Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Show me the way to go home

I’ve had an excellent experience this summer, however it is good to be back in the USA. China was a blast, mainly due to the kingly treatment I received from Haixiao and his family. I have seen things I hadn’t seen before and tried foods I never imagined myself eating. All in all, this summer has been one of the greatest of my life—the summers of my college years have always been that way. I wonder, is it possible for my life to top his one? That’s kind of the same way I felt after last summer’s trip to France and the UK (though the earliest part of the summer qualified as undoubtedly the worst summer in my life).

Still, reguardless of the wonderful times I’ve had, I think it is time to come back to the US. I could have stayed in Kazakhstan a lot longer I think, but I think I am done with China for a bit. Do not get me wrong, I had an extremely excellent time while I was there—but and this is a huge but, travelling in China is among the worst experiences in my entire life. I detest every aspect about it and can find almost no redeeming features—save that they did bump me to an earlier flight to the US avoiding a stop in Tokyo.

I guess I should back up a couple weeks and start at the beginning of my trip to China. I know that I haven’t kept this blog as I should have, but in my defense I haven’t been able to access the internet very much in China or in Kazakhstan. Whenever I could, the darn blogspot.com site never seemed to work. So here I am—extremely far behind, but enough of my excuses. Back to China!

I arrived in Urumqi early in the morning of August 7th or 8th. I can’t remember the date exactly, but I know it was too damn early. I think it was the 7th because I know I had been in the airport since the previous Thursday night, which was apparently the 4th. It was a long time to be stuck in airports waiting for flights. I got a little sleep before the other Yanks departed, but I spend most of my time chilling in a small, over priced cafĂ©, which had the single positive aspect as it had a table near a wall source so I could plug in and charge my computer while playing or browsing the internet.

A quick aside: an odd thing that I have noticed is that overseas, wifi is free in airports, yet in the United States, you have to pay for it before you can use it. A damnable practice if I do say so myself. I was really looking forward to coming back to the land of the free and being able update my blog in real time and use that glorious social medium: facebook, which is banned in the glorious People’s Republic of China. Instead, I’m writing this note up on a word document so that I can upload this when I finally get home because I refuse to bay $7.99 for an hour and a half’s worth of wifi. Land of the free indeed!

Back to the main point of the story: travelling in China is stressful. Now some people are going to write this off just as travelling is stressful or travelling in foreign countries is stressful, however I think that’s not exactly true. I’ve travelled quite extensively for my twenty-two years, and quite a bit of it has been on my own. As for foreign countries—the majority of my travels have been to and from Kazakhstan or through Asia on my own and I can say that I’ve never felt more stressed or more ready to murder the people around me than in a Chinese airport or aboard a Chinese plane.

My stressful period really started once we hit the ground in Urumqi and I had to start filling out the forms to enter China. The agent seemed irritated with me because I forgot to put my middle name down fully—I just used the initial and I had not written in block letters (in my defense, it never said that I had to!). But what really set me off was that I had no idea where to go in this airport to get my connecting flight and I wasn’t sure anyone could speak English. I got into a line with everyone else, intending to ask where to go to connecting flights. Instead I waited for about 40 minutes, feeling more foolish by the minute as it became obvious that I had gotten into a line for vouchers to a hotel—which I did not need because I had a flight in only six hours and had to go through security again, so what was the point of going to a hotel? Not to mention I was under rather strict orders from Haixiao not to leave the airport because recently in Urumqi the East Turkestan Islamic terrorist organization had blown up a police station and Haixiao’s father didn’t feel that it was safe for me to be out on my own.

So in view of this, I decided that I was not going to leave the airport: partially because of the terrorist threat, but to be honest, I wasn’t that concerned that they’d hit a random American. I was more of a target of opportunity being Western, supposedly this group wanted to create an independent muslim Turkic state in Uigherstan, so I figured they were more after the Chinese. Mainly I was concerned about falling asleep and missing my flight or just having something go wrong and cause problems in China, a country of over 1.2 billion people where English was not a primary language.

Eventually I made my way to the front of the line and it seemed like my ordeal was over because the lady at the desk spoke a little English. I began to ask her which way to transfers when she interrupted me and asked for my ticket and passport. Unperturbed I handed them over to hear, only to have her stamp them and hand them back to me with a voucher for a hotel. I tried to tell her I didn’t need that as my flight was in the morning, only several hours away but she brushed me off and started working with the next person. A little annoyed at the impersonal treatment, I decided to shrug it off and find it myself—maybe there was an information kiosk somewhere I could ask.

No such luck—but finally I did find a sign in English which said “departures,” and while I didn’t know if they were domestic or international, it was better than nothing. I began to head up the escalator to find out, when a security guard working for the airport stopped me and I tried to explain what I planned to do. He didn’t seem to speak English and so brought over a girl who worked there. She saw my boarding pass, passport, and my voucher and motioned for me to follow her. She didn’t speak English either, but I really didn’t want to argue with the security guard. She took me out to a bus and my heart started to sink—this was the last thing I wanted. Then the bus driver took my suit case, threw in the storage underneath and slammed it shut. I didn’t seem to have a choice anymore so I got in and shortly afterwards the bus left.

My stress only increased as the bus drove for what seemed an eternity—probably more like 30 or 40 minutes, before finally stopping in a rundown looking neighborhood at a hotel with big glass doors. Everyone got off and handed their passports and vouchers to the ladies working at the front desk and got a roomkey. I was even more alarmed because the sign said that to have a single room was extra, which apparently meant I would have to share with some stranger. Then they took my passport and said they would hold it until the morning and that I would get a wake up call about two hours before my flight (which was at 0800 and it was currently about 0300). By now I was on the verge of panicking due to stress, but decided that I couldn’t fight it and so went up stairs and was glad to find that at least I had a room to myself and to cap it off, it actually had a functioning air conditioning unit (though I had to shut the window first).

Following a bit of advice I had gotten from my dad a long time ago when I was a patrol leader in the boy scouts—“Whenever you feel stressed or start to panic, just take a shower or wash your face, do whatever you can in the field. When you are clean you feel a thousand times better and can think much straighter.” This advice is probably one of the wisest bits that Dad has given me and I make use of it regularly. As usual it did help, at least a little bit. I decided not to sleep for the three or so hours I had left as I didn’t want to sleep through the alarm—I had been up for almost 48 hours now and wasn’t sure what would happen once I set my head down on an actual pillow.

The night itself passed rather slowly and uneventfully—except for an odd call I got at about 0330 asking if I wanted a massage. I made it back to the airport in one piece, though utterly exhausted. However, I was surprised to find that apparently the airport wasn’t open at 0630 in the morning, because there was a huge crowd of people standing in a gaggle at the doors. The people from my last flight who had had to go to the hotel (I learned later that this might be a requirement for foreigners who come to China) and I elbowed our way in—queues be damned. The Kazakhs I was with had no use for them and the Chinese responded with a zeal for ignoring someone’s position in line that was almost fanatical. If it weren’t for the people shoving me from behind, I’m not sure I would have made it into the airport at all.

Inside the crowds got even worse and I was lucky to find my check in area and get through security so quickly that I still had an hour and a half before my flight started boarding (nothing runs on time in Chinese airports, so my flight was about thirty minutes later than my ticket had told me originally). However, here at the Urumqi terminal was probably the most irritating thing which happened to me. It was breakfast time so I decided to stop at a restaurant hand have something to eat. It is really strange in Chinese airports because as you pass by the restaurants, the waiters will start calling out and shouting to try and get your attention. I ignored that and just ended up going to the nearest one to my gate, but the joke was on me. I ordered a bowl of noodles and some tea from the waitress (she had suggested it) and I didn’t look at the menu. Nor did I really understand how much RNB was worth—I exchanged my Kazakh tenge for RNB and so was fuzzy on the conversion. As I left, I got a bill for 360 RNB—now look, I knew it was expensive. There’s no way that a bowl of noodles and some tea couldn’t be at an airport. I also got the sinking feeling that it was a lot more expensive then I knew it should be. However, I had no idea how expensive it was. I figured it was maybe $20 or at worst $25. I had no idea that they charged me the equivalent of $60!

I didn’t find this out until later, after talking to Haixiao. I really can’t believe that I paid for that. Now I am not sure whether or I was just cheated by an unscrupulous waitress or whether that was the actual price. I did find out at another airport that tea could cost 350 RNB, so I suppose it isn’t a stretch of the imagination that the cost was correct, I just ordered stupidly. I was pretty PO’d about that, but nothing I can really do, lesson learned I guess. Don’t eat at Chinese airports unless you see the menu!

So that kind of shows you how frustrating my first experience in a Chinese airport was. The second one (second one by myself I mean, I flew with Haixiao and his father, and we got to skip the line and wait in the VIP area, so not too shabby) was on my return. It wasn’t quite as bad, but it still was rough. Firstly I had to find which terminal to go to, only realizing I was in the wrong one when I couldn’t find any delta flights at all and the signs for information led to nowhere—literally. The signs kept point and then just stopped with nothing there. I eventually found a customer service rep who spoke enough English to tell me Delta was in Terminal II, which I had to take a free shuttle ride to. First I had to find that, make my way onto it ( I was extremely worried I was going to have to fight my way through, but luckily no one seemed to want to get one with me—which made me freak out that I was on the wrong one…) and then wait until they’d let me check in.

I was fortunate that I got there so early, I had to wait about 3 hours until they’d let me check in at 0530, but at about 0500 they noticed me, told me my flight was overbooked and that since I was early, if I wanted to, I could go on an earlier direct flight to Detroit and make my way home about three to four hours earlier. I did so, got through customs without much of a problem and made it to the gate (which consisted of an exit to a shuttle to go to the airplane), and I was home free on an American owned and operated flight. Sounds easy right? Not so stressful?

Well, you’d be wrong because I left out two very important details. One is that part of the reason (a huge part) that Chinese airports are stressful is because of the people. Now look, I’m not trying to bash China—I had a wonderful time there, I really did, but I have to get this off my chest. I’m sure coming to America, Chinese people have plenty of things that piss them off about Americans. The fact of the matter is that in a country of so many people, it is bound to be crowded. I don’t like it, but I can understand and handle it. What really gets me stressed is more of how the people behave and I know I shouldn’t be judging them for it, but I can’t help it.

Chinese people are loud. Like extremely loud. As in, I can’t sleep because the people next to me sound like they’re having a shouting match while talking to the waitress about what they want to drink on the in-flight service. Or I have to push my headphones into my ear because the kids in front of me are playing some game which requires them to shake their hands while shouting the same thing over and over again at an increasing volume. And all of this is compounded by the fact that since I don’t understand Chinese at all, their language sounds like they are always very angry. It’s a very staccato (and I may be a little overly judgmental here), sharp, and plainly an ugly sounding language to my ears. There’s no poetry to it, it just sounds like people shouting extremely short words that end in a hard constantan (spelling might be off here, I mean the opposite of vowels) sound. So, I’m sorry if I offend anyone here, but that’s just how I feel.

I know for a fact that many other countries think that Americans are overly loud and obnoxious and I didn’t really understand what they meant. Now I guess I do, but to me it seems that Americans are comparatively much quieter than the average Chinese. I only really notice noise in America when someone is excited. In China, that’s just how people talk—when they’re ordering food or just saying “Hi”. I can’t really be mad at them for it and I’m not trying to say they are bad for it, but it still is irritating. Being alone in a very strange country where I understand none of the language and people are talking very loudly, it sounds like they are fighting. And one thing about me is that arguments between people really stress me out. Always has, unless I’m taking a side in it, but if I just hear two people having it out, I get nervous.

Someone might also note that American kids are probably just as noisy on flight as Chinese kids—and they may have a point. Even now as I write this on my last flight to Kansas City a baby is crying and giving me a head ache. But that’s a baby. I don’t ever recall having to suffer through kids at an older age (I think late elementary to early middle school) at all in the same way I did on that flight. And I cannot imagine parents letting their kids play such a loud and irritating game without giving them a talking to. But on that last domestic Chinese flight, it seemed like I was the only one irritated by it at all. Everyone else seemed to pay it no heed. I wish I could have.

Now the other thing that stressed me out has to deal with something much, much smaller. I’ve mentioned before that Haixiao’s family has treated me royally ever since I arrived. That’s an extreme understatement and I would love to pay them back anyway I can. Well, I sort of found a way to do it a little bit. Haixiao’s family is quite wealthy by most standards I think, and they want to make sure that if Haixiao decides to go into business in the United States, he has a firm starting amount to do so.

Now normally I would expect the parents to wire some money or transfer it to a bank account. But what would I know? The largest amount of money I’ve ever had to transfer was one or two grand to my parents to pay for something or as a loan—I can’t remember what. Haixiao’s family I think is in a much bigger league, because they gave him gold bars.

That’s right, honest to god, gold bullion. I have in my possession a 200g gold bullion bar which I am bringing to Haixiao because we aren’t sure how much he can bring himself (he took one with him already). The gold bar is heavy, but not very large. It’s about the size of my thumb. However, it is worth approximately $59.7 per gram. For those of you good at math, you will realize then, that I am carry around $11,940 or so in gold. So I hope you can see why I might be stressing out—and you can’t really blame that on China, but I was always afraid that when I declared it (I filled out the paperwork to, but I never found where I was supposed to do that in China, so I kind of just left and waited till I got to the US to declare it), I would discover I was in violation of some Chinese law and after waiting to find someone to explain in English, just how much trouble I was in, I would suffer the consequences of my actions.

Fortunately, as I said, the Chinese never had signs about declaration of goods and since I didn’t know where I was supposed to go, I kept going on. I guess I just assumed that eventually before I left the country I’d have to hit customs or something like I did at Kazakhstan and fill out the exit paperwork, but nothing happened. Instead, I got to America and then finally declared it. Now there my headache was rewarded as one Customs official looked at me like I was crazy when I told them I wasn’t sure how much it was worth and I was bringing it in without documentation as a favor to a friend (“Does that seem like a good idea to you?”).

Now I trusted Haixiao and so by extension I trusted his parents. However, his tone seemed to suggest to me that I was in a world of hurt. This feeling of dread was only increased when I was separated from the line with all the others and told to go into the further processing area. The other Customs officials seemed genuinely perplexed at my situation. They were less irritated with me and more amused with my “Ipod Gold.” They charged me $655…but later realized that bullion doesn’t require duties so they gave me my money back—Huzzah!

And thus ended the most stressful travelling experience of my life. China—it was fun, but I am not going back unless Haixiao comes with me to show me how to get through your damnable airports.