An American Abroad

Rewind: My Journey Here

A couple of friends have suggested I write about my journey from Detroit to Kunming and the unexpected situation I found myself in upon arrival. I’m not sure it was particularly blogworthy, but by popular demand, here goes….

On June 19, I flew from Detroit direct to Shanghai on a Delta Boeing 777-200. Back in economy, we were all packed in like chocolates in a box, but without the pretty tissue paper. Flight time was fourteen and a half hours. I walked around and did knee bends every hour or so to keep the circulation going.

On arrival at Shanghai Pudong airport, immigration was routine. An official looked through my passport and my Chinese visa, took my picture, and stamped me into the People’s Republic. Customs were nonexistent as far as I was concerned; I simply followed the line of people with nothing to declare and walked right through without being searched or even questioned. The whole process was remarkably streamlined.

Since my connection to Kunming was a domestic flight on China Eastern under a code-share with Delta, I had to take a shuttle bus to the domestic departure terminal. I was a little surprised by the Shanghai airport. I expected something shiny and high-tech, like Hong Kong. This was not the case. In fact, the parts of the two terminals I saw had the ambiance of a bus station. That might be unfair; I was laden with two heavy suitcases, a heavy overnight bag, and a laptop, and consequently was unable to go exploring.

When my flight was called, the passengers were bused out to the tarmac where we boarded a very modern and nicely appointed Boeing 737-300. The flight to Kunming was three and a half hours. China is a big country. By way of perspective, Kunming is closer to Calcutta, Dhaka, Kuala Lumpur, Rangoon, Singapore, Saigon, Bangkok, Vientiane, Phnom Penh, and Katmandu than it is to Shanghai.

The Kunming airport was impressive, new, and gracefully designed with a richness of materials that seemed to be lacking in Shanghai. It quickly became clear, however, that I had left the heavily-touristed cosmopolitan world where English is widely spoken as a second language. And though that was frustrating, it was also exactly what I wanted.

Due to a mix-up in the interpretation of my itinerary, a representative from the school I was to work was not at the Kunming airport to meet me. After two hours of waiting, by which time I had been awake for 36 hours straight, I succumbed to the importuning of a tout who promised a hotel room and transportation thereto for ¥188 (about $31). These arrangements were carried out almost completely in pantomime and via numbers tapped into cell phones. I was packaged into a van with a driver and three other touts. It was after 2:00 in the morning and everyone was going home for the day.

After we left the airport complex, the van turned onto an unlit road. There was nothing but scrub on both sides of us. The van stopped, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and for the first time I wondered if I had made a mistake: was I about to be robbed and dumped by the side of the road? However, one of the touts was merely getting out, presumably to go home. We continued on into what looked like a poor, tangled, hodgepodgey part of town, turned onto a narrow dead-end street, and finally pulled into a garage adjacent to the lobby of a small hotel. As I checked in, I picked up the hotel’s business card in hopes of figuring out just where exactly I was. No luck: the name of the hotel and the address were all written in Chinese.

The room was Spartan—certainly nothing like the picture the tout had shown me—but clean. The window had neither glass nor screen, just aluminum bars. I looked out onto the back of a neon sign advertising a KTV club (karaoke TV, a popular diversion here). I put off worrying about where I was and how I would get to Yuxi until morning and gratefully hit the bed.

When morning came, I was able to get in touch with the school in Yuxi. Since I had no idea where I was, we decided it would be best for me to return to the airport and be picked up there. While I waited for the van to fetch me, I stood in the lobby and watched the NBA finals on a flat screen TV with a young Chinese guy. We shared a few words of basketball. An older guy came into the lobby with a three-foot tall bong that appeared to have been made from soup cans. He stuffed the roach of a hand-rolled cigarette into the bowl and fired it up. I politely declined a hit.

The van took me back to the airport, where I was met by apologetic school officials. We rode south about fifty miles in a hired Volkswagen Santana to Yuxi, where I was checked into the Hongta Hotel. I stayed four nights in that large, modern, full-service business palace until I got my own apartment.

Looking back on it, that first experience in mainland China was a confidence-builder, despite the missed pick-up in Kunming. It taught me that I can get by here even without a common language, that by and large this is a safe country for travelers, and that even when things do go awry, I am resourceful enough to set them right.


  1. Mary Cole says:

    Oh my gosh! I worried about the travel challenges (long flight, changing gates, etc.) you would have to face and my heart stopped when you wrote about the van ride. I am very impressed, but not surprised, at your ability to think through the problem (while exhausted and hungry) and find a solution. Yes, it had to be a confidence builder. I am not sure I would have been able to do it and I might have been on the next flight back. Thank you, a very interesting and surprising post. What a first impression of China!

  2. Jim Manheim says:

    Drivers will take you on roundabout trips to increase their fare, too (so metered taxis are no guarantee of honesty). But I haven’t yet had one fail to get me where I was going, so I just grin and bear it. The first time it happened, I did react with nervousness similar to yours.

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