In the current negative climate of Brexit and sex scandals at Westminster I have just returned from a trip to China with my faith in humankind fully restored.
My son is spending his gap year in Chengdu, the capital of southwestern China’s Sichuan province, and I decided to go and visit a country I knew little about. Since becoming more reliant on my mobility scooter to get around I have rather lost my nerve in travelling solo, but with a husband who is terrified of flying and a post-50 “I must live life to the full” attitude I decided to go for it.
One of my concerns was to how people would react to my disability as China still has a long way to go in terms of equality. I had been warned that I would probably be stared at rather a lot but beyond that I really didn’t know what to expect.
Until now I had only taken my scooter on package holiday flights and had read many nightmare accounts of wheelchairs being mangled or lost by baggage handlers. I was flying with China Eastern Airlines (the cheapest), first to Shanghai and then an internal flight to Chengdu. I had emailed China Eastern’s special assistance team before booking the flight and they couldn’t have been more helpful. When I arrived to check-in at Heathrow I was greeted with “You must be Emma” and they had all the paperwork prepared. I did, however, feel some trepidation when I went through security and said good-bye to my husband.
Despite the terrible reviews on Trip Advisor for the airline I couldn’t fault it and the air stewardesses were sweet – even offering me an arm every time I went to the lavatory. Shanghai Pudong Airport is the biggest international hub in China and I was quite pleased to have a wheelchair and assistant help negotiate the miles of marble and glass to find the domestic departures gate.
Beyond tired I boarded the three hour flight to Chengdu and was served some food, not really sure whether it was breakfast, lunch or supper. As I struggled to unwrap the cellophane wrapped cutlery (fortunately not chopsticks!) the young man next to me offered to help. I was very touched.
On arrival at Chengdu airport I was greeted with a wheelchair and a flight of steps off the plane. Two ground staff helped me down the steps-very slowly – and then pushed me onto the awaiting shuttle bus, full of passengers that had been waiting for me. I hate to inconvenience others because of my disability and I tried to smile apologetically. Several people smiled back reassuringly. The ground staff that had put me on the bus disappeared and as we set off towards the terminal I realised the wheelchair only had one, dysfunctional brake! I clung on to a pole and several passengers grabbed the wheelchair to prevent me from skidding around the bus. At the terminal three passengers lifted me off the bus and I wished I could express my thanks more eloquently.
To my relief there was a member of staff waiting for me and I quickly reclaimed my baggage. With a combination of sign language and pointing I found the area where my mobility scooter should appear and anxiously waited. After a few minutes the double doors I was sitting by crashed open and a large trolley appeared with my scooter on the top. The trolley man and various airport staff lifted it off and seemed amused, obviously not quite sure what it was. They helped me put the batteries in, then out, then in again as I struggled to get a connection. Much to everyone’s delight it finally came to life and I was good to go. Three of the staff accompanied me to arrivals-one dragging my suitcase whose wheel had fallen off in transit.
Despite it being late at night it was frenetic and I searched for my son, Jacob. He wasn’t there! The staff obviously didn’t want to just abandon me and offered to phone Jacob for me. Typically, he was just late, and I reassured the staff I would be alright. They reluctantly left me but popped out ten minutes later to check on me. To my relief Jacob finally appeared.
I could go on and tell you about the man who walked alongside me with an umbrella to shelter me from the rain. Or the waitresses who went and got me extra cushions (that I didn’t really need) in a restaurant. Or the staff on the underground who helped us negotiate a maze of locked lifts and stair lifts.
Chengdu wasn’t really accessible, and I had to make a lot of compromises when it came to what I could see and do; but honestly it didn’t matter. I had managed to see my son and meet many people who challenged my preconceptions of how I would be received as a disabled traveller.