Here are six painfully boring things you could do before traveling overseas for the first time
- Check the weather and local temperature prior to leaving and take appropriate clothing. Six degrees Celsius is really chilly in a t-shirt and shorts.
- Check where the airport is, and what the best way might be to get from the airport to the accommodation you booked.
- Actually book some accommodation, particularly so if you’ll be arriving at 11 pm into a country you’ve never been, nor speak the language.
- Have some sort of map, anything
- Have some local currency, or at least check that your ATM card will work there.
- Don’t forget to buy that phrase book before you leave, it will be handy when you land late at night and there’s a limited staff on shift and none that speak English, particularly when you have no accommodation booked, no money, and no idea.
It was 2010, I had just arrived at Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport in southwestern China.
Don’t ask me, I don’t really have a coherent answer as to why. A yearning perhaps, set in the formative years spent watching the TV series Monkey and Bruce Lee movies, or perhaps the draw of adventure in a faraway land with a mysterious culture? Perhaps all of the above.
So, there I was. At 11.30pm on a chilly night in Chengdu, China. One dumb guy with no smartphone as they weren’t even a thing then, no map, no phrasebook, no local currency, no language skills, and no idea.
Let’s add to that, the irritability of long sleepless flight in economy, and I could easily just crash somewhere, anywhere, put my faith in humanity, and wake up in the morning and go from there.
Sadly, there’s no spreading out across seats and having an airport nap, which I considered as an option to get around my non-existent trip preparation. A seatless airport, in fact, there didn’t seem to be anyone hanging around at all apart from people waiting to greet arrivals. Hmmm, there’s an Internet cafe, could I just book 7 hours of Internet time, tie my bag to my leg and sleep in that comfy looking chair?
I looked around and found an airport officer or military guard, I’m not sure which yet he was dressed more like the latter, but fortunately, he could understand a little English and that I needed somewhere to stay.
He asked me to take a seat while he started making calls.
After a few calls, he turned to me and gestured to stay seated and said ‘someone coming’. Hmmm, is this the bit where I get locked up? Do they lock people up for stupidity in China, possibly?
Ten minutes later a guy turned up, waving and smiling, who then led me up the stairs with the guard saying ‘go, go’, OK I go. I followed the guy outside and we got into an old Volkswagen sedan that had seen better days and was leaving the airport for I don’t know where. Yep, I was hurtling down a dark road to destination unknown, in a foreign country, late on a cold misty night with someone who I couldn’t communicate with other than smiling and nodding.
Occasionally the driver would turn to me, giving a little smile, which was kinda comforting as it wasn’t a ‘im going to get paid’ smile, I could actually see that he felt under pressure somewhat to resolve my problem. I wonder what the airport official/guard had said.
After traveling some way down a car-less highway we took an offramp and ended up a hotel where there was someone waiting to greet me with a big hello in English, I thought phew, OK this is good. But unfortunately, he had the same level of English as I have of Mandarin, in that we can both say hello.
I took about another half an hour to stumble our way through pictures and hand waving to get through the fact that I didn’t have any Yuan, not enough US dollars, and Ringgits (Malaysian currency) were useless, and my credit card may have well as been a plastic spatula.
Time went on as various discussions, that I couldn’t understand, were taking place between the now four or five people who were perhaps all amused at the dumb foreigner in front of them. At one point one of the girls at the reception desk started speaking in a raised voice, and I heard the word ‘hollywood’….oh no…they think I’m American.
Luckily the driver had a flash of brilliance and looked at my card, then rang someone, who then rang back and then he looked at me and laughed and said ‘ATM’, ‘yes OK’ I said with a smile and off we went in the car again to the ATM.
With the 300 rmb handed over, I was shown to the room. The wallpaper was peeling, there was mold seemingly everywhere I looked, and the bed was a slab of concrete with a sheet draped over it. But there were no complaints from me. At midnight they came to the airport, picked me up, then drove me to ATM, and gave me a room, all regardless of my ignorance. I really appreciate what they had done, and their honesty considering my vulnerable position.
As I settled in the room, mulling over my ignorance, I managed to get my laptop powered up and connected to someone’s WiFi network long enough to find a hotel in Chengdu that handled international visitors for tomorrow night. With that extraordinary task of forward planning done, I was ready to collapse.
After a surprisingly good nights sleep at the mystery hotel that saved me from a night on the streets of Chengdu, I woke to see a beautiful haze, a lovely light grey color seemingly impenetrable by the sun, my first morning in China. The sight out my window, the sounds, and smells are all peaking my senses. All of them foreign to me. Hello China.
I began the challenging task of trying to ask the helpful girl at hotel reception to organize a taxi. Due to my non-existent mandarin skills, it was sometime later and we were still going around in circles about booking a taxing and where this taxi might take me.
I can only imagine her frustration at thinking what on earth is this guy doing, coming to China with no language skills, no plan and no idea.
The taxi thing was going nowhere so I asked with hand gestures as to the direction of the city, and after many thank you’s, headed off into the yonder.
As I got a little way down the road the gravity of the task ahead started to hit me. I didn’t understand any of the road signs, I didn’t have a map, I didn’t have a working mobile phone and on a scrap of paper, I had the address of a hotel that I found on the internet, at least I thought I did.
The area I was walking through appeared to be under development, some grimy old hi-rise dwellings, and offices to my left, to the right there was a lot of cleared land with construction work going on in every direction. Lots of construction work. I must be on the outskirts of town.
It was early in the morning and people were lining up at bus stops and the traffic was starting to grow. Walking along the road looking towards one of the bus stops I noticed lots of guys hanging around in cars, sometimes even parked up on the footpath. It was pretty easy to work out their game, they were touting for fares, private taxis if you like. The real taxis, green and yellow in color, were scooting up and down the road, all full with passengers.
Along with touts, there were also a few people on mopeds offering lifts to those waiting for a bus. As I walked through the crowd of people and started to realize by the long staring glances that, um, not many foreigners must get around these parts. Actually, now I think about it, I was yet to see another foreigner.
As I crossed the road there were push bike pedicabs everywhere along with touts and mopeds all circling the bus stop like vultures over a dead carcass. It was a bus stop in the middle of what seemed like nowhere.
As I walked past more touts I hear a ‘helloooooo’, yes with a real extension on the ‘oooo’ bit, with a rising inflection. I quickly gave a hello back and then he started pointing at his car and talking in Chinese. ‘English’ I asked inquisitively, he waved his hand to express no English.
I pulled out a piece of paper and wrote down ‘ATM — Bank of China’, I needed cash as I had only got out enough last night to pay for the hotel, not sure what I was thinking there, anyway, I pointed at the note and the guy was all too keen to have a look at it. A long look. I said ‘Bank of China’ and pointed down the road towards the city, he chuckled and pointed down a street to the right, and said ‘bank’, off I went.
A little way down the road and after many long, glaring inquisitive stares from the locals, I found a Bank of China branch. Cheers, private taxi guy.
After another stretch of walking and a few more stares, and another ‘hellooooo’ from a store owner standing out front, I hailed a cab, he said something, more than likely asking where do I want to go, so I just pointed straight ahead to what looked like it might be the urban area.
When we got into the city area, I guess he was asking where I wanted to go, the thing is I didn’t know. I did have the hotel address written down, but I misplaced that, so signaled to pull over and paid. I jumped out of the cab and it’s a bit more crowded here. And lots more stares, I’m guessing there aren’t too many foreigners come by, which is confirmed by the fact that I still haven’t seen any. What to do. I’ve lost the address for the hotel, I still don’t have a map, and it’s not like I can just start asking people for help, they won’t understand a word!
Nothing like having an entry strategy, the internet would be really handy right now, I’ll google my way out of this! Picking up my bag and turning around it was hard for me to believe what I just saw. Starbucks. I’m not really a fan of Starbucks coffee, but today I am. I walked in and saw a dual language menu and as I approached the counter I get ‘hello, what would you like’. The staff all spoke English, the place was a mirror of any Starbucks you would see anywhere else and of course, free WiFi. Saved by the global reach of American entrepreneurship.
I stayed there for about an hour, enjoying the comfy chair, coffee, and free internet. It was a really comforting place to be, like sitting in a western embassy of some kind. I got the address of the hotel and guess it was some way away, so off I headed to get another cab.
This time I was not to be so lucky, the first cab I managed to hail wouldn’t let me in, waving his hands in crossways manner, hmmm, perhaps some foreigner upset him once before. So I moved on and kept trying.
Having walked around for a while now I still haven’t seen a foreigner, not one. Re-confirmed by the long curious stares. And this is no backwater, this is a huge city and I’m walking around the central district which is packed with glitzy modern stores including many major Western brands. Occasionally I would get another ‘helloooooo’ particularly from pairs of girls who would be walking down the street holding hands, after saying hello in their curious manner they would then start giggling and quickly scuttle off.
One guy in a business suit stopped and said hello, we had a brief couple of words while I’d stopped to look at the sprawling mass of modern shops seen from the overpass we were walking over, ‘Chengduuuuu, big!” he exclaimed before he continued on his way.
Back to cab hunting, the next cab was a little more friendly and I showed him the address, fortunately, he could speak a little English and but he couldn’t understand the English version of the address I had written down. Apologizing he hinted he had to keep moving.
I tried a couple more cabs with no luck and decided to just walk in the direction of the hotel, why not, I get to see some of Chengdu. It was a huge walk and with a little help from the local police who can speak some English and are surprisingly keen to help out, I got there.
I started from the other hotel at 8 am and made it to the Chengdu Tibet Hotel after 3 pm. OK, its time to get some bearings for the days ahead.