Finding the Beijing Crowne Plaza at Midnight – A Comedy of Errors

There are as many ways to travel as there are personalities. On one extreme there are those who plan every detail – the car waiting for them when they arrive at the airport – and on the other, those who just land in place and go for it. Like most people I’m somewhere in the middle, with tendencies towards planning rather than leaving particulars to chance, but I see the pluses of each. Having the details worked out is comforting; working it out on the fly makes for a richer cultural experience.

Arriving at Beijing airport at 11:30pm I was a little hesitant not to have worked out exactly how I was getting to the Crowne Plaza airport hotel. Their website indicates that they have a free shuttle that runs every half hour but that you need to call the hotel to reserve a seat. Why didn’t I call or at least jot down the number? Maybe laziness or just the idea that getting to the hotel shouldn’t be that difficult. The Crowne Plaza isn’t a little boutique thing on a back street that no one has heard of.  It’s a towering complex of more than 600 rooms near the airport!

The plane landed on time and I zipped through immigration, picked up my bag and found an ATM. At this rate I should be at the hotel before midnight. I follow the signs out to the shuttle bus area, an efficient and overwhelming operation running dozens of buses to every corner of Beijing. I even find the hotel shuttle bus area, but there is no indication of a Crowne Plaza shuttle. Even worse, I ask but no one has heard of the Crowne Plaza shuttle. By this time I’m wishing I’d written down that number!  Maybe Don can find it for me.

Those who know me know that I don’t use cell phones much. In fact it’s shameful how maladroit I am, carrying one only for emergencies and the occasional call home from the grocery store to check to see what we are out of.  Traveling internationally as much as I do I should know how to dial home, but I do it so infrequently that I don’t. Which begs the question, what good is an emergency phone if you don’t know how to use it in an emergency?  I try dialing several times but reach only a recording in Chinese. So, no Don to bail me out of this situation.

Plan B was always a taxi and by this time the queue had quieted down. Standing in line I’m wondering if the taxi driver is going to give up a lucrative trip into Beijing for a short fare to a nearby hotel. Hopefully someone will take pity on me. I’m next and I show the driver my paper, Crown Plaza. No he’s never heard of it and doesn’t recognize the address or the map. Big mistake not having the hotel name or address written in Chinese. In typical Chinese fashion more people are called over to study this strange name “Crowne Plaza” and incomprehensible map. Unfortunately I booked the hotel through Hotels.com which doesn’t list the hotel’s local number on the confirmation sheet. Lots of discussion ensues. I try a few phrases of Chinese but this results in more responses I don’t understand.  Subsequently, my bag is taken out of the taxi and the driver leaves without me. A second very amiable guy wants to take me somewhere – I’m not sure where or if he knows where – for 200 renminbi (about $40). This is crazy, the hotel is fujin (close), I keep saying.

Even more attendants are consulted to study my document with lots of discussion on exactly which number might be the telephone number, dian hua hao ma, a Pimsleur word I actually know and recognize. But the hotel number is not there. I’ve got to reach Don and get the number. I try again with the cell phone and this time I find the + sign and reach Don. About this time someone finally recognizes the location on the map and explains it to the taxi driver. The number is written down with six attendants hovering over my paper. In the taxi the driver calls the hotel and 10 minutes and 24 yuan (about $4) later I walk into the large marble lobby of the Crowne Plaza.

I think we learned something here today. One, you really should have a local phone number and the hotel name and address written in Chinese no matter how big, obvious, or close you think the hotel is. And two, the Chinese will come through for you. It may take a battery of attendants, but they won’t leave you homeless at midnight. Have a little patience and a solution will be found.

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