Miles from Home

China Commentary– Youthful Musings on the Environment, Culture & Development

Posts Tagged ‘Travel in China

The Panic of Passenger Travel at Chinese Airports

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Tickle-me Elmo.  I get it.

Only so many in stock, and you just have to have that perfect present for little baby Bob.  It makes sense.  To some degree, it makes sense.

If there is some sort of caveat– while supplies last, first ten free– then I can understand a heightened level of urgency.  When you pour that cocktail into the collective bloodstream of a large group, somebody take their keys.

Nowhere is this chaos more coded into the DNA of derailed human beings than a Chinese airport.  It’s groupthink gone terrible awry– a bastardization of acceptable public behavior.  And I’ve lived to tell it.

The sitaution is even worse in train stations.  Pictured here, the waiting hall for a train from Chengdu to Chongqing.

The situation is even worse in train stations. Pictured here, the waiting hall for a train from Chengdu to Chongqing.

Chinese airports are, on appearance, most like any other countries’.  They are often a good distance outside of the city.  They have the departure and arrival levels, lines of counters, display boards.  It’s all there.

But the madness– the hair-pulling, eye-gouging mayhem– arrives with the passengers.  While people abroad laughed at Beijing’s “Line-up Day,” those of us here on the ground applauded the effort.  Lining up, a line.  Seems so simple.  Logical, rational.  Easier for everyone right?


It starts at the check-in counter.  The man behind me is standing so close that the hair on the back of my neck is practically in his mouth.  Garlic for lunch, that’s usually a given.  Something garlicky, or rotten, like a decade lacking a toothbrush, or stale cigarettes.  Another favorite.  Maybe all three, all there, and now, clouding around me.  The guy doesn’t want to lose an inch, doesn’t want to provide an opening where some daring derelict might slice in and steal a spot in our line.  This is tooth-and-nail territory.

I step forward, he steps forward.  Step, step.  Step.  Slam, slam. His bag whacks the back of my knee.  Something pointy.  What does he have in there?  Ice-skates?  Hard-covers?

Bogey ahead!  Old woman just torpedoed out of nowhere, ignored the entire line as if we are standing here on our own accord, a conga line with no music. Right to the front she goes.

Now, we suckers in line have a 50% chance of a positive outcome.  The attendant will either repel her sneak attack, telling her to head to the back, and point politely to our line.  The old woman will then turn and don a fantastic “Oh-my-gosh-I-didn’t-even-notice-how-silly-of-me” face.  Or, perhaps because of her old age or the sheer volume of how loud she is raving or how difficult it is to get her to stop talking in her city dialect, the attendant will fold, allowing her to cut.

Okay, boarding pass in hand and through security, the next real test is the gate.  You might look at the lounge and think to yourself, “Seems normal.  People reading, listening to ipods, sleeping.”  Don’t let them fool you.

No such problem boarding this bus to the middle of nowhere in Fujian-- just a hangover and a funky smell.

No such problem boarding this bus to the middle of nowhere in Fujian-- just a hangover and a funky smell.

They’re all in a very well-practiced Usian Bolt-esque sprinters squat.  In the millisecond between the airline attendant turning the mic on and actually announcing, “Flight XXX to YYY is now…”– in that millisecond of static and inhaling breath– bang!  147 people in “line.”

There are 150 seats on the flight.  Taking myself into account, two people must be late.  It’s a amorphous blob, not a line.  It’s eight people wide, and lumpy.  People lurk in the middle.  Architectural columns become terrain for flanking maneuvers.  Carry-on becomes a tool, wedging, prying, and pushing.  It’s grandmothers, it’s little kids.  Anything goes.

And the airlines, oh yes, they know; they’re co-conspirators!  Never once have I heard a Chinese airline board a plane by row, starting from front to back.  This, this lack of order, ensures once we all board, as people literally sprint down the jet way, we will all bottleneck in the aisle, which, of course, begets more pushing.  More grunting.  More unnecessary contact and anger.

We all have assigned seats.  We’ve booked the tickets.  We’re not leaving until everyone checked-in is on board.  And still.

Second to last time I was on a transport bus taking us to an awaiting plane on the tarmac.  There were two doors– front and back– on each side of the bus.  People had spent the last 5 minutes gnashing and prodding, climbing over each other to finally establish their ideal position.  With everyone else.  Going to the same plane.  Together.  But this time, the front bus door didn’t open.  Oh, shit!

A pair of middle-aged men absolutely frickin’ lost their minds.  First, the bus driver got it– berating, cussing, spitting.  How in the hell could he not open the front door!  They started punching the door, punching the glass.  One guy actually started kicking it, hard, and high.  This wasn’t like a tap along the baseboards.  This was a full-fledged, 90-degree, flat of the foot kick to the glass on the bus door.  So hard, he stumbled backwards a few steps to regain his balance.

Then, we all boarded the plane and sat there for ten minutes in our assigned seats before taking off.

William H. Whyte, Jr., the man who coined the term “groupthink” in a 1952 Fortune article, called it “rationalized conformity.”  The definition was amended later, to include the notion of “not causing conflict among peers.”  Well, the wheels on the Rational-No-Conflict cart have come way off.

You could bend the definition a bit.  Let’s assume people make the rational decision to allow this type of behavior by others in order to avoid confrontation with these maverick hooligans.  That’s actually very Chinese.  “I am only one person in a billion,” they like to say.

Merriam-Webster’s calls groupthink “a pattern of thought characterized by self-deception, forced manufacture of consent, and conformity to group values and ethics.”  Do I conform?

Hell yes I do.

Most of the time I am content to wait and be the last to board.  I put on a snooty look of belittling condemnation.  I frown and shake my head at people, like an elementary school teacher when a kid drops a can of paint in art class.

But sometimes I lose my cool.  I enter the line a bit too early and someone behind me Tonya Hardings my knee.  I’m a nice guy, so I let it slide.  Then, Same Person flat-tires me.  I turn, make a sort of half-loco growling face meant to intimidate, and find it is some mother holding a child.  For a second, I relent.  Then the baby reaches out and violently rip-chords an earphone out of my ear.  Mother says nothing to Child, but watches, not even amused, just emotionless, focused on pushing her way to the front.

She’s off the list.

There is no f-ing way she is getting in front of me.

The most peculiar part of the experience is upon actual arrival.  As the plane screeches and skips to a halt on the runway, before the roar of the jets even subsides, you can hear a massive exodus of belts from buckles– like a hand piano-jamming it’s way across an old IBM keyboard.  Click-click-click!  They’re ready to roll.

The plane slows, not stops, just slows.  Some brave soul leaps to her feet, pops open the overhead and grabs her bags in one fluid motion, a blink of an eye.  Blink.  Blink.  The entire aisle is full of people.  The plane is still moving, turning, people lose their balance, stumble, fall and lean on each other.  The speaker comes on and the flight attendant asks for people to remain seated.  Yeah right.

Now we’re stopped, and everyone is standing on each others’ toes in the aisle.  The door always seems to take forever to open.  Forever, probably, seems that way, because everyone has been standing in the aisle for so damn long.  Finally, we all deplane.

As we hit the jet way and turn to head down the arrival hall, a bizarre metamorphosis occurs.  The Chinese passengers revert to their normal, in-city, super-slow-walking selves.  For all the huff and puff, the shoving and sneering, now, actually arriving, it’s all for naught.  It seems no one really cares about arriving any faster.  Sure, you have a few strong-armers who hustle to the baggage claim, to, again, wait.

But after all that, after I flattened that mother and her child, had some strange man rub his crotch on me as he squeezed past in the aisle, had to sit in the sweaty stench filled cabin full of these intrepid plane-boarders– after all of that, no one wants to rush to their final destination?

Then get the F out of my way.  I do.


Written by Miles

September 5, 2009 at 6:17 am

Dongshan Dao: A Test in Tourism Development

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China never lacks for a crowd.

China never lacks for a crowd, even in little ol' Dongshan.

I first visited Dongshan a few months back.  This time was different.  My girlfriend and I were going together.  It was to be our cheap little get away.  I’ve been on the road most of the summer, so we needed some time just the two of us– or, more accurately, just the two of us in a new crowd of strangers.

We were beaching it.  Relaxing in our hotel room, on the balcony, overlooking a nice stretch of cove.  We wanted to rent a bike, pedal along the coastline.  If we had time, maybe we’d pay a local fisherman to ferry us out to a nearby island.  It was a plan, bulletproof; great idea.  Done.

By the end of the first afternoon in Dongshan, I was in the dumps.  Literally and figuratively.  I couldn’t remember why I had wanted to come back.  A partial list of Day 1’s lowlights:

1.  Hotel owner bumped the price of a room up.

2.  Someone took a poop on the stairs leading to a stretch of beach, haphazardly covering it up with not enough tissue.  This still boggles my mind, because the culprit must have squatted in plain sight in front of dozens and dozens of other people who would soon need to walk back up those same stairs.

3.  A funeral.  I’ve been to Dongshan twice and seen three funerals.  Yikes.  Friends and family all dress in white and carry the coffin or ashes, pictures, and flowers to a final resting place.  On the walk, one guy finished his bottle of water and threw it on the ground.  Two steps further and he passed a trash can.  It made me not feel bad for him, and that’s messed up.funeral pic

4.  The charred corpse of a dead dog– on the beach.  Yes, you read that correctly.  A barbeque gone horribly wrong?  At least tell me who the jerk is that decided the beach was a fitting spot to toss the remains to decompose?  (NOTE: This is the second dead dog I have seen lying out in the public in two trips to Dongshan.  That may be a Guinness Book record.  Two-for-two!)

5.  Seriously, does there even need to be a #5?  A charred dog?!  On the beach!  Come on!

There’s a lot of talk about developing Dongshan into one of China’s A-list tourist destinations.  There’s a billboard when you come into town proclaiming, “Welcome to Dongshan, an international tourism destination.”

Some spots are well worth the trip.

Some spots are well worth the trip.

But the only person in town that seems to buy that line is the local party chief.  I was on the balcony when I overheard my girlfriend giggling about something on television inside.  She told me she just saw a commercial where this guy comes on and says something to the extent of, “Beautiful Dongshan, one of China’s premiere getaways.  Where the streets and the beaches are clean…”

The owner of my hotel told me over tea that Dongshan had long suffered from corrupt politicians who pocketed development money and ran.  In their wake, along the huge stretches of coastline, lie massive hotel compounds.  Some are complete.  Some only partially.  Almost all are abandoned.  Courtyards and gardens are now just dumping grounds for waste atop the rubble left during the hasty retreat from construction.  Weeds are cracking the paved entrances.  Windows are smashed in.  The gates are rusted over.

Dongshan is rusted over.

With the right leadership and bright ideas, Dongshan could be resurrected.  It would take a decade, at least.  But this is the problem in China.  When a site is designated a potential tourist market, the government leaps to action.  All the wrong action.  They build massive six-lane highways into small towns.  They dole out beneficial loans and land prices to developers.  But never do they gentrify old neighborhoods, help give citizens clean drinking water, build new schools, or launch new public service campaigns.

Neighborhoods are a mix of decay and potential.

Neighborhoods are a mix of decay and potential.

Whoever came up with the recipe for success in tourism has it like this:  One major highway (but no new bus station) + a massive, brand new police station built outside of town + a giant skyscraper government building in Soviet-era style + reliance on a bunch of outsiders to fund everything else = CHA-CHING!

It’s disturbing.  The people in Dongshan are woefully uneducated. I asked my girlfriend, what do these people think when they dump their trash on a beach or walk past a putrid pile of rubbish on the street?  Nothing, she said.  They don’t even know to think about it.  It doesn’t even register.

The entire community still relies on fishing for sustenance.  At night, you can see the blips of lights aboard fishing vessels on the horizon.  Fifty years ago, they needn’t venture out that far.  The catches they do bring back they dry everywhere.  E-ver-y-where.  Some homes in the old district have no rooves, but rather a grid of planks to dry squid and small fish.  The smell is ubiquitous in most sections of town.


And then the trash.  You lose count of how many people, local people, you see littering on the street each day.  Rusting, 50-gallon blue barrels are placed randomly on streets.  More wrappers and fish bones and soda bottles and toilet paper seem to never make it than those that do.  The stench will make your eyes water.  Five yards away, a pair of 10-year-old boys are squatting on the curb, smoking cigarettes.

To top it all off, people just aren’t that friendly.  The owner of the hotel we stayed in, this was the third time we have rented out one of his rooms (first time coming together), and he jacked the price up and refused to negotiate.  I paid more in the beautiful armpit of Dongshan, 100rmb/night, then I paid almost anywhere else I stayed throughout the much more beuatiful tourist spots of Yunnan, Sichuan, Zhejiang, and Beijing this summer.

Those plans to rent bikes or a scooter?  No.  That was the answer we got from everyone.  E-ver-y-one.  No one rents bikes in Dongshan, they told us.  Well how many bikes do you own?, we asked.  Two.  What about using one of those?  No.  Are you going anywhere today?  No.

Don't get me wrong, some parts of the trip were fantastic.

Don't get me wrong, some parts of the trip were fantastic.

We eventually found one young woman working at a small restaurant who was willing to let us use her old bike, for a 300rmb deposit and 25rmb for the afternoon.  But at least she let us use it!

At one point, I thought, wow, maybe I should come here and open a bike rental shop.  Maybe I could even invest in a small little dingy to take people around to the islands.  It would be cool, living on the beach, running a rental shop.  Give it a few years, wait for the tourism to pick up.  Then, I realized what the hell I was talking about?  Dongshan!  Come on, who was I kidding?  It felt like we were the only two tourists in town.  No one is coming.  Not now, and not anytime soon.

Is the sun setting on Dongshan's chances for development?

Is the sun setting on Dongshan's chances for development?

With the way the local people desecrate their own beautiful beaches, fail to make any effort in being friendly towards visitors, and show no hope of changing the habits in their children, Dongshan will remain buried under the rubble of a once promising tourism town.  Wasted.  Rotting.  Rusting.

When in Dongshan, Don’t Miss This!

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Dongshan Dao (东山岛) is about a three-hour bus ride from Xiamen.  A few months back, a friend had mentioned he heard it was a decent place to visit on a day trip.  People said it was “like Xiamen 30 years ago.”  And, what can I say, I am a sucker for time travel.

Squid drying along the seashore.

Squid drying along the seashore.

Dongshan is primarily famed for its beaches and fresh seafood.  But there’s one quick thing I have to mention: the supposed can’t-miss attraction, Fengdongshi (风动石)– in my brutal translation, Stone Moving in the Wind.

This chunk of earth came with some hype!  People in town were telling me all sorts of tall tales.

Millions upon millions of years, that’s how long they say this rock has been wobbling atop its eroded seaside podium.

A local guy I met eating at a restaurant told me the stone balances on less than 10 square centimeters of surface contact.

Another shopkeeper told me a dozen American soldiers had come during WWII and tried to push it off (actually very believable), but failed.

What they like to call "The Most Miraculous Stone on the Earth."
What they like to call “The Most Miraculous Stone on the Earth.”

Look upon this stone, ye mighty, and quiver.

On my first trip to Dongshan, after trying for about an hour to sneak into the garden grounds through the labrynth of surrounding alleyways, I resigned myself to paying the 35 rmb to see this cultural behemoth.

Let.  Down.

10 centimeters???  More like a solid, solid 5 square meters.  That sucker was firmly in place.

And, yes, like every other sucker, of course I tried to push it off.  Come on, imagine the glory if I pulled off a sword-in-the-stone task like that!

I am not sure I buy the line about the most impressive rock in the world, but I was slightly fascinated.  I enjoyed sitting back and watching all the little children come up and try to push it off.  It reminded me of the task they have in front of them: pushing China into the future.

Pick a door, any door.
Pick a door, any door.
Where is that pesky Minotaur?
Where is that pesky Minotaur?

Rule of Thumb:  When in China, if locals tell you something or some place is phenomenal, prepare yourself for an 80% chance of let down.  If they tell you that very few people go someplace and that it may be dangerous, you’re looking at a 80% chance of satisfaction.