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Thursday, November 10, 2016

China: the travel, the drama

We knew when we decided to visit China that travel would be a challenge. It's such a long flight that initially we'd put Asian travel off - we'd go when we were older, less active, and had more vacation days to spend there. But flights to China were so incredibly inexpensive this year that we decided that 2016 was as good a year as any! It was a last-minute decision, as last minute as you can get when visiting a country that requires a visa, but we got our ducks in a row in time for our trip (I also had to renew my passport: it had nine months before expiration, but China requires a full year).

A week before our trip, our travel agency emailed to say that they'd changed a flight because they were worried about our connection time. This little move wreaked major havoc. When we were boarding our first flight out of New Orleans, we were stopped at the gate. "Those are just paper tickets," said the agent, and we were rushed to the desk to see if the problem could be fixed before the cabin door was closed. It was close, but we made it, rushing down the walkway just in time, the agent waiving us on. Apparently when the flight was changed, it was no longer linked with our payment, so we sort of had reservations, but no tickets. And then this whole processes repeated in Chicago, our first layover. But just for me. The first agents had fixed David's tickets, but not mine, and now there was big trouble, because I technically never had a ticket in New Orleans, so technically I shouldn't be in Chicago now, and the airline wanted to reissue tickets for each flight, starting in New Orleans. By the time we reached Toronto, I went straight to the counter, and surprise! I'd flown across international borders without a ticket! Did I ever actually have a ticket for any of my flights? Who knows. But I made it to China.

Inside China, we had three flights. When we got on the first flight, we asked our guide if the security process was any different than we were used to, and what we should expect. "Oh, it's so easy in China to fly," she assured us. "Much easier than other countries." Yeah, no. First, you go through security to get into the airport, where you are swabbed and your bags x-rayed...unless you're skipped, which is something Chinese security loves to do when lines get long. Then you have to go check in in person, no online pre-checking, and then you head to real security. Here, men and women form separate lines FOR NO REASON AT ALL, because once you are grilled endlessly by security (in one airport, no fewer than eight agents shouted at me to remove my nonexistant laptop from my bag. If you think the TSA is repetitive, try Chinese security!) and pass through the metal detector, everyone, regardless of gender, is patted down by a female officer. Security is arbitrary and inconsistent. Some airports want you to remove your camera from your bag; some don't. Some consider iPads a laptop; others do not. In one airport, my purse was dumped, searched, and re-x-rayed three times while the agent shouted, "glass bottle!" over and over. I had already flown six times with this purse by now, and knew I had no glass bottle. Finally the agent gleefully produced my half-ounce Purell and informed me that glass bottles were not allowed. My protests that it was plastic were futile, and he pitched it. Weird, annoying, but just part of traveling: not a big deal.

What WAS a big deal was our flight from Xi'an to Shanghai. This qualifies as The Worst Airport Experience of My Life. Buckle in, folks. This is going to get long.

We went through the whole check-in/security deal in Xi'an and, when we got to our gate, were concerned to see another flight listed on the board. David used a travel app to ascertain that the flight was delayed, but there was no notification in the airport. Hours passed. Two hours after the flight should have departed, an employee brought huge carts of airplane dinners and left them in the gate. People pounced, but no one asked about the flight because no one was at the gate. Finally, three hours after the flight should have left - so we'd been there five hours - an overhead page announced that the flight was delayed and "please remain at your gate". We called our travel agent, who flatly told us that the flight was delayed and no, no one could help us book another flight and no, no one knew when the flight would actually leave. Apparently just sitting in the gate until the plane is ready is standard practice. Forget getting a hotel to sleep if it's a long delay! By now, I was miserable. Waiting in an airport is never fun, but guess what? The airports in China aren't climate controlled. We had no heat, and as the hour grew later and the airport emptied, the temperature dropped to 40F, and kept dropping. I piled all my clothes on, but I was so cold. I had packed for the daytime forecast! As the hours ticked by, I sought out the airline VIP lounge. An agent there spoke English! But her answer was the same. "We don't know when you will have a flight." Here's where I started devolving into the person I'd be in a disaster: the mean, selfish me. I noticed that the VIP lounge, although frigid, has a sort of ceiling instead of being open to the cavernous airport roof. Thus, it held a little more warmth. I began arguing my way into the VIP lounge. The woman was aghast: I, economy-ticket holder that I was, dared ask a favor for VIP lounge entry?! But I've already been delayed five hours, I argued. But it's the rules! she gasped. Ask your manager, I prodded. But it's the rules! she gasped. Finally I succeeded in bullying my way into the VIP lounge, which had the luxury of cushioned chairs, a little kitchenette with really terrifying food (sushi made with canned vegetables, for example), and charging stations. But still. Freezing. I now had on jeans, a short sleeved shirt, a long sleeved shirt, another long sleeved shirt, a jacket, a thick blazer, a scarf, and socks. I was delirious with exhaustion. Finally, at 2:00 am, a single page announced our flight was boarding at gate G. With that, a mad dash to the plane began. We ended up in the back of the plane, and David sweetly bundled his jacket as a pillow so I could try to sleep.

BUT. Such was not to be. Because who should get on the plane with us, but a party of very drunk, very high Russian tourists! Right behind us "sat" (they were never sitting) two boisterous, rude, loud, abusive, insulting horrors. One stood for the entire flight, his big rear right in another passenger's face. The other roamed the plane. They kept up a very loud conversation the whole time. They entered the galley, rummaged around, and started eating food. They took whole water bottles off the beverage cart. They even slapped the flight attendant's behind. In America, that flight would have landed and they would have been carted off. I couldn't believe what they were getting away with. Finally, oh finally, we landed, in what would turn out to be an 80F airport with no driver waiting for us (it was 5:30 before we got to the hotel) - but before we could deplane, these goons were barging up the aisle, pulling people's luggage out and tossing it, and being general idiots. One of the group, though, was stuck behind us. And since I'd already devolved into a terrible human being who browbeat a stewardess into letting me into the VIP area for no reason, I had no compunction about "accidentally" clobbering the fellow with my bag when I took it out of the overhead compartment (and I made sure my heavy books hit him right in the solar plexus). "Oh, I am sooooooo sorry," I said acidly, looking him right in the eyes.

It was the best moment of the entire trip.


  1. OH MY GOSH. That is so awful!! What a total and complete nightmare. Oh man, I am thankful to live in the USA when something like that would never happen!! Unreal!! I'm especially appalled at the awful behavior of the drunk/high Russians. :O

  2. WOW! I've heard air travel in China is crazy but all that is nuts! Good on you for bullying your way into the lounge, though. I don't think I'd be able to pull that off.

  3. Wow. The trip otherwise looks pretty amazing, but

  4. Crazy!!! I didn't even know you were going to China. We didn't have any air travel problems there in 2012, but we only flew from Yichang to Shanghai, we did trains and other overland travel for the rest. And we might have skated by air security because we didn't speak Chinese or have a guide, so if they told us something, it just didn't register. My perception is that a lot of the Russians who travel for vacation seem to be very drunk and boisterous. We encountered a crew of them at the beach we went to in Southern India and they looked tough, and were so drunk and obnoxious. Can't imagine putting up with that after so many hours in the airport. Looking forward to catching up on your blog!