Sorry for the lengthy blog, but I'm making up for last time when I forgot. So you get double the blog for your money today. What a bargain!
As you all should know by now, our theme this month is being thankful. First of all, one of the things that makes me most thankful is when I have my entire family together. That is rare these days since my two younger daughters are full time college students living 120 miles away and my oldest daughter is married. But this week I have my college girls back for Thanksgiving break and we get regular visits from my oldest daughter. She tends to do her grocery shopping in our pantry while they are saving for the new house. Of course she doesn't take the crap we will probably never eat, but I guess that's our fault.
A little more than a week ago I enjoyed reading about Ramona's travel adventures. For me traveling has been a way of life. And just to be clear ladies, I will not post a picture of George Clooney from up in the air.
Whenever I hear travel stories, I get a little grin on my face. I’m not the kind to “One Up” people, but I know deep inside I have most other travel stories trumped.
It all started in late January 2008. I was sent to China to take several Anheuser-Busch executives on an Environmental inspection tour of our China facilities. The trip started innocently enough. We left on a cold mid-January Saturday and flew into Hong Kong for meetings. I was traveling on frequent flyer tickets and the flight in first class was…well first class. No hitches, great weather, good movie selection, enough time to get drunk and sober before landing. The rooms at the Hyatt were magnificent with a gorgeous view of Hong Kong Harbour.
|My room at the Hyatt in Hong Kong|
Monday morning we boarded a high-speed train for a short trip to Guangzhou (actually FoShan, home of Bruce Lee) where we were building a new Bi-Wei Pijou (Budweiser Beer) brewery. After meetings with the government, we went out to play a round of golf on a rather exclusive course. It was on the ride back to the hotel that brought hints of things to come.
|Golf with your friends|
|Guangzhou Train Station January 2008|
Well, I need to add some back story. Chinese New Year in 2008 was on February 7th. It's based on a lunar calendar so it changes every year. The weeks before and after Chinese New Year are when most of China travels. And it is the absolute worst of times to have one of the biggest ice storms to hit China in decades. It was bad enough that it has its own Wiki page. The group I was with had planned to go from Hong Kong to Guangzhou to Wuhan to Shanghai to Qingdao to Harbin. After Harbin, I was going to fly back to Beijing by myself and meet up with the Environmental Manager from Wuhan and we were going to host some government meetings in Tangshan. I was then supposed to fly from Beijing to Shanghai to San Francisco to St. Louis.
|The red line is our route. The blue area is where the ice storm hit.|
I bought a suitcase full of souvenirs (about $200 USD worth of items) and asked my friend to tote them with her to Wuhan and then bring them up to me in Beijing at the end of my trip. While it seemed like a good idea at the time because I wouldn't have to lug that suitcase with me to all the cities we were visiting, it turned out to be a horrible decision. That suitcase never made it to Beijing and is still in China somewhere.
With word of the approaching storm, we canceled the Wuhan portion of the trip (sent the Wuhan people back home) and flew directly to Shanghai; then to Qingdao and on to Harbin with nary a hitch except a few minor delays. You see, we were circling around the eastern edge of the storm. Wuhan, which is not very far west of Shanghai (see map above) got pounded with almost a foot of ice paralyzing the city. See the links to some of the pictures below. They were taken at East Lake Park where I used to hang out on my weekends in Wuhan.
We did note that the domestic side of the various airports were quickly becoming crowded with early New Year travelers. Counters were swamped, agents were overwhelmed and tensions were escalating. Since we were generally traveling 1st class, we were mostly spared the mass of people crowding the counters. There are few orderly lines in China. Mostly it’s a free for all. Add tension to that and you can quickly slide into a chaotic state. Oh, and for fun, throw in the language barrier.
While in Harbin, China’s far north, I had the pleasure of visiting the Harbin Ice Festival. One of the most awesome things I have ever experienced. Check out the blog I did on it back in February 2008.
|Harbin Ice Festival|
|Will at the Wall|
On Saturday morning at 6 AM (5 PM Friday night, St. Louis Time) I arrived at the Beijing airport for my flight to Shanghai. People were everywhere. I literally couldn’t see the doors. I managed to find a baggage porter (well, he found me) and I flipped him a $100 yuan bill (about 12 dollars.) Smartest thing I could have done. This man loaded my bags on his cart and shoved people from his path to get me to the China Southern first class counter. Words just can’t do it justice…the volume of the voices, the shoving, the mental overload. After an hour, I got my boarding pass, checked my bags and managed to have a petite desk clerk escort me through security to the first class lounge. Two hours later, when I should have been heading to the gate, I checked with the agent. Their English was almost as bad as my Chinese. But they managed to say, “Wait in here. No go yet.” I waited, checking every 30 minutes or so. No signs, no monitors, just the tiny girls repeating, “No go yet.” While I can survive with my meager Chinese, I am, by no stretch of the imagination, conversational.
|Talk about tough trips, use one of these.|
I love China and I miss not going there, but at the time I was sick of it and Beijing would be a madhouse with the New Year celebrations. I wanted out. I called the travel agent and got a price for a one way ticket in coach - $1,000. It was now noon in China, I had been in the airport for 6 hours and the flight to Chicago was at 6 PM. I called my boss and he okayed it.
Now I had to get my bags back. Remember my bags? I checked them on a flight to Shanghai. I found the English speaking agent and he took me to the baggage office through the worsening crowd. Unbelievably, an hour later I had my bags back and made my way to the less crowded international side of the airport. With the magic of some flirty Chinese words I learned early on (Ni hen piao liang.) and my United Airlines Global Services Status I managed to schmooze my way up to Business Class. HA! $10,000 ticket for a mere $1,000 and a little flirting. I still think it was my sexy smile, flirtatious attitude and calm demeanor that did the trick.
So, it’s 2 PM China Time (1 AM St. Louis time) and I grab a bowl of noodles and a Budweiser at a restaurant in the airport, then make my way to the lounge. I boarded the plane at 5 PM and the flight took off promptly at 6 PM (5 AM St. Louis.)
|Polar Route 1 at 40,000 feet. Yes I took this picture.|
Twenty minutes later, the big 747 began bouncing around and the pilot announced we were holding in a pattern.
An hour later, we were still flying bumpy circles over O’Hare.
Finally, the plane banked and the flaps and landing geared deployed. Big sigh of relief, I still might make my connection to St. Louis. Just as I relaxed, things went south. And when I say things, I mean the 747 with us on it. We were shrouded in clouds so I couldn’t tell how far off the ground we were when the engines spooled up. the landing gear retracted and we started gaining altitude.
The pilot came back on and said we would be heading to Indianapolis. “Wait!, What the hell happened to Chicago?”
He further explained that there was wind shear in the area. We couldn't land and we were too low on fuel to hold anymore. As we touched down in Indianapolis a mere half hour later, the pilot assured us that we would take on fuel and be right back up in the air.
“Uh-huh. Yeah, right.”
Five hours later we were still on the ground, in the plane waiting. You see, they explained that Indianapolis did not have Customs, so we could not deplane. Damn any passenger Bill of Rights, U.S. Customs trumps all. Thankfully I have that sexy smile, flirtatious attitude and calm demeanor and was not crammed into coach.
See, I cleverly worked in the Giving Thanks Theme.
Finally, we get fuel and take off. The flight to O’Hare is short, but of course, it is now Noon (Sunday), China time and 11 PM (Saturday) Chicago/St. Louis time. All the connections to St. Louis have long been cancelled, and flights for the next day are booked solid; standby only. All the hotels near the airport were booked. All the one-way rental cars were long gone.
Only one thing left to do. Rent a local rental car and drive it to St. Louis anyway. Surprise AVIS!
The one nice thing is that traffic was light. I cleared the Chicago City limits by midnight and pulled up in my driveway at 4:30 AM. (5:30 PM China Time.) About 36 hours after I left the hotel in Beijing. I had visions of the automobile scene in Plains, Trains & Automobiles in my mind the whole time. I don’t know how I managed to keep my eyes open, but I arrived safely.
So that’s my travel story. Be damn thankful it's not yours.