Note: I realize I’ve skipped day 8.  There are few words for what happened on the eighth day, and I am trying to bring those words forth, but pictures are worth a thousand words as they say.  And I don’t know if I want to publicly show the pictures.  We’ll see what happens… Anyway, enjoy my final day in China because I don’t think that I did…

Day 9: The best prank I’ve ever fallen for

China Eastern Airlines may quite possibly have just pulled off the greatest April Fools joke ever.  Let me indulge you in a story of peculiarity and confusion.  This involves myself, of course, and approximately 108 other people.  It is my last day in China and I have a long day of travel to look forward to.  This is the story of those travels…

Flight MU-5344 from Shenzhen (SZX) Airport to Shanghai Pudong International was scheduled to depart at 8:00 a.m. China time on April 1, 2009.  Not paying attention to the departing date of this flight was my first mistake.  Apparently, some airlines like to play jokes on their passengers on this, the “day of fools” as they call it.  Today was no exception, and I haven’t heard from any of my co-workers about anything ever going wrong on April fool’s day; however most of them never leave immediately after the quarter’s end.  The fact that I left on the day immediately after the quarter’s end is mainly due to the travel restrictions that were set in place by IBM and their tighter budget for 2009, which of course is in response to the global economy’s downfall.

This story is a direct result of those travel restrictions.  Or something like it it.  So like I mentioned, the flight was at 8:00 a.m.  I had Tony arrange for me a private car to take me from the  Crowne Plaza Landmark Suites Hotel to the Shenzhen Airport around 5:30 in the morning.  Thankfully, the driver was early because I was already checked out of my room and waiting in the lobby by 5:15.   When he got there, we had a quick head-nod exchange indicating that we recognized each other and were obliged to meet again (as this was the same driver that had picked me up from the SZX airport originally).  He tossed my luggage into the trunk of his ’06 Mitsubishi Lancer and away we sped.  Usually it takes about 50 minutes to get to the airport, but since it was so early in the morning we made it in almost exactly 40, probably a little under as it wasn’t even 6 a.m. when we first pulled up to terminal B.

After paying the kind gentleman and finding my airline’s check-in counter, found myself standing around waiting.  Apparently it was still too early for China Eastern Airlines, as nobody was at the ticketing counter.  After about 30 minutes of waiting around with eight other passengers, an employee appeared to begin checking us in.  The line of people that had congregated in front of the counter slowly shuffled forward and began the check-in process.  I was only about 5 or 6 people back, but it still took an extraordinary amount of time to get through each person.  This was somewhat disappointing but not terrible since I knew that I had ample time to make my flight.  After getting my boarding pass, sending off my new suitcase and then walking towards security I began to do the basic shakedown of items that may set off the metal detector.  You see, I’m the kind of traveler that likes to make a clean pass on the first try through security, and for me that usually entails emptying my pockets into my carry on, as well as removing my belt and placing that into my jacket.  One peculiarity that I’ve noticed in all the security terminals that I’ve gone through in China (even within IBM) are that when I attempt to take my belt off, I get shot a look that is on the verge of horror.  The security personnel usually shake their heads and then give me that look that says, “WTF are you doing?!?!”  It’s very close to a horrified expression that is hard to describe but makes me feel bad because I’m usually more inclined to pass through security unscathed than to keep my belt on and risk my buckle setting off the detectors.  I guess taking your belt off in China is either disrespectful or lewd.  Possibly both…

Hint: That Doesnt Say Mountain Dew

Hint: That Doesn't Say Mountain Dew

After making it through security, (and of course they wouldn’t allow me to remove my belt so I set off the alarm and had to get the hand wand before proceeding) I found my way to my gate and  took a  seat.  Much to my chagrin, this entire time  I could simply feel the eyes of every single person peering in to the back of my head.  I knew that the welt on the base of my neck was poking out from my t-shirt and I knew that everyone saw it and thought that I was some diseased freak.  I wish I could have worn a sign that simply conveyed how I had gone through a traumatic experience the night before and had the flaming cup treatment of Chinese lore.  I didn’t though, but I was still okay with having people give me funny looks as it wasn’t really anything new for me.  I guess I’m pretty used to it at this point in my life!

After a few minutes I decided to make a lap around the terminal and find a drink vending machine.  I popped in 5 Yuan and selected some orange substance that was basically orange pop with vitamins or something…  After enjoying my tasty beverage and finding myself a new seat I popped open my laptop to check up on emails and make sure nobody was missing me too dearly (Allie).  Shortly there after they started boarding our plane.  This process was rather normal and  I even managed to slip into the first class boarding line without any of the gate agents protesting.  I was glad to be one of the fist few on the plane because it allowed me to relax and set up my personal space before my row was invaded by ‘others’.  I was pretty tired at this point so  I made sure I waited until  my row filled up before trying to take a little snooze.  Two older women eventually came to occupy the seats next to me (I was in the aisle) and I even helped them with their baggage before finally taking my seat and then strapping in.

Within minutes of clicking my seat buckle closed the plane was pushed back from the gate and we began to taxi.  I took this as my cue to try to get some rest before  getting to Shanghai as I knew the the flight was only about 2 hours or so, and I really badly wanted to maximize my down time.  I closed my eyes and settled in and was out within seconds.

I don’t remember if I had any dreams or not.  It’s like in the beginning of Fight Club when the Narrator is describing insomnia as never knowing whether you’re awake or asleep.  I think I recall waking up once to recline my seat the half degree that it would allow me before drifting back off into the land of Nemo, but it’s fuzzy at best.  I think the safest bet is that I was probably out the entire time and only had a lucid visual hallucination that I woke up.  The only time  I’m positive that I awoke was a few hours later after we were already on the tarmac.  There seemed to be some commotion and I could tell that the other people on the plane were becoming anxious.  It appeared that we had not approached our gate yet, but for some reason were stuck mid-taxi.  I heard the pilot come over the PA system and inform us that there was a mechanical problem and that it might be another 15-20 minutes before we were able to move.  There were a number of guests arguing with the flight attendants in Chinese and I could only assume that they were concerned about missing their connecting flights.  I wondered how long we had been stuck so I pulled out my phone and turned it on (even though in China you’re not allowed to turn on your phone until the plane reaches the gate).  It was only 10:12, and I couldn’t possibly understand why some people were upset, as we were only a few minutes late (the plane was scheduled to arrive at 10); however I overheard somebody mention something about a connecting flight at 10:50.  I guess that is one of the many reasons why booking flights so close together isn’t always sthe best idea.  Regardless, my next flight wasn’t until 4:30 in the afternoon so I was quite calm and collected.  So far, I hadn’t even given thought to the fact that today was April Fool’s Day.  Keep that in mind…

After a few minutes the flight attendant came and spoke with the gentlemen seated in front of my row (they sounded like they were speaking Russian or Polish), and it almost seemed as if they were going to get off the plane before anyone else to make their 10:50 connection.  I thought that was a very nice gesture of the airline, but didn’t quite understand it, as unless they were getting personal taxi or something… they would probably take them all the way to terminal in a bus, so why give them the only ticket to ride?  Well as these men forced their way through the crowded aisle way, the remainder of the people on the plane followed.  As we all shuffled out onto a motorized staircase, I began to look around and noticed that our plane was all cartooney and had a pretty groovy paint job.  I was very glad at this point that it was warmer than my previous stint in Shanghai, as I wasn’t wearing a jacket, only a Tye-died t-shirt that my love once gave to me.  The weather in fact, was quite comparable to Shenzhen.

There were two buses in front of the motorized staircase and I hopped on the first one that was open.  After squeezing my way towards the interior of the bus and finding my way to a pole, I set down my carry-on bag and tried to clear my head.  I was still slightly groggy from sleeping on the plane ride, and was just trying to remain calm.  People all around me seemed to be very upset and I couldn’t quite fathom how so many people could be missing their connections.  There was one man who could speak English that I overheard saying that the airline “Really screwed up this time” and he was rather irate.  The bus dropped us off right at the baggage claim area, which I thought was great, as we didn’t really need to try to navigate our way through the Shanghai airport to find the correct belt.  Easy as pie.  There were a number of flight attendants trying to calm everyone down inside the baggage claim area and were instructing those who had missed their connection where to proceed to find a replacement flight.  I remained by the man that spoke English and tried to get a grasp on the situation, as well as await the arrival of my baggage.  As I waited, I was periodically looking around the lower level of the airport to try and figure out where the Transfer hall was.

The last time I was in this airport, I had to go to something called the Transfer hall, where I would “transfer” from an international flight (Chicago to Shanghai) to a Domestic flight (Shanghai to Shenzhen).  This time I would need to do the opposite, but it would still require re-checking my baggage in the transfer hall and getting my boarding passes.  After doing this I would have to pass through security again, which was the only part I wasn’t looking forward to.  Eventually I spotted my new luggage and proceeded to wander around looking for the transfer hall.  I found a single Transfer desk, but it was for the regular China Airlines and I needed Eastern; I asked them where I could get a transfer and showed them my boarding pass.  They looked at me like I was asking them where Santa Claus lived and then told me to go upstairs to the main ticketing area.  I didn’t really give any thought to this encounter and proceeded to find my way upstairs.  I could only find a down escalator at first until I realized I would have to go out almost to the street again and basically re-enter the airport, starting from scratch.  This was okay really, since going through the transfer hall my last time here wasn’t too far off from starting from scratch, so I went all the way to the street entrance doors and found an up escalator before heading upstairs.

One thing I noted about this downstairs area was that it was oddly reminiscent of the area that Tony had picked me up at when I first arrived at Shenzhen.  It wasn’t exactly the same, but I recognized the design on the banisters that separated the arrival flight area from the public access area, but that was the extent of the déjà vu moment.  In order to get up the escalator I had to lift my bags over the concrete poles that surrounded the base (almost like the ones that stop your car from driving through convenience store entrances).  After barely doing this step without blocking the people behind me (many of which were from my flight) I stumbled onto the escalator and tried to balance my bags so that they would not cause a domino effect and knock everybody down that was behind me.  As we got to the top of the escalator I was astounded at how many people were in the ticketing area.  I slowly proceeded forward, staring upwards trying to find a clue as to where the Eastern ticketing desk would be located.  I saw a very large room with LCD monitors above each of the ticketing gates just as there had been this morning at Shenzhen.

My moment of déjà vu quickly returned and I suddenly had a funny feeling in my tummy.  I looked to my left and saw a familiar staircase, which my eyes then followed upwards to rest upon a KFC sign (yes, that KFC).  I continued to scan this upper level and saw that a Golden Unicorn restaurant was off to the left of the KFC.  My heart skipped a beat for a moment as the sudden realization hit me.

We never left Shenzhen.

The plane had sat on the tarmac for 2+ hours, and they finally gave up on trying to fix the mechanical problems and decided to just send us back to the terminal to find new flights.  I was somewhat appalled.  Thankfully, my next flight wasn’t until much later so as long as I could get to Shanghai any time within the next 6 hours I would be okay.  I proceeded to ‘Ticket counter 10’, which I over heard a flight attendant mention in baggage claim.  This was where we were supposed to go for new flight info; however none of the other passengers from the plane were there.  Oh well, not a big deal I thought to myself when suddenly I heard a familiar voice.  It was the English speaking man from earlier who was yelling for me.  He told me to come his way, all the way down to the last ticket counter.  He was shouting saying that they would let us use the same boarding passes we just needed to recheck our luggage and then we could even go through the first-class security checkpoint.  Sweet!

I thanked the man, and got in line… the agents were working as fast as they could to recheck our luggage and weren’t even bothering to put new tags on our luggage.  That was odd, I thought as when you leave the baggage claim areas in China an agent waits and takes your claim ticket after checking to make sure you only took your own bag and nobody elses.  No matter I thought, as this was already a big flustercuck and we were reusing boarding passes anyway, so I’m sure somebody would get word that something funky was going on at our real destination.

It took about 15 minutes to get from that counter to the new gate for our flight, which was 36 (the original one was 4).  As we waited in line at our new gate I saw two buses pull up outside.  The agents let half of the line through to load up the bus, and I was on the first set.  We crammed ourselves in and started driving out onto the tarmac.  I kept looking around for our previous plane and quickly spotted it, since it was covered in cartoon decorations and bright and colorful.  It looked so lonely sitting there all by itself and it even had the motorized walkway still pulled up to the door.  The only thing missing this time was the technician with his torso inserted into the belly of the plane playing with the wires that were hanging out.  I wondered how long the plane would sit there before getting fixed.  As our bus started to pass the plane I noticed that there was a much smaller plane sitting not too far from our previous plane.  This plane was red and owned by a different airline (I assumed from the different symbol), which made me really question WTF was going on.

At that moment the bus started to turn.  Right towards the old plane.  I was horrified and mystified as the bus pulled up and opened the doors right in front of our old plane.  At nearly the same time, our luggage arrived.  The conveyor belt lifted up and started spewing our bags back into the belly of the same plane from whence they came only minutes before.  I was literally stunned.  I stepped off the bus and just stood there in defiance.  I could not believe what I was witnessing.  Our plane hadn’t moved a single inch.  Yet we were taking all the way back out to reclaim our luggage, recheck it and re-clear security only to have the same seats, on the same broken plane with all the same people.

It seemed like something out of a hidden camera show.  The kind of show that sees how far you can push somebody before they freak out and just snap.  As we re-boarded the plane and I saw all the familiar faces in their same seats I noticed that the English speaking gentleman was one row behind me and in the opposite aisle seat.  As I sat down he mentioned that it was April 1st.  What an april fools joke, I thought.  “Surprise!  The plane was okay, we were just messing with you!  April fools!! Oh what cheeky bastards we are!”  That’s what I envision the airline was saying to itself after we all got back onto the plane…

After resettling and getting everybody on board I assumed it would only be seconds before we began to taxi again, however a number of minutes went by and I started to feel a wave of doubt and an inkling of dread.  When the overhead view screens slid down and started playing the safety instructional video, I felt a little bit better.  The screens returned to their upwards and locked position and I was sure we would begin to move at any moment.

Any moment now…  But there was nothing.  We didn’t start moving.  The flight attendants were continually scrambling from the front to the back of the plane.  They refused to stop and answer any questions.  That familiar feeling of dread washed over me again.  Suddenly one of the flight attendants appeared next to me, only this time she was dragging the lunch cart with her.  The woman next to me had a quick exchange with her and became irate.  The flight attendant quickly proceeded to the front row and started passing out our lunch-time meals.  I overheard somebody mention that they would serve us lunch and then take off… apparently trying to satiate us with food and stop us from noticing that the mechanical problems hadn’t really been fixed yet.  April fools!!!   Oh man, what a good joke!  High fives to China eastern Airlines for pulling off two successful April fools jokes one after another.  Flawless execution, I’d say…  Well played CEA, well played.

Around 12:45 we finally took off.  I needed to transcribe these events and share them with you as quickly as possible.  It is now 1:32 and we’re almost starting our descent into Shanghai airport.  I hope that you were as entertained by these events as I was because this was an incredible story.  One that I will not soon forget.  Thanks for reading, and stay classy, San Diego.

What happened on your April fools day?  Share any practical jokes that you played or had played on you in the comments  below!

UPDATE:  Wow.  My flight in Shanghai is delayed 5+ hours.  I will assuredly miss my connection in Chicago and will need to stay over night to get an early flight to RDU.  I guess that’s karma for you :(