There is a greater genetic difference between a dolphin and a porpoise than between a human being and a chimpanzee.
This might help explain the apelike behavior of the buffoons at the Tianjin airport, seemingly determined to ensure we missed our flight to Guangzhou.
My whirlwind business trip through four Chinese cities this week included what was to have been a quick 24-hour stopover in Tianjin, China’s fourth-largest city and a leading business hub. (More than half of the Fortune 500 Global companies have branch offices here.) Though a heavily industrial city, we hoped we could steal a couple of spare hours to roam around as tourists.
We wound up with eight spare hours, all of them spent in frantic and often futile effort to find a flight – any flight – out of town.
My meetings in Tianjin went terrifically well. Everything else was weird. We stayed in the St. Regis, because it just opened and was offering a ridiculous special rate ($80/night, which also included free dinner, free breakfast, free laundry service and free use of the mini-bar for soft drinks and food).
Being a St. Regis we expected a first-rate hotel. It’s gorgeous, as you’d expect, but on all other levels isn’t quite ready for prime time. Little worked, including the a/c in our room, so it was a toasty 77 degrees, meaning we couldn’t sleep.
My colleague had no hot water in his room for a while, then after complaining and getting a hasty visit from the befuddled maintenance guy, had only scalding water. No shower for him (he didn’t smell very pretty the next day.)
One of the elevators worked.
The “butler” on my floor, assigned to cater to our every need (a ritzy perk at any St. Regis hotel,) was gracious, friendly, and incapable of understanding that we just wanted her to go away. Really, I understand how a closet works; I have several at home. I don’t need a closet “tour.” And I’m generally capable of operating the toilet all by myself, but if I have questions, I promise I’ll call.
I don’t know if she was angling for a bigger tip, or simply had no other customers, but I think she’d still be hanging out if we hadn’t shoved her out the door.
As is the case with so many of China’s big cities, Tianjin has a bit of a problem with pollution. Tianjin’s smog is notoriously bad, laying like a blanket over this industrial city. (In 2004 Tianjin was ranked China’s most heavily polluted city for particle matter emissions, and the fourth most heavily polluted city on earth.) Visibility is severely limited, and the locals suffer from a wide range of lung and pulmonary health issues, suggesting perhaps that China’s claims about its “clean-burning coal” capabilities are a tad over-stated.
So we weren’t disappointed to be heading on to Guangzhou the next day. Meaning, of course, that everything went batty at the airport, and we nearly couldn’t.
On top of the ever-present smog in Tianjin some actual fog rolled in, thick, damp fog that made the already diminished visibility nearly nil, creating pandemonium at the airport. Every flight out of town was delayed, some by as much as ten hours, and many more were simply cancelled.
During out eight-hour battle to escape we were re-booked on three flights, for two different airlines, checked our luggage in at three different counters and went through security three times before finally getting a flight out.
We watched security scurry around, from one hysterical fight to the next, listening to the din of angry passengers that sounded like nothing so much as the squawking around the bird cages at the zoo. Once I was certain I was actually getting on a flight I sat back and giggled at the spectacle, managing quickly to forget that for several hours I, too, had been one of the squawkers, flailing my arms about and huffing indignantly that I MUST get out of town, as if my needs were somehow so much more important than the thousands of other stranded passengers.
We got into Guangzhou, a city I first visited 28 years ago, near midnight, and headed straight for the hotel.
What a difference three decades makes! When I last visited Guangzhou, China had only recently emerged from the Mao era. Chiang Jing and the Gang of Four had been routed and the country was beginning to open its doors to the rest of the world. My family was among the first foreigners to pass through the doors.
Everywhere we went in Southern China, the people were wonderful, especially to my sister and me (my sister, Piper, had long blonde hair, and most Chinese had never before seen such a thing. They were fascinated with us, and we ate up the attention.)
At that time, foreigners couldn’t travel around China on their own. Every time our tour group’s bus stopped to explore a place, a mob of Chinese women would spy us and more or less kidnap Piper and me. They would spirit us off, form a big, adoring circle around us, and bring us sweets and gifts while cooing over us. Piper’s blond hair was an object of total wonder and adoration.
My parents were at first quite alarmed when women would run off with their children; later, we came to take it for granted. We would arrive at, say, an art factory. As soon as we got off the bus, the mob of women would descend on us and cart my sister and me away. My parents would take the tour and, when it was time to leave, fish us out of the circle of smiling women and get back on the bus. Piper and I, of course, were delighted with the attention.
At that time, there was not a single privately owned automobile anywhere in the People’s Republic of China. Not one. Traffic was composed exclusively of buses, trucks and millions upon millions of bicycles. It is hard to imagine massive traffic jams caused by bumper-to-bumper (tire-to-tire?) bicycles, but that’s the way it was. Looking upon Guangzhou now it’s difficult to picture, but at the time all the highways were dusty little two-lane country roads, no freeways at all. There was little color. Certainly, there were only a few lights at night, hardly even any street lights. There were no ads, no billboards, except the occasional bit of propaganda which appeared to be exhorting workers to greater effort or unity. And no neon, which seems recently to have exploded across every major Chinese city. It was very much a third world city in a notably poor third world country. For a 10-year old kid from suburbia, it might as well have been another planet.
There is nothing of present-day Guangzhou to remind you of that long-ago time. Home to 13 million people, Guangzhou is a gleaming, modern city, extensively cleaned and refurbished in order to host the 2010 Asean Games. It’s impressive, and beautiful, right down to our hotel, the Westin Guangzhou, which is one of the finest I’ve ever visited. (The hotel even thoughtfully provides guests with gas masks, I guess in case Hong Kong attacks. Not something I can say I’ve ever seen before, outside of Baghdad.)
Most of our time here was spent working, but we did sneak out with friends for a wonderful meal of suckling pig, lotus root soup and shrimp balls at Bing Sheng. (The food is one thing that hasn’t changed over the last decades; 28 years ago, the food and restaurants were fabulous.) They still are, and dinner was one of the best meals we had in China, in one of the best cities in China.
As difficult as it was getting to Guangzhou, being in Guangzhou was a pleasure.