This is going to be a nice adventure story, so hang on till the end for the best part 😉
So there we were, all happy and excited in Beijing, having finished visiting most of its sights, having soaked in some diverse experiences, and ready to move on to the next adventure!
But before that, let me say how amazing Beijing was! The history, the buildings, the spirit, and also the food! Of course we had to visit the Great Wall of China and try Peking Duck.
Not to mention, consume huge amounts of dumplings!!
Anyway, so now we were off to the next destination, Datong, to see the hanging monastery and the Yungang Grottoes.
We had to catch a flight from the Nanyuan airport, a very local airport, and just to make sure that we had time to do everything properly, we reached early. Checked in, cleared our security check, and still had 2 more hours to spare.
Picture courtesy: Google
Almost everything in the airport was local. The people, the signs, and hardly anyone spoke English. Besides us, there were probably only 6 other passengers, out of maybe a 100, who were foreigners.
Anyway, we won’t be long here, we said.
We had no idea of what lay ahead!
We boarded the flight, and sat inside it for almost an hour. Something was going on, there was some murmuring around us. The flight can’t take off because of weather conditions, they said. Or well, a co-passenger translated the Mandarin announcement in broken English.
We looked outside, and could see no indication of anything wrong! It was just a bit misty, that’s all.
Eventually, the pilot said we had to disembark because the conditions were not suitable for a takeoff. Well, we didn’t exactly know what he announced, again. Everyone got off the plane, so we just followed.
Once back in the terminal, we saw a lot of local passengers hounding the desk at the boarding gate for answers, didn’t seem like they were getting any.
There was almost nothing to do but wait.
But we had to take a call. Because our itinerary accounted for only one day in Datong, and we had a tour booked for the day, which we had already paid for as well. Not to mention the hotel.
So not only would we miss the sights if we didn’t reach Datong that night, but we would also lose a lot of money!
Next, we tried to see other ways of reaching Datong. There are trains.
But they were all sold out. Damm. Ok, what about a bus, we thought? We again looked up online, but there seemed to be none going at that time.
Next attempt: private cars. We also called up a car service that we had found through Tripadvisor, and which had great reviews, and had used in Beijing, to see if we could drive to Datong, and the price they quoted was like double the flight cost! But we could increase the number of passengers and decrease per head cost, they said. So we tried to ask the other foreigners, in English, if they would like to go with us, but they didn’t seem very enthusiastic. That was a dead end too.
So now we were out of options, and had no update on the flight status. I called my friend in Shanghai to ask for suggestions, and we learnt something new.
Huh! Did not know that! See the link above, or Google it! And be prepared before you take your trip to China 😉
Anyway, we realized we were running out of options, when….hey! Good news! They said the flight would depart soon, so we had to get back on! We happily did 🙂 Crossed my fingers and toes that this time it would be ok, and we would reach Datong in an hour, and collapse on the bed. We had already spent 6 hours in the airport by then.
So, everything set. Waiting in the flight. Oh wait! Seems it won’t depart AT ALL! We have to get off. Seriously? You’ve got to be kidding, right? What are the chances?
Get on and off the aircraft, twice, only to be told it won’t take off at all! While some other flights did?
And any other information? We asked the airport authorities. What can we do now? Is there any other flight, later? How do we get a refund? And with hundreds of locals running around here and there, apparently having some idea of how things work, we were just lost in a sea of people.
The officials we asked looked at us blankly and smiled apologetically. Think they were trying to say, “Sorry, no English”.
And the airport was flooded with Chinese people running to and fro the airport trying to figure out their options, and they could obviously find their way around easily, not to mention information, so Alex and I got jostled around a lot. At times we were actually worried about a stampede-type thing!
Oh well. We met some Mexican travellers, and somehow we figured out together that we had to to go the departure office to get the refund slip. We managed to collect our luggage and do that.
We tried to talk to all the foreigners again if they wanted to join us in a cab. But it seemed they all had travel agents who would fix the problem and itinerary for them. Alex and I were the only adventurous ones who had decided to plan the trip on our own, because most travel agent-planned tours are super expensive.
No flight, no train, no bus, and no car that we could afford.
We tried to hail a cab from outside the airport, but they were all on call and didn’t even talk to us.
Standing on the street in front of the airport, past midnight, not being able to communicate with anyone because of language barriers, clueless about the next step.
Hungry, tired, lost, frustrated. One of the most helpless times we’ve ever faced.
Then suddenly this man comes up to us and talks in Mandarin. No matter how much we spoke in English, he kept speaking in Mandarin!!!
Eventually, he took out his phone and a Mandarin translation app. We had seen them being used before, but somehow they don’t translate English to Mandarin that well.
We hadn’t even needed one that much till now.
Now, desperate, we downloaded a free one ourselves, called SayHi.
Thankfully, Alex was able to connect to his work VPN through his phone using the Chinese SIM card, and we could access app stores and download apps. Thank God for VPN! The interface looks something like this:
You can either type in it or talk, and choose any language to translate in between. That worked perfectly! Finally, we were communicating! And this is where things started to become better.
Somehow through this app, we understood that he was a driver with a car. We managed to explain where we wanted to go, but he was asking for too much money as well which we didn’t want to pay, so he walked away!
Back to waiting. Knowing that we needed a solution fast, but really not knowing what else to do.
After another half an hour, another driver walked up to us, and we found a price that though was a lot, we could still afford. We just wanted to go, and finally we started off!
After all the drama, we needed some food. To-go would be fine. And a bathroom. But that was too complicated to explain through the app. Because we didn’t know where he would land up. So we did the next best thing.
We showed him a picture of…
Hehhe…wait, hear me out 😉
We are not big fans of it, and almost never touch it, but China is full of McDonalds joints. We knew that the food there, while not exactly falling in the category of doctor recommended ;), it would at least not make us sick, it wouldn’t have any suspicious ingredients, would not be beyond a certain price, and would most probably have a toilet inside it. Or if not, would be in a location where we could find a toilet. That’s their brand to us 🙂
So we just showed him the logo, and he just took us there. We also got a chance to withdraw some cash from ATMs nearby. We got our food, and he drove 4 hours through the night to Datong. We reached there, and found…our hotel room!!!!
So, so grateful to have them, I took pictures of the comfy bed (the hotel gave us twin beds, but for 2 nights, we were too tired to swap it for a joint one), and the soft towels. Standing on the streets of China, that was all I had been yearning for.
So now, after all the 14-hour drama, and with all the frustration why did we also feel powerful, you ask?
Well, first of all, we had a burning desire to get to Datong. Having travelled halfway aross the globe, we were determined. We were not going to give up a chance to see this beautiful place. AND lose money in the process. We just had to go!! And that made us feel alive in spite of everything.
It was another reminder of when you want something very badly, and if you don’t give up, you do end up getting it.
We also felt strong because Alex and I was a team. We were working together, towards the same goal, both equally driven. Alone, we wouldn’t have felt so confident maybe.
But it wasn’t just those things. We had something else on our side, to help make this happen.
Imagine that this exact same adventure happened a decade back.
Where were the smartphones? The apps? The global village, where a taxi driver in one corner of the world, recognizes a burger-led fast food chain from the opposite side of the world? The flexibility to access the internet anywhere and look up transport options? The possibility to have cheap international credit cards to easily withdraw cash from, no matter where you are?
10 years ago, exactly this situation, and we would have felt much more f***ed.
Maybe it would have been okay in the end, but we would have probably lost more money, time, and the solutions may still not have come so easily.
In this case, we were able to manage the whole situation, figure out solutions, just sitting (and later, standing, of course ;), in one place.
Today, this is what we had:
- Easy connectivity: A smartphone, and a local SIM card with 4G data for fast internet
- Global connectivity: VPN, to connect to ‘normal internet’, aka Google, for information, and especially to the Google store, to download apps
- Continuous power: With charging stations in the airport for our gadgets, plus because of our portable power banks, our phones never ran out of charge
- No-hassle money-back: Immediate digital refund of cancelled plane tickets through the travel portal (by the time we reached Datong, the refund had happened). Highly recommend it (Trip.com), by the way.
- Limited language barriers: Helped by translation apps, SayHi being just one of the many out of there. Communication was still limited, but at least on a 1-1 basis, with a lot of patience and effort from both sides, it worked!
- Finding information online: God bless all blogs and forum comments by kind people who write details online of how to find transport and get around in China
- Anywhere money: The credit card providing access to any ATM worldwide, but low fees
Of course, it was quite an adventure and we both felt quite helpless and frustrated through it. But deep down, we also KNEW, that as long as we had each other, our phones, or almost any gadget with an internet connection, we were going to be fine. Maybe it would take time, but we would be able to work things out. It gave us all the confidence we needed, and lifted our helplessness quite a bit.
It also made us think what would have happened without all these tech help. It made us realize how dependent we actually are today, on technology, to solve problems, especially in times of crisis. Like what would we do without them? Hopefully, we will never have to find out.
My FF thought of the day: Thank God for technology, for all the innovators and engineers out there, making our lives simpler day by day. Bless them with all my heart. But the key thing to remember is that if there is determination, there is always a solution. Depend on technology all that you want. But they are just tools, to make what you want come true. The highest powers, the desire, the driver, the determination, the hope, is all within you. Be #PowerfullyYOU.