Sunday, November 21, 2010

Be Thankful!

By Wilfred Bereswill

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
Our driver had heard rumblings of an ice storm that was just getting started in central China. Apparently this storm had some of the main train tracks to Beijing shut down. He wanted to take us by the train station to see the crowd. I will never forget the sight. We wound up being engulfed in a sea of humanity as we tried to drive through the street near the station. People were everywhere. Most were huddled under highway overpasses, in doorways, under ledges and anywhere else they could find to get out of the cool mist. After an hour of nudging people out of the way with the bumper of the Honda Accord, we got back to the hotel. At one point, it was rumored that over 500,000 people were stuck at the Guangzhou Train Station. Personally, I think that number was low.

Guangzhou Train Station January 2008
Okay, so you’re thinking, “Big deal. It wasn’t you that was stuck.”

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.
On our last evening in Guangzhou, I ventured out to the markets with my friend, Jenny Jiang, the Environmental Manager from Wuhan. I had heard the internal rumblings that Anheuser Busch was being targeted for takeover and we would be cutting costs, so I figured I’d better do some shopping while I could. I didn't know how soon I would go back to China.  As it turns out, it was my last trip to date. 

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.

Link 1
Link 2

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
The Thursday before the Chinese New Year week, I broke off from the group and headed for Beijing. That night I was supposed to meet up with my friend Jenny from Wuhan and my suitcase full of gifts. She called to tell me that she was iced in. I thought about trying to get an earlier flight home, but I was on a frequent flyer ticket that could not be changed. I had two days in Beijing to kill. Not a big deal. I had a friend set me up with a tour guide and went to the Great Wall again. I had some really nice dinners with friends I hadn’t seen in a while, but, since I’d been in China for 2 weeks by that time, I was anxious to get home.

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.
Four hours after I arrived in the lounge, I heard someone speaking English. I went to find a China Southern employee that spoke passable English. He told me that Shanghai Airport was closed due to ice. I immediately called my travel agent back in the states. Yes, my frequent flyer ticket, as issued, was useless.  A one–way First Class ticket direct from Beijing to Chicago cost $13,000. Yes, I didn’t hold down the "0" key too long. Business Class was $10,000. I knew the answer, but I called my boss to get permission to buy a ticket. He said, “Enjoy the weekend in Beijing and call the normal travel agent about my Frequent Flyer ticket on Monday.” Even at $300 USD per night, my room at the Kempinsky Hotel was a bargain.

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.
The flight over the north pole, Polar Route 1 as the pilots call it, was fairly smooth and uneventful. I even managed to get a couple of hours sleep on the 13 hour flight. The pilots announced we were making our initial descent, so it was a good time to get things together.

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.

16 comments:

Gina said...

But Will, now that it's over and you're not living through it anymore, it does make a great tale to tell.

One of your photos reminded me that the greatest questions on any trip to foreign lands often involves the rest room facilities. If you're lucky, you wonder, "How do I flush this thing?" Your photo suggests the even more basis question: "How do I use this thing?" Uh, how do you use that facility? Inquiring minds want to know.

Pat Remick said...

This story exhausted me AND I am thankful it's not my travel story. Hoping I will not encounter anything remotely similar tomorrow when I get on the road to head 500 miles south to spend Thanksgiving with our sons, who both live in DC now. No planes involved --and hopefully no ice either!

Joyce Tremel said...

This is why I will never travel out of the USA. I have NO sense of adventure. I like to keep my feet and/or wheels on the ground. Even if it's covered with ice.

Pat, take a tour of the Capitol on Friday and look for my Son #1. He'll be working.

Annette said...

Will, about all I can say is "Wow." And Happy Thanksgiving!

Laurie said...

Will, what a story! I agree with Pat in that I feel a little exhausted after reading it and I'm grateful that it's not my travel story.
Happy Thanksgiving!

Jennie Bentley said...

Oh, I AM grateful it isn't my story. Glad you got back home OK, Freddy. But although it wasn't anywhere near as bad as your story, I did have a troublesome flight myself a few years back. I had been in Norway for a few weeks, visiting family, with a 3-yr-old in tow, and I was six months pregnant at the time. It was around this time of year: the day before Thanksgiving. We were trying to get home to DH for the holiday. There was fog all over Europe. We waited for five hours in Norway. We missed our connection in Amsterdam. We spent the night there. We ended up going to Detroit instead of Nashville, and eventually ended up in Memphis and had to drive the four hours home. My favorite part? "I'm sorry, you're on your own for tonight. But there are some couches in the upstairs lounge..." Yeah, at six months pregnant and with a 3-yr-old. I complained, of course, and you know what they did? Sent me vouchers for free travel. I never used them. Unless it's a matter of life and death, I'll never fly Northwest again. We did get there for turkey, though, so something to be thankful for right there!

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Thanks all. Actually I was smiling most of the time reminiscing with myself about the trip. I went through hundreds of photos I took on the trip.

Gina, bathrooms are another story. For the record, some of the public toilets (lets be truthful here, there is no resting on these toilets) have footprints on either side to show you which way to point. They also require balance and a free hand in case you don't have any (balance that is.)

Pat, just stay away from those over friendly airport screeners.

Joyce, you need some adventure every once in a while. I wouldn't trade a minute of my time in China. Someday I'll revive my Best Foods - China edition.

Annette and Laurie Happy Thanksgiving right back at you. Interesting verification word this morning "EFING"

Gina said...

Will -
I have used the "squat toilets" and agree that they can be quite an adventure.
- Gina

Ramona said...

Wow, Will, what an adventure! That is a lifetime of air travel nightmare rolled into one trip. Love the ice and polar photos, though that train station one is making me hyperventilate. That's a LOT of humanity.

BTW, when I flew from Philly to New Orleans last month, I was pulled aside and subjected to a pat down. The whole horrible experience went something like this:

TSA worker: Ma'am, step over here, please. We need to do a pat-down.
Me: Um, okay.
[I step onto rubber mat area]
TSA: Hold out your arms.
Me: Um, okay.
[pat pat pat]
TSA: Feet apart.
Me: Um, okay.
[pat pat pat]
TSA: That's it, ma'am, you're good to go.
Me: Um, okay.
[I walk away.]

The End. Lasted maybe 30 seconds--maybe.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Ramona,

Interesting and I'm glad you brought it up. I have been discussing the uproar over TSA pat-downs this morning with co-workers. As a person who flys a lot, I want my planes to be safe.

Unfortunately, we live in a time where evil is exploiting the cracks in our security and they will take advantage of everything.

Last I checked, we don't have a constitutional right to fly. If anybody wants to invoke their constitutional right to privacy and elects to opt out of security protocol designed to keep us safe, then, as far as I am concerned, they should waive their PRIVILEGE to fly somewhere. They are more than welcome to take the next Greyhound bus.

OK, I have stepped off my soapbox.

Paula Matter said...

Will, this was such an awesome post, you're forgiven for not uploading a Clooney photo!

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Thank you, Paula. And the amazing thing is, it's not fiction.

As I said, I love China but used to be constantly amazed at the diferences in cultures. The group I used to travel with didn't want our hosts thinking that we were rude by pointing oddities out, so we used a phrase that was used by a Chinese National that lived in the US and worked for the company, "This Is China". Then we abbreviated it to T.I.C.

When we would see something like a person transporting their entire household on one bicycle, rather than gawk we would non-chalantly say "T.I.C."

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Jennie,

We used to call it Northworst.

Yeah, those "Acts of nature" are a bite to travelers.

Patg said...

Sorry, Will, been there done that and even worse had to listen to what felt like a billion such reports from business guys during my career. Never felt more thrilled than when I was told my company was separating business travel from leisure and I had no more corporate travelers.
And as far as the sexy smile and getting those d... a.... female agents to do things they wouldn't do for other travelers, well I heard at least two a week on that score too.
I sorry everything if travel problems don't move me. As far as the pat downs are concerned Ramona, I agree. For the many many I've had, no one was rude, and always from another female. Don't see the problem and I feel safe.
Annette, I get a severe case of terror thinking I might never take off for foreign parts ever again.
Patg

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Pat,

Just because I wrote about it doesn't mean I was complaining. Not in the least. Most of the people that worked internationally were picked to be the face of the company. We were the flexible ones that never wanted to be seen as ugly Americans.

One of the first things I learned in Chinese was "Making friends is our business." That was the motto of A-B back in the day. You make friends and impress people when you show poise in the face of adversity.

I probably got a little anxious when I sat in the plane in Indanapolis for 5 hours, but you learn that some things are out of your control and you either get all riled up or go with the flow.

I just chalk it up to another experience and smile when I look back at it.

Patg said...

Will,
Glad to hear it. I sometime wonder if some people do any and everything just to complain about it. But that's what business can do to you.
Making the best of every incident you can't do anything about--especially when traveling--is the best moto. Just keep several books on hand. I guess that's a good plug of eReaders.
Patg