Saturday, January 16, 2016

Chinese Fire Drill Part II: Back to Japan

How to Transit Through Beijing Airport in 48 Simple Steps

Newark (NJ) Airport – China Air check-in counter
January 12th - 10:00am

“Your flight is going to be delayed,” said the man with the cheap jacket and the airline tie. I'm surprised he knew I was there. He'd spent the last ten minutes ignoring both me and the check-in girl trying to process my family’s five tickets, eight passports and ten 50-pound pieces of luggage.

“They’re late getting in from Beijing,” he told me. He looked proud of himself for having the knowledge.

I stared at him, this man whose apparent lot in life made mine seem more tolerable.

If we took off late we'd be landing late. We'd miss our connection to Tokyo. My kids would go bananas waiting around Beijing Airport for however many hours.

The beer on our flight would be free, but they'd only let me have so many.

Okay, Mr. Tie. “How late?”

He glanced past my shoulder, at something or someone behind me. “About ninety minutes,” he said. “But don’t worry, the pilot will make up the time in the air on the way back to Beijing.”

Whoa. On the way back to Beijing? You mean the pilot? The plane? Both??

There were no good answers for this. A plane that keeps going back and forth between Beijing and Newark? Some Chinese airlines still use planes from when there were ashtrays in the armrests - and no auto-pilot for the guy flying us back and forth either.

I was going to need my wife to order a bunch of beers for me.


Newark Airport Security Check

 We’d unloaded our 500 pounds (no exaggeration) of luggage at check-in. But we were still hauling a lot of crap through the terminal. To wit:

- (Me) A carry-on crammed with twenty-five pounds of books and a large backpack with all the clothes I’d brought for our month in the US.

- (The wife) Two shoulder bags packed with passports, cameras, files of mysterious (to me) paperwork and all the souvenirs she’d decided to buy at the last minute. And some kids’ clothes. And some of hers. And some that didn’t seem to belong to anybody I knew.

- (Kid #1) A carry-on cardboard box full of Legos and a backpack filled with clothes, games, books and snacks.

- (Kid #2) The portable DVD player he and his siblings got for Christmas and a backpack crammed with wrinkled clothes, one book and too many toys and snacks.

- (Kid #3) A little plastic zippered carrier bag full of toy dinosaurs and a backpack full of things she won’t use.

Plus the wife had a massive plastic bag with more souvenirs, extra clothes for all three kids, her second jacket and, by now, a little plastic zippered carrier bag full of toy dinosaurs.

My 3-year-old daughter has a disability that prohibits her from walking – and sometimes standing – on her own. She has a walker, which we'd have all the way to our gate. The TSA agent had no idea how to fold the thing so it would fit through the X-ray machine. (I was already through and trying to gather up all our x-rayed crap while keeping my daughter from falling down again, I wasn't about to go help him.)

After a moment of indecision he shook his head and handed it to his TSA cohort on the other side of the metal detector, bypassing any sort of check on this contraption made of hollow metal tubes that could be hiding all kinds of things.

"If they ask you for help too many times do this..."

30,000 Feet over the Siberian Arctic
Time & Date unknown

To date my personal experience with China had consisted of a 24-hour layover in Shanghai in 2006 (which included one damaged piece of luggage) and last month's overnight layover in Beijing on our trip from Japan to the US (outlined in all its rule-ridden anarchy in this post). In short, I didn’t like our chances of catching our connection in Beijing.

Then again, if China could get 1,000 people to do this then surely they’d be able to get five people and a bunch of carry-on luggage from one gate to another pretty quickly.

Our odds of getting to Beijing Airport on time increased with the fact that our pilot was on crack and made up the three and a half hours before we were through the Arctic Circle. Those same odds decreased with…basically everything else.

We’d sat near the front of the plane, so when we came to a complete stop I barricaded the aisle with my body and started getting my three kids and all our carry-on luggage ready to go. The line of people in the aisle right behind me were getting restless but no cigarette-craving curmudgeons were going to squeeze by me and take up minutes or even seconds of our time getting to our next gate which, if there was a god, would be somewhere in the vicinity or at least the same zip code of the gate we were exiting from.

We stepped off the plane onto one of those wheeled staircases.

We commandeered the front of the shuttle bus so we could jump off as soon as we got to the terminal. Then we waited ten minutes for the bus to fill up. Tick tock, tick tock.

"Simply proceed with transfer procedures..."

Beijing Airport Terminal 3
1:15pm explains transferring at Beijing Airport from international flight to another international flight like this:

Arrive at the International Arrival Level at 3F of T3-E proceed with transfer procedures pass through the Transit Inspection in special passage in the east or west take special elevator downstairs to International Departure Level at 2F of T3-E accept Security Inspection in the special passage go through the customs sample check of hand baggage if necessary Waiting & Boarding

Proceed with transfer procedures”. That’s like the IRS saying “Fill out tax forms.”

And that pretty much sums up the insanity that is Beijing.

  How to Transit Through Beijing Capital Airport in 48 Simple Steps  

Please, put your seat back and enjoy.

1.   Exit shuttle bus by stepping into covered, exhaust-choked unloading area and fight with everyone else trying to be the first through the semi-automatic sliding glass doors.

2.  Hurry around to escalator that will take you up toward and then past the floor where your next gate is located, dumping you off one floor above.

3.   Get herded toward the immigration area to stand in line to have your passport checked. Never mind you and everyone else on the plane have been closely guarded since stepping off of that rolling staircase thing, you need to have your passport and boarding pass for your next flight ready. And please remember to look at the camera for a security photo.

4.   Remain confused as to which line to get in as no one present in any official capacity will make a move to assist you unless you ask. Three times.

5.   Follow the non-Chinese people around to the line for international transfers, which is conveniently hidden behind a partition wall.

6.   Try to talk to the airport person walking past you, heading for the front of the line while saying something in what might be an actual language. Get totally ignored.

7.   Try to talk to her on her way back. Have her point you toward the front of the line as she passes without breaking stride, a disgusted look on her face that is undoubtedly your fault.

8.   Apologize to everyone as you cut to the front of the line. Have the immigration woman point you toward the back of the line as if you are so stupid as to not notice the long line of people already waiting.

9.   In between breaths (from carrying a three-year-old in one arm and dragging an entire children’s section of books in a carry-on behind you) explain that you are trying to catch your soon-to-be-leaving connection.

10. Listen as thoughtful immigration woman looks at her watch and tells you that you might not make it.

11.  Tell idiot immigration woman you don’t give a shit what she thinks and to check you through now pretty please.

12.  Listen as inspired immigration woman asks if you’d like her to call the people working at the gate. Say yes. Almost drop your daughter as you watch Ms. Time Management sit on hold waiting for an answer on the flight’s status while NOT checking your passports.

13.  Watch as mute immigration woman hangs up the phone and begins checking your passports without saying a single word about your flight’s status. Hell, she doesn’t even give any indication she was even on the phone.

14.  Get everyone’s picture taken, grab your passports, adjust the daughter in your aching arm and run from super immigration woman and down the stairs – to a line that winds toward a baggage security check. Say something like “WTF” under your heaving breath.

15.  Cut to the front of the line, apologizing to a hundred people, then get pointed to the back of the line in the same disgusted, wordless manner as before. Explain your situation. Three times. Then twice more to another person. Get passports checked again before being ushered into baggage check world.

"...And if anyone tries to cut the line do this..."

16.  Have kids take off their jackets, take daughter’s off for her while holding her up since she can’t stand on her own, get all jackets and bags and crap into separate baskets for the x-ray machine, take off shoes and put them in baskets, explain why you have to go through the metal detector with your daughter. Explain again. Show security people that she can’t walk. Get waved through.

17.  Watch as family walks through. Go to get all your stuff. Get stopped because you have to stand on a box and have a metal detector wand passed all over your body. Tell daughter to wait for you there next to your luggage as it rolls out of the x-ray machine. Tell her not to stick her fingers in between those rolling things again. After getting the magic wand treatment hold your daughter upright on the box so they can do the same for her, dangerous as she looks.

18.  Get your stuff, get your shoes on, get your kids’ jackets on, get everyone loaded up and walk about a quarter mile.

19.  Get on line for another passport check. Get pictures taken again. Grab passports and try to get kids to hurry up which only pisses them off.

20.  Find out your gate is another quarter mile away. Throw all baggage and family members onto the oversized golf cart that has appeared out of nowhere, driven by a guy who seems all too excited to whisk you to your gate.

21.  Listen as Golf Cart Boy starts asking you for money over the sound of his horn. Hang on desperately to both cart and daughter as he weaves in and out of people. Consider trying to reach for your wallet, then instead tell the guy to just do his goddam job. And for fuck’s sake watch out.

22.  Ignore Golf Cart Boy’s cries for money as you pick up four bags, one kid and lead the charge downstairs toward the gate.

23.  Find the gate deserted except for a young man who, without irony, tells you that you took too long to get there and have therefore missed the flight.

24.  Listen as Gate Boy tells you to go somewhere upstairs and get tickets at an unspecified location for the next flight to Tokyo.

25.  Start snarling at Gate Boy about the goddam security and passport checks that made you late before telling him he needs to bring you to where you can get new tickets because his explanation made no sense.

Just another day in Terminal 3.

26.  Start yelling at Gate Boy when he refuses to go with you. Demand that he get the kids something to drink too. Say thank you with as much sarcasm as you can muster when he refuses to get the kids anything to drink but agrees to take you upstairs to that undisclosed location.

27.  Follow Gate Boy – who apparently has not noticed you are carrying a thirty-five pound human and lugging an entire library wing behind you, and apparently does not care if you and your kids can’t keep up.

28.  Apologize to kids for all the walking, tell them they are doing awesome, silently plead with younger son to not start crying like he seems about to do.

29.  Go the wrong way through a passport check to a transfer ticket counter run by two women who are underqualified and outnumbered for handling the crowd of people in the same predicament as you. Notice that they are talking and laughing with each other.

30.  Put your daughter down, happy in that your arm has not fallen off and your kids are excited to not be walking. Adjust your fantastically sweaty boxer shorts.

31.  Befriend another Japan-bound traveler who offers to carry your son’s box of Legos. Talk to a Chinese girl also trying to transfer on to Japan. (“This is China being China,” she whispers.) Watch a tall blond woman walk from the counter, ticket in hand, as she tells you to hurry up, the next flight leaves in fifty minutes. Wonder why you need to hurry if you still have fifty minutes. Remember the last hour, pick at your boxers again and tell the ticket girls to hurry the fuck up.

32.  Notice the row of luggage carts over to the side. Go get one. Immediately get ordered by a woman who was not there a second ago to put the cart back. She looks pissed off at you for even thinking about it. Tell her to go screw herself, but only under your breath because you realize she has never had to drag three young children through an airport since she is Chinese and would have had any children after her first-born taken away by the State.

33.  Struggle to understand the maybe-English explanation of your seating arrangements.

34.  Struggle to keep from asking for one seat far away from the other four.

35.  Get tickets, go through nearby passport check, the correct direction this time. Get passports checked again along with the tickets the passport checker just watched you get.

36.  Find yourself at the same immigration check area that first escalator dumped you off at. Head for the secret line behind the partition wall. Go through another passport/ticket check. Get pictures taken again.

37.  Go downstairs, realize the kid with your son’s Legos is nowhere to be seen. Hope he appears and keep moving – down the stairs to the line for the passport check before the security baggage check. Cut the line again, get passports checked again, go through the entire fucking baggage x-ray metal detector routine again. Hand your daughter off to one of the security people in disgust when you are told to get up on that box again so they can wave their magic wand over you again.

38.  Get up on box and pull off your shirt to save everyone a little time. Start undoing your jeans before they start saying something in Chinese in an increasingly loud and urgent way. Don’t pull your pants down because you remember this is China where people disappear for blogging about the wrong things, even if they keep their pants on.

39.  Get the family loaded up again. Tell the kids how amazing they are doing. Lie to them and say you think you are all just about done with the whole bleeping circus.

40.  Along your quarter mile walk find a luggage cart. Thank the god that is by law not allowed to exist in this airport and dump your daughter on along with as much baggage as possible. Watch your younger son’s eyes well up with tears because (a) he is exhausted and (b) his sister is getting a ride on a cart. Pick him up and carry him because you love him so much and you want him to stop crying so you don’t throttle him to death.

41.  Hustle for your gate. Almost get run over by Golf Cart Boy.

42.  Look back. Watch wife’s knees buckle under the weight of all the passports and souvenirs and paperwork and clothes and dinosaurs. Wonder where the kid with your son’s Legos is. Put your forty-five pound son down while hoping your arm doesn’t drop to the floor right along with him.

43.  Pick son back up as he starts crying again. Tell him it’s okay, you’ll carry him a little more. Tell him that China, by the way, is the devil.

44.  Listen to wife yell at you to keep going, like a wounded soldier telling his comrades to go on without him. Wait a few more seconds, just to show your support, then start walking again because your son is sliding out of your arm as fast as your sanity is slipping.

45.  Pass the stairs to the gate, listen to wife yelling about how you just passed the stairs for the gate, stop in front of elevator manned by the only person in Beijing who knows how to smile. Put down your son so can punch him right in that smile.

46.  Listen to Chang Wong Smiley tell you that the elevator doors are opening. Tell him to wait for the rest of your family. Then tell him don’t. Then tell him yeah okay wait I guess.

47.  See your friend with your son’s Legos walking up behind your wife. Laugh like you have a bi-polar personality disorder. Tell your sons you found the nice man with their Legos – simultaneously telling them that, for a while, their Legos were gone. Try to distract them by telling them to push the elevator button.

48.  Get to the gate and almost piss your sweaty pants as you realize you made your flight. Go through another passport check and walk down the tunnel that leads not to a rolling staircase but right onto a plane with ashtrays in the armrests but who the hell cares just get these goddam bags in the overhead and get these kids in their seats and ma’am can I get a beer?

Haneda Airport, Tokyo

Our 500 pounds of checked baggage has been waiting for us, on the floor next to the baggage carousel. Half our boxes have crushed corners. A couple of them have their sides partially ripped open. They’ve been taped over, and not by anyone with a Chinese surname I’d bet.

Luggage carts are free, but like most everything else in Japan they are too small. I try to snag a big flatbed cart but I get stopped by someone who very politely tells me that those carts are only for airport staff. I point out the fact that no one is using it and I certainly could. But like most everyone else in Japan the guy favors rules over reason and very politely invites me to use one of those small carts.

I use three.

Quick and smooth customs and immigration check and we are released from the journey. Except the part where we have to send our 500 pounds of luggage plus my library section, the dinosaurs and a few other things via overnight delivery to our home, three hours away.

We’ll spend a comfortable night in Tokyo, at my friend Ki Joon’s guest house in Shinjuku. We’ll spend a leisurely morning enjoying a nearby playground, riding the subway, taking in a view of Tokyo from the top of the Metropolitan Government Building and making things out of aluminum and copper at a random workshop going on in the bowels of Shinjuku Station. We’ll have lunch in the basement of a noodle shop where a bunch of beer-drinking businessmen could scarcely care less how much all their cigarette smoke might be bothering my wife and kids.

And we’ll take a highway bus home to Matsumoto, where I will decide that being able to spend some time in the States with family and friends made that trial of sanity and fortitude called Beijing Capital Airport worthwhile.

After a good night’s sleep I’ll come to my senses and say next time I’ll spend more for a flight on a non-Chinese airline.

Then again, I’ve said that before.