We arrived at the Harbin China airport promptly at 10:30 am, two hours before the flight to Beijing. It was a cold, clear January morning and although it had been sunny all week it seemed clearer and brighter today. Maybe that was because we were going home. Beijing is where we would catch the international flight back to the United States.
Our trip had gone well. A coworker and I had visited a food plant in Harbin to assess existing equipment in preparation for an expansion. We had met an international project team with members from Canada, the United Kingdom and China. We all had worked, commuted and ate together for three days, walked in the city in the bitter cold evenings, and even caught the unique Harbin Ice and Snow World on the last night. It was a productive and unforgettable time. A lot of activities had been crammed into several days in almost a blur and now it was time to leave.
At the airline ticket counter, I presented my passport and hoped there would be no problem getting my boarding passes all the way to San Francisco. I was caught off guard and a little concerned to only be given a boarding pass to Beijing, with instructions that I would have to get the boarding pass for the other leg of the trip once I got to Beijing. More disconcerting was the fact that my coworker got his boarding passes all the way through to San Francisco, though our tickets were supposedly the same. But they assured me that there was something different with my ticket so there was nothing more they could do. I had an uneasy feeling because we were only to be in Beijing barely an hour and a half.
The fact that we were late leaving Harbin by about a half an hour didn’t help my apprehension. And by the time we landed at Beijing and taxied forever, got off the plane at what seemed like the furthest gate out and hustled the long way to the nearest ticket counter, another fifteen minutes had burned up. But I was thinking “we have a least a half hour to board the plane so, no problem.” Wrong! I was told that boarding passes could not be issued within one hour of the flight. I was out of luck. Remember my coworker who had his boarding pass? I wished him luck as he ran on to his gate. Yep, he made it, just barely.
If I was lucky, maybe the next flight for me would be later in the day. So I made my way upstairs to the main international ticket counter. But they only confirmed my sneaking suspicion that the next flight would be the next day at the same time. They would arrange for a bus to take me to a hotel, and warned that I would be sharing a room unless I wanted to pay extra. Great! More than a few choice words were muttered as I stepped away from the counter. And as the sinking feeling began to hit me that, yes, I was really stuck here another twenty-four hours without knowing a soul or speaking the language, I heard it: Music, but not music to uplift my soul. No, as if to enhance the sinking feeling of defeat, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata was steadily streaming through the airport on the loud speakers! Oh, what perfect music to set the mood! Though I was aware of the irony, I felt even more irritated at the turn of events in just the last fifteen minutes.
So, as I stood there fuming and waiting for the bus, I imagined what a hassle this was going to be. After all, just the night before when we had gone to the Ice and Snow World in Harbin, there had been a language barrier between us and the cab driver, who spoke no English. Nor did the woman who got in the taxi with us at our hotel, supposedly to buy us tickets to the ice show. We trustingly each gave her 300 RMB (about 48 bucks) for tickets and watched her ditch us not once, but twice before she actually got us inside the grounds of the ice show and then we never saw her again. We were relieved to find our taxi still waiting for us an hour and a half later when we’d had enough of the frigid cold.
But being stuck in Beijing was a little more nerve-racking than just being ditched at the ice show. I imagined all sorts of potential issues like not getting back to the airport in time the next day due to some miscommunication and missing my flight again. As much as I would have enjoyed some sight seeing around Beijing, I didn’t want to take the chance. Infact, I was skeptical about leaving the airport at all. Maybe it would be better to just stay in the airport all night. I’d done that before. As I pondered the options, out of the corner of my eye I noticed a colorfully dressed young woman walking towards me, cheerfully pushing a cart loaded with big flowery suitcases. She looked Chinese and I was a little surprised when she said to me in perfect English “the bus is coming now.”
Turns out that Ying, a Chinese college student now finishing school in Canada, had missed her flight to New York. However, unlike me who had my flight lined up for the next day, she was put on a waiting list so wasn’t even sure to get out the next day. But she didn’t seem upset at all and explained that she always figures to get delayed coming or going on every trip. Hmmm, guess I needed to take a chill pill.
The bus was new, the commute short, and the hotel seemed nice enough too. They supplied a free dinner so I went to the restaurant and sat down. It was not your typical sit down and order from the menu type of place. You sit down at these large round tables and they bring you what they bring you. There were only a few other people sitting around, not looking happy. One older Norwegian gentleman at my table complained that the service in China had been declining for thirty years. Ying came in and joined our table. When the food came, I thought it looked like it must be a traditional Chinese meal; Beijing cabbage, beef and vegetables, bean sprouts and egg, rice, and egg flower soup. Ying was surprised that I could use chopsticks. I told her that my wife and I loved Chinese food and asked her how she would rate this meal on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 is best). She said 3. The older gentleman looked unapprovingly at the food and said he didn’t want beef. So Ying spoke to the servers in Chinese, asking if the Norwegian could have chicken instead. They served him a spicy chicken version and he later said the meal was very good and looked like his mood had greatly improved.
A few Beijing beers later and a lot of questions to Ying, I had learned quite a bit more about China, how they all learn English in school from a young age, the long hours they generally work, the high cost of housing, and several Chinese words. Ying also told me about her parents, her boyfriend, college and her favorite foods. I told her about my wife and kids, and adventures on this trip to China. Meeting Ying was really enjoyable and my attitude about being stuck in Beijing had sure changed. And before I knew it, it was time to call it a night. One of the last things Ying said to me was “Okay, I don’t know you but I think you talk too much today.” :-) I laughed and told her it was probably the beer talking or, using one of my new Chinese words, juping (pronounced “joping”).