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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:

  1. Kunming #1
  2. The railroad to Lijiang
  3. Lijiang
  4. Shuhe
  5. Baisha
  6. Dali
  7. Jinghong, Xishuangbanna
  8. The long march #1, Kunming #2
Kunming airport

Kunming airport, a home from home for so many people while we were there

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.

Departure hall, Kunming airport

Departure hall, Kunming airport

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:

Staff accomodation, an industrial zone, temperatures well below zero

Staff accommodation, an industrial zone, temperatures well below zero

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.


The long march #1, Kunming #2

We had a plan: we were to fly from Xishuangbanna to Kunming using Lucky Air*. We’d have a couple of relaxing days in Kunming and then fly home. Anyway…

We got to Xishuangbanna airport in plenty of time. We boarded, took off and headed north for what should have been a forty minute flight. We began the descent to Kunming and then suddenly we were climbing again quite steeply. Hmmm. Ten minutes later they announced that landing was impossible because of the weather and we were heading back to Xishuangbanna.

We landed and sat on the tarmac waiting to take off again. There was not much information and the passengers on the packed plane started to get edgy. After some hours we were told to disembark and wait in the terminal. As we went back inside we were all handed a pot noodle style meal (vegetarian option: don’t eat the meaty bits).

It was hard to get information. We tried to cancel and rebook but the phones were off the hooks. It was all going a bit British Airways on us.

A rumour spread that we should get back on the plane. I don’t know who starts these rumours (the staff deny all knowledge) but it turned out to be true and we reboarded. We sat there for several hours and then they asked us to get off again. Some of the passengers were chanting demands and abuse by now.

As dusk settled it seemed we might have to spend the night in the terminal. There was a near riot when angry passengers spotted members of a flight crew daring to smile. A group of passengers on another flight refused to board – “We know you can’t take off. You’re just trying to keep us quiet.” There were very few Westerners about but those that were had no idea what was going on. One gentleman didn’t even know which airport he was at (his flight had been diverted and he’d then been abandoned).

Our plane at Xishuangbanna. Looks lovely doesn't it.

Our plane at Xishuangbanna. Looks lovely doesn’t it. (photo © 2013 James Errington)

Word started going round (no announcements) that coaches were taking people to a hotel. The five of us dashed outside and managed to get seats on the bus. The hotel had a very impressive marble and brass foyer but the rooms were shabby. At least we’d have a bed to sleep in. No meal though – we had to take a taxi and find a restaurant that was still serving. We had no bags but at least we knew they were safe and secure on the plane.

About 7am the next morning we had a phone call to come down to breakfast (cake and orange juice) and then be bussed back to the airport. Information was sparser than ever. The rumour mill said that 20,000 people had been stuck in Kunming airport overnight and there had been near riots. This was true.

As we queued to renew our boarding passes a fight broke out between two men to keep everyone amused. I think we learned the Mandarin for ‘Let it go, Grant’ and ‘He’s not worth it’.

We boarded at 11am and then spent another 3 hours on the tarmac. The plane hadn’t been restocked so there was no food or water. How we laughed. The most plausible of the many reasons given was that we were now waiting for a landing slot at Kunming.

We eventually landed at 3pm in Kunming, 27 hours late. Of course our baggage had been lost. The reclaim hall was full of people looking for officials to shout at. After a couple of hours they finally admitted that the bags had never flown. It was all going a bit Heathrow on us. We left our details with an official and headed for the City centre. They promised to send our bags to the apartment when they arrived but this, of course, was bollocks. We had to face up to the fact that we might never see our Christmas presents and two weeks of dirty washing again.

Having been intimidated by taxi drivers the last time we’d arrived in Kunming, I suggested that this time we take the subway (actually an elevated railway) to the City. The train was cheap, fast but unfortunately unfinished. It doesn’t yet reach the City Centre. We were dumped in a suburban bus station being hounded by some really intimidating people. One guy ‘offered’ to drive us to the apartment. He had a large facial scar and a tattoo across his chest. I warmed to him. The official taxi drivers refused to take us because he ‘owned’ us.I started to worry for my kidneys.

Luckily we managed to flag down a driver who wasn’t intimidated by our new friend. We were dropped off outside our apartment to meet the landlord, negotiate the security and make ourselves at home. It was now evening. We were due to leave Kunming the next day and our luggage was missing. So much for a nice couple of relaxing days.

At least the apartment was good. 24th floor with amazing views over the city.

There was a shopping mall in the basement of the apartment block so we stocked up on food and socks. We had to select a restaurant but not this one:

The Modern Toilet Cafe

The Modern Toilet Cafe. You sits on loos and eat food that looks like…

I like those wall lights

I like those wall lights. Not so keen on the seats

After a fast meal we hit the hay. Tomorrow – Kunming to London via Beijing – was scheduled to be a long couple of days. And we still didn’t have our luggage.

*With a name like that we should have known.

Jinghong, Xishuangbanna

We got through Dali’s smart new airport and flew with Lucky Air to Xishuangbanna‘s smart new airport. Did I mention the proliferation of smart, new infrastructure?

For once the airport wasn’t miles out of town and the taxi-driver’s universal estimate of “20 minutes” was not a comical underestimate. Which was a good job because it was a small saloon car and once again I was under the luggage.

Jinghong, the city of Xishuangbanna, is a long way South, right on the edge of the tropics. We were at a much lower altitude as well. It was humid, but the rain mostly held off.

There are elephants in the forests around here, but we didn’t go and see the reserve. We didn’t miss out though – there are models of elephants everywhere and it is (with peacocks) the default building decoration (click on an image to enlarge it).

We had a taxi-trip into the hills around Jinghong. We got taken to some pretty expensive places. If you’re looking to tour the area it’s probably best to head for some of the tourist cafés and book some tours or treks from them. You will get more control over itinerary and price and you might get to see some less touristy places.

Our trip took us on a long climb through the rainforest on a smart, new highway. We went into a rainforest park and after that to a tea processing plant. A lot of the rainforest is being lost to tea and rubber plantations. You also see a lot of roadside factories churning out bricks.

The rainforest park was very much a theme park. There are a lot of ethnic minority groups in this area (the Dai and the Jino for instance). Some of these had a compound on the trail where, wearing their ‘native costume’, they would put on a short show for the visitors. They were employees of the park, but there was a slightly patronising / demeaning air to it all.

Jinghong itself is a busy, modern city with a few quieter parks to walk in. There is the Big Buddha statue at the Menghan Chuman Dafosi (or Galanba temple), but we never got there. There’s a good night market and plenty of bars and cafes that cater to Western as well as Chinese tastes.

The city is close to Laos and Burma and you feel the cultural influence in the background. The proximity to the border means the area is also associated with smuggling. The riverside walk along the Lancang (Mekong) river is very pleasant.

We had a couple of days in Jinhong and were then expecting a quick air hop back to Kunming for two relaxing days there to round off a fantastic holiday. If only things were that straightforward…

Kunming #1

A rare piece of traditional architecture

A rare piece of traditional architecture

We’ve been away to Yunnan Province in Southern China. It’s not the sort of thing I usually do. We have had a wonderful time.

I’ve read and heard a lot about China, and we have family out there, but it was still a revelation to be there.

It’s strange but, on the face of it, it felt a less authoritarian society than the UK. There are a lot fewer police around, CCTV cameras are rarer and people feel free to vent their spleen (of which, more later). That said, we did not demonstrate about democracy or human rights – we might have run into the authorities a bit more if we had.

The capitalism we encountered is pretty red in tooth and claw. I was reading Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists while we were there and it’s depiction of a cruel and largely untrammelled capitalism with many victims seemed very relevant.

Anyway… We flew from London via Beijing to Kunming for two nights. The city has been massively redeveloped in the last 20-30 years. There is high rise everywhere and a lot of the old city has been swept away. The roads are a nightmare of traffic jams, even though the elevated motorways are three deep in places.

The taxi ride from the airport took about an hour. We had booked an apartment in a tower block near the centre. From our 22nd floor position we could see new building sites and infrastructure improvement in every direction.

The 'estate' of high rises had it's own gated gardens

The ‘estate’ of high rises had it’s own gated gardens

The view

The view. The white low-rise you can see is probably marked for demolition

The view the other way

The view the other way

A day spent in the city centre revealed a few older, low-rise streets but the majority of the place is concrete and proud.

This traditional building was under construction

This traditional building was under construction

I think this is an older buidling

I think this is an older building

A building that may pre-date 1980

A building that may pre-date 1980

An older looking street

An older looking street

We liked the pagodas, temples and traditional gates but they were often dwarfed by their surroundings.



Gateway in context

Gateway in context

Finally I’ll leave you with an image of the Hump Bar. I didn’t go in.

Hump Club

Hump Bar

After a couple of days recovering from our flight we headed to the railway station for an eight hour rail trip to Lijiang. There were six of us and an enormous amount of luggage squeezed into the car that took us there. The suitcase in my lap took my mind off the traffic jams and the unusual driving styles.

The station was chaotic to our eyes. We handed over our passports and hoped our pre-booked tickets would be issued. The system seemed to work and we rushed through security, joined the queue* and made our carriage with ten minutes to spare. More later…

*There’s not really any such thing as a ‘queue’ in China. This is reflected in the driving styles.