Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Golden Week Day 2: Pudong to Chungking

On Monday morning I woke up bright and early and started getting ready to journey onward to Hong Kong.  Interestingly, neither this hotel nor the one I stayed in on the way back gave me an alarm clock.  I don't know if they're worried about the clocks getting stolen, or if there's some cultural thing about alarm clocks.  I know they make lousy gifts in China.   

Anyway, I figured I would play it safe and do the hotel breakfast buffet.  I wasn’t expecting much, because the hotel had a generally sort of run-down look to it (as did the entire neighborhood it was in), but I was pleasantly surprised.  Of course there were no traditional Western breakfast foods to be seen (nor was there miso soup), but I cleaned up on sautéed greens and steamed buns and rice porridge, which made for a pretty solid breakfast.  I got back on the subway and back on the Maglev and back to Pudong airport.

Once I got through security and made it to my gate, things took a turn for the worse.  First we were told that our flight was going to be delayed.  They wouldn’t estimate for how long, but put up a sign in Chinese, Japanese, and English explaining that the flight was delayed and we should wait around in the boarding area for more details.  The Japanese text just said that the flight was delayed due to weather, the English version specified that the problem was yesterday’s weather.  It was not lost on anyone I talked to how little sense that made – apparently the real problem was that weather issues elsewhere in China had led to our plane being delayed somewhere else so that it took them a long time to get it to Shanghai and pick us up.  At least that’s what the other passengers speculated.

If they’re not good at providing information, one thing that Chinese airlines do take seriously is feeding their passengers.  Last week I took a total of four flights on China Eastern Airlines, each of them about 2 1/2 hours, and got a meal every time.  They really don’t want to pass up an opportunity to give you food.  So once it became clear that we were seriously delayed they started handing out boxed lunches.  Which was a good thing, because the inside-security food options in Pudong are pretty sparse. 

Once we’d been delayed about four or five hours, things started to get interesting.  A couple of flights that were supposed to be after hours had left from our gate.  Another flight to Hong Kong was moved to our gate, and then inexplicably canceled – we were still merely delayed.  In Japan, I suspect that people would just stay in their seats and show their outrage by (maybe) exhaling audibly in frustration.  That’s what all the Japanese tourists I met seemed to be doing.  The Chinese passengers decided to be more proactive; they basically formed an angry mob around the gate desk and there were a bunch of people shouting at the gate staff.  Of course everyone knew it wasn’t their fault, but being a scapegoat is part of the job.  Once the angry mob had formed, they were surrounded by a bunch of people with video cameras and cell phones documenting the whole exchange.  Then the police came down and started trying to protect the gate staff from physical harm.  I can only assume that they were politely asking people to please calm down, with predictably limited success.  As for me, I just figured that I was on vacation and wasn’t going to get stressed out no matter what.  Deciding that in advance made the whole experience reasonably pleasant, given what I had to work with.  

The real silver lining behind getting stuck in the airport was having a chance to meet more of the other passengers that one otherwise does.  If everything goes according to schedule on a 2 1/2 hour flight, I often don’t talk to anybody.  As it was, I met a group of Japanese tourists from Hiroshima, an American guy who chairs the vocal department at a music school in Hong Kong, a couple from Hong Kong who’d been living in Vancouver for years and were moving back, a woman from Guangzhou who’d been in Osaka on business, a whole family that looked very Chinese and spoke very British and could have been from anywhere, a family from Australia who had been visiting their daughter in Shanghai… people who knew Hong Kong very well gave me tips on places to visit and things to try doing while I was there.  Being in an unpleasant situation just makes people friendlier, sometimes.  As long as you’re not the scapegoat at the gate desk.

Eventually, after a little over 7 hours, we did take off.  Just before we boarded, they gave each of us 400 RMB (about $63 USD) to compensate us for our trouble.  Once we were in the air, of course, they fed us again.

The Hong Kong airport was roughly what you’d expect.  Clean, orderly, full of high-end places to shop.  The subways had announcements in Cantonese, Mandarin, and British-accented English, along with little signs warning you to mind the gap and make sure to hold on to the handrail on the escalators. 

A couple of weeks before leaving, I’d been looking through a Hong Kong guidebook that I’d bought for information on places to stay, and thought I’d try spending a couple of nights in Chungking Mansions.  Apparently it’s legendary in Hong Kong (at least according to Wikipedia); one of those places that you just have to see.  Of the many, many guest houses there (16 stories worth), the guide book recommended Chungking House as being the most comfortable.  I looked on their website and there was no way to make reservations online; just an e-mail address to contact for reservations.  So I e-mailed them and said when I’d be coming and leaving and that I’d need a single room.  I got an automated reply saying they’d get back to me ASAP, then nothing.  After a week I tried again, with the same result.

So when I finally arrived at Tsim Sha Tsui, the neon-covered epicenter of downtown Kowloon, and found the Chungking Mansions building.  When you walk in the door there are two elevators, one of which only stops at the even-numbered floors and the other of which only stops at the odd-numbered floors.  There’s an attendant standing by the elevator ready to drag you out of the elevator if you send it over its weight limit, which happens whenever more than four or five people try to get on.  So I had to wait in line for a few rotations before even getting on the elevator.  When I got to Chungking House on the fifth floor, I encountered a Chinese guy behind the front desk who was smoking a cigarette and glaring at me with intense disapproval. 

Me: Hi, I think I have a reservation…
Desk guy: That’s impossible.
Me: Ummm… well…. I sent an e-mail to the address on your website…
Desk guy: Nobody checks those.
Me: So do you have any rooms?
Desk guy: No.  Actually there’s one with a twin bed, but it will be more than you’ll want to pay for it.
Me: Oh.  Can you recommend anywhere else?
Desk guy: No.

So I got back on the elevator going down, and then got back in line to go back up the elevator.  My new plan was to go up to the top floor (16) and just work my way down until I found a place to stay.  On the 16th floor I found the auspiciously-named “Traveler’s Hostel”, run by another mean-looking Chinese guy who (for reasons I never understood) everyone referred to as “Papa.”  He offered me a bunk bed in a room with 9 other people for $65 HKD (about $8.37 USD).  It looked like the kind of place you could stay for $8.  Actually it was pretty much the sketchiest place I’d ever spent the night (sorry Ajo, AZ, you’ve been replaced). 

Chungking Mansions, however, is absolutely fascinating.  It’s a big bubbling melting pot – while I was in line for the elevator I saw Arab guys with skullcaps and long beards, Indian women in saris, lots of Indonesian women in hijabs, more Africans than I’ve seen total since moving to Asia, a smattering of European and North American backpackers, and probably some locals who were between apartments or waiting for a marital spat to blow over.  I ran into a Japanese college student who’d actually done an internship at CDB in Kobe.  One of the other people in my room was a fragile-looking Japanese girl who said she’d been living there for 9 months.  I guess if you have a job where you can only afford $250 worth of rent a month then you do what you can.  She’s probably a lot tougher than she looks.

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