The Beijing Narrative: Fresh And Very Hong Kong

This will be the first in my week-long trip report to China, namely Hong Kong, Tianjin and Beijing. While I wasn’t able to post on the day themselves, I did mini blog on my iPhone 4’s Notes. To follow my train of thought, I suggest you read them in chronological order. Without further ado, here goes…

Hot off the heels from my trip to Shanghai just three months ago, I was eager to plan a year-end trip. My pay had been increased only marginally, but it was enough to allow me the luxury to fly every three to four months. I was very interested in doing secondary cities like Fukuoka, Nagoya, Osaka, Busan and Taipei. However, the fares were surprisingly steep – it was cheaper to fly to major cities such as Beijing and Tokyo, and for the fares to Taipei, the latter two cities were far more value for money! There were a few plans I had with friends including one with Elly to take advantage of “two-to-go” fares, and something with Titus but they didn’t pan out.

Originally, I planned to go in the middle of November to take advantage of the early winter climate that has been denied to me since almost ten years ago. However, as usual, my bosses were slow to get back to me which weeks were not as busy. Then one fine day in mid-October, they told me that the next two weeks would be a “good time” to go. As you can imagine, I went into panic mode, and scrambled to my desk to decide which city I oughta go. In the end, I chose Beijing primarily for two reasons – I’d be able to fly on one of the world’s youngest full-service carriers, Hong Kong Airlines and secondly, the weather in Beijing was cooling faster than Tokyo’s. I did wonder whether it was a mistake, because I booked my tickets and hostel only a mere 5 days before departure! Now that I think about it, I must’ve been absolutely crazy to do it, or desperate to leave – one or the other.

Fast forward to the day of departure. It was midnight. Self-imposed deadlines at work meant that I had just finished packing, and worse yet, my mind was still full of activity. I was really feeling the weight of the world on my shoulders, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. As I sat at my staircase and smoked the night away, I began wondering to myself, “What the hell was I thinking?” The text exchanges with Terrance definitely helped a lot, and steer me back into calmness and solace. Very slowly, I droned into slumberland… but barely, as my iPhone alarm sprang to life half an hour later.

My parents insisted on dropping me off at the airport, and quite honestly, I was too tired to argue. I had timed to leave my house at five in the morning, and I estimated that my ride should take only half an hour. Now, that’s not a reasonable assumption. I’m not sure if he did on purpose, but my father drove so slowly, and allowed every single vehicle to overtake. Hong Kong Airlines still doesn’t allow for online check-in, and good seats are imperative for a longer flight such as this – I needed to be there early… So I texted my mother who was sitting in front of me, but no improvement. I was going to be majorly pissed if I was given an aisle seat. When we reached Terminal 2 at slightly after 6.15am, it was already thriving with activity. The Silkair counters particularly, were bustling with people. There were also people checking in for the ANA flight to Narita, and the Transasia flight to Taipei, and quite a few Chinese airlines. I thought it was quite interesting that that they chose GE 888/889 for Singapore, because the flight numbers (with 8 in them) are more frequently used for prestige routes to Hong Kong and China.

Check-in was, however, slow. The check-in agent, no doubt a newbie, initially told me she couldn’t check my bags through to Beijing, and that I had to reclaim my bags in Hong Kong and check-in there. I shot back at her and told her that this isn’t some budget airline, and that she should tag my bags to Beijing in a raised voice. She scurried somewhere, took a while, then came back, tore my luggage tag for Hong Kong, and attached a new one through to Beijing. She didn’t say a word, nor look at me, and handed me my passport and boarding passes. I wanted to fault the airline, but in Changi Airport, almost every airline’s check-in are performed by third-party agents. It was just a poor showing on Changi Airport’s service standard and professionalism.

After a quick breakfast at McDonald’s with my mother (the other man was nowhere to be found), I quickly entered airside and headed for my gate. One thing that hit me about Terminal 2 is that it’s decidedly more claustrophobic and less spacious than both Terminals 1 and 3, and the Budget Terminal. The ceiling is lower, and the pixellating carpet patterns that work perfectly in the spaciousness of Terminal 1 and 3 had the opposite effect over here. Once you leave the confines of the main commercial area of duty free stores and restaurants, you enter the gate concourse areas which projects a comfort and atmosphere that I can only describe as a cross between Ju-On’s Saeki House and a dimly-lit hospital after visiting hours.

Although many countries appreciate Changi’s approach of doing security at the gate, as an aviation fan, I don’t quite like it. It’s hard to get nice pictures of aircraft, which is a real pity because in recent years, it has become more interesting to spot planes here as there are a greater variety of aircraft and airlines to spot than yesteryear.

Hong Kong Airlines
HX 784
Scheduled: Singapore 0800 – 1150 Hong Kong

Actual: Singapore 0820 – 1200 Hong Kong
Aircraft: Boeing 737-800

Here in Southeast Asia, the Boeing 737 has virtually been vaporized off airline’s fleet as we entered the 21st Century. Once in the fleet of almost every airline, the region is now mostly dominated by the Airbus A320. Today, only Garuda Indonesia, Malaysia Airlines and Lion Air remain operators of the B737. So when the opportunity came for me to ride the aircraft, I jumped at it. And boy was I disappointed. The market recognizes that the B737 and A320 are perfect substitutes, but as a passenger, I really noticed the difference. The B737 is slightly narrower (this is most apparent at the aisle where ANYBODY or trolleys going down the aisle will DEFINITELY hit the seats on the side), and the windows are a tad lower than on the A320. As a pretty tall person (I’m 1.76cm), it made for an uncomfortable journey. Having said that, it’s still relatively okay for a short hop such as this.

One area airlines have spoiled us is in the area of inflight entertainment. I can only imagine that it must be disappointing for passengers who paid a lil’ extra expecting more legroom, meals and inflight entertainment, and not actually getting it with this flight. I wasn’t too concerned, because I wanted to fly this particular aircraft for the experience, plus my other three sectors will be on bigger, more comfortable Airbus A330s with inflight entertainment.

I booked Hong Kong Airlines and its sister carrier Hong Kong Express with high expectations. The airlines are after all, 45% owned by Hainan Airlines, which was recently awarded SkyTrax’s 5-star status, a prestige for any airline, I’m sure. However, this flight thoroughly disappointed me. Maybe it was a test or somethin’, but the clearly senior and more professional crew gave one particular crew, clearly more junior and inexperienced than the rest, the most exposure to the passengers. She was clearly stressed, and it showed in her work. She’d forget certain things, such as applying the brakes on the trolley which consequently slided to an aisle passenger, pour a near-empty mineral water to a cup hoping it’d be enough… I couldn’t decide whether it was cute, laughable or just a poor showing… but it was utterly disappointing.

After the meal (which was classic SATS… not great, not terrible either), I just plugged in my earphones and listened to my own music. Not before long, it was time to land… Just as well, I was cravin’ me some Hong Kong food! With just a very light hand-carry, and no luggage to pick-up and tug around, entering Hong Kong was one of the easiest and most seamless ports I’ve walked through. You exit the baggage claim and walk straight directly to the Airport Express train station – simple, easy and absolutely fuss-free! Within 20 minutes, I was in the heart of Hong Kong, quite literally, at Central.

Hong Kong’s one of the few places on the planet that I’m quite willing, at a moment’s notice, to relocate if given a career opportunity. I’m not blind to the social problems Hong Kong faces, but I am just addicted to the energy and vitality of the city over there.

Now some photos whilst in Hong Kong.

The 23 to 26 deg C weather was just wonderful. Not too hot, not too cold – absolutely enjoyable. Alas, good things don’t last long, and I’m not too sure if my image of Hong Kong would be tainted had I stayed longer. (It probably wouldn’t, but anyways…) After walking around Central and Causeway Bay, it was time to head back to the airport. I was actually tipped off by the growing darkness of day – I mean, it’s not anything I should be surprised about, but it was becoming really dark very fast. By the time, I hopped onto the Airport Express at Central-Hong Kong station at 5.20pm, much of my journey was nearing twilight.

Going through security, I became infatuated with the security agent. He looked exactly like Jsen, except this guy was much better looking, cuter and hunkier. Before you raise flags with me, I oughta let you know I’m the type of person who’ll always have feelings for people I had, or nearly had romantic liaisons with (despite what I might say otherwise), with the exception of my second ex. People like… Anson, Jeremy, Jsen, Andy… there’ll always be a part of me that’ll love them, always. I spent much of my remaining time at the airport’s PageOne outlet, which was magazine nirvana! I bought a few for my reading pleasure. 45 minutes before departure time, I began to make my way to the gate.

Thinking back, none of my flights departed nor arrived on time. Our plane arrived late from Singapore, and hence, boarding was also late. However, the turnaround was less than 40 minutes. Qantas claims it can’t use its Airbus A330 aircraft for its CityFlyer high-frequency shuttle Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane flights, but I think today, Hong Kong has proven them that when there’s a will, there’s a way. Passengers were calm, ready and was queueing for boarding barely 10 minutes after the aircraft arrived.

Hong Kong Express operated by Hong Kong Airlines
Flight: UO 304/HX 8304/HU 8160
Scheduled: Hong Kong 2015 – 2320 Beijing Capital
Actual: Hong Kong 2040 – 0015 Beijing Capital
A330-200

The difference in service was like day and night. The cabin crew were clearly more cheery, chatty, friendly, relaxed and overall, happier in general. You’re not just welcomed aboard “Hong Kong Airlines” (note that the flight is a Hong Kong Express flight number but the aircraft is Hong Kong Airlines), you’re welcomed aboard “Hong Kong Airlines Airbus A330”! Passengers too seemed to be in good spirits – a lot of laughter and light, nice conversations all around – ultimately, it’s the passengers that makes it a great way to fly. Excluding the pre-meal snack and drink, and the meal run, there were four drink runs, which was just nothing short of amazing! Especially when I remember Keidi complaining about doing a single water run in her days at Silkair, so I have real reverence for the crew here, whose commitment and continued genuine emotions to keep passengers happy is very commendable. Even I got into the light mood, and began chatting with my seatmate, an American lady who has been working in Beijing for 8 years now. She recommended some places I oughta visit which I noted down (and regretted subsequently). I guess I should have found it peculiar that she has never visited the Forbidden City nor the Great Wall. Oh well, you learn some.

Our flight routing today took us on a straight line to Beijing, flying Hong Kong-Shaoguan-Wuhan-Zhengzhou-Hefei-Beijing for a supposed flight time of 2 hours, 50 minutes. Ironically, it also takes the same time to fly Hong Kong to Shanghai, where planes are forced to skirt the coast to fly Hong Kong-Shantou-Xiamen-Ningbo-Shanghai, instead of a straight line distance. China’s strange like that. Publicly, China loves to blame increasing passenger numbers and more flights as the sole cause of flight delays. However, the more experience know that the real reason is because the country has designated unproportionately more airspace to the PLA Air Force, causing commercial jets to fly saturated and overcrowded narrow air routes. In addition, runway use is not efficient either – airports worldwide usually dedicate one runway for landing, and one for taking off, particularly during peak hours. In China, planes take off and land from the same runway regardless – departure and arriving aircraft separation distances are different. With every second critical, it causes a domino effect – every second wasted adds a minute of delay.

The inflight system uses Thales, which in my opinion, isn’t the best out there, but it was adequate, and it could definitely keep you engaged for a long-haul flight. I watched Green Lantern, and was glad I didn’t see it in a theatre. Truly, besides Christopher Nolan’s Batman, Warner Bros. and DC Comics really have the worst movies.

When the captain announced our descent, and reported Beijing’s weather to be quite “bad” – “11 deg C and fog visibility of 400 metres”, I was very excited. I mean, I was finally arriving in Beijing! Beijing Capital Airport is Asia’s and the world’s 3rd busiest airport, and handled over 65 million passengers last year, and I was going to experience it first hand! Besides our flight, there were other arrivals bundled together with us including a few China Southern and Hainan Airlines widebodies, an Air Astana flight from Almaty, Ethiopian Airlines from Addis Ababa, Korean Air from Seoul-Incheon, Delta flight from Seattle, and that was just the international flights. So it wasn’t too surprising that immigration, baggage claim and cab queues took a really really long time.

My first sight of the China Southern A380, delivered just days ago. I had to enhance the pictures do clear the fog away.

The taxi queue at Beijing Capital’s Terminal 2 was all kinds of interesting. Taxis would be told to stop along a 3-lane road, and pile-up a maximum of 5 times behind the first cab. Once the police whistled, they’d allow batches of passengers to rush for one of those cabs with your luggage. Now, here are the unofficial house rules. You’re only given two minutes to complete this task. You’re not allowed to wait for the next batch just because you’ve children or too much baggage. If you don’t get to your cab, or at least have your baggage in the boot by the time 2 minutes is up, the progressively constant honks from the taxis impatiently waiting behind will obligate your driver to drive away without you. You’ll be ordered to the back of the queue, which starts 50 metres away, but it snakes around 5 times for a total of 250 metres. If for any reason, you begin arguing with someone, you’re unofficially allowed to have a go at your opponent uninterrupted for 15 minutes. Once that time is up, the police will take you away…

There were a bunch of Chinese travelers arguing away, rather loudly in fact. Then after 15 minutes, the police cars came… and the individuals were taken away, with their luggage left behind. After that, there was an odd calmness, silence, and eerie orderly with the rest of the travelers whom like me, didn’t want any trouble and just behaved. Throughout my time in Beijing, I’d notice people being taken away for disrupting “public order” – subtlely, swiftly and silently, never to be seen again. In fact, one gets the feeling that one is being monitored. At first, it was uneasy, but you learn to get by it. One thing I really appreciate about China is that it’s not oppressive – the censorship and demand for public order – it’s just there.

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