Saturday, January 22, 2011

Journey to Maire, part II

26 hours after we landed in Seattle, the sun finally rises in Beijing. But, I’ve gotten ahead of myself.

You’d think after the small amount of sleep we’ve gotten over the past 48or has it been 60?sleeping through the night should be no problem. So my body thought as soon as it slapped onto that concrete block China’s luxury hotels are calling a mattress; but at 2:30 a.m. Beijing time, I could no longer ignore the calls from my subconscious telling me that we would surely sleep in too late. We would miss our flight from Beijing to Changsha. We’d be stuck in Beijing. We would miss our appointment to pick up our daughter on Monday. We’d be unacceptable parents in the eyes of China, and we’d have to say goodbye to another child.

Since I’m now waking up every hour on the hour, there isn’t much chance that we we’re going to miss anything. Also, the concrete mattress is doing great things to those muscles that got so suddenly woken in Minneapolis earlier in the trip. I haven’t been so stiff since the last time I went skiing more than ten years ago. Angie sleeps like a rock.

So we’re up and at’em at 5:30 a.m. Beijing time, even though we don’t need to be in the lobby for another half-hour. In the lobby, paranoia continues to drive me to bug a man I think to be the bellman for our shuttle bus. For all I know, this guy’s just another traveler, but I fall behind the language barrier excuse.  The bus shows up at 6:15 on the money, just like we were told. We make a five-minute trek to the airport, through streets I’d never guess were Beijing. I don’t know what I expected. I guess it looks kind of European to me.

As we approach the airport terminal, our jaws go slack. It’s huge. It’s like some futuristic city we’re approaching. I half expect to see flying cars buzzing around the arrival and departure zones. Our bus driver lets us out, grabs a cart for us and unloads our bags onto it. We’re still in a daze. We push the cart into the terminal, and I suppose this is what an ant colony is to a mere worker.

Inside it’s even larger than it seems outside. You could fit five of my home towns inside this place, but you’d have to multiply those five populations by twenty. Where the f---, er, um, hell? Do we go? Luckily Angie’s eye is more on the ball than mine. She points us in the direction of China Air. How the hell did she see that? Should I stop saying hell? I can’t; this place is too huge!

We find a ticket counter, but you see, unlike American airports, you can just walk in and buy a plane ticket on your way to 2000 miles away, like it’s some sort of bus terminal. The biggest damn bus terminal you ever saw, that is. We’ve found a ticket-purchasing counter, but we already have tickets, and we need to check bags. After some low level, pre-language grunting is exchanged, the cashier sends us to the next aisle to check in. We turn the corner and it’s like market day in downtown Bangladesh. There’s a frenzy of people pressed up against the counters in what seems like hundreds of lines. What th--?

The next thing we know this woman approaches us wearing all black. No badge of any kind. No sigil of China Air. “This way. This way. You come this way. I’ll check you in,” she says, quite authoritatively, and in the best English we’ve heard in Beijing. We’re aware of the danger here, but with no bearings whatsoever, it’s all we’ve got to go on. She motors us right to the front of a line and starts demanding our luggage. “One at a time!” she barks. “Passports!” There’s no way I’m saying ‘no’ to this woman.

So she appears to have us checked in properly, with our bags sent off to their proper flight; though, really we have know way of knowing that particular detail. The tickets she hands us are to the right flight, so that’s encouraging. Now, she tells us that the extra bags were on her “card”, so we owe her 200 yuan. Now, this isn’t really a whole lot of money, but it’s about twice what we had already looked up that it would be. Angie goes into Super Travel Agent mode. “No. No,” she snarls, “I am a travel agent! I know what this is! We’ll give you 100 yuan. It was only $20!”

The airport monster grabs me, “No. You owe me 200!”

“Andy! Don’t give her that! Let’s go!” Angie snaps.

“But we do owe her something, right?” I whimper.

“Fine!” Ang huffs.

I give the beast 150 yuan. “It was a tip,” I justify, “I mean she really did help us out back there and 100 isn’t quite $20, I think. The extra bag was supposed to be twenty, right?”

Security is chaotic, but something simpler than American airport security. You still have to remove your laptop, but nothing else. No fighting with taking shoes on and off, which is something of a load off.

Now, about two years ago we met another set of unfortunate victims of our adoption agency through the Internet. They live near Seattle. They haven’t been able to have children of their own, so they’re adopting. Their names are Jim and Cora. They’re a little goofy, like Ang and I. They like the same types of movies. They have similar senses of humor. And, miraculously it worked out that we got to adopt our daughters at the exact same time. They arrived in Beijing a few days early to do some sight seeing. This morning will be the first time we’ve ever met in person.

So we walk a couple miles to our gate, and in the distance I recognize a face as belonging to that snarky guy who so frequently leaves humorous comments on my facebook statuses. Then, Cora gets up with her fiery red hair, and we’re sure it’s our good friends we’ve never met in our lives. Isn’t the Internet strange? ‘Course, since they’re the only other white people amongst the gazillion other people traveling that morning, we probably wouldn’t have missed each other if we tried. 

We talk to each other like old friends. There’s no sense we’ve never really met before. Jim comments on the coffee he’s forcing down his throat, likening it to some sort of contaminated soil. Jim also points out the interesting foot fashion choices to be found in China. It will become something I cannot help but notice either. Women must spend most of their money on knee-high, high-heeled boots and calf-length coats. And, there’s certainly some sort of national contest going on for the most flair-filled combinations.

Finally, after what seems like weeks, the sun rises. We watch our luggage being handled like bags of trash onto the plane. We board our China Air flight to Changsha. The four of us are the only white people on board. Many people stare at us. The flight attendants are very good with us, however. The speak English well, and it seems China’s attitude toward air service is something closer to what it was in the U.S. thirty years ago. The customers are valuable additions to the flight, rather than burdens.

They offer us breakfast. Eastern or Western. The Eastern breakfast consists of rice and a couple of bugs or something. The Western is an omelet, yogurt, some fruit and bread. It’s rather good, for airline food. Most everybody get the Western. The gentleman we’re sitting with gets the Eastern, but doesn’t eat much of it.

After a seemingly short 2-hour flight, we’re landing in Changsha. This is where we will meet our Maire, who we’ve waited so long for.

The Changsha airport is a little more normal in scale. We find that the Chinese approach luggage carousels the same way Americans doeveryone shove their way to the front of the conveyor despite the fact that there’s plenty of room for everyone to line up along the whole thing. This makes it fairly easy for me to grab all our bags later on down the line.

The women decide to go for a bathroom break. We’ve heard all about the public bathrooms in China. They’re quite primitive. I haven’t seen one yet, so I won’t describe it. My plan is not to see one. The women come back a few minutes later. Ang says, “We need supplies.” Laughs, and is gone again to another bathroom. No TP I’m guessing. From what I’ve heard, I’m shocked they haven’t just given up on the idea.

We grab our bags and are fairly quickly out the exit. Our guide is unable to meet us at the airport; so another guide meets us and puts us on a taxi bus to our Changsha hotel.

The ride into Changsha is long. As we get closer to the city, we begin to see signs of a city in the making. The suburbs look like they’re trying to be bigger than they are. A lot of little hovels and then we’ll see this giant condo skyscraper. Soon it becomes apparent that there is a much larger city beyond the smog. The smog in Changsha makes L.A.’s look like air that you could bottle and sell.

It isn’t long before we realize that Changsha is a city unlike any we’ve ever seen. We never really got to see Beijing because of the eternal night. This small for China city of only 3 million people stretches on like some sort of third world Matrix city world. It makes New York City look tiny in scale.

We arrive at our hotel, the Dolton, and the guide checks us in. The lobby of this hotel is a giant luxurious room that is not heated. The doors are wide open and everyone wandering around the lobby is as bundled up as they are in the winter weather outside. 

The check in goes smoothly, thanks to the guide’s interpreting, and we head to our rooms. Remembering to put the key card into the light slot we push into the room, do some basic bag arrangement and lay down. I don’t think I’m going to nap, because our real guide is supposed to meet us at 5:30 Changsha time, just a couple hours. I’m going to unpack. I’ll just check out the bed. Yep, concrete block.

The next thing I know, there’s a strange ringing coming from somewhere. I’m able to discern that it is our doorbell. It’s our guide, Richard. He’s a little younger than we imagined, and he’s brought his daughter, Cindy, along with him. We knew he was bringing her, that’s why he couldn’t meet us at the airport. She’s 7, but looks a little older to me. She has bright energy.

We agree to meet in the lobby so Richard can take us out to dinner. Since Jim and Cora have already spent some time in country, they warn us about the drivers. Cora relates a story about how she was almost killed by a bus. Jim says if your spouse is going to walk out into traffic, don’t hold her hand. Save yourself. Their stories aren’t exaggerated. We cross one intersection wondering if we’ll be short a couple members by the time we reach the other side.

Richard jokes with us quite a bit about the food. He keeps asking us if we want dog or cat. I tell him live squid would be nice. The restaurant has private rooms for small parties like ours. We sit down in a small room that resembles a hotel room with a round table instead of a bed, and Richard orders for us. It sounds like they’re making the food in the bathroom of the hotel room we’re in. Every couple of minutes a new dish comes out. After the first couple of dishes, I’m a little worried that I’m going to go home hungry. The pork still has the bones in it and the tofu soup just ain’t gonna cut it. But the dishes keep coming, the fried rice is great, and soon we’re all full.

We head back to the hotel, and I wonder whether we’ll be able to sleep. The next morning will bring us a little girl. She’ll be scared. We’ll be scared. My goodness, what are we going to do with her. We don’t know much about each other. She won’t understand us. There’s no way I’m going to be able to sleep. Yet, as soon as my back hits that concrete slab, I’m out. Sleep, no problem.

Stay tuned for Part III.


Amy said...

Great Part II. I felt like I was reading a good travel magazine. Maybe you need to consider a change of career. I can't believe they don't heat the lobby of the Dolton. We loved the hotel but it was nice and warm in September. Looking forward to Part III!

Andrew D. Wells said...

You should probably check out my film review blog. I've been writing for quite a while now. Unfortunately, thanks to blogs, writing is becoming an increasingly more difficult field to be paid for. I don't submit enough, though. Just click my name link above, and it will take you to my other blog.

Kate said...

I love these entries. Now I feel like I've been to China and have no need to actually go. I can't wait for part 3.

The Wells Family said...

FYI, I had no problem tipping "The Beast" 100 yuan! But I knew it didn't cost her a dime to check out luggage (despite what she said), so there was no way I was giving her $200 yuan!

Nicole said...

Nicely written!