At the end of October I took a two week trip overseas for work. First to London for meetings and project work. Then two of us were traveling on to Singapore for a lessons learned event and celebration.
The trip started in London. It was a really nice week for work and a bit of play. Got to see Wicked, the London Tower, walk across London Bridge, shopping, some nice food and good company. Even more time to spent face-to-face with co-workers I tend to only interact with on the phone.
So what went sideways?
Saturday morning I was supposed to leave London on a direct flight to Singapore on British Air (operated by Qantas). I left for Heathrow after a quick morning run, packing and breakfast. When I left the hotel everything was on time, but by the time I got to the airport my flight on Qantas to Singapore was canceled due to labor issues. I worked with my corporate travel agent to get waitlisted on 3 other flights, confirmed on a fourth. I knew I wouldn’t get on that 1st of 3 waitlists as it was leaving in an hour and the ticket counter already had a long-ass line of displaced travelers. So I went for a coffee and some work.
Four hours before that 2nd wait list I went to the airline’s ticket counter. Hm, that 2nd wait list was canceled. I went to the the 3rd wait list airline and that was canceled as well. WTF?! I called my corporate travel agent back – the agent that helped me looks up my record, “Hm, this is interesting. Colleen canceled your waitlist and your confirmation for later this evening” WTF Colleen?! That agent suggested I go back to the BA counter as they would likely have more luck rebooking me to Singapore than she could.
I go back to the BA counter tired, frustrated and near tears at this point. A nice British Air rep that had been dealing with angry people all day (I had been there 6 hours at that point) was able to find me a BA flight to Beijing, then connect on Air China to Singapore a few hours later, plenty of time to connect. She prints out my boarding pass and as she is about to hand it to me, she has an Oh Shit moment. “WAIT! You need a visa to get into China – hold on a second.” She checks a few screens, breathes a sigh of relief, and tells me that since I’m only connecting through Beijing airport I’m fine, no need for a visa.
My bags are checked, I go through security, grab dinner, get to the gate and line up to board the plane. I get on the plane, seated next to a nice guy – an American that lives in China and in town for Nokia World. We chat a bit about phones and stuff. He tells me he graduates college, knows Chinese and decides to go live in the country for a few years and work – why the hell not? I have dinner, take a sleeping pill and drift off…
About an hour before we are supposed to land in Beijing the pilot comes on and tells us that due to fog, no flights are arriving or leaving Beijing. We are being diverted to a local airport to wait until we can return to Beijing. Our diversion is 150 miles away, at Hohhut Airport (i.e. “Inner Mongolia”), the sign indicating a domestic airport. I fall back to sleep (thank you modern medicine). Two hours into this event the pilot comes back on to tell us we are cleared to return to Beijing. We just need to wait while the plane is refueled, sitting on the tarmac burned off enough we need to top off. About 45 minutes, or an hour, later – the pilot comes back on again to tell us “Sorry folks, they cannot attach the hose to the plane or figure out what the problem is. Also – sorry to say – the crew is quickly approaching our maximum flight time per regulations, we aren’t getting to Beijing today. Of course, British Air will take care of putting you into a hotel tonight and getting you into Beijing as soon as possible tomorrow. I’d like to leave about 8am. In the meantime we have to wait for some extra immigration staff to come in and handle everyone on the plane.”
Crap! I don’t have a visa to enter the country. What the fuck am I going to do?!
So we all disembarked to get through Immigration. I get up to the desk and the agent flips through my passport. “You don’t have a visa!” “I know, I’m not supposed to be here.” She calls over her supervisor, who doesn’t speak English. They have a chat, he takes my passport and walks back to his office. “He is going to give you a 24-hour visitation stamp. You must go apply for a visa when you get to Beijing airport tomorrow, you have to before you leave the country.” He comes back and she hands me my passport. I look inside to see a “temporary visa” stamp with 24 hrs written in. OK, apply for a visa, great.
We all pile into a line up of tour buses for the hotel. An hour later we arrive at a rather nice-ish hotel. Everyone piles out of the buses, into the lobby and it’s mayhem. No one at the hotel speaks English (given the plane was on its way to China, most of the plane did speak Chinese) so there is a passenger behind the counter helping the English speakers as we get to the front. They aren’t even checking people in. When I get towards the front I see they are just handing people key cards. No collection of name-to-room, confirming we were on the plane, no one knows anything about that evening, the next morning or when we are leaving.
I get up to my room, look around, see the beds look starched and clean, toiletries in the bathroom (although I’m not sure they haven’t been used before), disposable slippers in the closet. I take a deep breath, exhale, and start crying and shaking. For an hour. As if the stress of the last 27 transit hours has finally caught up with me.
When I’m calm enough to get on the phone I call the international emergency services our corporate travel account provides. I explain what happened, I’m in China without a visa, what am I supposed to do?! A nice agent puts me on hold to check. A few minutes later she comes back and tells me that there isn’t anything that she can do and I should call the US Embassy in Beijing when they are open again.
I check out the desk and look at that! And internet cable. So I plug in. (side note, and this probably wasn’t a smart thing to do, I can confirm that Facebook is blocked in China, in fact I tried to publish some of this post and it failed) I look up the US Embassy in Beijing and they aren’t open until 10am on Monday. I should be out of the country by then. So I look up information about traveler emergencies. Since I wasn’t raped, accused of murder or some other egregious event – I have to wait until the office is open. Now I’m obsessing about having enough time to apply for a visa, get on a plane to Singapore, and maybe being retained in China.
My co-worker that I was traveling with, and NOT on Qantas, is already in Singapore at this point. I should have been too, for 14 hours already! She’s online and we start IM’ing. I update her on everything that has happened, or at least an update as we had been texting throughout the day. I’m hungry and just will eat the protein bars in my suitcase. She encourages me to order room service (doesn’t exist) or find a restaurant, that I should save the bars for when I really need them. I pack up my stuff and go downstairs, part of me hoping information about leaving the next day is now posted. No such luck, leaving China is still a mystery! I ran into two women in the elevator that were on my flight. They tell me a buffet is set up for those on the plane. So I get off on that floor and walk towards the restaurant.
A Chinese woman approaches me and asks my nationality. “American.” “Is this you?” She shows me a piece of paper with my full legal name and passport number on it. Great, what is this about. “Yes” She calls someone over. The woman I saw at immigration and her manager walk over. The woman tells me they gave me the wrong stamp to enter the country. That she needs my passport to update it with right one. She’s only going over there (pointing to the other side of the room) and why don’t I get dinner and then she will bring me my passport. I’m reluctant. She assures me and points to a table I can sit at and watch. So I go get food. I sit down and start to eat. She comes over again.
“What is your room number? I need to take your passport as I brought the wrong stamp. We will be back within 2 hours with your passport.” What? I can only guess what you are thinking dear reader. Yes, I admit, I let her leave with my passport. The second she left the room I felt doomed. What the FUCK did I just do?! (more on that later, I’ve since talked with my therapist about it) I barely finish my meal and race back upstairs. My co-worker is still online and I tell her what happened. I’m crying again, what a FUCKING idiot I am. She is trying to reassure me – what was I supposed to do, it’s the Chinese government. Was I supposed to go back an hour with them and not know that I would ever make it back to the hotel? Was I supposed to refuse and maybe get into a different kind of trouble? She stayed online with me for two hours. In hind sight, SO glad she was there to keep me as sane as possible when I was already spiraling out of control. As the 2 hour mark was approaching I started freaking out even more. At 2 1/2 hours I wanted to leave the room, maybe they wrote the room down wrong, maybe they are wandering the floor, maybe they are in the lobby. I walk outside my room and I see them approaching me. The one I first ran into at the restaurant with a slip of paper and my name, and the manager who doesn’t speak English. They are both in plain clothes and this really strikes me. Seeing them out of uniform diffuses me, it also confuses me.
She hands me my passport and thanks me for being willing to work with them to do the right thing. We shake hands, they wish me safe travels and leave the floor. I go back to my room and collapse, a rough sleep and still don’t know anything about the next day or leaving Hohhut and all other aspects of actually getting to Singapore. As badly as I just want to go HOME – I’m so afraid corporate travel is going to fuck it up, I just want to get to Singapore. I know people there, one of my co-workers is temporarily living there. It’s a safe interim place to get me back on my itinerary and able to eventually get home!
I’ll pick up the rest of my trip in another post. This one has worn me out…