Date: 18 October 2015
Location: Hell. Guangzhou's Baiyun Airport immigration queue. Same thing.
China Southern, having served me so well on the way from Heathrow to Australia, has done its best to obliterate all accrued goodwill.
My flight, originally booked for afternoon, has been unceremoniously moved to morning.
The result is a 15 hour layover in Guangzhou. Have you been to the international transit terminal at Baiyun International Airport? Of course you haven't: you respect yourself too much and don't want to spend AUD$20 on a black coffee in a greasy mug.
The is mostly the sheer terror speaking as I'm in the middle of a hot throng of people, awash with the moist sounds of true Chinese in a line that doesn't seem to be budging, save for my companions' constant wiggling and jostling. I have not done myself a favour by watching Argo on the plane (during which I cried — what is it with me on planes and crying? Altitude?). I am now jumpy and nervous around all customs officials.
It is profoundly unpleasant.
15 hours later. 8am in Guangzhou.
Upon clearing the horror crush of humans, I manage to locate a China Southern help desk. I hand over my Heathrow boarding pass. The attendant's features crinkle in concern. She enters my details into a computer that seems to be running MS DOS and then places a green sticker on my chest and waves that I should sit. I have limited options, and she limited English, so I do so. Half an hour later I'm collected by another tiny Chinese lady who steers me through the crowds, hands me a map of the airport with a route drawn on in pink highlighter and nudges me towards immigration. I wait for a very long time. Eventually I'm waved forward and my passport is stamped. Welcome to China!
I finally acknowledge to myself that I have no effing idea what's going on and, tired, hungover and emotional, I submit to the madness.
I follow the highlighted directions and, surprising no one, least of all myself, I get very lost and end up outside, by a deserted taxi rank. I try again and this time manage to locate a second China Southern desk manned by a clone of the first two attendants. I half expect some sort of prize for following this hellish scavenger hunt. Instead, a second green sticker is added to my chest and I'm pointed to a corner. 'Stay. Wait. 30 minutes,' are my only instructions. There are no seats so I collapse onto the floor, a picture of pathetic misery.
An hour later I'm shepherded into a group of equally-lost looking Chinese tourists, none if whom speak English. We follow clone No. 4 through the airport — me a conspicuous head and shoulders above the rest — and are loaded onto a bus. Once we're all settled our shepherd returns and, best I can tell, apologises. She certainly looks embarrassed. She heards us off the bus and onto a different one. By now it's dark and I've begun to imagine what my new life in a Chinese refugee camp will be like. Will I learn the language? Might I fall in love? Will I finally learn to cook rice? Do they have coffee?
I spend the indeterminable long bus ride through dark and steamy Baiyun using my work phone to do Google research see if I was going to regret not just making a blanket fort out of my towel and sleeping in the airport floor. Through my frenzied Internet research I learn that China Southern hosts passengers with long layovers in a local hotel — this must be where we're going! I then google the hotel and read the Trip Adviser reviews. I should not have done that. Under 'How to choose a good room' the tips include 'stay somewhere else', 'you can't' and 'ask for one without cockroaches'. Blanket fort is looking good. Shaking with exhaustion, I settle back into my little seat and watch China go by. There's a pile of burned out cars, miles of ugly flats piled up like my teetering shoebox collection, strips of darkened factories. I use up my last remaining energy to chide myself for saving £500 by booking a cheap airline.
So, don't I feel like a right idiot when we pull into LaDong (giggles) hotel, a behemoth modern thing, and I'm swiftly handed a room key for 937. Room 937 turns out to be a big room with a boat-size king bed and squishy soft towels. I'm told to be back in the lobby at 5.30am. Once I let myself into the nicely appointed room I mutter aloud, 'well now, wasn't that a waste of worrying'. There's brief moment when I can't the main light switches or the TV to work and blame China (just generally, 'China') and, figuring after a glance at the TV guide that I wouldn't be able to understand any channels anyhow, resign myself to reading by the light of my iPad and swiftly passing out from exhaustion. Right before that latter happens I discover the little panel by the bed that controls all of the lights and electronics in the room — and realise that the hotel is smarter than me.
The following morning, when I get a wake-up call that I never actively requested and am handed a breakfast box at checkout, I'm even more I convinced.
The drive back to the airport for the second leg of my flight feels a good deal shorter in the watery light of day. We still pass the pile of burned out cars and mounds of garbage, but we so go over a prettyish river, a lot of greenery and a little temple.
I'm fed, washed, rejuvenated and my perspectve righted. Round II. Let's go.