The great thing about arriving into an international air terminal in the middle of the night is– no crowds. No waiting at immigration. Customs is a breeze. The downside of arriving at an international air terminal in the middle of the night is that it is a ghost town. There is no one to ask anything. And when that international terminal is in a country where you don’t speak or read the language, you are completely reliant on signage. And signage is tricky.
We arrived into a darkened Beijing at 10:55 PM local time. Only about 35 minutes past our scheduled arrival. We were the last ones off the plane, but no worries. We had about 3 hours and 15 minutes to get to our flight, which felt like plenty of time to get through immigration, get our bags, pass through customs, take the shuttle bus to the Siberia Airlines ticket counter, check our bags, get our boarding passes, and go to the gate. I mean, it was the middle of the night, the airport was empty.
Feeling cautiously optimistic, we walked through the deserted arrivals area, past the vacant international transfers desk (is that the hallway we’re supposed to take?) Turns out-No. Turn around, follow the signs to baggage claim. Not wanting to pass through any barriers we couldn’t get back through, we hunted down an off duty clerk to confirm our choice. Correct.
Get to the baggage hall. Empty. Totally empty. No problem, look at the video monitor. Our flight isn’t up there. Hmm. It’s not like we took that long getting down here. Go to baggage services-which is open. Have a brief conversation in English and Chinese
“No we haven’t lost a bag.”
“We are just looking for the bags from Delta flight 129. “
“No, not United, the bags from Delta 129. “
“No we didn’t lose a bag. We want to know which number, which carousel, number?
Finally, communication occurs.
“Carousel Two? Ok. Thank you very much.”
So it’s off to carousel two, and low and behold they are all there. 8 bags, a bass, 3 boxes and 2 gate checked carry-ons. Remember those numbers, they are going to factor very heavily into our journey in about an hour.
Time to cart-up. 6 people, 6 carts, piled high with gear, and we know where to go Shuttle bus to terminal 3. Just follow the signs, and we’re good to go. We arrive at the end of the arrows. Doorway 5. What do you know? The bus is right there. Should we try to catch it? Let’s go! Cart pushing at on the run now. Reach the bus and we turn into a well-oiled machine. Undaunted by the fact that the bus is already pretty full of people and bags, we load, assembly-line style, stacking bags on boxes on bags. Hope no-one has to exit before we do, because we’ve buried all their stuff. And we’re all in!. I distinctly remember looking at the clock on the buss at this moment. It’s 0:24 AM. That’s 12:24 AM for those of you back home. OK, we’re on the shuttle bus and we have 1 hour and 45 minutes left. We should be fine right?
Back when our plane touched down in Beijing, I noticed that we seemed to be taxiing for a really long time without seeing the airport. After about 5 minutes, I began to wonder if we had not actually landed in Beijing, but in a nearby city from which we were driving the plane to Beijing Airport. This feeling recurred as we rode this shuttle bus to Terminal 3. I’ve shuttled between terminals in Newark, Dallas, Boston, Toronto, JFK, Phoenix, DeGaulle, Heathrow, and probably many other airpors. But as I Iooked out the window and saw us taking the onramp to a highway, I started to worry that we were going to drive all the way back to where our plane initially landed. I have not, nor will I on this trip see Beijing in daylight, but I get the impression that proximity is not a priority here.
We make it to Terminal 3, pile the bags off the bus, get new carts, and pile the bags on the carts. By then, all the other bus passengers have disappeared. Probably would have been a good idea to watch where they went because this building looks absolutely closed. After trying a few doors, we did find the entrance. Then the debate begins. Gate B is definitely Intl. Arrivals, Gate A is definitely Domestic Arrivals, Gate C is definitely something else clearly marked that I now can’t remember. So where are international departures? No sign.
When all else fails, you can always divide and conquer. Sergei, goes right, Alan goes left. I wait by the elevator for the other two to bring their baggage carts up. The scouts return without a definitive answer, but we know we need to go up at least one floor. We take the elevator up to the 4th floor and voila: International Departure desks. It is the work of a moment to find Siberian Airlines. Forthwith referred to as S7. And what luck, no line. No other customers at all. For most of the next 30 minutes that seemed like a good thing. (It’s 1:08 AM now by the way). So we begin.
Now I have to be honest. I was aware before we left the states that there might be some discussion regarding the luggage allowance for this leg of our trip. International travelers are generally allowed 2 checked bags per person, as well as a carryon and a personal item. I had been painstakingly careful gathering this information, calling Delta Airlines weighing our bags, packing and unpacking at the airport on Portland. bags. We got out of Portland with no extra luggage charges, two overweight bag charges and no oversize charges. (Thank you, thank you Alaska gate agent!)
I had gone on the S& website and read that the luggage allowance for their airline was 20 kilos per person (about 44 pounds). It also said you were allowed 1 checked bag, and one carryon. And so the ensuing rationalization: How bad could it be? 5 or 6 lbs here or there. I was happy to pony up for the original overweight bags again. But surely the one bag rule applied for travelers originating in Beijing. Not international travelers coming all the way from the US of A.
Well I was kind of right. Turns out that our travel agent, in her prodigious effort to carry out my mandate to get us the most-affordable-airfares-possible-so-this-trip-could-happen-at-all, did something very clever. She booked us through from Portland to Beijing on Delta. And then she purchased a separate fare for the Beijing-Khabarovsk leg of our trip. So it’s all good, except for the minor inconvenience of having to claim and recheck our luggage in Beijing. The only problem is that to the gate agents at S7 Airlines, it looks just as if we are originating in Beijing. And so the rules- the very ones I incorrectly assumed wouldn’t apply to us- now very much do apply to us, to the tune of 183 Kilos, and let’s just leave it at several extra bags.
And by the way they do not take dollars. And they do not take credit cards. Cash only
Alan Jones tells me that mistakes cost money because they amount to your education. And education, real education where you learn important things- like not to assume or rationalize- is expensive. Which is all very well in the abstract, but considerably less so when you have 10 minutes to run to the Travelex office and exchange the $1000.00 of cash that you so prudently brought for “trip emergencies” and didn’t expect to spend before you had even disembarked in your final destination.
This mistake took time as well as money. Because there was lots of animated discussion in English and Chinese, trying to avoid the consequences of it on our side, and trying to figure out how we could have so completely ignored the guidelines on their side. And also lots of putting bags on scales, and taking them off scales, and taking passports and giving back passports, and head-shaking and paper passing and computer viewing. And after a while of this, the counter agents, of whom there were several, all dealing with us, said basically, we can’t help you. You need to talk to him- pointing down the counter at a sign, which I hadn’t seen before, that read “Service Manager.” And out from this little room walks a man, who lo and behold is Russian, as opposed to Chinese, and who I assume had been witnessing this entire, time-consuming episode. I’m not sure he was even coming out to talk to us. But I quickly went up and dragged him into the fray. And then there was more discussion in Chinese, and Russian, and English, and more head-shaking, and more “can you help us”, and some supervisor calling. And the end result was that I indeed did have to run to the Travelex office and hurry because the counter agents all had to go to the gate and become gate agents because the plane was boarding.
Running to the Travelex was also the moment I realized that the reason no one was in line at the ticket counter for S7 was because they were already on the plane, which was going to close it’s doors in 10 minutes. (Where had the 3 hours gone?)
Unfortunately or not surprisingly, depending on your point of view, there was no-one in the Travelex booth. Normally, I don’t begrudge anyone a break in the middle of the night in a deserted airport. I was feeling less than charitable at this moment. Bang on the window, knock on the door, call out. It’s clear, there is nobody in this office.
I guess you would have to call this the “wall” moment. As in hit the wall. There isn’t anything to decide really. There isn’t anything to do. You’re just standing there looking at that wall-completely stopped.
Surely they wouldn’t leave without us. I thought. There’s not another plane till Thursday!
Ah here she comes. OK, we’re moving again.
I count out the dollars, crisp new US twenties. Then she counts them, signs for them, counts out the Yuan, runs it through the counting machine. And says,
“I need to see your passport.”
Check the front pockets. Not there. What? Check the backpack. Where is it? I know the service agent gave it to me.
She says “Sir, I’m counting the money. 5,490 Yuan. 901 US dollars.”
“Sir, you need to look.”
She does it again.
“I can’t find my passport,” I say.
“Fine, sir. Just sign this slip of paper.”
OK. I sign, grab the cash.
Oh man what did I do with my passport? Run back to the ticket counter.
Counter agent says “Hurry sir, please go pay him.”
“Him!” She points to the Russian service agent.
Ok, I pay the service agent.
“You guys seen my passport?”
Then I check my back pocket.
Ahh, it’s there.
OK. Lets go.
We have to go to gate E-12. OK, 12 is a low number. We should be home free. Wait a minute, we have to take a train? We have to take a TRAIN to Gate E-12????
Where is the train? The platform is deserted. No train, nothing to indicate there will be any train anytime soon. What the heck? We push the emergency telephone button.
“Excuse me, when will the train come? Will the train come?”
The answer comes back (garbled of course) “Yes there should be train in one minute”
One minute later-no train. Significantly longer than one minute later- no train. Sergei starts to take off running, looking for what I have no idea. It is now 1:47. Those airplane doors are closing in 3 minutes. Surely they won’t leave us. They know we are coming, don’t they? Ahh, Here comes the train.
And as we leave the station I realize that the thing about proximity and shuttle buses and taxiing aircraft and Beijing-well it goes for trains too. It’s like we’re going through the countryside or something. Here I thought we were already in the terminal!
Oh yes, and we have to go through immigration, customs, and security before we hit the gate.
Off the train- at a dead run. It’s every man for himself now. First one there hold the plane. Customs is a breeze, there are no agents there at all. We blast through that area and run up to immigration in a bunch.
“One person at a time, everybody else behind the yellow line. “
OK. Apparently it is never too late for decorum. Alan goes first, check the passport, check the boarding pass, check the arrival permit. Stamp, stamp, stamp. Go. I’m next, watching Alan go through security- Laptop out, pockets empty. Shoes mercifully, stay on.
He’s through. So at least one of us is gonna’ make this flight. Then I’m through. I start running and a gate agent from our prior adventures waves me down,.
“Yes ,” I say.
“This way, this way hurry.” He points.
Now I know that we are going to gate E-12 and his “this way “ seems to be in the general direction of the sign for those gates so I dash off. There are gates E-1 through 10. E-11. There it is, E-12. Where’s Alan. He was 10 seconds in front of me. He should be here. But he’s not. I ask the gate attendants, who are thankfully, still there waiting for us.
“My other person. You have seen him? “
“You wait here for all six,” they say.
“Yes, but the other person before me?”
“You wait here.”
I decide I’m going to run back to see where Alan went. Didn’t he know it was E-12. It says that right on the boarding pass.
I turn to start back
“No! You stay here. Wait.”
“I’m going to look for my friend”
“You stay, wait for all six.”
“But I think he may have gone to another gate.”
I turn to run back again
“No! You wait here.”
Finally I just decide to stop explaining and just start running. On the way back I see Charley, running to the gate, then Inna, running to the gate. Marc, with two saxophones, running to the gate. Sergei is coming , they say. Where is Alan- Maybe he is on the plane.
I don’t think so.
So , I’m back in the main hall yelling
“Alan!, Alan Jones! Where are you!”
No answer. He MUST be on the plane. I’ll go back. As E-12 comes again into sight, they are all yelling for me. OK, here’s Alan
“Man, where did you go? ” I say.
“The gate guy, he told me “this way, “ pointing left
“I said E-12 is this way,” Alan says, pointing right. “But he tells me ‘No, go this way.” “So I asked him again-E-12, the sign says right there, this way,” Alan says pointing right.
The guy says “No, no this way,” pointing left
Turns out our Mr. Jones had run, to the end of the terminal. That is gate E-62, by the way, and back, a distance of a good mile. Hence the glares and the wheezing.
So here we are. Six of us. On the plane to Khabarovsk. It left 4 minutes late. 2:14 AM.
Will our baggage make it?
That is a question for tomorrow.
As we dashed to the gate we did see the bass and two boxes of drums just sitting there, unattended. Not looking like they were heading anywhere in a hurry
But hey, we’ll deal with it tomorrow
Oh wait, it is tomorrow. When we land it will be 7:15 AM local time. Time to start our day.
Nothing like a little travel to broaden the horizons.