SEATAC, Wash. – As the sun dipped low in the sky last Sunday and his plane began its descent, Eugene Nelson had a sinking feeling that something was wrong.
He'd been in the air for hours, much longer than his business flight from Hong Kong to Taiwan should have taken. Then the airliner flashed a map of his flight's path on a video screen, and it hit him.
Instead of descending toward the island off China's eastern coast, the next stop on the Intel Corp. engineer's itinerary would be the remote city of Taiyuan, an industrial center deep within China.
Similar spellings and pronunciations. But a much different place, as Nelson would soon find out.
"Oh my God, it felt like someone poured a bucket of hot water on me. I realized I was literally 200 miles south of the Mongolian border," Nelson said Wednesday, after a tearful reunion with his wife and three young children at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
"That's when dread just came over me," he added. "I don't know how else to explain it."
Nelson, 39, of Littlerock, works for Intel's facility in the Pierce County town of DuPont. He was in the middle of a swing through about a half-dozen Chinese cities, checking in with business partners, when he said an apparent booking mistake left him stranded in the Chinese interior.
His first night was spent trying to find out where he was and how to get to a hotel, Nelson said during an interview Wednesday at the airport, with his wife, Michelle Chewerda, and the couple's two sons and young daughter looking on.
His first attempts at finding lodgings revealed the problems of the language barrier — Nelson said he ended up at a brothel, and had to "damn near fight my way out."
He returned to the small airport in the city of about 1.5 million, but found it was about to close and officials would not let him sleep inside.
Nelson said he might never have found his way if not for a helpful young woman who spoke a bit of English and arranged for friends to loan the obviously distressed American money and give him a safe ride to a hotel.
"She probably saved my fricking life," he said, nearly breaking into sobs.
After using the hotel's rare international dialing capacity to make some calls, Nelson said he spent the next few days attempting to collect a wire transfer of cash and arrange a flight out of Taiyuan.
After nearly endless hours of searching, Nelson said he found a bank that would allow him to draw the cash that American Express had wired him. Then he spent hours figuring out how to get his account information translated into Mandarin so that he could access the money.
In between, Nelson said he faced danger and indignity, injuring his legs and back leaping out of the way of a reckless car and enduring the spit that some Chinese hurled his way.
Back at home, Chewerda was dumping money into her husband's debit account and working with the travel company, which she said was less than helpful at times.
"When I was talking to the guy from American Express, (he said) 'It says right here on my paper that they take American Express right out there at the airport,'" Chewerda said. But if that were the case, she noted, her husband "wouldn't have been there for four days."
"It seems odd, but they'd end every conversation with 'Have a nice day,'" Nelson said.
American Express officials contacted Wednesday by The Associated Press either declined immediate comment or did not return calls seeking comment on Nelson's journey.
After getting his hands on the money the company wired to him, Nelson said he finally had enough cash to begin arranging flights out of Taiyuan.
He met up with his acquaintances again at the airport, repaying their loans and trying to express his thanks, he said.
"Honestly, everyone who helped me, I'll never forget them," Nelson said.
He then hopped a flight, traveling through Beijing to Vancouver, British Columbia, and eventually to Sea-Tac, where he stood clutching his wife and children, mopping his own tears with the bright pink hood of his 16-month-old daughter Jodie's cartoon-character sweat shirt.
So how did it feel to be home?
"My God," Nelson said. "Better than I could possibly explain."