Construction in Shenzhen

24 hours ago I was in the Raleigh-Durham Airport. It was early Monday morning, and I was still trying to come down from the inexplicable emotional high that was felt watching my best friend of the past 15 years get married. I believe an apt description for my mental state would have been tattered, but honestly who’s keeping track these days?

Thanks to the 4 day weekend, my work Inbox was overwhelmed with e-mails. I sat at my gate trying to sort through the influx of bold subject lines, and pare it down to the most important ones; however these emails would not get answered just yet. For today, I had to prepare for a grueling journey. A journey that I had embarked on four times prior, and yet was no less difficult than the first time.

The newest section of the pristine Terminal 2 at RDU was sparsely populated, and the relatively quiet atmosphere helped me concentrate on the task at hand. I don’t know whether this was a good or a bad thing, as it prevented me from preparing for the next important task, which was cramming myself into an uncomfortable, cramped seat inside of a small metal tube for 14 hours as it traversed the forgotten northern regions of our Continent and crossed the Arctic Ocean before finally descending over Russia and then crossing the northern border of China.

The distraction of sorting through emails was an ample segway into the first leg of my trip. This flight from RDU to Dulles in Washington D.C. was as uneventful as any domestic US flight can be these days. After arriving in D.C., there was only enough time to hit the rest room before walking to my next gate and then integrating my own biomass into the roiling crowd that was forming at the gate for my flight to Beijing, China.

At some point before I had arrived at this particular gate, somebody must have indicated that a small subset of passengers were eligible to board the plane. Of course, this prompted the entire population of passengers awaiting their turn to rise from their seats and throw their bodies against the straining velvet ropes that help guide willing passengers towards the jet bridge. This particular crowd seemed entirely confounded by the events that were transpiring, and I could only assume that a good percentage of the people who were overwhelming the gate agents could not speak very much English. This hypothesis was further confirmed as the poor agents had to turn away passenger after passenger with an increasingly terse, “No, Groups one through three ONLY!”. Surprisingly, as the volume and tenacity of this simple statement increased, the understanding on the part of the crowd remained constant. I would peg it somewhere around the zero mark.

In the Air

I was lucky enough to have been awarded a free upgrade to Economy Plus by a lovely United Airlines ticketing agent, so I was able to push my way through the crowd and past a gate agent unscathed. Speaking of free upgrade: while most people enjoy the conveniences that the automated ticketing kiosks provide, I rarely elect to make use of them during check-in. As machines slowly but surely take over every aspect of our lives, there are some things that a machine will never be able to do. Like give you a free upgrade for smiling and being nice. This is because machines are stupid, cold and calculating little bastards, programmed by miserable old coots that never get free upgrades to Economy Plus, and who spend their entire travel career crammed into the farthest nether regions of the Economy section. But I digress…

Interestingly enough this was my first experience in Economy Plus. There was most definitely a “Plus” when compared to Economy proper, as your knees are not jammed-up against the seat in front of you. This gives you ample space to take advantage of the open area beneath without having to contort your legs into unnatural angles when attempting to stretch out mid-flight. That being said, Economy Plus is still basically Economy, so it still sucks.

Other than being excruciatingly long, the 14 hour flight to Beijing was uneventful. The plane was a very old Boeing 777, with tiny little 3-inch CRT monitors embedded into the back of every seat. The “guts” of this personal video system were enormous and contained in a metal box under the seat that took up almost half of the sad excuse for leg room. I still took advantage of having something to do and was able to catch two full movies, two partial movies, and an episode of the Big Bang Theory (that show is so awful, I just don’t understand). I also read an entire Kurt Vonnegut book, did the airplane magazine crossword, trained up my Pokemans for the Elite Four and even slept on-and-off.

But the flight simply wouldn’t end. They served us two and a half meals, and plenty of drinks during the flight. There was a momentary period after the first meal where I was able to comfortably pass the eff out; however after the 10-hour mark of the flight, it felt like one long episode of sleeplessness.

On the Ground

After an eternity, we arrived in Beijing. The plane slowly emptied out into the airport and that old familiar smell of industry returned to my nostrils. The Beijing airport is nothing but massive, with large open spaces and ceilings built for giants and their mammoth herds. At this point it would be necessary for me to put my game face on, as traversing the complicated maze of customs and immigration in Asia takes a lot of concentration, most particularly when you’re on a time table to catch another flight.

My first task was to get through Immigration. There was a slow walk through the “flu scanner”, used to keep out zombies, followed by a 30 minute wait in line to get a stamp on the old passport. The voice coming over the PA system in various languages was telling me that my next steps would be to collect my baggage, go through customs, and then finally to the domestic transfers area for my next flight to Shenzhen, which would also be my final destination.

Those first few steps went off without a hitch. I had my bags in-hand and was in line for the domestic transfers counter. Little did I know, that this was the wrong place for me to wait, and I was in fact in the wrong terminal. Those lying bastards. After some graceful communication with the woman at the counter (read: pointing at numbers on my baggage ticket), the helpful staff of China Airlines informed me that I needed to take the bus from Terminal 3 to Terminal 1, and that I was flying on a completely different airline. I don’t know what happened, but somewhere along the lines somebody must have assumed that I was some sort of doctor to figure this whole travel procedure out. So it goes.

Finding the bus that travels between terminals at the Beijing airport took only a few minutes. Unfortunately the bus was literally bursting with passengers and there was absolutely no room for me to board. This meant that I was one of the first passengers on the next bus, which also meant that I would slowly and painfully get smashed against the wall of the bus as the next crowd of far too many people trickled in.

After a quick stop at Terminal 2 to unload everybody but myself and two others, the bus arrived at Terminal 1 and I was able to get my boarding pass and then shuffle through the security checkpoint. The security officer screening bags took possession of my book bag after going through the X-Ray, and then proceeded to unload all of the contents into various baskets before sending them each through the machine individually. Among the tangled mess of cables and wires, I also had a change of clothes, my Nexus 7 and Galaxy Nexus devices along with an external hard drive and a handful of USB sticks and SD cards. I was absolutely certain that at least one of my gadgets would be somehow lost or stolen during this procedure; however as of this writing, everything seems to be accounted for.

I arrived at my gate with a good 40 minutes before boarding, so I had ample time to try and get online and catch up with what I had missed over 18 hours since I had left home. The Beijing airport had alternate plans though, as the internet tubes were so clogged that I couldn’t even obtain an IP address on any of the wireless networks. Instead, I found a convenience store and purchased a beverage in a skinny plastic bottle that seemed to resemble an orange Fanta. I’m still not 100% sure what it was except delicious and refreshing.

Forward Unto Shenzhen

The subsequent flight was a three and a half hour trip south to the Shenzhen airport. I was one of the first to board the plane, and I was lucky enough to have an aisle seat. When I sat down, there was a very old woman in the same row as I, only on the opposite side of the aisle. Behind her was a very old man, who I assume was her husband. On her lap sat a very small child, barely over a year old with just enough neck strength to hold its own head aloft. The poor child only had to look at me for a matter of seconds before succumbing to a trembling fit of horror and sadness. The terror was palpable, and it required the older gentleman to move forward a row and block the line of sight between the baby and me to stop the bawling. I would have felt bad, but this isn’t the first time that my malformed visage has induced such episodes in small children, and I’m almost certain that it will not be the last.

The remainder of the flight consisted of an almost trance-like state of near narcolepsy as I uncontrollably drifted in and out of sleep between sips of pre-creamered coffee (wtf, and yes, that’s a word now), and bites of some strange Chinese in-flight meal. It was an excruciating final leg of the trip and all I wanted was to get to my hotel so that I could lay down on something. If it weren’t for the overly-attentive flight attendants traversing the length of the plane every few minutes, I would have stretched out in the aisle and taken a proper nap.

When we finally landed in Shenzhen, the entire load of passengers that were onboard the Boeing 737-800 aircraft were funneled into a single bus. As my personal space was slowly violated by other equally-as-sweaty-but-not-quite-as-smelly humans, I heard a terrible sound. I looked to my left to see nothing out of the ordinary in the rear portion of the bus. To my right was a similar situation – nothing of concern up front. Then I happened to look through the still-open doors of the bus to see a most-terrifying sight. There on the tarmac, a few feet from the bus, was a middle-aged woman doubled-over and retching all over the ground. Without an ounce of shame, she finished expelling her guts, spat a few times to get those last few chunks out, and then hopped right onto the bus to nestle into the warm, sweaty mass of people within.

The next 15 minutes on the bus were in fierce competition for the most anxiety-inducing minutes of my life. The entire time all I could smell was vomit, and I was expecting her to continue her sickness after every bump. Needless to say, I was incredibly relieved when the bus came to a halt and the doors were finally opened. I literally ran into the baggage claim area and did everything in my power to put as much distance between myself and Miss Vomsalot as possible.

My long, slow journey was nearing completion. My final task was to secure my luggage and then make my way to the hotel. The luggage part was easy. The rest was… well, it was interesting.

Please Stop Yelling

There is an “official” taxi of Shenzhen, which is of a red and silver color scheme. This is the taxi that a person takes when wanting to not get ripped-off. The problem is that these taxi drivers do not speak English. At all. And the English names for hotels, nay anything, mean jack squat to a Chinese person. This meant I needed to find someone to write out the Chinese name for my hotel on a piece of paper. I was able to obtain this crucial slip of paper from a girl who knew a little English at a hotel information desk in the airport.

When I exited the doors to the terminal, I flagged down a red and silver taxi and threw my bags in the back seat. I was in a hurry because there were other people waiting for taxis and they were incredibly impatient, and had already stolen the previous cab that I waved down. The quicker I got my stuff into the taxi, the more likely I was to keep the taxi; however the driver threw me for a loop. As I sat down he pointed at me and shouted something. Based on his tone I was guessing he was telling me to GTFO in Mandarin. I was resolute though, and handed him my slip of paper filled with chicken scratch. In the moment of silence that followed, I realized that I could have been duped. I had no idea what the characters on the paper actually said. What if it was an instruction to murder the foreigner?

The driver handed the paper back to me, exited the vehicle (in my mind there was a brief panic), and then opened and closed the trunk. I came to quickly realize that the driver was not in fact shouting at me earlier, but was calmly telling me that he had popped the trunk for me. When he got back into the car, we pulled away from the terminal and then off to the side of the road (again, panic). His receipt printer was making an awful and continuous noise and he spent a few minutes replacing the paper and then resetting the device. Once that was settled, we were off again to who knows where (hopefully the hotel).

On the highway, as we dodged bicyclists, buses and other cars, his phone rang. He answered it and proceeded to have a completely normal conversation with someone that involved a lot of yelling and screaming. I firmly believe that this man simply had a very loud and sharp voice, and he was not in fact yelling all of the time. Either that or he really was yelling at someone on the phone for a good ten minutes and had some kind of anger problem. I don’t know, I didn’t understand anything. I just kept my head down and tried not to anger him. Sadly, that didn’t work.

When we arrived at the hotel, I checked the meter and saw that the fare was 57.20 RMB. I handed him 60 and tried to get out. He yelled something and looked angry. I had a look of “oh god, what the hell” on my face and he understood, so he yelled the same thing once again, only a little bit slower this time. His frustration grew on the third iteration of whatever he was yelling, and he finally opened the window, signaling the door man from the hotel to come over. The door man told me that the fare was now 68 RMB even, and that the meter was “a little off”. All I wanted was for this trip to be over and for this man to stop yelling at me, so I handed him an extra ten and bolted out of the cab, bags in hand. Arriving at the hotel meant that I could finally rest, and this was my number one priority at that moment.

Checking in, I was pleasantly surprised when the hotel clerk told me that I was getting a free upgrade to the Executive level because they didn’t have any more non-smoking King rooms. When I got to my room, I was mildly impressed with the “executiveness” of the room, but was slightly underwhelmed overall. Either way, I’ll take it. This was the 24 hour mark, and my long, slow journey was finally over.

This leg of it, anyway…