Chinalog II: Pivoting Through Beijing

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With a thirteen-hour flight ahead of me I felt justified in spending our waiting time in Montreal at one of the airport bars delving into whiskey and french fries.  It’s not that I have much of a problem with a thirteen-hour flight – I don’t – but I don’t really have much of a problem with airport bars either so there ya go.

The flight to Beijing went fairly well (for a thirteen-hour flight).  M’lady and I had booked the aisle and window seats, hoping the middle seat would remain empty.  No such luck this time, and we didn’t end up asking the lady to switch with one of us because she was watching movies and m’lady’s headset movie machine was not working.  

I had a beer and a pretty lousy chicken meal (not as bad as m’lady’s Chinese fatty-pork), watched Wonder Woman and the new Spiderman movie (both not too bad), and curled up for some fitful sleep.  I was finally fully asleep when the lights in the cabin illuminated and the loudspeaker came on*.  After a loud, aggressive bout of Chinese came the English translation, which went something like this:  

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are three hours from Beijing.  We hope you have been getting a good rest, and we wish you the best of luck getting back to sleep after this announcement.  Please enjoy the rest of your painfully long flight.”

I just don’t get it.

I did, however, manage to get back to sleep just in time for the forty-minute pre-landing wakeup warning.

We landed in Beijing around 5pm local time.  Looking out the window as we approached the airport I noticed how very foggy it was outside.  When we actually landed I couldn’t see any fog outside at all.  Turns out it was not fog, it was pollution.  A crazy, crazy amount of pollution.

We got off our tardy plane with less than forty-five minutes to catch our connection to Hong Kong.  We jogged through the airport until we came to a sign that pointed one way for domestic flights and another way for international flights.

Which stopped these two airport-runners dead in our tracks.

Now, if you’re in Beijing and you are heading to Hong Kong, would you consider it a domestic flight or an international flight?

Of course Hong Kong was a British territory for a long, long time but we all know it went back to China about twenty years ago.  So, domestic right?  But wait a minute, I’m carrying Chinese currency and Hong Kong currency; if it has it’s own money it must be international, right?

(God only knows what country Macau is in!)

The lack of any additional signage whatsoever really added to the mystery.

So we lined up for a domestic transfer and were waiting to go through customs when a helpful stranger suggested we were in the wrong line.  We raced over to the international line which was moving very slowly and kept getting cut by airline employees pushing older folks in wheelchairs to the front.  We eventually tried to stop one of the wheelchair-pushing line-butters.  With an air of urgency he showed us a boarding pass that said 8pm.  We showed him ours that said we boarded at 6pm, which at this point was less than ten minutes away.

He was impressed, but he still butted in front of us.  

When we finally got through that line we ran downstairs and found a long queue to get through security (which was pretty redundant as we had just gotten off an international flight and had not left any secure section of the airport).  We showed the guard our boarding passes and without even a flicker of change in his expression – the dude acted like a human robot – he indicated we were to follow him and he delivered us to the front of the line.  Security still took a while; I had to stand on a stool and hold my arms straight out for a full two-minute pat down.  When we got out of there we ran as fast as we could towards our gate though we were pretty confident we were going to miss our connection (which would force us to eat tonight’s hotel reservation and would they cancel the remainder of our reservation if we don’t check in tonight and do we even have a phone number to call and will they speak English even if we do and…?  Basically we had to make that flight).  

I got ahead of m’lady, yelling over my shoulder that I’d hold the plane for her.  When I finally glimpsed gate E17 from a distance I could see that it was empty save one, single check-in girl.  She spotted me and started waving her arms.  I couldn’t believe it, but it looked like were going to make it!  I got to the gate and I breathlessly pushed my boarding pass into to her extended hand.  Pointing back down the hallway I tried my best to speak.  “M…’lady…(pant, pant, pant)…still…come…(pant, pant)…ing.”

We made it onto the plane at the last minute and – dripping with sweat – we took our seats in the last row, this time with nobody between us.  Mercy.  The aircraft lifted off and plunged through the smog bubble and up into the sky, and now here I sit with just about three hours between me and Hong Kong.

This second plane only has one of those pop-down screens where we all watch the same movie**, which in this case is a Chinese film conveniently supplemented with Chinese subtitles.  Ah well, here comes the drink cart.

It’s 5am somewhere…

*I always fly wearing earplugs and an eye mask (I call it ‘flying Tommy-style’) but I had accidentally left everything in my carry on and I just could not find the gumption to get up and dig them out of the overhead bin, though I kept telling myself that I should.  And of course that sort of internal argument can do nothing but keep you mostly awake.  Just like debating whether or not to get up and go to the bathroom when you’re sleeping in a tent.  

**Though I’m an unabashed lover of the vast entertainment selection generally available on airplanes nowadays I gotta say I miss the old days when a screen would drop down at the front of the cabin and everyone on the plane was forced to watch (or try to ignore) the same movie together.  Whether we liked it or not, the cabin would inevitably laugh and gasp together at the funny and surprising parts.  Sure we all imagined having our own customized entertainment systems built right in to the seatback in front of us, but we knew that was only a crazy dream of future times and until then, hey at least we had Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor in Stir Crazy.

And while the fulfillment of these collective dreams may have gained us a modicum of freewill it also dealt a tragic and irreversible loss to our collective sense of community.

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