Friday, November 23, 2007

Pleasures of Chinese Air Transport

After lunch in the same cold and empty dining hall that had served as our place of breakfast, lunch and dinner for the past several days, our host Professor Guo took Geoff and me to Kunming airport where we bid farewell to each other. Geoff and I had travelled around Yunnan on field visits to a project enhancing biodiversity conservation in agricultural landscapes that both of us were advising.

At the check-in we were informed that the China Eastern Airlines flight MU-5406 supposed to leave for Shanghai at 1:45 p.m. was delayed due to the late arrival of the aircraft. The estimated time of departure was now 2:35 p.m. This happens, but Geoff had a fairly tight connection to a Quantas flight from Shanghai to Sydney later in the day. Finally the MD-62 that was to take us to Shanghai arrived, the passengers disembarked and the plane was refueled. At 2:55 p.m. we were allowed to walk across the tarmac to the plane and be seated in the cramped-up seats. At 3:20 p.m. we were ushered out again. A tall and quite beautiful stewardess told us that one of the engines of the plane had a problem that needed fixing. So we sat down back in the waiting hall of the rather chaotic airport. When an Australian and a Finn are stranded in such a situation, there is only one possible course of action: to drink beer. After a couple of beers there was again commotion. I went to the young man in Yunnan Airlines uniform who seemed to be the only one at the airport with even a basic knowledge of English and, to my surprise, was told that we would all be moved to the airport hotel.

At the hotel great confusion reigned. The airline could only tell us that if they get the plane ready "you have to go to Shanghai tonight" but if not we would stay overnight at the hotel. I asked to be told as soon as possible which of the alternatives would be the one, so that we didn't have to be on call until late evening and could at least relax at the hotel. This to me perfectly reasonable request didn't seem to sink in. Furthermore, we tried to put through the point that we have connecting flights to catch. Mine was (fortunately or unfortunately) on China Eastern, so there should not be a problem. But Geoff's was on a different carrier and the cheapo ticket prevented him from changing it. We were met with shrugs. Then again, what could the guy do? Nevertheless, I wasn't happy when they tried to make us share a room. Both Geoff and I said no and asked for a private room. We were told that a private room would cost 30 yuan extra - no big deal, of course, but it was a matter of principle by then; it was not my choice to stay in this hotel. The airline guy was saying that there are three beds in one room and that two men must share a room. Meanwhile, in the confusion one of the reception girls had written me a slip with a room number (A309), different from Geoff's (B408). This provided us the opportunity just to leave and go upstairs to our individual rooms. Half an hour later a bellhop came in with a card with the word A408 written on it (presumably referring to bed A in Geoff's room). The diminutive fellow didn't speak a word of English so I showed him my A309 card. He tried to exchange them by grabbing hold of the card in my hand, but I stubbornly told him that this was my room and I'd stay here. He went off and never returned.

At 6 p.m. I received a call in the room. The person spoke Chinese and hung up when I said I didn't understand the language. A few minutes later there was a knock on my door and a girl stammered something about supper. So I went down. Geoff arrived soon after, looking cheerful and carrying his bags. They had knocked on his door, too, and he had thought we were on our way to the airport. Consequently, at dinner he was pretty gloomy. We shared a table with a bunch of locals who were also trying to get to Shanghai. They were eating and laughing and appeared to be enjoying this unexpected chance to stay in a hotel.

Interestingly, even in this fairly good hotel at the international airport of the capital city of southwestern China nobody seemed to understand a word of English. Geoff went down to the business center of the hotel to call his wife that he didn't know when he would be coming back. The person in charge of the center had to call help from a girl from the reception. She apparently was the only English speaker in the hotel. In the day's China Daily Business Weekly that I had read earlier Bill Gates was quoted saying that if China intends to become a leader in software technology they needed to learn good English. This will be less of a problem in the future as so many US educated and other overseas Chinese are increasingly returning to their home country. Of course, most of them will stay on the coast and it'll take a while until places inland will benefit fully.

Later I was walking around the hotel to check out the place and make the time pass. A pretty albeit heavily made up girl in the hotel uniform waved me to join her at the table where she was smoking and playing solitaire. Opening her uniform, she revealed a sexy outfit she was wearing underneath and explained to me - in Chinese and sign language - that she would take me to a back room for a massage. Of course, I had to remain waiting and ready to go in the unlikely case we'd be called to fly to Shanghai. The last thing I wanted at that stage was to be left behind by the plane. Not that I would have invited her to my room under other circumstances either. But the incident showed that private entrepreneurship is alive and well in China.

Finally, at around 10:30 p.m. when Geoff and I were sitting at the bar drinking more beer, the English-speaking receptionist came to inform us that we would be staying here for the night. By that time we had actually figured it out by ourselves. She told us that our flight would be at 6:30 in the morning. When we asked her to confirm the time by writing it down, it turned out to be 8:20. Well, I myself could easily make the same mistake in Chinese. The bar was full of girls who looked like the one that had spoken to me earlier.

The following morning I woke up at 6:30. The room was freezing cold and I could see my breath. I had slept in my full cloths under all blankets I could gather. My hands were frozen and my nose running. When I tried to produce a sound my throat didn't react. Our suitcases were never brought to the hotel (I kept my fingers crossed that I'd once more be reunited with my bag), so I had no change of clothes. Luckily, at least, I had packed my toothbrush into the hand luggage that was with me.

As requested by the staff the night before, I went down at 7 a.m. sharp. It was a sunny winter morning and the lobby was cold because the doors to the street were open. We all sat there huddling with no sight of the China Eastern crew. The guide of the Korean tour group that was stuck there with us, a friendly fellow in a baseball cap and shades, somehow found out that the airport shuttles were to pick us up at 7:30. This was later revised to 8 a.m. They finally came at 8:15. Needless to say, no breakfast was served.

We were then taken to the airport where we were dumped in the chaotic departure hall with no instructions from the ground crew. After a while and entirely by chance, we found out that it was necessary to exchange our boarding passes from yesterday to new ones to enable us to board the plane. We were told to line up at the office, which carried the sign "n-duty mana-ge". Our Chinese fellow passengers were all shouting excitedly and trying to cut into the line. When we finally made it to the counter, the girl told us that we actually needed to go to another counter. Why wasn't I surprised? I asked her politely whether she realized how annoying this all was. I received a blank stare. We walked over to the other counter and after a lengthy wait were sent to a third one where we eventually got our boarding passes. When we pointed out that we had connecting flights out of Shanghai that we'd missed, they called the supervisor. Finally someone to talk to! The lady arrived and looked at my ticket that said Shanghai-Narita and had the time 09:10 written on it. She stated the obvious - "Oh, you won't make it to that plane" - and after a bit of pondering asked whether I would like to change flight. I answered in the affirmative that, indeed, I would. She then told me that this could not be done here in Kunming and that I would need to contact the airline once we arrived in Shanghai. I pointed out that the sign above said that this was the counter for "international travelers with connections overseas." Apparently it didn't mean that they had any responsibility for the actual connections. When Geoff asked whether our bags would be on the flight we were about to board, the manager was starting to show signs of irritation. She told us curtly not to worry so much. I told her we had a lot to worry about.

Suddenly there was a terrible rush. We were told to board immediately, so we hurried down the steps to the tarmac, literally squeezed in between a set of aircraft stairs, and walked to the China Eastern MD-82 that was waiting. It was the same plane that had broken down yesterday. I found my China Daily Business Weekly in the seat pocket of seat 19C where I had left it the day before. Also the same crew was there, including the stunning tall stewardess.

The flight departed soon and was actually quite pleasant once we were airborne. The plane was only half full so we could spread out in our seats. Upon departure from Kunming the weather was clear and we were flying at a relatively low altitude. To the north, on the left side of the plane, there were snow-capped mountains. The terrain was hilly and the hills looked incredibly denuded. No forest and little topsoil were left, only subsoil and weathered rock. There were deep ravines everywhere. The tiny valley bottoms were built densely with small villages and the poor looking agricultural terraces climbed the hillsides. Elsewhere the valleys were cultivated with paddies and the houses were perched on the surrounding slopes. Every now and then, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, appeared large industrial plants spewing out thick smoke to the otherwise clear mountain air.

After about half an hour of flight the cloud cover became thick. A Shanghainese tour guide leading a group of tourists was pacing agitatedly up and down the aisle mobilizing a mass protest against China Eastern. She didn't speak English, but she approached Geoff. In the hope of passing her on to me, Geoff told her I spoke Japanese. It turned out that his scheme was successful. She was specializing in guiding Japanese groups and actually spoke the language. Her name was Yang and I recognized her as the enormously noisy middle-aged woman who had sat next to me at dinner last night ("Wouldn't want to meet her on a dark street," Geoff had commented then). I promised to help her and asked Geoff and the Koreans whether they'd like to write down their complaints to the airline. The tour guide would collect them all and deliver them to the company office in Shanghai. All stewardesses gathered around Yang apparently trying to persuade her that it was no use sending in the complaints. She would not budge. Afterwards she came back to chat with me. I'm afraid she will, as she promised, look me up one day and appear behind my door.

When we started our descent, clouds were hanging thick over Shanghai. There was some turbulence and the purser announced through the intercom that if anybody was feeling sick they should barf into the disposal bag provided for this purpose in the seat pocket. I'm sure that this straightforward reminder of the existence of the bags was warranted by previous experiences.

The landscape as the plane decreased altitude was a grim reminder of Chinese reality. There was not one square inch of unused land. There were small hamlets surrounded by fields and intersected by irrigation canals. One could see how these were being invaded by urban sprawl and highways. When all of these people would abandon agriculture and move to the nearest town in search of a fast yuan it could have serious implications on the food security of this most populous country of the world - and the impacts would have repercussions far beyond when China started massive imports of food from the world market.

Closer to the airport the paddies were replaced by endless drab looking suburbs with rows of identical houses. The individual houses all looked derelict. There were junks in the small, polluted canals. When we landed close to noon it was raining and Shanghai looked monochrome grey.

Amazingly, our bags arrived just like the lady at Kunming airport had promised - we needn't have worried. The Koreans who had by now become our friends were all waving goodbye. Geoff and I walked over to the international terminal. A very friendly and attractive young lady at the China Eastern transfer counter directed us to the airline offices in fluent English. We were back in the modern world. China Eastern was trying to entice me to take the same flight I had missed this morning tomorrow instead. When I told them that I'd love to do so, but needed to get to Tokyo today, they agreed to put me on the first Japan Airlines flight the same afternoon. Geoff was sent to the Quantas office and we separated with good wishes for our respective continuing flights.

Juha Uitto 1997 [Published also on, March 10, 2006.]

1 comment:

Consuela said...

Well written article.