Saturday 15 September - Johannesburg to Hong Kong

Luckily Terry took me to the airport early. My travel colleagues (Gustav and Vinolan) both got caught up in immigration queues and just made it through in time to join the queue to board the flight! I on the other hand had time to buy some perfume and then relax in the business lounge until the boarding call was made. Gustav found me surveying the long queue. He was sitting towards the end of it, so I joined him and then we made our way through once it started moving. Only to find another long queue snaking down to the actual boarding desk! But the wonders of business class prevailed - economy queued to the left and we had "front of queue passes" down the right.

Actually, the plane was what decided me to write and share my experiences. We went upstairs to where our seats are and found that they are really little cubicles. I am sitting with my back at an angle to the window in a chair (that I think converts to a bed) and I have a cushioned foot rest that doubles up as somewhere to stow away my shoes and handbag. On my left is just a partition, but the one on my right has a TV screen that I can pull out to sit right in front of me. There is also a handset with buttons for everything in the panel. I can take it out of the niche if I want. I also have plugs to charge things! 

The flight was delayed as they had to remove baggage for people who did not board the flight. So, Vinolan, Gustav and I managed to catch up. Vinolan is in the cubicle to my left and Gustav is one further down on the other side. We were given fruit juice, toiletry bags, bottles of water and a lovely warm face cloth before we even took off. While taking off and climbing, I browsed through the magazine which also includes the duty free shopping. I see I could do some Christmas shopping - even for myself!

I am now sitting with a table pulled out from below my TV and we have been served pre-lunch drinks with salted nuts. I have been typing this and enjoying mine. But I think lunch is about to be served...

So far I have had a starter of sun-dried tomato and feta quenelles and a lovely fresh salad, all served on proper crockery with proper metal cutlery! I had forgotten how good the service is in business class, although this is certainly much different to my last experience. The main course is about to be served and I get to choose from beef, chicken, kingklip or pasta. Choices, choices...

Well, I chose the kingklip. This was followed by cheese and fruit. Then the most amazing chocolate cake and coffee. They called it an opera cake. It was divine, but sweet. I had the good sense to turn down the chocolate offered from a box of imported chocolates afterwards. Once everything was cleared away we were brought more hot towels. This is the life!

It is after 15h30 and I am now going to put my footrest up and read some magazines and my kindle. I have decided that it is weekend and the work reading can wait...

Sunday 16 September - Johannesburg to Hong Kong continued

Not long after I finished writing yesterday, they pulled down the blinds and dimmed the lights trying to fool us that it was night, but the body knows it is only 5pm so sleep was not forthcoming. I read some magazines and then read my kindle. They also came around for duty free so I bought a travel adaptor. It is a really nice one with place for 2 USB connections too. I decided to take the magazine with me and do any other shopping on the way home. 

I tried to sleep at least 3 times, but even with the chair almost flat, like a bed, it was impossible. They then woke us up for breakfast, when my watch said it was midnight. The body is really confused...! 

After breakfast I read some work stuff - ok I caved in! But then I read some more magazines.

We have landed at Hong Kong, but Vinolan and Gustav are on a later Cathay Pacific flight to Beijing while I am on an Air China flight that leaves in a couple of hours. There seems to be some confusion about the hotel too as they did not see the mail that came in on Friday. So I will find out what is happening when I land! Both of them had their boarding passes but, although my luggage was booked through, I still had to get mine. And then we had to go to different business lounges.

I at least managed to have a shower and now I am sitting in the lounge with wet hair, but at least I have short sleeves on and I feel clean! I have free wifi here, but it is only 02h45 back home so no one will be happy if I Whatsapp or call them.

I have been full of the joys of travel up until now, but HK and Air China has cured me of this... Everything proceeded as normal. I went across to the required gate with ample time to board. When I got onto the plane I had a window seat in the 2nd row and the gentleman (a Canadian) in the adjacent seat was just ahead of me, so he let me in before he even sat down. And then we waited, and waited, and waited. Eventually I put my kindle on so I could read, as the plane's doors had not even closed. At one stage 2 Chinese policemen climbed on the plane together with a young man but then they climbed off and still things did not progress. Eventually we disembarked more than an hour after the plane should have taken off.

To continue my tale of woe, I was sent from one place to the next to find out at was happening and then eventually back to the same boarding gate, where we started boarding at 14h30, after many more announced delays, and took off at 15h30 - a full 5 hours later than scheduled! We were told that there was something wrong with the plane's papers and that they had to find another pilot. The Canadian next to me said that the delay meant that the pilot they had could no longer fly as he was out of regulatory time boundaries. But it seemed to be much more complex - and doesn't explain the original delay.

I got into Beijing airport at 19h00 and had to make my way through passport control, catch a train to the baggage claim area, claim my baggage, go through customs, change money and find the taxi queue - which I duly did. The queue was a long one and when I got to the front the taxi driver did not understand where I wanted to go! He called another guy who said Westin and then rattled off to the guy. So off we went in hectic traffic despite it being a Sunday evening. When we got to the hotel I checked with them that it was the right one as I could not see any signs and it was a Westin but not Westin Financial Street. So off we went again. It was eventually after 21h00 when I got to the hotel... Exhausted and a little homesick! It is not often that you travel and language is such a big barrier. I really feel like a foreigner here.

Monday 17 September

I met the rest of the SA team early this morning (06h30). The South African contingent is made up of me (acquiring), Arnold (issuing), Grant (IT), Gustav (Africa) and Vinolan (operations). Our last member of the team, Chris from London, was only arriving late morning so Gustav had organised a tour guide and we were off to see some sights. Before going to the lobby I went to the breakfast buffet where I ate fruit salad and yoghurt and a small plate of cold meats etc. The buffet is huge with many things that I would not know how to put together into a meal. Ironically, there was only one person at a table at this stage of the morning - my Canadian colleague from the Air China flight!

Our first stop was the Great Wall of China. There are 5 stretches of wall around Beijing, 3 of which are able to be visited. The Badaling section is the most often visited and an easier climb, but at this time of year it is crowded with Chinese tourists. So we went instead to Ju Yong Guan, which is a much steeper climb. We were there early, but it was still very hot and the shops were not yet open for us to buy water. We climbed up towards a bottom landing and the steps were very uneven and high. I decided to let the guys carry on without me while I stood there and enjoyed the view. Eventually though I climbed up about a third of the way up and then sat on the step (as other people were doing) and enjoyed the view from there. Every time I thought about going up higher I reminded myself that I would still have to climb down! Instead I "made friends" - lots of people "spoke" to me (in broken English as most of the visitors were in fact Chinese or at least Asian or sign language). An old man told me how difficult the climb was as he slowly stepped his way up. Another couple checked I was ok - thumbs up was good for both question and answer, and then"asked" or rather gestured to ask to take my photo. And then another young lady sat down next to me and started up a conversation. When the guys came back she wanted to know who was my husband - they said I should have said all of them, but I answered honestly that we were business colleagues. Then she walked down with me and introduced me to her sister and asked her to take our photo! Terry says that the thought of all these photos of me floating around is scary!

From Wikipedia: The Great Wall of China is a series of fortifications made of stone, brick, tamped earth , wood, and other materials, generally built along an east-to-west line across the historical northern borders of China in part to protect the Chinese Empire or its prototypical states against intrusions by various nomadic groups or military incursions by various warlike peoples or forces. Several walls were being built as early as the 7th century BC; these, later joined together and made bigger, stronger, and unified are now collectively referred to as the Great Wall. Especially famous is the wall built between 220–206 BC by the first Emperor of China , Qin Shi Huang. Little of that wall remains. Since then, the Great Wall has on and off been rebuilt, maintained, and enhanced; the majority of the existing wall was reconstructed during the Ming Dynasty.

The biggest myth is that it can be seen from the moon. In fact it cannot be seen from a low earth orbit. A photograph has been taken from the Space Station, but the photograph was so indistinct that the photographer wasn't even certain at the time.

We stopped and bought water and the guys each had a plaque engraved to prove they were there. We wandered around in the other direction for about 10 minutes but then had to make our way back to the parking lot to meet our guide, Yuki, again. We stopped at the toilets before leaving the area - and imagine my horror when I found that I had to squat - there was not a Western bathroom in sight! I survived but the legs were very unsteady after 2 days on planes and in airports and the recent step climbing!

We then drove back to Beijing and into the inner city. The driver dropped us off at Tian'anmen Square. I asked our guide what this means and the literal translation is "heaven safety gate". I looked it up on the internet and it tells me that the square is named after a gate between the square and the Forbidden City in the north and the gate's name means Heavenly Gate of Peace. Tian'anmen Square is the third largest city square in the world (440,000 m² - 880m by 500m or 109 acres) according to Google.

We took pictures of the buildings and monuments and were again amazed at how many Chinese tourists there were visiting the square. To the south was the Monument to the People's Heroes. My photos don't pick up the gold writing detail properly, but the relief work on the base is impressive too. A mausoleum for Mao Zedong is also present on the Square, with monuments at the front of it. At the actual gate in the north, there is a large painting of Mao with Chinese script on either side. The translations are as follows: Left - Long life to the People's Republic of China, and Right - Long life to the union of the world people. The painting is refreshed every year so that he never fades. Our guide told us that he was a much loved leader in China. We passed through the "gate" and then visited the Forbidden City.

Our guide explained on our way there that in China 4 pillars make up a room. And, if a baby were born and slept in a different room every night, he would be 27 before he had slept in every room!

The Forbidden City was the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty. It now houses the Palace Museum. For almost 500 years, it served as the home of emperors and their households, as well as the ceremonial and political center of Chinese government. Built in 1406 to 1420, the complex consists of 980 buildings and covers 720,000 m2. After being the home of 24 emperors - 14 of the Ming Dynasty and 10 of the Qing Dynasty - the Forbidden City ceased being the political centre of China in 1912 with the abdication of Puyi, the last Emperor of China. It was crazy to walk around the buildings and courtyards and appreciate how old everything really was.

From Wikipedia: The design of the Forbidden City, from its overall layout to the smallest detail, was meticulously planned to reflect philosophical and religious principles, and above all to symbolise the majesty of Imperial power. Some noted examples of symbolic designs include: - Yellow is the color of the Emperor. Thus almost all roofs in the Forbidden City bear yellow glazed tiles. - The main halls of the Outer and Inner courts are all arranged in groups of three - the shape of the Qian triagram, representing Heaven. The residences of the Inner Court on the other hand are arranged in groups of six - the shape of the Kun triagram, representing the Earth. - The sloping ridges of building roofs are decorated with a line of statuettes led by a man riding a phoenix and followed by an imperial dragon. The number of statuettes represents the status of the building - a minor building might have 3 or 5. The Hall of Supreme Harmony has 10, the only building in the country to be permitted this in Imperial times.

We wandered through arched passages to reach layers of courtyards with buildings around them. Everything was in sync. There would be 2 lions at each entrance - a male with his paw on a ball to symbolise power and a female with her paw on a cub. There were cranes and turtles (which looked a little like dragons or at least their heads did) on both sides. This symbolised a long life. There was a sundial on one side symbolising time and a crop measurement mechanism on the other side symbolising space. There was harmony throughout - Yin and Yang.

We went into a gallery area where we met the surviving nephew of the Last Emperor who does calligraphy art and sells it in aid of the museum. We didn't buy anything though, but wandered in his smaller courtyard and looked at the carved Buddhas. We also wandered in the old gardens were the trees are labelled green if they are over 100 years old and red if they are over 600 years old! It is difficult to imagine that things have been there for so long.

From there we made our way back to our hotel where we met up with Chris and had lunch - sandwiches in the lounge. In the afternoon we went off to the electronics shopping area (not that impressive and you do not know whether you are looking at genuine or fake articles) and then battled to get some taxis to get back. The first group went off to the silk market, while I waited with 2 others to get another taxi. It took ages! And I was going back to the hotel. Instead of trying to get a third taxi, they decided we would all go back to the hotel and they would catch a better taxi from there (our one's meter was not working so he quoted a fixed, expensive price!) As we eventually got to the hotel they found out that the others weren't even at the market yet due to the really heavy traffic so they decided not to go. In fact the rest of the team decided to eventually turn around before they even got to the market. We all met for dinner and ate at a Chinese restaurant in the hotel Chris and I are staying in. 

Tuesday 18 September 

The one thing that I am not doing much of is sleep. I think I have managed one single night's worth of sleep since I left home! I didn't sleep on the plane. I managed a whole +5 hours when I eventually got to my hotel on Sunday night and last night I was lucky enough to eventually get 2-3 hours after about 3am... I really need to work on these bad sleeping habits.

The arrangement for today was that ICBC had organised for transport to pick us up in the morning and take us to the card centre, which was not in the same street as the hotel - that was HQ. Their "envoy" met us and then had to take different transport as there was no space left for him! We were met at the building and escorted up to the boardroom, which was laid out with us on one side, the ICBC heavyweights opposite us, IT down one side and card people down the other. There were TV screens in the middle facing each side and their slides were all in Chinese while ours were sometimes in English and others not! .There were interpreters and many formalities. It is almost like it was a government meeting with all the protocol. There were also two photographers who took photos all day long!

We had three formal presentations and then a Q&A, which took discussions in a slightly new direction. The net result is that I don't think some people got a lunch break while another presentation was put together. We then walked about 200m to a restaurant where we were hosted for lunch. Before going though we rushed off to the bathrooms as there had been no breaks scheduled and a constant supply of green tea and water all morning. Imagine my horror when I found no Western bathrooms - I had just assumed, a very bad move. Well, there I was in fancy skirt, high heels, etc with a very full bladder. After 50 years of using the bathroom how I was taught as a child it is very scary to have to change my ways! I managed again with much more difficulty given the mix of skirt, high heels and full bladder. So, in the afternoon I only drank to wet my mouth - bathroom breaks had to wait until I was back at the hotel... I told the guys that for the first time in my life I wished I was a man!

At lunch, we were served some local delicacies. If they didn't want us to know what it was, it was "seafood"! Grant thinks that there was a menu for if the discussions were going well and another for if they weren't - and we got the latter. Luckily most dishes were on a lazy Susan so you could choose what to have. My chopstick skills were a little rusty but I persevered. The biggest problem was the individual bowls brought to each of us which had rice-like noodles and sea cucumbers - two of them! I ate around the outside and had to live with the fact that I had eaten what they were cooked in, but some of the guys tried a bite - they didn't get much further than that though. All except Gustav, who ate both of them. He says that after travelling in Africa, he eats almost anything!

After lunch, which was 90 minutes, there was a 30 minute break. We then had a scheduled presentation that was so slow that we all battled to stay awake after the big lunch, including the senior managers who had lunched with us. I saw many yawns and pained faces. They then added in a presentation based on our earlier discussions and then we visited a card processing centre (room really) within the building and a branch on the ground floor where we observed the card issue process, which includes embossing a card in branch so customer walks away with it. This was followed by another Q&A session which become very heated when they felt, quite rightly, that we were not making a decision to use their system .

To give them their due though the managers then went with us to a gala dinner hosted by some senior Chinese executives and there were no further "business" discussions. Dinner was again Chinese but much more palatable from a western perspective. We were even served a special Chinese white wine that one of the managers went to fetch. It was served in a thimble-sized glass and you literally threw it back. It reminded me of mampoer or schnapps. I drank one glass so as not to insult and then reverted to orange juice. Afterwards it came out that this was a real luxury, 30 years old and Y20,000 per bottle, in other words R27,000! It definitely wasn't that good in our opinion.

Actually the drinks were interesting at both meals. You always had a cup of Chinese tea which was constantly replenished. Then there was fruit juice. And wine. White at lunch and red at dinner. When they poured wine into your glass it was literally a sip. Then when they toasted, you were expected to drink the full gulp!

Dinner finished early (it was scheduled to finish at 8pm) and realising that we had not seen the Olympic Park, they sent us out with their driver and squeezed in an interpreter to go with us as the driver spoke no English. Fortunately Grant whispered in my ear that there was a proper Western toilet upstairs from our room at the restaurant, so I paid it a quick visit before we left.

We drove past the Olympic Park and around until the driver found the road in and then we walked through the entrance and to the water cube and birds nest. It was beautiful. We made our way back to the main road just as driver was phoning to see where we were. We all went back to our hotels.

Wednesday 19 September

Today was less formal. I decided to order breakfast from room service and found it suited my needs and was half the price! We then had our own meeting at the hotel, followed by a few separate meetings. Three of us (Grant, Vinolan and I) walked across to a shopping centre for some exercise. It was all designer shops with hefty price tags (for example, shoes for Y65,000!), so we were not tempted to make any purchases. We did however stop to enjoy some of the contemporary sculptures that were on display.

We made our way back to the hotel where we went to lunch at an Italian restaurant - pizza and pasta! This afternoon I have been working on mail, this and trying to set up something with MasterCard for tomorrow. Effectively we have finished early, but we cannot get earlier flights as everything is solidly booked (there is a conference or something on which is why I was only on a Friday flight and not a Thursday one as planned originally).

At 20h00 Chris and I will meet in the lobby and walk across to the Intercontinental where we plan to have dinner at a steakhouse! A few of the team are wary of the Chinese food and willing to eat something more normal!

Thursday 20 September

Last night we met at the InterContinental as planned but our steak house jaunt was off the cards. Gustav had priced the menu - R600 per steak! Instead they had "cased" the area and found a TGI Friday just down the road from the Westin, my hotel. We walked down there and 4 of us (including me) had steak, Gustav had a burger and Grant had ribs. We had a sociable meal and then I made my way back to my hotel, while the guys were going off to have a drink.

This morning some of them were going off to the silk market again, but I settled on a quiet morning with a late start and some desk work.

I got an SMS from Gustav at around lunchtime. He came across to the hotel and we walked to find a shopping mall he had seen from a taxi. We walked until he was worried that he was off track, so we circled around and eventually went back to the hotel where we had sandwiches in the lounge. While we were waiting for the food, Arnold, Vinolan and Grant came out of the Italian restaurant and joined us for coffee. They had all checked out and were using Gustav's room to store their luggage. They had all had a good morning at the silk market buying shirts, socks, gifts for wives and children's clothing. Once Gustav and I had eaten, I said goodbye to the team members flying out and then went back to my room to do more mail (people were at the office by this time) and finish some business-related reading.

At 20h00 I met Chris and Gustav at my hotel. We decided to take a taxi to find the shopping centre and have dinner somewhere there. We realised that the mall was further away than Gustav had thought. We went up to the restaurants. The first floor of restaurants was fast food. The next floor was called "dating" and every table in every restaurant was for 2 people. So we went up another floor and found a restaurant called Banana Leaf. It was largely Thai and we had a lovely meal. We shared a platter of starters - chicken satay, fish cakes, prawn cakes, squid, pork in banana leaves and some spring rolls. Then we shared BBQ pork spare rib, beef with pineapple, string beans, fried perch (whole fish, head included) and goose liver with mushrooms. I was all delicious - I obviously didn't eat the liver! They then asked us to leave as they were closing! A quick, 5x more expensive taxi ride, and we were back at the hotel!

Friday 21 September

I slept, but not brilliantly. This morning I was up and showered by just after 08h00. I ordered breakfast and then finished up the packing. After breakfast, I made my way down to check out and caught a taxi to Beijing airport. The trip to the airport took about 45 minutes. Once there I found someone to direct me to the Cathay Pacific counters. It was interesting as when I got to the counters they showed Finnair. A gentleman asked me if I was looking for Cathay Pacific and he said that they would be there soon. He and the ground staff seemed to be packing up and they eventually moved off with a large suitcase. The screens changed to Cathay Pacific and 5 minutes later in came the ground staff with a trolley loaded with a couple of suitcases and other things, including 2 flower arrangement bowls. The flowers went onto the business class counters and they proceeded to load luggage tape rolls and boarding passes and put out notices on the counter. A brief staff meeting and we were in business!

From the counter, I made my way to the train to get to the boarding gates. Same terminal, but so large you catch train for 3 to 5 minutes to get to the right side. I then had to make my way through immigration and a security check. I don't think one person passed through without a beep - so we all had to be scanned with the hand scanner. After that I was in the duty free area. I wandered around and was going to buy some perfume, but they didn't know the limit for ZA so they recommended that I rather buy in Hong Kong.

I made my way to the business lounge where I had some fruit and water, while I did some mails. There was free wifi but the mails would not send. They will probably go through in HK if I remember to take my iPad off airplane mode. From the business lounge I made my way to the boarding gate, stopping on the way to change the last of my Yuan for HK Dollars. We boarded fairly quickly and efficiently but seemed to be stuck on the ground some time before we took off. But to my relief, take off we did!

Cathay Pacific is definitely a more comfortable flight than Air China, even though the seats are 7 across and not just 4. I have a middle aisle, but the middle seat of the middle seems to have ample space too. After taking off we were served a late lunch. We had a mixed salad with tuna and I chose sautéed prawns, which I even ate with the offered chopsticks (I have become practiced at using them over my stay!) I see that there is ice cream for dessert (Haagen- Dazs). That reminds me of the flight in - it was on offer as a snack later on (which I didn't have) and some of the business lounges had fridges for ice cream so it is obviously popular. But the best I saw was at breakfast at the hotel - there was a fridge and a sign saying Breakfast ice cream! I didn't have, but I can think of a few people who would have...

While I am reminiscing, perhaps it is a good time to share some of my thoughts and observations of China. The first and overriding one is the fact that I was, and felt like, a foreigner in China. In most places in the world, they try really hard to make you feel at home - but in China you are in no doubt that you are a visitor. The taxi drivers speak absolutely no English, so getting to your destination takes some doing. Even staff in the restaurants speak no English, although the menus assisted the process and were usually bilingual at least, and often had pictures too. The only place you could count on for English was the hotel - mainly the concierge and the staff at reception. As for the rest it was touch and go - the waitresses in the lounge understood a few key words - like cappuccino and coffee - but stray too far from these and they needed to give you the menu to point to what you wanted. Even the people we met at ICBC would not have coped without the interpreters although a few of them could at least hold a conversation at meals. If you were sitting next to someone who couldn't, it was hard work...

The service ethic was also lacking to an extent, particularly when it came to serving meals. I don't think we ever got all of our food at the same time. We really ate in relays, the gap between the first delivery plate and the last was long, which was fine if you were sharing but a pain when you weren't and you were hungry! Maybe it is a result of their custom to share food on a table, so everyone eats of each dish that arrives.

Trying to get a taxi anywhere but the hotel or the airport was also a mission. And they weren't shy. You could pay Y10 to get somewhere but it cost you Y50 to get back to the same place! But you had no choice - so you paid... In fact, although people think of China as a place to get cheap things, this was not my experience of Beijing. I know the guys got bargains at the market but the general shops and area where we stayed was very expensive. We paid Y20 per bottle of water at the shops at the Great Wall, but on the square as we approached the forbidden city I bought 3 bottles of water for Y20! It comes back to the concept of here is the "foreigner" and he can pay...

The city of Beijing itself is huge with wide roads, skyscraper building and everything was really clean. We were fairly spoilt with lovely warm (if humid) days and very little haze. Although this did pick up on Thursday afternoon. By today it was overcast and very hazy. The roads in the city are set up as ring roads and the signs show ring road 1 through 6, so as long as you could see road signs you knew how far out of the city centre you were.

The airport is huge. I have already told you about the train from check in at terminal 3 to the boarding gates at terminal 3. In addition,I noticed that the taxi turned off to terminal 3 (as opposed to continuing to the other terminals) a whole 7 kms before we got there!

All in all, I enjoyed my experience in Beijing, but I am really glad that I am finally going home...