It’s 10:30am on Monday 21st April local time here in Beijing as I sit in a hotel room and reflect on the last 36 hours. It feels like its been a long and arduous journey my whole body seems to be aching which is unusual.
The journey began in Birmingham on Saturday evening, my brother and uncle dropped me off at Birmingham International Airport at about 6pm. I checked in with no difficulty at all and gave Rob a quick call to let him know I had arrived and was going to proceed through security into the departure lounge. As I walked towards to the security checks I ran into Tom who had just arrived at the Airport and told him where the check in counter was and that I’d be with Rob in the departure lounge. Tom walked off to get checked in and I went and queued to get through the security checks.
That’s where the fun and games began. Once I was clear of the metal detectors and had my hand luggage, I was stopped by a police officer who took me to one side to ask me a few questions. He asked me where I was going, to which I replied China via Dubai. He asked me why I was going there, to which I replied For a Conference, I’m presenting a paper on the Semantic Web. Oh man was that a mistake. I spent the next twenty minutes filling out embarkation cards, which ominously had Terrorist Act written at the bottom of them in tiny font. I was repeatedly asked if my company had given me any travel advice from the Foreign Office? whether I was some kind of expert in my field? What is the Semantic Web? Whether I thought China was a good place to be having a conference? Whether I had ever been approached by Chinese Officials? Did my Company routinely send people to China? … it went on and on …
I was left trying to explain The Semantic Web to someone who admitted he only kind of had an idea of what eBay and Google was. At this point I was getting visibly shaken, having been stood there for over twenty minutes. I simply didn’t know whether the officer believed a single word I was saying. It occurred to me that I had my Letter of Invitation from the Conference Organisers which I handed to the Officer, and then explained that the Conference was an annual event and each year the venue changed. I remember thinking, cool now he know’s why I’m going – the letter kind of proves that, now I have to convince him I’m actually presenting. So, rather comically, I reached into my laptop bag and pulled out a copy of Nodalities Magazine, which contains not only an article I’ve written but also picture of me, and intimates that I along with some of my colleagues would be presenting at the annual WWW2008 conference. This seemed to convince him a little more, or at least I thought it did until he started asking all the same questions all over again.
At this point I semi lost my temper. I played the only card I had left, and told him to phone Inspector Williams who heads up security at the airport and ask him to vouch for me. On reflection I hate the fact that it came to that, but I was becoming rather frightened, and trust me … Orange is not a good color on me, and I was starting to have visions of me wearing an orange jump suit.
At that point the officer took my letter of invitation, my passport and disappeared behind a security screen. I was left waiting anxiously. It was at that point that Rob wondered back into the security check area. He had been waiting in the departure lounge for me for almost half an hour and had become worried that I had not appeared, so wondered back in to see where I had disappeared to.
He saw me standing at the police check counter and walked over and asked me if I was ok. I explained what was happening and he made a joke about it, which was good actually because it calmed me down. Anyway Rob stood their with me, which was a wonderful gesture, and even as I sit here and write this I’m still touched by it. The officer returned with my things and then apologised for detaining me, and said he hoped he hadn’t caused any offence, and told me I could go. At this point it’s important to point out that whilst I didn’t enjoy the experience one bit, the officer in question was impeccably polite.
Rob and I went and sat in the departure lounge and it took me a few moments to compose myself. In fact it took a bit longer than that, the entire episode played in my mind for much of the evening. It’s sad but it’s the world we live in.
Rob and I waited around for Tom, who eventually arrived through security and the we walked through to one of the private departure lounges that I had access to, and I signed the guys in as my guests and we sat and relaxed and waited for Chris. The flight was delayed a little while so comfort of the private lounge with free snacks and drinks gave us a chance to natter and me a chance to gather my equilibrium a part of me was still seething but also rather shaken by events. Tom repeatedly asked me if I was ok as did Chris, whilst Rob repeatedly made fun of me … which was probably exactly what I needed … thanks buddy!
We finally boarded about 9:30, I was sitting next to Rob for the flight so played chess, chatted, and I think we both managed to get some sleep. We arrived in Dubai seven hours later for a four hour stop over. We got off the plane but Tom got separated from us. Rob, Chris and myself got through the Connecting Flights security bit but there was no sign of Tom anywhere and we started to worry a little bit that he had stayed on the bus might have ended up in immigration control. It was at that point Paul found us and we explained how we had lost Tom … but not for long he turned up and explained the bus had stopped at a different entrance.
We had a quick look around at some of the electronic gadgets on sale and then walked back to one of the private lounges at the airport, I signed the guys in and we had chilled in there for the next few hours. Had some wonderful food, drink, chatted, took photos, some of us even took the opportunity to get showered as we waited for our connecting flight.
This flight was also approx seven hours long, I spent this leg of the journey sitting next to Chris. We also played chess and talked a lot about work and ideas we had. Paul joined us for a while as did Rob and we had a great time just chatting about work, ideas, the conference, etc. We even managed to take some photos on the plane.
We arrived in Beijing airport at about 11pm local time and since none of us had flown here before we had no idea what to expect. We were all amazed at the sheer spectacle of the terminal. It is an amazing looking building not to mention absolutely huge … we had to catch a train from immigration to where we collected our baggage … that’s how huge!
We found our way out of the airport and ended up waiting in the longest queue ever for a taxi. Eventually a guy in a toyota hiace wondered over to us and offered us his services so we accepted and arrived at the Beijing Continental Hotel at 2am – only to discover that the had given our rooms away. We were all getting a little annoyed but eventually the hotel agreed to put us up in another hotel for the night and collect us in the morning – in fact I’m sitting in the taxi waiting for the others to check out as I write this.
All in all it feels great to be in China, I think I’ve managed to put the emotions of the earlier parts of this journey behind me. Now I just want to look forward to the conference and having the opportunity to speak to and interact with some amazing people.