SHANGHAI PUDONG AIRPORT
If I’d had any fantasies of me being the casually style-full experienced and cool world traveler able to manage foreign systems with grace, it was blown to smithereens within an hour of landing in Shanghai’s Pudong airport.
By the time I got on my plane, I was a sweat-soaked hot mess (literally) teetering on the verge of tears.
I blame American Airlines. First, they didn’t have a gluten-free meal for me. Despite my ordering it when I booked the ticket AND calling to make sure there would be one for me. There was not one thing I could eat. So all I’d eaten from the time I left LAX was protein bars and a box of craisins I had in my purse.
My seat mate on the LAX-Shanghai leg was a lovely young lady that’d recently graduated from college and had just completed a 2-week tour of 5 American cities. Nice to know that American tourists aren’t the only ones that do such insane tours of other countries. Understandably, she was exhausted, and very excited at the prospect of sleeping in her own bed that night. She was to have difficulty sleeping on the plane- we both would—for there was a completely unreasonable older woman behind us that insisted that we had no right to put our seats back. My seat mate tried to reason with her, to no avail, so the cabin staff came over to explain that if she didn’t want to be eating the head-rest of the chair in front her, she should be in business- or first-class.
For the first 7 hours of the flight, I did some work on my computer, though it was very hard to see the screen since I didn’t have the room to open it completely as the two Brazilian fellows in front of us put their seats back immediately. I had my seat back a bit, but not much. Around the 7 hour mark, I was exhausted, having only had 3 and half hours sleep the night before, and leaned my seat back a little bit more. I was not all the way back, mind you, but this was enough to incite the darling little wretch behind me to alternate kneeing the back of my seat or wrinkling a plastic bag right under my ear. Some times she made a Stomp-like symphony coordinating the two. This continued pretty much non-stop the remaining 6.5 hours of the flight.
Once we got into Pudong, I realized that the cabin staff hadn’t made any announcements about connecting flights and navigating the airport. Signage was rare, so I followed the herd towards immigration. I was flustered that I hadn’t been given any information about how to get my connecting flight to Zhengzou. Whenever I asked where I should go to get my boarding pass, I was waved “just over there”, the apparent equivalent of “over yonder”, and equally locatable. When I checked in in Phoenix, I had been told that I didn’t need to pick up my baggage in Shanghai- that it would go straight through, so I walked around baggage claim looking for someone to tell me how I was to proceed, as I could tell that exiting baggage claim would put on the other side of security. Finally, someone seemed to know what I was looking for before they waved me “over there”. I felt more confident, so I left baggage claim.
After going through the tunnel of hotel sign waving agents looking to get customers, I headed in the general direction of the hand wave I’d gotten at the desk. No ticket counters. I walked all the way back to the other end: no ticket counters. There was a “North Path”, “Center Path” and “South Path”, but I wanted to know which one I needed before heading down any of them. I looked at a map. Nothing. I looked at another map. Nothing. I looked at my itinerary again- it said I was leaving from Terminal 2. I’d just come out of Terminal 2. About the third time I passed through, a man in a uniform asked me if I was looking for something. I told him that I needed to get my boarding pass with China Southern but didn’t know where to go. He told me I needed to go upstairs.
So I get on to the elevator upstairs, and find a directory of the airlines. CZ is at desks D, L it says.
D and L are on opposite sides of the hall. It is a very large hall. I begin to head towards D as it looks a bit closer. There’s a HUGE line snaking its way all the way to the back of the hall coming out of D. I decide I should go to the bathroom before I get in it. The bathroom is back where I’d come from, so I turn around.
I’ve heard horror stories about Chinese bathrooms. I am quite pleased to report that the ones in Pudong are quite clean.
I go back to the D counters, afraid that I’ll stand in this line only to realize that I’m in the wrong line. I see signs for Lufthansa. I don’t see signs for CZ. I decide to try the L counter.
So I walk allllll the way to the L counter and stand in line. When I get to the counter, I ask to make sure that my luggage will make the connection. I am told that they don’t have transfer service in Pudong. I need to go downstairs to get my luggage, then come back.
Yes, downstairs. Not only downstairs, but past guards that stand sentinel at each door.
Back on the elevator I go. I go to door number 1. I’m told I can’t enter there- I need to go to the “next door”. At the next door, I’m sent to the next door. “Just breathe, sweetheart. Just breathe.” I’d repeat to myself every time the tears welled up. I remind myself that I haven’t had much sleep, that I haven’t eaten properly. That I’m thirsty. Everything feels awful in that place. Its going to work out. Thousands make their way to flights in this every day. It’ll be okay. Stay calm. Breathe.
I realize I’m not going to get to eat. I’m scared I won’t make my flight. I don’t have phone numbers for any one. I don’t even know who’s picking me up. How did we live before cell phones??
When I arrive at the very end of the hall, I’m sent through security, frisked, asked to remove things from my bag. My frustration and desperation is dripping from me as quickly as the sweat I’ve lathered up. I’m trying to explain that I need to go get my bag. I’m told I can’t go in, that they’ll call an airline employee to get my bag for me. “Why couldn’t we have done that upstairs?” I think. A fellow rounds the corner and looks surprised/scared to see me. I’m that situation his English teacher always warned him he’d have to deal with, I’m sure. We finally ascertain that he can’t help me as I’m looking for the bag from an international flight, and I’m in the domestic security office. Fantastic.
“Go to Burger King” he tells me.
So I leave and walk down to the other side of the airport. The last entrance to baggage has a Burger King just beyond it, so I navigate (poorly) the maze leading in to it. I got stuck in a dead-end at one point. Humiliations like this are so much sweeter when all eyes are on you as the mountain-woman blonde foreigner. I’m told by the guard that I need to go further down. “Burger King”. So I go through the maze again, and when I’ve almost arrived at Burger King, I see a small staff door. Back through security, back through getting frisked, back going through my bags. I’m told I can go in- but through another door.
If you’re picking up the theme of this Pudong pursuit, you already know that the lost baggage is- you guessed it- on the other side of the baggage claim area from where I was allowed to enter. I’m ecstatic to report that I received absolutely no hassle from the baggage folks, however. My bag was right out front. “Oh, you’re a transfer! Yes. We don’t do transfer.” Now I’m told this. Now I’m told this. CURSES ON YOUR HEAD AMERICAN AIRLINES!
Happily reunited with my bag, I get back upstairs, and trek across the hall to the CZ desk and get checked in. She tells me I’m departing from gate C55. Its already 9:00. My flight leaves at 10. Even though I’ve only had protein bars my entire trip and had *so* looked forward to getting a good meal in the Shanghai airport, I’m scared I’ll run out of time, so I go straight through security.
C50 – C75 à Wonderful. I’ll be right at the beginning. Maybe I will have time to go grab something to eat. What? Its starting at C75 and getting smaller? Crap. So I push my cart as fast as I can down the entire terminal length, to arrive to yet another scene of someone yelling at the top of their lungs. This is the 3rd episode I’ve encountered on this trip. I thought Chinese culture was all about saving face? Why are all these people yelling at someone else? Is this something that happens on TV shows all the time or something? Folks sick of being nice just popping? I see a red light on the board at the gate. There’s been a gate change for one of the 3 flights listed that are all apparently leaving from there within 5 minutes of one another.
Yup, you guessed it. It’s my flight. Now at gate C220.
Back down the terminal. Apparently my bag is as sick of all this walking as I am, it fell off the cart twice in protest. It got its way, as C220 is downstairs, so I had to carry everything.
I wasn’t sitting long enough to eat yet another protein bar and a box of craisins before we started loading. On a bus. Some 19 year old in stilletos took the last of the few seats on the bus, so I’m stuck standing. My left side is absolutely killing me. “I swear, if we get out on the tarmack and I have to lug things up stairs, I’m just gonna die.”
But I didn’t. I just went slow and grunted a lot. I focused on the gratitude I had that I actually made my flight. I was so scared that I wouldn’t- even though I’d had more than 3 hours in the layover. Students were coming out after midnight to pick me up, and I didn’t have a number to call if I missed my flight.
The cabin crew was eager to try their English. I was greeted as “madam” by one young lady. It made me smile. I didn’t feel like a “madam” at all. I felt (and likely looked) like a wet sock. My seat was second row from the back. In front of a toddler that would spend the entirety of the flight screaming. At first, I was comforted that other passengers were openly telling her to be quiet, their disapproval actually caused spurts of actual crying instead of the fake wailing she maintained in such constant pace I wondered if she didn’t have a vocal system similar to the mechanism that cats use to purr. No hope of getting a little nap in, then.
The snack box was filled with cakes. I gave it back.
By the time we got to Zhengzou, my clothes were still wet, but baggage was rolling through before I was back with a cart, and my bag was one of the first. Glorious. Was my luck turning?
I walked out of baggage claim and saw two bright young ladies faces beaming at me- “Jack-lynn, right?” Yes, I nodded. They pressed forward with a beautifully wrapped orchid and instantly hugged me.
Monday, who I’d heard so much about. She’s known as a bolt of lightning. Think it and she’s done it before you can polish the thought. Carol, who I’d had some email correspondence with was with her. Sonny, another student, had come along, and the music teacher, Dale joined us from Chicago. The giggling of the students was like salve. We had a giddy ride back to the foreign faculty hall.
Getting to Xinzheng and into my room was as easy and quick as the Shanghai shenanigans were convoluted and arduous.
Sonny knew the code to the locked hall, there was someone at the desk to give us our keys, Monday and Carol helped me carry my bags to my room and gave me bananas and a bottle of water. It reminded me of my time in the Czech republic. The ceilings are very tall, the closet large, the bathroom equipped with a western toilet, a lovely counter in the passageway from the living room to the bedroom has plenty of storage space, and happiest of all, the bed didn’t actually feel like a piece of wood as I was told it would. I didn’t sleep long- only a bit over 6 hours—but I slept well, despite being sweaty under the heavy duvet.