My Blackberry Storm 2 from Verizon Wireless has been progressively crapping out on this trip. It is not a good device, and the longer I have it, the less impressed I am. In addition to the outrageous charges to receive calls – I practically had to hang up on a few clients to get them to shut up so I could call them back on my China Mobile (Verizon US$2.00+ to receive; China Mobile US$0.05 to make = VERIZON SUCKS) – this Blackberry has been regularly crashing, repeatedly uninstalling the browser which now doesn’t work at all, losing its data connection (everyone around me has full data and my China Mobile has 5 bars) forcing me to remove the battery to restart it and see if it can reacquire the data signal.
So I guess I should have known that it was not reliable as an alarm clock. Suffice it to say I am an experienced enough traveler that I don’t cut things close, so I had planned to arrive 2 hours earlier than needed. Despite the fact that the alarm failed, the sun woke me and I showered, shaved and “packed” in about 25 minutes. I say “packed” because I made the decision some days back to leave most of the clothes behind as I will be back in about 6 weeks and didn’t see the point. Because the driver is waiting and I want to get through the Huanggang border crossing before the Chinese New Year rush hour starts, everything I wanted to take got unceremoniously shoved in the bag – couple small gifts for the kids, some movies and books and medicine and out the door.
It’s a glorious morning, blue skies and lots of fast moving clouds. It is warming up fast and very humid. We head to the main Luohu border crossing, Huanggang, which I am fearing will be a mob scene. Although the official Chinese New Year doesn’t start until Saturday, many factories and offices are already closed. Around 450 million people travel inside China during the 2-3 weeks that cover the Lunar New Year season. That’s 1.5 times the entire population of the USA. And we bitch about travel around Thanksgiving and Christmas. Last year the blizzards in China had over 250,000 people stranded at the Guangzhou railroad station for days. I’ve been there on a normal business day, and it is no wonder they had to bring in the police to maintain order.
So I am not surprised that Huanggang is in fact a mob scene. The company driver drops me off at the stand where they sell tickets for the mini vans that run you across for 150 RMB. I usually get a limo for 700-800 RMB, but decide to try this less expensive method. In the future, I will be using the limo again, more on that in a minute.
Photos inside are strictly forbidden, and I did not feel like taking the risk 4 hours before my flight, so you will have to visualize the chaos of maybe 3,000 people with their luggage squeezed into a room designed to hold perhaps 500. There were 30+ lines for Chinese and only one for Foreigners, so getting through took a long time. They were really being critical this morning, usually passport control for a white guy takes 30 seconds, but today he looked through every page of the passport and spent several minutes looking things up on his computer.
If I had hired a limo, I would have been able to go through passport control in my own lane, never getting out of the car. 700 RMB (cost of the limo) – 150 RMB (cost of the van) = 550 RMB = US$80. That savings is looking less important all the time.
Outside I find our van and it appears I am the last man. I expected as much, due to the 3rd degree from the border patrol. Except the driver insists I am not the last, he says we are missing one. When we buy our tickets, we are given stickers with the van’s number on it so the driver can keep track. The van seats 7 passengers – 3 in back, 3 in the middle and one riding shotgun. I did not look in the back when I boarded, but I take it on faith that he is correct – they would never run these things across a passenger light, certainly not on a day like today. In the van with me are a Singaporean man, four Taiwanese men and one Taiwanese woman. The Singaporean is mighty worried about missing his flight, and after 30 minutes waiting for the missing passenger in the 80 F warmth and bright sunshine, he is starting to get hot, as in pissed. The driver placidly insists he can’t leave the 7th (which none of us can exactly remember) because he paid too, we have his luggage, and if we leave he will be stranded, as there is no way to hire a car on this side. The driver is quite right…in theory.
The Chinese was fast and very heated, but it seems the Singaporean insists there is no 7th, something none of us can confirm. The Taiwanese woman who was also in the back seat, says nothing and refuses to answer when asked. Very strange. He then opens to back and starts counting luggage. He points to different bags and the various passengers chime in to claim ownership. When he points to mine, I say “我的”, “mine” which makes him actually do a dramatic double take that the laowai can speak Chinese. It appears the mysterious 7th has no bags, so we double count, and indeed all the bags on board are accounted for by the six of us. The driver sees that the luggage is no longer an issue, but still insists on waiting. The Singaporean in now in a rage and calls over another driver from the same company who just pulled in. He loudly explains the situation and the other driver agrees to find the missing 7th, who may not even exist, and tells our driver to roll out.
Back in the car, for the the first 2-3 minutes the Singaporean loudly berates the driver, who must be a Taoist, as he is completely at peace and does not get the slightest bit ruffled under this assault. Finally the Singaporean realizes the futility and quiets down. I find the whole episode educational and an example of what fascinates me about Asia. Singapore is wealthy and sophisticated city state (I lived there in 1994 and loved every minute), and this guy acted like he was a typical rich snob from good side of town. The driver must have a special permit in order to cross the border so regularly, but my guess is he is from the Mainland. People on the Mainland, especially the older generation, have been raised to just take it. I’ve seen Singaporeans, Taiwanese and Hong Kongers pull this stunt on Mainlanders, berating them publicly, because they know they can get away with it. One of my rules for life is to show as much respect as you can to the people who wash your clothes, cook your food and drive you around, etc., because they are the ones who make your life easy. They deserve more respect than this guy got.
Hong Kong is one of the coolest places on earth. The drive to the airport is always amazing but is especially so this morning with dramatic and fast moving clouds with occasional bursts of sunlight. The natural setting is glorious and dramatic, hundreds of mountainous islands covered in verdant green rising out of the harbor. The cities and towns are built to work with the land, unlike the wholesale flattening of the hills that takes place in Shenzhen. The bridges that connect to Lantau island and Hong Kong International Airport (HKG) are brilliant – one each of suspension and cable-stayed – and the whole setting reminds me of a scale model too perfect to be believed. My camera stinks, so this is the best I could do.
We arrive at HKG with less than two hours before my flight, far less than I normally allow. I know before I even get to the airport that there is no chance of getting better seats, not so late and not on the Thursday before CNY. Nevertheless, even though I checked in online last night, I head over to the United counter and chat up the very attractive lady at the counter (in Asia it is still OK to hire public relations personnel who are good looking – it is often part of the job description) and she tries every trick in the book to get me a better seat. Nothing doing, flight is booked solid. Oh well, I appreciated her efforts and gave her a business card (she didn’t believe that I’d been in Asia for 5 weeks with no luggage so I told her to check the blog), so if she’s reading this, thank you very much for your help!
I head through passport control and security, and get accosted by the eager young folks who are always there taking a survey of foreigners to find out how much time and money you spent in Hong Kong on this trip. I am in a hurry, but I take a minute anyway to talk to them. Yes, I absolutely love Hong Kong. I would move here tomorrow if my wife would come with me. I’ve been here many, many times and will be back again soon. It’s awesome and now I have to go.
Five minutes for a quick bowl of noodles and to buy some candy bars (paid for in 1 second with my Octopus card – love it). Then up and down the seemingly endless series of escalators with the train ride to the other terminal in the middle and on to the gate. It is very humid and pretty warm and HKG, like Shanghai Pudong, is built to be big and impressive which means by the time I get to the gate, it is now officially sticky uncomfortable. It is February, so I don’t think they have the AC on, but this not how you want to board a plane. The security is far tighter than the USA, with every bag searched.
I am in a aisle seat in Economy, which means the next 14 hours will only be mildly tortuous. My seat mates speak not a word and neither do I. Both sleep through the entire flight. Just as well as I’m not in the mood. United is sticking with the 4 movie format, but at least they are good – The Invention of Lying, Where The Wild Things Are, My One And Only, and The Informant! The food sucks and is even sparser than last time. Thank God for candy bars.
Land in Chicago exactly on time, and after a pretty thorough grilling by passport control, out into the airport. For some bloody reason you have to go back through security again, which in O’Hare is less than fun. Security in HKG is MUCH tighter than in the States, but nothing for it, so shoes off and laptops out. My flight to ROA is out of one of the commuter terminals, to one with no good restaurants. Lunch at McD’s. blech.
I sit down to read the Wall Street Journal Asian edition they gave me on the plane and wait the two hours for my flight. There is a great article on Chinese Intellectual Property law that I would love to be able to concentrate on, but instead I spend this time listening to an astoundingly annoying woman tell the lady across the aisle from her nearly every detail of her life and recent travel history, including how her underwire bra sets off the metal detectors EVERY TIME (I feel so much safer now knowing they actually work). I know this because despite the fact that she was about 100 feet away, her voice was SO LOUD everyone in the terminal heard her. At least when people in China are loud and obnoxious, they are all loud and obnoxious at the same time, so the result is sort a loud silence. They all just drown each other out into white noise. Oh, how I wish I were back in China.
Bumpy flight to ROA with the annoying lady talking only intermittently during the flight. I think she was airsick. Thank God for turbulence.
Finally, almost exactly 24 hours after I woke up, we land at Roanoke Regional Airport. Out into the cold and snow covered mountains. 24 hours ago I was in 80 F weather, now below freezing. Yipee.
It’s been a great 5 weeks, but when I see the family again, I know where I belong.
Happy to be home.