Overland Asia Diary #7: The Mysteries of Chinese Airlines

Despite many years of working in the airline industry, the unique and often baffling rules of airlines will never fail to surprise me. On arrival into Bangkok airport we were told, in no uncertain terms, that we were to pay another five thousand baht in overweight baggage fees.

I checked our ticket, then again the flashing red display – 15kg of luggage, exactly what we had. Needless to say, this was a confusing predicament to be in.

After some more prodding and general inquisitiveness, it turned out that with this particular airline, everything you carry-on is counted in this figure. As a frequent traveller I’m pretty good at maintaining two things = the weight of my check in luggage, and the size of my carry-on. Those are the standard, defining points for every flight I’ve ever caught – every one except for this one.

Flying from Bangkok to Chengdu
The flight from Bangkok, Thailand to Chengdu, China.

So, as she patiently explained once more, we were around 20 kilograms overweight, and the fee would be 280 baht per kilogram. After some more re-shuffling, reconsidering if we might want to get rid of anything, and generally questioning this unusual new rule, the check-in agent eventually remembered that although this included all our carry-on bags, it actually was not to include our wallets, laptops, phones and electronics. After removing everything we could possibly get away with to meet the new rules, we were left with only a small amount of excess to pay and a complicated procedure of many different desks, receipts and countersigning to attend to before having our passports returned. But perhaps this was just a warm up for what was to come.

On boarding, we were to discover that we were the only foreigners on board this all-Chinese flight to Chengdu, in the Sichuan region of China. As the focal point of entertainment for this event, we garnered many inquisitive stares and smiles from small children. As the flight unfolded, we came to learn that only the most important of in-fight PA’s were recorded into English, and that in any case they should just play us the ‘in case of turbulence’ PA as a general translation for whatever was happening.

Planes in China are a curious affair, with rules and customs unlike any other. Mobile phones are not permitted to be switched on during any point of a light – flight mode or not, and the inflight meal options in a class of their own with dried squid, pumpkin porridge, and a few particularly mysterious options that are not only unrecognisable from their image, but unlike the rest, don’t even offer a written translation.

After the novelty of playing us an English announcement periodically wore off,  the rest of the 3 hours was spent in almost constant loud Mandarin with no break, and no translation. A young Chinese flight attendant stood up the front and patiently described, demonstrated & marketed each item from the duty free catalogue, one by one, punctuated occasionally by a brief recorded English reminder about turbulence, just to make us feel included. This lasted the entire duration of the flight – an unusual welcome to a new and very foreign land.

Our arrival into Chengdu was a rather nippy 8 degrees, and we were taken on a long shuttle bus ride to the terminal. After quickly filling out my arrival card, I  ducked over to the bathroom a few meters away. When I got back, I discovered my bag & passport sitting unattended at the table & everybody was gone. Simply another baffling moment amidst a series of mysterious events. Flo was gone. In fact, everyone was gone. I wasn’t entirely sure whether to feel annoyed that he had simply abandoned my belongings, or concerned that he had been abducted.

Nighttime streetviews in Chengdu, China
Nighttime streetviews in Chengdu, China. Photo by Flo

It turns out the customs officers had descended and he had been left with little choice other than to leave without me. I discovered this once the customs officer was finished yelling loudly and repeatedly in Mandarin, and had finished processing my arrival with a look of complete contempt.

But, in the end we got through fine, baggage in tact and into China.

Taxi drivers tried to coerce us out, but after a quick ATM hunt, we got out 10 yuan tickets into the city and hopped on the bus, once again as the only tourists, and with only a vague glimmer of hope as to where this bus might take us. The drive was a movie set in modern day Tokyo – everything in foreign script, flashing lights, neon signs and just for a touch of China, the bus driver riding the horn the whole way. By sheer luck, we were dropped off vaguely in the center of the city, and walked in the cool air through the downtown Chengdu, admiring the amazing buildings and Asian-ness of it all. Very clean, very relaxed. Nothing like I’d expected.

Once we had completed the expert challenge that involved finding our hotel, we unpacked our things and set out for a late-night dinner. Sichuan cuisine has fascinated me for a long time, and as a lover of particularly spicy food I was hoping to find myself in food heaven. We settled on a small restaurant nearby with an illegible menu (as they would all be), a friendly group of men sitting who welcomed us in, and a hostile, female owner who was clearly not to happy about our arrival. We used our translation app as best as possible and settled on ordering what turned out to be a delicious plate of green peppers and pork on rice. A little spicy and very tasty, but we were clearly imposing and ate quickly to get out of her way.

It was a bizarre but not unpleasant welcome into China, and it was definitely time for bed. I was certain there would be many more unusual things to explore in the days that would follow.

 

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