I was flying to a cruise ship gig. This was good. I had a one-night transit in Shanghai. This was less good.
Sure it sounds fine. Shanghai! A big exciting cosmopolitan city! Even if you get in late and have to leave early, surely it’d be a fun chance to grab dinner or a drink. Explore the city. At least go for a walk in an exciting and alien place. Problem is, my one night stopover was booked at the Shanghai Airlines Travel Airport Hotel (sic).
After getting through customs and immigration, I eventually tracked down the hotel shuttle. It was a small 12-seat minibus that looks like it was made in the 1970s. It had no driver, just a lone passenger playing a Chinese version of Candy Crush, and looking like he’d settled in for a long wait.
Eventually the driver arrived, wearing a leather jacket and smoking a cigarette. At least, I assume he was the driver. He climbed in to the van, and without a word began driving us on to a freeway.
The needle on my internal “am I being kidnapped?” dial started to rise a little. The bus continued down the long deserted freeway, apparently heading away from civilisation. I thought about my kidneys and how much I valued them.
We arrived at a hotel. It was in the middle of nowhere, but it was definitely the right place. My kidnap dial dropped back to standard background levels. I went to the check-in desk, and discovered that not a single person there spoke any English.
Now look. I’m not an imperialist wanker. I go to the effort of trying to learn the local language when travelling. I fully appreciate what an insanely difficult language English is to learn. However, you would think that an international airport hotel would hire at least ONE person who spoke ANY English at their check-in desk.
Luckily my Mandarin, while not fluent, is good enough to handle most basic interactions. I handed over my passport and booking confirmation. The check-in person frowned and said something I didn’t understand. Bringing up some kind of Communist-government-approved version of Google Translate on her phone, she hit some keys and showed me the phrase “booking is deleted.”
The booking had been made, and then subsequently cancelled. The written cancellation reason was the enigmatic and inacurate “GUEST IS ILL.” Having spent plenty of time in China, this random act of sabotage was wearying but unsurprising. I photographed the screen she showed me in preparation for the inevitable expenses debate later, and booked another room myself.
At this point I was ravenous, so I dumped my bags in the room and went to find food. Being in the middle of nowhere, the only option was the hotel restaurant. It was 8pm at this point, but the restaurant appeared to be closed: lights low, empty tables, and only one staff member visible, apparently doing admin work behind the counter.
After a brief conversation with her (in Mandarin; she too spoke zero English) it turned out the restarant was actually fully operational, just understaffed and eerily deserted. She gestured to a menu which did have English translations, alebit very minimalist ones.
Ordering from a mainland Chinese menu is a fine art. The English translations rarely reveal much about the dish other than the main couple of ingredients. You just guess, point, and hope to get something that isn’t made mostly of bone or intestinal tract. I managed to order a mystery-meat-free noodle dish, and ate it without seeing a single human in the roughly 100 seat restaurant other than that one staff member.
While eating, I realised that since the room booking had been randomly cancelled, I should double check that my shuttle to the ship the next day was still happening. The ship agent on the collect call emergency line to the USA was very helpful, confirmed there had been unexpected issues with the booking, arranged for a new shuttle, and said she would email me the details as soon as the Shanghai port authority confirmed them. I thanked her profusely for her helpfulness and hung up.
I then tried to check my email, and found that everything was blocked. I don’t know whether it was the Great Firewall of China or just the hotel having janky wifi, but email (along with Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and any site that might expose The People of China to subversive ideas) was just not happening. It occurred to me that since email wasn’t working, Facebook was illegal, and my AT&T phone plan didn’t roam to China, it might be literally impossible to send me any kind of text documentation. Maybe we could Dropbox it?
I finally decided to call back in the morning, waking up with enough lead time to deal with whatever China-related issues would inevitably arise. Jetlag worked in my favour this time, and I woke up at 6am, called back, explained the situation, and transcribed by hand the thankfully-now-confirmed transfer details. At this point I was starving, and went downstairs.
The formerly deserted restaurant was packed. Hordes of people – mostly Chinese, with a few Westerners – swarmed over a buffet, featuring three types of congee, various fruits and vegetables, and “Western Pastries” that looked like what you’d get if you worked from a recipe without ever having seen the finished article before.
There were also these:
They were slighly damp, with a consistency somewhere between sponge and particle board. I ate the fruit.
The port shuttle arrived right on time. Like the hotel shuttle it also had a slightly kidnappy vibe, but at this point I’d calibrated my scale to China levels and barely even noticed. Half an hour later I was safely on the ship, and realised that if I didn’t write all this down it would blur into some weird half-remembered dream.
Overall, it was a pretty standard China experience.