The long march #2, Beijing and home
This is the last of this series of posts about our trip to China. The others are, in order:
- Kunming #1
- The railroad to Lijiang
- Jinghong, Xishuangbanna
- The long march #1, Kunming #2
So, I last left you as we arrived in the Kunming apartment. It was clean, comfortable and had a working shower. This was a good thing.
We had to set off to the airport early to chase up our missing baggage but we did manage to have lunch in a nice Islamic restaurant before we left.
No taxi would take us as far as the airport but we did get a driver to take us to the subway station. This time we avoided the entrance where the scarred and tattooed hustlers hung out.
We got to the airport in good time. J and V pushed their way past security into the arrivals hall and there was our luggage, piled up with hundreds of other bags. They, of course, had no documentation to get out of the hall but they used charm and feigned ignorance to release themselves. As they emerged, watched by befuddled officials, J said to me ‘pretend you’re greeting us arriving from a long trip’. It seemed to work.
It was great to sort the baggage problem so quickly but it did mean that we would be in the airport (quite close to the middle of nowhere) for the rest of the day.
The airport is large but was pretty crowded. They hadn’t fully cleared the backlog of delayed flights. Occasionally a near riot of desk banging and shouting would break out and the police would saunter over to watch. In England they’d have tasered people but not in China.
The chairs were full of people camping out. We joined them. Having established a base we unpacked a change of clothes – oh what bliss! We nervously booked our baggage in, paid a small fortune for a lunch and then it was time for our good byes.
We had had a fantastic fortnight spending time with family. What great company. It was difficult to part, but they were heading for Chengdu on a later flight. Luckily M was asleep so we didn’t burst into tears. Honestly.
Of course our flight was delayed. We had a four hour stopover scheduled for Beijing so we weren’t worried. I asked at the desk and they said “20 minutes”. Not so bad. After 20 minutes they said “20 minutes”. This recurred several times. My worry level rose. Over two hours passed.
Suddenly it was all go. Despite the lack of a plane on the stand we were told to board as fast as possible. They put us on buses and sped to a deserted corner of the airfield where our plane stood. Apparently it had flown in from Burma and we’d had to wait for the passengers from there to unload, go through customs and security and then reboard. We were about three hours late taking off.This was going to be close.
The pilot was obviously under orders to floor it (bad choice of phrase). We made good time but knew it would be close. We landed in Beijing and barely slowed down for the taxiing. We sped to every corner of airport before we stopped on an isolated piece of tarmac. Passengers going on to Frankfurt and London were asked to wait because they were going to speed us through baggage reclaim. ‘Speed’ is obviously a difficult word to translate.
A bus dropped us off at a back door and we wound our way through the building unguided until we came to reclaim. No luggage of course.
After enquiring P and I left the hall and tried to get into a different baggage reclaim through the exit. They were disinclined to let us breach security but P was having none of it. Our bags were there. Five minutes before our London flight left. Surely they’d hold it for us?
Would they bollocks. We arrived in the massive departures ‘lounge’ to find that every member of Air China staff had clocked off and run for it. Only one person had been left on duty at the airport enquiries desk. We’d missed our connection, as had an angry group of Europeans.
The woman on the desk said nothing could be done before 5.30am (4½ hours away). She offered hotels but our new friends refused to leave before someone from Air China spoke to us. Eventually she managed to connect us to a call centre. I queued for my turn expecting to be offered a flight the next morning. I was told there were no empty seats for three days. My only hope, they said, was to speak to someone at the airport in person. They would be on duty at 6am (no two stories we were told ever married up precisely – there was always a difference). I was now upset.
There was a consensus amongst the Europeans that we shouldn’t go to the hotel until we’d sorted out onward flights. P was wary of airport hotels after a dreadful experience on a previous Beijing trip. We camped in the airport. It difficult to differentiate between hotels being offered by Air China free of charge, as part of their obligation to their passengers, and taxi drivers and hustlers looking to rip you off.
At 5:30am the Air China staff started to arrive, have their pre-work briefings, a cup of coffee, and so on. When they did deign to open, they were spectacularly unhelpful and misleading. They would offer business class seats for massive surcharges, deny people seats for spurious reasons and refuse to refer issues to senior staff. They caused some splendid outbursts from our European co-travellers. This of course slowed down the queue even more (only the Chinese dared to try and queue jump and they were rebuffed).
By the time we reached the desk we expected to be told that three days was the best we could do. We were wrong. There was no chance of getting to Gatwick, where we’d flown from, but they could get us to Heathrow… via Munich with only a 24 hour delay in departure. We bit off their hand (not literally).
At last we were free to go to the hotel. This time it was of a good quality and clean. We clocked up some Zs and then headed down for a free lunch – rice and egg. We’d also get a free dinner – rice and egg. Air China were as mean as hell – minimal service, no apologies, no email facility and no telephone calls.
We had a lovely view from our window:
To cheer us up the hotel had left the Christmas decorations up:
At the appointed hour we headed back to the airport and flew to Munich – just like that. No problems – nothing.
And then at Munich they told us that our seats to Heathrow had been cancelled because Air China had filled in the forms incorrectly. The flight was now full. They put us on the wait list and it was 10 minutes before take off before we were told we could fly.
At Heathrow we cleared the airport in under an hour. So much for stereotypes.