You might wanna grab a cuppa tea before reading this one - it's frikin' epic!
Stranded in Beijing, 19th - 20th December 2010
This was the beginning of a very emotional and draining 52 hour journey home.
Ok, I need to calm down. Let's make a list of everything I need:
I have £17 cash, a maxed out credit card and no ATM card. Genius!
All London Airports are closed, and so are virtually all UK airports
BA are not answering the f***ing phone & advising not to travel to the airport, where exactly I'm meant to go then I have no idea.
What the hell do I do?!
I obviously wasn't on a package holiday, so there were no transfer buses, no holiday reps and no resort office to speak to. The first idea involved spending over 4 hours trying to contact British Airways on Skype. I had £10 credit left on Skype and it was soul destroying watching the credit count down each time an automated system answered, then for the duration of being on hold, before the system actually cut me off! I couldn't top up my Skype credit, or make a phone call from a payphone as I had no other means of payment. Also, the internet connection suddenly stopped working in my room, so I had to go sit downstairs in a really noisy and freezing cold reception for 4 hours - all just adding to the stress. All I knew from BA was that they were advising not to travel to the airport. Easy said, but when you have nowhere else to go, you don't have many more options. I then decided to call Beijing Airport, Cathay Pacific and Qantas. Again, all of which never answered the fecking phone!
I was at an absolute loss as to what to do.I had £17, and it cost £10 each way to the airport. If I'd of had more money I would have simply gone to the airport that night to find out what was going on, got a cab back, got a good nights sleep and started again the next day. But that simply wasn't an option as I only had enough money for 1 cab journey and a small amount of food.
To make matters even worse, my adorable mum then decided to Skype me, and tell me of the thick snow falling creating a beautiful winter wonderland. She also said it's just as well I'm not going home for Xmas as they've shut all the airports and have no idea when they will reopen. She had no idea that I was trying to come home as a surprise for Christmas, and I was virtually in tears. After making my excuses, I said to mum that I needed to speak to Dad about her Christmas present and then gave him the full update. He sorted out a money transfer with Western Union which I could pick up the next morning. Phew. Decided to go to bed and hopefully tomorrow would be a better day.
That night, the last night of my travels was spent mainly awake, very worried and feeling very alone. A far cry from what I had been imagining the past 8 months. I'd imagined the last night as being out drinking with newly made friends and reminiscing over the amazing times I'd had whilst being away. This was honestly the lowest and loneliest part of my trip.I already felt so home sick, and now not knowing how / when I would get home, and having no-one to talk to about it was such a horrible time.
I was told the Western Union kiosk was in the Post Office and that it opened at 8am. As I had absolutely no idea where this place was, and because I couldn't sleep I got up around 5am, packed all my stuff and then headed out. The plan was to pick up the money at 8, head straight back to the hostel and get my bag, and hopefully be at the airport around 9.30. Clearly that was a silly, silly thought.
Without sounding dramatic, this morning turned out to be one of the worst days of my life.Probably not helped by having no sleep, but to help you envisage what I was going through, I'm going to be even more descriptive than normal.
I walked out of the hostel and it was still dark.The sun was only just rising, and I was walking around a freezing, dark & gloomy Beijing. The thickness of smog in the air was making my eyes water, and I had to walk around with a scarf over my mouth. You know when you walk past a building site and there's a lot of dust. It was just like that but everywhere, and with every breath I could feel more and more dusty smog seeping into my lungs. I cannot even begin to describe how much I wanted to leave this place.
The problem with looking for somewhere when in Beijing is that everything is written in symbols. It's not even like when you go to Spain and you can figure out the name - I couldn't even read the language.So asking for directions (I spoke more Manadarin than anyone here spoke English) and trying to read signs was actually impossible. Wherever I was staying made me feel like I was in a really isolated Chinese village, as everything was just so alien.
I got to a green Post office building at 7.45am, and sat and waited for it to open on the freezing cold step. When it still hadn't opened at 8.30 I decided to go spend the last of my money and buy something for breakfast. I got back to the Post office and when I walked in I realised I couldn't see a single Western Union sign. I then tried to ask the woman for the Western Union place, but of course it's not even called that in Chinese and doesn't look like what I was writing. It was absolutely soul destroying. I literally didn't know anyone, couldn't get home, couldn't speak the language or make any sense of it, had no money and was now totally lost. She had no idea what I was saying, so I left the building and decided to see if I could find it on foot. I was now walking around wiping away the silent tears, trying to hold it together as much as I could so I didn't turn into a hysterical wreck. After a solid hour of walking around I decided the only option was to return to the hostel and beg the girl on reception to leave her post, and come out and show me where this frikin building was.
I'd now been trying to find this building for 2 hours, and I was absolutely frozen to the core.Down one of the side streets I then saw a big green postoffice - halleluiah, maybe this one will have a Western Union. It did. I can't even explain the feeling that hit me when I walked in and saw the sign. Unfortunately, getting the money proved to be rather difficult.There were loads of people and no clear sign of what you had to do in there. I then noticed numbers being called and realised there was a machine where you got tickets from. It was of course all in Chinese, so I went and got the Security guard and got him to get me a ticket. I think he could see by the state of me that I desperately needed help, and I clearly wasn't going to be going anywhere. He got me my ticket, and I waited in line. Would you believe that a man tried to cut in front of me when it was my turn. I'm sure he didn't understand the words I was saying, but I was having no more of the rude, pushing in, no mannered cultured and he very quickly moved off of the chair and let me sit down.
It took nearly an hour at the counter to get the money, and it was actually quite baffling the procedures they had to go through. I'd done a few of these over the past couple of months, but this was by far the most bizarre experience of them all. Firstly, it was run by very stern faced staff who were wearing some kind of military uniform. Then I had to sign loads of forms, and be interviewed by one of the them who kept asking the same questions over and over. I suppose £500 is a lot of money to a Chinese person, but to someone trying to arrange flights, hotels and transportation from China to England it's nothing. Everyone of the 4 copies of every form I had signed, was then stamped. They clearly didn't understand that they could stamp it hard once, and being a duplicate it would come through, but they stamped each copy precisely and perfectly, then folded it, filed it and then stamped the next copy. It took f***ing ages! I was so frustrated I wanted to jump over the counter and smash her around the head. Will you hurry the f*** up!!
By this point I'd started thinking of everything in the season 24 style count down clock.'The stamping of every carbon copy one each document, occurred between the hours of 10am and 11am on the day of trying to my ass back to England'. I had clearly become delusional.
The woman asked me if I wanted it in US$ or Chinese Yen. Hahaha this nutter is hilarious - 5,000 yen would have been in almost as many notes & I would have needed a frikin suitcase, strangely I opted for the us$.
I then ran back to the hostel as fast as my little legs could carry me. I also chose to run encase someone had seen the cash being counted out and decided to jump me for it. I ran up to my room, grabbed my bag, almost slam dunked the key on reception and jumped in a taxi.I was on my way outta here!
My taxi driver liked driving Lewis Hamilton style and he raced so fast to the airport I was surprised when we got there in one piece.
I was really noticing how hard travelling by myself at this point. If I thought I had a thick skin before I left, I can certainly tell you 2 months travelling through Asia on my own has made it even thicker!
So I arrived at the airport and all is calm with hardly any people (probably as I've turned up 1 hour after the flight was due to take off, so everyone's already been & gone). British Airways staff on the ground were absolutely amazing, and I had 3 of them trying to help me.
They very kindly told me that the flights couldn't leave for another 2 days yet, and that if it snowed anymore then there would be further delays. Obviously, it would be BAs responsibility to put me up in a hotel and pay for my food, but I wasn't having any of it. That would of taken me up to sitting around here until Wednesday 22rd at the earliest, and I just wasn't going to risk it. I'm not missing Christmas because of some frikin white stuff! That and I didn't think my lungs would be able to take another 2 days in this hell hole.
So I very calmly explained (so calmly they must of thought I was about to pull out a machine gun like in the movie Falling Down) that that wasn't an option, and they infact needed to pay for another flight to get me as close as they could to London and I would handle it from there.
This proved to bit of a problem. Not only was England not accepting flights, but Spain's Air Traffic Control was on Strike so air traffic in Europe was at a standstill, and Eurostar had been shut down twice in the last week due to the snow and technical difficulties. Hmmmm slight dilemma but I don't care - get me as close as you can & I don't care if I have to walk the rest! They eventually transferred my flight to Air France and put me on a plane to Paris.
The flight left in 5 hours, was then delayed by a further 2 hours, and then sat on the tarmac for another 1.5 hours, but I really didn't care.Just as long as I was heading in the right direction.
Whilst waiting for the flight I also learnt that the queue at Eurostar in London was so big they had started turning people away until Tuesday and had brought in the Salvation Army to look after the people at the Station. Now I'm not really a betting kinda gal, but I would definitely bet there's nothing like that in Paris!
One absolute bonus that was thrown my way, was that I was accidently upgraded to Business class!! Lol I got on the plane and naturally walked straight through to the Economy cabin, but noticed that the numbers started from 21 and was in row 14. I then had to make my way back through all the other people trying to get to their seats and take my upgrade one. They were all looking me at me like I was an idiot and clearly too stupid to know what class cabin I was sitting in hehehe.
Whilst sitting on the tarmac, literally praying that we took off, I realised I could no longer think of this journey in one piece. I had started to break it into smaller, more manageable pieces. Right now the priority was for the plane to take off and then for it to arrive at the correct destination.I would figure the rest out as I went.
Paris 20th - 21st December
Well this wasn't on the itinerary!!!
By the time I had got to Paris I was walking around in a hazy, exhausted dreamlike state. I'm not even talking about the kind of exhaustion that being in 5 countries in 1.5 weeks brings, I'm talking about the sleep deprivation (maybe 6 hours in 3 days), jetlagged to the point I didn't know my ass from my elbow, and trying to make sense of things that just don't make sense and whilst it's all in French. Massive improvement obviously on it all being in Chinese, but confusing nether-the-less.
I had no Euros, no European adapters = no phone / laptop charger & no where to stay.
Due to this I started writing everything in bullet points, and I've decided to leave it like that as I feel it really gets across my ongoing mission.
Landed in Paris - everywhere covered in snow, strange how they manage to land planes!
Nightmare scenes at the airport with thousands of people. Luggage was late, very late - 1 blimin hour.
Went on the hunt for somewhere open that can change US dollar for Euros at 10pm at night (I also have Chinese Yen, Thai Baht, Cambodian Riel & Vietnamese Dong if that helps)
Queue for train tickets was insane. Reckon it would have taken at least an hour to queue, so grabbed a taxi.50 Euros from Charles de Gaulle Airport to the Gare du Nord Station. 50 frikin Euros!!
Thought due to all the problems Eurostar would have counters open 24 hours, but there was no-one there.
Went on the search for a hotel in the centre of Paris, 4 days before Christmas.Result was cheapest hotel costing 150 Euros.
4 hours sleep later, (the most expensive sleep I've ever had) I walked over to the train station at 6.45am, thinking it would be empty.
However, there must have been 5000 people in the queue! I would have been standing in that all day and there is no way that all the people in that queue would be getting home before Christmas.
I tried to buy a ticket from the computer kiosk but it said that my card was unsupported! It's MasterCard for f*** sake! How the hell can it be unsupported? With it being my only card left and with there being no windows available (unless I want to stand at the back of a 5000 strong queue) the options were vastly diminishing.
Seriously, what do I do?
I figured I would grab a taxi to Calais, maybe a few hundred Euros and I would ask a load of people in the Eurostar queue if they wanted to share it with me.
I thought I'd try the machine one last time, but with a load of different options, and low and behold it worked!!!! :) Woo-hoo!!! Hahaha here I am 'back packing' and I've flown from Beijing to Paris, Business class, spent 150 Euros on a central Parisian hotel for one night, and am now travelling first class on 2 trains to Calais - pmsl. Flash packer more like!
I had an hour to kill til my train so grabbed some breakfast, packed my stuff up and walked back across the road to the train station.
Train was delayed by 45 mins, hugged an outdoor heaters til the train arrived.
Where the hell are a pair of Dorothy shoes when you need them?
Train from Gare du Nord - Lille Flandres
Subway from Lille Flandres - Lille Europe
Train from Lille Europe - Calais Ville
Walk from Calais Ville until we commandeered a bus.The buses weren't stopping, until the whole train (maybe 40 people) all with suitcases, and just as knackered and pissed off as me stood in the road, forced the bus to stop and all got on just shouting 'Calais Ferry!'
Bus from Calais Ville to Calais ferry terminal
3 hour wait for a ferry that leave once an hour!
Sat on floor chatting to loads of people with similar stories.Even managed to use my phone charger and someone elses adapter to charge loads of peoples phones.
Ferry from Calais to Dover. Honestly thought it was going to hit an iceberg or something - couldn't believe this journey would ever be over, and was just waiting for the next thing to be thrown at me.
Shuttle to ferry terminal - finally my feet touched what I felt like to be Holy ground!
What should have been a simple flight home had taken nearly 52 hours. I was emotionally drained, exhausted, sleep deprived, jet lagged and could barely stand up.
One thought that did cross my mind though on the way home, whilst driving through the dark yet completely bone dry countryside was "Where is the f***ing snow?!" Seriously, not a single drop, no where in sight. In the words of Victor Meldrew I. Don't. Believe. It!
Jai's World Tour signing off; 7.5 months, 12 countries, 3 continents & a nightmare journey home! Heaven only knows how many thousands of miles, bus, train, tram, bike, boat & tuk tuk journeys. I've laughed, cried, made lifelong friends & seen some of the most amazing wonders of the world. I've literally had the time of my life & even made it home for Christmas :)
Over & Out.