How can you turn a big obstacle into a small bump on the road?
I have always spoken highly of Istanbul Ataturk Airport. It is really big, has lots of shops, many restaurants, Turkish delight everywhere. There is no way you can get bored. Since I had some good experience with this airport before, I managed to convince Nace to go there 7-8 hours before our flight to New Zealand. Spending some time there would definitely be fun, right?
It turned out, we missed one small detail. It is true that you can visit lots of shops and enjoy some Turkish delight 24/7, but only if you have already checked-in, got through passport check and are at the duty-free zone. It turned out that China Southern Airlines have no flight at this time… not even a single one. So, we had to stay in one of the three cafes in the departures hall. It is not a big deal, but still it would be nice if they had made some effort to take care of the people without boarding passes.
We are sitting at the Caffe Nero, I had just ordered cupcakes and got the Wi-Fi password from the nice cashier lady …perfection. As Nace is trying to connect to some internet network, I am thinking about how I will kick his ass on backgammon in the next hour. Then we will leave our luggage and get to some nice Turkish delight on the other side of the security check.
I am crossing the big hall for the departures, hoping we will already have a check-in desk.
I spot a flight at 1:30 a.m., it must be ours! Wait a minute… why is it red and says 16:00 next to it? In the next few (milli)seconds I start comparing the Turkish line with the English one. Is it the same flight? It is! And the board says that the approximate departure time will be at 16:00. That is just 14 hours and 30 minutes delay…
Stress isn’t healthy, especially when with such a delay you have no chance of getting your next flights. A quick reminder – our itinerary is Istanbul – Urumqi – Guangzhou – Auckland. Yeah, stress is definitely not healthy. That’s why I come back to Nace, take the cupcake with carrots out of his mouth and put it in a napkin. I tell him in a hushed voice that our waiting around is done… way done.
What do you do in a situation like this? You start looking for an office, of course.
After wondering around for a while we came to the conclusion that they do not have their own office. Like some crazy people we start jumping from one office to the next. Most of them are empty and it is around 9:00 p.m. We go to information, they must be able to help us there. The man working there seems… tired.. of everything. However, somehow he manages to give us a name of a company Guzen. Once again we go through all the offices, there is no Guzen. Somehow at some point we got enlightened and found it.
I left Nace and both of our suitcases to wait at a queue in front of a SkyTeam desk – the alliance that China Southern is part of. He is not very mobile with those suitcases, that’s why we use him to keep our place in the queue. I keep on running around the hall. I ask at Aeroflot, but they have no idea.
I spot a guy wearing a New Zealand T-shirt, who looks kind of scared. He must be one of our own. I go up to him and ask him: “Are you flying with China Southern, too?”. It felt good hearing that he was in the mess with us. Not because I wanted someone else to suffer, but because I thought we could help each other and find a way out of this mess together. When I heard him saying that there is no internet here, I figured I will have to take care of him, too, because he seems too far behind in the solving of this impossible task. Thinking about it, he is actually returning home from a trip. The difference between us couldn’t be bigger. Whenever you are going somewhere, you want to be on time. Whenever you are coming back home from somewhere a day or two delay is not a big deal.
Nace have met a Turkish man who is also connecting a couple of flights like us, but his destination in Manila. Although he speaks Turkish this hasn’t helped him to figure out a solution to our situation. He hadn’t found someone from CSA on the Ataturk Airport either. Speaking the local language in a country doesn’t seem to be an advantage any more. However, he had heard that there is an office on a hidden second floor. Some people there had rejected him and Nace nicely.
This airport has a really huge hall. I must have walked a lot of kilometers inside it. In a moment of desperation I decided to try at a Turkish Airlines desk. I spoke with a really nice guy there who gave me a number of CSA in Turkey and told me that if I were lucky someone might pick up. It turned out I was not lucky. We were starting to feel helpless and very angry. For more than an hour we couldn’t find anyone working for that airline (that was supposed to have flights in few hours).
We decided it was time to be a little more persistent on the information desk. The really-tired-of-everything-man there got heated up. He kept telling us that he knows nothing of the matter. That’s when I got heated up too and started yelling at him. After a while he whispered “G17” to us. We thought this is probably all the information we can get from him since he seems so tired of everything.
Does it seem boring so far? Probably not. At G17 we jump on the breaks. There some people are calmly checking in for a flight to Tashkent. We see a security guard that seems nice enough and explain to him our situation. He tells us to wait here. Apparently it is normal to check in for the flight to Urumqi here as well. We are waiting…
We are joined by the all the people we met so far (the one from New Zealand and his companion and the one from Turkey and his companion). At some point even a couple Bulgarians joined us. At least we have some strength in numbers now and if we have to fight we have some chances. Then a young lady passes us by and tells something to the security guard while she is waving at us. Something is happening. She leaves in a hurry. The security guard comes to us and tells us in a hushed voice that according to an unofficial information some people from the airline will come soon to give us papers to check in for other flights.
This is the first time we see some light in the end of the tunnel. We stay there feeling hopeful, even though we do not know exactly what is happening.
At some point the desks around G17 start filling up with employees of the airport with “Celebi” written on their uniforms. A few second earlier is formed a huge group of Asian tourists (around 60 people and lots of suitcases), led by a boy who is holding about 30 passports. I immediately know this is the next person I am going to talk to. It turns out he is a student in Istanbul, who has a small travel agency.
At this point, I look back at the “small” group he has gathered. All of them turned out to be from Urumqi and they have news. Urumqi had lots of snow that surprised everyone and so the airport there is about to be closed. We feel bad for them, but they will probably get to leave tomorrow and they are going back home anyway. Our group suddenly doesn’t seem so big. We are all thinking how to make the still-not-here-employees at the airline reschedule our flights.
Time to take a walk to the mysterious office. We have been waiting here for too long. The office is already open and filled with young people, none of whom has any idea what they are doing there. At the desks below, they are giving vouchers for hotels, but we do not want a hotel. We want to get on a plane. At some point, we rush into an office where we are welcomed by Mr. Lee. He is trying to lecture us how he has nothing to do with the bad weather and how they are going to take care of our flight probably tomorrow when we get on the first flight to the snowy Urumqi. By the way, Urumqi is one of the most isolated cities in the world (no joke?!).
Somewhere between “We are not God, but we can pay for a hotel” and the insolence of a group of Turkish women who were practically sitting on the knees of Mr. Lee, we figure out they can actually book us a Turkish Airlines flight to Beijing. From there we can catch the rest of our CSA flights. The important addition to this great news is that there are only 24 available seats left and the flight is leaving any time now, so we will have to run.
This new information brings out the competitive side of me, the other Bulgarian and a kiwi, who were with me at this point.
Just a second ago we were a group that was trying to figure this thing out together. The information that there are only 24 seats left on the flight changed everything though. Our new friendship is about to break. From the secret office to the desks there is about 20 meters of running. Then some stairs downwards and finally 50-meter sprint. They do not know that I am not a short-distance-runner, but I am not going to give up. I gain some advantage in the beginning but the stairs slow me down.
At the final sprint I win, which surprises Nace and all the other people who are waiting there with the suitcases. All the normal people at the airport were pretty stunned too. The funny thing is that on the final sprint 4-5 people joined us, not even knowing why. And so what was the point of our running, since we have to deal with the young people who are instructed to give vouchers for hotel rooms.
I left my competition to push his way through the desk and argue. I am not in the same category. A Chinese lady came to me and asked me if she could see our reservations. I thought she is just another lost soul that needs help. I asked here where she is traveling to. She is looking at the reservations and not saying anything. At some point she says she is working for China Southern Airlines.
Here is the second ray of hope. I do not know what this lady saw in me, but she decided to help me. Personally.
Slowly, in her own way. I was just able to breath normally again after my sprints and she sat down and started writing something. Later it turned out it was a voucher from Turkish Airlines for their flight to Guangzhou. Thus we would be able to catch our last flight from Guangzhou to Auckland. The voucher was ready. The lady also instructed a young girl to quickly lead us the way to check-in.
Did I mention that the departures hall is really big? This time we are running. We are led by the young girl with high heels. We don’t care, we are better at the long-distance running anyway. The girl is speaking with people on the desk, everything seems normal. After less than an hour we are leaving for Guangzhou. From a distance I can see the people from our recently formed and abandoned group coming our way. I am thinking that now we have done great. Their flight is to Beijing and leaves before ours, so we let them in front of us. It turned out we got the best time to get a reservation, since there we no more seats at their flight. We will be waiting for them in Guangzhou… We are lucky and we will get there by just one flight.
We thanked everyone who helped us on the way and happily left for the gate. However, the lady there noticed we do not have visas for China. We showed her our reservation and managed to persuade us to let us go. We boarded the plane and sat sweaty but happy. Ten hours later we landed in Guangzhou. We knew we were going to have to explain ourselves there, too.
The Chinese people have thought about it all. You just follow the arrows and you get to international transfer. It was really quick. We are using our body language and are showing our reservations. After a while we finally got our tickets for Auckland. A lady asked us what color our suitcases were so she can pick them up and put them on the flight to New Zealand. She send us a picture of two suitcases. They were ours. The most beautiful ones.
We are hoping we will be able to enjoy them live when we arrive at New Zealand. We wrote a quick explanatory note why we had to get here so quickly by Turkish Airlines and then they let us leave. We went to the transit zone of the airport. It is a good thing we didn’t have to show our passports, since we didn’t have any visas.
We read that Guangzhou can be visited for up to 72 hours without the need of a visa. We had even researched what can be done there for our 7-hour stay there. However, a lady told us that she can let us out of the airport only if we have more than 8 hours. So, after a day of obstacles and road bumps, we were finally calmly waiting at the airport. We exchanged the idea of Turkish delight and fun time for the reality of noddles and Tsingtao.
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