Prescription for Disaster

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Shangri-La to Shangri-WTF was that?!?

I've had more than my share of horrid hotel experiences (some of my own making, others not so much) to the point that there are very few things that can happen in a hotel that I'll actually complain about now.

Last week was a lovely hotel experience, two days at the Shangri-La in Shanghai and it was, as to be expected, lovely.

Room service on a crisp, white table cloth with freshly squeezed orange juice and the morning English language paper, a bathtub and  a separate shower. The curtains opened and closed with the touch of a button by the bed and the bed, oh the bed. Huge, soft and white with delightfully fluffy pillows and a beautiful and inspiring view of the famous Bund from the 18th floor.

This is unfortunately not the type of hotel that I normally stay in.

Throughout my time in China, particularly when I was tour leading or, god forbid, on dreaded research trips to the far reaches of this wonderful but insane country, my hotel stays were of the budget variety. They were called "adventure class", though at the time I hadn't understood that the "adventure" was often the hotel room itself.

I no longer sleep very well in hotel rooms if I'm on my own, and nearly always need to sleep in a strange room with a light on. Of all of my experiences, the most genuinely traumatising didn't even directly happen to me, but in a room a few doors down the hall one night in one of my favourite little tourist towns in China. I woke up to a commotion in the late morning - it turns out that the cleaning crew had found a dead woman stuffed under the bed - a well known and well liked working girl in the area. I didn't know her, I didn't hear anything and I was obviously not involved, but the fact that something so horrific had happened in such close proximity has freaked me out for life.

Thus my creepy habit of entering a hotel room and immediately checking for dead hookers under the bed and in the closets.

Hotel from Hell - Beijing

Of all the places I have stayed in Beijing, no hotel gave me the creeps more than one that looked deceptively clean and respectable. After a restless night I woke up in the morning to sharp shabby things in my side, arm and lower leg. Thinking that I was being assaulted by creepy crawlies with sharp little teeth I flung off the covers and jumped out of bed to discover that I was partly right.

I had been sleeping with 7 human teeth in the bed with me. They looked to have been freshly knocked out of someone's face the night before.

I was too creeped out to go back to sleep and just got up and left. Ick, ick ick.

Hotel from Hell - Changchun

Although the teeth in Beijing were creepy and gross, nothing beats the level of filth that was my hotel next to the train station in Changchun. I'd just gotten off a 20+ hour train, it was the middle of the night and I was beyond exhausted. I just wanted somewhere cheap, safe and close to get a couple hours of sleep before heading out to the palace the next morning - so a dirty train station hotel seemed like a logical choice.

I checked in and immediately regretted my decision to stay there, but was too tired to care. The walls were  crawling with bugs - cockroaches and multi legged things, moths and a fine layer of dirt on the floor and bed. The room was so gross that I slept on top of the covers with my shoes on, in case I had to make a quick getaway in the night.

The night was fine, if I had eaten any bugs during my sleep I couldn't taste them now anyway so I wasn't too bothered. Wanting to just get out of there and on my way (and opting to brush my teeth on the street with a bottle of water rather than go anywhere near the bathroom down the hall) I quickly drew my bag closed, strapped it onto my back and headed out the door.

As I was walking down the street I heard a strange scratching from somewhere deep within my bag, strapped to my back. The scratching got more frantic and I could eerily feel something moving inside. Something large. That did it for me, I flipped out, started screeching and threw my bag down onto the pavement. Now, a foreigner in China tends to draw a lot of public attention on their own, but as a screaming foreigner pointing and flailing at their own bag on the ground and doing the heebie-jeebie dance around it, I was now stopping traffic and drawing a significant crowd.

The scratching got more frantic and I could see a bulge in the bag moving around. I reached down and lightening quick I opened the top of the bag and jumped back toward the crowd as a giant freaking rat scampered out of my backpack and down the street.

Suddenly aware of the amount of people staring at me and my disheveled bag, I mustered up as much remaining dignity as possible, scooped my things back into my bag, closed it up, popped it back up onto my back, hailed a taxi and got the hell out of there.

Hotel from Hell - Ibis in Guangzhou

There's nothing like staying in a nice, clean, well known hotel and then realising that your neighbouring visitors are freaks that make barnyard animal sounds while going at it like rabid monkeys all night.

They both had a thing for goats, apparently.

'nuff said.

Hotel from Hell - Qingchung Mountain, Sichuan

Oh dear. This one is nearly deserving of it's own post. So many things led to myself and my three friends Tiffany, Nicole and Shannon being stranded on the top of a frigid, wet mountain, drunk off kiwi wine with international flights the next day and mad as hell.

Hiking up Qingchungshan in Sichuan, up the back, less tourist focused side of the mountain is an experience I've had the pleasure to enjoy more than once. The scenery on the 8 hour hike up is incredible and right out of the images of China that people have before they get here. Natural beauty in lush green trees, ferns and plants, old wooden buildings, waterfalls and rickety wooden footpaths and bridges hugging the mountainside all the way up to the top, where a temple sits above the clouds and the monks sit down with you to drink sweet Kiwi wine. A gondola is perched a short way down to bring weary travellers back down to the base of the mountain and on their way.

However, it turns out that if you miss the last trip down the gondola, or they close it early to keep you and your friend's spending money on the mountain top, you're screwed.

So after a slightly violent encounter with the gondola operator, and even the failing of bribes, we were faced with spending the night on the mountain as the only patrons of the only hotel. Brilliant.

The room was fine enough, two single beds with clean white sheets, but the direness of our situation started to become clear as the temperature started to drop in the damp air and we discovered that the portable heaters they had given us didn't work.

In a panic to keep in whatever little heat we had accumulated in the room I left my three friends there to continue huddling while I ran from room to room with the family that owned the hotel grabbing all of the spare heavy blankets that I could to hang in the doorways and windows of our room, and to layer over my shivering friends. The thee of them looked about ready to lynch me.

The blankets were working, but not enough and we were worried that we may not make it through the night if it got any colder. Hot eggs and mountain spinach from the hotel family warmed us up but for only a short time. The thermos of hot water for tea was the same.

Even I had never felt so cold. I debated bringing our little group down the mountain with torches, but a 5 hour hike in the dark down the lesser used side of a mountain, although would have warmed us up through activity, was too dangerous and it had started to rain. We were stuck there and simply had to make the best of it.

I again left them in the room and went to find the family that owned the hotel again, to beg for something to keep us warm and to explain just how severe this was turning out to be. When they let me into their single room home I saw that they not only had a Kong ( a single wooden bed warmed by woodsmoke from the stove for the entire family to sleep on ) but also a small barrel of coals in the centre of the room keeping them warm. I couldn't take the barrel from them, they had young children and it was a cold night, clearly, but I needed something similar.

I walked back into our room dragging behind me a medium sized steel barrel filled with bits of wood and rubbish given to me by the family - and lit it up in the middle of the room. We sat around that barrel and finally warmed ourselves to the point that we could sleep.

Huddled together around a burning barrel. Like proper hobos.

Can you believe that wasn't actually my worst hotel experience?

Hotel from Hell - The Mausoleum of Ghengis Khan

This is another one that was so bad that it will probably get it's own post at some point when I find the time to load my pictures from my old laptop to my new one. It's one of the few (very few) stories from my younger traveling years that I don't find any real humour in, but it's not something that I'm likely to ever forget. Definitely the worst hotel ever.

I was on another research trip for my tour company that took me through Inner Mongolia and the far west desert provinces in search of a section of the Great Wall of China that splits into two parallel sections. On the way was an opportunity to find and report on the Mausoleum of Ghengis Khan. There were very few writings available on this mausoleum or area of China and I was keen to find it, report on it and get back to civilisation as soon as I could.

I made it to the nearest town's long distance bus station and was able to communicate where it was that I needed to go. After much surprise on behalf of the man selling bus tickets ( and the bus driver, and the people that followed me around listening to my conversations with ticket sellers and bus drivers ) I was directed to board a bus and told that they could take me as far as one point and then I'd need to find something else for the rest of the way. I'm used to traveling like this and wasn't too bothered, so I got on the bus.

I've never regretted an action so much in my life.

After about 2 hours down a desert highway the bus came to a desolate intersection and pulled over - in the middle of nowhere - to let me off.

I didn't want to get off the bus. All I could see in each direction were towering sand dunes and long deserted stretches of highway. I asked the bus driver what I was meant to do, would another bus come? He didn't know, but the mausoleum was "a couple of hours by foot that way. Faster if you can get in a car". I didn't see any cars, and asked him again how many hours of walking I might be in for. He said maybe 2, 3 at tops. I could handle that, I had plenty of water and my sand scarf with me. As I got off the bus an elderly woman offered me an additional bottle of water that she was carrying. That wasn't a good sign.

I got off the bus and the driver pulled away - that was the last vehicle I saw for hours.

I wasn't too panicked yet, by that point I had been leading camel camping treks in the Chinese desert for a couple of years and more or less knew to keep my head and mouth covered, keep hydrated through sipping, save water as much as possible, eat chocolate (I always kept an emergency snickers with me) and to turn off my mobile so as not to run out the battery in case I needed it later. I also knew that with a well maintained road such as this that there was bound to be a car coming along at some point, and that I could probably bribe a ride out of it's driver. I also knew how cold it would get when the sun went down and the urgency of finding a place to stay before that happened.

I walked for nearly 6 hours along that stretch of highway before a car finally came along.

When it did, I didn't care that it was driven by 2 men and that by getting into the car I could be getting myself into an even worse situation than I was in now. They seemed nice enough, once they got over their shock at seeing a blonde Canadian woman marching resolutely down a deserted highway in Western China. They laughed when I told them where I was going and what I was trying to find, and offered me a ride to the Mausoleum. I had done well, I was only about another hour away by foot, but I was exhausted, overheated and grateful for the ride. When we arrived they wouldn't allow me to pay them for the ride, or even buy them a drink. They were well known in the little town and the rep of having shown up with the haggard foreign chick in their car was enough reward for them. They were suddenly more interesting than I was, which I was also very grateful for. I checked into the tiny town's only hotel, had a quick dinner of potato, carrot and onion stew and went to bed, exhausted.

I woke up in the dark to the sound of my door being opened and barely had time to sit up before 4 drunk Chinese men burst into my room, calling me a Russian prostitute and egging each other on for who gets the first go with me. I was in shock and terrified but thankfully adrenaline took over and I flew out of bed and toward the men, screaming obscenities at them in Chinese and forcing them back out into the hall. I was fortunate in that their drunken state combined with the surprise of this foreign woman rushing toward them yelling at them in Chinese was enough to catch them off their guard enough to get them out into the hall, waking up the other hotel guests enough for a few to start popping their heads out of their doors and out of my room enough for me to slam my door, lock it and push the bed up against it.

They were embarrassed and angry now, and they were trying to force their way back into my room - at this point I realised that they had an actual key to my room. The manager of the hotel must have sold it to them. I was eternally grateful that I had pushed the bed up against the door so that they couldn't get back in.

I remember that after they finally left I sat on the floor with my back against the bed and sobbed. The adrenaline had left me and I was left with the understanding of exactly where I was and what nearly happened to me. I'd never wanted to return to Canada so much in my life.

But like everything else in life, you just have to keep going, and if I had let this experience scare me off then I would have missed out on some amazing and wonderful experiences that were yet to come in the years following.

But it reinforces my determination for my daughters to be full on ninjas by the time they are 8.

Just in case.
Hotel from Hell - Langmusi

I've had hotel from hell stories that were much less traumatising, though bizarre and frustrating at the same time.;postID=7868011010555451083

In this one I was locked in a hotel room on the Tibetan Plateau. That turned into quite an ordeal, especially after I declined the hotel staff's suggestion of climbing from one room to the next through the window. Good times.

This one wasn't really the hotel's fault - Beijing

Oh, the trouble I can get myself into.

Paul's mother, Sylvia, had come to China to visit us. We had travelled to Beijing to show her around and stayed in a reasonably nice little hotel, very clean, very full of other tourists, everything was fine. Having lived away from all westernisation for too long, Paul and I completely gorged on western food like pizza, Subway, cookies, McDonald's, everything we could get our paws on that reminded us of home.

This was a bad thing, and it resulted in the complete and total blockage of our hotel toilet. We needed a plumber and, my Chinese being piss poor but still better than Paul or Sylvia's at that point, I called down to reception to get one. Sylvia listened to my conversation to the receptionist and was well impressed with how fluent I sounded. Hell, even I was pretty darn proud of myself for it. I didn't know the words for bathroom, plumber, plunger or toilet, but had managed to successfully communicate what I needed. She asked me what it is that I said, and I translated my end of the conversation to her -

Hello. I'm in room 214. I have a small problem in my room. Please send me a man. He can fix it for me. Don't worry, it will be very fast. Thank you.

It's at that point, when I contemplated what I had actually said in English to the receptionist, that both Sylvia and I started to feel a bit concerned about what exactly they were sending to the room. We didn't have much time to ponder as a few seconds later there was a knock at the door, and I cautiously opened it to find a male prostitute having propped himself up against my doorway in a sexual stance, ready to service my needs.

I was horrified. Not only that I had called a prostitute instead of a plumber, but that I had done so in front of Paul's mother. I'd never live this down. So I did the only thing I could, burst out laughing, swung the door open to show Paul and his mom what had arrived at our door and pointed the poor man to the bathroom, charading that I'd like him to please fix the toilet. The poor guy turned bright red and left, and a proper plumber showed up a few minutes later to "fix my problem".

I wanted to crawl into a hole and die.

This one really wasn't the hotel's fault either - Hong Kong

Which brings me to my crown jewel of hotel horror stories from my travels - the Elevator Story.;postID=6547392828391985680

It was bad. I'll just say that.

So traveling with me is not always the safest or most relaxing thing a person could do.

But at least it's not boring.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

I'm not the best flight companion

I remember a lifetime ago on a flight within China on China Southern airlines, watching the safety video that came on before takeoff. It ran through the usual spiel of “here are your exits”, “this is an oxygen mask” and “put your mask on first before helping someone else” and then gave a video demonstration of “how to prepare for an emergency or crash landing” (this caught my attention).

The first image was labeled “what to do if you are normal” (this is when I knew that at the very least, the video was going to be highly entertaining), and showed a person of average height and average build bracing themselves in the standard air crash position of head down, hands on the seat in front of you and knees tucked in. I was once told that this position is not so much to save your ass, but to preserve your dental records. How nice.

The second was “what to do if you are holding a child”, and showed a woman holding a baby to her chest, leaning forward with her head tucked down and one hand on the seat in front of her. All very standard, aside from a bit of odd Chinglish phrasing now and then.

It was the third that threw me:

“What to do if you are very fat”

And the video showed an overweight person sitting upright in their chair and gripping the arm rests for dear life.

Now, I’ve always been afraid of flying, but that really didn’t help. Nor did the time a small plane I was on lost power and regained it after about a minute of silent coasting.  Or on a plane to Hawaii over the ocean a man was carried to the back of the plane, dr’s were paged, but he never returned to his seat. Or the time that lightening hit our plane directly where my mother and I were seated – directly across from the flight attendant jump seats – when the 3 flight attendants proceeded to freak out, get on the phone to the pilot and lean over me to check the wing and describe it to the cockpit crew in Chinese. All three of them were whispering madly in Chinese and I could see real fear on their faces.

And when a flight attendant looks scared, you know you’re screwed.

We lived, the plane continued on its’ route and everything seemed fine, aside from when we landed we were held on the tarmac for a good 40 minutes and when we were finally released onto the tarmac a portion of the plane (where we were sitting) was covered and shielded from our view.

So it’s pretty safe to say that I’m a nervous flier, even though I’ve never really been through anything horrible on a plane. However:

1.     I’m always sure that the toilet is going to suck me out of the plane.
2.     I’m always nervous that the floor in the bathroom is going to drop out of the plane with me on it.

So I avoid going to the bathroom on a plane at all costs. And as most of the flights I take are over 9 hours in duration and I have a habit of drinking water like it’s going out of style, this creates problems for me.

Also, since I avoid going until I’m at risk of wetting my seat, I end up going toward the end of the flight when the bathrooms are the most horribly overused and under cleaned – and for a bathroom germophobe like me it’s pure hell. I end up waiting in line, anxious as all hell (see point 3 below) and as soon as the door opens I take a deep breath, hold it, dash in while trying to avoid the suspicious wet spots on the ground, roll up my pant legs to avoid the pee puddles all over the place, knock a roll of loose toilet paper into the toilet with my elbow, pull down my pants and hover over the seat while not touching anything, finish, close the lid, run my hands under the water that I’ve turned on with a paper towel, unlock the door and at the same time that I flush the toilet I burst out of the bathroom, gasping for breath with my pant legs rolled up to my knees. Not a lot of people seem keen to go in after me. Usually they decide that they can hold it and turn back to their seats.

So while I’m not the best person to fly with, at least I’m entertaining.

3.     I’ve heard about these things called “air pockets”, and I’m convinced that we’re going to fly into one at any given time.
4.     So I don’t take off my seat belt. Ever. And if you make me take off my seat belt I’ll give you the look of death. If you make me take off my seat belt and then take too long (by my standards) to get out of my way so I can get it back on, I’ll push you.

But if you accidentally grab my seat belt instead of yours and take too long to give it back, I’ll shank you.

5.     I’m always convinced that the next flight I take will be the death of me.

Yes, I’m that lunatic that counts to one hundred and eighty during take off and landing. (I’ve heard that the most dangerous times during a flight are the 30 seconds after takeoff and the 30 seconds before landing – counting these out make me feel as though I’ve survived and cheated death yet again. I’m always very proud of myself after 180.)

Before flying I make sure that my husband and children know how much I love them, and that I want my husband to re-marry, but still raise the twins as vegetarians in my honour.

I have serious issues with this, clearly. On my recent flight to Seoul, South Korea I openly wept in my seat before takeoff (which is possibly what prompted my row-mates to put on their SARS masks) thinking of Paul and the twins and how much I missed them, and that I’ll probably never see them again.

Leaving the house in the morning was pure torture, kissing of my sleeping daughters thinking that it may very well be the last time I kiss them or that they even see me – wondering if they are too young to remember me if I die a fiery death in the next few hours.

I’m that person that scans the other passengers in the gate area before a flight, gauging the potential of the plane to go down based on our ensemble of the population. If a set of monks are waiting at the gate I feel instantly relieved, surely god’s not going to take out a monk in an aerial disaster. I look for people who look kind of like they could be terrorists, I look for people that look like they could be deranged, and I look for people that look like they may have a severe communicable disease. When the pilots board I quickly scan them and watch to see if they are walking in straight lines to determine whether their morning coffee was regular or Irish, and I look to the flight attendants to see if they seem nervous, bored or relaxed. But I always get on the plane, regardless.

So here I am, yet again, on another flight. By the time I get home from this trip I’ll have taken 8 planes in 6 days. Fantastic for anxious fliers like myself. So I’ll sit here with my seatbelt tightly fastened and my heart racing while the man sitting behind me sneezes loudly into my hair (that I just washed today, thank you) and horks up phlegm into a water bottle secured to the back of my chair. (It’s like flying with a hayfever-ridden camel) but secure in that my husband and children know how much I love them.

And how much I hate flying.

Back in China

I remember this place.

Landing in Shenyang, China was an odd feeling. On one hand it felt like coming home, on the other it felt like I was visiting my younger self nearly a lifetime ago.

I spent what felt like so much time in this Northeastern city. Life changed and altered but still I kept returning to it. It’s not a beautiful, sculpted and classic place in China by any means, and compared to many places that I have been here there are certainly places that I would rather call home. But Shenyang was, for so long, and so many times, home.

Shenyang was the first place I ever went to in China, when I was 21, naïve and terrified. Shenyang was the first place that Paul came to in China when he moved across the globe to be with me in a place of craziness. I took comfort in Shenyang when Paul left. I rejoiced in it when he came back.

I started out in Shenyang as an English teacher and quickly shifted to managing an educational consultancy company placing English teachers into Chinese schools in the city. I left that and turned to managing a string of English schools. Adventure called and I left Shenyang to work in the South as an adventure tour leader for a number of years before returning to Canada to get married – and we eventually returned to Shenyang, this time working in immigration. I was transferred to the United Kingdom and left Shenyang, but Paul stayed in the city we loved for another 8 months – we spent that Christmas in Shenyang and it was one of our favorites.

And now, after more than 3 years I’m back in Shenyang, to call in a favour.

I remember this place.

The plane doors open and as I step off onto the gangway the muggy air and the smell of dust and fresh dirt hit me like a wall of memories. The dust catches in my damaged lungs and I cough and even though through the glass I see only mounds of dirt, old Russian vehicles, soldiers digging roads and dirty cranes covering everything – I feel immediately like I am home. I am welcome here, I am comfortable here. This is familiar, this is what I know.

But I’m not even going into the city today, I’m just here to get a visa.

I follow the throng of fellow passengers through the old airport, the only western looking person in the crowd. I’m used to the stares, the children pointing and hearing whispered conversations about me and as these start up again I’m not phased by it, as I used to be. We shuffle to the escalator to find that it’s not working and walk down the stairs toward the immigration queue and I peel off to the side, as I have no visa and continuing through the line would guarantee arrest and deportation. But I’ve made it this far and I’ve had to call in some favors just to get on the plane in Seoul. So I whip out my phone and make a call.

Two minutes later I’m greeted by the man in charge of the immigration authority in the North East of China – my boss called his boss and he’s here to get me what I need. I’m welcomed into a back room and we sit down as he lights up a cigarette and offers me a drink. I’ve come prepared and pull out a nice bottle of scotch I picked up at the duty free in Korea.

My paperwork is arranged, my passport handed over and he joins me in making fun of my visa photos. (they were truly horrible) Somebody is sent to fetch my suitcase from the baggage claim and we have a few laughs. His English is non-existent and I realize that in this situation without speaking Chinese I’d be well and completely screwed. Everything is in order, and I’m told to wait.

I remember this place.

The walls are dirty and stained. The floors are washed with only water and hold years of dirt and scuffs from the scores of tired passengers shuffling through these queues. The room and hall are badly lit and translated English signs are misspelled and misshapen compared to their Chinese counterparts. Three lines through immigration are labeled Passport Holders, Staff and Courteous Passport Reginstratiogon. I’ve decided that once I get my passport back, I’m going to go through that one, just for fun.

I remember this place.

I can smell the restrooms from where I sit and I suddenly realize how alone I am. No more flights arrive, no more passengers march down those stairs. This could go badly for me, and nobody would know or see me being taken to another back room. I’m not only the only non-Chinese here, I’m the only woman as well, and I’m carrying a shitload of cash, electronics and well, to be honest, in the North East of China I tend to look a lot like a Russian hooker.

But I remember this place.

The area is staffed solely by men in military uniforms, smoking and bantering with each other. A room off to the side is full of off-duty soldiers and officials playing cards and having a laugh. Now that everyone else is gone and I’m alone people are friendly and curious about me – they don’t know how I’m managing to get this done here or who I am that this is possible. But their strict military façade is gone and they slip into relaxed grins as they slap each other on the back, light up their cigarettes and strike up conversations. I feel like again, I’m part of the China that the rest of the laowai don’t often get to see. Or maybe they’re just not looking.

Or maybe they’re too quick to turn back.

A few minutes later it’s done, a shiny new 30 day visa is in my reasonably valid passport. Thanks and liquor are exchanged and I’m sent on my way to wake a sleeping guard to unchain the doors and let me out of the arrivals hall – and off I go straight to the ticketing desk to buy a flight to the next leg of my adventure.

I’ll always remember this place.

When life gives you lemons, fly to Korea

When life gives you lemons, fly to Korea

My mother started a fun game on facebook the other day with her sisters called “where in the world is Candace” and took bets on which currency they would need to send bail money to.

Surprisingly, I’m not a drugged out 19 year old backpacker but a professional, 31 year old married mother of two 2 year olds. And I still get myself into this type of crap.

Out of the blue on a Tuesday, a key business meeting opportunity arises in China that I should attend, flights are booked and we leave on Friday. Calls are made to the Chinese embassy in London, favors are called in and my Chinese visa has been arranged for a miraculous one-day service. I make my way down there, everything is submitted and everything seems good – but it’s rejected. My Canadian passport expires in 4 months, not the required minimum of 6 months for any visa to any country, including many countries in which I don’t require a visa, but can’t get into without those precious 6 months of remaining passport validity. (Like Taiwan, I soon discovered the hard way).

Defeated, I return to the office and tell my boss that I can’t make it. He’s not having it. More calls are made. Bigger favors are called in and the embassy has agreed to “view my case outside of the rules for this particular occasion”.  I returned the next day to the embassy, hand over my passport and again return to the office. We get a call at 10am. There’s been a political dogfight in the embassy and somebody pulled the plug on my visa. We were due to leave tomorrow.

My boss still wasn’t having it.

More calls were made, old friends were contacted and it was determined that if I could somehow land in a particular airport in a particular city in China as my first point of entry, I would be given a visa. It’s the getting there that would be the problem, as airlines won’t let you fly to China without a visa. Apparently if they do, you get deported (and to where, exactly?) and they get a massive fine.

So we figured we’d risk it.

Or more so, I’d risk it, and he’d fly directly from London to Shanghai. If I could, the plan was to meet him there by Monday morning. Somehow.

My initial flight was cancelled (British Airways direct from London to Shanghai – it sounded heavenly) and I booked a one way flight from London, through Paris to Seoul, South Korea. There’s something rather intimidating about booking a one way flight to a country in Asia that you’ve never been to and have no intention of staying in for more than a couple of hours with nothing to get you onward or backward but an envelope of cash, a reasonably valid passport and your Iphone. But that’s how we roll around here. A further one way flight was booked for me from Seoul to China, but I’d worry about that if and when I got that far.

My problems started in London when they didn’t want to let me check in. My passport was okay, they didn’t bother counting up the remaining months, but they could see that I had a further flight booked to China and I was lacking in said visa. They didn’t want to let me through. I explained that I just had to get to the airport in China and that a visa would be arranged for me. They wanted to see paperwork explaining that, but of course, I had none. I couldn’t even give them a named contact that was arranging this because well, this type of thing isn’t normally done. Korean Air finally agreed to let me on to the Paris flight, but I would have to pick up my bags there and talk to them again about the next leg.

Once in Paris, the same song and dance ensued.

“You don’t have a visa for China”
“Yes, you need a visa for China.”
“Oh yes, that. It’s all been arranged.”
“If it were all arranged, it would be in your passport.”
“Excellent point. How about you just check me in to Seoul, then.”
“But what will you do when you get to Seoul?”
“Not sure, but I’ve got an 11 hour flight to think about it.”

He was French, what did he care if some pathetic Canadienne got herself stuck in Korea and deported?

So I thanked him and went on my way.

Once I got to Korea things really got interesting.

I was not allowed to check in for the Shenyang flight, because I did not have a Chinese visa. They did not buy my spiel of it being pre-arranged without any evidence of such. My word did not seem to count for very much. However, a loophole was discovered – they would transport me to Shenyang without a visa if I was transiting through Shenyang directly onto an international flight out of China within 24 hours of landing there and without leaving the airport. Good enough for me, and off I scrambled to find a travel agency in the airport that could/would sell me a ticket that met such conditions.

After an hour I found a travel agency that could A: sell tickets internal to China and B: understand that I didn’t need a ticket from Seoul to China, just from China out and that it had to be within 24 hours of landing. And couldn’t be back to Korea. That left my only options as Taiwan or Hong Kong, but as the flight to Taiwan was leaving exactly 23.5 hours after my arrival in Shenyang and met the strict conditions of the transit visa for the purposes of Korean Air, I bought it. A non-refundable one way ticket to Taiwan that I had no intention of using. Fantastic.

Full of pride at “screwing the system” I triumphantly marched back to the Korean Air desk and checked in, explaining that I didn’t need a visa because I was just transiting through, look, here’s proof! My proof was accepted and I was nearly there when – crap – she noticed that my passport was only valid for 4 months and not the required 6 to get into Taiwan.

Son of a bitch. They got me.

I tried explaining that I wasn’t actually going to Taiwan, that this was just a ruse to get into China. (honestly is apparently not always the best policy) and a manager was called. Fantastic.

I was told that no, they would not take me to China because I couldn’t then get into Taiwan. However, they agreed to call the manager of the Shenyang airport to see if they would accept me on this type of transit visa, but it would probably take a lot of time because they are all very busy and I will probably miss my flight anyway, and to go sit down.

That's when I pulled out my final card, and made a call to my boss.

About 10 minutes later he calls me back, tells me what's going on and has me go back to the Korean Air manager. She sees me and says that she's tried, but the line is busy and she hasn't been able to get a hold of anyone there yet. I tell her not to worry, the manager of the airport is going to call her. 

She was visibly surprised by this, as were her other two fellow managers and the two check in clerks gathered around them. I returned to my seat in the waiting area and picked up my book again - a couple of minutes later I hear their heels briskly clacking on the floor toward me and look up to see brand new expressions on their faces- they are so very sorry for delaying me, this man is here to take my bags and these two ladies are here to help me check in. Unfortunately, the flight doesn't have a first class area but they have arranged for me to have 3 seats to myself so that I am as comfortable as possible, and would I like a complimentary lounge pass?

I'm sure they googled me after I left to see who the hell I was that I had this much pull in China.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Death to the Starfish!

See, my problem is that I've always been a starfish when it comes to sleeping arrangements. Paul knows this and, as he snores like a wounded, asthmatic water buffalo, he puts up with it because quite frankly, being a bed hog isn't nearly as bad as being a snorer. So, over the past 12 years we've become accustomed to me star-fishing on 3/4 of the bed and him still having a nice quarter all to himself. It worked for us.

And then we had kids.

As any multiples parent knows, pregnancy with more than one is a special beast, and I soon outgrew our bed. There was no longer room for my husband, the cat or the dog and only one spot ideally positioned to starfish directly in front of the air conditioner clutching a bottle of tums in one hand and a bucket in the other while I slept for hours on end. So what did my brilliant husband do? He brought in a second queen sized bed, pushed it up against our usual queen sized bed and thus created "Super Bed". This was fantastic, we each had our own bed yet could still roll over and touch each other if we had wanted to. (We didn't want to. He may have, but I would have killed him) We got used to this, and life was good.

Then the kids came out, I lost half my body mass in the delivery room and we downsized to one bed, like normal people, and although the kids fit in the bed alright:

They turned out to be starfish, like their mother:

Battles were won and lost, compromises made, treaties were signed, tears flowed and I learned to cling to the side of the bed like a good, unselfish partner and parent should. I've fallen out a few times (Paul laughed) and he's fallen out a few times (I may have nudged him) but we both grew accustomed to our new sleeping arrangements with the cat, dog and occasional baby or two in the middle.

However, things have become much more complicated now that the girls are walking and can escape freely from their room to waddle up to my side of the bed (why is it always my side?!?) with their seahorse and an empty bottle to come for a cuddle, a bit of reassurance and to basically get all up in my grill and prevent me from sleeping for the remainder of the night. Paul seems perfectly able to sleep soundly through this, though he claims that he has no space on the bed. I beg to differ:

This is a shot I took in indignation at 4am last week of Paul, Lochie and Dermot all hogging up our Super Kingsized Bed when I was pretty much forced out of bed against my will. Look at him, all comfortable and asleep with all that room and all those covers. Comfy bastard tries to tell me he gets no room at night. Just look at that!

But then he presents me with this gem that he took at about 4am last night:

and I have been forced to concede.

Touche, Husband, Touche.