It would have been naive to suppose that the six thousand mile journey to the ‘armpit of China’ would be without incident. (I’ve seen Xiangtan described that way somewhere on the internet, but until I know it well enough to judge I shall assume it’s an unfair label.) The staff at Heathrow were initially confused by the ‘000 days’ duration of stay on my visa, even though that’s what’s printed on all student visas. When they saw that my flight ticket was only one way they made me sign a document to say I didn’t mind if I was deported straight back home after arriving in China; fortunately that hasn’t happened yet.
The flight to Guangzhou took a little over 11 hours and was as comfortable as could reasonably have been hoped for in economy class. Despite having left Heathrow a little late, we arrived on time and I had about an hour’s wait at the departure gate for my connection to Changsha. I passed the time by purchasing a bottle of over-priced Tibetan spring water – the significance of which will become apparent later in this tale – and by sitting and staring at the departures board. In due course the gate opened, and when we were all packed onto a bus and ready to go to the plane an official jumped on board holding a piece of paper with my name on it. He said something about my luggage, so I followed him back through the airport to customs, hitching a lift on a surprisingly speedy indoor buggy for part of the way and jogging the rest.
Security Official No. 1 awaited us at the end our journey, guarding my battered old orange suitcase, which she asked me to open. When tracing a square with her fingers on the topmost item inside failed to elicit anything but bemusement from me, she rummaged to the bottom to uncover my chess board. “Chess”, I said. “Like Xiangqi.” That was enough to satisfy her, so I closed the suitcase and we were off again, this time running to the check-in desk. There I was told that check-in had closed 10 minutes ago and I would have to await the next flight in 2 hours’ time.
When I had accepted my fate and checked my luggage onto the new flight, I made my way back to departures, only to be stopped just before going through the hand-luggage-scanning bit by an out-of-breath member of staff. I was escorted back to check-in, where Security Official No. 2 was frowning at the X-ray of my suitcase on his screen. This time the problem was my year’s supply of deodorant, which is very hard to come by in China. The official finally agreed to let me keep 3 cans, and initially suggested I take the other 2 on as hand luggage, but confiscated them when it was pointed out to him that flammable liquid was even less likely to be welcome there.
Off to departures again, and through the scanner with me and my hand luggage. I had to wait for a while the Russian in front of me tried to explain why his litre of vodka should be allowed on the flight, to no avail. I must admit that the amusing scene cheered me considerably after the loss of my deodorant, but my schadenfreude turned to dismay when I saw Security Official No. 3 turn to my quarter-drunk bottle of priceless Tibetan spring water. “No,” she announced, waggling the offending item in my face. “But I bought it in…,” I began. “No!” The bottle was slammed down on to the table. Damned if I’m letting them have it, I thought, and reached out a hand. “Let me drink it then.” I upended the bottle, glugging down half and spilling the other half down my top, before trudging off to departures one final time to reflect on the elaborate plot to rob me of my nectar, and await my onward flight.
Part 2 to follow, hopefully a little more quickly than part 1.