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Bristol - Heathrow - Shanghai - Harbin

You couldn't make this stuff up...

-25 °C
View Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival - Harbin 2014 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Half way through the afternoon we were both feeling very restless and decided to drive up to Heathrow earlier than normal. We figured it was better to sit at the airport and people-watch than to be bored at home. As soon as we arrived at the airport we saw Alan waving madly from the check-in queue. Catching up with Alan again was as if we last saw him only a couple of weeks ago, not five years!

We were really surprised at how unbelievably long the queue was for check in this early – it was still over four hours before departure time - and by the time we reached the desk, all the window seats were gone and the girl struggled to find seats for us together. She finally managed to find us two seats in one row and another in the row behind; but for the second leg of the journey we had three seats scattered around the plane. We had tried to check in on line several times over the last few days, but 99% of China Eastern's website was in Chinese and despite there supposedly being a page for checking in, we had been unable to.

China Eastern has a carry on allowance limit of 5kg and I started to panic when the check-in girl asked us all to place our hand luggage on the scales. Despite my bag weighing 9.2 kg, she very kindly waived the rules when I explained that the bag was full of camera equipment only, and I really didn't want to send it as checked luggage. Phew. I suppose the fact that our combined checked in bags weighed just 46kg (rather than the 60kg we were allowed) helped a lot.

To my horror, I found there was no Captain Morgan's Spiced in the Duty Free Store, so I ended up 'slumming it' with Bacardi Braveheart. Much to David's disappointment there was also no Thatcher's in the bar. What is this place coming to?

Despite the shambles at checking in, the flight itself was actually very pleasant, with plenty of legroom, good entertainment system with a wide choice of films, music and games, tasty food, friendly crew and no queues for the toilets. There was however boot marks on the seat where one or more Chinese had obviously been unable to adapt to not using a squat toilet. We even had enforced Tai Chi lessons for confined spaces on the seat back screens – which overrode anything else you may or may not have been watching at the time. My only complaint about the flight was that it got way too hot at one time making me feel really quite ill, which wasn't helped by the fact that David still has a temperature from the infection he has been battling the last few days, and it was like leaning against a radiator. I did, however, manage to catch around five hours sleep on the 11.5 hour overnight journey before we landed at Shanghai for our three hour layover.

We easily managed to change seats to sit together on the next flight too, and in fact we ended up with three seats for the two of us. The Chinese logic seems to be different to ours when it comes to seat numbering: the rows went 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 31, 32 and so on; and with a 3-3 configuration they named the seats ABC-JKL.

I also slept for a couple of hours on the flight from Shanghai to Harbin, against my better judgement as I wanted to be really tired for when we arrived at our hotel after midnight so that I could get some real sleep in a bed.

As the flight approached Harbin, the crew came round with great concern for our welfare, insisting that it was awfully cold outside and that we really should be wearing some more clothes. We did have plenty of clothing in the overhead locker, but unlike most passengers who were already wearing their thick coats and hats on the plane, we dressed for the temperature inside with just a T-shirt and trousers.

As soon as we stepped off the plane the cold hit us like a wall! At -25 °C outside, the difference would have been about 45 degrees, so it is perhaps not surprising. Just outside the terminal building we encountered our first coloured ice sculpture, and on the way between the airport and town was a huge ice fort on a roundabout. The streets nearer town were all lined with colourful traditional lanterns, giving a real festival atmosphere to the city, despite being completely deserted at that time in the morning.

Mr Safe, the driver, (what a reassuring name!) dropped us off just around the corner from the hotel while our two guides Sally and Vera (I haven't yet figured out why we have two. As Vera hasn't said a word beyond “hello” yet, I am wondering if she is in training) came in to the hotel to help check us in. Just as well really, as the receptionist's command of the English language was pretty exactly on par with my Chinese. There was a 400 Yuan deposit to pay, in cash, presumably in case of damages. Although we will obviously get that back on checking out, the last thing we want is to be left with cash (it is only around £40, but even so) just as we are leaving the country. They wouldn't accept my credit card as surety, but I did manage to negotiate it down to 200 Yuan.

David and Alan went off to find a store to buy water, following Sally's instructions of “turn left out of the door and go down the street”. Roughly translated that means “turn right out of the hotel and the store is on the left down the street”

Our rooms are on the fifth floor, 504 and 507, according to the numbers written on the card wallets by the receptionist. We cannot find 507 at all. Even numbers go down to 502 on one side of the corridor and after trying the key several times in the door of his room (504), Alan is confronted by its occupant opening the door from the inside. Oops. The other side of the corridor has odd numbers starting at 501 and finishing at 505. No 507.

After walking up and down the corridor several times to no avail, we give up and go back to the receptionist, who at this stage is horizontal on a makeshift bed behind the desk, created from three chairs, a mattress and a heavy quilt. I try to explain to her by pointing at the numbers and shrugging my shoulder, but she appears not to understand as she grabs the keys, reprograms them and hands them back to us. The feeling is mutual as we don't understand the long explanation in Chinese she gives in return. We did ascertain that Alan's room was not 504 (I think we'd gathered that by now) but in fact 509.

Eventually I manage to convince her to escort us by pointing at her and making an upward motion with my hand. Reluctantly she wakes the snoring security guard to look after reception while she comes in the lift with us to the fifth floor. Her somewhat smug expression (you could hear her thinking “stupid tourists cannot even find their rooms”) turns to bewilderment as she too is faced with a dead end where our rooms should be. Heading in the other direction of the U-shaped corridor, where the rooms number 514 upwards, she knocks on a broom cupboard door where the housekeeper is asleep. Eventually our two rooms are found (507 and 509), tucked away in a far corner beyond room number 530. Another example of Chinese numbering logic, no doubt.


To say the room is grubby is an understatement, with not even as much as a coat hook, let alone a cupboard or wardrobe; and what the heck is the giant orange exercise ball doing on our bed? No wonder we managed to reduce the surety to £20, I have doubts this place is even worth that much! By this time we are in need of a drink to unwind, so open the Bacardi Duty Free before collapsing into the very hard Chinese-style bed after a 26 hour journey. Welcome to Harbin.


Posted by Grete Howard 16:09 Archived in China

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Wow! What trials and tribulations indeed!
You will have an incredible experience which will make up for it I'm sure.
I'm laughing about a *certain someone* being faced with having to endure that type of hotel…….hehehe

by Homer

Thing's can only get better! I am sure they will.

by Lyn

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