Editor's Note: Tod, who works in the international division of a large supplier of electronic private telephone exchanges, recently volunteered for three month's duty in China installing their machines. This, the last of three articles, recounts his second foray to the mainland.
After returning to Hongkong for some rest and relaxation, and to intercept my wife, Daunna Minnich, I was joined by another engineer from our Hongkong office, Leo Ma. We were to go to a job in the city of Jinan, which is just six hours train ride south of Beijing.
The train from Beijing leaves in the morning, whereas the plane from Hongkong to Beijing arrives in the afternoon, thus necessitating an overnight stay in a city noticeably lacking in hotel rooms. On the other hand, we could fly to Shanghai (in the afternoon) and try to fly to Jinan on a Monday or Thursday morning (the only days the Jinan airport opens for business). Both these plans were thwarted, though, because we could get no hotel bookings in either Shanghai or Beijing. The next plan was to fly to Fuzhou (where we eventually needed to work for a couple of weeks, anyway) and take the train from there to Jinan.
During our stay in Jinan, I felt as though I was in a time warp.
It was a real experience flying from Hongkong to Fuzhou. We were late taking off because the aircraft was late coming in from Fuzhou, due to bad weather. Good sign! On our arrival in Fuzhou we eventually began to descend, the pilot extended his flaps, and the flight attendant informed us that we'd be landing in Fuzhou in 15 minutes. Over a half an hour went by as the pilot felt his way down through the clouds and fog. Finally he retracted the flaps and began to climb.
So, our friendly hostess announced that due to bad weather in Fuzhou, we were going to land in Xiamen. This is like being diverted to Los Angeles on a Mexico City-San Francisco flight. As this was our first entry into China, we had to go through the whole customs bit. Leo and I were bringing a good number of boxes of equipment, tools, and manuals. Customs in Fuzhou were expecting us and would have rapidly cleared us. However, Xiamen customs were not prepared for this and caused us to wait and wait.
That was not wasted time, though, as the flight crew decided to stay in Xiamen for the night and try it again the next day. We were put on a free bus into town, where we were on our own as far as finding rooms was concerned. The local overseas Chinese hotel was already full, so we strolled outside where we met a young man who recognized our plight and offered to help. He said that he would find us rooms, get us to a restaurant, and also back to the airport the next morning. What did he expect out of this? He would pay for everything in local currency and we would pay him back an equal amount in Bank of China Foreign Exchange Certificates, which are more valuable to Chinese as they can take them out of the country when they go on a tour, or they can use them to buy better quality goods in China.
So we were settled in a comfortable hotel, had dinner in a little hole- in-the-wall restaurant, and took a tour of the local cultural center. This last featured portraits of famous Chinese as well as such foreign friends as "Ai-en-stai-en" (Einstein) and "Fa-len-kel-lin" (Franklin, Benjamin).
Next morning saw us up bright and early, riding out to the airport at 8:00 o'clock. Incidentally, we noticed that about half the people were missing; a little detective work turned up the fact that they all had taken the overnight bus to Fuzhou. At ten, it was decided to make a go at Fuzhou. We were up in the air within the hour. The weather wasn't quite as bad as it had been, but it was still bad. So we landed in Nanchang. To continue the Stateside analogy a bit further, our Mexico City-San Francisco flight had now landed in Salt Lake City.
After lunch, it was decided that we could land in Fuzhou. Which we did. I later found out that there are only three airports in China (I can't tell you which three as that is a State Secret) which are equipped with ground navigational facilities. At every other airport the pilot is left to his own instruments and radar, flying under visual flight rules. If the ceiling is too low you don't try to land — especially at Fuzhou, which has some steep mountains nearby.
After a night in Fuzhou we boarded a train for Jinan. Leo originally had told us that it was a 16-hour train ride. It was only after we had been going for some time that he discovered an error: it was going to be THIRTY-SIX hours! We started at 11:30 o'clock in the morning and would arrive the following evening at 11:30. Fortunately we were in the highest of five classes of train travel: soft sleeper, meaning a compartment with four reasonably soft beds. The other four are: hard sleeper (no walls or door between the hall and the compartment, and no mattresses), soft seats, hard seats, and no seats (where travelers sit on suitcases, but it's cheap).
The first 12 hours were mostly uphill, so we were pulled by an old steam locomotive, which is more efficient for uphill travel. This trip eventually took us through Hangzhou, Shanghai, and Nanjing before arriving at Jinan. The novelty of train travel in China soon wore off, as the only things to do were to read or sleep. A dining car steward showed up about an hour before each meal to take our orders from a rather limited menu. After trying fish that looked good but tasted very bad, we opted for noodle soup and fried rice with scrambled eggs for the rest of the trip.
During our stay in Jinan, I felt as though I was in a time warp. We had come to this town by steam train, we couldn't call to the outside world to any great degree — calls to Hongkong or Beijing required booking and would come through one or two days later. The only means of communication was via "telegraph," the telex machine down at the local post office. So I felt as if I were back in the late 19th century. But it was not at all unpleasant. Our hosts at the Hillview hotel, where we were working, made us most warmly welcome. They were eager to work with us, to learn about our machine, and to do anything to make our stay pleasant. I especially fell in love with the young lady technician who was going to maintain our switchboard, even though her English was as bad as my Mandarin.
At one dinner we ordered some steamed pork dumplings. From my experience in California, I have learned that these are enhanced by dipping them into chili oil. I tried to order some chili oil, and after a few false starts our waiter (who brought soy sauce, then vinegar), arrived with a whole cupful of chili oil. Needless to say, this was much more that all three of us (Leo, Daunna, myself) could consume. As we were all feeling lighthearted, I suggested that we pour it off into an empty glass, hide it under a chair, then ask for more. We did, and the waiter's expression was priceless. However, he promptly brought out another cupful.
During our stay in Jinan, we discovered yet another bizarre facet of everyday Chinese roadway behavior. We went into town one morning to send a telex and passed someone who was working on his three-wheeled car in the middle of the road. He was tinkering with the drive chain where it broke down, forcing all other traffic to swerve to one side or the other to avoid him. When we returned up the hill several hours later, he was still in the same position, still fixing his car.
Another instance took place when the manager of the local tourist board (who was also manager of our hotel) took a group of us on a tour to a large Buddhist monastery some hours away from our hotel. The last leg was up a winding dirt road through some fields. Suddenly our driver pulled over to the right and stopped. Our interpreter told us that a minibus had collided with a tourist coach up ahead, and it wasn't cleared yet. We all climbed out and began relaxing on the nearby hillside. Our interpreter mentioned that the coach was owned by the same company that operated our hotel, and the manager was going to check on it. So we all trooped down the road to the scene, where we found that it was hardly a collision but rather a very minor scraping of sides. No one was hurt, but it appeared that the busses were glued together. It turned out that the police had come and gone. The drivers were just trying to decide how to undo the busses.
I went up to the manager and suggested that the driver of the coach back it up a few feet, then turn his steering wheel sharply outwards as he slowly moved forward. There was plenty of room on the crown to allow this maneuver with no danger of tipping. After about five seconds' worth of chitchat, the driver did just that, unlocking the two busses. Everyone climbed into their vehicles, and the show was once more on the road.
After the work in Jinan, we had another 36-hour train ride back to Fuzhou to look forward to. However, it was dicey getting tickets as we were running into May 1, which is the national Labor Day holiday. We finally got tickets and were on our way. I woke up the morning of May 2, my birthday, to the sound of steam whistles in a switching yard. I looked around and found a big "Happy Birthday" sign that Daunna hud taped to the window earlier. We three toasted with glasses of Pepsi Cola.
As warm as our contacts were in Jinan, those in Fuzhou while not exactly cool, were somewhat scatterbrained. We had telexed our contact at the local phone company to meet us and book us hotel rooms. We were met alright, and moved into pleasant rooms at the Min Jiang hotel. After we spent the night unpacking, Leo called usIn the morning and said that we had to move. Apparently our customer, who was going to pay for our rooms, thought this hotel was too expensive. So we repacked everything and got transported over to the Yushan hotel.
There no one thought to make reservations, so no rooms were available. We stood around for the better part of an hour while our customer held discussions with the Yushan management. It was decided that we would move into what they called "second class" rooms for one night, then upgrade the next day. These rooms looked okay when we moved into them, but we later found that the bathroom had a ghastly smell that had been masked by some spray earlier. Add to that a leaky toilet and someone running a cement mixer outside our window until 2:30 am and you have the recipe for an unpleasant night.
The next day, Leo made arrangements at the Haisan hotel, where we had stayed during our last visit to Fuzhou. We could finally settle down for two weeks, while Leo and I worked on the telephone system at the Min Capital hotel.
Our customer contacts and the local phone company people turned out to be nice enough during our job, but various obstacles kept turning up. One such was our source of AC power for the system. This building was still under construction and there was no permanent commercial power to the switchboard room, so we had to run a line out the window down to a contractor's power pole. Every so often, just when we were in the middle of software testing, some worker would pull the plug down on the power pole. I kept suggesting that we put up a sign on the power box to prevent this from occurring, but the customer was afraid that would annoy the contractor, so we couldn't.
Eventually, Leo and I got our system installed and tested. When we booked our flight back to Hongkong, we were just a little worried whether or not the plane would be there to take us out. We needn't have worried, though, as the government airline kept several extra aircraft in Fuzhou. So, after another four weeks in China, we went home to Hongkong. Even though it was great to enjoy the pampered life at the Holiday Inn in Hongkong, we did miss life in China. Would I ever go back, given the opportunity? You bet. I truly enjoyed working with most of the people there, and developed several good friendships. Even though life was markedly different, I found that our common bond of humanity was something no person, time, or distance could take away.