Thursday, May 13, 2010

Kitty and Penny's Excellent China Adventure Prologue, Chapter 1-Under Construction

Readers note: Sister Penny’s thoughts  are in blue


China trip, 2008


Prologue:


My elder sister Penny and I were going to China! Her son, Nate, married Liping - a
woman from China, and Penny and I decided to take her up on her offer of room,
board, tour guide, and translator. We'd planned the trip, albeit not seriously, for
about three years. Penny had offered to pay my airfare since she had a job that
paid well and I did not and in January 2008, she bought us tickets via Yahoo Travel
since Liping planned to be in China from March-May. We began feverishly planning
our trip to Kunming, Yunnan, China. I was to fly out of Williston, North Dakota
(About 100 miles from my home) to Denver, Colorado near where my sister lives
(Greeley) and we would continue on together. Kitty and Penny's sister's trip of a
lifetime was scheduled to commence on May 1, 2008.


Chapter One


Day one, April 30, 2008




My husband Jim and I readied our house for a day of vacancy, Erv (stands for
Emergency Recreational Vehicle - is an ambulance converted into an RV) for a day in
Williston and me for my China trip. Our first mission in Williston was to turn my
cash into travelers' checks. It was a beautiful sunny day and I was anticipating a
smooth trip all the way around. Little could I have known what was to come!




I should have known there would be trouble after having been issued paper tickets by
Korean Airlines that had several changes made to them after I received them due to
not enough time to make connections, overnight stays with no connections, or
insufficient time to clear customs, etc. But, being the optimist that I am, thought
nothing of it and prepared to get all squared away at the airport in Williston.


I happily went into US Bank in Williston to get my traveler's checks, having called
the week before and I was told, "Yes, we have international travelers' checks." I
get into the bank and gee, no, they only have US travelers' checks! If "John" had
been there at that time, I may have wrapped my hands around his throat to show him
the error of his ways but, he wasn't and I couldn't take it out on the ladies who
HAD NOT given me bad information on international travelers' checks. I left and
checked with four other banks that, of course, did not have travelers' checks
either! My trip to China now required me to take US funds in a money belt.




Undaunted, we went to Wal-mart to buy socks and candy for gifts and I packed my
suitcases. We then went to the airport, as I wanted to check and see if I could
switch my paper tickets for correct ones so they'd reflect the flights I was
actually scheduled to fly. Great Lakes Aviation could not help me but, I did get my
luggage weighed and learned I had to re-pack as one bag was nearly 70 pounds and the
other was nearly 30. Back we went to Wal-mart to buy a new bag. I got a wheeled
duffel and it turned out to be the best bag of the trip (I'll get into that more
later). I felt I was all set to travel! I just had to get up at 330 a.m. our time to
be inside the airport at 0430 to check in.




We set up camp in the airport parking lot and neither of us slept well at all. Time
came to get up and I readied myself for the trip. I hauled my bags inside the
airport while Jim made coffee. I was greeted inside the airport by, "Are you our
international?" I said that I was. The agent told me, " Our flight has been
canceled, the plane is grounded due to mechanical difficulties." Gee, this was not
the smooth start I'd anticipated!




I asked the agent where we went from there and she said there was a later flight and
that she'd try to reschedule me on it, but, that I would not make my Denver
connection and my sister. It was the only option I had to I agreed to it.
I immediately went out and told Jim what had happened (to which he said for the 10th
time since arriving in Williston that he would NEVER fly) and then called my sister.
It should be noted here that she called at 4 AM my time. My alarm was set for 5,
which I thought was pretty early in the AM. When the phone rang, I knew it couldn't be anything good. Has anyone EVER called you at 4 AM with good news? Not me.


I told her, "I'm not coming...." Her response (after a pause to process this) was, "What do
you mean you're not coming?" I explained to her and told her what was going on and
that I'd try to catch her in California." I also told her to check her tickets as
they were all screwed up too. The computer showed her going from California to
Washington with no flight connecting the two. Kitty informed me that the ticket
agent in Williston had 'fixed' both of our tickets. Kind lady. Unfortunately the
'fix' didn't seem to make it through the computer system and my tickets needed
further 'fixing' at DIA. I learned a valuable lesson as I soccer-kicked my enormous,
wheel-less bag through a full hour of check-in line, dragging the one big wheelie
and carrying the two also wheel-less carryon’s pack mule style. I learned that WHEELS
ARE ESSENTIAL! I traded out my big wheel-less for an old, large, and delightfully
wheeled bag Liping's parents had and bought a small wheeled carry-on at Wal-Mart
before leaving China.




The agent got me rescheduled to a different flight in Denver, headed to California
and I went back to Erv to have coffee. I brought Jim up to speed and we waited for
the next flight. Turns out it was the first day of the second flight, how lucky
could I get, right? I got a voicemail message (most of her calls did not ring
through and I got to hear it all on voicemail and was not able to ask questions -
very frustrating!) Said she was leaving Williston at 7:20 and should arrive in
Denver at 9:10. Since my Denver flight was 9:20, it didn't look real good for her
catching it. She was going to try and catch up with me in San Francisco, where we
had perhaps a 2 hour lay-over.




Time came to go through security and I boarded the plane. I thought we were going to
Dickinson, ND and then Denver and when a lady mentioned she was going to Gillette,
Wyoming, it should have been a clue for me! We landed in Dickinson, passengers got
off and some got on and we took off again only to come in for another landing in
Gillette! In Gillette, we had to refuel and since it was heavily snowing, de-ice the
plane.


Here you see my airplane window, coated in heavy, wet snow.






Once back in the air, the copilot told me I was NOT going to make my Denver
connection. From bad luck to worse, it now seemed. Many thoughts went through my
head and I was feeling quite sorry for my self (and my sister) at this point.






We arrived in Denver, having already taken off and landed three times, to find a
full scale blizzard raging. I was told to go to the counter and see if they could
reschedule me to another flight and MAYBE get me to California in time to meet my
sister for the flight to China. I got to the Great Lakes Gate and was met by a surly
agent who informed me that SHE could not help me. I then went to my United gate and
was told to go to the customer counter where I encountered a LONG line of unhappy
people with destinations like Florida, Philly, DC and the like. People were
complaining like mad and I finally loudly exclaimed that I was going to China and my
missed flights trumped theirs! They did get a bit quieter and slowly I advanced
toward an agent. I gave out all the candy I had in my carry on and tried to keep the
peace. Hours later, when my turn came, a lovely agent helped me as best she could.
She tried to get Korean Air to let me fly another airline out of California or
anywhere but they REFUSED. I was stuck with the next available Korean air flights
which meant I go to Sacramento, CA and wait until May 8th for a flight (eight
days=Unacceptable!) Or go to Seattle and wait three days until Saturday. I chose
Seattle as the lesser of two evils and got a boarding pass for the flight out of
Denver. The agent must have known that I would need the information documented and
proceeded to enter everything that happened to me thus far into the United Airlines
database. This would later prove to be invaluable.


Notes from traveler 1:
Had a nice lunch at the food
court in San Francisco. Went for Mexican food, as I was pretty sure I wouldn't get
any for 17 days. Another voicemail message, this time I think she borrowed a
cellphone from some nice person in line in Denver. Told me the de-icing story and
the rest of the sad saga of not meeting me in San Francisco. Was tempted to go home,
but since she was a sporting person, was heading for Seattle and hoping to get out
in a few days. I'm sure people around me were glancing my way as I kept listening to

my messages and saying 'what? What? And perhaps some bad words, I can't really
remember. Sure felt like I was on a roller coaster.


I called my sister and told her, "I'm really not coming!" Her response was silence,
as you can imagine after dreaming of this trip for three years and finally having a
plan for the past five months! I filled her in and told her I'd come when I could
and to keep in touch with Nate (her son) as I'd do the same. I wished her a good
trip and hung up. By now, I was VERY emotional and bawling my eyes out. The thought
of her going alone to China was not a happy one for me.


I went to my gate and called Jim to update him on my situation. I got phone numbers
for my cousin Kent, in Seattle as I would now be homeless there for three days while
I waited for the next Korean airlines flight out to China. I could not get in touch
with cousin Kent so Jim called his cousin Bruce and he agreed to rescue me at the
airport in Seattle, bless his heart.




I had a plan, even if it was a bit shaky and not at ALL what I had hoped for. I
didn't have time to worry about the fact that I had NEVER met Jim's cousin Bruce and
his family, who I would now be staying with for the next three days!




The flight board insisted that my flight to Seattle was on time but I knew better as
the time of departure came and went and we had not yet boarded the flight. Finally
we were boarded and we sat and sat, not moving a twitch. The pilots came on the PA
and announced that a "problem" had been discovered on a ground inspection and now we
were waiting for a mechanic. A later announcement by the pilot informed us that a
peto tube had been broken off the plane's nose by a cord being drug past it and we
couldn't fly without it (necessary for air speed). A mechanic would determine if the
part was on hand or if we'd need to do a plane change and this would take about an
hour. The hour came and went and the next announcement was that the part was on
hand, installed and the mechanic was doing the paperwork. Good news!


We were finally ready to get in line for deicing! Things were looking up when
suddenly the plane went dead, black and quiet. A pilot sitting a few seats over told
me that most likely due to the extended time idling, the plane had overheated and we
were now going to have to wait for it to cool down. Once it cooled and the plane was
re-started, we would have to wait about 10 minutes for the navigation controls to
synchronize before it would be safe to move the plane.


All I could do was laugh with each new development. I almost felt as if something
was trying to keep me in the US!




Eventually, the plane was re-started and all was functional, allowing us to now move
to the deicing line! We had many inches of heavy, wet snow piled upon the plane and
until it was removed, we weren't going anywhere!




Our turn came and we were de-iced by a truck with a cab on top. The operator of the
deicer sat in the cab and remotely ran the controls. There must have been
communication between the truck driver and the operator in the little "sky cab." It
was interesting although it took quite awhile before we were deiced and cleared for
take off.







The flight to Seattle was uneventful after we finally got going and I tried to
remain hopeful that I would get to China as I admired Mt Rainier in the sunlight on the way by.









After landing, I called Bruce and made
arrangements to meet him outside the Korean airlines desk. I learned my luggage had
been transferred to Korean Airlines since I was scheduled to fly on their airline on
Saturday. (This was all Thursday, May 1st). I found the Korean desk only to see a
sign that said the desk was only open on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday from 10:00
a.m.-1:30:00 p.m.! My heart sank. I now had no way to get information, help getting
a flight or my luggage!




I accepted defeat for the day and went to the curb to meet Jim's cousin who I had
described myself and my clothing to. When he didn't come, I called again and found
out he was circling the arrival area and I was at the departure area. He found me
and I got in, relieved to be going somewhere. Bruce dialed Jim and I informed him
that I was safe.


Here are my rescuers:  Bruce, Becky and EJ.


The next day, I started calling Korean Airline's 800 number. I called them many
times in hopes that one of them would actually want to help me. One agent told me,
"You no show- you buy new ticket." One told me I needed to get my ticket to LA to
their office by 5pm that day to get a new ticket. Yet another told me, "I cannot
help you, you need to talk to ticketing- come to the airport tomorrow." Another told
me that I had to pay a penalty because I was wanting to change the date of departure
and that I would also have to pay the fare differences between the date of purchase
(January) and the fares that day on all flights, even the ones I'd already flown. To
top it all off, they informed me that I would have to sit in Seoul, South Korea for
about 30 hours, on my own, with no meal voucher or any visible means of support from
Korean Airlines!!!


I was highly upset by all this information and I vacillated between being very angry
and very sad. I knew that a new ticket on Korean Airlines would cost me several
thousand, minimum and I was not about to give them one red cent more after the
treatment I'd been receiving from them. I decided to book a trip home on Amtrak and
admit defeat. Jim suggested I visit Aunt Maggie and kids in Kalispell and I booked
the trip to Kalispell on the train. I had a plan. I was to leave Saturday, May 3rd
on Amtrak to Whitefish, MT. Jim said to just come home and he'd take me camping. Is
that sweet or what?


Saturday morning came and I was re-packed for my train trip home. Bruce and I loaded
up and were heading to the airport to get my luggage from Korean airlines (they
WOULD be open from 10:00-1:30 that day). On the way to the airport I got a call from
my nephew, Nate, telling me that he found airfare to China for 1300 bucks, round
trip from Seattle, on United airlines and Air China. I called Jim and he told me to
get out the credit card and go if I wanted to, that I could worry about a refund
later. Between them, they talked me off the "ledge of fear and disappointment" and I
decided to go for it! I as once again, going to China! (Maybe....)




At the airport, we get to Korean's office only to discover that my brand-new
suitcase that I got for Christmas and had NEVER been used has a wheel broken CLEAR
off. Oh, well. Nothing I could do about that right then. We proceeded to United's
desk (Northern most tip of departures from Korean at the southern most tip of
departures) and I got in line. Once at the desk, the rep told me that a ticket was
$2500. I explained that my nephew had found the ticket for 1300 bucks online and she
said she would see if she could "massage" the price a bit. While she did so, I
proceeded to explain to her what had all happened to my "sister's trip of a
lifetime" thus far. She worked quite awhile and eventually came up with a price of
$1217! That was quite a massage! I did request that I NOT be given paper tickets,
after my previous problem with paper tickets. I didn't have to worry as United and
Air China are partners so, neither would leave me hanging like Korean did. And....really, why would Korean care? They had all my money and didn't have to haul me

ANYWHERE. Win/Win for them....




So now I had a paid train ticket to Whitefish and a paid airline ticket to China
(make that two paid tickets to China!) I called Amtrak and found that I would be out
the $52 that I spent on the ticket to Whitefish (oh, well). I then scheduled a trip
home for May 17th, following my return to Seattle from China on the 16th. I
contacted my cousin who agreed to pick me up at the airport and put me up overnight,
dropping me at Amtrak the following day. I was once again set to go to China!


(Maybe...)




Bruce and I got coffee and I re-packed my things, once again, for flight. I called
Jim and Nate and asked them to spread the word that I my trip to China was once
again on. (Maybe). I decided I'd best find my departure gate and bid Bruce farewell
after thanking him profusely for their kind hospitality. I was once again headed off
into the wild blue yonder! (No thanks to Korean Airlines, mind you!)
really, why would Korean care? They had all my money and didn't have to haul me

ANYWHERE. Win/Win for them....


So now I had a paid train ticket to Whitefish and a paid airline ticket to China
(make that two paid tickets to China!) I called Amtrak and found that I would be out
the $52 that I spent on the ticket to Whitefish (oh, well). I then scheduled a trip
home for May 17th, following my return to Seattle from China on the 16th. I
contacted my cousin who agreed to pick me up at the airport and put me up overnight,
dropping me at Amtrak the following day. I was once again set to go to China!
(Maybe...)


Bruce and I got coffee and I re-packed my things, once again, for flight. I called
Jim and Nate and asked them to spread the word that I my trip to China was once
again on. (Maybe). I decided I'd best find my departure gate and bid Bruce farewell
after thanking him profusely for their kind hospitality. I was once again headed off
into the wild blue yonder! (No thanks to Korean Airlines, mind you!)



Meanwhile, back to Traveler 1:


I am sitting on the aisle on Korean Airlines flight 24, San Francisco to Seoul.
We've been underway for about a half hour now and the flight attendants (with their
starched hair ribbons and neck scarves) have just come by for the fourth time. First
it was complimentary headphones and a small bag labeled 'for your comfort'. Inside I
find a sleeping mask, lanyard, mini toothbrush/toothpaste in a torpedo-shaped tube
-very cool - and a pair of socks. Yes, socks. I do not explain it, I just report it.
Next came a 'refreshing towel', then a basket to collect used towels and wrappers,
followed by beverage service. I spotted the wine bottles right away and noticed they
were pouring and NOT collecting money, so am currently sipping a rather nice little
white to go with my honey-roasted peanuts. I have also scoped out the seat-back
video screen. Has English options and games, news and movies. Also appears to be no
charge. Think I'll watch '27 dresses' since it is a chick flick and Bill's probably
not interested in it. And the 'bucket list'. Might save that one for the last leg of
my flight.




I have an aisle seat and an empty seat next to me. Where Kitty would be sitting if
she only could have gotten a flight out of Williston and/or Denver in time to make
this flight. But that's her side of the story. I have noticed a half dozen other
'pale people' on the flight, as well as 2 I would peg as from India. I am very much
in the minority. The window seat is occupied by a nice young girl who speaks English
as well as Korean, but dived right into a movie so I'm thinking there will be little
conversation for the next 12 hours or so. But I have my book and knitting and the
movie, plus I need a nap since Kitty called @ 4 AM to tell me her original fight was
cancelled. It's been quite a day so far...


Forgot to mention airlines seats are roomier and come stocked with pillow, blanked
and bottled water, which I sucked down to ease my ear pressure while I dug out my
gum. Definitely buying myself a wheeled carry-on as well as new knitting bag, with
compartments and some sort of closure for the return trip.




Hints for Kitty


Pee often - turbulence may keep you in your seat for hours, especially over the East
Sea, past Vladivostok. The flight attendants will chase you down and escort you back
to your seat if you attempt to go while the 'fasten seat belt' sign is on.


You get 2 meals and a snack plus many little cups of juice and water. The food is
bland - take the little tubes offered - they have a hot sauce paste in them. Com som
han mi dah is Korean for Thank You. Take 2 extra bottles of water on the flight.


Only 6 hours to go now - I'm 18 hours into this journey.


You can hang out in the little gallery around seat 40 and stretch, do knee bends,
etc. Also near the restrooms. There are 2 on one side, 1 on the other. The side with
2 might have shorter lines if you're in a hurry, say after turbulence, but hanging
around waiting feels pretty good. Any standing, after all that sitting. If you don't
need the little provided pillow for you neck, sit on it. The seats are a bit hard.


Flew into Incheon over water that is obviously not a harbor. Too shallow. And a
beautiful golf course.


Get an aisle seat if you can - you can stick your legs out straight for a bit here and there. Also no crawling over people when you need to pee.


The window shades are down all the time so you don't see anything. It's mostly
clouds or dark anyway. Nice young gal in the next seat over had grown up in Korea
and her family immigrated to the US 8 years ago (when she would have been in early
double-digits, by my guess). She was very helpful with the airplane information and
volume, etc, for the seatback TVs so I have her a dishcloth. This was her 3rd time
making the trip back to visit friends and family. The airplane info thing in the
seatback is cool - shows you a visual of where your plane is around the globe, and
contains info on how far you've come, how fast, and how far there is to go. Can be a
bit discouraging on a really long flight!


Seoul is hot and humid. They take American money at the airport. You don't have to
remove shoes, jackets or your Ziploc of liquids to go through security - just dump
your bags on the conveyor. Very quick. They did take my tiny folding scissors,
though, after I got through DIA and San Francisco with them.


Just follow the 'transfer' signs and the gate numbers are in a form you can read -
they use the same number system we do (as does China).






I think there must be size and shape requirements for Korean Airlines flight
attendants. They are all tall (of course, 3" heels help there) and narrow (for ease
of maneuvering on narrow aircraft aisles). The desk staff are not as tall, although
Koreans seem taller than Chinese. And I have not seen ONE obese person in the
country. USA has to doo something! Oh, and I think the stewardess uniforms must come
with granny panties. No thongs there... they look very cookie-cutter.


Believe I'll freshen my face here - only 5.5 hours to go. This is a killer trip. I
won't tell Kitty in case she would back out!


Flight from Seoul to Kunming was smaller - no tv. Also not full so I had an aisle
seat with empty window seat next to me. Lots of room to spread out and 2 pillows and
blankets. Woo-hoo! Flight was late boarding - I didn't quite catch why. Looks like 4
hours 5 minutes flight time so we shouldn't be late.


Looks like the exit row seats directly in front of me are going to be empty - I
might try to move. I'm 1 row from the restrooms - quite convenient. Will need some
water, though, or may not need a restroom. Beginning to feel a litte punchy - tired
and dehydrated? Probably. Been 23 hours since I left home.


Don't worry about eating in Seoul, they will feed you on the last leg of the flight.
I slept through the peanuts but recommend the pork. Picked veggie salad had little
shrimp - many of them. Could only taste the pickled flavor, but at them for the
protein. Can't say the same for the spinach. Mushy. Roll and butter, a pineapple
spear, mineral water, tea and a rather nice reisling topped it off. The yellow tea
bags are rather nasty, but the green are better.


There's a baby on this flight - the sleeper things for them that attach to the
bulkhead (a cloth basket with metal frame) are way cool. Wish they came in my size!
Although first class on the big plane looked nearly that comfy - footstools and each
seat was fort of a molded ½ cubicle.


I just saw a lady sneak up to the restroom when the seatbelt sign is on! Trick
appears to be to wait until all the crew are busy behind you and watch for your
opportunity. Wasn't 3 minutes ago a young man was apprehended only feet from the
door and returned to his seat after pointing out the seat belt sign to him. I
finally figured out the lighting system that lets you know when the restroom is
vacant. Duh.


They will try to hand you a customs slip for Korea - refuse it as you are not
entering the country. Do take the Arrival & Departure card you are given before
getting to China and fill it out. You will retain half of this for your entire stay
and DO NOT FAIL to present it when leaving the country.


By the way, airline bathrooms were perfectly clean and there were no squat toilets.