Tuesday, October 15, 2019

A trip to China - Day 12 - The long road home

Time to leave China, and Shanghai. Every other time we have arrived or departed Shanghai, we've had to catch a bus to the plane.  Today, for the first time, we boarded the plane from a gate.
It's too good to be true...
So, here we are going for that on-time departure, and...
There has been an official "muck up" between the agents and the control tower staff in relation to a missing flight plan, so we now look like we're going to be sitting on the ground, in the plane, for at least an hour and a half.
Yes, things like this can happen to foreign airlines in China and there's little hope that the situation will change.  Beaurocacry is Beaurocacry and there's an end to it.
Now, we have the knock-on effect of catching connecting flights out of Sydney with the problems created if we arrive late, having to go through immigration, wait for baggage, collect the baggage, run the gamut of customs because I'm sure there's something we've bought in China that will grab their attention, get to the transfer bus with baggage, get to the domestic terminal and then try to find our connecting flight.  Sound like the definition of madness?  It is.
After some negotiation, well I won't say what I'm thinking, our departure had been moved up to 15 minutes from now, which means pushing back at 20:15, rather then the original departure time of 19:50.
20:15 is here and we're still not moving, but the door is now closed, and I suspect, we're about to start pushing back...
Stand by...
20:30 and we're now pushing back in preparation to leave, 40 minutes late.  It's going to be interesting to see if they can make up any time in the air.  It isn't exactly the smoothest run from the gate to the runway, and it highlighted a few of the creaks, groans, and rattles the plane has.
So much for a quick getaway...
20:51, we take off, exactly one hour and one minute late.  There's that few moments when the engines are throttled back for some reason, the retraction of the flaps not quite as noisy as some other old planes, and the familiar clunk as the undercarriage finally rests in its slot, but at least we'rein the air, and heading home.
Now it's a matter of getting up, through a little turbulence and turning slowly to acquire our heading for Sydney.  As it is 6 minutes into the flight, we're heading towards Japan.  Perhaps they shouldn't allow us to see the flight path, and worry about whether the pilot really does know where he's supposed to be going.
It's 01:27 Sydney time and the flight path programme is indicating we will be arriving in Sydney at 09:39.  Not long ago we were travelling at just over 1,000 kph, but that has now been wound back to 879 kph, as we straighten our course.  it seems going almost in the wrong direction was to catch the tailwinds so we could make up time, but that could only last for so long before we had to correct the heading.
Let's see how it works out.

After standing, sitting, standing again, and then going back to my seat for several hours of fitful sleep it's time for breakfast, and it's then I notice that the arrival time in Sydney is now expected to be around 08:37 which will make it more or less on time.
That impression remains until half an hour before, which is when the plane usually starts it'd descent, and hasn't.  That's a telltale sign we are not going to land at the time indicated.
However, a few minutes later, we start the descent at 08:10 but still showing the same arrival time.  At this rate, we should be going down like a lead balloon.  Either that or we're going to be late.
For those of us panicking about missing our connecting flights, a list of changes is read out by the cabin manager, and our flight to Brisbane has been changed.  We are now on QF520.
So far, so good...
Hang on, now we're being told that there's a delay because of congestion and we will not be landing until 08:45.  Just because they managed to make up some time, it's a case of no good deed goes unpunished.
This is followed by another announcement because we're late we've been allocated an outer bay that requires us to take buses to the terminal.  Just what you want after 10 hours in a red-eye special.  
And it just gets better...
We're on the ground, at the time specified 08:45, and rolling towards our allotted bay when we get another announcement.  There's a broken plane in our bay so we have to sit out on the tarmac and wait for another 10 minutes.
What else can happen?
Nothing thankfully, and we finally get to the bay and exiting the plan by the stairs at one exit.  That's when the euphoria stops.  Halfway down the stairs we suddenly stop.  
There's only one bus and it's full.  Worse, in some cases families have been separated, some are on the bus, and the rest of us still on the stairs.  It's like a Charlie Chaplin comedy movie.
Where's the next bus?  Don't they have more than one bus waiting for a plane with over 200 passengers?  After languishing on the stairs for about ten minutes we hear the Qantas staff member on the ground say there are no buses immediately available.  Obviously, this was to a restless passenger, further down the stairs.  Good thing, then, it's not raining.
Time is ticking away for us to make the connecting flight and we haven't got as far as the terminal to get started on immigration.
It takes a rather long 15 minutes before the next bus arrives, and, as an interesting diversion, what we soon discover to be a double-ended bus that can be driven from either end.  Never seen one of those before.
We get to the terminal, get reunited with other family members, go through the preliminary immigration procedures, down to have our photo taken, and then into the baggage hall.  You would think with all the delays that our bags would be waiting for us.
It takes another fifteen minutes before they come out of what must have been the last baggage container.  With time just about up for making it to the connecting flight, we still have to go through customs, and the line is very long, but fortunately moving quickly.  We declare our stuff as a precaution, and all is well, we can go.
The time is now 10:05.

Our connecting flight to Brisbane leaves at 11:00.
We head for Qantas domestic transfer and when we get there the check-in clerk says we have plenty of time, the bags disappear, and we are virtually the last ones on the bus before it leaves.
Only to be stuck in a traffic jam while two planes are being ferried to another part of the airport.  It's now 10:30 and boarding for the Brisbane plane starts in 10 minutes.
Guess what?  We make it with a minute, yes that's what I said, 1 minute to spare.

However the bad luck continues and just after the plane had loaded and the main door shut with the possibility of an on-time departure, another calamity.
The air conditioner is broken and it's about 40 degrees Celsius in the main cabin.  That's almost unbearable conditions.  A call is out to the engineers and as at 11:20 they are still working on it.  But, mercifully, it is a little cooler.  Perhaps it's working again.
An announcement is made, the door is closed, and we're pushing back at 11:37.  Qantas is not having a good day in Sydney.
I think we won the raffle with this plane, it appears to be very old, with no screens in the seatbacks, but perhaps the onboard wifi could take its place.  The engines starting up with a loud whine, unlike most that just start and are virtually silent.  
Did I just get a hint of mothballs?
11:50 take off and this is where the shuddering starts and persists until the landing gear is retracted.  Then it's just creaks and groans from a tired airframe that's been through a lot of cycles.
Obviously we made it home because you are reading this!

A trip to China - Day 11 - Rest at last, time to take stock

Day 11 - The last day in China

At least today we are able to sleep in, until 8 o'clock.  I'm not sure that means we are in any way shape or form invigorated, but at least it was not another 5:30 wake up for yet another exhausting day in the field.

After the long leisurely dinner last night, a welcome change from fretting over what we could and could not eat, it seemed the perfect end to a long and, at times, gruelling tour.

Not participating in the knock off shopping tour, we stay at the hotel till we have to leave our rooms, then go downstairs and sit in the guest lounge on the ground floor until the bus comes to take us to the airport.

It's a time to summarise the tour.

We have seen China that the Chinese government wanted us to see.  That urban sprawl is a model of urban living in cities that have 7 million or more.  Two we visited had 10 million-plus, Beijing has 24 million and Shanghai has 27 million.

We saw hundreds of kilometres of rice paddies from the train which means their agriculture industry is huge.  What we didn't see was any animals like sheep, cattle or pigs.  They're out there somewhere but not for us to see.

We saw a lot of power stations, and when you visit the cities you find out why.  Everything is electric.  And for the majority of our visit we do not see much pollution, though as we got closer to Shanghai, there was a lot more haziness.  Luckily on most days, there was a wind which helped clear the air.

The other thing that is very noticeable is the places you are taken to purchase goods that are government-owned factories so allegedly you can buy with confidence that what you're getting is real, not fake and you will get an iron-clad guarantee to that effect.

But it will cost an arm and a leg.  Nothing in any of these so-called factories is cheap.

The Chinese medicine shop, the pills they recommend for everyone are about 400 to 500 dollars Aus for a three month supply, for any type and there can three types so you're instantly looking at over a thousand Australian dollars right there.

At the pearl factory, the cost of everything is more subjective relative to whether or not you want it, but as a guide, it can cost you somewhere between 250 to 1,000 dollars Australian.

At the jade factory, everyone wants a jade bangle for good luck and good fortune, until they see how much it costs.  Here you are considered lucky if you walk away from the place with change from 2,000 dollars Australian.

Next is the terra cotta replica factory, and here there are model soldiers of all sizes and prices, with other more pricier goods.  It's possible to escape this place for under 100 dollars Australian.

Lastly there us the silk factory and here for today only, it begins to sound like one of those infomercials on the morning show, the one that makes you turn off the telly or switch over to the 
ABC because anything on there has to be better.


We still buy the sheet the underlay the silk pillowcases and, you guessed it, free pillows were thrown in.  And, yes, it's not steak knives but a suitcase, yes, you heard it right, a suitcase to take it all home in, or free shipping if you spend a million dollars.  Well not quite that much, but it feels like it.

And yet there's more, the tea factory, the tour taken from a single room followed by the sales pitch where we are shocked and amazed by the properties of the tea.  Of course, it's great if I swallow a bottle full of iodine  The tea will just neutralise its effect, but as a tea, well just have to wait and see.

Yes, there are pills too, and these are also very expensive, a six month supply will set you back 1,800 dollars Australian.

So between all of the above, the smaller merchants haven't got a chance because after hitting the big six there's nothing left, or room left in your baggage if you took it with you.

At each venue, the tour guide gives you a long spiel, what is considered to be the softening up process before the real guide for the venue takes over to give the overall lecture on the product, and it's the manufacturing process.

By then, it's simply a matter of telling us the days bargain, but by that time all we want to do is escape, and, for some of us, get the goods and leave.  The dangling of free shipping entices us to buy more than we were going to, but in the end, the ploy works.

The government must be making a small fortune from this inflow of supposedly rich tourists.  Make the tour cheap, guide the tourists to the government factories and bingo it's win-win for them and the guides who all get a cut of the action.


What about the guides themselves.

Some are really good and some are terrible, and by that, I mean really terrible.  It also depended on their English of which none could speak it without the inevitable conversion issues, and for others, well, it was painful.

We started with one of the best and we finished with one of the best, but each had their tormentors in the English language and sometimes they struggled to find an English translation. In these cases, it only made the tour all that more enjoyable.

As for the bad guides, it ruined the whole day, as it did for us with the Shaolin temple and kung fu display.  What's worse it was the most expensive and it would have been more preferable to sit in the hotel all day.

There was so much disparity in the meals supplied and the cost.  There was nothing free except for breakfast.  Perhaps the worst was at the Shaolin temple, not so much the food which was quite bland, but in what they gave you to drink.  There was no cold water to drink with it, only hot water, and you had to pay extra for anything else other than water, and it was expensive.

As the most expensive side tour of the itinerary, including all drinks would have made the rest of the day's shortcomings more tolerable.

In contrast, the previous meal we had at the Terra Cotta Soldiers exhibition was incredible and came with all the drinks you could want, and it only cost 60 RMB, or about 13 dollars Aus.  Even the evening dinner in Hutong, an amazing array of Chinese dishes accompanied by free drinks at a higher cost made that from the Temple more disappointing.

Most of us couldn't believe what had happened at the Temple lunch and the guides response when we asked for, at the very least, cold water.  She completely ignored us and pretended it didn't happen.
As I said, there were good guides and terrible guides.  She was terrible. 

But, hang on, the other bus said their guide was worse.

And the Hotels?

God give me patience.

This is where, after the second hotel our group came up with the expression, 'it is what it is'.

All of them looked very impressive from the outside and going into the foyer level that impression improved with all the marble and expensive fittings.

But, sadly, in most cases, that's where the good impression ends.

The few lifts are small and usually fit four people and their cases.  All well and good except when seven buses are using the same hotel, then it can take upwards of half an hour to get you your room.

Which is where shock sets in.

Rooms can be so small you couldn't swing a cat in them, the doors barely getting past the bed end and the distance between the end of the bed and the tv on the wall less than a foot.

Others you don't get a proper bathroom, just a shower and toilet cubicle and in the passage a washbasin.

Others, you get a large room and a bathroom with a bath and separate shower.

And something else that I thought was quite odd, very few of the same tour group are allocated rooms on the same floor, so our group of 28 were scattered throughout the hotel on each occasion.

My overall impression, we were using old hotels that are now very tired according to trip advisor,  because discerning visitors are using the better hotels that still don't cost much more than these for a standard room.

Trip a deal could do better if they wanted to.

But as I said, it is what it is and it's not as if you're going to spend the rest of your life in any of those rooms.  Besides isn't that half the fun, finding the completely unexpected,  after all this is China and we cannot expect to find what we're used to here.