Posts Tagged ‘Flying’

Flying East to the West

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

The arrival at Beijing International airport was my third time in a Chinese airport (I had transited through Hong Kong International on my way to and from Lao 4 and 5 years earlier), and I went through the standard arrival procedures of checking my connecting ticket to LAX. This time things were a bit different, however, because Swine Flu was apparently on the mind of the Chinese government. Upon arrival all passengers were asked to fill out and sign a form saying that they were not suffering from any of the symptoms of the flu. Unfortunately, I have always suffered from allergies to airborne allergens and had been congested that day because of this. So, being the honest Mennonite that I am I dutifully checked the “Nasal Congestion” box and handed the form to the customs official along with my passport. This earned me a trip to a specially cordoned-off waiting area from which I watched all my fellow passengers pass by on their way into the international departures area. About 10 minutes later a man and woman in scrubs and white lab coats arrived with my form and the man started asking me some questions. “Where have you been traveling?” had a difficult and lengthy answer, but eventually we got around to the reason I had checked the “Nasal Congestion” box. The man spoke English fairly well so it was easy enough to explain about my allergies. “Ah, yes.” He said, “That’s alright.” Five minutes, several stamps, and a few signatures later I was on my way.

I had over 5 hours to kill before my plane to LAX left and I had decided that I would try to get out of the airport if at all possible. When we had been planning the trip we had decided against going to China because of a visa cost of over $400 per person. However, Matt had told me that he had met someone in Beijing who had been allowed to leave the airport for a few hours during his layover without a visa. This gave me an idea and as I talked to the customs official at arrivals I asked if it was possible to leave the airport for a little while before my flight left. He said yes and told me where I needed to go get out of the international terminal. So, when I finally saw the terminal entrance I walked toward it exuding as much confidence as I could muster. I was walked upstream through the flow of arriving Chinese travelers arriving at the arrival customs counters from the wrong side. I watched two stewardesses and a few captains walk out through a small gate along the right side of the room and headed that way. When I arrived, however, I was firmly but kindly stopped by a security guard who told me in Chinese and pantomime that I was going the wrong way and pointed me toward the departure lounge. I didn’t take no for an answer, however, and, apologizing to the guard, went to the nearest customs box. I politely got the attention of the young woman stamping passports and tried to explain my hopes and dreams of being able to walk around outside. All I succeeded in doing, unfortunately, was confusing her and so she made me understand that I was to wait there and she would call someone to help. A few minutes later a man who must have been a supervisor approached and in clear English asked me what the problem was. There was some hemming and hawing and a few more questions about reasons (”There are very nice restaurants in the departure lounge.”). But my polite persistence eventually won the day! The supervisor gave my passport to the young customs official to stamp and told me which monorail line to take and off I went.

For about 2 hours I walked the streets of Beijing in the area near the airport. It took about 20 minutes to get from the airport to a nearby market where I went to a bank and found that the ATM only offered currency in RMB (renminbi). I had literally never heard of the RMB and was expecting to withdraw Yuan. It was a good reminder that there is still a lot out there to learn. I did eventually learn that the RMB was the official name for the currency with the yuan being the name for the unit of currency. Anyway, I withdrew about 100 yuan and used it to buy some delicious Dragon Fruit, a pomello and a few other things for a nice picnic lunch in a small park from which I could watch Chinese life go by. The sounds of bicycles, pedal taxies, a few cars and busses and many voices in a language I didn’t understand made for an appropriate backdrop for my last day in Asia and my last “Cultural Experience” of the trip. With just an hour and a half to go I headed back to the airport and got through security and customs with few problems and prepared for a long plane flight to LAX.

The trip was remarkable only for the length of time it took and the packed 747 on which it took place. I chatted a bit with a Chinese family returning to their home in LA and an American business man who had been working in Beijing for a few weeks and then everyone settled down to some fitful, airplane sleep. As we approached LA many hours later, I spend the last 20 minutes of the flight looking out of the window, watching the coastline of my home country approach after 4 months away. The city bustled with cars, and few bicycles or pedestrians could been seen from the air. Roads were clean and it seemed like ads plastered every visible inch. Just before our gentle landing I caught a glimpse of a flaming hillside and billows of smoke just outside the city. The huge forest fires I had read about while waiting for departure.

A uniformed, American customs official kindly welcomed me home and, after picking up my bag I walked outside into the warm, California air. Waiting me were my girlfriend Rachel, my sister Elizabeth, and my Great-uncle Ned. Elizabeth, Rachel, my brother Levi and roommate Chris had all taken a trip through the American Southwest to pick me up. They had stopped at Ned and Marge’s house and then come to pick me up. It was nice to see some familiar faces after almost two weeks on my own and Ned and Marge prepared a wonderful supper for us during which all of us talked about our adventures.

My time overseas had ended but I still had a few days of adventure driving back across the US before the trip would be at an end.

Milan

Friday, July 24th, 2009

This trip so far has been quite laissez-faire when it comes to scheduling. We had planned out all of our necessary stops, transportation, and various events in advance, so we could get the best prices and know where we needed to be when. The rest of the trip, however, had been planned as we went—the flexibility the car gave us and the reason we were able to see so many things off the beaten path. One of the certain dates (08/07), however, was a concert of the band U2 in Milan, Italy. That concert coincided with Dan’s departure on a train to Frankfurt from whence his plane would leave the next day.

We arrived about midday on the 8th and set about trying to locate a train station where we could buy tickets (a mission complicated by the fact that the entire center of the city seemed under construction and very few of the streets seemed to be named, or at least have signs). We found one train station, discovered we couldn’t get the international tickets there, and sought out the main station where Dan and I when to purchase his tickets to Frankfurt-am-Maine while David and Matt waited in the car, parked on the road with hazards blinking. No one seemed bothered, Italian road-rules are rather lax.

Our concert was at 2000 and we had to pick up our tickets by 1930. Time was flying by. We didn’t know exactly where the stadium (San Siro) was in relation to the center of the city, but, after asking a few friendly locals discovered it was a 5 minute, cheap metro ride from the station just in front of the main train station. Matt and Dan set out to find some pizza for Dan’s Final Supper while David went to print off our concert ticket confirmation from a local internet shop so we could actually get our tickets that evening. I stayed with the car, parked temporarily by a little green area next to the train station. It was about 1830.

David returned shortly and told me that he didn’t know all the details but Dawn, his girlfriends’ mom, had been struck by lightening. I said a short prayer for Dawn and the family. Matt arrived and led us to the pizza place.

We enjoyed the delicious slices of fresh, Italian pizza, proclaimed the Italians the best chefs in the world and then grabbed Dan’s things to get him to the station. It was 1915. We said goodbye hurriedly, prayed for Dan’s safety, our own continued trip, and Dawn and her family. Then, we booked it to the metro.

A “5 minute metro trip” turned into half an hour as we realised that we had completely misunderstood the friendly locals. The trip felt interminable. It was 1920… 1930, the deadline had passed… 1945… We got out of the metro and had a 10 minute jog/walk to the stadium. It was 1955. We ran into the stadium area, found the ticket booth, got our tickets (thankfully still available) and made our way into the stadium. It was 2015. After a mad dash to find our section and our seats and an almost interminable climb up the spiral ramps, we reached our designated section and finally sat down. It was 2030 and all we had missed was the opening act, “Snow Patrol.”

We joined in a competitive wave (one section gets the wave going and whichever section lets the wave die gets booed mercilessly by the entire stadium), and Matt made friends with his neighbor from Switzerland, a fellow named Guy. The U2 concert was unbelievable. I’ve never seen such stage artistry in my life. The entire stadium was dwarfed by a giant cross between an octopus and an alien landing craft which encompassed the stage. The players were introduced: Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen, Jr., The Edge, and Bono. The songs included a number from their new album (No Line on the Horizon) as well as some older ones. David knew them all, Matt knew most of them, I knew many. One apropos song was “Where the Streets Have No Name,” especially given our difficulty finding the train station earlier that day.

We left the concert at about 2330 and we were energised, Matt bought a t-shirt, while I hung out waiting by the door and somehow we lost David. Matt and I lost our way on the streets of Milan for about an hour and a half eventually making our way to the metro station, which was closed for the night. It was about 0130. We waited for a while hunting around the area thinking David would probably have hung out there waiting, but we couldn’t find him and assumed he had caught the last train out at 0100. We found a good map on the back of a bus stop and started to make our way to the car. We did eventually arrive, about 3 hours later at around 0400, Matt crashed in the passenger’s seat and I slept fitfully in the driver’s seat.

At about 0700, I got up, munched on some bread and drank some water in the gathering daylight. I stood for a while outside the car watching the sun rise over buildings and nameless streets of Milan. As I stood there, David walked around the corner of the train station and we hailed each other and exchanged stories. David, after being separated from Matt and I had made his way to the metro station getting there just after the last train left and had spent the night sleeping alternately on a nearby park bench (where he was when we had been looking in the area for him) and in the metro station when it reopened. He made his way back and arrived in good spirits but, like Matt and I, quite tired. We crawled into the car and caught a few more hours of needed sleep.

Later that morning, after we had all gotten some sleep, David checked his email once more and got the bad news that Dawn had not improved and wasn’t expected to live. He decided to fly home to support Amber and do what he could for the family, a decision Matt and I understood and supported. We spent the rest of the day with David alternately on the phone, using the internet, and repacking his things with Matt and I reorganizing the car for life with two, not four, people and making some meals. Our final meal with David was a spaghetti dish and some popcorn with seasoning salt prepared over our little stove. We took David to the airport, wished him well and again said a quick prayer for his safety and for Dawn’s family.

That evening was a quiet one for Matt and I as we drove to Venice. We pondered the changes in our trip and how insignificant those were in comparison to other changes that take place just as suddenly.

On Our Way

Monday, April 27th, 2009

Well.. we’re finally on our way… Daniel, Dan and David are leaving Chicago O’Hare Airport (ORD) at 6:50 PM CST Monday, 27 April, 2009. Matt will be joining us in just four days.
From the inception of the idea 3 years ago to the past few months of intense planning, I never doubted that this amazing journey would actually happen, but I really was wondering what form it was going to take. The final form is:
4 Guys – Daniel Shenk, Daniel Ziegler, David Miller and Matt Wolfer
4 Months – approximately May through August
and
A Car – A right-hand drive 1998 VW Passat Estate TDi Diesel
Now we’re on our way and couldn’t be more excited, but maybe a tad apprehensive. We have a pile of luggage with everything we could imagine we would need, but more important, we’re all ready to be flexible and take what may come. After all, this can hardly be anything but an adventure!

Daniel Z