Getting to China

Near the end of May, the Nortel folks in Beijing that work the various Chinese accounts requested that we send someone over to discuss with them our network architecture evolution (background: I am the senior manager for Nortel’s GSM/UMTS media gateway product management team, but have a sort of side job keeping an eye on the overall network evolution on behalf of my boss). Two things quickly became evident: 1) that person would have to be me; and 2) the trip wasn’t likely given the SARS travel restrictions at Nortel.

The issue went back and forth for quite some time until the accounts managed to swing approvals from the relavent management types . However, this took place early in the morning on Wednesday June 4th, leaving very little time to pull off the trip given a planned leave date of Saturday June 7. By Wednesday afternoon, we managed to book my travel. On a whim, I happened to ask the travel arranger if she knew of any further arrangements I would need to make. Her answer was something along the lines of “just a passport and visa”.

At that point my admin, who was also on the call, said something like “I forgot about the visa” (as I had), so around 5 p.m. she (my admin) began frantically trying to make arrangements with an agency to pull off a two-day turnaround on a visa to China while I rushed off to get Visa pictures taken. She found an agency willing to guarantee a visa by early Saturday morning (right before my plane was to leave) but they reminded her we needed a letter describing the need for the trip and signed by HR. It was at this point that things got really complex.

Turns out that despite the management approval, nobody in HR that was still around would sign off the letter for the Visa because of the SARS travel restriction. We passed along the problem to various relevant folks in Asia and Europe (where my upper management resides) and came in the following morning to find email from the president of Nortel wireless and the head of Nortel HR approving the trip. At that point, we got our HR signature.

Unfortunately, the agency no longer believed they could turn the visa in time, so my admin booked a flight to Houston for later that morning (Thursday at this point, planned leave date still Saturday) to visit the Chinese consulate in Houston and hopefully return the same day with a visa. Meanwhile, I began to scramble getting ready for the trip. As it turns out, many of my vaccinations were out of date so I kicked things off with 4 shots in the shoulders a bit later that day before turning my attention to such mundane matters as doing laundery and buying critical medical supplies (such as Kaopectate).

Shortly after lunch I found out that my admin had sat in a plane on the tarmac for about 2 hours before all the remaining flights to Houston that day were outright cancelled due to bad weather in Houston. So she hopped in her car and drove the 250 miles that afternoon to ensure she could be waiting at the door when the consulate opened Friday morning. By Friday evening I had gotten myself ready to go and my admin had returned to Dallas, visa in hand.

Saturday morning I got on a plane bound for LAX (Los Angeles, CA) where I was to switch from American to one of American’s partners, China Eastern, for a flight on to Beijing. Upon arriving in LAX I discovered my connecting flight was in a different terminal so I hoofed it over and started searching for the mysterious China Eastern. It turns out I was having trouble finding them because they had cancelled the flight I was supposedly taking over a month ago and no longer had flights to Beijing on Saturday.Yes, I was a tad displeased with American Air who, incidentally, had this imaginary flight still posted on the departures listings.

With the help of some airport security I managed to find a couple folks from the China Eastern counter and they helped me get rerouted onto an Air China flight direct to Beijing leaving at approximately the same time I was to have originally left. I want to publicly thank Alvaro for his tremendous help (more on him in a moment). At this point I realized that my luggage had been checked through to Beijing by American, meaning that it was going to supposedly get to Beijing on this imaginary flight. So here I was about to hop to another airline and leave my baggage behind. Alvaro gave me a phone number to contact him directly and volunteered to monitor their dock for my suitcase, but asked me to contact American to try to sort out the mess.

Of course, Air China was in yet another terminal, so I set off once again. I finally had a boarding pass in hand about an hour and fifteen minutes before the scheduled departure. In the interim, I called my travel agent to have them hassle American regarding my luggage. Their response was a classic in the annals of customer service: we can’t do a thing about it, so once you arrive at your final destination file a lost baggage claim and we’ll try to locate it as quickly as possible. I was not pleased, so once I had the boarding pass I called American myself and got the same response, at which point I got a bit huffy. About 10 minutes before boarding I called Alvaro (for the third time) and he had just located the bag and rerouted it to Air China. Thus I boarded a 747 bound for Beijing after a couple frantic hours of effort with the hope that my luggage was actually going to join me on the trip.

My strategy for handling the 12 hour flight had been well planned. I had a DVD player for my laptop with numerous borrowed DVDs and a power adapter suited to the power ports that had been guaranteed to be on each seat in business class. I was planning a mix of work and movies on my laptop along with some reading to help me stay up so that I could next go to sleep when the sun actually set in Beijing, thus minimizing the effects of jetlag (Beijing is 13 hours ahead of Dallas). This plan, however, had not factered in that I would be rerouted to Air China and fly on what appeared to be the first 747 ever manufactured, original seats and all. Apparently, ergonomics was not a recognized science when these seats were developed, and there was no power for laptops anywhere in the plane. Thus my 12 hour flight, rather than feeling like a 6 hour flight, felt a bit closer to 30 hours or so.

Sunday afternoon local time I arrived in Beijing and was overwhelmingly thankful to discover that my suitcase was in fact waiting for me. I was also relieved to discover that based on my frantic calls from LAX my boss had successfully contacted our Chinese counterparts with the change in my flight and they had made the necessary adjustments to ensure a driver was waiting for me at the airport.

5 Replies to “Getting to China”

  1. Wow! Jay, that sounds awful. I’m glad you finally made it, and made it safely.

    Did you have to be quarantined when you returned (have you returned) to the States? My employer has a policy out that anyone who travels to those high-risk SARS areas has to work from home for 10 days after returning to ensure they are SARS-free.

  2. No quarantine thankfully. Given what took place while in Beijing, I was more worried about being stuck in a Chinese hospital and not actually returning… more on that later when I post a description of the trip itself.

  3. Hi!

    I have similar story—but not going to China, it was running from China.

    I was working in a competitor company of Nortel then, when China got struck by SARS. It was like martial law and everyone entering the city, sometimes even restaurant, was checked temperature. If someone was found with a little bit temperature— God helped him—directly to the so called “treatment camp” or infecting camp in other words. I managed to escape China and safely arrived at Toronto but with great sacrifice— I had to leave my well-paid job there!
    Got any advice on finding telco jobs here?

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