Wednesday, August 08, 2007

SFO to PEK

The flight over was pretty straightforward and memorable only for the fact that the videos all worked and the apoplectic nature of the guy sitting next to me.

We got off on time and I was pleased to learn that the flight to Beijing is actually close to an hour shorter than the one to Shanghai. Nothing exciting to report about the loading or the take-off, everything was done according to schedule.

The first meal service rolled around and the attendants delivered the special meals to those that had requested them. I was sitting next to a young-ish hippie couple and when we were asked about our meal choices the young woman told the attendant that she had requested a vegetarian meal. The attendant replied that they’d all been delivered and sorry, there were no more. Her boyfriend went completely off the scale at this loudly proclaiming that they’d requested it and that it simply wasn’t acceptable that hers was given to someone else. The attendant asked when they’d booked it and that didn’t help him one bit, the implication being that he had done something wrong. She finally offered the young woman a plate anyway, as there was a salad and plenty of white rice. The guy continued to swear about planes and airline companies and the injustice in the world and refused the food on behalf of his girlfriend as “there are pieces of ham in the salad and how can she eat lettuce that had been near ham.” Finally the attendant decided to move on leaving this guy mumbing obscenties under his breath while the young woman rubbed his back to calm him down. It took nearly all my self-control to not laugh out loud. Eventually he got over it and got down to the business of chain-drinking Chivas Regal.

The movie choices were once again odd – Shrek, The Last Mimsey, some Sandra Bullock vehicle in which she has a dream that she re-enacts ultimately bringing the dream events to occur which is bad for her husbanc as he ends up getting fried under an exploding oil tanker and The Hoax starring Richard Gere which tells the tale of the Clifford Irving Howard Hughes fake biography. It wasn’t bad.

We prepared to land in Beijing which was reporting cloudy with “light rain.” A slight exageration as we landed in pea soup. I suppose I should be grateful we landed at all because it was dense. As we descended I kept waiting for us to break through and we never seemed to be getting there. I thought I saw some terrestrial objects out the window but figured I was having flight-induced hallucinations. Until we touched down without ever seeing the ground and I realized I’d been seeing light posts and other planes.
We pulled into the terminal and headed out with the wonderful instructions provided in a slide show on the plane clearly planted in our little brains. Too bad they were a gross underestimate of the chaos we were about to face.

It was a long walk to Immigration which was a good thing because it gave time for a few of the thousands of people already in line to move through. There were about 30 or so stations, all open, in a giant room and the lines were so long that they stretched from the agent to the back wall and then started curling back on themselves. Forty minutes for a stamp in the passport. I’d hate to see it when it’s really busy.

From there another long haul to the health agents who collected our forms signed with a guarantee that we’d not been handling our pet chickens during the last seven days.

Baggage claim was fine aside from the 30 minutes it took for the last of the bags to come out. One at a time, with about 30 seconds between each one. Long enough to really make you wonder who you were going to report your lost bag to.

Out of there and onto Customs, both lanes of which were blocked by several dozen pink-shirted middle schoolers who were going nowhere but felt that standing around in front of the only two ways out of the airport was a great way to spend an early afternoon.

Customs – no problem and from there it was out to the main international concourse.

Having been to China a number of times over the past year, I’d pretty much figured I was used to Third World airport crowds. But none of that prepared me for this. Outside the exit doors was a crowd waiting for arriving passengers that was perhaps 20 people deep and 20 yards in both directions. The noise and visual spectacle was absolutely stunning to anyone now completing their first 20 hours of travel. It wasn’t clear where to go or how to break our way out of that scrum so we simply put our luggage carts in front of us and headed to the right. Woe be to any person with the temerity to get in our way.

We were looking for the way to the domestic terminal and knew from instructions it was off to the right. Weaving in and out of the crowds of people milling around we finally found a promising escalator marked by a sign indicating Departures. Abandoning our carts we headed up onto the next level and into a slightly less crowded hall. Moving on we found a second stash of carts next to a sign indicating a 10 minute walk to Terminal One.

Sometimes you just need to keep moving, so that’s what we did. I had the misfortune though of getting stuck behind a couple with two carts who were clearly not in a hurry judging from the leader’s behavior of turning around to carry on a moving conversation that stopped moving every time he turned around. She finally told him to move over and let me go by.

We split up and headed to the gate, two of us having tickets and one of us not.

I’d been warned not to accept help from anyone offering it, as it is a short trip to a demanded “tip.” But I managed to get snookered anyway.

Approaching the desk agent, a man came up dressed in what appeared to be an official uniform, even sporting a identification badge. He grabbed my ticket out of my hand and asked for my passport. It all happened so fast and in such an official manner that my brain simply complied. He took my papers to the agent, handed her my bag and collected the boarding pass and directed me to follow him to security. I started to wonder though when we veered off away from the screening area and stopped behind a pillar. At this point we were informed that we owed him 200 RMB ($30) for his help. I laughed and told him “tai gui le”, “too expensive.” He smiled and continued to argue with me. Finally I collected 20 RMB from my friend and added 20 of my own and told him that was it – no more. He continued to insist and I simply stood my ground. He relented and we went on our way, $6 poorer. I later learned that one of our people on an acceptance trip got rousted for $20.

I failed the security screening due to my belt and got the big pat down standing on the little dunce platform outside the metal detector. From there down to the gate, the only unusual thing on this part of the journey being one of those universal signs showing two children and the regular nuclear exposure icon. A child re-charging station? I dunno.

The airport experience led me to conclude that China is doing itself no favors by allowing this kind of mess to be foisted on the thousands of visitors who will find themselves in this airport next year. Getting accosted by tip seeking “officials” is just not something that should happen during an event of this magnitude. We’ll see how it goes.

Our plane was on time and we joined an orderly queue waiting to board. That lasted until they opened the gate and suddenly hundreds of people vectored in from all angles and blew the order all to hell. No sense of taking one’s turn when it comes to boarding a domestic flight in this country.

After taxiing for a good hour and driving a mile or so of the Dalian journey we finally took off. The-inflight meal was a steamed hot dog served wrapped in foil, just like you’d get at the stadium and the effect of 100s of these dogs on the interior atmosphere of the plane was to make one’s mind wonder if we weren’t in fact on the concession tier at the ball park.

The weather in Dalian was dark with torrential rains and so it was wonderful that one of our co-workers still had control of his driver and thus came to pick us up. It was a good thing because the hotel pick-up failed to materialize and the taxi stand was a disaster.

Cross town drive and up into the hotel. Twenty-six hours of motion behind me and time now for dinner in the Bavarian Brewhaus down in the basement where we enjoyed our schnitzle while being entertained by a four member Malay band covering Sade and and other 90’s pop icons. A group of rowdy Chinese sat opposite us playing a drinking game that involved sliding 12 inch beer steins along a wet table trying to see who could come closest to a wall of glasses without sending the whole set plummeting to the floor. That game was entertaining until the fifth or so broken mug. The noise, the music and the thick cigarette smoke all added up to get the heck out of there and so we did.

Another day crossing the globe behind us.

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