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Team JiDa

Team JiDa prepares for takeoff

BEIJING — I’ve been to Beijing now on four other occasions, two because I had to visit the US embassy and two just for kicks, hardly adequate qualifications to be a tour guide. Nevertheless, I am “leading” two Chinese students and three newly arrived Americans around the capital like I know what I’m doing.

Hoo boy.

A few months ago, my son told me he was going to visit me in China, so I advised him to come in through Beijing. Shortly afterward, I learned that Max, Karen and daughter Haley would be coming to Jishou U. So, I suggested they could arrive about the time my son would leave from Beijing, so I could drop him off and pick them up. Instead, ticket prices rose, and James couldn’t come this year, but I decided to stick to the second part of the plan and visit Beijing anyway.

While I was riding around in a car in Anhui province the week before, I was chatting on QQ. The foreign affairs office at JiDa wants us to fly in and out of Changde now, instead of Changsha, since the Changde airport (though small) is two hours closer to Jishou than Changsha’s. Sally Liu (a student I blogged about a while ago) lives near Changde and was on QQ one day. It occurred to me I could meet her in Changde and see the town before flying to Beijing.

Then I thought, “What the heck? I might as well ask if she wants to go with me.” A translator would make navigating Beijing a lot easier, so on the spur of the moment I asked Sally to come along. Of course, she said yes, since I offered to pay for her airfare and hotel room. This would have been money I had already budgeted for James’ visit, so it was not a big deal. But, her parents said (understandably) that she could only go if another girl went along.

This part was not easy as you might expect, since most of the students at JiDa were working and thus not free to leave with us. In the end, Vanilla (yes, that’s her English name) sent me a text and asked if she could go. Of course, this meant I would have to pay for her airfare, as well. I hesitated, but only briefly. Both of them have good English speaking skills, and are both very personable. I figured we’d make a good hospitality team.

My foreign affairs officers were a little surprised I was dragging two students with me, and even more surprised when I said I was paying their way. But, no one said I couldn’t take them, so on the 16th, Sally, Vanilla and I boarded an Airbus A321 for Beijing.

A few quick words about the Changde airport. It’s so small that people in Changde don’t realize they even have an airport. Changde has a population of about 2 million, but the airport is about the size of an airport in a US city of about 60,000. Until China Southern Airways started flying out of Changde, the only planes using the airport were light planes, like Cessnas.

More surprisingly, China Southern apparently manages to fill the 125-seat Airbus on the Beijing run five times a week. (Only one afternoon flight in or out per day, though.) When I lived in Casper, Wyoming, and Owensboro, Kentucky, the planes I flew in were much smaller prop-jets. Scale matters — more people in China by far.

Sally and Vanilla had never flown before, and in fact had never been to Beijing, so this was a big adventure for them. Both said they were so excited the night before that they couldn’t fall asleep until 2 am, then woke up at 6 am for a 10 am flight.

I had booked two rooms online at a hotel I have used before. It’s close to a subway station, so we could tour Beijing easily until the Americans arrived late Wednesday night. My companions were keen to see Beijing University, Qinghua University and Tian’anmen Square, and we also were to have lunch with a former JiDa student of mine in her home on Tuesday. The three of us nearly wore ourselves out walking around two huge campuses, the Square (in the rain) and Beijing’s subway stations. The Beijing subway is logically laid out and easy to navigate, but there are many long walks, especially at transfer stations.

My master plan was to spend our free time touring, but also to find a comfortable and inexpensive hotel in a Beijing hutong. Beijing’s mass transit shuts down and taxi fares skyrocket after 10:30 (as I found out to my dismay on previous visits), so it was imperative the hotel also offer an airport shuttle service.

After some online research, we settled on visiting the Beijing Hutong Inn near the Bell and Drum Towers and Houhai, north of the Forbidden City. Though the staff there speaks English, Sally and Vanilla arranged for three rooms — including a family room — and the airport shuttle ride far more efficiently than I could have managed. Everything was in place by noontime, so Team JiDa was able to visit Tian’anmen and have a carefree celebratory dinner before meeting the voluble Mr Xiao and his cushy Mercedes airport shuttle van.

(I hesitated a bit at the 300 yuan ($45) price tag for the 40-minute airport run, but after seeing the van and meeting Mr Xiao, I realized it was money well spent. Xiao was really helpful, giving my students clear directions into the airport arrivals hall. Besides, hosts are not supposed to be cheapskates.)

Team JiDa, now doubled in size, stumbled into bed around 2:30 am on Thursday. The following days would include hitting some tourist sites, shopping and arranging our trip back to Changde and Jishou. I’ll blog about all that later on.
 

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