Saturday, August 11, 2007

I'm done, I'm done, I'm done with the Beijing Run

Living in a crowded society drives some interesting behaviors. There is no decorum when it comes to driving or forming lines or waiting one’s turn. When 100s of people are faced with a single lane or door, a mob forms and it’s everyone for themselves. When it comes to delays, something always has to be done. The tiniest example of this occurs every time you enter an elevator in China the first thing someone entering does is to jam the door close button 15 times.

These facts are well known about living in China and Westerners commonly remark about the rudeness in public places when someone simply walks up and gets in front of them in line. Assuming there is a line at all. Typically it’s just an annoyance to those of us used to forming orderly queues. When it comes to air travel it gets downright aggravating.

Awoke to another downpour day in Dalian a city which does not wear well in gray drizzle. Checked out of the hotel and checked in with our driver. It was our last day with Jasper and I know I am going to miss him and his strange British-accented robotic English. He got us to the airport in plenty of time and I went in to the check-in lines. In China, the lines are not organized necessarily by airline, rather a sequence of agents in a long horizontal array is there for you. I walked up to one and stood behind a couple rattling away in Catalan with each other and English with a Chinese minder. A group of what were probably Africans came up behind me speaking in some tongue that was new to my ear. I stood there as we advanced until the Chinese minder came up to me and told me that the people in front of me and behind me were together and strongly implied it would be better if I just got out of their way. She was holding a stack of bright green passports and many tickets. I took the hint and moved to the next line, which actually worked to my advantage.

Cleared security and went looking for a pastry for breakfast which was not to be found. Instead I stocked up on Chinese Dove bars and passed on the 4 foot long freeze dried Tilefish for sale in the gift shop.

It was getting close to departure time and I was sitting at the gate waiting for the screen to announce it. I looked out the window to see if the brand on the jet was the correct one and it was. The screen now said “Flight 6525 to Zhengzhou” while I was waiting for 6127 to Beijing. The doors opened and they started to board the plane. I was confused so I asked a gentleman using my finest Chinese if this was the flight to Beijing. He had the same ticket as I did and he nodded yes. So I got on figuring I had at least a 50% chance of ending up where I needed to.

Chinese behavior on planes is interesting. Lots of people in incorrect seats, no one sits down until the attendants start yelling and invariably someone gets up to get something from the overhead just as we’re pulling away from the gate, delaying the departure.
We finally got up in the air and lunch was served, at 8:15 in the morning. An apple, a container of something labeled with little yellow chicks and a triple-decker sandwich consisting of white bread, some sort of ham and a few shreds of wilted lettuce. I passed.

It was a very rocky flight for the first twenty minutes, probably the roughest I have had in a long time. Eventually it leveled off and the glide into Capital Airport was easy.

Beijing airport was not quite as bad heading in this direction compared to the inbound last week. The flow was a bit more linear, at least until customs where a thousand people were all trying to jam themselves through 4 doorways in a vast blue-painted plywood wall. Once inside it was not so bad, security was neat and tidy and I was through in an instant.

Major international airports always amaze me for the incredible shopping opportunities and Beijing is no different. Any number of well-known Italian botique brands plus a stand-alone Omega watch store and several large and thoroughly stocked duty free stores.

We boarded on time after a cursory secondary security check and pulled backthe gate about ½ hour late with sad news that the jet stream was not blowing today and thus the flight would be extended by an additional hour.

A large group of orange-shirted students of early college age boarded the plane with us and scattered among the various cabins. Usually a large batch of anything people-wise is bad as groups tend to act poorly. And this one did not bode well given the length of the flight. As it turned out I was surrounded by them. Across from me was a couple traveling with their 4-year old boy who was already exhibiting all the signs of advance carb overload. He had an empty water bottle and was pounding on the seat in front of him. After the endless admonitions to sit down, we were airborne.

In general, the Shanghai flights are populated by business-people and frequent travlers by and large know how to behave during these flights. I think it come from understanding what annoys you and what it takes for this short term microcosm of civilization to work to everyone's advantage. Everyone learns by example and then incorporates habits and behaviors that work for everyone. It's true there are always a few outliers, but business traveler loaded flights are regularly pretty easy to tolerate.

Tourists on the other hand just don't get it. They don't realize it takes cooperation to keep everyone happy, and perhaps they just don't care. They travel infrequently and so they don't learn by example. Beijing seems to be heavily slanted towards the amatuers which means it's always going to be tougher to take. It ends up being a matter of whether in your regular course of travel you want to expose yourself to these kind of people and the challenges they present. I think I'm going to find another way of making this trip, and hence the title of today's blog.

As predicted, the next 12 hours was an endless series of one petty annoyance after another. The students behind me felt compelled to visit the bathrooms every 30 minutes or so, each time wrestling themselves to their feet by assaulting my chair back. One young woman insisted on jamming my headrest into the top of my dome each time she got up. I tried to give her the evil eye and she just looked at me dumbly. The young man behind me seemed to be stress testing his tray table given the amount of times he opened and closed it. He seemed to be in charge verifying its tolerance for slamming.

The parents of the kid across the aisle re-charged the boy’s batteries with a couple of danish about mid-flight. The guy in front of me turned his air jet to full bore and then edjusted to just brush the top of his brush cut and to blow directly in my face. I responded by burrowing in my blanket. The first meal service consisted of two choices – Pork in Red Chile Sauce or Beef with “Balsamical Sauce.” I had the pork which was not bad but the sauce was really nothing more than a combination of water, corn starch and chili powder which tasted exactly how you’d expect it to. I watched the first movie and then dozed off and on, my sleep punctuated by having my skull split by my descending headrest.

Another movie and my favorite Ramen noodles. I really managed to drop off soundly at about 8 hours but my dreams were haunted by the muffled sounds of people yelling at each other in Chinese. I awoke to find the source – one of the students came forward to yell at his friend. I went back to sleep.

The parents of the boy across the way apparently managed to get the hellion down as he was stretched out across three seats when I finally woke up for good. The last food service had stated and the attendant told her she needed to move the kid and get out of the way. She finally listened after being carts three times along with the accompanying scoldings.

Not much else to report from then on to landing except for the last few minutes in which all the personal fruit supplies came out for a rushed feeding frenzy. It’s illegal to bring it in, which everyone knows but they do it anyway and thus the food must be consumed before deplaning. The parents of the bad seed were busily peeling apples and eating them as fast as they could which is where I last saw them.

Per my regular routine, my bag was the last one up the shute but it didn’t matter as I had time to waste. It showed up and I rechecked it on US soil. Security stunk as it always does in SFO, they being one of the few major domestic airports that insist on continuing to use folding tables and plastic ropes with the fancy name of “Security Command Post 1.”

A sandwich and a gate change and here we are. The traditional delay to the flight back home.

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