It was a busy last day at the office, so I didn’t have a lot of time to pack the night before my flight. No worries – my first flight wasn’t until 2 in the afternoon. There were a few logistical details to work out with Air China, though, so my first call was to them. They have an English customer service line, and much to my surprise, I reached someone who was able to answer my questions right away. I just didn’t like the answers.

No, I could not bring a bottle of cough syrup on board unless it was under 100ml – there was no medicine exception to the airline liquids ban in China. No, Air China didn’t have a baggage agreement with Hainan Airlines, so I would have to claim and re-check my bags in Guangzhou. No, I could not check in with Hainan at Beijing, I would need to check in at Guangzhou. Yes, 2 hours was enough time to accomplish all of this. If my flights weren’t on time, maybe it was enough time to accomplish all of this. Confidence-inspiring to be sure.

I packed, and was running a little late but not perilously late so decided to take a cab to the airport. The highways were surprisingly clear, most Spring Festival travelers having left Beijing for their home cities already. The efficient Beijing cab driver made it to the airport in record time, 20 minutes. I was really happy that my Chinese was good enough to tell the driver which terminal, which was always a problem when taking cabs to the airport previously.

At the airport, I checked in with Air China, double-checking that I wasn’t able to check my bags through to Guiyang. I saw having a checked bag as the highest risk – 2 hours is sometimes a tight connection anyway (if a terminal change is required or the connecting flight is delayed), let alone having to claim a bag – with its attendant inconveniences – and check it back in.

My flight left on time, but air traffic was heavy so it took about a half hour to get off the ground. Once we were up in the air, it was clear that we’d be about 30 minutes late into Guangzhou if we didn’t have to circle the airport there. The flight was relatively uneventful, and to my surprise, it wasn’t full. We landed in Guangzhou without inbound air traffic delays, although there was an extended taxi to the terminal due to the sheer size of the Guangzhou airport. It’s enormous.

Upon arrival, I first headed to the transfer desk. Check-in closes 45 minutes prior to departure for domestic flights, so I wanted to be sure I was checked in for my onward flight even if I was late to check in my bags (I figured I’d be in a stronger negotiating position if I had a boarding pass). The agent didn’t speak any English, but when I pulled out my passport and said “piao,” Chinese for “ticket,” she figured out what I wanted and issued my boarding pass. It was the worst seat in the plane, a middle seat all the way in the back, but there wasn’t any arguing the point and at least it was a seat.

Next, it was time to claim my bags. Amazingly, my bag was one of the first off the plane, so I grabbed it quickly and made my way through the cavernous terminal. Guangzhou has an enormous airport, maybe even bigger than Beijing (although as Asia’s busiest airport, it’s hard to believe it is possible to be bigger than Beijing Capital International Airport). The check-in desks are organized alphabetically, seemingly every letter of the alphabet, and I really hoped that a terminal change wouldn’t be required. Finding an information desk, I asked where to check in for Hainan Airlines, and the agent told me which desk – fortunately, it was in the same terminal, although it was several football fields away. Looking at my watch, I was OK for time – barely. I made my way quickly to the check-in counter, dropped off my bag and was issued a claim check (with surprisingly little trouble), and then I made my way through security.

Friendly, efficient and very thorough security in Guangzhou, just like Beijing. I think Chinese people would never put up with the level of abuse that Americans suffer under the TSA, and for all this abuse, I often get things through American security that I shouldn’t, and I have never been able to get anything through Chinese security that I shouldn’t. Perhaps courtesy leads to better security? A long walk (many more football fields) and I arrived at the gate in time for my flight to board. I shot off a quick text to Johnson once I was onboard to let him know I made it on the plane, and was even lucky enough to switch seats with a family wanting to sit together (still a middle seat, but at least not a non-reclining middle seat in the back of the plane). A quick, easy flight to Guiyang, and we arrived on time. Johnson greeted me after claiming my bag, and we went to his father’s car which was waiting in the parking lot. A drive on the bumpy roads across town to pick up some other family members, stuffing 6 people into a small Ford, and we arrived at Johnson’s family apartment.

Johnson’s father is a motor oil and lubricants distributor in Guiyang, and his business is obviously successful because he owns a 12 bedroom home. Like many Chinese families, the extended family lives under one roof – parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and children. The home is new, though, and everyone still owns their own apartments, splitting their time between the house and their apartments. We started at Johnson’s family apartment, a delicious home-cooked dinner my introduction to Guiyang. As midnight neared the fireworks intensified, and finally, I asked with some insistence to see what was going on outside. It was incredible, sheer mayhem, perhaps like Beirut during the civil war. An incredible cacophony of military-grade fireworks turned the sky into brilliant shades of purple, orange, green and red. All around, firecrackers exploded, rolls and rolls of M-80s and bigger. Occasionally, loud explosions in the distance rocked the city, echoing down the canyon-like streets. Someone across the street hurled what looked like a grenade in our general direction, and it exploded with a fury that reminded me of the admonition of mothers everywhere on the Fourth of July, “be careful of that thing, it could take your eye out!” No matter. Fires burned on the streets, explosions rocked the city and we were both so busy dodging Roman candle flares that any worries of safety were far out of my mind. Survival was the more salient question, the remains of mortars raining from the sky. Hunter S. Thompson couldn’t have imagined such a scene with the benefit of a suitcase full of drugs, and this was real, baby!

Guiyang has a reputation for its fireworks affinity. Nobody warned me about the car bombs, mortars and grenades.

Eventually, somehow, we made our way back to the apartment. After sheltering in place for a couple of hours (if I hadn’t been so fascinated by the apocalypse I’d have been tempted to hide under the living room table with the cat), Johnson decided it was safe to brave the streets. A 20 minute walk later, after dodging only a few anti-tank rounds, we arrived at his family home. It was fairly late, but there was still time to meet the entire family. Good conversation (with Johnson translating) and more to eat, and around three in the morning it was finally time to retire.

Chinese beds are basically a sheet of plywood with a thin sheet on top, and in Guiyang, there is no central heating. It was so cold upstairs you can see your breath. “It’s like camping!” I thought, and it was really easy to get to sleep. I must miss the outdoors.