Sunday, March 14, 2010

my day at the airport

I've been trying to arrange a visit in China with my children for the better part of these last two years, and finally it has come together. Between their schedules, my schedule, weather, college graduations and whatever, it's been a tough thing to pull off.  And compounding it of course is the sheer magnitude of the arrangements to travel from that side to this one. But after a lot of juggling and planning and false starts, it all started to become a reality today.

 

My youngest is due to arrive tomorrow and to make sure that I'd be there to meet her I left today. I can't imagine any travel eventuality worse than getting off a plane in China and having to figure out how to get around. I think you can probably navigate most western airports with a little bit of English and a dose of sorrowful appearance but here it's just so alien and so little makes sense that having this be your first trip abroad would be a challenge to just about anyone, even the most resourceful person. It's just not as easy as talking louder to the cabbie until they get it, because they never will. I've seen it a dozen times - some big loud American trying to explain that it's the tallest building in Pudong and wondering why they're getting a blank look. I wanted to avoid any of that and so I left home today at noon for a 2:15 flight which would put me into Beijing a generous 24 hours in advance of her arrival.

 

I arrived at the airport with an hour and a half to get checked in and wait. There were no lines at either the ticketing gate or security so I sailed right through. In what would turn out to be a very propitious decision, I decided to spend my time waiting in the business lounge. I never even knew it existed until my most recent trip to the US and so I'd only been there once before. It wasn't high on my list of favorite lounges being on the warm side and filled with red velour chairs, but I figured a free Coke was worth it so I went up and checked in to begin my wait. There were a lot of delays being announced which is never a good sign but none of them were for Beijing flights so I figured I'd be fine. And I was until the lounge agent came by and told me, in broken English, that my flight was delayed "with no leave time." Now that is about the worst possible delay message and so I began to fret, wondering if this was a thing with my flight or flights in general.

 

I sat for a while and waited and finally an announcement came over the loudspeaker that corroborated what I had been told. Now the wheels were really turning so I went back up and asked the girl what was going on. Turns out that the sleet I had been worried about in the Beijing forecast had turned out to be a full scale winter storm. I was able to muster enough Chinese to confirm that the airport was not closed, but rather just slowed down. Before going back to wait, I checked the airport situation on the lounge computer and the answer was not so bad – 60-90 minute delays.

 

Another hour passed with no change so I decided to think about alternatives. Since I still had a good 24 hours, the train was an option so I had a look on line at the schedules. There seemed to be a "fast" train that left at 6:00, a "really fast" train at 8:00 and a "Boy oh boy that's a fast train" at 9:30. The thought of spending 12 hours on the train didn't really excite me, but the point was I had some options. I figured my next step was to get Jiang on the phone and have him check on tickets. No rush though, at least not yet.

 

Around 3PM the lounge girl came over and told me that there was another plane leaving "soon" and that there were seats available. She asked me to come with her, and this is where my decision to sit in the lounge turned out to be a good one – if I had not been there she never would have asked and I would have sat down by the gate in stupid lack of language oblivion until god knows when. I packed up and joined her small group to try and resolve the mess.

 

She led us downstairs and out through security as it seems that changes to tickets can only be done back at the main ticketing gates. Why they couldn't do it on the inside is beyond me. We were led over to a desk where all problems are apparently cured at least up to the point where the woman working there isn't interested which happened immediately. She sent us off to the VIP gate. Of course, no one speaks English and my Chinese is only so good so it was a far than ideal situation. Some tall German started messing things up by trying to insist that his ticket was 1st class and he expected that as a minimum. He wasn't getting anywhere so he looked at me and asked me if I spoke English. I told him I was more or less fluent. A Russian stepped in and tried to get some direction by speaking Chinese and he was instantly countered by a bunch of Chinese who saw what was going on and wanted their part of it. We had a riot on our hands.

 

I jumped in and tried my best, getting an answer of 1608 which was either a flight number or a departure time. They kept telling me 3:30 which I took to mean departure time but as it turned out was actually arrival time. Eventually I figured the whole mess out – flight 1608 was arriving at 3:30 and departing at 4:15 which was good and bad as the time stood at 3:20. Figuring I had no choice I stood there texting my sad tale of woe to a friend of mine when another announcement came over – flight 1608 was delayed about 30 minutes. The first time I was glad to hear that I had a delay.

 

The tickets showed up and I went back through security for the second time, passing the check again. I went down to the gate to wait and was amused to see that my original flight was still showing "delayed with no departure time." Interesting that they let people sit and wait while they take care of people on the later flight. I guess that way the performance statistics are maintained – instead of 2 delays they only have a single really long one. I was less amused to see that I now had a center seat.

 

People were milling about when all of a sudden, like birds fleeing from an impending earthquake every single person stood up and left. I went up to the gate and asked and sure enough our plane was leaving from somewhere else and I was now 50 people down in the queue. I took off and ran a parallel route to the mass of people and beat them all to the new gate, managing to grab a place about 4th in line.

 

As I stood there waiting a woman came up and looked at the board and having decided that this was the place, took a place in line in front of me. This is not unusual – the Chinese simply don't respect the concept of "the end of the line is back there" and neither will anyone speak up about it. I'm so used to it that I simply let it slide, and even had a second chance to do so when some troll of a businessman did the same thing with his 20-something cutie, explaining that they were in some way more special than the rest of the crowd.

 

We finally boarded and my middle seat turned out to be not so bad – I was sandwiched in between the woman who had taken cutsies and an equally small woman who plugged in her earphones and turned the music up so loud that I was able to hear the disturbingly repetitive bass line the whole way over. As we were taxiing down the runway, the flight attendant announced that we were going to have a short delay but that we should stay in our seats. The guy in the row across from me took this as the last call for the rest room and so got up and went back to use it. He returned just as the plane was leaving the ground.

 

 I sat back and read an interesting article in China Daily about how hypocritical the United States is because our human rights record is far worse than China's. I guess I'll think about that when it comes time to renew the subscription to the Virtual Private Network I need to log into that most subversive of web sites, Facebook. Up and away we went until the sun came out above the clouds and I finally felt like things were coming together. I spent the rest of the time trying to pinpoint the sticky thing on the floor that kept grabbing my shoe.

 

Arriving in Beijing, the problem was instantly clear – they had received a boat load of snow. In spite of the fact that this China's Snow Belt and that it's the biggest and busiest airport in the country, they don't handle snow that well. I got off the plane and s the bus (figures, having to take the bus on a crappy day) and made my way across the terminal to the taxi stand, falling in behind a nerdy American with an itinerary in his hand – all the salient points being highlighted in green as though that would help – and grabbed a cab to town. As always, the cabbie had only the faintest idea where the hotel was but refused to admit as much, despite having the address on the business card. But at least I was on my way. Taxi problems are easily solved as long as they don't want a bribe. As we drove out onto the slushy roads he continued to look at the card, even wiping it off with his cuff at one point as though the non-existent dust was preventing a clear understanding. I waited a while before suggesting the correct route and once he understood that I could speak the lingo, we became best friends. I told him the story of my day and how my kid was coming and that she would be very unhappy if her dad was not there to get her. He thought that my story was "hen ke xiao", very funny, and we chatted as we drove along passing through the most Chinese neon bleeding onto the wet streets like runny watercolors.

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