How Not to Travel in China During the October National Holiday

For about a month, our conversations went something like this:

“How about Thailand? If we fly in to Phuket, we could catch a ferry to X and go diving for 3 days…”

“No, no- what about the decompression time after and before the flight? I’m not keen on getting the bends. And my passport only has two free pages left. The lady at the airport in Bangkok yelled at me about that back in August. ”

“Well, how about the Philippines?”

“I’m not in the mood for a week of lethal public transport. And they’re flooding.”

“Japan?”

“Too expensive. Am unemployed, remember?”

“India?”

“I don’t have enough passport pages for a visa, remember?”

“Lijiang? Dali? Shangri La?”

“Too crowded.”

“Kashgar?”

“Flights are over $1000. Not really worth it for a 5 day holiday.”

“How about…Datong?”

“Datong? Where the hell is Datong?”

“It’s up near Inner Mongolia, in Shanxi Province. It’s the most heavily polluted coal mining town in China. Part of the Great Wall is there. They have the least holy mountain in Taoism. And a hanging monastery. And they are famous for noodles and dumplings.”

“Well, sure, let’s go!”

And so we booked our flight to Datong.  I felt a frisson of excitement whenever I thought about it. 5 days in Datong!

I practised saying it with all the wrong tones, drawling out a gleefully languid Texan Dah Tawng rather than the accurately abrupt Dàtóng. I’m going to Daaah Taaawng, I’d drawl to anyone who’d listen. I’m going to Daaaaaaaaaah Tawwwwnnng an’ am gonna clamb thayut Big Wall o’ China an’ I’m gonna eat me some noodles! Yeeehaw!  

Chinese colleagues scratched their heads in absolute incomprehension. Where? Where are you going? Sorry?

Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa Taaaaaaawg! 

Yes, I am that big of an unsocialized dork.

Look at what Datong has to offer and you can see why I was getting disproportionately giddy over it.

The Hanging Monastery. Photo courtesy of bigguyoz

The Yungang Grotto, by Theodora

And so on. 

So I enthusiastically busied myself with assembling a home made pdf’d travel guide, cut and pasted from all over the internet, mostly focusing on different types of noodles and grottoes. I packed my asthma inhaler and moisturizer. We stopped watching downloaded episodes of Fringe so that we could save them for watching in the hotel after a long day hiking the Great Wall.

We trekked out to the airport yesterday afternoon after a leisurely hot pot lunch and a few pots of strong coffee. Our flight was at 5pm, from Hongqiao airport in west Shanghai.

I told the taxi driver to take us to Hongqiao airport, in what I’d thought was Chinese. He threw his head back, roared with laughter, and said, in English, “Airport?” I nodded. This is why my Mandarin still sucks.

After checking in and grabbing yet another coffee (oh, crème brulée macchiato, I do love you), we went to the gate and waited for our flight. And waited. And waited.

Amongst the difficult to decipher announcements that were 98% in echoey, distorted Chinese, we caught one brief one in crackly English for our flight that said it was delayed due to mechanical issues. After that announcement, nothing more was said until everyone at our gate suddenly got up and was led away by one of the uniformed gate keepers. We followed– to another gate, we assumed.

Um, no.

The gatekeeper with the bright white shirt and impossibly tiny hips led us up the stairs and down the long hall, out past the security check point, through a staff only set of swinging doors and back out into the main entrance to the airport. And then out the airport sliding automatic doors and into a bus.

“Maybe we’re going to Terminal One?” we asked.

“Oh no, they taking us to hotel for rest!” said the woman on the seat behind us.

Oh.

The bus retraced our taxi’s route back into the city and pulled up at a hotel situated next to the elevated expressway alongside the Zhongshan 8-laned ring road. Everyone filed in and were handed key cards to their rooms in exchange for their boarding cards.

“Why are we being given hotel rooms? What’s happening with the flight?” we asked anyone who would listen.

Answers included:

It’s been cancelled.

It’s been delayed until tomorrow.

We’ll probably be rescheduled to fly to Beijing then take a train to Datong

We don’t know.

Since we have a perfectly lovely flat here in Shanghai and didn’t fancy having to stay overnight in a faceless hotel on the outskirts of the city, waiting for a flight that may or may not materialize, we called our travel agent to ask if they knew what was happening.

After calling the airline, they told me that the flight was cancelled due to a typhoon.

A typhoon in inland northern China.

Okaaaay.

They couldn’t confirm that it was 100% cancelled but they were pretty sure it was. They’d know for certain in a few hours.  If we wanted, we could go back to the airport that evening and get the airline folks to stamp our tickets and we could take that stamp to the agency counter at the airport for a full refund, no problem.

In the meantime, they said, the hotel wanted to give us a complimentary meal in the dining room on the second floor. Would we care to partake whilst we waited for news?

By now it was about an hour and a half after we should have taken off, and we were in a hotel 20 minutes away from the airport and no one was in any rush to go anywhere. All the other passengers were seated firmly around their big round tables in the red and gold dining room, eating the complimentary meal with great enthusiasm. We slunk off to the smallest empty table we could find. It was the lone table in the non-smoking section, fit for two people.  Everyone stared at us. Waiters ignored us for a solid ten minutes before one brought over a sizzling hot pot full of what appeared to be frog parts and fungus.

My favourite.

After a moment, the waiter realized his mistake and abruptly removed the sizzling frog parts and gave it to the huge table of staring people.

We waited another five minutes. A waitress filled our water glasses with very hot, grassy tea, with an inch of leaves floating on top. The glasses were too hot to touch.

Suddenly, a big plate of steaming hot corn kernels was placed on our table. I like corn but it’s on Doug’s list of unloved foods, just as fungus is at the top of mine.

After a few minutes, a plate of scrambled egg was added to our meal of tea and corn.

I should mention that eggs are at the very top of Doug’s hated food list.

Then came a dish of grated radish poached in chicken broth with a few tiny bits of pork. That was fine but tasted of unflavoured shaved cardboard, decorated with gristle and fat. Doug asked the waitress for some dark vinegar, for flavour. She looked at him blankly. We repeated our request for cù. More blank looks. We tried a few more approaches to the falling tone before another waitress finally understood what we were trying to say. We got a little cup of vinegar. The shaved cardboard wasn’t too bad with a little vinegar.

Then they brought the little bowls of soup. Each little bowl housed an enormous mushroom just below the surface of the broth.

I should note here that I’m a very open minded eater. If you recall from my Christmas party posts, I’ll eat pretty much anything that’s put in front of me. Cold offal snack plate? Okay. Fish cheeks? Sure. Mysterious aquatic creature? Why not.

But no mushrooms, no fungus, please.  I have such a deeply rooted revulsion to fungi that I even gave my mother a serious allergy to them in utero that has persisted painfully to this day.

So we sat in the noisy, smoky dining room, stared at by the other guests, faced with a complimentary meal of our most hated dishes, with no idea what was going on and no clue if we were going to be stuck there all night or if we’d ever make it to Datong at all.

We ordered a beer.

The beer was fine.

After eating as much corn, cardboard, egg and fungus as we could bear, we went back down to the lobby to ask if there had been any news.

Our travel agent on the phone said it looked like it was definitely cancelled.

She called someone at the airline and he confirmed that it was indeed cancelled, though they hadn’t officially cancelled it yet.

The woman at the hotel check in desk said it was likely cancelled and that people didn’t tend to get taken to the hotel unless they’re meant to spend the night.

We really didn’t want to spend the night there, nor did we fancy waiting around there until the next evening with the horde of staring passengers in hope that another flight could be arranged for us.  The October holiday is notoriously overbooked.

A German couple in the lobby had the same idea as we had and we shared a taxi back to the airport, got our tickets stamped with the official airline chop, made our way downstairs to the agency’s desk, explained the situation and officially cancelled our tickets and applied for a full refund. Everyone was very polite and it went very smoothly.

As we walked out toward the exit around 8:30pm, with the receipts for our officially cancelled tickets in hand, I happened to look up at the Departures board.

Datong: Delayed until 9:35pm.

Delayed? 

Delayed.

Just delayed.

Not cancelled.

Delayed.

We taxi’d home and drank a beer in silence before going to bed, dejected.

After my Cambodian rabid monkey bite and Doug’s Sri Lankan fractured spine, we’re starting to feel like travel isn’t exactly on our side this year.  Maybe the universe is trying to tell us something.

Anyone out there any good at interpreting universal hints?

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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog’s title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.