Cycling 12,000 miles from Lisbon to Shanghai
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Day 201 (15/1/10) – Urumqi & Guangzhou

Hell on Earth (and GET US THE FECK OUT OF CHINA!) Airport Dramas #3, 4, 5…

Our flight to Urumqi goes pretty smoothly and passport control in China is a breeze with our shiny transit visas! We do have a fair old delay trying to find our bikes but eventually we manage to get someone to go and retrieve them from some outsize baggage store in the innards of the airport.

After clearing customs we find a China Southern Airlines employee and ask how we get to the domestic terminal. After checking our tickets she arranges a bus to take us to a complimentary hotel instead as our connection is so long. By the time we get there we only have a couple of hours before we need to head back to the airport but it’s good to get a bit of a snooze anyway.

We get back to the airport in plenty of time for our flight and head off to check-in. Everything is going fine and the check-in girl is most of the way through getting us checked in when an older (sour-faced) woman comes up and says something to her. After a bit of debate the check-in girl tells us the bikes have to be boxed. We explain that we have travelled from Tashkent (on the same airline) and they were fine with the bikes as they were and that obviously we could not now get boxes. This causes much more debate and eventually someone who speaks a bit better English is brought out to help and after ten minutes or so we find out that the main problem is there must be no moving parts. Eventually they agree that as long as we tape the wheels so they are immobilised that will do. The girl who speaks reasonable English then says she will take us over to the outsize baggage area where we can get some tape and sort out the bikes.

Just as we are setting off, Old Sour-Face turns up again and start yattering away in mandarin at the check-in girls. She is clearly not happy that we are being allowed to take the bikes. We smile and try to look as humble and helpless as possible but her expression just degenerates from that of a pitbull chewing a nettle to that of a pitbull realising that the nettle its chewing is covered in piss. After a whole load more debate we are told to put the bikes on the weighing scales. This then results in much more debate and gesticulations that we don’t understand until Old Sour Face stalks off and leaves the check-in girl to explain that we must pay excess baggage charges.

We explain that Tashkent had waived the fee and so we didn’t think it was right for them to charge us half way through a flight. We weren’t really too concerned though, thinking oh well they waived the $50 each in Tashkent so if we pay it here no drama. There was then at least 20 minutes of further debate and phone calls before anyone would actually tell us the amount they wanted but when they did, our jaws nearly hit the floor! They wanted $2,200US to take our bikes. We thought they must have made a mistake and got them to check but no $2,200US was the answer.

We explained again and more forcefully that we had been told in Tashkent the fee was $50 and that this had been waived and that it was not fair to suddenly hit us with a crazy charge midway through the flight. (Just to be clear we had bought one ticket, from Tashkent to Sydney, all on the same airline). They just replied “Tashkent made a mistake. You must pay.” We asked why we should pay $2,200 as a result of their staff’s mistake to which we were simply told “You must pay!!!” This conversation went round and round like this for an eternity with no explanations or justification, just the parrot-like repetition of “you must pay”. Annoyingly they went through the pantomime of phoning someone more senior with every question I asked only for the answer to always be, you guessed it… “you must pay”. I tried several times to request that they get someone senior enough to make a decision to come down to talk to us but was, unbelievably, bluntly told “No”. By now this ridiculous carry-on had taken over 1.5hrs and we were getting quite concerned as the flight was leaving in about 45 minutes.

The airline staff was well aware of this and now started adding to the “You must pay” a “You don’t pay, you don’t go on plane” and “You don’t go on plane you must buy new ticket then you have to pay bikes also”. There was also the fact that our transit visas were only valid if we had valid tickets out of China, so if we did not get on the plane we would be running the risk of falling foul of the Chinese immigration police!! We tried reasoning, then begging and pleading, then bargaining and then a bit of anger and indignation but it was like reasoning & begging with or banging my head off a brick wall. They had us over a barrel and knew it. It really was nothing short of extortion. The bastards were extorting money out of us half way through the flight when we have no choice in the matter. Absolutely criminal.

By this point I was livid and Y was in floods of tears. What a way to end our honeymoon!

With half an hour to go and not even a slight budge from the China Southern Airline bastards I reluctantly slammed my mastercard down on the desk. I was then whisked across to another desk for the payment to be taken while I shouted for Y to get the bags & bikes checked in. We then find that that desk can’t take mastercards and so things turn truly ridiculous as I am raced round every desk in the airport, getting more and more stressed that we will miss the flight. Meanwhile Yie at least manages to gets the bikes and bags checked in all the way through to Sydney. After ten minutes of trying to find someone who can take a payment from my credit card they finally give up and allow us to go through to the departure gate. UNBELIEVABLE! I have never seen anything like it. But, at last, with our bikes and bags now checked all the way to Sydney the nightmare is finally over.

The flight out of Urumqi is delayed by about an hour leaving us only 50 minutes to transit the major international hub airport in Guangzhou and to clear customs, immigration & security checks. It’s going to be touch & go but after Urumqi this seems small beer in comparison! We are delighted to find a China Southern Airlines girl with our names and flight number waiting as we exit the airplane to help us with our connection. Now that is more like it. Or so we briefly and foolishly thought! She speaks no English and we follow her for a 15 minute race across airport only to realise, with horror, that she has lead us, not to international departures but all the way back out to the excess baggage desk. She says (quell surprise) “you must pay”. I explain we have no time. She takes our boarding cards and phones someone. 5 minutes later she is still gabbing on the phone. We say we must go. She waves us to stay where we are. With 30 minutes to go there is no way I am handing over my credit card after the debacle in Urumqi. 5 minutes later I reach over, grab our boarding cards and we leg it, ignoring her calls! We sprint across the airport trying frantically to find our flight. We have to beg and plead our way to the front of the security scan queue, then the customs queue and then the passport/immigration queue. Thankfully people are nice and let us push in and the officials all take pity on us and whisk us through pretty sharpish. Even so we litteraly have to sprint through the terminal and get to gate just about half a minute before they closed it. We board the plane with sweat dripping off us and no doubt with a hunted, stressed and panicked look about us. Given the state of us it is surprising no one took us for crazy jihad bombers!

We then had a fraught wait as the plane was prepared for departure. Several times stewardesses with notes in their hands came walking up the aisle clearly looking for a particular person and we waited with trepidation each time for them to stop at our seats and tell us we had to leave the plane and that “you must pay”. Thankfully that did not happen and I have never felt such joy and elation at a plane being (finally) pushed back from a terminal!

All I have to say is that if that experience was anything like typical of the bureaucracy and the way people are treated in the country I am very glad we cut our trip short and are not spending 3 months in China! GET US THE FECK OUT OF HERE!