Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Houdini's greatest and most difficult escape (YVR to CAN to HAN)

October 31.  5 am.  It's pitch dark and raining. LOL; Of course it is raining !  But why so early? My plane doesn't leave until 1 pm !

O.K. so I haven't packed.  Since I'm moving out of my hotel room for the next 3 weeks (save some money), it should be empty when I leave but it isn't yet. So it's time to get up early after only 4 hours of sleep.  The thinking behind that is that this will enable me to sleep through a large portion of the 13.5 hour flight.  At least that's the plan.

It's going to rain on the way to the airport, which sucks, because I'm going to wear sandals and no rain jacket.  A rain jacket and proper shoes are not things I am going to take with me, because I'm not going to need them over there and I would have to carry them on my back, given that my backpack is my only piece of luggage.  The long pants I'm going to wear today to ward off cold temperatures in the plane andhere will be left behind in Asia.

8:30 am. The triage of what goes in the backpack, what goes in the car, and what goes in the garbage is almost complete.

9:15 am. It's done. I'm sitting at Denny's with 2 small backpacks (1 very small day pack), the room is empty, and Behnaz at reception let me leave my car in the motel's parking lot. AGAIN. متشکرم Thank you, Behnaz !  It gets better: When the wine arrives at Denny's I initially start protesting "that's an 8 oz serving" because I don't really want to pay the big price for the big portion, but then a quick wave of the waiter's hand indicates that I should not worry about it. And indeed, he manages to squeeze the entire carafe into the glass.

Coincidentally, the waiter is Persian as well. متشکرم !
Now if I just knew how to pronounce that !  No idea. I'll try another one. moteshakeram !

It should be bloody obvious, but I just caught myself caught in my own little prejudice that all Persians are involved in turning Vancouver's real-estate sector upside down to make a buck. Ts Ts Ts. But blaming foreign buyers for Vancouver's overheated housing bubble is en mode, although it is just plain racism (or maybe because of that?. Because it's mostly locals who buy and sell these red hot lemons, so no point in blaming the Chinese, or 'foreign buyers', which is the term used by racists trying to hide the fact of being just that.  (You know the type: the ones starting a sentence with "I'm not a racist, HOWEVER....".  

But enough of that, this post is about a journey.  I pay quickly at Denny's and walk to the bus stop. Good timing but not good visibility. 

The view from the bus going over Second Narrows Bridge (LOL)
I am surprised at the number of well dressed people on the bus wearing RUBBER BOOTS !  Be prepared or be wet, I guess.

On the SkyTrain I notice changes that must have taken place in the last few months.  They removed some of the seats to increase the area for standing passengers.  One can pack more sardines into the can that way.   Another sign of brilliant foresight in infrastructure planning !
Yes, those 4 round metal things at the bottom right used to hold another seat bench !
And this following picture is only too bloody common in Vancouver.  Whole blocks of perfectly livable houses are bought up, boarded up, and torn down, to make room for those 4-storey apartment atrocities.  The even put up the framework for the advertising before knocking them down.  But someone makes a LOT of money this way. Unfortunately many MORE people lose their homes ;-(

Could this picture be any more GREY ????
There is no check-in computer for China Southern Airlines, so I line up for the main counter. "Where is your visa to Vietnam?" is the next serious question after we cleared the issue of my last name having an additional E instead of the Umlaut and my middle names not being included on my ticket.  No, I do not need a visa for Vietnam, but I'm only allowed to stay for 2 weeks.  
But the flight with China Southern leaves Hanoi 3 weeks after they drop me off there.  HUGE problem, apparently. At first they insist that BY LAW I need  to present a plane ticket that shows I'm leaving Vietnam within those 2 weeks. Having done this trip before, I know that this statement is utter nonsense and tell them that.   Now unfolds the usual supervisor visits her supervisor thing. I join them and show off my Vietnamese and Cambodian visa stamps from the last trip and tell them that I have done this before and in no way this could be bad for their airline.   Now they want me to BUY a plane ticket out of Vietnam before the 2 week deadline right now. "It's not expensive" the counter clerk actually adds. Are these people INSANE?  What if I want to take the boat or the bus to leave Vietnam? Being stubborn prevails again.  In the end they give me the boarding passes, HOWEVER I have to sign a waiver stating that I will leave within 2 weeks from date of entry.  
Everyone knows by now that money rules the world.  That is an unfortunate fact, but what is even more unfortunate is that money's first cousin, namely fear, is also taking over.  Airlines are AFRAID of being fined by the countries they deliver passengers to, employees are afraid of doing something wrong and being fined or fired. The unfortunate result of that is that all this fear taking over the world is causing a lot of travel options to become extinct.  In other words: Money causes fear in other people, which in turn restrict my freedoms.

I stay away from the offerings of the Duty Free Stores at YVR.  1st of all I want to save me the aggravation of having to present a boarding pass to buy chocolate (WTF is up with THAT?) that is more expensive here than on the streets.  2nd of all, the cheapest cigarettes they sell here are CAD$45 per carton but the cigarettes at Noi Bai airport in Ha Noi are US$ 19 per carton and they will be US$ 5 per carton in the streets of Phnom Penh ;-) No need to waste more money here!
A new airline in my collection
The plane is a pleasant surprise.  There is tons of legroom even in the regular swine class seats (something I noticed with Korean Air in February as well).  I spend the first four hours of the flight pretty much asleep. Now there should be 9.5 hours of flight left, but the flight info display says 7.5 hours until landing.    Hey, I'm NOT complaining, 12 hours is more than enough plane time for me.

Food is actually very good at China Southern.  The quality does not quite reach that of Korean Air, but beats that of most Vancouver restaurants any day.  These ain't Air Canada Barf Rations they serve here, this is actual FOOD!

Speaking of Air Canada. I just realized the atrocity of it all.  On the San Francisco trip last week I paid for an Air Canada return ticket from YVR to San Francisco the outrageous price of ~CAD$ 420.   That's a 2 hour flight !   For the ~12 hour return flight to Guangzhou INCLUDING the 2 hour return flight to Hanoi tomorrow, I paid a grand total of CAD $ 637.  See what I mean? During the Christmas rush an acquaintance of mine once paid over CAD $800 for an Air Canada return ticket Vancouver San Francisco.

But back to food.  There are no peanuts or pretzels being handed out to the passengers.  And there are no peanuts or pretzels available for this always hungry German in the galley either.  However, there are piles of Chinese buns, and pyramids of yummy looking sandwiches waiting for me.  O.K. I guess I can live without peanuts, LOL.  The buns are filled with tuna and taste amazing.  And what is that I spy?   Food and drinks (including bottles of WINE) sit in the galley unattended. It's free for all time !  I actually only drink one glass of wine (the plane ride dehydrates enormously already, not good to add another dessicant !) and after a few hours the wine bottles disappear (we emptied the allotted volume, I guess). 
 But compare this to Air Transat, where the nice stewardess had to smuggle two bags of peanuts to me because the bitch stewardess had shaken her head and said "NO, they are reserved for the return flight".

Kathmandu (not my picture, YET ;-)

Since I have the aisle seat, I have to let the people closer to the window out to pee once in a while (surprisingly rarely; are they wearing diapers?). During one such events I talk to the guy in the window seat, a Caucasian in his late 20s.  We had figured out that we both only use Guangzhou as a stop-over and upon his question I tell him that Vietnam is my next destination.  When I ask him where he is off to, he says, while his eyes glaze over "Nepal".  And instantly I realize that while I've made amazing progress in the last year to see much of this word, there is a LOT left to learn for me.

I watch the Parts Unknown Christmas Special and it's a weird show.  Not quite up to par, sorry Tony.

Then I try watching some new release movies, among them Finding Dory, and Star Trek Beyond.  But I end up stopping the player after 20 minutes of each.  I've seen them before. NO, not the actual movies, but I've seen something almost exactly like that before in my 50 years here.  No need to watch it again.  I'm getting bored and there is absolutely nothing new in there for me. Experiencing novel things has become a joy for me so I search them out.
Nothing in the visual department to fulfil my need for feed, but HANG ON, what is THAT?  There is a huge selection of Chinese Opera titles in the music section and after a few hearing trials I have found the one for me. I will be caught in the overlapping rythms of differing wavelengths of this strange music all the remaining time until landing.  My fingers are snapping to a different rhythm than my feet, and my head is wobbling to yet another one.  This is amazing.  I have to restart the album several times and I can't get enough of it.
This is amazing but I can't find it on YouTube !

When the map tells me we're about to fly over Beijing (Chinese Opera still being pumped into my ears at high volume in the background), I realize that there are only 2.5 hours of flight left.  This will be the easiest and most comfortable of all my Asia flights!

Then the strangest thing happens.  When we land in Guangzhou, I actually regret having to leave the plane because I have to leave the Chinese Opera behind.   

about to step onto Chinese soil

a new terminal building in the making
There is a HUGE line-up where officials keep visitors in corrals with those bloody poles and tapes.  Only when we get out of the last corral, do I realize that this was a holding area before the REAL immigration line-up starts. 
 After 20 minutes in the REAL line-up and having moved maybe a ¼ of the distance to the actual immigration booths, I see another ‘Special Line’ for applicants of the 24 hour or 72 hour transit visa exemption.  Hey, that’s me !  I step over the boundary to the other line and make it through immigration (NO problem). Looking back I notice that the people that were behind me in the original line have not moved much and will enjoy standing there for at least another hour. 
Out, Out, I want to have a cigarette.   The only problem is, I don’t have any cigarettes (Why spend CAD $45 for a carton in Vancouver if I can get cigarettes when arriving in Ha Noi for $19?).  So I miscalculated my rations slightly.   I walk up to one of the many Chinese smoking in front of the airport, point at his cigarette, and wave a few of the smallest Chinese currency bills, accompanied by my best desperate nicotine-withdrawal look.  The man hands me a cigarette and his flat palm point towards me says “Do not give me money”.  He even offers me a cigarette lighter.    Yes, cigarettes are cheaper here in Vancouver. But people also earn less.  So I’m relieved to see that I’m not the only one refusing to be paid for handing over single cigarettes to nicotine addicts ;-)

Next step is to buy a pack of cigarettes.  After showing a cigarette butt, a wallet and a shrug to the woman working there I get a smile, realize 7/11 (!) does not sell them (I remember the same problem in Incheon), and am directed down the escalator to the departure area.  And indeed, I buy a pack for 25 Rinmibi.  And they’re GOOD YUMMY cigarettes.
The beginning of MY Long March

Alan had warned me that there would be no Google in China.   No problem, right?   Think again.  No e-mail.  No Google Maps!   Ouch. I had booked a hotel 300 meters from the airport but without Google Maps it is impossible to find.  It is getting dark; I am the only Westerner walking the car-laden streets, and the Chinese I show the address of the hotel on my cell phone do understand Roman letters as much as I can read Chinese street signs.  NOT AT ALL.  Later that evening I find out that my WHOLE LIFE is DEPENDENT on Google.   I can no longer find out the local time in Vancouver.  Blogger belongs to Google, so NO BLOG writing today !  I can’t watch my favourite Youtube videos and what’s worse, I can’t find any on other streaming services because I am SO USED to Google that using BING feels like stepping into a pile of cow shit.

THANK GOD there will be Google in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos !  

I find a hotel by holding a palm up to the ear of my angled head, i.e. the international sign for sleep.  It is the hotel used by all the airline staff and it is fully booked, as I find out after someone tells me that MY hotel is MUCH MUCH further down the road and I decide to forget about MY hotel and inquire about staying HERE.


HOWEVER, they know yet another hotel and call it so the hotel can send a car to pick me up.  By now I no longer care.  I’ll pay for two hotels tonight; I just don’t want to wander the dark strange streets anymore.

Are they building a replica of the Egyptian Pyramids here? The whole area is a construction site and is filled by simple container-like structures that contain bunk beds for the workers.  These workers have to eat somewhere too, so there are lots of cheap food stalls everywhere. Just what Tony Bourdain recommended !  And I’m not chickening out this time. I enter an establishment that seems to serve pho-like dishes in bowls.  People just start giggling when they see me.   I make a bowl gesture and point at another eater.  Everyone kills themselves giggling.  Did I just say that I wanted the guy served in a bowl? Of course, not a single soul speaks English, and I don’t speak a word of Chinese.  In the end I get my intention across.  Just make me a bowl of something.  I pay somewhere 15 Rinmibi and the stull is absolutely delicious. There is taste in this food.  And chicken, something that looks like beef, and LIVER.  After trying some more of the beef, I’m confused.  Not like any beef I’ve eaten before.  What could it be?   If you’ve ever watched one of the Vietnam episodes of Bourdain’s No Reservations, you’ll instantly recognize this as a typical SQUEASEL   WHO knows what it is?  As long as I don’t pull a claw out of my soup I’ll be fine.  (Bourdain's Squeasel turned out to be a porcupine, by the way.)

After a visit to a supermarket right next door to the eating establishment I head back to the hotel, drink some red wine (Bordeaux; I shied away from a red wine by the name Great Wall of China), and commence sleeping at 8 pm (Good enough, that’s 5 am Vancouver time). 

And I sleep until 2 am.  Of November 2nd ! WTF, didn’t I leave on October 31st?  Cross the date line eastward and you lose a day, but I’ll get it back on the return trip ;-).   

Last night I realized even more how my life depends on Google.  The receptionist at the hotel asked me at what time I would like to have a shuttle bring me to the airport.  No problem, I’ll just check my e-mail to see when my flight to Hanoi leaves. OH SHIT !   No Google, No e-mail, NO flight information.  I’m walking around China digitally blind  !    Fortunately, the boarding pass for the connecting flight already was printed in Vancouver and I can check the boarding time. 9 am I’ll have to do something about this EXTREME Google dependence of mine when I get back to a country with Google access.

3 a.m. Wide awake !

I doze off again until 5 a.m.  All the stores seem to be closed still, good thing I bought some Nescafe 1+2 instant coffee yesterday.  I have some Bordeaux grape juice with it, but it looks like I will have to leave half the bottle to the housekeeping staff.  At least here they might have the sense NOT to pour it out.

Are my feet really that out of proportion?
A pair of threadbare-at-the-knee cords will be the first left-behind victim of this journey.  I only took them because I didn’t want to be cold on the flight, and don’t want to carry them around any more.  I’m entering the area where all the clothes of the world are MADE for next to nothing and then sold for LOTS in Western stores by Western companies.   If there is anywhere in the world to refresh your wardrobe it is HERE !  When I check today’s temperatures in Guangzhou (25) and Ha Noi (24), I realize that it’s raining STILL in Vancouver.

The food stalls open at 6 am (it is still dark and some of them are arriving with tuk-tuk-style food carts.  But there doesn’t seem to be any general lighting and I can’t see what most of the stalls are offering.  I also don’t feel like having squeezel again for breakfast.

Since I’m getting hungry, I decide to take an earlier car shuttle to the airport than I had planned.  I arrive at 6:30 and have a look at the departures board.  This is crazy!!!  My flight is not even on the board.  There must be more than 50 flights taking off in the next two hours alone.  Holy China!  I find a sit-down type restaurant, am informed that a) no fried-rice dishes for breakfast, b) if I order wine, it’ll have to be a whole bottle (heck no, I just left half a bottle in my room !), and c) you pay BEFORE eating.  

The TsingTao beer arrives first and whatever it is that I pointed at on the menu arrives a minute later.  It has mushrooms in it. That much I can tell.  And it tastes quite good, even though it is nowhere as flavourfull as last night’s adventure meal, even though it costs more than double the price of that mystery dish. But what is that meat that’s in here?  It looks like chicken but it aint’.  Have I become so accustomed to eating overcooked DRY pork at home that I can’t recognize it if it isn’t dry and chewy?  Or is this another kind of squeasel?  What I first mistook as peanuts in the small bowl is actually an unknown type of pickled vegetable.

I like this, they say one should always work on expanding one’s comfort zone by stepping out of it.  I think by now I have stepped out so often and vigorously, I have created a comfort hemisphere. I don’t think I ever was a timid traveller or eater, but I’m happy to realize that my rate of breaking new ground outside my comfort zone has actually accelerated during the last year.  Being forcefully reminded of mortality does wonders with that ;-)   
I noticed how deep that still is anchored in me last night.   I received a message from Sheila yesterday after landing here.  She informed me that a buddy of her son (about 10) in school has TWO dads who happen to be married to each other.  I was actually shocked at my own first thought.  I felt sorry for the dad who has to live through the death of the dad to die first.  Ouch.  Therapy time. Or maybe not, because while to have this as a first thought is admittedly a bit morbid, I find that NOT blocking the thought of death out of my mental landscape (something Western culture is quite good at) actually leads to making more use of the time that I do have. Or at least I like to flatter myself thusly ;-)  But I’m sure I’m not the first person you heard this phrase from:  Live every day as if it was your last !

7 a.m. I have eaten (a lot of the chewy chicken or tender pork or Cantonese Squeezel remains in my bowl. Now I have to kill time for two hours until the boarding time it mentions on my boarding pass.
With all these new Chinese impressions and obstacles of the last 12 hours, I almost forgot that in about 5 hours, I will walk into Ha Noi’s old quarter.  Just the thought of that brings tears to my eyes, LOL.  That crazy ticket purchase of late September is about to pay off !

At every entrance to the airport, one has to pass through an explosive check. I have to do this again when I head out to have a smoke.   To get out one passes a guy with a kind of poseidon’s fork with the middle tine missing.   I assume it serves to keep people trying to forecefully enter the airport at bay.  Then to get in one gets herded into a coral (those posts and tapes again). A security officer swipes one of those detecting strip for a molecular analyzer to the butt or bag of every single passenger in the coral. Only when the molecular analyzer gives the green light is the herd released into the actual terminal building.  Not a bad idea.   

After that last cigarette it’s time for the next few line-ups.  Security check first.  I surrender my cigarette lighter after reading the signs that matches and lighters are NOT allowed on planes (not even in checked luggage) and that violators get prosecuted.   Ah well, it’s almost empty and I’ll buy a new one at Noi Bai.

Immigration is next. The same endless line-up but today it moves faster.  The duty free stores want way too much money, $50 for a carton of cigarettes ! I’ll buy my smokes in Vietnam.

Then I see that they have indeed Smoking Rooms in this airport.   

But no-one has a lighter !?!  The solution to this riddle  is provided soon after. 

A multitude of electronic cigarette lighting machines is provided in the Smoking Room.  Nicely done !

The plane for the next 2 hours is an Embraer jet and I miss half the flight sleeping again. 

But when I open my eyes ........

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