August 9, 2012
Not sure when I’ll be able to post this, since no one with a Mac has yet figured out how to connect to the Internet, but I might as well write before the memories fade and before I pass out from exhaustion.
The US portion of our trip was pretty straightforward. Except for me having to fly from Chicago to Atlanta just to turn around and head to Seattle; that part was pretty backwards. But I found Lisa and then Lauren pretty easily while we waited to board our flight in Atlanta, and then Eli found us as we made our way off the plane in Seattle. So we had people to talk to and watch our luggage and consult with – which turned out to be a very good thing once we got to China.
I’d hoped to fly through Seoul, since I’ve heard fantastic things about that airport, but we were routed through Beijing instead. Not that there’s anything wrong with Beijing’s airport; the airport is HUGE, and the architecture is pretty impressive. But we arrived at 11:30 pm with a 1:45 am flight to board, and there’s no easy way to transfer your baggage to Miat Airlines in Beijing. Once you deplane, you have to get your luggage, go through customs, go to the wrong terminal, wait 10 minutes for a shuttle to the right terminal, ride that shuttle for 15 minutes through the streets of Beijing until it finally gets to the terminal, and then rush to your counter to check in before it closes one hour before the flight’s scheduled departure. Going to the wrong terminal is optional, of course, but when you’re wandering around an unfamiliar airport where you can’t read any of the signage, you tend to go where you’re told. Even if the directions you’re given are wrong.
We approximate that we made it to the check-in counter about 5 minutes after it closed. By the time we got there at 12:50, everything was dark, and it took us a long time to find anyone who could explain why the counter was unmanned. All of the workers we found spoke at least a little English, but none of them spoke very much, and all seemed rather annoyed to have to deal with us. Eventually, an employee at an information desk informed me shortly that we had missed our check-in period and would just have to wait for the next flight – at 9 pm the next day.
Luckily for us, Beijing’s terminal 3 has a few cafés that are open all night, so we crashed at one of these until we could figure out a course of action. Our options seemed pretty limited: no one had cell coverage; there were terminals with free internet access, but you couldn’t type in them; you needed a Chinese phone number in order to access the WiFi. At this rate, our ride would be waiting for us at the airport in UB at 4 am, and until he realized we weren’t there, no one would know that something was amiss. No one had any Chinese money, and we were reluctant to use our debit cards because we hadn’t thought to put China on the travel notifications and didn’t want our banks to lock our accounts. The night ahead looked awfully long without the prospect of food or any way of making alternate plans.
Thank heavens Lauren had an iPhone. She couldn’t make calls or send email, but she could access some of her old email – including some from our coordinator in DC, whose signature included his phone number. So we pulled them up and wrote down the number, telling her we’d all chip in for the obscene data charges she might incur for doing so. Then I pulled out the credit card my parents had given me for emergencies. While our circumstances weren’t exactly life-threatening, they were still pretty urgent, and the credit card was linked to a different account than my debit card. Even if the bank blocked my credit card, I figured, I’d still be able to use the debit card once we got to Mongolia. So off to the payphone we marched.
Hopefully the rates weren’t too exorbitant, because it ended up being a 20-minute phone call. Jonathan was out to lunch, and the woman who answered the phone wasn’t much help. She kept putting me on hold while she looked for someone to hand me off to and telling me that there should be someone at the airport who could tell us what to do. She didn’t seem to hear my repeated insistence that it was two in the morning and there was no one there, or my request that she email Chris to let him know that he wouldn’t be picking us up. Finally, she found someone with some sense, who patched me through to the travel agency so we could book a replacement flight.
We ended up with an 8:35 am flight on another airline, which was infinitely preferable to the 9 pm. We made our way to the counter at 6:30 am and were probably the first people to check in, and they didn’t even charge us extra to check multiple bags. The food on that flight was fairly questionable, and I didn’t manage to sleep, but by the time we touched down, all we cared about was not being in an airplane or an airport.
I’ll report my impressions on UB when I’ve had time to see a little more of it, but for now, here’s the tl;dr summary in numbers:
Total travel time (from leaving my house to arriving at the dorm in UB): 38 hours
Flying time: 21 hours
Sleep managed: 7 hours
Peanut/pretzel packages: at least 10
Cups of coffee: 1
Cups of tea: 5
Waterbottle refills: 3
The take-home lessons:
- Transferring through Beijing takes more than 2 hours
- Airline food is miserable, no matter where you’re going.
- Don’t fly to Ulaanbaatar on a lark; it’s not worth it.
- US carriers give you black tea; Chinese carriers, green.