Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Company Retreat

I work for a real estate development company. We have over 1,300 people around the globe - about 250 of which make up our China operation and recently attended the Company retreat and annual party in a place called Haerbin. Haerbin (see photo) is a city in northeast China, north of North Korea and roughly even in latitude with Kazazhstan (which I would guess looks similar). Last year, they went to a tropical vacation island in China and played on the beach. This year we went to what has to be one of the coldest places in the country. Let me first warn you that this may be a long and whiny story with no real point, but it was at least a memorable week for me and in itself is somewhat representative of how things go in China.

A few days ago, I returned from a business trip to Saudi Arabia. To go there, I needed a visa, which was supposed to take 3 to 4 days to get through the Saudi Embassy in Beijing. I sent off the paperwork, including my passport, but their time estimate proved to be a little short, as I didn't get my passport back in time for my flight. This meant I would either miss the Company retreat or I would have to find a different way to get to Haerbin. Faced with a monumental train journey, I decided to skip the trip altogether. Shortly thereafter, the feeling of giving up and the thought that I was potentially going to miss my only chance to ski in two or more years made me rethink this decision. Plus, I was looking forward to going to one of the more social work events of my time in China.

So I headed to Shanghai station to take the morning train to Beijing, where I would transfer to the night train to Haerbin, hopefully getting me there in about 21 hours. When I tried to purchase the ticket for the second leg of the trip in Shanghai, they told me I had to wait and get a ticket in Beijing. I would have 27 minutes to get off my train, buy a ticket, and get onto the next train. So I took the risk - why would a train to such a remote location be full? The first twelve hours of the trip (station plus train time) didn't exactly fly by, but I was comfortable enough. Of course, after running through the Beijing station, the entire train from Beijing to Haerbin was sold out - seats, cabins - everything.
My only choice was to get a ticket for the 6:00 AM train and find a hotel for the night in Beijing. After eating at KFC, attempting to get rides from several unwilling and frustratingly corrupt taxi drivers, and many calls to local hotels, I found a place and took Beijing's decaying subway to it. After arguing for about ten minutes because I didn't have my passport, they let me check into a room. Six hours later, I was back up, argued with a couple taxi drivers, gave up and ran to the subway station to catch my train.
The second train was not as nice. It was a slower, older train that had cabins with four bunks in each. My cabin mates were two Chinese guys and one Chinese lady, with a friend who chose to hang out with us the whole time. That meant there were five humans in a tiny room. The bunks were about two feet apart. My roomies talked, ate, slept, and played cards. Karen once read a book that mentioned liberal farting on such trains; unfortunately, I can vouch that it can and does happen, and that no effort whatsoever is made to conceal that fact. The combination of their food, their farts, and the particularly foul odor my direct neighbor carried (breath, body - I don't know) was too much for me by the end of my 11 hour journey and I sat in the corridor.
I had a sense of relief and joy as I stepped out onto the platform into the 30 below (celsius) temperatures. Since we were staying at the Shangri-La, I had foolish perception that things would be pleasant and easy from this point forward. When I got out of the train station, the extent of the cold really hit me. It became ever more apparent as I attempted, repeatedly, to find a taxi driver willing to take me, I got in a cab with a guy who said he would take me for 20 RMB (probably about twice the real fare). Then he just got out of the car and was gone for at least ten minutes. I didn't know what he was doing or where he went, so I just reached over and held the horn down. After a minute or so of honking, he came over to stop me. I told him to go and he just yelled at me in Chinese. Frustrated, I called a colleague, who spoke to the guy for a bit and then told me to just give him 50 and he would go directly. Apparently, his plan was to wait for another person, who wanted to go to the same area as I did, to come out of the station and pick his car out of the 50+ that were sitting there, so we could split the fare. After overpaying many times over for the cab and telling the guy what I thought of his tactics, I had the pleasure of re-explaining my passport dilema to the hotel staff, so I could check in (they won't check you in without a passport). To top it all off, when I got to my room, my oasis of comfort after a 30 hour journey from Shanghai to Haerbin, by foot, shuttle bus, train, subway, and taxi, I found that I also had a Chinese colleague roomie at the hotel (snobby American perspective, but I must admit it irritated me at the time).
When I made it to the company party that was then ongoing, I had missed the departmental skits (which I actually thought would be entertaining), but was in time for the President's speech, and a lot of other talking in Chinese. They played some games I didn't understand, we ate dinner, and then the Chinese rambling continued. I got bored and decided to run up to my room to make some flight arrangements for Justin and Kristi, who were coming to China about a week later. Sitting in my room, my cell phone rang. It was a coworker asking where I was, because I just won a laptop. It was the grand prize of the weekend, a brand new laptop randomly drawn from the list of names at the party downstairs. By the time I ran to the elevator and across the lobby and blew through the doors to the banquet hall, the guy whose name they randomly drew next was just walking on stage to claim his second hand prize. To be fair, the said we could flip a coin; I called heads and lost...I make a 30 hour journey (versus everyone else's 2 or 3 hour flight), and they couldn't wait 3 minutes for me to claim my new laptop! I will say that losing a laptop in such celebrity fashion elevated my name among all of the attendees as the either very lucky, or very unlucky American who almost got the laptop. Plus, I think the Chinese guy who won it probably needed it more than we do.
The next morning, we left on the 3-hour (it was really 4 or 5 hours) bus ride to Yabuli (the mountain. There were six buses; I was on number three. Apparently, those people on bus one had the strange opportunity to watch three or four of our staff members from the Beijing office beat up their bus driver. This still blows my mind, and I'm not sure I fully understand the story, but apparently they didn't like the way he was driving and told him so, he called them some very inappropriate names, and they took him outside the bus and beat him up. Then, he refused to drive and a whole bus of people had to wait and then get on one of the other buses to get up to the mountain. Anyhow, we got there.
The hotel was a rustic place with a red onion dome (Haerbin is close to and has historically been occupied by the Russians, meaning that some of the architecture does reflect Russian style)and some of the most out-of-place yard art I could have imagined. There was the obligatory set of Chinese flags, complemented by an ambush of concrete tigers, a giant set of bowling pins and a ball, and garden of synthetic cacti....don't ask me.
Yabuli is s small mountain village, which is said to be the premier ski destination of China. It was home to the 1996 Asian Winter Games, but it seemed more like a collection of bunny slopes covered in man-made ice to me. In our two-hour - yes, TWO-HOUR (less than 5% of my travel time for the trip) - window of ski time, I found the conditions dangerous, the weather extraordinarily cold, and my coworkers very entertaining. Most of the people had never skied in their life. The company sprung for one instructor per five people. There was a line to rent skis and equipment and another to rent outerwear. I took a few runs, in two pairs of long-john pants, a pair of adidas warm up pants (very not windproof), and my ski jacket and gloves. In the end, it was a lot more entertaining to watch the others try to ski than it was to ski myself. Here is a picture of me and Jared, one of the two other Americans with the Company over here, and me and a bunch of the girls from the office. People laughed, crashed into rocks, fell down getting on and off the chairs, and did beginner skier things. Overall, though, I must say that collective attitude was impressive, considering the lack of ski experience, poor conditions, short timeframe, and severe cold. The Chinese people's patience and enthusiasm was refreshing.

That night, we all went to a big mess hall for dinner. Each table went through countless rounds of eating, toasting (with competitively loud cheers-yelling between tables), pounding small beers, smoking, and drinking. I was not alone in thinking that the food was particularly awful. I ate something that was either 'like' a deer or a fox - never actually figured out what it was. People got drunk and started drinking Baijiu (white alcohol), which is something like Chinese vodka. One table decided to stand up and pound glasses of the stuff. The most enthusiastic guy couldn't even walk out of the place. They put him on a bus, and then drug him back off (literally dragging his feet on the ice), after he threw up in a bag on the bus. No one paid it much attention and took care of him as needed, and the night went on. We stayed up late, drinking Chinese 'SNOW' beer, playing cards, and riding the hotel's mechanical bull (also strangely out-of-place). I was the reigning bull riding champion, until one of the other Americans from Idaho got the hang of it.

The next morning, we jumped back on a bus headed for Haerbin. It was still unclear if my passport had actually made it to the hotel in Haerbin, so that I could fly back to Shanghai (I was prepared to wait it out in Haerbin instead of taking the train back). The bus ride down was longer than the ride up, because for some reason two semi-trucks tipped over on the highway causing traffic jams (in different places). Here is a picture of some random guy waiting, whom I thought represented an interesting mix of Chinese and Russian styles.
After one last horrible meal (no one ate much, and that is saying something in China), we made it back to Haerbin and they decided to take us to the snow sculpture park to kill some time. When I was on the train en route, the group had visited the ice sculpture park. Here is a picture of a very small one in front of the restaurant. The ice and snow sculptures are a huge part of the winter tourism season in Haerbin, which is famous for the Ice Lantern Festival. They make buildings and castles and other statues out of blocks of ice, with colored lights inside of them. That day, it was colder in Haerbin than it was on the mountain - almost intolerable to me. Although the carvings were intricate and nice and the carver's ability to work in the freezing cold was amazing, my patience ran thin as we strolled through the park and I decided that one snow carving looked enough like another that it wasn't worth bearing the cold.
Here is a picture of a huge snow castle in front of a frozen lake, on which there was a fairly sad procession of Chinese tourists being shuttled by small sled-dogs on the ice. Down the way, there was a more entertaining attraction (check out the video below).
After the snow park, we finally made it to the hotel where my passport, Saudi Arabian visa included, was fortunately waiting for me. I am always leary of sending my passport around, but when you travel you don't always have a choice and sometimes you just have to let it go. I clutched passport as we drove to the airport. I was so excited to have my passport back and that I would be able to fly home, I hardly noticed the two-hour delay at the airport. My journey to and from North China was a great experience, a fun time, and I'm happy I went for it, even considering the fact that I spent over 50% of the total trip time in transit.


Justine said...

what a trip! glad none of my travels with you and karen had such interesting developments!! hope you have safe travels in saudi arabia! -justine

David S said...

Skiing in China? Insane! I hope you could read the signs on the trail! Looked like a blast!