14Feb2013

Welcome to China

View of the arrivals hall at Kunming Airport.

Despite the wonderful view of the Himalayas unfurling below us, I am not particularly optimistic about the next stages of our journey. I hate flying at the best of times, and today, so far, has not been the best of days.

My spawn, mystifyingly, is genuinely looking forward to sleeping at Kunming Airport. So much so that he’s carrying his sleeping bag as hand baggage.

Cheapskate that I am, we’re flying China Eastern out of Nepal, and we’re the only laowai on the flight, making this an excellent opportunity for Zac to practise his Chinese. I insist he does.

Off he trots to the loo, and returns looking rather crestfallen.

“What happened?” I say.

“Well, I started talking to that guy over there,” he says. “And I think I pronounced things a bit too well, because he thought I was fluent and went off at full speed.”

Ah, yes. The Chinese, god bless ‘em, have a rapid-fire delivery that’s even more intimidating than one’s first encounter with an Italian in full flight. And, unless they’re very used to foreigners, they don’t slow a beat from molto accelerando.

God, I think. This plan for Zac to go to school in China is kinda ambitious. I’ll need to arrange a week’s intensive as soon as we’re settled, AKA a week or so from now.

Why is he asking me? Do I look like a mother figure? A prospective sexual partner? Like someone who’s likely to be sleeping in an airport? Hard to tell with young guys these days…. I figure it’s a combination of A and C.

Kunming Airport is a completely new airport since last time we were there. Once a rather grimy and defiantly second-world regional airport, it’s now a glorious wedding cake affair, rich with gilded fripperies, and, barely six months from opening, already the seventh largest airport in China.

That is to say that Kunming Changshui International Airport already carries more passengers than Gatwick or Boston. It intends to be bigger than Heathrow or JFK.

The baggage reclaim alone, with its serried ranks of pristine pillars and its endless carousels stretching off into the blue, feels like something out of Triumph of the Will. AKA, not entirely the kind of spot that welcomes stinky backpackers sleeping in it.

“Do you know if you can sleep in the airport?” asks a kid who is clearly experiencing the same doubts that I am.

I take a look at him. He’s mid-20s, Asian features, American accent.

Hmmm…. Why is he asking me? Do I look like a mother figure? A prospective sexual partner? Like someone who’s likely to be sleeping in an airport? Hard to tell with young guys these days….

I figure it’s a combination of A and C.

“I don’t know,” I say. I’d actually rather like a night in a bed right now. In fact, I’m leaning strongly towards a hotel, if I can find one.

“We’re sleeping in the airport!” Zac elucidates.

“I asked them,” he says. “They say we can’t.”

Oh god.

Our bags come through. And we’re off.

“What were you doing in Japan?” asks the PLA guy. “I was studying Japanese.” “WHY you spend FOUR MONTHS in Japan?” “Because it takes time to learn Japanese.” “WHY you study Japanese? WHY you come to CHINA?”

I could be am mildly paranoid, after a spectacularly bad day, but immigration, a bank of men in shiny-buttoned khaki PLA uniforms behind alarmingly high-tech desks, does not feel particularly welcoming.

Which is to say, it feels on edge.

To my right, there’s a chap who’s had the unwisdom to spend time in Japan, currently Public Enemy Number One, due most immediately to a spat over some islands, but retrospectively including the Rape of Nanjing and various other stuff. Let’s just say it’s surprising they’re not bringing back the classical Mandarin term for the Japanese, which roughly translates as dwarf-bandits.

“What were you doing in Japan?” asks the PLA guy.

“I was studying Japanese.”

“WHY you spend FOUR MONTHS in Japan?”

“Because it takes time to learn Japanese.”

“WHY you study Japanese? WHY you come to CHINA?”

Uhoh.

To my left, some poor Nepali is getting a terribly rough time over a visa that appears to have expired.

Zac tries to jump the queue. I hiss at him.

Our visas are studied, Zac’s passport photo studiously compared to his face, and we’re through. Right. Now to find somewhere to sleep.

“What did he say to you, anyway?” “I don’t know,” says Zac. “He just started yelling at me and then came to find you.” Clearly we are the only laowai in the airport. Oh god.

Kunming Airport Arrivals is, well, enormous, full of the sort of mystifyingly not-quite-Western, not-quite-trendy, not-quite-coffee-shops that feature drinks including Purple Potato Powder and Green Tea Explode, quite the contrast to the grimy hellhole that greeted us last time we flew in here.

I abandon today’s attempt to give up smoking, buy a packet of Marlboro Lights, pop out for a sneaky fag and am immediately busted by Zac, who is yelled in my direction by an angry Chinese man in uniform, presumably after doing a wheelie with the baggage trolley or similar.

“Sorry,” I say, trying and failing to secrete the fag behind my back and stub it. “It’s a bit stressy. I will give up again, I promise.”

“You need to read the Allen Carr book again,” he says. “You’ve been giving up every day for the last week and it’s getting old.”

“Sorry,” I say. “It’s an addiction. What did he say to you, anyway?”

“I don’t know,” says Zac. “He just started yelling at me and then came to find you.”

Clearly we are the only laowai in the airport. Oh god.

“Why don’t you want to go to a hotel?” I ask. “BECAUSE I WANT TO SLEEP IN THE AIRPORT,” he says. “But WHY?” I say. “WHY do you want to sleep in the airport?” “Because it will be fun!” my spawn says. “AND I have my sleeping bag.”

My first Chinese language challenge of the day? To establish whether we can sleep in the airport.

I head to Information.

“You able speak English?” I ask, in Chinese.

No.

“Can no can sleep airport?” I ask. She understands me first time.

“Yes! Can! Third floor.” I understand her first time.

My GOD! Go ME! Go HER!

Oh! There’s a woman! She knows where we can sleep in the airport.

Oh! She’s a hotel tout. And, further, her hotel isn’t 88 kuai, but 288 kuai, and I can’t remember how to negotiate free taxi transfers in Chinese.

“No want,” says Zac, in appropriately clipped, well-accented and comprehensible Chinese.

“Why don’t you want to go to a hotel?” I ask.

“BECAUSE I WANT TO SLEEP IN THE AIRPORT,” he says.

“But WHY?” I say. “WHY do you want to sleep in the airport?”

“Because it will be fun!” my spawn says. “AND I have my sleeping bag.”

Bugger.

I turn to the lady. “No now,” I say. “We go ask three floor. We go look little bit.”

”I don’t think either of us speaks good enough Chinese to cope with whatever hidden extras there are in the price she’s offering. Is the taxi included? Or are we going to pay 100 kuai for five minutes in her friend’s car to cover the discount she’s just offered us?”

We progress through Kunming airport, Zac now in a heightened state of excitement which a certain type of parent might unkindly summarise as hyper, accelerating our trolley and then jumping on the back of it and zooming across the shiny, enormous marble floors.

“Can you calm it down a bit?” I say.

“Why?” he says.

“Because you’ve already been yelled at once,” I say.

“Yeah,” he says. “That was like Darwin. Really bad.”

Darwin airport, for the record, was what put much of the hate in to my love-hate relationship with Australia. Well, Darwin in general, in fairness. Not just the airport.

“Can’t we just go to a hotel?” I ask.

“No,” says my spawn. “Because I don’t think either of us speaks good enough Chinese to cope with whatever hidden extras there are in the price she’s offering. Is the taxi included? Or are we going to pay 100 kuai for five minutes in her friend’s car to cover the discount she’s just offered us?”

The child speaks sense.

I am feeling fractious. I’m also gagging for a beer and internet.

Ooh! It’s the Chinese-American kid.

“Any joy?” I say.

“Apparently you can sleep on the third floor,” he says.

“I’m sort of thinking I’d rather go to a hotel,” I say feebly. “But I could do with a beer.”

He needs a beer also, and internet. And, we have a project! Find beer and internet in Kunming Airport late at night. And a place to sleep.

We discover, to our surprise, that “frozen edamame” do indeed mean, well, “frozen edamame”, which is to say cooked and then frozen. I’m still in that China zone where such peculiarities strike me as fabulously exotic rather than, well, annoying.

After a mystifying wander around the airport restaurants, fending off the hotel touts, whose prices are dropping by the hour, and attempting to score beer at KFC, we return to the third floor.

There’s a rather fabulous restaurant, equipped with private rooms, all firmly shut, which has cosy-looking sofas but, at the same time, feels rather like the kind of place one could be arrested for sleeping in.

So, after some agonising debate, we settle on the only place that remains open, a little bar on the third floor with an ominous-looking cocktail menu.

There we discover, to our surprise, that “frozen edamame” do indeed mean, well, “frozen edamame”, which is to say cooked and then frozen.

I’m still in that China zone where such peculiarities strike me as fabulously exotic rather than, well, annoying.

Which is more than could be said for the classical Catch-22 whereby to connect to airport wifi you need to be in possession of a Chinese mobile number, and whereby none of the mobile phone card places are open, so there are about a gadzillion wifi networks and no means of getting on them.

The ABC — American-Born Chinese — has some theories about where to sleep in the airport, complicated affairs to do with draughts and the absence thereof: the ambient temperature is not one that requires one to remove a jacket.

Zac, too, has his own theories. He’s gunning for Starbucks.

And, in the way of strangers in airports, the ABC, Zac and I swap travel tales, until the bar closes, and move downstairs to the purple potato place where, it emerges, it is impossible to buy a coffee without a cake.

The ABC speaks decent Chinese, but not good enough to establish what the purple potato powder drink is, and I’m not actually bold enough to try it at this point. The Green Tea Explode cake, though, which comes with coffee whether you like it or not, is remarkably good.

Starbucks is closed. But it has leather sofas, which my spawn hurls himself upon with the air of a drowning man. He ritualistically unrolls his sleeping bag, marks his territory and yells: “I’ll take the TOP bunk.”

There are plenty of Chinese sleeping on benches in the ticketing zone on the third floor, but these look both hard and cold.

And both my companions are now utterly fixated on finding the best place to sleep in the airport. One could almost, in fact, consider them in competition, what with Zac showing off his minus-30 rated sleeping bag and the ABC comparing draught-proofing.

It’s after 1am which, with our flight leaving at 8am, is now past the point at which it makes any sense to stay in a hotel, not that the tout, god bless her, is taking no for an answer.

“Starbucks!” Zac says, ignoring the poor tout who’s now hanging off my shoulder like the albatross in the Ancient Mariner.

“Are you SURE there’s a Starbucks here?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says, and navigates us through the lifts and along an enormous balcony to… Starbucks. It’s closed. But it has leather sofas, which my spawn hurls himself upon with the air of a drowning man. He ritualistically unrolls his sleeping bag, marks his territory and yells: “I’ll take the TOP bunk.”

He bounces off the walls for a couple more hours before passing out into blissful oblivion. I manage a couple of hours that alternate seamlessly between nightmares and waking in a puddle of my own drool.

I’m not sure the ABC even sleeps, although I’m “up” to say goodbye to him in the morning.

That’s odd, I think. Oh god. It’s a man in uniform. That’s not good. He has our backpack in front of him on a table. That’s REALLY not good. “Hello,” I say, politely, in Chinese.

My features now redefining haggard and heading towards witch trial status, I have just rechecked our bags when the girl at check-in suddenly directs me to a weird hole-in-the-wall affair.

That’s odd, I think.

Oh god. It’s a man in uniform.

That’s not good.

He has our backpack in front of him on a table. That’s REALLY not good.

“Hello,” I say, politely, in Chinese.

“&%(&(*&%&*%(&*%(*&%” he responds, rapidly, pointing at the bag.

“I sorry,” I say in Chinese. “I no hearing understand.”

“&%(*&%(&%(&(%&%knife,” he says, pointing at our bag. “^(&*%open(&^$^$*^$not allowed in China, not allowed&^^*&^%(&%&%*&.”

And, amazingly, despite my lack of sleep, a stream of absolutely execrable but comprehensible Chinese comes straight out of my mouth, accompanied by the universal body language that communicates ‘I’m terribly sorry, officer.’

“Oh!” I say, making voluble hand gestures. “Knife! Sorry! Knife is of my son’s! My son has twelve year old. But I no take knife on plane. I take in plane big hole! No take knife hand! Very sorry! Knife no hand! Knife here! No hand!”

It seems as if Zac’s hunting knife, which I have successfully talked across a sensitive Egyptian-Israeli border at a time of high alert, will end its journey at Kunming Airport. I reveal it in all its 8-inch, stainless steel, savagely serrated glory.

“In China,” he says, slowly – good lord, the man’s a quick study. “This is not allowed.”

“I am English,” I say. “In England, knife allowed! No hand allowed! But plane allowed! Plane big hole allowed. Knife is of my son’s.”

In China, it appears, the hunting knife is not allowed full stop.

He summons a policeman. Oh shit. A full week spent in bureaucratic hell for the visa, and we’re going to be arrested for illegal importation of a hunting knife.

Noooooooooo!

Say it ain’t SO!

“If you give the knife to me,” she says. “I can give it back to you when you return. Because it is against the law in China, if he takes the knife, he cannot give it back, he has to throw it away, because the policeman has to write it down. But if I take it, I can keep it for you.”

There then commences one of those bewilderingly Chinese scenes, for which, thank god, the girl from the check-in desk abandons her station in order to translate.

“If he writes a ticket for the knife,” she explains, under the eye of the policeman. “He cannot give it back. Because it is against the law in China. But I feel so bad for your son, so I will help you.”

Zac, to his credit, seems remarkably unfussed by the fate of his hunting knife.

The three of them, together, policeman, airport security guy and checkin girl, discuss matters in Chinese so rapid I can only really catch the words “knife” and “child”.

Because here is the insane thing about China. It feels like a nation of rules. But in fact it’s a nation of rules filled with geniuses of working their way around the rules, and this is what’s happening here, all three of them going out of their way to help the laowai child. God bless ‘em.

“If you give the knife to me,” she says. “I can give it back to you when you return. Because it is against the law in China, if he takes the knife, he cannot give it back, he has to throw it away, because the policeman has to write it down. But if I take it, I can keep it for you.”

This offer in no way, shape or form strikes me as odd. Nor, until I write it down, does it in anyway strike me as unusual that the policeman and security guard should be helping the check-in girl help us keep an illegal weapon in China.

But it is SUCH a kind offer – I should add that, as a single woman travelling with a child, my life absolutely brims with the kindness of strangers — that, this being China, I have to say no.

Because, here’s the thing. We’re unlikely to fly out of Kunming. I’d owe this girl a quite incredible amount of guanxi (favours), and it’s simply not fair to her to accept her offer of taking custody of th knife and storing it, when we’re not likely to be back.

I explain this. Zac explains that he’s happy to lose the knife.

And, with a final wail, “But I feel SO BAD for your son,” we abandon the hunting knife and the mystified authorities who have worked out such a generous compromise, and progress to security.

Breakfast is sausages, which seems like a really good idea for about 30 seconds, until I bite into the first one.

“Oh,” says Zac. “Don’t tell me. It’s sweet.”

In Beijing, depending on the thickness of the Beijing accent, the second word can sound anywhere between Shong and a nasally roared Shyaaaaarrggh. For the true Beijinger, every day is Talk Like A Pirate Day.

I am, frankly, amazed that we make it to Beijing in one piece, but we do, and without much shouting, hissing or venom either, due to the fact that we’re both so exhausted after our night in Starbucks that we sleep the entire flight.

I haven’t really researched how to get to our hotel, because I know the address and the metro station, and that there’s a train from the airport, and I figure I can just get a cab for the last bit, because it’s a fair old schlep from the metro station, at least when burdened with 35kg (80lb) of winter gear and associated crap.

And I don’t have a guidebook, or a Chinese mobile.

Whatevs, I think. I know the name of the hutong, and I know the road it’s off. I don’t know what the cab fare should be, but I figure it shouldn’t be more than 30 kuai, and I’m quite happy to pay an extortionate 50 kuai just not to be dragging 80lb of crap through the hutongs when already exhausted.

Like every terminus of the airport express in any country in the world, however, it’s a morass of predatory cab drivers.

Zac eats some candied haws. I quibble with the man who’s trying to get me into a tuk-tuk. Eventually, he puts us in a taxi.

I ask the price.

180 kuai.

This, being roughly $30, is so far outside the reasonable range for a journey of this length – most Beijing cab drivers can be prevailed upon to use the meter – that I have to start at 20 kuai.

Negotiations, obviously, go nowhere, and I unload my 80lb load from the boot.

“Take line 2!” says the candied haws man, in Chinese. “Go down there, down the stairs, and take line 2! LINE 2!”

I KNOW we needed to take line 2. But I was hoping to avoid taking Line 2, because then I could avoid the walk at the end.

Oh well, I think, onwards and upwards, and, 80lb of weight unevenly distributed between a knackered pack and a swinging duffel bag, we progress to the Beijing metro and thence, rapidly, to a nightmarish wander around various hutongs, several of which have been knocked down since our last visit, with the result that the entire place looks utterly different.

For the avoidance of doubt, “Shanxi Xiang” is very hard to pronounce correctly in Chinese.

Particularly in Beijing where, depending on the thickness of the Beijing accent, the second word can sound anywhere between Shong and a nasally roared Shyaaaaarrggh. For the true Beijinger, every day is Talk Like A Pirate Day.

This continues for a while, Zac giving me the death stare all the while. And, after she leaves, our bed remaining resolutely double, Zac looks at me. “I don’t know why you even bothered arguing with a Chinese person,” he says. “There’s never any point.”

Oh lord! Leo Courtyard feels like home, as I stagger, swaying, past the lanterns and into its gorgeous lacquered entryway with its fishpond and all and dump my bags with the air of someone who’s not going anywhere for a while.

“He’s so big!” says the girl behind the bar, whose name, I now recall, is Sunny. “You were here last year, and now he’s so BIG!”

“Yes,” I say. “He’s twelve now.”

The PlayStation has gone, but there’s a cat in its place, an enormous fat furball that Zac falls on like a thirsty sailor in the desert.

We progress to our room. Wow! It’s better than they were this time last year.

Only one problem. The bed appears to be double. Or, rather, it’s two beds with a skimpy mattress over the top, and a double set of bedding over that.

“Would it be possible,” I ask in English. “To make this bed into two beds? Because we did book a room with two beds.”

“This is a double room,” says the girl. “You want a new room?”

“NO!” I say. Jesus God no, I do not want a new room. I didn’t even realise they had rooms like this pristine enormous palace with its desk, its armchairs, its white bathroom, its radiator AND its aircon unit that also does heating. That is TWO, count’em, TWO heating sources, both of which appear to work. “I just wondered if you could make the bed into two beds. Because there ARE two beds.”

This continues for a while, Zac administering the death stare.

And, after she leaves, our bed remaining resolutely double, Zac looks at me. “I don’t know why you even bothered arguing with a Chinese person,” he says. “There’s never any point.”

Post a Comment

Your email is kept private. Required fields are marked *

*
*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>