Honkers Haima Horror

In October 2016 I was on a solo gallivant round eastern Asia. On Thursday 20thI flew into Hong Kong for a one-night stopover before my midday flight to Mongolia the next day. Everything was going swimmingly, including yours truly in the rooftop pool of the airport hotel after another gym session (two days in a row! 😇), and I rewarded myself for this virtuous behaviour with a nice Chinese meal washed down by a couple of Argentinian whites (glasses, not bottles) and another early night before the anticipated civilized hour departure.

I was up even before the 7am wakeup call and starting to think pleasant breakfasty thoughts when I looked out the window and saw a lot of wind and rain.  Hmm, I thought. I hope this doesn’t make the flight a bit scary. ‘Scary’ – huh!  If only that was the worst of it.  Little did I realise then that from this moment ZE PICNIC VAS OVER!! 

It was a full-blown typhoon! With an official name – Haima.  Most flights in and out were cancelled, including mine, presenting me with a series of logistical nightmares as follows:  

Firstly accommodation. I ask at the front desk if I can stay another night.  No, they say, the hotel’s booked out.  But if you’ve got people stuck here, surely you’ll have others who won’t be able to get here, I said. Well we won’t know that till late today, and if we DID have a vacancy we’d have to charge you over $A1000 for it!  AND you’d better hurry up because the other hotels are filling up fast with stranded people.  Christ! What to do first?  Perhaps I should find out when my flight’s going to be…

I trot over the long landbridge to the vast airport terminal to re-book my flight with Mongolian Airlines. The helpful hotel concierge had said they were in Aisle D.  But they’re not.  There’s nobody in Aisle D except a queue of Russians waiting to check in for a flight to Moscow.  Aeroflot appears to be the only airline brave enough to fly.

I find a customer service desk.  ‘Go to Aisle J’, says the nice lady.  So I go to Aisle J where there appears to be an agency re-booking people on behalf of various airlines including, according to a sign above the desk, Mongolian Airlines. I queue up behind numerous other stranded souls, including a poor young Chinese woman who has literally nowhere to stay because her boss has put in another maid already, she can’t afford a hotel and she can’t get home to Beijing.  At least I have a credit card.  When I get to the front of the queue they tell me they are not acting for Mongolian Airlines and I have to phone the airline myself.  But I can use the free phone back in Aisle D.  Needless to say that phone has a queue stretching to infinity so I decide hang the expense, I’ll call from my hotel room.  

(I don’t have a local sim card in my mobile as I’m only here for a one-night stopover and I don’t have international roaming because that costs an arm, a leg and a king’s ransom.)

I retrace the Long March over the landbridge to the hotel and try repeatedly on several different numbers recommended by the concierge and the airline website.  Some don’t answer at all, some ring out, some welcome me to the airline, ask me to choose English and then put me on hold before ending in assorted electronic beeps and screeches.

I email my travel agent, begging for help, mindful that I have to notify the hotel and tour people in Ulan Bataar of any delay and my new arrival time, which of course I don’t know yet.

Then I schlep over to the terminal again, thinking the Mongolian airline folks must be there by now as it’s check-in time, but they’re not!  They’ve shut up shop and taken the day off altogether, it seems.

So to Customer Service again.  Ring them up, she says.  Can’t be done, I say.  Go to the agents in Aisle D, she says.  But they turned me down before, I wail.  Try them again, she says, they’re definitely the ones.  So I stride through the throngs of stranded wretches and the TV crews filming them (I’ll never feel smug watching those stories again) back to Aisle D, and again they reject me!

I decide to forget the flight for the time being and concentrate on getting a roof over my head. The first desk I queue at delivers no joy:  all their hotels are booked out.  I’m starting to feel seriously anxious. Try the hotels booth in Hall A, says the desk clerk.  I eventually find Hall A – time’s ticking relentlessly away – and after another half-hour’s queueing I secure the last reasonable hotel room in Hong Kong for $A400 a night, no breakfast, to the consternation of the poor schmucks behind me.

So it’s the long trek back to the hotel one last time to check out by the midday deadline.  I have just enough time for a desperate phone call to the emergency Australian phone number supplied by the travel agent.  ‘We don’t accept reverse charge calls on this number’, says a male American voice, ‘but if you want some REALLY hot porn, call…..’ whereupon I slam the receiver down like it’s a hot brick.  WTF???

The airport is 40 km from central Hong Kong, where my new hotel – the Stanford Hillview – is located. Buses and taxis are not running, of course, because of the typhoon.   So I sally forth, fully encumbered with luggage on the arduous journey there by way of no fewer than three separate metro lines to arrive at the station supposedly closest to the hotel.  Thanks to some wrong advice dispensed by the hotel concierge I have to reverse direction at one stage and buy a new ticket.  And I have to literally throw my bags under and/or over the unaccountably narrow turnstiles.  If I ever get to this damned hotel I am so not going to the gym…I’ve done a week’s worth of cardio and weights already today!

There is a local area map in the concourse and I find the Stanford Hillview on it.  I commit the street route to memory and I make my way to the likely exit, where there is a railway official keeping order among a throng of commuters gazing forlornly out into the pelting wind and rain.  I ask her for directions to the Stanford Hillview and maddeningly, she indicates the opposite direction to the one I have memorized! 

Undaunted, I decide to trust my own judgement, and sally forth into the teeth of the storm, with only a light hooded spray jacket for protection.  I don’t have an umbrella but it would be useless because of the wind and besides my hands are fully occupied hanging onto my luggage.  After about 100m I’m soaked through and barely able to read street signs because of the driving rain.  I’m fair game for the enterprising Indian taxi-drivers who hail me and offer to drive me to the airport for $HK500 (about $A90).  How about the NEARBY Stanford Hillview Hotel which is very CLOSE, say I, enquiring hopefully whether the fare would be proportional to the quoted fare to the airport, considering it was about one-twentieth the distance.  They actually laugh!  $HK300 ($A55), they demand.  Sigh. I have no choice but to accept.

‘Why are you charging so much?’ I asked. ‘Because of the typhoon’, the driver replied, as if it was a silly question.  In the end he had to accept $220 ($A44) because it was all the cash I had and he didn’t do EFTPOS.  I even opened my wallet to show him the emptiness within.  The airport hotel people had the same unapologetic attitude to raising prices to exploit the crisis.  

He dropped me at the foot of a short steep hill which he could have gone up but he was punishing me for short-changing him, I reckon, and with a final luggage-dragging, Shackletonian surge of energy I was out of the wind and rain at last.

First thing I did was fire up my tablet to see if my desperate pleas for help had yielded fruit and – jubilation!  The travel agency has a) booked me on the afternoon flight out tomorrow and b) notified Wendy Wu’s mob in Mongolia of the new state of affairs. I could weep for joy, having been damn close to tears of despair more than once earlier in the day.

And so I said farewell to Hong Kong, about $450 poorer thanks to my encounter with Haima which, though it killed 19 people in the Philippines and was the third most intense tropical cyclone of 2016, was a bit of a fizzer in Hong Kong.  Certainly my insurance company had never heard of it when I finally got round to claiming my losses.  How do you prove you were caught up in a typhoon, when it didn’t cause widespread devastation and barely made the news?  

Annie Warburton on the steps in front of the big statue of Genhis Khan just out of Ulan Bataar
Finally got to Mongolia. Here’s me with Big Genghis.

In the end I found a news story online and sent the link to the insurance company.   They coughed up.  A happy ending.