Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Shanghai Diaries: Japanese Edition, Part One - The Long Journey Nowhere

For Chinese New Year (or what some refer to as the Spring Festival, even though it occurs in late January/early February) my wife and I get three weeks of vacation time. Initially we had planned to spend some time with my sister and her husband on the beaches of Thailand. As we had been unable to make it to Hong Kong over the Christmas break, we planned a two-day layover there on the way. Then, after tanning for a few days, the wife and I were hoping to visit Vietnam and Cambodia.

All of this was very tentative, you understand. In fact several weeks ago we completely trashed those plans because of a message my mother sent. She told us that she and the father wanted to take all of us kids and spouses to Hawaii this summer. As that made two beaches in less than a year, we decided to scrap Thailand.

The brother-in-law and I beat the Japan drum pretty quickly, as it is a place we have both wanted to see forever. The wife and sister were less impressed with this notion, but in time came on board. This time plans were not so tentative as we booked the plane, the trains, and the hotels.

The excitement brewed, the bags were packed, and the day finally came. Snow had come to China over the weekend. Lots of it. More snow than the country had seen in 50 years. Shanghai, though, wasn't so bad - cold and miserable, but just a little snow. I, for one, was not worried.

The taxi ride over was a bit sloshy, but without incident. We exchanged our tickets for boarding passes, sent the bags through the x-ray machine, and headed over to customs. Forms filled out, I handed my information to the customs lady and received a stamp and got my passport and boarding pass back.

That moment hung in the air like sparrows in the wind. It is a moment I expect I will regret for months to come.

For a split second I thought to myself that something was amiss. I felt like I had not received all I needed. I almost asked my wife if we were good, but then I told myself that the customs official certainly knew which papers to keep and which papers to give back and so I went on my way.

We walked to our terminal, we bussed to the plane, we found our seat. We waited for the second bus to arrive. We waited for everyone to take their seats. We waited.

And waited.

And waited some more.

About 30 minutes past the time we were supposed to take off, the captain's voice over the loudspeaker explained to us that there was ice on the wing and that we needed to taxi over to where the de-icing trucks were. He also noted that this might take a little while, as we were third in the queue.

Waiting is the word for what we did next. After about an hour the captain spoke again. This time he told us about how he had made a walk down the plank to check on the ice. He said that the wings looked good, but that the tail was still in trouble. Here he made a point to say that we would have to wait and see whether the tail melting or the de-icing came first to know when we would leave. We were still third in the queue and there was no way of knowing when we'd be ready.

This time we were given lunch while we waited. Then, after about four hours of being on the plane and going nowhere, the captain came on again to state that the tail was still full of ice but that we would shortly be heading towards the trucks with the de-ice spray. All we needed to do was wait a bit more and things would be a go.

After a bit we did indeed taxi, and we did indeed get de-iced, but things were not, indeed, a go.

It seems that after and only after we were sprayed by the trucks, the captain decided to run through his wing heater tests, and they failed. We went back to our original spot and waited for the engineer to come aboard and fix the problem.

After a bit we were informed that the engineer was moving swiftly for a fix, but (and the captain here informed us about how terribly sorry he was) the airport had now canceled the flight.

Six hours we had sat on the plane, and we'd gotten only as far the de-icing trucks. Eventually the bus came back for half of the passengers (including myself and my wife, but not the sister or her husband). We went back to the original terminal, where we were blocked in around the desks where six hours before the lady had taken our boarding passes. A hundred people or so all pushed and prodded their way closer. Closer to what, we weren't sure, but closer we were getting. I did my best not to be pushed into small children, while several others began shouting at those poor people in airline uniforms. They yelled back. It was all in Chinese so I had no idea what was going on at any point.

In time those in uniform opened the line and handed each of us a blank boarding pass. The masses moved to a corner of the terminal and stood looking bewildered. A nice-looking man came and walked us back to the customs counter. There we got an additional stamp and they tore half of the pass off for their own selves.

More arguing ensued, but no nice men directed us anywhere. I followed the crowd towards the ticket counters, and after asking around we made our way to the supervisor counter. Madness came next. The half of the passengers who had taken the bus with us were now standing at the supervisor counter, and they were mad. Screaming, red-faced, spittle-at-the-mouth mad. Others, in the back, were taking photographs of the whole mad scene. We were all crowding in trying to get answers. The front line was shouting at high volume. Several ladies climbed on the counter and were standing, shouting at the conveyor belt that usually takes the checked luggage to wherever the checked luggage usually goes.

My sister and her husband had joined us by the time we got to the front of the counter. We told the supervisor that we were in no hurry and could reschedule the flight to this Saturday. It was at this point that my day got even worse.

As we were arranging to push our flight to Tokyo back by several days, we wanted to delay our return flight too. This was fine, said the supervisor, except I could not find my return ticket. Anywhere. After much thinking I realized that when I first went through customs I had given the lady the entire envelope with both my ticket to Tokyo and my return ticket. She had not given me the return ticket back.

We told this to the supervisor, who indicated this was not a problem and we would simply need to talk to the lady behind another counter, just over there. He also noted that he had changed all of the dates and we were all set. Though I just wrote that in about a minute, the conversation with the supervisor actually took about twenty minutes. We would ask him a question, he would make a concerned face, and then several other people would shout and he would answer their questions first.

Finished with him, we moved to the counter where we had been told it would be no problem to fix our lost ticket problem. The lady there said it was very much a problem and in fact the only thing that could be done was for us to buy a brand new ticket. Much arguing ensued. We then went back to the supervisor and argued with him. He admitted that he knew full well we wouldn't be able to get a new ticket, and told us we could contact the agency that had sold us the tickets.

The following day, I did just that. It took several phone calls, and the conversations were difficult, as I speak very little Chinese and they, while speaking very decent English, were having difficulties understanding how I could no longer be in possession of my return ticket.

They also said that they could not retrieve my lost ticket, but were willing to sell me a new one. I reluctantly agreed and was told to pick it up the next day. It took nearly two hours to get to their office the next day, and there I was once again disappointed. They could not find the quoted price in their computer, though the lady the day before had assured me I had a reservation. After some searching and telephoning the Beijing office, they discovered that the price they had given me was not from Tokyo to Shanghai, but from some other city to Shanghai.

The price, they said, would now be higher. Much higher in fact. More than double. More arguing, this time sprinkled with pleading. Somewhere there was discussion of canceling everything, but refunds were not available since I didn't have the ticket. A number was produced for me to call about actually recovering a lost ticket. Of course I called. Of course they said nothing could be done.

I went home with no ticket and no idea what to do. We still don't know what we're doing. We are going to leave for Tokyo on Friday, and we hope we'll find some way home.

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