After arriving at the Guangzhou train station we made our way though passport control, where we were subjected to a generous amount of pushing and shoving before we were able to get our passports stamped. But this was nothing compared to the pandemonium among the unruly crowd on the street trying to find a cab to take us to the airport. Sure, we were in China’s third biggest city, but even so, it was obvious that Chinese people had different expectations of personal space than I was used to. It must be a function of the general overpopulation – at a certain point there’s just no reason to be polite. Whereas in America you are generally expected to give two to three feet of space to a stranger, in China it is more like 0. It’s sort of like a game of marbles, with everyone going at the same time.
Somehow we got a taxi and were soon on our way to the airport amid a sea of drivers who seemed intent on starting a game of bumper cars. We managed to arrive unscathed at the Guangzhou airport, and after passing through another checkpoint where I had to show my passport yet again – which to me seemed odd as I was headed for a domestic flight – we eventually found ourselves standing on the tarmac walking to our plane.
Having been somewhat of an aircraft buff, I prided myself on being able to call out the make and model of any commercial jetliner after just a quick glance. The one we were heading for seemed easy. It was a three-engine plane with the horizontal stabilizer mounted high in the tail fin. That makes it a Boeing 727, one of the easiest to identify. But there was something wrong. It seemed bigger than a 727 should be. I scratched my head, knowing that there weren’t too many other planes with a similar configuration, and wondered what it might be.
“Wing, is that what I think it is?” I said.
“That plane, the one we’re headed to.”
“Yes, it is China Eastern plane,” Wing said with his nervous laugh.
“I mean the kind of plane. It doesn’t look like anything I’ve seen before.”
“Heh heh,” his nervous laugh being his only reply.
Wing had no idea what I was getting at. I realized with not a little trepidation that I would be flying for the first time in my life on a Russian plane. It was a Tupolev, and as we got closer, I saw the numbers 154. This was a Tupolev 154. Yikes! I had just read an article about Tupolevs. The 154 was among the most common, and like most Russian aircraft, had a terrible safety record. They had been falling out of the sky left and right for years. The fact that the Russians would often blame the accidents on pilot error didn’t calm me any.
“Wing, this is a Russian made plane we’re about to fly on.”
“Oh? Russian plane?” he said as his nervous laugh trailed off.
I wanted to tell him that a guy with a name like Wing ought to know more about planes, but I kept my mouth shut. He wouldn’t have gotten it anyway.
There was no turning back. My luggage was already checked and I needed to get to Changsha, so I marched forward with the rest of the crowd. I tried to keep in mind that even though Tupolevs crashed with much greater frequency than any planes I had ever flown on, the chance of this particular flight crashing was probably still very low. I tried to comfort myself with the thought that I would have a better chance of getting hit by lightning. Of course getting hit by lightning would be quick: I wouldn’t see it coming and it would be over in a second. On the other hand, if this shitbox went down I was probably going to know about it for a while beforehand and would be able to ponder the horror of my demise as the plane collided with the earth in a fury of screaming and explosions. Anyway, I put that out of my mind for the time being and concentrated on getting my bag into the overhead. The fact that the overhead bin was more like an undersized shelf didn’t help much. Nor did the seat belt, which reminded me of the impossible to adjust and all but useless lap belts in the 1965 Dodge Coronet that I rode around in as a kid. None of this seemed to ruffle Wing or any of the couple hundred other all Chinese passengers, so I did the best I could to settle in as I began to observe the strangeness that was domestic Chinese air travel.
There was something surreal about the whole experience. As we prepared for takeoff, not only did the crew not bother with the usual formalities about buckling your seat belt, folding your tray table and putting your seat back upright, but they didn’t seem to care or even notice if people were seated. As we were barreling down the runway, more than a few people were still standing in the aisles fidgeting with their bags.
To my surprise, and possibly also to the surprise of the pilots, the flight went smoothly and in a few hours we were nearing our destination. As we turned onto final approach, the pilot said something over the PA system, which, judging by the reaction of the other passengers could probably have been translated as “We are now on final approach, please unbuckle your seat belts, stand up, disregard your own safety, and get your bags down before we land.” It was as if we were on a train about to pull into the station. I was half surprised no one tried to open the door to get a head start on the others as we were touching down.
So here I was, finally, with Wing, in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, in the heart of the Chinese mainland. Prior to that hullabaloo a few days ago over which city Wing and I were meant to go to, I had never heard of Changsha. I had heard of Hunan though. There was a restaurant in my home town serving spicy Chinese food called Hunan Palace. Of course there was nothing palatial about it at all. It was your typical over-lit, semi-dingy restaurant with dirty welcome mats, no decor and plastic seats in a non-descript suburban shopping center. The Chinese, it seemed to me, even then, had this penchant for overstatement.
As I looked around in Changsha, I started to think that overstatement could be a relative thing. For the guy from Hunan who had made his way to America and opened a restaurant in a reasonably well-to-do suburb, his place probably was some kind of palace. My first impression of Changsha was that it was similar to Guangzhou, with teeming and chaotic crowds. Bicycles were everywhere, and seemed to account for about 90% of the traffic. Most disappointing, though, was that apart from an abundance of loud and inelegant Chinese signage, not much about Changsha looked Chinese. I was certain that since China had such a rich cultural heritage, with over 5000 years of history, I would be treated in China’s heartland to beguiling scenes of Chinese pagodas amid a landscape of elaborate oriental gardens, but all I could see were row after row of box-like and often run down cement buildings as far as the eye could see. And as it turned out, the eye couldn’t see all that far as Changsha was enveloped in a thick haze. This, of course, was smog, and it was worse than any I had encountered, even in places known for smog. LA is known for smog, but in LA, the sky is still blue much of the time. This was much worse than LA. It was even worse than the North American capital of smog, Mexico City.
We arrived at the hotel. As I would come to expect, it had a grandiose and overly elaborate name that included a proudly displayed English translation: The Changsha Golden Sunshine International Five Star Elite Grand Hotel, or something like that. Who wouldn’t be excited to stay in such a place?
As we walked into the lobby, I noticed it had a marble floor. So far, so good, I thought. But as I stood there waiting while Wing was handling the check-in formalities, I started to realize that the lobby was kind of shabby. The marble floor was dirty, and there was a woman pushing a dirty mop across it. I suppose she was making sure that the dirt got evenly distributed and ingrained permanently into every pore and crevice. There were large floor to ceiling windows, but they were filthy and the curtains that hung in front of the windows weren’t any better. A few yards away, three men were seated next to one another in the only chairs in the lobby. They seemed to be working for the hotel, but they were just chatting with one another as they smoked.
Wing finally finished with the check-in procedure, and we headed to the elevator. Our rooms were both on the seventh floor, and as we got out of the elevator, there was an official looking woman sitting at a desk. Wing showed her some paperwork, she looked it over, grunted, and then motioned with her hand that we were cleared to proceed down the hall. I guess she was some sort of floor guard. This was starting to feel more like a prison than a hotel.
My room — or cell I guess you could say — turned out to be just as dreary and cheerless as the lobby. It had a rock hard mattress and a smattering of ash trays thoughtfully placed at five foot intervals throughout the room. I suppose these could come in handy for smokers who preferred to pace and smoke all night rather than try to sleep on the slab of concrete they called a mattress. I went to the bathroom and was thrilled to learn that not only did I have a somewhat normal looking toilet, but that it wasn’t guarded by another lady at a desk.