The flight was uneventful, although, it being some time since I last travelled in economy, I had forgotten how cramped the seats were. The food choice was chicken with rice or fish with rice – good to have a varied choice. I plugged in my noise cancelling headphones and amused myself by catching up with the Big Bang Theory and the time went quickly enough.
I was due to be met at arrivals but my agent was late and I had to call her to find out where she was. I found a place to have a coffee while I waited, and she eventually arrived with her husband; it was now 90 minutes after my flight had landed. They took me to my hotel and I threw my bags in the room and immediately left with them to have dinner – I wasn't that hungry but it seemed rude to refuse. We had to wait 30 minutes for a table but the food was pretty good and the conversation unforced – he was a research chemist working on polymers, and although she worked in sales, she had a master’s degree in microelectronics – what a waste. Coincidentally one of the protagonists in my last novel includes a chemist who is working in sales instead of in her chosen field. It was 9 p.m. by the time we finished and we took a taxi back to the hotel so they could pick up their car, and I retreated to the lounge to have a nightcap. I was surprised to find how busy reception was – it was Sunday evening after all, but all the comings and goings made for some good entertainment. In particular an older looking Chinese man came into the bar and ordered some wine. He just gulped the glass down in one go and then ordered a short of some type, vodka I think, and repeated the action. He then left. I mention this because I was to meet him again, later that night. On my way back to the room the elevator got stuck between floors - I got to press the alarm button for the first time in my life. It eventually rebooted itself and allowed me to choose the floor above mine, where I got out and walked down the fire escape to my room. It was now well past my normal bedtime and I had started to wake up again so I found one of those mini bottles of wine in the mini-bar and read the on-line news. A man, outside my room, then started shouting something which I didn’t understand and someone tried to open the door to my room. I looked out through the peephole to find the afore-mentioned Chinese man, completely naked, stumbling up and down the corridor. He became increasingly agitated and started shouting louder. Eventually someone appeared from another room and guided him back to his room. There were some murmured discussions and then all was quiet. I finished my wine and went to sleep.
Monday. Today should be a relatively quiet day. I formally meet my agents today (for the first time) and provide them with some training on our products. At some point we will then leave Shanghai and travel down to Hangzhou to meet our first customer – the company that copied our idea two years ago – although this a different division and different product. I thought, sod it, after having initially thought to ignore them, I might as well get something out of them if I can. Also, this company is a previous customer of my agent, and I thought it might harm relations with them if I refused to deal with them at this early stage.
Tuesday. I am shattered. Yesterday’s training took all day and apart from a quick lunch (in which I ate almost nothing as I was still answering questions) I talked almost non-stop for the entire day. We (myself and one of the agents - Lily) then had to cross Shanghai at rush hour, I with my demonstration equipment and luggage – Lily with her suitcase) to get the train station. By the time we got to Hangzhou on the high speed train it was 9 p.m. and by the time Lily guided the taxi driver to our hotel it was almost 10 p.m. The hotel had been booked by our customer and although the rooms were OK, it had the look of a borstal. Importantly it had no bar or restaurant and being an industrial area there was nowhere still open. I was hungry – I hadn’t eaten all day but too tired to care and aware of what would be a long day today, we returned to the hotel. But luckily, just around the side of the hotel, was a small shop that was still open, so you found this writer, sitting at his computer at 11 p.m. with his intermittent wi-fi, drinking a can of TsingTao beer and eating a box of cookies and a packet of crisps. The glamour of business travel.
Wednesday: The worst day is over, and as usual, it didn’t turn out as bad as expected. You know a meeting/demonstration is going well when you find your viewers start multiplying in numbers. The head engineer, who had previously wandered off, returns and starts asking questions. Another engineer starts getting ideas: ‘Oh, if you can do this, could you then also…’ Lily left me in the afternoon as she had to sort out a problem with another customer. We met for dinner at a nice restaurant she had found on-line… Her problem sorted out, mine almost certainly to now order. Nice food, nice conversation, a couple of local beers and a good night’s sleep (for me at least – I have yet to meet Lily for breakfast). Today, we return with an action plan and then we are off to Fuzhou.
Thursday: I have never smoked, not even a quick drag behind the bike sheds and I dislike the smell intensely – given all that China is not really the country for me. There are laws against smoking but they seem to be unenforced and ignored. My hotel rooms are non-smoking on non-smoking floors, yet they have ashtrays and boxes of matches in them. By the elevator of my floor is one of those sand bowls for discarded fag butts – it is nearly full. I wonder what it must be like on the smoking floors. Everywhere in the hotel is the stale smell of smoke. Everywhere I walk, I wade through the wake of a million smokers. I sit in a restaurant underneath a non-smoking sign and the on the table next to me someone lights up and the waitress brings him an ashtray. He blows smoke rings into the air while I try to attract the waitress’s attention to order a small bowl of gasoline.
Friday: The taxi drove straight out of the side street into the main stream of traffic (cars in China have no brakes – instead they are equipped with a magical horn that if sounded often enough and loud enough makes the car in front disappear. This is my preferred theory, my first thought was that cars in China had become sentient and the horns were their way of communicating with each other). I’m not sure if he looked to see if his way was obstructed - it would have gone against type if he had - but in any case it would not have mattered, because a scooter, riding at speed along the pavement, ran in front of him and we rammed into him. As the scooter man pulled himself upright, he entered into an informed and polite discussion with the taxi driver as to who was perhaps at fault. I looked at Lily and suggested we find another taxi, but she said to wait, and as the taxi driver finally decided to inspect the damage, slammed his hand into the side of the scooter to reaffix some plastic side panel, we left for our customer to the poetic Chinese wailing and fist waving of the scooter man. We were booked, unknown to me, to return to Shanghai by train. As my flight was very early on Saturday I was to stay overnight at an airport hotel. However, even on the high speed train we wouldn’t get to Shanghai until 11 p.m., and then I would have to cross Shanghai on the train or taxi which could take up to two hours. By then the hotel would have been an unnecessary luxury. So instead we flew directly back to Pudong airport. And, given it was China Eastern, I was somewhat surprised when we landed at our intended destination (or achieved a controlled landing rather a rather more rapid descent) and that it was still the same week (I just 40 minutes late for the one hour flight). This was my first flight on any Chinese airline (as an atheist I try to extend my life on this planet as long as possible) but it offered all the usual facilities of other, perhaps more famous, airlines, such as the screaming child, the passenger with a terminal wasting disease coughing phlegm into the air, the unrecognisable snack and the zombie-like service. The luggage took only 45 minutes to appear, and by 11 p.m. I was to be found in the sky bar of the hotel drinking a glass of, what could only be described as an interesting, Chinese red wine (all they had from the non-extensive wine list), alone save for one older couple (and yes, the man was smoking).
Saturday: Going home. I got to the Thai Airways’ check-in counter at 5.45 a.m. and although momentarily appalled by the length of queue I spotted the gold card queue, which was nonetheless longer than normal. There were four counters for the business/gold card check-in. After 40 minutes, as I offered my passport to the somewhat flustered man behind the counter, two of those desks still had the same people in front of them as when I had arrived. I forcefully stared at the women next to me hoping she would feel my hatred. She had produced reams of paper from her bag and pointedly gestured that “she had two tickets to Bangkok”: now she was a large lady I admit – but two tickets? She was American. By the time I negotiated the queues for immigration and security my flight was already boarding. But of course it did not leave promptly and we were 45 minutes late before we pushed back from the gate. But as economy was only half full, I have a couple of seats to myself, I have found Pink Floyd on the entertainment system, and I am going home.
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