No one in Guiyang speaks English. At least, no one in Guiyang airport speaks English. Trust me, I've done the research on this. I've spoken to pretty much everyone in the place.
It's 4pm, and I'm late. I'm late for a flight that should have taken off about an hour ago. I will very soon be late for another flight, for my connection from Shenzhen to Sydney. For now though I'm stuck in Guiyang, China, and I can't get out.
Where even is Guiyang? I'm not entirely sure, despite being here. I hadn't realised I was even stopping in Guiyang until a few hours ago. I can't connect to the airport Wi-Fi to check Google Maps. All I know is that I am supposed to be in the air right now, on my way east, and I am not.
It's one of those days. It's one of those disastrous travel days when you just can't catch a break, when everything seems like it's against you, when the universe is conspiring to keep you away from your destination. It's hit after hit. Frustration after frustration.
Even if everything had gone to plan, this was going to be a nightmare journey. I'm making my way from Almaty in Kazakhstan back to Sydney, via most of China: Urumqi for a 10-hour layover, Guiyang for two hours, Shenzhen for three hours, and then the final leg home. More than 24 hours of travel. Strap yourself in.
He makes a call. He makes another call. He taps on his mobile phone. He does that some more.
Mostly, it had been going OK. The Almaty to Urumqi leg was fine. Urumqi was super weird. I was held back at customs by the police for no obvious reason, given a proper shakedown, searched and then made to sit in a corner while my bags were scanned again, and again, and again.
Eventually I was allowed to leave and transferred to an airport hotel, which was crawling with more police. Police checking bags to get into the hotel; police at the lifts checking room keys; another police checkpoint down a hallway near my room. This sort of thing does not make you feel safe.
I got through, however, and got some sleep, and then headed back to the airport and boarded my flight to Shenzhen – via Guiyang. We landed in Guiyang. We got off the plane and stretched our legs. We got back on the plane. And then: disaster.
An announcement was made in Mandarin. Everyone on board groaned and picked up their belongings, heading back to the front of the plane. I followed along, not sure what was happening. It was 3pm. I needed to be in Shenzhen by 6pm. At that moment, everything was still fine.
I got out into the concourse and spied an inquiries desk. "Excuse me," I said to the woman working the desk, "is my flight delayed?"
She smiled, and then pulled out a phone and began tapping the keyboard. Then she held it up to me. It read, "How can I help you?"
Uh oh. I typed in my query, hit "translate". She typed a reply and flashed me the screen: "Your flight is delayed until four hours."
Four hours? I held up four fingers. She nodded. "If this flight is delayed four hours," I typed, "then I will miss my next flight to Sydney."
She typed again: "It is OK, your flight to Shenzhen takes one hour and 20 minutes."
I typed: "But that still means I will miss my flight to Sydney."
And so began one of the most frustrating experiences of my travelling life. I was advised by the woman at the counter to go out past security and speak to people at the check-in desk. So I'm now pushing my way through the scanners and the lines to get to a desk that I think is the right one and I ask a guy – who also doesn't speak English – if he can get me on another flight.
He makes a call. He makes another call. He taps on his mobile phone. He does that some more. Actually he's been tapping on that phone for quite a while now, and eventually someone else in a bright pink sash approaches me, holding up another phone, which reads: "How can I help you?"
Argh! She calls someone on the phone who speaks English. I'm sent to a ticketing counter. I'm told – via phone translator once again – that there are no other flights to Shenzhen. I should run though, I'm told, because my original flight is about to take off. It's 4.30pm.
I have to battle back through security, trying to explain my torn stub of a boarding pass, and what I'd been doing on the wrong side of security. I'm eventually taken seriously, and hurried through to my gate, before being told: "Boarding time 6pm."
Argh! Sometimes, it all just goes wrong. Sometimes all you can do is flop down on a seat and eat the snacks you brought with you and resign yourself to disaster. Sometimes you just have to give up.
It turns out, however, that all is not lost. With two hours to stare at the departures board, it eventually clicks that there are a few other flights to Shenzhen today, and none of them have taken off. Maybe the problem is in Shenzhen? Maybe this whole battle to get on another flight has been a complete waste of time?
It is, and it has been. There are huge storms in Shenzhen – I know this because my partner in Sydney is sending text messages to keep me updated. My flight into the city is four hours late, but my flight out is delayed by five hours. So my original three-hour transit time between the two flights in Shenzen is now four hours, giving me plenty of time to spare.
I get back to Sydney after 35 hours of travel. I've never been happier to hear Australian accents.
Have you had a disastrous day of air travel, where everything just goes wrong? Post your comments below.
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