Time to get out of the big city. Guangzhou. In Hong Kong we secured airline tickets on China Eastern Airlines to fly from the booming industrial metropolis of Guangzhou to the peaceful retreat of Guilin and the surrounding villages that dot the Li Jiang River and its offshoots and arteries. We had to be at the airport by 3:30ish in order to make the 5pm flight.
The Guangzhou Airport is a dump. Dirty, unorganized and extremely confusing. This didn't hinder my efforts in finding tucked behind the chinese tourists and students camped out on top of their luggage in front of the check-in agents, pass the fruit vendors the correct agent for our flight. A charming Chinese lady with a smile to put any of my stress miles elsewhere. OF course, the computer generated sing listing the flight number and destination wasn't above her station. It was above her neighbors. With airport tax paid and all of our documents in order she informed us the flight was delayed. For how long she and no one else knew. But it was going to be late.
We cruised through security and pass more fruit vendors, and happy knick-knack sellers hawking rid-yourself-of-wrinkles wardrobe steamers and whole fish wrapped in cellophane. With a Chinese original watercolor scroll art tucked under my arm it was quite amusing to my travel mate and the 2 other travelers who had to summon me back to wherever I left it behind. In all the hubbub of course. Soon we were in the gate area. Patiently we waited for news of departure.
The amazing thing about Guangzhou Airport is the paging system used for gate announcements. Even more primitive than the bullhorn used by cops trying to convince criminals with “we've got the building surrounded come out with your hands up…there's no way out,” the young airline employee carries her paging equipment to each gate then belts out indecipherable Mandarin and screeching volume in full distortion. “No what'd she say?”
Good god. Will we ever get to Guilin. And how will we know? The beautiful pictures that make up the Chinese written words flash in blood red LED lights. Then a bit of roman letters. Hey. Maybe we can decipher this yet. Sure enough we soon discover that it will be 8pm when our flight finally takes off for the hour flight to Guilin.
Relief. At least we knew. But then again, at 9pm we began to wonder. Hmmm. Did we miss the flight. Lots of gate announcements but nothing that resembled Guilin.
Nobody at the airline customer service desk spoke English. And not a chinese student in sight wishing to practice English. A few words of English were managed: “go delayed flight desk”. No things were getting clearer. Must be a lot of delayed flights here that they've dedicated a whole “desk” for the cause. But finding said desk would prove to be challenging. After going pass security and back through again (and yes, leaving that scrolled artwork behind for good measure) I could find no such desk.
Back at the customer service desk I pleaded that we just be guided to the desk. My request was honored and we were soon guided from the Delayed Flight Desk to a bustop curb side outside the airport. Now the jaded and adventurous part of me was happy thinking “gee, we're getting kidnapped and going along easily.” But the pessimist in me (which is rare) decided that we were being ushered to a hotel for the evening because they hadn't sold enough seats on the flight and weren't going to burn the jet fuel to carry me, Bryan and a handful of others looking for peace and serenity in the Chinese countryside. No way.
Soon we were ushered onto a bus with a couple dozen other Chinese and winding through the dingy back streets of Guangzhou's airport district. A young boy was sent along to carry our bags. When we finally unloaded a mile or two from the airport we were greeted by a Chinese girl who was to be our liaison; call her our translator. She explained that we were to get some rest. The boy took our bags to a room on the fifth floor where we were pleasantly surprised to have a view of the courtyard below complete with a replica of the statue of liberty. Odd. Never did get the connection. But another trip to China and a delayed Guangzhou flight and I'll report back!
I paced the room while Bryan commanded the remote in search of anything English speaking on the telly. I start blogging. Feeling like the TV is rather loud I ask Bryan to turn it down. Neither of can understand it. Silence would be just as effective. He's asleep. Ah. The rest the airline promised. Yet before he could drift deep in REM sleep the phone rings and 100mph of Mandarin and click. Hung up. Wrong number? I figured. But the phone rings again. This time our translator. They're sending up food.
A knock on the door and we're handed two plastic bags containing a couple styro boxes each. Rice and a stir-fry. Don't ask what. But it tasted like chicken. I called back down to our translator.
“Can we get some beer. Tsing Tao?” I asked in my best broken English.
“Yes. I go to market and buy for you,” she promised.
“Bryan. We're getting some beer,” I explained just as the phone interrupted our rest time again.
“Sorry. No Tsing Tao beer. Only blue beer,” our liaison offers. Explaining blue beer is fine she's on her way. Blue beer, I thought. I wonder if this is a lost in translation issue or if the beer we'll be getting is actually blue.
Another knock on the door and another plastic bag. This time with 4 beers. I pay the pittance and thank our liaison. Reaching into the bag I pull out the blue beer. Good god. Pabst Blue Ribbon. Now I know I'm lost in some wacky David Lynch flick. The stuff was terrible.
It wasn't much more than 15 minutes later when we're summoned by the phone to get to the lobby. The plane is ready and the bus is waiting. We power down rice, chicken like food and bad beer and as we whisk down the hall I hand the two extra beers to the girls just waiting to clean rooms or do whatever else they do. Giggling they accept the beers. But I'm confident they were not consumed. At least by the girls.
At this point the airport is closed. It's nearly midnight. We wait. And wait. Wait. And wait. After two hours a Chinese man gets irked. Words are thrown at the gate attendant. But no words are fired back. She just stares blankly as the man let's off steam. I guess he coulda used a bit more rest at the hotel. All of us could. We sat for more than two hours in the most uncomfortable plastic seats that were certainly a knock off of a 1960's Herman Miller Eames design.
Sometime after 3am we landed in Guilin and were on a bus heading downtown. To be sure, we had no hotel reservation. We expected to arrive at daylight, check out the town and choose a hotel that suited our fancy. What were we going to do at 3am in downtown Guilin? The bus dropped us off in the middle of a corral of Mandarin yelling Taxi drivers, each grabbing our luggage and trying to convince us to get in their cab. It's a scene that's oh so familiar in small Asian towns. I asked Bryan to be patient. Thinking it would be better to just wheel our luggage toward town than take a chance in getting shuttled to some mosquito infested dive, when one of the taxi driver's hands me a cell phone. It's Jerry and he speaks English. Smart taxi driver. I tell him the name of the hotel I had in mind and he calls and arranges a room for us. This cab gets our business.
At 3:30am we're in Guilin. It's only 12 hours since we arrived at the Guangzhou airport for an hour flight. Ah. But we feel great.
Photos: (1) Amazing selection of fresh fruit sold by airport vendors. (2) Then again, if you want a snack for the plane ride, consider a fish wrapped in celephane. Not refridgerated. (3) The high-tech paging system used for gate announcements at Guangzhou International Airport; (4) The gate waiting area at Guangzhou Int'l Airport — when the airport was open.