In last month’s column, I started talking about an eventful trip I took to China in the latter half of the 1990s. I worked at the time for Susie Givens with Givens International, and a major potential customer had requested I travel to far western China to sign the contract — a deal for about $2 million worth of drill pipe. This is part two: Getting There.
We left off with me on the steps of Dulles International Airport. I made my way to the British Airways counter and checked in for my flight. As a “coach” flyer, I found flying business class impressive: larger, more comfortable seats; personal viewing screen for movies; and even slippers for my feet. Upon landing in London, I took advantage of the British Airways lounge to shower and freshen up for the long day ahead. I changed planes and took off for Beijing. This time, I found myself back in coach and my cold was getting worse.
Once in Beijing, I managed to find my way to the ticket counter for my connecting flight to Urumqi. They told me I needed an “airport pass,” and pointed to where to get one. Two windows were open. Here in the U.S., we would have two lines. But there, a semicircular mass of people crowded around to get their passes. I hedged my way to the window and got my pass then headed toward my terminal to board the plane.
Then things got interesting. Before we could take off, an announcement echoed through the plane in Chinese. People stood up and started deplaning. Evidently, the plane had a mechanical problem. They would fix it and we would fly the next day. They put us on a bus and we went to a hotel of sorts in Beijing.
From there, I called Charles, my contact for the deal back in the United States. In a panic, he told me to go back to the airport to that same ticket counter, and he would get me on another flight. I found a cab. The driver did not speak English. I waved my arms and “flew” around the parking lot for a few minutes, amusing the bystanders, before the driver eventually understood. It was mid-afternoon but seemed like dusk from the pollution settling in over the city.
I got to the ticket counter and showed my ID and ticket. Charles’ contact must have had a lot of pull, because the woman behind the counter grabbed my shirt, dragged me through the luggage scale and rushed me through a back way to a plane. I was finally on my way to Urumqi, far west of Beijing in Xinjiang Province.
Once I landed, I waited but no one came to meet me. It was late, no more flights coming and the airport was closing. I had my briefcase but my luggage did not make it. I had been up for well over a 30 hours and my cold was strengthening.
I was not aware at the time, but Urumqi was not a safe place. The Chinese government was relocating citizens from eastern parts of the country to populate the area, and Uighur people living there did not appreciate it. This is still an issue today. I’m glad I didn’t know, because it got to the point where I was the only person from my flight that remained at the airport. A cab driver who spoke a little English helped me and took me to a hotel. They had no vacancies, so they found me a room in another hotel.
Safely checked in, I decided to call the office and bought a $20 phone card for the charges. The office answered and I asked for Susie. In the couple of seconds it took for her to get on the line, the balance on my phone card ran out. I bought another and when the office answered, I gave them the info to call me back. I got the message to Susie that she should contact Charles so his contacts in Urumqi would know where to get me in the morning. By then, morning was in three hours.
Early the next morning, I met my people: a driver, another man and my translator. The driver was a heavyset Chinese man, about 6-feet-tall and dressed in a blue suit and blue hat. He reminded me of the henchman Oddjob from “Goldfinger.” We rode in a large Toyota Land Cruiser with tinted windows. We left town on a four-lane highway that, after a few miles, narrowed to two lanes full of trucks, buses, pickups, cars, tractors pulling wagons, riding lawnmowers pulling carts full of cotton and people on bicycles.
Traffic thinned and the ground grew sandy as we entered a semi-arid region. We came to a line of rocks across the road. This meant the road closed due to construction. The road was being resurfaced. At the edge of the new blacktop, a stone about 4 inches wide by 12 inches long and 1 inch thick was buried on edge as a support. These were being installed by hand.
In these construction zones, travelers had to find their own way around. So, we went off road along this beaten-down path. We saw vehicles stuck in the sand, along with people struggling to get their wagons through. After about 100 yards, we went back up on the highway and continued our journey. We could see a few oil rigs in the distance.
It took about six hours to travel the 200 miles or so from Urumqi to our destination, the town of Karamay. The town sits about 30 miles east of China’s border with Kazakhstan, about 150 miles west of the border with Mongolia and about 125 miles south of Russia. It was uncommon to find Westerners there.
We went to the office of the supply company that served as Charles’s contact in China. It was his brother’s company and now I could see the supply chain was relatively short: Grant Prideco to Givens to a Chinese distributor to the drilling company. We were quoting directly to the drilling company with a profit sharing agreement with Charles’s brother’s company. I found that encouraging.
We had lunch — a lot of food that I did not recognize. I lost total track of time, since my flight was west to east and crossed so many time zones. I think it was about noon Friday. I know I had eaten on the plane the previous day, but my cold was now in full force and my appetite low. But, I needed something. I chose something that looked like a taco from several different foods laid out on the table. One bite nearly knocked me over in my chair it was so spicy. After that, not being an adventurous eater, I ate mostly bread.
My hosts explained the process. They would take me to a hotel, and would pick me up around 4 p.m. and take me to the meeting. First, my translator and I went to a store so I could buy clothes, since I still had no luggage. The lock on my “hotel” room was non-existent, but I settled in anyway. I went to take a shower but found no hot water — or even a showerhead. It looked like a cold bath for me.
After a bath, I realized I had no toothbrush or toothpaste, so I walked about two blocks to a convenience store. On the way, I passed a street vendor selling meat. He had a tripod-like stand with several hanging sides and quarters of butchered animals — out in the open with temperatures in the low 60s. I think it was goat.Back at my room, I got my new clothes on and waited. A driver came at 4 p.m. and took me to the drilling company’s office. They escorted me to a large conference room with a very long table. At least 40 people sat around the table and I was seated in the center. Across from me were Mr. Chen and an older gentleman, both whom I had met at our Grant Prideco facilities tour in Houston. My translator sat beside me, and the process began.