Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Travels by Epiphany - China

There is an unspoken rule that no holiday is perfect.

The journey between researching, planning and departure is a seamless affair. Thanks to technology, we’re able to book tickets online, choose hotels and order winter clothing without having to leave the comfort of our homes.  Visas can be acquired through the internet and international driver’s licenses can applied for without stepping into the NRMA.  Organising a trip in the 21st century through the information superhighway lulls you into the belief it’s all going well.

Until it’s not.

As you can tell from this opening statement, my trip to Europe didn’t begin as smoothly as my praise of modern technology might imply.

When I arrived at Sydney Airport, I discovered the flight was overbooked and so I was faced with two alternatives; wait until another flight was available on the same airline – which could result in being delayed by days, or rebook with another airline. As I had tours and theatre tickets booked for specific dates, I chose the second option. Switching airlines I flew out instead on China Southern airlines.  All this was done on the fly, with electronic tickets existing only on my smartphone (this will be important later) and so I was finally able to depart Sydney fifteen minutes of my original departure.
Inconvenient I thought but not catastrophic.

I have never travelled on China Southern airlines before.  While certainly not on par with contemporaries like Emirates or Qantas, I found their service to be good and their staff pleasant and friendly.  However after take-off, I was puzzled by the absence of smartphones.  The mad rush for our devices as soon as the plane levels off, is as traditional as the crying child and bad airline food. Yet on China Southern, no one was producing their phones when the seat-belt light went off.  

I learned to my horror, the use of mobile phones, even on flight mode, is illegal on Chinese flights. As most of my music, e-books and videos were on my Galaxy S6, this was akin to someone shooting my cat. I was forced to resort to inflight entertainment for the next 11 hours. Despite stabbing repeatedly at the provided touch screen pad with my finger, it would only work when sworn at.

Suffice to say, it was a very long flight.

I arrived at Guangzhou’s Baiyun Airport in the People’s Republic of China at 5 am in the morning.
As we travelled from the plane to the terminal by bus, I suddenly understood why politicians at home have been demanding a second airport in Sydney. Compared to the size of Baiyun, Kingsford-Smith is tiny. While the facilities were not state of the art, one can’t help but be impressed by how large it is. Therefore you would imagine the size of the facility would be equal to the staff manning it.

It is not.

It took us three hours to clear customs and be taken to the hotel China Southern had so graciously provided for my 17 hour layover. During those three hours, I was never more aware of the country I was in. They process travellers with the mentality of prison guards frisking inmates for shivs. No one in the queue dared to utter a word of complaint, convinced any verbal detraction would land us in jail and becoming the subject of a Today Tonight expose. I am not sure which is worse.

But all was not lost. I actually made conversation with the official stamping my passport and this led to a short but nice conversation about the weather, how busy the airport was and to my shock, she gave me a smile! There was life after all!

Once through customs, I was once again reminded of how small Kingsford-Smith is because the transfer bus took twenty minutes just to leave the airport premises. What I saw of Guangzhou was very much what I expected of China, functional but expansive. There is a great deal of construction going on and I get the impression the city is attempting to leave behind years of stagnancy for a more dynamic future.  Still, most people were on bicycles and they travel through the wide streets like herds of wildebeests moving across the savanna.

To improve Sino-Aussie relations, I suggest we send them Clover Moore.

The Country Garden Airport Phoenix Hotel was luxurious with equally impressive rooms. I had a great view of the city and the complimentary breakfast was great after airline food. The range was surprisingly diverse and some of the dishes reminded me of the breakfasts I use to have when still living in Singapore.

The only problem I found with the place, was the instrumental music playing in the background. It sounded like the bastard child of Burt Bacharach and Kenny G, written for a James Bond film in the sixties. Imagine a bad copy of the ‘The Look of Love’ and you’ll get where I’m coming from.

It must have been the only English record they had since it was played on a continuous loop throughout the entire time I was staying there. I can’t tell if it was some form of subtle torture or the hotel staff had no idea that it was the same song. Either way, it was more effective at keeping guests in their rooms than armed guards. It would take the nine hours to Amsterdam for me to get that song out of my head.

At least I won't miss my smart phone.

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