Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Chinese Fire Drill - Part I

Japan to the USA via Beijing

What's the difference between China and Kanye West?

Kanye has grown fantastically wealthy by dressing flashy and unabashedly promoting a shitty product. He likens his escapades to "the highest form of contribution to society" while attacking others and then pleading not guilty. He says to Kim "your ass is mine". He's "a proud non-reader of books" and considers the drive to go and find someone to screw "valuable".

China on the other hand never said "your ass is mine" to Kim. They only said it to Tibet.

I'd sworn before that I would never again fly with a Chinese airline. But once again they offered the cheapest fares, and when you're buying five tickets to the other side of the globe and back you can't afford to be too picky (unless you're Kanye West, who can afford two tickets for Kim's ass and three for him and his ego on any airline he wants).

The China Air flight we found also went from Haneda to Newark, a geographical and logistical bonus for the trains across both Tokyo and New York City that we wouldn't have to take. But the kicker was the overnight layover in Beijing. Call me a masochist for getting excited about the journey taking an additional twelve hours, but as far as I'm concerned injecting a mini-vacation into your trip, even if it's just one night, is a satisfying extra.

Unless of course you're dealing with a shitty product.


Free of Charge and Worth Every Penny

I thought I’d found a decent deal on a hotel room for our overnight layover. It was right next to the airport if not in it. It wasn’t the Ritz-Carlton but it did have a vending machine with beer.
My online booking process ended with a confirmation number and an interesting side note:

“Final cost of your room might be higher than the stated price” or something equally intriguing.

Sure enough I got a phone call the next day from China.

“I'm calling about your hotel reservation,” the girl said in English that was heavily-accented and impressively glib. Which only happens when the person is reading off of a script. "Your room will actually cost two hundred yuan."

She paused. Her script must have said something like "wait for customer to say okay, then proceed with the following:"

“No it won’t,” I said.

A long silence as she scanned her paper for the answer to that.

I didn’t bother arguing. I knew I couldn’t win out over a sheet of paper and a glib accent. I just told her to cancel my reservation. Not because the equivalent of $40US is outrageous for what was likely a dump (aside from the vending machine) but because she and her country needed to learn there's no value in trying to screw someone.

I’m sure that showed her. And the rest of China. And Kanye if he's reading this.

The next day my wife happened to be chatting with a travel agent in here in town. (She has this uncanny knack for finding the right people to talk to, in any situation not involving my career as a writer.) After trading an extended series of state-mandated pleasantries the agent told my wife that China will provide us with a room in a hotel near the airport free of charge because we have an overnight layover.

On the hotel’s website the place actually looked nice.

"Welcome to Customer Service Heaven, Stupid Foreigner."

Wikipedia says Beijing Capital Airport boasts the second largest terminal building and the sixth largest building of any type in the world, and is the busiest airport in Asia and the second busiest in the world. I'd add that BCA offers the rudest, most obnoxious group of so-called workers the history of airports has ever seen but for some reason my edits won't show up on the wikipage.

In addition to free rooms for overnight layovers, China allows for a visa-free stay up to 72 hours. This of course providing that those laying over behave. Otherwise their layover will last indefinitely, spent in a place that would not look nice on the website if it had one. There was no line for 'Overnight Layovers' but there was a line for '72-hour layover transit passengers’. My wife and I got on line, figuring we qualified more for this than for 'Chinese Passports' or 'Stupid Foreigners'. But when we got to the front and my wife tried to explain that we only had an overnight layover and had a hotel room reserved the girl behind the control desk just said something angry and pointed us to a place somewhere far away from her.

“Where do we go? Which line?”

Her angry expression turned communist red as she started jabbing at the air with her finger as if to say "Just go far away from me, stupid foreigners!"

We picked a line and waited. And got sent back to the finger jabber who, oddly, though by now thoroughly disgusted with us, decided to check our passports and our boarding passes for the next morning’s flight. Then she motioned for us to get out of her face, using only her Middle Kingdom finger.

We'd been told we could pick up the shuttle bus to our hotel at Exit E. This was perfect, as the staircase behind Ms. Kingdom Finger came with a sign with an arrow and the words 'Exit E'.

Downstairs we found nothing but signs for A, B & C and an escalator down to the train that ran back and forth between us and Exits A, B & C. With my daughter in my arms I led my family down the moving staircase to see what else we could find – and found ourselves trapped in a long glass enclosure, the only way out being that train to Exits A, B & C but not E, or even D.

Down near the other end of the enclosure I saw two men in pilot uniforms. If anyone knew what the hell was going on, they did. Plus they didn’t look Chinese, heightening dramatically the odds of them willing to help us.

“Yes, take this train, when you get off you’ll see Exit E ahead and to the left.”

They were friendly. They were smiling.

They were from Singapore.

Along with Exits A, B & C that train did in fact take us to the place where Exit E was, and Exit D, and every other Exit in the airport. Whatever idiot from Conde Nast figured that BCA was tops in the airport world for 'clarity of signs' in 2009 must not have had to find his own way to his free hotel room.

Next to the massive glass doors of Exit E was a large counter, a half-circle inhabited by a half dozen people who would probably give up their citizenship if it meant they could be anywhere but inside that half-circle. Off to the side a loose gathering of tired people with carry-ons stood and sat, presumably waiting for the shuttle bus to their free hotel rooms.

My wife had a printout with our reservation information. The way the two girls sitting behind the counter were pounding their keyboards you'd think they used to work under that ’72-hour layover transit passengers’ sign. At first it seemed they were angry because they had to find us in the system. Then it became apparent they were angry because they couldn’t.

A guy who had been standing motionless at one end of the half-circle walked over. He looked lazily at my wife’s piece of paper. He glanced over at the closest computer screen. Then he went back to his corner to resume his motionless duties.

My kids were tired but eager to get to the hotel so they could jump around on the beds. I was tired but eager to get to the hotel so I could fall onto one of the beds. My wife was all hyped up at her premature conclusion that we weren’t going to any hotel and, in her cute, maniacal way, continued to try to talk the situation into working itself out. Ten minutes after I told her to give it a rest our uniformed mannequin moved from his corner, grabbed a piece of paper from one of the Punchy Girls and walked over to us.

“You,” he said, holding the paper out to us. “Give front desk...Don’t lose.”

It was this sort of stellar performance that earned BCA the title of "World's 3rd Best Airport" in the 2011 Airport Service Quality Awards, bestowed by the crack staff at the Airports Council International.

A few minutes later we were all led through the terminal and out Exit B to a large passenger van. As we waited for the driver to put it in gear a young man in a long black overcoat and black-frame glasses got on the bus and barked a series of orders at everyone in Chinese. For a moment he stood there like a pissed-off teacher waiting for one of his students to admit they shot the spitball at him. With no such admission forthcoming he said a couple more angry words and got off the bus.

And we were off, grumbling into the Beijing night, barreling down street after wide, desolate four-lane street. Flanked by nothing but deadwood forest, these roads were exactly what you’d imagine roads in a communist country fifty years ago would look like.

We turned right and left at a half dozen intersections before roaring down a narrow two-lane street, up to a control gate and into what any sane person would call a compound, surrounded by chain link fence topped with barbed wire.

Evidently China prefers not to allow their guests to go out and enjoy their layovers.

All That Glitters is Gold-Plated

The lights of the vast glass-encased lobby lit up the carport like police spotlights. Two huge stone foo-dog lion creature statues stood guarding the entrance like this was some kind of temple. The lobby breathed with warm, stale air. The walls and floor and ceiling and reception desk were all made of something resembling marble. The three girls behind the front desk worked semi-frantically to get everyone checked in – not because we were tired but because they were.

“The bus to the airport leaves at 6:30,” the one girl who spoke good English told us. “Do you want a wake-up call at 5:30 or 6:00?”

It was already past midnight. Our flight wasn’t until 10:30am. This wasn't customer service, this was no-frills crowd control.

“What time is breakfast?” I asked.

“5:00 to 7:30.”

“Okay, can we get a call at 5:30 then?”

“Yes,” the girl said, and handed us back our passports and the keys to not one but two rooms. “Elevators are that way,” she said as a send-off, pointing behind us where we saw nothing like an elevator, or even a dumbwaiter. But we did see two young men standing at the corner of a side hallway.

As we approached one of them stepped in front of me. “Where you going?”

I showed him our keys. B203 and B207.

He put his arms out, one to rope us in and the other to guide us around the corner to the elevators (read: keep us foreigners and our kids from wandering the hotel and compromising the security of the State). Once he had us secured in the elevator he pushed the button for the third floor. "Third floor," he said as an extra security measure.

We stepped out into a hallway as wide as a minivan is long. Tacky red and gold patterned carpeting ran wall to wall. Big thick dark wood double doors hid conference rooms for the business people who never stayed here for the conventions that were never held. (Pure speculation there but the feeling was too thick to ignore.) Ten yards down a big red illuminated sign with a thick white A stuck out of the wall. The B was another fifty yards away. C was halfway to Shanghai. Our electronic key cards got us through the locked door under the B on the fourth try.

"This bed is funny!"
B203 was spacious and dim and had two double beds. B207 was a suite, twice as spacious and just as drab, a king bed on one side and three single beds on the other.

The kids got right to jumping on all of them.

The lights in the room had two settings: 'barely on' and 'off'. The TV reception could be best described as ‘snowy’. The rooms were so big they felt empty, despite all the beds. The pillows were filled with tiny marbles. The mattresses were filled with bigger marbles. The bathroom could accommodate a badminton match and an impressive amount of mold in between the tiles. At the sink the faucet handle came off in my hand.

For the first time I can remember I passed on the complimentary in-room coffee.

“You get on the bus now!”


The kids didn’t want to go to sleep. Now they didn’t want to wake up. They felt like they were filled with marbles.

Breakfast was served in the cavernous banquet hall just off the front lobby. A hundred round tables with white tablecloths crowded the room. Eleven thousand chairs sat shrouded in yellow cloth so bright the Easter Bunny wouldn’t know what to do. The long table running down the middle of the room, also dressed in yellow, held two dozen of those fancy covered metal catering serving trays with the burners underneath. I knew what most of the twenty-odd dishes were: vegetables. For all but three of them I couldn’t get more specific than that. On the long table along one wall was the coffee and tea, milk and a kind of juice, and lots of cheap white bread that felt like it had passed its sell-by date. The toaster that couldn’t melt an ice cube provided no remedy.

I felt like I was back in college. And ate like it too.

As I explained to my kids how the clock hands meant we had to finish eating and go, another young man who looked similar to and acted strikingly like the angry kid on the bus the night before stood in the doorway to the hall and began barking at the back wall a quarter mile away. We took this to mean we better load up and get back on the bus.

"This food tastes funny..."

It was still dark as we bounced back out of the compound out onto those wide, abandoned communist bloc avenues. The sun was just making its appearance when we got off at Beijing Capitol Airport, that shining jewel in the middle of the Chinese wasteland.

"This shit ain't funny."

In the airport convenience store a can of beer cost about a dollar. A bottle of water cost two. A large coffee at the kiosk cost eight.

I decided to wait until after take-off when all of it would be free. Because paying for anything now would be simply unprincipled.

My kids were fully awake, giddy from having gotten to stay in a 5-Star hotel (as far as they and China were concerned). They voiced their excitement about finally getting to bang their little fingers on their private little in-flight entertainment system screens on the seatbacks in front of them. I ran through my head what I would say to the people sitting on the other side of those seatbacks.

My wife was excited for another trip to America, to see my family and visit our friends and go shopping for cheap post-Christmas decorations at Target.

I was just happy we were all there and on our way. And appreciative in a weird way about our overnight layover, in this country that I (and probably Tibet) wish was a little more like ass-grabbing not country-grabbing Kanye West.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Guest Post - 'Overnight Delivery in Vietnam'

With my good-intentioned bus master and friend. (You owe me, girl!)
My clearest memories of Vietnam revolve not around the famous sights and the guidebook-prescribed places but the unexpected, unpredictable moments of during and in between. Hoi An was wonderful, but it was the old woman with the leprous hands who peeled my mango for me that I can't forget, as much as I'd like to. Our trip to the hills up north was nice, but the brick that came flying and crashing through the window of our berth on the overnight train as we slept kind of heads the highlight reel.

Even on that boat tour around Vietnam's crown jewel of Ha Long Bay, the indescribable scenery, the captivating karsts take a back seat in the caravan of memories in my head. The grumbling, almost resentful attitude of the people working on the boat; the overload of French Fries at every meal; my gastrointestinal bout with some expired pineapple juice I drank; these are what stick in my mind, for better or for worse.

After a month it seemed Vietnam was entirely incapable of providing a dull moment. I couldn't even take a bus without having another memorable moment pounded into me. One bus ride in particular is the subject of 'Overnight Delivery in Vietnam', a recent guest post written exclusively for Manouk Bob's travel-inspired BunchOfBackpackers site.

Manouk has a lot of good stuff going on over at BunchOfBackpackers, so take a few moments to poke around. And check out 'Where These Roads Went', the travelogue that shows you in fantastic detail how not to travel through Cambodia. (Print version coming soon, for those of you who prefer paper to plug-in.)

p.s. - every detail of the story is true, even the part about the flying mangosteen.

Travel on!


Saturday, April 11, 2015

Tazawa-ko: Akita’s Deep Blue Jewel

Facts, Logistics & Fun

Photo: Agustin Rafael Reyes on Flickr
Tazawa Lake in Akita Prefecture is a near-perfect circle – and a perfect representation of Akita itself: unassuming, unspoiled and sublimely spectacular. Surrounded by mountains and laced with legend, this million-year-old volcanic crater offers the comfortable beauty of natural Japan without all the crowds.

Upon closer examination, we also see that unassuming Tazawa is quietly decorated with quirky details. But first…

A Few Facts

Initially thought by some to be an impact crater from a meteorite, research into the lake’s depths uncovered geological evidence of a tremendous volcanic eruption 1.4 million years ago that led to the lake’s present form. With no natural inflow or outflow, Tazawa’s waters consist entirely of eons of rain and snow.

With a surface area of roughly 10 square miles (26km2) Tazawa-ko sits well down the list of Japan’s largest lakes. But at 423 meters (1,388ft) she is Japan’s deepest. Drop Tokyo Tower into the lake and the top would still be 90 meters below the surface. Lake Tazawa sits at 249 meters above sea level, which means the deepest parts of the lake reach down lower than the waves crashing into the shores of Honshu. This translates into the lake never freezing over, no matter how harsh the Tohoku winter.

Read more at Taiken Japan...