China Diary – the Beijing airport

March 3, 2007

…. the Beijing airport was quite a trial.

We made it through three customs counters… one where we dropped off the health slip stating we had had no contact with farm animals, birds or people with AIDS recently (there were other questions, but that’s the gist).

We had one form which was a small slip of paper just for foreigners to put our passport and number on and check off the reason for our visit.

At the third counter we handed in a longer form with detailed customs entry questions on it.

Then we rushed and followed signs to “transfers.” The last sign said “Transfers upstairs” and pointed to an set of opaque doors marked “exit only.” We decided to chance it and that seemed to be the right decision. This brought us into an area with many people, signs and counters.

We read the flight monitors and proceeded to a desk. The woman there looked at our tickets and said we need to “reconfirm” our flight. This was something we had anticipated with a bit of trepidation. when asked where we should do this, she waved her hand vaguely in a direction. When we asked for better directions she really was no clearer.

All the signs and flight monitors were primarily in Chinese. It was obvious that we hadn’t found anyone who could speak English very well.

We proceed in the direction the counter woman had waved, stopping at counters to ask about “reconfirming.” Most people looked uncomprehendingly at us. Finally an older attendant behind a counter laughed and made it clear that we needed to go into a completely different section of the airport and turn left.

When we followed his directions, we arrived at China Air’s ticket counter offices.

We had determined that our next flight was leaving shortly and we had not yet checked in or checked our luggage. There was a line at each window so we chose one and got in line.

I remembered from talking with Elizabeth and Jeremy that the concept of waiting in line was different in China. I watched two or three people deftly step in front of the man in front of us. Everyone appeared to be Chinese but I began to suspect the man in front of us of being a dumb American like us when he seemed incapable of asserting himself. He was obviously impatient as we were but began chatting us up in English. Iwasn’t paying too close attention but Eileen later told me he been out of the country for the last six years.

In the meantime, the people ahead of us (including the ones who had stepped in front of us) seemed to be all yelling at the China Air officical, pushing up to the window, and showing him their papers. There was much arguing back and forth.

Finally we were next and manged with difficulty to explain our dilemma. The person helping us was maddeningly slow as he peered closely at our documents and asked us questions, Then he looked long and hard at his computer screen. finally he told us we were okay and that we should “hurry” That seemed a tad ironic to me after all his foot dragging.

We then rushed back to the first counter (we had been in the right place after all). there were many lines to choose from and now I was noticing the cavalier approach people were taking to queues (“when in Beijing”). We had minutes until our flight was scheduled to leave by now.

I spotted a couple of short lines we got in one of those and pretty quickly got checked in and rushed to our gate following signs.

There was a line at the gate and we quickly got in it. After a bit we realized that although it was our gate, it was not a line for our flight.

After this flight boarded, I asked the attendants at the gate desk about the Kunming flight and they indicated it was late.

A short while later a young man (who also turned out to be going to Kunming on our flight) informed us in clear English that the flight was going to be three hours late. Unsure whether to believe him or not, we found a place to sit down.

I was exhausted from getting up at 3:30 AM that morning to check in at 4:15 in Detroit. The three hour wait was very excurciating as was the hour of taxi time before we were actually in the air.

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