« The Terracotta Army | The Rainstorm »

The Airport

I woke up, rolled into my clothes, dropped down five stories to a taxi headed for the airport, and fell asleep again, all in about seven minutes. Half an hour later I opened my eyes and noticed two things: a heavy snowstorm had covered the road with sludge, and the meter wasn't running. Uh-ho…

As a foreigner traveling in China, you quickly get used to being overcharged for taxi rides. The wikitravel entry about taxis in Beijing is nearly three pages long, and most of it is about avoiding scams. Actually the situation is similar in most of Asia, and making sure that the driver switches on the meter quickly becomes second nature. Unless, of course, you’re me, it's seven in the morning and you're going to an airport 40km away. Drat.

So, plan B then. We made a big show of photographing the taxi's ID, writing down the complaints phone number, counting kilometers and keeping track of how much the driver was paying for toll. At the airport, we first got all our luggage out of the taxi, then asked for the price. "400 Yuan". I laughed out loud. Seriously, how much? "150". That's more like it. Probably still a bit higher than the metered fare, but not by much, and we were grateful to have reached the airport alive despite the punishing snow. We payed.

This had been almost too easy, but life was about to get a lot more challenging. The airport in Xian looks state-of-the-art from the outside, but that doesn't mean it can handle three inches of snow. A few minutes after we left the taxi, the airport closed to all traffic, although no flight was yet cancelled: instead all were delayed indefinitely. We waited. Two hours later, the storm had abated and a few planes were allowed to take off. The real problem, however, came from our dear friends at Beijing's Weather Modification Office. According to a Wall Street Journal blog, they had unleashed a new snowstorm last night (this time with added thunder and lightning!) which despite "the largest group of deicing vehicles in Asia" had wreaked complete havoc at Beijing Capital Airport and grounded the Air China plane that was to take us to Shanghai.

So we waited. I had a ridiculously overpriced cappuccino. Then another. Then lunch. Then another cappuccino. We checked whether some flights had left Beijing. Yes, a few had managed, but not ours. We inquired about other airlines that could get us to Shanghai. None could promise anything, and the might-just-possibly-depart-today tickets were expensive. We enquired about trains and found only an overnighter that might or might not be full and took 16 hours to reach Shanghai. Yet another cappuccino. At quarter past five, Beijing let two Air China 737 leave for Xi'An, and we were allowed to check in.

We passed through security at half past six and decided to have dinner, not because we were  hungry, but because there really wasn't anything else to do during the two hours before boarding. I had three beers and a plate of spiced up green peppers and lamb and red peppers with assorted spices in a hot and spicy sauce. It tasted good but somewhat bland – amazing how quickly one gets used to spicy food in China. An hour passed without any news about our flight. The expected boarding time came and went. We started hearing rumors that the plane never actually left Beijing – but then why had I seen its actual-confirmed-definitive-official departure time on Beijing's airport's website 90 minutes before? Airport staff started serving drinks and ready-to-eat meals. This was beginning to feel eerily like "The Terminal". I stayed in the restaurant, ordered another beer and continued sorting through the previous days' photos. It started snowing again.

I finally got bored with the photos and walked up to the gate. Nothing was happening. Nothing at all. No planes were landing, no planes were taking off, no planes were cancelled. After a while we saw a slew of passengers emerging from a nearby gate. Apparently they had boarded a plane, sat in it for a few hours until the captain gave up and asked them to return to the waiting rooms. A few minutes later the airport closed again. For lack of anything better to do, I bought a helicopter. Half an hour later, at nearly 10PM, our flight was finally cancelled for good.

I packed up the helicopter and we got back to the departure hall, where we headed to the Air China ticketing counter to exchange our tickets for seats on tomorrow's flight, along with 4782 other travelers. The odds didn't look good. I got back to my favorite café, had a fifth cappuccino, wrote to Air China for a refund and booked five first class seats on the 10:40 China Southern flight to Shanghai-Pudong. Surely we'd have more luck tomorrow.

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>