summer love blooms / in the dead heart of winter
December 2007
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BEIJING CAPITAL AIRPORT // and farcing your way thru the air in china

s u m m e r + l o v e

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» Day One: Beijing Capital Airport
» Day Two: Vietnamese Fruits
» Day Three: Christmas in Vietnam
» Day Four: Vietnam Costs
» Day Five: Mui Ne
» Day Fourtenn: Nanning (Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region) to Beijing and Seoul (Girl Hunting)
Day Two Hundred and Forty Three: Thai Girls

Asian Attractions

Suwon, South

Suwon, South Korea

Akihabara Maid

Akihabara Maid Cafes, Japan

The Gods of
Hinduism -- Buddha

Bollywood India

Air China - Air China Meals - Chinese Beer is the Worst in the World - Couch Surfing China - Do You Need A Transit Visa? - Flying into Beijing Airport - Getting the Run Around in Transit - Half the Things in China Are Broken - Sleep In Beijing Airport - Star Alliance - Transit Woes

I have got a new girlfriend down in Vietnam and I aim to see her a lot this year, up to 5 times if I can swing it. Since I live in Japan and Air China is pretty much the cheapest carrier between Tokyo and Ho Chi Minh, I expect to rack up plenty of air miles in the Chinese skies this year and beyond (and if I am smart I will monetise them before carbon taxes start kicking in.) Given that Air China offers the cheapest routes, I expect to become a frequent flyer in the lead up to the Olympics, and hopefully an old hand by the end of the decade. I expect I will get to know Beijing's Capital Airport (北亰) very well as this relationship develops. I have always wanted to visit China, and today I made my first acquaintances. It was a grim and gray day as I headed east to Tokyo's Narita Airport, to board my Air China flight. I had spent half the previous night packing and ironing, chores which had taken longer than I had anticipated; I set my alarm for about 8.30am. It was raining when I arrived at Yawata Station, where I hooked up with the train to Narita. I didn't care about the rain, and had dumped my umbrella en route -- where I was going I didn't need it. After a drizzly hour or so the train pulled into the labrynthe tunnels beneath Narita Airport, and I slipped into the men's room to do what you do. All the other passengers tramped off to the departures, up a couple of flights of escalators. Before too long it felt like I was the only soul in the place, down in the toilets with a mile of platform in front and behind me.

Nonetheless, Tokyo remains a gray city, and it was a cold winter's day -- perfect weather for me to escape to my colorful tropical new home away from home away from home in Vietnam! I spent a couple of hours in the airport, checking in and checking out the shops and generally hyping up. Moments before take off the sun bounded out, and for the first time ever, I was stunned with a Tokyo urban flyover in weather clear enough to enjoy it. The Japanese capital opened up like a circuit board in the midwinter shine, a gray sprawl studded with concrete mansions, ringed by ring roads, plowed by a snake's nest of tsunami proofed rivers and their floodplains. (Which, incidentally, are given over to baseball and sometimes even cricket fields in Japan.) Following the course of the rivers with my eyes to see if I could recognise them, memories surged into my mind (via a fairly convoluted path of free association) of my days hanging out with Maniac High in the summer, how I kissed that girl in the pool at Yomiuri Land. But me and Maniac High had parted ways, and in a sense, it felt this flyover closed the page on that chapter of my life. A new era had come, and its epicenter was in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Beach Babes, VietnamBeach Babes, Vietnam

I had been waiting half of 2007 for this chance to get back to Vietnam and see Nga, ever since I had met her in Ho Chi Minh City in March, and then gotten to know her over the Internet and via other remote technology. It was what Hollywood might have called a "cute meet", back in the Golden Age: I met her one night at Allez Boo where she worked. I talked to her for a while and then said I had to go check my email. Apparently mishearing me (or was it wishful thinking?), she immediately wrote her email address and gave it to me -- she must have thought I had asked for it. I went back to Allez Boo to see her a few more nights and it was obvious the chemistry sizzled. What lousy luck it was that I couldn't live in Vietnam and get to know her further! But I did promise to fly down to see her again as soon as possible, and that gave me something to look forward to. It was no problem accumulating the cash; I had some good new jobs in Japan. But then Fate started throwing all manner of absurd obstacles in my way, to prevent me from seeing Nga. I moved house to Edogawa Ward in east Tokyo, and it ended up costing me a lot more money than I expected. Even more absurdly, I got arrested in Tokyo and spent over two weeks in custody with Maniac High, a Kiwi Ninja whose Ninja skills didn't do either of us much good, in running away from the cops. I thought at that time, as the cell doors slammed shut, and I shunted into my brightly lit room like a lost lamb, that all my chances with Nga were over. I was a goner: deportation was the best thing that could happen to me. I even asked my lawyer to send Nga a line, but he seemed to think it was inappropriate. After vast expanses of boredom and captivity and sitting on the floor in Kitazawa Police Station reading crappy novels, hellish bus trips about town in handcuffs and walking the chain gang down scuffed and gray corridors, up and down endless flights of stairs, and here and there the odd spot of interrogation at the Public Prosecutor's office, abruptly one sunny day the doors swung open, and I was free. Not exactly free to see Nga just yet, but at least free to start saving for it, and the euphoria was overwhelming. The first couple of weeks after getting out, I thought I could do anything, achieve anything -- anything was possible. But still I hankered to get down to Vietnam and start fulfilling my destiny there. By the end of the year I had repaid my debts and accumulated enough capital, to make my flight. Air China was the cheapest option I could afford.

Photo copyright Airline Meals Net It should be quite obvious that nobody flies Air China for the comfort and the luxury, and certainly not for what the Japanese would call gurume cuisine. Air China has long suffered a reputation for poor service and even poorer inflight nourishment, and in my limited experience doing the Vietnamese love run, this sufferance seems well earned. My first encounter with Air China cuisine came about an hour into the flight, in the deep blue of the afternoon, somewhere high above the Japanese Alps. I had been following the progress of our flight from my window, from the circuit boards of Tokyo to the amazing, beautiful, jagged snowheaped mountains which soared beneath me now. I was reading the business pages of The China Daily or something, and feeling like a jetsetter. And then dinner came, and my euphoria collapsed. Lukewarm instant noodles which hovered on the verge of edibility. This was accompanied by a truly shocking watery Chinese beer (see the following section Chinese Beer is the Worst in the World for more details.) But one run does not constitute an airline, and on other flights, the food was significantly better. Flying from Beijing to Nanning in southern China later that night, I enjoyed a box of beautiful steamed gyouza style dumplings, just like the dumplings we dined upon at Tokyo University Open Day, when I was with Chie and we were hanging out with the Chinese students there. Now me and Chie have parted ways and I have a new epicenter of romantic affection, and that epicenter is in Vietnam. (Hence my ridiculously early morning stop in Nanning...) Flying Beijing to Tokyo on the way home (January 5 2008), I chose duck with rice. It wasn't sensational, but it wasn't that bad either. And how often do you get the chance to dine on duck, in economy class on an international flight?

So I reckon it is hard to diss Air China for poor food, when poor food seems to afflict the entire airline industry these days. The best precaution is education. If you are going to be flying into Beijing or Nanning or another city in China on Air China and want to know what the food will be like, check out this site. The resource features tonnes of reviews of airline meals written by passengers and accompanied by photos (such as the Oriental number located directly above.) Flying from Hong Kong to Peking, Steven Roberts dined on a dinner of beef with rice, tofu, and chinese cabbage, and described the meal as exceeding his expectations! Flying from Shanghai Hongqiao to Beijing Capital Airport in April 2006, Jonathan Kang consumed a curry bun and orange juice for breakfast. He rated it 7.5 out of 10. On the other hand, all Silvio Rebmann got for dinner on his flight from Beijing to Xian was fruit and a small bag of mixed nuts. "For a 2 Hours First Class Flight absolutly terriblly! The Fruits was very fresh but this was nut the meal I have expected," wrote Silvio, who rated the meal as a 2.

There are plenty of things to knock about Japan but one thing they do right, and that is that they make decent beer. The same thing goes for Thailand and Singapore. In Vietnam and Nepal they won't pretend that their native beers are hot, so they will serve you foreign beers instead (in the case of Vietnam, Tiger Beer is a favorite.) The full Yangjing range courtesy of AliBaba -- the beer I guzzled on the plane was the little blue number on the left In China, however, and on Air China flights in particular, they seem compelled (perhaps out of nationalist zeal) to serve up their own crappy, tasteless beverages. In particular, they serve beers from the Beijing Yanjing Brewery Co Ltd, which is an Olympics sponsor. If you find yourself feeling thirsty on an Air China flight, do yourself a favor. Don't drink the beer. Have a glass of wine instead.

As Steve on the Opinionated Beer Page writes (concerning in particular the Red Dragon Light brand, but in general brewing in the Middle Kingdom): "Normally, I stay away from Chinese beer. Not that I hate the Chinese....on the contrary, their food is great, and they have excellent Olympic athletes in gymnastics and diving. They just really really suck at making beer. Nothing personal, they just can't make a decent, drinkable beer. But then again, neither can the French or a certain brewing conglomerate in St Louis, Missouri. This beer once again solidified my beliefs in Chinese beer. It was in the fridge of one of those bars that carries about 100 bottles, and it was sitting with only half the lable visible, right next to Red Stripe (and it was a little dark). So, my first thought was, it was Dragon Light, related to Dragon Stout, a sister beer of Red Stripe. WRONG! No such thing! This was Red Dragon Light, a crappy Chinese beer (sorry, that's redundant, like Smelly French and "That whiny piece of crap Eric Lindros"). I was drinking it with my co-workers, and they all laughed at the really wrinkled face I made. This must be what that guy in the Keystone commercials drank (Ahhh, bitter beer face!). They all then wanted a taste, so it went around the table, where they all made similar Elephant Man-like faces. Worth the price of the bottle. By the time it made it back to me, it was 2/3 empty, so that was a bonus. The moral of this story is, Eric Lindros is a whiny piece of crap. Who probably drinks Chinese beer (Canadian beer would probably give him another concussion)."

Ambassador Sestito, a Chinaman at large, had this to say about flying into Beijing city: "Approaching Beijing airport is a real treat for a number of reasons. First, you get a Bird's eye view of all the construction, including the airport itself, not to mention a unique perspective on Hutongs. Second, people from all over the world, speaking any number of languages. For me, it was the first time in three months since I heard a live native English speaker. My reaction was similar to that when I heard Japanese - super pumped, amazed, actually. Third, after being used to the way people behave here, I got a chance to look at my people (whatever that means) through the same lens as locals. For example, one guy talking loud on his cell phone about deals he "can't talk about now because there's people around" was a little annoying. Maybe the Chinese couldn't understand, but for me SUPAA UZAI! Well, come to think of it, the Chinese talk loud on their cells, too, but I can't understand so it's not really annoying.

"I forgot to mention, I was sitting next to a Chinese guy on the flight from Chengdu to Beijing. He looked a little uncomfortable, like he didn't fly often. How do I know this look? Because I had the same look. I'm better than I used to be, but like him, I once gripped the arm rests during take-off, and read the in-flight magazines repeatedly in an attempt to ignore that pesky turbulence. Anyway, it reminded me of what an honor it is to fly, how lucky I am, how powerless and vulnerable I am on those planes. To go between two different worlds in the matter of hours is, perhaps, one of the greatest privileges some of us are afforded in our lifetime..."

Here is my own experience -- December 23 2007, just before I met my beloved in Vietnam: "A dream approach with a full bright moon and a sky of deep midwinter blue. This was my introduction to China: December 23 2007. That really was a vast city spread out beneath me, a sea of neon in all directions. Rice fields shimmered in cold moonlight. But what was all these flickering lights, these spluttering lights, like fluroscent lamps flailing around and failing to reach critical mass and ignite? It wasn't a deliberate effect, like an Olympic lightshow; the lights were flickering too randomly (and annoyingly) for that. And then it dawned on me at that moment that 10 to 20 per cent of the street lights in Beijing are out of order, and flutter on and off erratically, all night long. I was soon to realise that a lot of the things in China are out of order. Like the toilet doors in the airport which don't quite securely lock, and can easily be kicked open from the outside. Or take for example the bizarre system for transit passengers, which involved me going out of the terminal into the taxi scrum, before going back in to get my connect. To my love. Quite confusing and I didn't really get what was going on. Nonetheless, the staff were friendly, and that was a big plus, bigger than the staff themselves could know."

That old traveller's Bible Sleep in Airports has reviewed Beijing Capital Airport as a potential free hotel, and declared: "What you can look forward to: cold, loud and frequent announcements, comfortable sofas in the Irish Bar." One overnighter, Saul, wrote: ""If you are stranded in Beijing International Airport overnight, go upstrais and sllep in the comfortanle sofas of the Irish Bar. It is dark, you don't ven to buy drinks and nobody will disturb you until 0530 in the morning..." One a more comic note (tragicomic being one thing the Chinese are masters of), another visitor wrote: "This was our 2-3 time in Beijing since I live in China I come here a few times but I hate it everytime. We were delayed from about 8:20pm to 3am in the morning. There was a rain delay for everyone around China I think. Anyway, we were the first to be delayed but the last ones to leave. The Chinese passengers started to get angry since the airport people were so untrained and did not know what to tell people, the Chinese passengers started a small disturbance, not a riot, just yelling and threatening the airport/airline staff and throwing things at them and breaking things. Next thing I know there are about 12 policeman coming in to control the disturbance and calm the passengers and after that they finally found us an airplane to leave on."

I have already pointed out that when I arrived in Beijing Capital Airport on December 23 2007 for the first of hopefully many visits, I was en route to a dose of summer love (in the cruel heart of winter) in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. En route means in transit, and in transit usually means staying inside, when it comes to airports. Usually when you are flying and you stop somewhere en route to somewhere else, you don't even go outside. You get a new boarding pass, you go sit in the comfy transit lounge, poke around some shops or maybe grab a bite to eat. You know the deal -- being in transit is usually a breeze, in most parts of the world at least. But China is not like most other parts of the world, and they have their own logic which we barbarians from the Lower Kingdoms will never understand. When I arrived in Beijing for my 3-or-so-hour layover, I was so confident that I was destined for a comfy transit lounge, that I had dressed in only a light shirt and jeans (even though I knew it would be subzero outside.) Now I know the truth, this is the truth I want to proclaim: transiting in China is hella work, and confusing. You need a visa to transit through China. You need to stand in a lot of queues and fill out forms and get Xrayed. It is not worth the aggravation if you can avoid it. This is what happened to me.

In a sense though I was expecting aggravation, and in the weeks before my summer loving trip, I had been concerned about what was required of me as a transit passenger in China. The information available on the Internet was often contradictory, and prompted more new questions than it answered existing ones. The general tangent seemed to be if you were British or American, you needed to get a transit visa for China, and such visas costed up to $200! For Australians like myself transit visas were not necessary but you never know, and I was not satisfied. There were a couple of horror stories on the Internet of passengers refused boarding on to their flights because they were not holding a valid transit visa for the Middle Kingdom. I was so worried about the issue, I even trekked out to the Chinese Embassy near Hiro in Tokyo, a cold concrete fortress buzzing with police. I asked some woman inside: "I am Australian, I will be stopping in Beijing for a couple of hours on the way to Vietnam later this month... do I need a transit visa?" She said no, and after further questioning, she claimed that Americans and British did not need transit visas either. That could be indeed the truth; in Chinese airspace I sat beside a young Englishman and an American, and neither of them said they had obtained transit visas before transiting China, from Japan to their destination in Vietnam. They were the first pair of humans I have ever met, who dared play 20 Questions in public. I thought they might have been gay, but as it turns out, they were just young. What kind of guy goes on holiday with a guy? -- when you could go on holiday with a girl and romp it home with her, repeatedly, in your hotel room? That was what I thought at the time. We were flying south, over the heartlands of China, towards the booming southern city of Nanning. I didn't need a transit visa, but one had been provided me. But I thought: why are Chinese so anal when it comes to visas? Why do they need to constantly check your paperwork? (For more information about Chinese visas, visit this Shanghai Expats forum.

Anyway, to backtrack just a tad -- upon my arrival at Beijing Capital Airport en route to Vietnam I was expecting a comfy stay in a transit lounge, and was dressed lightly in spite of the nearzero chill outdoors. Little did I know that I would soon find myself out the front of the airport surrounded by taxi drivers attempting to whisk me to some hotel, in my light shirt and airline ticket and passport still in my hands. What kind of airport makes you LEAVE the premises when you stop there in transit, only to be allowed back inside (to go through all the queueing and Xraying and passport procedures a second time)? Beijing Capital Airport is one such place, at least if you are en route to Vietnam. I spent all of my time at Beijing Airport just wandering from place to place, asking where transit passengers should go. The staff, though friendly, seemed unable to help. As Airline Equality's Lars Larsson said: "Beijing Airport is quite comfortable. However, it is the worst airline in the world for both arrivals and departures, in particular for foreigners. Hours in the line to get to your gate and hours through customs on arrival. I know many people that look for alternative destinations in China to avoid this. My view -- if this does not change dramatically within short, the face of Beijing will be hurt severely -- for all the wrong reasons."

Lars Larsson knows the truth -- Beijing Capital Airport is hell for anyone who dislikes waiting in lines, or getting the run around, or generally wasting time. Perhaps one of the reasons Air China tickets are so cheap, is all the stress that comes from transiting through or arriving in or departing from Beijing Capital Airport. But an hour in a jumpy queue is only an hour, and it can be worth it if you are on your way to greater glories. Which indeed I was -- in the great city of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam! And this was only Day One, of my Twelve Day Summer Loving Special!

Previous: Vietnam Girls -- Next: Vietnamese Fruits

SECOND TIME AROUND (JUNE 28 2009) // back in beijing
CONTRARY TO MY ESTIMATIONS, IT WAS TO BE A LONG TIME BEFORE I MADE IT BACK TO BEIJING. I made it back to Vietnam okay, I just didn't get to fly Air China. I had a nice stopover in multiethnic Singapore in April and May 2008, and rocking Thailand in August and September. After that I got my bank account seized by the Taito City tax office, and was plunged into a long wilderness of repaying bills. Tokyo winter skies just as bleak and blue as they were always were.

Beef and radish and rice -- the beer I guzzled was a Bud

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