#4 – Beijing Airport 5 July, while the US celebrates the 4th

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In order to spice up this otherwise pictureless (foodless) story, I’ll insert some random images, mostly from Beijing, Shanghai, and the Central Asian west.

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Up at 4:00 AM to catch a taxi to the T3 Beijing airport, I was rattled when I walked into a seething early-morning mass of people the approximate size of a small country, all vying for space at check-in counters.Not one attendant in sight, I had no idea where to check in amidst the total chaos.Counters were numbered J1 or K23 and it was clear I didn’t want to spend an hour fighting for space only to land at the check-in for southerly Shanghai when I was heading to the west.

China has not learned the concept of queuing/lining up, so it’s always a mass rush for any door, passage, or entrance.If you are not quick on your feet, you will be left behind;age, pregnancy, and load of packages make no difference in any way.Pushing and shoving is the norm.  When I finally figured out what seething group of people to get behind (it was a lucky guess, actually, but I was fully prepared to make quite a public scene had I not struck upon an agreeable agent), I was rammed, my feet were run over with luggage carts, and I spent over an hour using my height and elbows as moderately effective tools in keeping my place in the inching-forward mass.I was surprised when a real yelling match took place in the line next to me.Upon occasion, someone desperate for a cut into the front would work her/his way forward, beseeching admission into the invisible center of the group. In this airport, folks further back actually got belligerent at those trying to cut in (a procedure that would be commonplace anywhere outside of newly-learning-manners-in-prep-for-the-Olympics Beijing), and a yelling match would ensue.

When I finally got my turn at the counter, I was given a ticket and told something like “nuh gah.”  I asked where I needed to go and got “nuh gah’ again, accompanied by a broad gesture in one direction.  The man next to me pushed me aside and thrust his paperwork into the hands of the agent and I no longer existed.I gave up and started walking in the direction of the gesture, only after I had fought my way back through the waiting crowds whose educational efforts at queueing had become largely non-existent.I saw no overhead signs that were of any help and wandered unsuccessfully for a long while in quest of “nuh gah.”  In a rare moment of footwear absence, I found signage on the floor, saying, “Domestic check-in,”with arrows for different gates. There was no gate number on my ticket, so there I stood, at a directional center of the universe, with no clue as to what gate beckoned me.  And then, in a flash of brilliance, I finally figured out that “nuh gah” probably meant “no gate.”(Our expectation that everyone should speak some English is a bit absurd, isn’t it, but I found myself angry at a people unable to accommodate MY needs.)  A desperate check-in at a now-visible Info area revealed I was correct in my translation arts and sent me on the way through a security check-point.I then inquired about a gate at another Info desk, amidst a flock of angry travelers.Someone sort of pointed to a big electronic board, which I then found posted gate numbers.  Elation.  Forty-five minutes later and time for boarding, however, no gate was posted.  This was getting fun.

I went back to another hostile crowd at the Info booth and asked again for information. The Info person was not able to help, but a kind passenger stepped up and offered to translate.Seems my flight had been delayed for another 2 hours;  no one had bothered to enter that info on the electronic display board wherein I could have spared my feet (with backpack) those 45 minutes of standing.I checked the board periodically;it took more than one hour after the original departure time for the board to finally show an updated time.“Delayed” was not an option.If you were one of the lucky ones with delayed flights, you simply waited for corrected information, usually until several hours after the purported departure. It was so totally frustrating to be in an airport and have no idea where to go.It was not like the comfort of home where I could have at least headed to a certain concourse used regularly by my airline. I was clearly pouting a bit.

So there I sat.  Well, that’s not totally true.  Hungry, I tried to find food.  It was in very limited supply, unless I wanted coffee, a ham sandwich, or a $7 bottle of water.There were no snack shops (unlike our Western airports stocked full of nuts, candies, and any imaginable food for our hefty travelers), but the Olympics souvenir shops were loaded, if I wanted a pin, a mug, or a shirt for an event that was still over one month away.  I had to settle for orange juice in frozen yoghurt with those little multicolored sugar bits on the top.And I had to buy that if I wanted to find a place to sit down comfortably.

Having nursed the TCBY yoghurt as long as possible, making sport out of sucking up each colored bit of sugar through the straw as I calmed my frustration, I wandered off for other seating.I found some distant gate area, though not my own gate since that was still an unknown.  It took a while to find a seat since most of the rows of seating were occupied by sleeping men, stretched in full abandon, giving themselves over to the land of snores and dreams.

I had a long while to go still in my wait, since the OJ slurping had only clocked in at about 17 minutes, in spite of my efforts to look fully engaged in my task under the watchful eyes of TCBY security.I hoped we would be able to take off at the newly scheduled time at the unknown gate.  I have to admit to being greatly tempted to just catch the first flight to anywhere.  The crowds had been harrowing and the inefficient AC in that section of the airport had sent my hair limp again.

I suppose I should not complain overly much, however, since I did find wifi, something I had not been able to connect to during my entire time thus far in China (have had to physically plug in via cable).  It was a bit sporadic, but functional, allowing me to wile away some challenging time.I really had no idea if the flight would happen or not that day, having heard that flights to some of the less common areas could be cancelled at whim, either due to someone’s decision or dust storms, and I was heading in that sort of direction.The thought of making my way back into Beijing for another night or day of sweltering heat and humidity was almost worse than the thought of wandering aimlessly around a mostly foodless airport for the next 24 hours.

But a gate number finally appeared on screen and I headed that way.There was a bit of a mob at the gate, so I assumed I’d missed one of those “Now boarding passengers in rows 32 through 54” announcements.Ha !Instead I landed myself back in a sea of shoving and yelling.Seems there was one angry contingent on one side of the gate area, vocalizing their complaints to some poor agent in front of a computer.I hope she wins Olympic Gold, because I did not know it was humanly possible to stare at a computer screen for so long in avoidance of an angry surrounding mob.Her focus was amazing, though she may have been reading an on-screen version of Les Miserable in Mandarin for all I knew.The mobs pushed and shoved.Carts are readily used to haul luggage around the airport (a nice feature AND they are free, not requiring one to fumble for quarters like in the West), but amidst a melee, carts leave one bruised and battered and allow for feeble little old ladies or reckless teens to ram their way closer to the front of the crowd.

Other parts of the waiting group jeered back at the initiating group and rather heated yelling matches ensued.I have no idea what it was all about, but sensed some ethnic tension (which could have been totally imaginary and prompted by the fact that I was heading into the ethnically diverse part of China) and anger over what were probably cancelled flights from last night’s storm.This group must have felt that yelling at the agents and one another would make the plane appear more quickly.It seemed as if part of the yelling was suggesting the possibility of not enough seats, so that made me hesitant to leave the crowd and sit out the free-for-all.Silly me.I lost my power of positive thinking amidst the heat and instead stood for another hour (without benefit of battering ram cart) trying to figure out just what might be going on.

There were announcements, but no one seemed to be paying any attention to them, since haranguing the agents was more fun.The announcements played like “Ang shing goon flah ba lah…” anyway, and those were the ones in English.It was incredibly frustrating to stand there amidst all of the conversation, be it yelling or shouting, and not understand a word.I vowed to learn every language in the world at that moment, so I would no longer travel through countries where I felt cut off from genuine communication, let alone from important logistical information, “nuh gah” not withstanding.I thought of my handy little book of phrases that was tucked away in my already-checked-in backpack.Another English speaker had snaked his way to where I was to ask if I had any idea what the ruckus was all about.I gave him my take on things and he said the scenario was not uncommon.

And then suddenly, Moses parted the waters, and the crowd moved forward toward the ramp.I wasn’t certain if they had just broken through or if this was a legitimate progression, but we decided to move forward with the group.Eventually someone actually took our tickets and we were allowed passage down to the awaiting plane.

And then once again, the Air China plane was guided through the skies by beautiful ladies, hair and makeup perfectly done and skills as gracious as one could ever ask for.Another meal appeared, either because this was part of the regular service or because this was to appease us in the tardiness that had cost us all a missed breakfast and lunch.And once again a vegetarian dish was available for me, something that has never happened on Western airlines unless ordered well in advance (and even then it could be iffy).My meal was marked “Muslim meal,” a reminder that I was heading into a different part of this amazing country.

I had noticed on all Air China flights that food was served almost immediately upon takeoff, most likely to fill the bellies and send everyone off into sleepy land, which seemed to work based on the “zzzz’s” and open mouths I saw throughout the plane.It’s not a bad strategy and one that perhaps should have been used at the gate !

I don’t know what the Beijing airport is typically like.Had the previous night’s storm with all of the flight cancellations been the cause of the debauchery or was wiggling and maneuvering through initial check-in lines common?My original transfer at the same airport a month earlier had been flawless and devoid of people, as I recall writing.Well, now I know they were all in a different section of the airport.I don’t see how the airport will cope with the masses coming in for the Olympics (there are actually three airports all adjacent to one another apparently).There was little foreign language guidance, not a single visible airport attendant on the floor anywhere to guide someone to the correct line, and the volumes of people made it close to impossible to read signage.But I am just now struck with the realization that my baggage was indeed waiting for me on the carousel on the other side of the country, an accomplishment often underachieved in Western airports.

While used sparklers and spent firecrackers dotted American streets, my adventure in “Central Asian” China had begun.

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The following photos are just snaps taken later on the streets of Urumqi, western multi-ethnic China.  Stories to follow in next post.

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