Sunday, September 26, 2021

A Tale of Typhoons, Trains, and Traveling to Singapore

Traveling during a worldwide pandemic is stressful enough. What happens when you add a deadline, a typhoon, and a race across the country?

Cartoon drawing of Eric wearing a purple shirt in the eye of a grey tornado with a small airplane, a car, a cow, a train, a departure sign, and a board swirling around him.
Feature image credit: Luca Lim

Story | Kriti Andhare, she/her, Contributing Writer

Photos | Eric Hu, he/him

Illustration | Luca Lim, they/them

Sitting in a fragrant tea cafe in Shanghai, engaged in a spirited conversation with a friend, it was the picture of calm normalcy. Little did I know that these would be my last moments of peace before the most arduous and stressful 24 hours of my life.

From the Vikings battling the bone-chilling temperatures of the Atlantic Ocean to the sweat-inducing hassle of long queues and unnecessarily rude questions at immigration, traveling has never been an easy feat. Eric Hu ‘25’s experience of flying to Singapore rivals even the trials of Odysseus.

Eric, poised to depart from Wuxi, China to Singapore on an 8 am flight on July 26, is enjoying a tea and thought-provoking conversation with MQ, a dear friend and veteran traveler. It is the afternoon before his flight. Earlier in the day, a typhoon had hit the eastern coast of China. Not wanting to risk being caught by the typhoon, Eric and his family decided to drive from Shanghai to Wuxi in the evening and stay there overnight. 

Walking through the streets of Shanghai towards the cafe, my phone buzzes in my pocket: a call from a family friend. Unexpected but not unwelcome, I pick up the phone. My walk slows to a standstill. The typhoon has cut their electricity and Wi-Fi. Okay, I need to take this in my stride and assess my options. Should I leave earlier for Wuxi? Are the flights affected? Bubbles of anxiety form in my stomach, finding their way to the surface. I quickly open the Air Traffic Control (ATC) app, my heart dropping a little when I read that only 27% of flights are on schedule. Nevertheless, delays are human and routine; nothing out of the ordinary. Everything is under control. 

Specks of worry begin to settle at the back of Eric’s mind, unsatisfied by his own rationalization, as he continues towards his tea appointment. Stepping through the threshold of the cafe, the calm atmosphere assuages his mind. As the tea and conversation begin to flow, the stress melts away. 

Ping! The harsh sound of a notification from the ATC app rudely interrupts our conversation. As I pull my phone out to check what it says, the typhoon doesn’t seem so distant anymore. “Your flight has been canceled,” the dreaded message greets me. My eyes scan the message again; surely I have read this wrong. I blink in frustration, hoping the milliseconds of nothingness will somehow change the message, but it stares ominously back at me. I shake my head, clearing my scattered thoughts. I need to take this step by step. I need to find another flight. My fingers fly over my keyboard, making silly spelling errors. No matter how hard I press the search button or how many times I refresh my screen, all flights to Singapore have either been canceled or sold out. 

Screenshot of text message from the ATC app.
“Flight Canceled. Your HO1626 (Wuxi-Singapore) flight has been canceled… There is a prediction of the cancellation probability of each flight.” Image credit: Eric Hu

If Eric doesn’t fly out on the 26th, he will not be able to enter Singapore until the first or second week of August. The urgency and gravity of the situation rapidly unfolds in his mind. He won’t be able to get to Singapore in time for Orientation. Or will he?

“Have you tried for flights from Chongqing?” MQ asks. “I believe there is a direct flight from Chongqing to Singapore.”

Eric keys in the information frantically, and yes! One ticket is still available for July 26. He instantly books it and realizes that he just snagged the last ticket in all of China to Singapore. As he places his phone down on the table, another thought hits him like a ton of bricks. Chongqing is 1,700 km west of Shanghai. High risk, high reward, he thinks to himself. At that very moment, his phone buzzes again. It is an announcement from the Shanghai government: due to the impact of the typhoon, all flights to and from Shanghai have been canceled and both airports in Shanghai have been shut down. 

The typhoon continues to brew menacingly, threatening all other forms of transportation.

There is a high-speed rail between Shanghai and Chongqing; check to see if tickets are still available?” MQ offers. Thank God MQ is here, I wouldn’t know what to do without him. 

It turns out that tickets are available for the rail! Perfect. I type in my details and as my finger hovers over the payment button, the app refreshes itself. The typhoon is spreading fast, rendering the train inoperative. I clench my fists in frustration. This typhoon seems hell-bent on denying me entry to Singapore. 

“Is there another train I can take?” I ask MQ. “I have until tomorrow noon to get to the airport in Chongqing, so a small detour won’t matter.” 

“There is a way. You could take a train to Hefei and then fly from Hefei to Chongqing. I doubt the typhoon will affect Hefei anytime soon.” 

Okay, lovely! I have a plan of action. I quickly book the tickets, hoping Hefei is the only detour on my path… 

Thanking MQ profusely, Eric rushes out of the cafe, grabs his bags and jumps on the Metro to the Shanghai train station. As his feet touch the Shanghai central station platform, a disembodied voice announces over the speakers: “Ladies and gentlemen, due to the typhoon, this Metro line has been closed.” Maybe this is his lucky break, the sign that everything is going to go smoothly from now on. Alas, this is simply the first of lasts in this tale.

A picture of the train board outside the platform’s boarding gate showing all trains after 18:22 trains have been cancelled
All trains canceled at Shanghai train station except for his train to Hefei. Image credit: Eric Hu

Counting his blessings, he hurries to the platform for the Hefei train, scheduled to leave at 6:22 pm. A cursory glance at the train schedule at his boarding platform reveals a column of red text reading “canceled.” Eric’s eyes wade through the sea of red. No, this cannot be happening to me. His eyes frantically search the board, landing on an island of yellow: his 6:22 pm train!  

The train slowly pulls into the station and all Eric hopes for is a smooth ride. As Eric settles into his seat, the train lurches into motion, scattering his thoughts. He finally begins to relax as China speeds by in a blur of blues and greys through his window. The train makes its scheduled stops, and everything is on time… until Nanjing. 

Eric begins to get restless, tapping his fingers on his knee. They have been at the Nanjing station for 20 minutes. As the minutes pass, Eric’s restlessness grows. How long will this delay last? Compulsively checking his watch every five minutes, he shares nervous glances with fellow passengers. After an endless amount of waiting, the train finally lurches back into motion. 

However, the typhoon is yet to reveal all of its cards. As a sense of calm begins to resettle over Eric, the hypnotic colors of China’s countryside lulling his stress-addled brain to sleep, the train slows to a stop at an abandoned station. 

“Ladies and Gentlemen, please remain calm and do not exit the cabin. This is an unscheduled stop to avoid getting in contact with the typhoon.” 

Not again! I am not going to reach Hefei in time to get to the airport. I need at least an hour to get there. Eric’s mind continues to spiral as the train refuses to move. Seconds turn into minutes, which turn into hours. A sense of desolation creeps up his spine. 

I am not going to be able to reach it in time. I won’t be able to go to Singapore. All these detours, tickets from here and there, all to be stuck in the middle of nowhere with no news. 

After an eternity and a half, the train finally starts moving again. Checking his watch, Eric realizes he now has exactly one hour to drive to the airport, notwithstanding any further complications.

Finally at Hefei, he disembarks hurriedly, panic setting into his bones as he contacts his cab driver. With one hour on the clock, he leaves Hefei train station in a cab, the driver being emphatically informed of the gravity of Eric’s situation. Driving with speed that would shame Dom Toretto (within the limits of the law of course), he delivers Eric to the airport in the nick of time. Thanking the driver, Eric launches himself out of the cab, grabbing his suitcases and sprinting into the airport, clearing check-in and security in record time. 

Plonking into the plane seat, Eric lets out a huge sigh of relief. 

Alt Text: Screenshot of flight timing board showing all flights in red - they have been cancelled except for the last flight to Chongqing.
All the flights canceled aside from the one to Chongqing at the Hefei airport. Image credit: Eric Hu

I am safely on the plane, everything is finally in order, there can’t possibly be any more complications. Chongqing is too far from the coast of China to be touched by the vicious grip of this typhoon. 

Eric’s flight to Chongqing is the last to leave the Hefei airport on that day. 

Bleary eyed, Eric disembarks from his flight and reaches his hotel at 3 am on July 26 at Chongqing. Falling into his bed to get some much-needed respite and sleep. High risk, high reward indeed. I deserve this after that ordeal. 

Settling into the plush interiors of his room, Eric enjoys his precious moments of peace and a Chongqing chow mein. After catching up on some work, Eric shuts his laptop and begins to reflect on the last few hours. It feels like he has been on the road, buffeted around by the winds of that treacherous typhoon for more than a week.

Alt text: A bowl of chow mein and a computer on the table of the lounge.
Chongqing chow mein. Image credit: Eric Hu 

At 2:45 pm, the much-awaited clarion call of “All passengers on the Singaporean Airline flight bound to Singapore are now called for boarding” plays at the gate. 

With a smile that holds the stress, pain, anxiety of the last 24 hours and the joy of finally reaching his destination, Eric boards the flight. At last, with Eric comfortably seated, the flight takes off at 3 pm and Eric reaches Singapore in one piece.

1 COMMENT

  1. Many thanks to Kriti for the interview! Thx Luca for the illustration (it’s so good!) and of course the Octant. It was an honor 🙂

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