Thursday, January 05, 2012

Slow times at Beijing International

Because I was bored, I threw away my dignity and allowed my passport to be scanned in exchange for free wireless access at the Beijing airport. Hence, I can complain, albeit with some hypocrisy for my complicity in the process, about the Kafkan process of transferring in airport that was neither designed to accept international passengers, nor does it want them. The experience, as I learned in Shanghai almost a year ago to the day, varies widely, and it varied this time as well, but it's ad hoc, bizarre and annoying.

For example, the arrival card that I needed in Shanghai but not in Beijing (naturally, I was given one on the plane in Beijing, but not Shanghai), allows "visit", "visiting friends or relatives", and "sightseeing/in leisure" as a purpose of visit. Also included are "return home", "settle down" and "others", which I hope make more sense in Chinese than they do in English. However, transferring is not an option, so it makes sense that they've waived this requirement.

The airport itself, which seems grotesquely oversized despite what anyone might tell you, since I've always breezed through when not transferring, has gotten more formal. There are still the crappy "duty free" shops selling items you might find at a chain convenience store anywhere else in the outside world (China being no exception), but the restaurants seem to be getting better. I see a Starbucks and a Pizza Hut where I didn't see one last year, and the number of extortionist cafes selling $5 instant coffee seems to have gone down.

Still, it's more or less a case of buying new furniture for the deck of the Titanic. China is increasingly becoming an attractive destination to transfer, going from invisible to relatively common, but you really do give up your dignity when you come through this airport. I still think it's preferable to going through Narita, which says something about how unpleasant that airport is, but the shopping options are limited and overpriced, the food is awful, costs between two and five times what it does elsewhere, and it's remarkably hard to find something in this airport that was designed for human consumption. China must truly be pulling out all the stops in prices to get people to come here, though to be fair, you might have to look at its competitors.

For a flight going from Seoul to Toronto or vice versa, the three most common layovers in my experience have been Beijing, Tokyo and Vancouver. I hate transferring in Canada, America or Japan it's like going through the entire paranoid security theatre process again. Yes, that's right, Canada, America and Japan are out-paranoid-ing the Chinese Communist Party. When you have a stopover in, say, Minneapolis, you have to go through US customs, collect your checked luggage, check it, and then go through security one more time so that they can dig up the empty bottle of water you bought after your previous liquid bogeyman check. Beijing, on the other hand, does have liquid bogeyman check for transferring passengers, but spares them the ordeal of collecting their luggage just to re-check it.

As for the city itself, the fog, smog, pollution or whatever you want to call is thick today. The city was invisible until a comparatively low altitude, and it didn't just become visible, but it was a blurry mess once the plane went under the clouds. When the Asiana flight landed, the trees at the other end of the runway (1-3 km?) weren't entirely visible. Data from the US embassy here puts the air quality index at 163, which is in the "unhealthy" range of 150-200 according to the EPA, and is far beyond the 0-50 range that is considered good, though it's hardly at the "crazy bad" levels that have generated so much controversy.

What I've always found remarkable for this airport, perhaps unique in any airport I've been to, is the gap between the building and the people. Granted, there are bad airports in nice places, but I think there are few airports that are as spotless as this one, with employees that are as coarse. You will seldom find anybody who speaks even broken English, and you will know this because they will say "okay, yes, okay" midway through a question like "do you have any--". Employees match a North American airport for their causal approach to their job which, in essence, amounts to being a public menace of sort, one that has probably wasted enough money and person hours to be considered a terrorist unto themselves.

I think anyone who has ever been here will know that the best people are the ones who don't speak English, whether you're in the airport or outside of it. I've been openly hostile to anybody who tries to start a conversation in English, and I know that I'm not the only one. One common point between them is that they seek to part you with your money, whether it's through a rickshaw ride or tea ceremony near Tiananmen Square or a $5 bottle of water at the airport. Naturally, there are far better opportunities for anyone who speaks conversational English than to be a cashier selling $90 t-shirts from a no-name brand at a "duty free", which is why we get the people that we do at the airport. More than other cities, then, Beijing is one that should only be experienced far, far from the airport.

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