per day. So it’s at least 4 trips to the bank to do it. But I had it sitting there and when Tibet fell through and I was left with more than 14,000 in my safe which is enough for 2 CT scans and a cardiac ultrasound, far more tests than I was planning to have. I needed a plan and one presented itself – I’d pay for my vacation in Xi’an in cash.

And all of this lead-up brings me to the gist of the story, I felt like an international arms smuggler standing at the counter of the Xi’an Shangri La counting covering a 5100 tab, one dirty 100 Yuan note at a time. A completely new experience for me for sure, paying in cash. And given that I had 4 hours to kill before heading to the airport, the extra 15 minutes it took for me to count them out and for the desk clerk to run them 3 times through the money-counting machine was fine with me.

The doorman (who was actually a woman) called up a cab for me and opened the door, placing her white-gloved hand on the doorframe, lest I bump my over-sized American head. A nice, personal touch I thought. We pulled out of the lot and headed across Xi’an first on city streets and then on the newly constructed airport expressway. Along the way we passed two places I thought might be worth visiting in the future, a newly opened Han mausoleum and a museum called “The Start of the Silk Road.” We arrived at the airport in about 35 minutes, giving me a solid 3.5 hours to find my way to my plane.

The cabbie dropped me at Terminal 2, the place I had arrived back on Friday night. It wasn’t obvious to me that there was a Terminal 1, and when I saw giant white numbers above the doors at each end of the concourse, I figured they had sort of a “virtual” line between the two, within the same building. I went inside and started looking for the check-in counter, but this airport seemed to be different. Instead of the regular shared counters that every other airport in China uses, this one seemed to be following the American model – every airline had their own. And no matter how hard I tried, I was not seeing one for China Southern.

I looked around for the board that would explain what counters were checking in what flights, and it took some work to find it. Of course, my flight was not on it but I did find another China Southern flight that said Counter 68 was where I should be. So I walked from one end to the other and never found a counter higher than 48. It was time to ask a question and I turned my attention to the non-existent information booth, finally giving up and going to a China Eastern counter. I was rebuffed by the first two kids behind the counter who found my request ridiculous. They shoved me off on their friend who told me to go to Terminal 1. When I asked where that was, she replied, “Go outside”, so I did, not that I was sure why. I repeated the one-end-to-the-other walk on the front sidewalk, seeing nothing that suggested a path to Terminal 1. On my second pass I happened to notice a sign that told all China Southern passengers to go to Terminal 1 and it even provided directions “Walk 300 meters east.” Okay, I’m up on a platform above the airport with two auto ramps at opposite ends and there doesn’t seem to be a way for a pedestrian to get down to the ground unless they’re willing to walk among the cars. I’m not about to climb down the side of the building and I don’t know which direction is east. And I only have a vague notion of how far 300 meters is. So I went back inside, choosing an official looking youth in a security guard uniform which included a shiny white combat helmet.

I mustered my best Chinese and established the fact that this was Terminal 2. Progress, we had agreement here. The next step was to confirm that Terminal 1 was somewhere else. He told me to go outside. I asked him how to get there. He didn’t understand me. I asked him again. He told me that we were on the 2nd floor and that I needed to be on the 1st floor. I asked him if there was an elevator. He said yes. I asked him where. He told me to “Go outside.” So I did, walking the full length of the front sidewalk until I reached the door for international departures, which presented new territory so I went in figuring I’d walk the whole thing again. This time though I happened to stumble upon an escalator heading down which I took and suddenly I was in the departures area. Once again figuring that someone would tell me to “Go outside” I decided to spare them the effort and I went outside on my own initiative. Now I had a new front sidewalk to explore, this one covered and so not so hot, that appeared to head out from under the auto ramps. The sun at the end was literally the light at the end of the tunnel so like a moth I headed that way and sure enough as the roof ended a sidewalk continued off to what must have been the east. A side said – 300 meters to Terminal 1.

All of this suffering was rewarded when I sped through check-in, served by a surly clerk and then surfed through security being the only person in line. It was quick and it was over. I spent the next 1.5 hours sitting in the waiting area watching the people cough without covering their mouths. I washed my hands a lot with sanitizer.

This last little adventure in Xi’an set me to thinking about how westerners solve problems like this in a country where the language is so remote. There is no one to ask and the ones you do tell you to “Go outside.” Again my tiny bit of Chinese saved me, as the final bit of information that solved it for me was the 1st and 2nd floor thing. When I run into things like this, it makes me understand why my hotel was full of people on a tour – it’s easy and you’re insulated. Stuff just happens behind the scenes and it looks completely trouble-free to you. On the other hand, when you get home you don’t have these silly little tales to regale your relatives with. I mean honestly, how interesting is a story told over Thanksgiving dinner that amounts to climbing in and out of tour buses? For now, I think I’ll stick to this style and the bumpy roads it often presents.

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