What is the longest delay you have ever had? 4 hours? 8 hours? How about three full days without money, knowledge of where you are, means of communicating with the outside world, and no local around who can understand you? In retrospect, I took one of my first travel crises quite well for a newbie traveler!
Let me paint the picture for you. The events depicted in my post “Getting Scammed in Xian” had a lot more going on than I led on so let me continue the story. After finally seeing the Terracotta Army, I went on with my trip to Lijiang and then Chengdu. When vacation time was over, I had to return to Korea, as I had just started my first year teaching English in the tiny town of Daejeon. There was one little thing that stood in the way though, a 5 hour layover in Beijing, one of the
worse worst airports in the world. (Edit of typo: courtesy of Grammar Nazi Dave Yuhas)
No biggie I thought, even if the airplane is a little late, I could still make it. The plane into China was delayed seven hours though, and the outgoing one was not about to be outdone. Seven more hours of delay in Chengdu airport got me worried. When we finally arrived in Beijing, I had a plan! I was going to put my game face on and request…no… firmly ask… scratch that.. DEMAND that I be put in the next flight to Korea! After all, the customer is ALWAYS RIGHT!
Unfortunately, I forgot to check-in my ego at the Chengdu counter, and Beijing airport was in no mood for my attitude. The plane landed in a blizzard and we had to run through the snow as the tunnel arm that links up with planes was completely frozen. I walked through about 4 feet of snow just thinking “oh…this is not good.” I forgot almost everything I learned in college, but I do remember this, if there is one thing that can make an airplane stall on take-off, it is snow like this!
After jumping through literal snow hoops that the people in front of me had created, we finally made it into a terminal. It was minus 25 degrees Celsius (-10 F) outside and didn’t feel much warmer inside. Combined with the fact that it was my first time experiencing a real winter and had no real winter clothes, this California boy was not handling it well.
Yes… it got worse.
I looked up at the screens, hoping my flight out of Beijing was also delayed and hadn’t left yet. It hadn’t!!! Success?! Hardly, as it had actually been cancelled, along with every single flight out of Beijing that day.
I had no idea what to do. The only times I had ever gone to a place where I couldn’t communicate with the locals was when I started teaching in Korea, two months prior to this! After asking around with my much more decked-down attitude, I was told to stand in line to get tickets reissued for the next available flight. “Air China will handle it,” I was told, as they pointed to a line that made Disneyland on Labor Day look like a ghost town. I do not exaggerate one bit when I tell you that I stood in line for 8 hours with at least a thousand other people in front of me trying to muscle their way in. The closer we inched forward, the more people cut in front of us. I finally realized that if I was going to get out of this mess, I needed some allies.
I teamed up with an English couple and a GI, both of which were also looking to get back to Korea. We decided that one of us would have to also cut in line if we were to get tickets anytime soon. The GI volunteered and when he reached the window, the three of us, and 4 others who quickly joined our entourage literally threw him our passports about 5 meters across the aisle, hoping he would catch them. Good thing they didn’t pick my clumsy self as the leader as I would have definitely dropped those passports and lost them in the angry throng.
The GI (I wish I remembered his name) returned with 8 tickets from Beijing to Seoul, ready to go… with only one catch. The flight left in three days!
“You go find hotel, come back in three days,” were the reassuring words of the overworked Air China employee who looked like she had been at the airport for 16 hours straight. Most of us didn’t like the sound of that though. For starters, you are not supposed to leave a Chinese airport if you don’t have a visa (2011 rules). While I personally had a Chinese visa, no one else in our group did. Furthermore, most of us didn’t have much money as it was right after the Christmas holiday, and at the tail end of my vacation. Our fearless leader demanded satisfaction and with a little complaining, worked out a deal. We would get to stay in a hotel ‘nearby’ and be shuttled back when it was flight time.
‘Near’ must have different meaning in China, as it probably means “within our country” from the looks of it. The bus took over two hours to reach our destination and took us to the middle of nowhere in what seemed like suburban (or country side, hard to tell with all the snow) Beijing.
The hotel was decent, but had no internet access outside of the front desk’s computer. While they were kind enough to let me email my employer to assure them that I hadn’t run away, the only English speaking girl was just a part-timer and no one else knew what we were talking about after she left.
We were given 2 meals a day in a restaurant next door, but it was the feeling of isolation and disorientation that really got to me. The English people were just upset they couldn’t find decent beer and didn’t seem to mind the military truck with artillery that was guarding us right in front of the building.
When I am anxious or worried, I get hungry and constantly felt my stomach rumbling during those three days stuck in Beijing (not the last of my run ins with this city though). I no longer had Chinese currency, and had to convince the convenience store in the hotel of what a 1000 won note was worth. She sold me some ramen, and I must say, they were the best noodles I had ever tasted. Shuffling back and forth between the hotel, the convenience store, the restaurant next door, and an occasional attempt to venture outside was how I spend the rest of my time stranded in the Chinese capital.
We eventually were bused back to the airport and left without a problem on our flight to Seoul. While I had only lived in Korea for two months at the time, arriving after that experience changed my outlook to living as an expat. It was upon arriving to my small, dark, cement walled apartment in Daejeon, as I cranked up my heater and felt the warmth at my feet that I realized something. This was the first time I ever called Korea, my home.