A Chinese Prison was not an option for this Canadian

A close call interupted!

I may be over 60, retired and a Canadian, but that doesn’t mean I would willingly cause an international incident!  No way I’m going to be in the spotlight, even if life is pushing me in that peculiar direction.  My little story of how I avoided a serious situation tells use all, that we have to take control of our travels.  We need to take responsbility for ourselves to ensure we come out of them safe and sound.

Flying to Ottawa

I was traveling from my home on Koh Lanta in southern Thailand, to Ottawa, my other home in Canada.  It was a last minute trip for a family event, and I’d purchased my ticket a few days prior.  I’ve been traveling back and forth a few times a year for over 10 years and source my ticket online.  My criteria for ticket is price of course, but also travel time.  This trip can be anywhere from 24 to 50+ hours depending on connections and layovers.

Over the years I’ve done it all with long layover in London, Hong Kong and Singapore.  I explore the city, meet friends and have a welcome break from 2 long haul and up to 3 short haul flights.  The ticket I purchased for this trip was a few hundred US$ more than I wanted to spend, but the travel time was just over 24 hours.

Checking In at the Phuket Airport

My flight was for 1:30 am at the Phuket airport, about a 4 hour drive from my home on Koh Lanta.  I’d arranged a car/drive to pick me up at 7 pm the night before which would get me to the airport around 11 pm, more than enough time to check in.  All went with the drive, even though it poured rain most of the way and we had a long wait for the car ferry off Koh Lanta to the mainland.  At the airport I loaded my ‘hockey bag’ onto a cart and away I went to check in.

Are you wondering why a woman over 60 would be traveling with a hockey bag?  It does seem strange.  But you have to realize that I bring a lot of things to Thailand each year, from Cheeze Whiz and peanut butter to my favourite shower gel, shampoo, cooking spices and hobby supplies.  Just beacuse many of the I like to use that aren’t available in Thailand does not mean I can’t bring them there myself.  As a Canadian, I’m used to the enormous size of hockey bags and love the space it provides for just about anything.  I’ve taken smoker BBQs back to Thailand on more than one occasion in this bag.  And airlines accept them as, after all, we are a hockey country and traveling with hockey gear is just normal, eh.

My multi-flight ticket

My ticket had me on 3 airlines, which is not irregular with the distance I’m traveling.  The trip had me flying in China to Chongqing, then to Beijing and halfway around the planet to Montreal, where I would get a connection to Ottawa.  Lots of stops, but with a 24 hour total time, it was great.  I’d checked out the Chinese airlines and gotten very positive feedback.  I was looking forward to short layovers for a chance to stretch my legs before the super long haul of 15+ hours into Montreal.

The people at the Sichuan Air check in were great.  They explained that as China Air was not at Phuket Airport, I would check in for the rest of my flight with them in Chongqing.  They said my bag was also only checked in for the one flight and I should retrieve it after I cleared Chinese immigration.  This started to worry me.  I knew that I could enter China for a number of hours without a visa as long as I could show my boarding pass, proving I was en route.  But I wouldn’t have a boarding pass for my next flight.  I asked about this and I was told that it was fine.  They said they were calling China Air to meet me at the gate and help me with this process.

Things started to go sideways

Then things started going slighly sideways.  It was midnight for me, and 1 am in Chongqing.  No one was answering the phone at China Air.  After further analysis of my ticket I was told that a 1:50 hour layover was not enough time, as in Chongqing I also had to change airports as my second flight was domestic within China.  By now the supervisor was with my check-in people and she suggested that I re-route my ticket.  She told me that China Air was not responsible for me until I checked in with them, and that I would miss my second flight in Chongqing and my ticket would be void when the flight took off.  My the time I reached the China Air check-in, I would not have a valid ticket.

It only took me a nanosecond to realize I’d be entering China with an invalid ticket and not have an proof that I was in transit.  And I didn’t have a visa to enter China.  A Canadian in China illegally isn’t a good idea anytime, especially now when another Canadian was in the news due to illegal activities in that country.

Alot of chatter and phone calls were taking place at the check-in desk.  I tried to stay calm.  I did an academy award performance of showing that I was calm, cool and collected, and no concerned about the pending problem I was facing.  A foreigner in Asia is always being scrutinized for their behaviour.  Showing any anger or aggression would quickly turn those trying to help me, into people who wanted nothing to do with me.  Of course I wanted to say this was f*cking ridiculous, that my ticket would put me in a precarious situation in a country that did not take illegals lightly.  Smile and breathe, thankfully I’m a yogi and can turn this ‘on’ anytime.

Told not to take the first flight

The check-in clerk suggest I not take the flight, but the decision was up to me.  I knew right then and there I wouldn’t be on the flight.  There was a phone number at the bottom of my e-ticket, so I called hoping this could easily be resolved.  Maybe there was an error on my ticket, as after all they compiled and sold me the itinerary so it must have been approved at some level.  A nice gentleman answered and I told him my situation.  He said that I should take the flight as China Air would help me.  I passed the phone to the check-in supervisor so she could explain to him why this wouldn’t be possible.

After a lengthy conversation I was handed the phone back.  The gentleman told me that he’d never heard this before and didn’t understand.  He again told me to take the flight.  At the same time, the check-in clerk was removing the tag from my luggage and returning my passport, sans boarding pass.  I couldnt take the flight, I was being refused, and rightly so.  When I told the support person this, he asked me to hold so he could consult with his superior.  He came back online a few moments later and told me to take the flight.  It was like he wasn’t listening, or that the option was there.  I told him I needed another connection or ticket.  He hung up.

So there I was at 1 am, stranded at the airport with no ticket, no ride back hom to Koh Lanta and still needed to be in Ottawa that week.

Total relief!

I started laughing.  The check-in crowd was laughing with me.  Their numbers had grown as they tried to help me sort it all out.  Laughing is common in Asia in stressful situations, and it definitely helped us all.  I decided to buy another ticket for a flight leaving later that morning.  They all said their good-byes, closed up for the night, and left me all alone at their check-in counter.

I shoke my head and thought about what could have been in the headlines the next day.  Canadian trying to enter China with a bogus ticket, with intent to spy.  Or maybe, Canadian spy caught illegally entering China.  Or even, Another Canadian in jeopardy with Chinese Authorities this week. A wave of relief rippled through my body and I actually felt great.  I almost forgot that it was 2 am and I still had a problem on my hands.  I had no ticket!

Resolved the situation

I went online, right there at the closed check-in counter and booked a flight leaving at 9 am, just 7 hours away.  I packed up my Mac and headed to an all night restaurant on the second floor of the new modern expansive airport.  This ‘hollow’ airport was over 2 stories high with a cavernous space the size of mutliple football fields.  The second floor was balcony-style around the sides of the building and I settled into a restaurant over looking the massive space.

I spent the rest of my night watching A Star is Born on my laptop.  When I travel I always have lots of videos to watch.   And there was plenty of other entertainment.  Two very loud Russian were skyping with a someone who made them laugh so hard they kept falling on the floor.  While they were annoying they did repeatedly appologize for their behaviour.  There were 2 power cuts, plunging the entire airport into darkness.  An erie silence hovered overhead, until the emergency generator kicked in.  There were handfuls of people wandering the night in zombie-like trances.  They aimlessly pushed their luggage carts, presumably waiting to check-in to their early morning flights.

Ottawa bound

When my flight lifted off out of Phuket, I marveled at my luck.  Here I was heading to Ottawa, and not a Chinese prison.  The worst that could happen was my luggage wouldn’t arrive.  And it didn’t.  But I did get it 4 days later, delivered right to the door in Ottawa.

I’m still trying to get my original ticket refunded and should hear about this in the next few days.  I was sold a ticket I couldn’t use, even though I was ready, able and willing to fly that day.  It wasn’t my fault that I couldn’t use the ticket.  Asking for them to pay for the second ticket is my goal now as it cost a lot more than the original ticket.

This experienced reinforced a valuable lesson I can never forget.  Always be cool, calm and collected, no matter what the situation.  The locals will help if you show humility and grace.  But if you show them anger and frustration, they will ignore you.  All part of the respect aspect of the Asian cultures.

The good news is that I’m in Ottawa, not in a Chongjing prision charged with illegal entry into China.

It’s all good!


This article was first published in Sixty and Me in January 2019.

Click here for a link to the article.


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