I arrived in Qingdao, China at midnight on a half-full flight of sleepy business men who hadn’t checked luggage. I moseyed my way over to luggage pick up alone and registered the odd fact that the baggage carousel lights were out, but the slow whir produced my lonely green TravelPro and black crate full of marketing materials anyway and I grabbed them in the dark without much fuss … probably because I was the only passenger in the airport retrieving luggage.
I made my way through the dimmed terminal to the “Taxi” lane (出租车) only to discover that at 12:30 am on a weeknight, there are no taxis at the Qingdao airport. Shit!
There are many places in the world where you can arrive at 12:30 and even without a taxi make your way to a nearby Novotel for a shower and a pillow. Not so in Qingdao. When I say their airport is in the middle of nowhere I mean mountains, trees, industrial complex, NOWHERE! Hence the name, Qīng (青) in Chinese means “green” or “lush”, while dǎo (岛) means “island”. I had arrived on the green island in the middle of the night, and Jeff Probst was not waiting there to help me find my tribe.
When traveling and something goes wrong, or could go wrong, I like to do what I call “sink the ship.” I immediately imagine worst case scenario and work myself out from there.
In this instance, I had a Chinese cell phone and it was mid-day back home if I couldn’t get a hold of the hotel concierge, I knew I could call home and have someone contact my Qingdao hotel and ask them to send a car for me. I could also go back into the airport and camp out until taxis arrived in the morning. So, worst case scenario really wasn’t disastrous. I was pulling out said cell phone when I was approached by a very average looking cluster of Chinese men in ubiquitous short sleeved dress shirts and slacks.
“Taxi?” One of the men asked, using what I became confident was the only English world he knew.
“Yes! To the Qingdao Shangri La.” I replied, feeling relieved that my original assessment that no taxis were available proved incorrect. I pulled out my hotel reservation to show him the written characters for the address to where I was going.
He pulled out his cell phone, typed in 300 Reminibi (about $45 US) and I nodded in agreement. Then he started to wheel my wobbly cart past the rental car stands, and past row after row of parked cars, and my Spidey “don’t-talk-to-strangers” Sense kicked into high alert.
“Taxi!” I said loudly, trying to communicate that I did not want to ride to my hotel in the vehicle of some random stranger.
“Taxi.” He said, pointing to himself, and continuing to roll my luggage.
We arrived at a very average looking silver car, but definitely not a licensed taxi or private airport transport service and he popped the trunk. At this point, if this man’s goal was to kidnap me, he could easily have done it without continuing the pretense of loading my luggage, we were too far from the terminal for the nobody who was around to hear me scream, and although I like to think of myself as scrappy, at 108 pounds he could have easily overpowered me into his car.
So, I sank the ship again, worst case scenario he’s an opportunistic gypsy cab, would-be human trafficker and wants me to get in the car without alerting the security cameras, since cameras are everywhere in China. That in mind, I made a big show of taking a pretend picture of his car’s license plate (my Chinese burner phone was so antiquated it barely sent basic text messages, but he didn’t know) then pretended to text the photo to a friend. I wanted him to believe that if he did abduct me into white slavery that he would at least have to do so with the hassle of the police knowing he was the last person I had been with.
We climbed into the cab and I immediately pretended to call my “friend” in China and speak to them in Chinglish, using the four Chinese words I know in order to make it seem as though I was meeting a Chinese-speaking friend at the hotel (and was apparently very mad at some old woman 老巫婆 “old hag” being the only insult I know). Then, I hung up and called home and explained the situation in English, and talked my way through a thirty minute taxi ride over the river and through the woods to my hotel.
There are few times in my life I have been as relieved as I was when I saw the lights of Qingdao in the distance, and then even more so when I saw the neon lights of the Shangri La – once I can see the hotel I can walk there, worst case scenario I abandon my luggage and make a run for it.
We pulled near the Shangri La, and then things got shady. He turned around and began speaking with me in the Chinese I don’t know and then showed me his cell phone, with a new number on it – 500 Reminbi (80 USD) which from all my pre-trip internet research I knew was a complete rip off. I probably would have let him jack the price up a few bucks, but doubling the price when the hotel was in sight, rookie mistake.
He pulled past the porte-cochère and picked up speed, continuing to speak in rapid Mandarin and pointing to his phone. At which point, I did what any innocent little Utah girl would do, unrolled my window, pulled out my rape whistle, and blew that thing with all my might.
The “taxi” slammed to a stop, and he began to back up, gesturing with his hand to keep it down, and pretending to laugh it off as if we’d just had a misunderstanding. He delivered me to the door and sheepishly grabbed my luggage.
I handed him 300 Reminibi instead of the agreed upon amount, with a knowing look, and we both went our separate ways.
Now, when arriving in an unfamiliar city after standard hours, I always book a car and driver – though it didn’t work as well in Turkey at 4:00 in the morning, but that’s another story.