Wednesday, January 22, 2014

How I didn't hitchhike a plane

I am in Beijing now, preparing for the impossible. I have been waiting a long time for this and now the time has come: I have to hitchhike a boat. What is my experience with boat hitchhiking? Close to none.

  1. 2011, France, with Pauline and Claire, south coast of France. Trying to get to Corsica, 250 Kilometers afar. We hitched no more than 4 kilometers to Porquerolles, then got stuck there forever, ran out of food and returned home.
  2. 2006, France with my cousin. Out kayak got caught in a storm on a remote beach. We hitched a bigger boat no more than 5 kilometers to another beach and then returned home, exhausted.
  3. Tallinn, EStonia, August 2012. A 80 kilometer strait separates the country from his maritime neighbour, finland. Easy hitch, even listed as feasable on Hitchwiki. However, me and my hitchhiking partner Caroline have failed it. We paid for the ferry instead.

Today, I need to cross the 250 kilometer gap between China and South Korea. 250 kilometers, that's a minimum, I would be wise to count more, from 300 to 500 km depending on from which harbour I depart from. Closest is Weihai.
So basically I have never hitchhiked a boat whith all odds in my favour and now I have to do it with all odds against me. I need to cover a larger distance, I do not speak the local language and on top of all that, my visa time is running out. I have proved to be a resourceful person in the past but how the hell am I going to pull tha?
Only upside to my situation is: I am travelling alone, I will be asking for only one seat.
China is a big country, it has a lot of connections with Korea. Therefore I have a lot of possibilities. I will try them from the most unlikely to the most likely:

  1. Hitch a plane from Beijing airpor
  2. Hitch a cargo boat from Tianjin harbou
  3. Hitch a cruising ship from the Tianjin harbou
  4. Hitch the Jincheon ferry (Tianjin - Incheon
  5. Hitch the weidong ferry from Weihai/Yanta
  6. Hitch a personal boat from Weihai/Yantai

Let's go to Beijing! But first, I need to prepare myself. You don't hitch a plane like you hitch a car. Actually, I have no idea how you hitch a plane. But anyhow, I need to work on my presentation. I have come a long way, I have covered 21,000 kilometers of free rides, I have travelled through 15 countries, I have to look like it. I have never been a fan of sewing flags on my bag but today I will make flags. I will attach flags, draw maps and create a shiny sign.

A sign that says: I am going to Korea, I need your help, I deserve your help.
The time isn't ideal. I caught a cold again from my journey out of Mongolia, I am still sick, I have temperature sometimes, my head spins, my throat hurts. I am now staying at my Beijing home with my perfect roommates which take such good care of me that I would want to stay here forever. But time flies by so quickly; it is already my sixth day, I don't know how that happened. And I have no idea what to expect from hitchhiking in northwest China. These are densely populated regions, maybe it will be very slow, maybe fast, I don't know but I can't afford to taky any risks.

My (very convincing) hitchhiking sign

My big Beijing sister has invited me to a restaurant where we ate some excellent chinese food and a wonderful sweet dish. I realize how easily I can be manipulated with sweets.
We talk a lot, about various stuff, she's easy-going and smart. She's mature and wise but part of her still childish. Like she still has hope. Many chinese people have lost hope for themselves. Their dreams got frozen, long term conservation, made in china, for use in another lifetime.
But not her, she just might unfreeze hers before her life leaves her.
I can't imagine never seing her again but it will happen and it will happen tomorrow. In the evening, Su greets me with another chinese history lesson. This one is about the chinese cultural revolution.
"In Mao Zedong times, students organised themselves to defend the government, they were fighting to prove their faith in the leader."
While in Europe, students were fighting to reform the government, in China they had the opposite side, fighting against freedom. But no one but the chinese people has the right to judge China.
At night, Ivy comes to visit.
"Helllloooooo!!, " she screams hysterically, his face printed with overreaction and big glasses amplyfying the whole lot. I am so happy to see her, I am so happy to see everyone. She now lives next door, in a separate appartment, she needs her privacy.
Me and Ivy trying to dance
If you can't understand that I'm going to Korea from that, you really are dumb

The next day I leave. I take the subway to the airport.

One chinese girl tries to sleep with me. She looks pretty good but I don't really want nor need that right now but side note: Umer was right, it is quite easy to get laid in China. I wonder if she would have paid for my plane ticket if I slept with her.
I pay 25 yuan to take the airport express train to the airport. That's a fortune on my budget, this plane better work.

At the airport I still feel pretty bad, I think I have temperature again. And what the hell am I doing here? I am a computer engeneer, not some airport clown! This is stupid. I take a hot chocolate which makes me sleepy instead of making me better. Then, I take my hitchhiking sign and go. This is ridiculous. Where should I stand? There, here, does it matter. I stand at the floor from which has the check-in counters for the Beijing-Seoul flight departing in about 3 hours. The airport has free internet but also intranet on which it is possible to leave messages which are responded to by the airport staff. Usually people write weather or not they can bring cheese onboard without being mistaken for terrorists. I write something like this
Hello everyone! In a few minutes I will start hitchhiking a plane from Terminal 2, second floor. [...] I explain that I am travelling for free and telling them that I am available for any questions they might have. They'll send the police anyway so why not come to them with some good will.
I just hope they won't confuse the word hitchhike for "hijack" in which case my airport adventure will end pretty quick.

I stand next to the check-in office for Korean Airlines with my hitchhiking sign. Nothing happens. I could have predicted that. What can I expect in China? These are not curious people. So I am standing here with my sign, with my flags, with my map of my way and nobody cares. But what do I do when I see a guy with a sign in Paris? I don't care. Why should I expect different?

Some people come close to me, read the message, sometimes ask some questions. Long way from someone paying for my ticket. I change my spot, go somewhere with more people coming and going. I don't wait too long until I get my long-awaited meeting with the police.
"You cannot do this?"
"Do what?"
"Am I disturbing someone?"
"You are showing a sign. It might be political ideas."
"It's not political ideas"
"People might think it is political ideas. It is very dangerous to dislay political ideas in China."

So I can't hitchhike to Korea because my cardbooard which clearly states 韩国, Han Guo could be mistaken for politics. The policeman says that I can only talk to people. Since they only speak chinese and my chinese is still not enough to explain my complicated request, I am stuck.
I make my way to the VIP room where people make their check-in with first class tickets.
"Do you speak english?, " I ask the lady at the counter
"A little bit"
"what I want to ask is complicated. Is there someone who speaks good english here?"
She goes to find a collegue. So here goes the good english speaker.
"Do you speak english?"
"A little bit" Damn.
"I need someone with good english" She goes to find another collegue.
Third one is the charm, or so they say.
"Do you speak english?"
"A little bit."
Damn you China, learn some languages! I'll have to work with what I have. I explain my situation to her. I have travelled 20,000 kilometers, it is my principle to travel for free; I am trying to prove a point to the world and can I have a free ticket.
"We are very sorry but we cannot help you sir. We don't give out free tickets."
I am reluctant to ask the customers to pay for my ticket. I don't want to make them unconfortable. I want my ride to be the result of a free choice.
I go to the second luxury check-in counter.
The policeman catches me there.

"You cannot do that?"
"但是你这种行为在中国的公共场所如机场或车站是被禁止的也是不被理解的" ("But you this behavior in China public areas such as the airport or station is prohibited is also not be understood the" says my tablet)
"I am not showing signs, I am not asking for money. I am talking to the ticket office. it is not forbidden to talk to ticket office. if they say no, it is ok."
"It is forbidden"
"Can you help me in a constructive way?"
Fucking robot. I choose to ignore him and he ends up by going away.

The next check-in counter ends up telling me that they are a checking counter, they cannot provide me with a ticket. That makes sense. So I go to Korean Airlines ticket office. They tell me that they are very sorry but cannot help me. This is going nowhere.
It is getting late but I change Terminal, I am going to Terminal 3, All Nippon Airlines. A flight to Japan is also OK. I wouldn't see Korea which is a shame but the constraint of having to hitchhike out of China makes choice of destination a luxury.

All Nippon Airlines do not have a ticket office. They have a general office which is better because there might be a manager there and that is someone I need to talk to, someone who can make something happen. All Nippon Airlines are situated in a special part of Terminal where passengers don't usually go and which also contains offices of other airlines. Korean Airlines is not here but Japan Airlines is. Unfortunately it is already closed.
But there is light in All Nippon Airways.

"Come in," says the lady
She is just an employee who stayed working late. I request a manager but since there is no one here I explain to situation to her. That time, I make quite a speech. She is kind and understanding.
"If it were up to me, you would get your free ticket"
But it is rarely up to the kind souls otherwise the companies wouldn't make any profit.
I thank her warmly.
"Come back tomorrow. More people will be here. I really hope they can help you." A small flame of hope has rekindeled.

I return the next morning to Air Nippon Airways. There are two employees now. One is sleeping, the other one is awake. And they speak english. I make my case to them and I get a quick "sorry we can't help you." Damn, I should only talk to managers in the future. But there is one more company to be tried: Japan Airlines.

I knock a number of times until the door opens. A kind lady comes out, she really seems to want to help me.
"I need the manager"
"I am the manager. But now we are in a meeting"
I quickly explain the situation to her.
"That's a wonderful project," she says, "but I can't. I just can't. I am so sorry, so sorry." She seems sincere.

The day has just begun and I think I am done with this airport. I can go to the Tianjin harbour and start trying boats. But I don't want to go into this hitchhiking hell. Tianjin is a giant city way worse organised than Beijing. There is a chaotic network of highways going towards the harbour which seems very chaotic too. And huge. I don't know where to begin my search. I am not James Bond. James Bond, he would just come to a bar, take the temperature of the place, found some guy who knows a guy who knows a guy and succeed in extremis. I kind of have to do the same thing and sometimes I end up doing precisely that but each time I have no idea where to begin.
From the other hand, the plane trail is still warm, I am not done yet. I ride to Beijing center, to the building hosting the offices of All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines.

"I need to talk to the manager," I say to the All Nippon Airwaves reception lady.
"What for?"
I explain my project to her. She goes to speak to her, of course she says no.
"She says no," says the reception lady, "I am really sorry"
"Can I talk to her?"
She goes to see her manager again and ask. No I can't. Her manager is obviously afraid to talk to the kind of dangerous lunatic who travels for free, she prefers to use her reception lady as a shield. Nice display of courage, nice prelude to the japanese culture. The reception lady is obviously in a very difficult position, her manager from one side, me from the other. She is afraid of both of us, her boss slightly more and she wants to please both of us. I calm her down explaining that there is no need to stress, I kind of expected a negative answer. She seems relieved and grateful. Poor girl.

Japan Airlines can't talk to me because the manager is in a meeting. I didn't yet catch that "manager is in a meeting" is japanase for "get the fuck out". When I offer to wait whatever time it takes until the meeting is finished, she goes to talk to "the other manager" which is the same manager who understood that he won't get rid of me so easily. I convince everyone to whom I talk to face to face but it is just too easy for the manager to say no, and that's what he says.

I still don't give up. Next company on my list, Lufthansa. They are european, maybe I'll have an easier time communicating with them as our cultures are similar. They speak perfect english but their manager is on holiday and they only fly to Germany.
"And even if we flied to Korea we can't take you for free; all tickets should be paid for, the policy is very strict as a means of fighting corruption"
Fighting corruption is a good thing in many cases but people often forget that by recklessly killing corruption they also can kill humanity by accident.

Next company is KLM. They main contribution is telling me where is the Beijing office of Korean Airlines.
I arrive a few minutes before it closes. There, I make a pretty convincing case. The employees seem impressed or amused, hard to tell, they call the manager.
"It is a very cool project," he says, "you know, I think I understand you somehow"
However, he doesn't have the power to make a decision. "I must forward this to our headquarters. They can make a decision but I wouldn't have too much hope."
At least they do something; I am starting to like Korea, I got the furthest with them than with any company ever before. At least someone tries.
But let's be honest, the chances of success are slim. I'd better try my luck in Tianjin.
A thought comes more and more often in my head: what if this is the end of my trip. I have made it to China. I have not achieved the impossible but I have made a journey of a lifetime nevertheless. And that's not bad.