Sunday, November 26, 2006

Hong Kong and On to Beijing... (Part Two of " A Lengthy Reminiscence")

I tore up El Casa Móvil De Pennington last evening searching for something that doesn’t exist, or at least doesn’t exist in this little corner of the space-time continuum. I seemed to remember examining the contents of a shopping bag while I was looking for something else in the not-so-distant past. That shopping bag, emblazoned with “White Peacock Shopping Center” (or white mouse, white elephant, or something white, anyway) contained some souvenirs of the Beijing trip. I was hoping to find the bag so I could use those souvenirs to jog the ol’ memory as I try to complete the tale begun yesterday. Alas: nothing. Well, a little something, anyway. I did find a box of old business cards printed for the trip, English on the one side and Chinese on the other. And $85.00 in Canadian money, for what that’s worth.

About the cards…Chinese is a phonic language, meaning that various ideograms can be read in entirely different ways and can have different meanings, depending on the context of what you’re writing about. The ideograms on my business card read something like Nō-maan Pen-ling-tōn, and supposedly mean (literally) “Silken Net of Words.” I got the literal translation from someone I trust, but the characters could actually say “Has an Unhealthy Affinity for Goats,” for all I know. No one laughed when I passed them out in Beijing, though, and that’s a good thing.

On with our story.

Flying in business class is most definitely better than cattle-car: service is attentive, the food is actually edible (and quite good), you eat off of real china, using real silver, the drinks are free, and the seats are roomier than those in coach. At least that’s the way it was, it could have changed by now. All in all, the 16 hours in the air between Detroit and Hong Kong, plus a two-hour layover in Narita (Tokyo) passed uneventfully and fairly comfortably.

Flying into Hong Kong, at least into the old Kai Tak airport (now closed), deserves special mention. Since we arrived in the evening, we could literally look into the tower block apartments and see people walking around there in. See this link for photos that explain, in pictures, what I cannot adequately put into words. Landing at Kai Tak was an amazing and somewhat harrowing experience.

Hong Kong was a blur. We arrived sometime in the early evening, say around 1800 hrs or so, jet-lagged and quite tired. Frank Wong, EDS’ manager in Hong Kong at the time, met us at the airport and was a great help getting us out of the airport quickly and efficiently. The three of us took a taxi to our hotel, and Frank waited in the bar while TSMP and I checked in, went up to our room to freshen up and change clothes, and return to the bar in short order. Frank and I did the requisite business over a couple of drinks, and then Frank graciously offered to “show us around.” TSMP’s eyes lit up like the Fourth of July at Frank’s offer, jet lag seemingly gone, and we were out the door and into the street in short order. We didn’t get back to the hotel until the wee, wee hours of the morning…like 0400 or so. (Photo - TSMP on a HK street)

Frank is a Chinese-American, speaks fluent Chinese, and knows/knew Hong Kong like the back of his hand. HK is also one of those “cities that never sleep,” and the three of us spent the night/morning cruising around some of the lesser known streets and alleys of Hong Kong, eating, drinking, and just letting it all soak in. A marvelous time, with lots of laughs, punctuated with Frank’s repeated offers to host TSMP if she’d only stay in HK while I went to Beijing to conduct my business. She kept refusing, and he kept offering…all evening. I half-think he was serious. Anyhoo…the experience was a lot of fun and much, much different from the first and only other time I’d been in Hong Kong.

Two Pics - The Morning We Left Hong Kong

TSMP and I slept in that morning and took breakfast in our room. Since our flight to Beijing didn’t leave until late afternoon, we checked out of the hotel at the last possible minute, left our bags with the concierge and hit the streets again to do a bit of exploring, and, of course, lots of picture taking.

Our departure from Kai Tak was uneventful…the plane took off on time, and it was a Boeing 7xx, thankfully, rather than a Soviet-bloc Tupolev or Antonov, as I had feared when I learned we were flying Air China from HK to Beijing. The landing in Beijing, on the other hand, was a white-knuckle affair. Our descent seemed to take forever as we let down gradually into the thickest of pea-soup fogs I can remember. The first and only indication we were even close to the ground was the thump of the landing gear as we touched down. I’m not what one would call a comfortable flyer, and that experience was semi-terrifying, especially given the reputation of third-world airlines. But, we made it. I’m still not sure how the flight crew found the terminal, but they did.
Deplaning and walking through the terminal into the customs and immigration area was…uh…interesting. There were lots of young, very young, Peoples Liberation Army soldiers cradling AK-47s in their arms, walking around in pairs, everywhere. And they didn’t look upon the people deplaning with what I would call “kind” eyes. I had never seen as great a military presence in an airport in my life, and still haven’t, to this day. It was chilling.

Passing through customs and immigration was, once again, interesting. The immigration officer inspected our passports carefully, studying the visas for quite a while and asked us the usual questions… “where are you staying,” “the purpose of your visit,” “How long will you be in China,” etc., etc. He finally stamped our passports and we went to the baggage claim area, collected our bags, and proceeded out of the terminal, where we were mobbed by taxi drivers. I negotiated, as best I could, what seemed a reasonable fare into the city, the driver loaded our bags into the trunk of his car, and we were off. (I later found out I had paid three times the going rate for our taxi, but that’s another story.) 

I told you it was foggy. It was also dark, what with it being around 1900 hrs in mid-December. And dark isn’t the word. It was pitch-black. Beijing, in 1991, had to be the darkest city I had ever been in. There were absolutely NO street lights what-so-ever, and our driver took what I gathered to be a series of “short-cuts” into the city. We drove out of the airport (which was also very, very dark) down two lane roads, turning into two-lane streets, for about 30 minutes before we got into the city proper, which was also dark. Did I mention it was DARK?? People and animals would materialize out of the gloom, flash by our windows and disappear, to be replaced with more people and animals. There wasn’t much traffic at all, only trucks and the odd bus here and there. There were virtually no cars on the road.

Things brightened up a bit once we got into the city, but only slightly. All in all, it was about a 45-minute trip from the airport to the hotel, and TSMP and I heaved sighs of relief as we pulled up to the door of the Beijing Shangri-La hotel. A bellboy unloaded our bags and we went into the hotel to check in. The first phase of the trip was complete… we had arrived successfully at our destination.

Looking out the hotel window the morning after we arrived.  The air was bad!

To be continued…but in the meantime, check out that Shangri-La link, and take a couple of the virtual tours. Pretty neat stuff!


  1. I looked at that Hong Kong landing video and I thought that 747 was a goner. Pilots must think their flying fighter jets. Amazing.

  2. Amazing is right. I showed that link to my guys and they could not believe it! That increases my respect for pilots even more.

    The Beijing Shangri-La Hotel looks elegant. The garden is lovely. Did you spend some time in Cloud Nine? :)

    Fascinating story. Can't wait for the next installment. Love your description. Felt like I was on that dark road with you.

  3. Respect for the reliability of the aircraft goes up quite a bit, too.

    The other interesting thing I didn't mention and you more than likely noticed is that the main runway is/was built on landfill out into the bay. The net effect was a distinct feeling that even if your pilot managed to avoid the apartment buildings, your feet were gonna get wet at the very least. Landing there was a real E-ticket ride!

  4. $85 Canadian is worth about $75 USD today. Fascinating experience.

  5. Your story reminded me of when we flew to Italy several years ago, we had 12 hour layover in London. By the time we had landed in London we had been up and at 'em for over 24 hours, but now we had 12 hours in London to see the sights. We hit the town to see as much as we could. When we got back to the airport to catch our plane to Italy, we zonked out on some benches like homeless people. Then it was on to Italy. we were totally exhausted by the time we arrived in Ravenna, but it was worth it - as I am sure your sightseeing in Hong Kong was worth it.

  6. Lou said: ...we had been up and at 'em for over 24 hours...

    Same here...we had been up well over 24 hours (cat naps on the plane excluded, of course) by the time we hit Hong Kong. And we were dead-tired, too. I was mildly surprised TSMP wanted to go "out on the town." But, you seize your opportunities when they come!


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