Saturday, June 19, 2010

One final day in Beijing, a boring hiatus and a ride back home

Ending a trip with a loved one is very tough, and it's even harder when you have to put them on a plane and in turn, get on a plane yourself to somewhere else. Outside of long distance romances, vacations generally end with a pile of dirty laundry and a stack of mail to sort. When you meet someone in a foreign land, spend a week roaming around and then head in separate directions, the finality of it hits home harder.

Gwynn and I caught a cab and spent an hour in the Beijing rush hour traffic arriving at the airport with plenty of time. I snuck her through the status line, this time without any question about her carry-on and backpack (the agent noting on her boarding pass that the backpack was “not full”) and we went downstairs to Starbucks where I tried to prove once again to another skeptic that it had table service. When Aidan and I were there in March, I'd been proved a liar and this time would be no different; while a gal in an apron did show up just as we were finishing, she was busing tables and not taking orders. I was grudgingly granted that she might “someday” be taking orders but still I had no proof. I'm starting to suspect that the service begins after noon, when the volume of travelers reaches its peak.

It was getting close to the witching hour so we headed back upstairs and I sent her off to catch the train to the international terminal. It's such a funny feeling for a parent seeing your baby, all grown up, walking off towards a plane that will ferry her 7000 miles distant. They don't prepare you for that in Lamaze class. We made an agreement that she would send me a text message when the plane was leaving and I went back down to Starbucks for another coffee.

I had My Lovely Wife watching Flight Tracker and we would talk every once in a while. There seemed to be a delay - precisely the reason I booked my trip 4 hours after her departure. There is nothing worse than trying to deal with a cancelled flight in this country if you have never done it before. I have and I wouldn't wish it on anyone, let alone someone just ending their first trip. I sat and drank my Americano and waited for the message that never came. My Lovely Wife reported that the tracker information had not changed and so an hour after the supposed departure I went back upstairs stood in the status line and asked the agent if the plane had left. She asked, "Unaccompanied minor traveling alone?" and I said "Yes, something like that." She confirmed that the plane was in the air. I went downstairs and started looking for the bus to the other terminal where I would be catching my flight home.

The old Beijing airport is still in service and can be reached from the new one via a special subway or a shuttle bus. In the olden, pre-2008 Olympics days, it was where I arrived and departed on every trip I took. The new airport opened just before the athletes came and today serves almost all of the international traffic. It was a wonderful day for me no longer having to use the old facility, because it was chaotic. The lines were long and disorganized and the entry into the international area was through a single door in a giant blue wall. That choke point always created a violent mob of people trying to squeeze through. And the worst of it was coming in from Dalian, landing at the old terminal and taking the bus to the new one. These buses are not built for how they're intended to be used. Instead of designing something that catered to people with multiple pieces of luggage (think the rental car shuttles at our airports), these are old tour buses with a couple of rows of seats removed. Boarding and un-boarding are exercises in stupidity with everyone pushing and shoving and trying to get out the door. And so when I finally figured this out, I never again used a domestic airline that required me to switch terminals going to or coming from the US.


Today, the new one is by and large underutilized and so a dream for travelers like me who appreciate a minimum amount of static when mentally preparing to spend the next 24 hours crossing the globe. Domestic flights though are limited to Air China and since I was not on that carrier I had no choice but to catch the bus to the old one. I did make a half-hearted attempt at using the subway, but I was unable to find a reduced fare ticket - the standard rate for the ride all the way into the city was all that was offered. And I wasn't about to spend 4 whole dollars when I could ride for free. Of course in China, the old adage "you get what you pay for" rings true with just about every decision that involves money.

There was a bus waiting when I got there and it was about 1/2 full. I boarded and carried my bag to the back since the luggage bins were completely full. In any other country lack of storage space on airport shuttle might be construed as a reason to close the door and get going. Not here, here it's far more important to fill those remaining 5 seats than it is to make it safe and easy for your patrons. This driver had clearly been told to wait until there were no empties, because that's just what we did. With the door open on the hottest day yet. Every person who got on looked around and made preparations to stand. The driver would yell at them to sit down. When we got down to one last seat - the one my suitcase was in, I prayed we would go but a lone man came out of the terminal and headed for the door. He stepped in, took a look around and grabbed the overhead rail. The bus driver yelled at him as well and so he started the climb up the stairs to the back; I grabbed my bag, lifted it up on my lap and waved him into the spot. We settled in for the trip.

Beyond riding for a half hour with an aluminum carry-on bag under my chin, the rest of my day was easy. I hung around the waiting area, ate a chocolate bar and eavesdropped on a couple of American also heading up north. One was bragging loudly about getting help with his Chinese language studies "from the young ladies" which I think is what every single expat man in China seems to be about. I moved out of earshot and boarded when the announcement finally came. It was an easy hour in the air and Jiang was waiting for me when I arrived. With a hot take-out course of rabbit legs and Sichuan green beans.

I only had a week or so of work before heading back out for a trip to the US - horse babysitting season was once again upon me. I wandered through the days not terribly focused, thinking instead of the great trip I'd just had and about making preparations for the next one. The latter required some thinking because my assignment here is starting to wind down and I must maximize my travel home in order to bring as many of my valuables back as I can. For this leg I decided on one of my computers.

There was one interesting event while I was biding my time - the government decided to turn off the television for all the foreigners. I got up one morning and found I had no signal when I tried to start my day as I always do with the BBC. Having a satellite system, this is nothing unusual but it did seem odd when it was still not working at the end of the day. That evening I discovered that a friend was having the same problem and he'd been told that everyone on an alien work permit was in the same boat. Seems that foreigners do not have the same satellite receiver that the locals do, and that our relocation consultants were going to have to "negotiate with all the landlords" about the price increase that the government-owned satellite company was demanding. Statements like that can be made in China without irony. Ten seconds of thought told me that this was going to be a long process - there are perhaps 200 expat families with our company alone, and almost everyone has their own landlord. But the relocation company said that was the process, and so I left Dalian with a dead system and no prospect for its repair. Honestly though, aside from the BBC, I never used it all that much.

Having had my fair share of travel hiccups heading for home from this godforsaken outpost on the Yellow Sea, I now leave mid-afternoon on the day before and spend the night in Beijing. I stay at my favorite hotel and get up for the trip to the airport at a reasonable time. If I try to do it all in one day, it means leaving my apartment at 6 AM for an 8:30 flight that might just get me there in time to check in before they close the gate at 11:00. I've missed that connection enough times to adjust my behavior, and for $180 I get to spend a peaceful night not thinking about any of it. And so this is now my standard. I got out of town without a hitch, grabbed my bag and went looking for a taxi.

I've reported before how cabbies here don't seem to know where the Renaissance Capital Hotel is despite having a Chinese language business card that gives them the address. I've trained myself to give directions in Chinese - 5th Ring Road to Jintong Expressway to 4th Ring Road to the Toghuihe exit, take that to the 3rd Ring Road, turn left and go 1 kilometer. Sometimes they're glad to have the help. Other times they get mad at me and correct my logic. This time when I told the driver that I could tell him how to get there, he laughed and shook his head and repeated the part where I said "I've been there many times." I did get there even though he took the slow way, contrary to my well-planned route. I think he was punishing me.

I guess I've reached the status of "regular" at this hotel because the girls behind the desk greeted me by name as I exited the elevator. It's nice and even nicer when they personally deliver a chilled Perrier to my door 15 minutes after I've checked in. Even funnier was the fact that I ended up in the same room that Gwynn had on our last leg the week before. And even funnier than that was bumping into the couple that had been next door to her. I asked if they had left and returned or if they were still there. The man told me they'd been there for 16 nights which precisely put book ends on our trip.

After spending a bit of time in the lounge drinking a club soda and making a meal of their appetizers I decided to take a walk to the Starbucks that is next door to the counterfeit market on Jianguomen Road. About a mile to a mile and a half, it's a nice way to get out and get some air once the sun is no longer up and capable of frying your brain. It's also nice to have a walk in late rush hour Beijing, the sights and sounds are well worth the sweat you work up.

The coffee shop was full of foreigners just as it always is trying their best to act important and worldly. Hunched over their laptops, talking loudly on their phones, I suppose it’s no different here than it is anywhere. Except that you don’t see the Chinese doing it. I paid the girl with the traditional two handed Chinese method of giving the cash, but she surprisingly just threw my change down on the counter. The Chinese girl in line behind me smiled and nodded at the obvious affront. I had it in mind to sit outside and people watch, but the tables were all consumed with smokers so I decided instead to enjoy my drink on a slow walk home. This is a pretty fancy part of the city, being close to all the foreign embassies and so there is a lot of nice shopping and chic restaurants. I walked past a very upscale Pizza Hut which in China is saying something. I know I've told the tales before of maĆ®tre’s d and velvet ropes but this one was fancy enough to merit a genuine distinction - valet parking with a Ferrari California prominently parked in the number one spot. It was so shockingly discordant that I walked right by before it registered but coming to my senses, I managed to grasp the enormity of the moment and went back for a couple of photographs.

As I was nearing my hotel a woman on a bicycle in the bike lane on the very busy Ring Road pulled alongside me and started to talk. I wasn't quite sure what she was after so I did my best to understand but finally just kept going ahead. At an intersection she pulled across my path and stopped. She reached in her bike basket and pulled out a bag. In it was a collection of homemade porno DVD's and she was trying to sell them to me. I got a good laugh out of that one and kindly thanked her but declined. She smiled and rode on.

I've grown quite accustomed to getting business class upgrades these past few years, but the availability of them dried up when the economy began to recover and companies willing to pay for their employee's wellbeing started to pay full fare. It's never a good sign when my upgrade has not cleared by the time I check in, and sure enough it wasn't on this day. But I asked at the gate and lo and behold I'd hit the jackpot again - upstairs seating on the big bird. It was only after saying "hello" to flight attendant I recognized from my last trip and "son of a gun" to the couple that had been next door to me at the hotel that I realized my prize came with a price - I had a backwards facing seat. When United refurbished the business cabins on their 747's they installed forward and backwards facing pods – more seating in the same space. The upside was a lie-flat bed, the downside; well I wasn't sure if there was one. At least not until the plane took off and I was reminded of a trip I took to the Denver 6 Flags with Gwynn. A trip on which I learned on multiple high speed roller coasters that my inner ear (and by association my stomach) didn't like moving in that manner. Sure enough as we rose and put the Capital Airport behind us, all I could think of was that nauseating swinging Viking boat at Cliff's Amusement Park in Albuquerque where I swore I'd never do it again. Thankfully my desire to vomit ceased once we reached cruising altitude. And I was fine all the way until landing when I had to grit my teeth and stare at the floor because glancing out my row mate's window and seeing the Earth swaying from side to side brought the sensation right back.

I managed to make it home more or less on time after sitting in the lounge in SFO for four tedious hours and then on the tarmac for an one more. My Lovely Wife was dutifully waiting for me and we caught up over our traditional dinner at Flying Star, Pasta Pomodora for her and a Rancher's Melt for me.

And for now I'm settled into a life of desert domesticity at least for the next month - feeding horses and riding my bike in the morning while working China hours in the evening. I’ve sent My Lovely Wife off to the jungles of the Southeast and now it’s just me and Ted. I got to see a crystal clear waxing crescent moon setting over the trees out back and I rescued a snake from my neighbor’s dog by putting it in a tree. Don’t ask, the mechanics of that were even odder than you can imagine. It’s good to be home.




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