My grandparents and a family friend, an eccentric Pole of partial German parentage, drove me to Konz Hbf. I felt little when I left. To say that my efforts in Hunland were in equal measures frustrating and frustrated is to verge past the point of understatement. Yet, I could not manage to muster much enthusiasm for China. The process thus far has been long, costly and drawn-out. That my nerves were already taxed to the breaking point led me to having a certain measure less patience than I normally would have had. Still, it seemed as if things worked out in the wash.
Being by nature a cautious person I spent my final night in Germany in Frankfurt-am-Main. Motel 1, a Munich-based hotelier left as little to be desired as it left overwhelming. That is, it was a very average hotel saved only by its relative low cost, convenient location and cleanliness. My primary bank managed to find a way to complicate matters for me. Their computer system is infamous were rejecting bank cards at hotels and shops while working perfectly adequately at bank machines. This time was no different. After being declined twice I had to walk a mile in 92-degree-heat to the nearest bank machine. Strange, one would think that Frankfurt-am-Main being a major financial centre that bank machines would be more readily available, but never mind. There, too, my card was declined. I withdrew a few euros from my German bank account and managed to scrape together just enough money to pay the bill. This wasn’t made easier by the fact that I had to pay 30 euros for a taxi ride from airport to hotel.
Frankfurt Airport seems to be hell-bent on making Hellrow look user-friendly and functional, but that is not the point. Aeroflot is a surprisingly good airline. My flight to Moscow Sheremetyevo was on a near-new Airbus A320. The seats were comfortable and the aeroplane clean. The service was also reasonably good. While not quite at the level of Cathay Pacific or Swiss International they compared favourably to British Airways, Lufthansa and KLM. We were served a full hot meal on the 2.5-hour-flight. The dreaded Sheremetyevo was surprisingly efficient and easy to navigate. On their website they cautioned leaving 1 hour, 10 minutes for connexions between Terminals D and F.
I was amazed by their security and passport control officers. Or, rather, I was amused by them. All were grumpy, unsmiling Russian women who had an insulted look when they saw me. They seemed to enjoy doing their job as little as passengers enjoyed having to go through it. Within 20 minutes of arrival I was at my gate. I had to spend just over 4 hours sitting. To pass the time I had a coffee and cake at one of their small cafés. The coffee was more than drinkable and the cake was delicious – a nougat, meringue confection that had the perfect sweetness. The flight to Shanghai was unfortunately not quite as good as the flight to Moscow. The new Boeing 777-300 had uncomfortable, narrow seats. This, I know, is very much a Boeing trademark. They’re mechanically sound, but Boeing pays far less regard to maximising the use of space. The couple sitting next to me were an elderly Chinese husband and wife. Both were very kind, even if they were both prone to coughing on me for the duration of the flight. I shouldn’t complain, at least they didn’t spit.
The Chinese often have a bit of the dromedary about them in that respect. I was petrified of having to endure Shanghai Pu Dong yet again. The last time I was there, in 2011, I was hassled by so many pushy promoters and left to flounder for half an hour in that sea of black-haired people that I was at the verge of a nervous breakdown. Then again, I usually am never far from one at the best of times. When I saw the queue – long and winding – I thought it best to go powder my nose prior to entering that seemingly endless waterfall of humanity. This nearly proved a fatal error. One simply does not go the opposite direction of a herd of Chinese and expect to survive.
Battered and bruised, I clawed my way over the finish line. Worse was to come. An Emirates flight had arrived just as I finished and I found myself in a sea of Middle-Eastern-Types who ranged from a reasonably intelligent Iranian woman who took off her niqab at the first opportunity to a group of Egyptian dregs. Most cut in front of me, the halal swine. This being China, no one found it unusual. I, however, had the last laugh. The sulky-looking halal boar in front of me made the mistake of providing the Chinese passport control officer evasive, dishonest answers. Growing quickly tired of him he summoned a higher-ranked official to put him through a thorough investigation. Halal Swine had to deal with a witch-nosed woman who looked like her favourite hobby was sucking lemons. When my turn came, the process mercifully went quickly and painlessly. I had the correct paperwork and could provide concise, yet detailed, answers. He stamped my passport and waved me through.
An employee of my company met me and drove me to Huzhou, 2.5 hours away in northern Zhejiang Province. I, fortunately, was not subjected to any undue horrors this go. We quickly left and went on our way. When we finally arrived at my flat I was left somewhat underwhelmed. It’s adequate and a roof over my head, but little else. My mattress is a sort of Chinese mediaeval torture device. It is all spring, no padding. My bedding consists of a sheet, a duvet and a pillow — all polyester, all with shrill, neon pink, yellow, blue, and green bar-and-polka-dot pattern; perfectly good for a tasteless 10-year-old girl, but not me. The kitchen is nearly unusable. One of the two gas burners does not work and the light is hanging, holding an inch of ancient grease. (Original Song Dynasty, I wonder?) Worst of all there were no toiletries. Not a single towel or roll of bog paper. I had hoped to go to cash machine and shop a little but this could not be permitted.
After 16.5 hours of nearly sleepless travel the day after a 6-hour train trip across Germany I was drug to a formal Chinese dinner. In the meantime, I had to wait for relevant employee to return to take me to restaurant. He was late – nearly half an hour late. While waiting for him I had the true pleasure of having to endure an interrogation by one of China’s infamous nasty old men. Whatever my fellow Charioteers might think, I cannot speak Chinese. No, not at all! What I speak is the dreaded Japanese. This is roughly equivalent of travelling through Spain speaking only Cebuano. After being thoroughly insulted for 15 minutes I finally read him the Riot Act, in German. He quickly scuttled back to hide underneath whatever rock he earlier emerged from. Long may he stay there!
The employee finally showed up. I managed to survive the dinner – just. A conveniently-located traction pulley permitted me to keep my head up. I was introduced to one of the co-workers, a man from Maine 2 years my senior. We live in the same building. After finishing, we finally went shopping. My bank, true to form, blocked my bank card leaving me with the equivalent of £10. Generally, I would have brought a few hundred quid’s worth of local currency with me. This time, it was made nearly impossible by my German bank being shut due to a local festival. With little money, the Mainer was nice enough to lend me the money to have at least a little food and bog paper. He has also stopped by a few times to make sure that I had enough to eat. Unfortunately, I have been unable to contact my bank. I would have to borrow his Skype account as making international telephone calls from a Chinese mobile is nigh on impossible. The time difference makes it more frustrating yet – the bank opens at midnight, Chinese time and closes at 8 AM.
As I write this I have no internet connexion and will rely on fleeting luck to be able to find an exchange bureau open Saturdays. The internet is to be installed tomorrow, but there is no promise that I can get the money together before then. I may have to pawn my stash of Japanese yen and/or Australian dollars to get enough money. Again, what was supposed to have been arranged well in advance was not done. In fact, they found the first open flat for me waiting until the day before my arrival. I could tell by the peeling paint on the ceiling, the dirty, crumbling walls and the half-inch-layer of mould in a kitchen cabinet. Highly conducive for good health, especially for those, like me, with mould allergies. There is one ray of sunshine in this hot, humid winter of despair: I have a quart of milk, a pound of sugar and enough tea to last me for months.