This is part 5 of the start of my epic journey to China.
If you haven’t familiarized yourself with Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, or Part 4 those are probably good places to start. If you click on each on the links above, you’ll be taken directly to the respective pages.
It’ll fill you in on the back story, but as with many things in life, it’s your choice. Knowledge can be power, and overwhelming.
The Next Day
It’s now January 4th, 2018 and day two of my Beijing airport adventure continues. I was able to fall asleep fitfully here and there, waking up every few minutes to change positions on the hard, resin bench that was my bed for the night.
Now you may be wondering why I didn’t get a hotel or push for accommodations. If you’d been through what I’d just been through to get my luggage, the odds of coming out on top to find a place for the night would have been less likely.
If I were any place where I could communicate with the airline staff outside of a few basic words, I absolutely would have made them to accommodate me, forced them to find me a place to rest my weary head.
At that point it was late, I was tired, and the outcome almost certainly wouldn’t have been any different.
There are times when we learn to pick our battles. And times to just let it go. This was a time to let it go.
So I accepted my fate and hunkered down with the other lost souls of Beijing International Airport. I woke up from my last nap around 3 am, bright eyed and bushy tailed. Or at least as bright eyed and bushy tailed as one could expect anyone to be after sleeping on what amounted to rigid slabs of hard material, for 10 to 15 minutes at a time at most.
As an aside, the red neck pillow proved its worth did come in handy.
A well-informed gentleman at the information counter the night prior had let me know that there were indeed earlier flights to my destination, departing at 7:30 am. He couldn’t tell me anymore than that but said the agents from my airline would be on duty at 4 am.
So guess where I ended up at 4 am? Waiting. And yearning.
First in Line.
The agents didn’t show up until 5 am. Apparently the self serve kiosks open 4 hours before the first flight, however the counter agents only start 2 hours before. My flight ticket didn’t allow any self-serve options.
The big benefit to waiting since 4 am – I was the first one in line when the early bird agent had fired up his computer and was ready to go at 5:30 am.
Surprisingly, I wasn’t the first one served.
Some young dude cut in front of me and went directly to the agent as he was setting up. Bypassing me, the only person in the line. The fucker. He and the raisin both, cut from the same cloth. He actually swerved through the human corral gate system that ostensibly was supposed to keep things orderly.
This seems to be the Modus Operandi for lining up and going up to counters here. While I had not quite mastered the Chinese Art of Queuing, I was better prepared. I closed any future gap and only the one interloper was able to get by me.
I still wanted to punch him in the back of the head (the soft, friendly punch of displeasure – you know exactly what I’m talking about, even if you won’t admit it out loud).
The only thing stopping me again was the real life fear of being arrested and shuttled off to an unknown gulag work camp never to be seen again, and without access to my special sulphate-free, curl enhancing hair care products.
Words Have Power.
Virtually infinite power. They can uplift. Or they can decimate.
Always remember this.
On discussion with the man behind the counter, with just a few simple words spoken in halting English, he crushed my hopes and dreams. That’s how powerful his words were – like a razor sharp katana slicing through what little resistance remained inside me. Torn to shreds. A silent, sharp intake of my breath. My shoulders slumped.
At 5:30 am Beijing time, he told me in no uncertain terms that the first available flight to my final destination 900 km away departed at 1 pm.
Another 8 hours at the airport. After already having spent 10 there. With no company other than my own self-pity and desolation.
Lucky the power of positive thinking popped into my greasy head. For every downside, there is often an upside. It may not follow Newton’s 3rd law and the upside may not be equal in its opposition, but it still existed.
With that in mind, guess who was the first guy to check in for that 1 pm flight?
You got it – This Guy!
Earliest Check In
I left nothing to chance and went early to get checked in. With that simple action I created 7 hours and 45 minutes of buffer. Good thing too…
Apparently the luggage people weren’t supposed to take my luggage tags off. Fortunately, this was an easy enough fix. New tags printed. Luggage loaded onto conveyor belt. Things were finally going my way.
I went to the security area, where the staff, under the watchful eyes of the heavily armed soldiers, patted all the important bit thoroughly and tenderly. I made it through with inordinate amounts of time to spare.
Well before my flight was to board, I made my way to the boarding gate and waited there with my phone plugged in to the convenient charging station located between seats.
Apparently this was a popular flight as the area soon filled up with people. A lot of people. It was good thing I got there early otherwise I would have had to be sparring in my use of technology – the plug outlets were limited.
This also made sense as to why it had been so difficult to get an earlier flight. The agent from this morning really wasn’t against me, there actually weren’t any seats available. It wasn’t a conspiracy against me, after all.
Looking out the massive bay windows, I watched as my plane pulled up to gate D14.
There is always something awe-inspiring about seeing a large metallic vehicle lumbering up, knowing that this marvel of engineering was in the air.
Flying. Like a bird without flapping wings.
As the crowd of people deplaned, I watched them all exit, making up stories about each of their journeys in my mind, wondering if any of it was real. Business traveler. Visiting relatives. Connection to a faraway tropical destination. Missed flight and re-booked. Who knows, but it certainly did help pass the time.
Now if you’ve never been to the Beijing international airport, let me tell you – it’s a big ass place with a lot of people. Like an ant hill with constant activity. Motion. Constant. Dizzying almost.
The boarding gate was no different. Except it suddenly felt different.
It was past the start of our boarding time. My first thought was that the plane is being prepped for turnaround. It’s being groomed and cleaned. I know airlines take that seriously. The last thing they need is an Instagram pic or an angry tweet about the soiled nappy that someone found in the magazine holder. Or how all internal surfaces are teeming with deadly bacteria and viruses.
Suddenly, a large number of the people sitting in my boarding area rose up in unison and began to line up at the gate. While in most cases this would be a good thing, this felt off because they were lining up at D13, the conjoined gate.
I followed suit, but something deep inside compelled me to go up to the gate agent and ask the question I didn’t want to ask.
It was a silent question as I merely showed her my boarding pass with my flight info plainly printed.
Then the words. Those powerful words. Crushing.
And the head shake. Side to side. There was no mistaking the two in combination.
She named a city I couldn’t decipher, but I knew it wasn’t the city I was heading to. It was not my final destination.
A babble of words tumbled out of my mouth. All in English. Rapid fire. Words slurring. Falling over each other in their haste to exit. To deconstruct the reality. I had regressed to the same guy that was on the airplane last night, unwilling to believe there were no more chicken available. Only seafood.
She looked at me blankly.
And spoke just a few more words. Powerful words.
“No. Going [Name of Chinese City I couldn’t understand].
More gibberish from me. Babbling. Questions with no answers. No hope of answers. More of my words. Impotent. Powerless.
She turned away from me to continue boarding the passengers who were at the right place, at the right time. To do her job. I could feel all the eyes on me. Quizzical. Questioning. Annoyed. Pitying. They too were making their stories of me in their minds. Just like I had done earlier.
In a fog, I stepped away from the boarding counter, carry-on in tow.
There was that feeling in the pit of my stomach. If I hadn’t been party to the previous events in the past 20 hours or so, I wouldn’t have known what that sensation was, what it represented.
This time, it was stronger. More insistent. Foreign.
Like me being here. In China. In Beijing. At D14. A foreign man in a foreign land.
In what I can only imagine as coming across as crazy man of the jungle confronting civilization that has disturbed him, I set myself upon the roughly half dozen people still sitting in the D14 boarding area.
I approached each one, shakily extending my boarding pass which clearly stated my destination, the time and the gate, D14.
At each one, I was met with that negative head shake. Side to side. They didn’t understand what I wanted. They didn’t understand what set off the crazy in me.
The beads of sweat built up on my furrowed brow, and soaked my shirt underneath the winter jacket I refused to remove in the heavily chilled airport air. The short intakes of breath, my panting, the heaving of my chiselled chest. What they couldn’t see was my pounding pulse, elevated, rapid, unyielding, or the incredible uptick in my blood pressure, pushing against the insides of my head, my brain, my being. A raging river. Ready to overcome its banks.
In each of their eyes I could see it.
They wanted to help but didn’t know how.
Though we were in the same place, at the same time, we were all a world apart.
Meet the Saviour.
He was the last one, sitting farthest away from the boarding gate. He was quite a bit older than everyone else I had approached so far. An elderly gentleman likely in his 70s. I had already counted him out in my mind, stereotyping him as unlikely to be of assistance, but in desperation, I went up to him anyway.
I showed him my boarding pass.
He looked up at me with kindness in his eyes. Or maybe that was imagined. Maybe it was fear. What a sight I must have been.
Whatever I saw became instantly irrelevant when he spoke 3 simple words. In English. Powerful words.
“10. D10. Change.”
The boarding gate had changed and I had no clue.
I was at D14. My new gate was at D10. Only 4 gates away.
Remember, this is not a small airport. This is not a small distance. Usain Bolt had nothing on me. Arms and legs pumping. Blazing fast.
I Saw the Sign.
Through the wind-caused tears in my eyes, I saw it up ahead in bold. D10. My gate.
Then realization struck. There was no line. I didn’t see any agents at the desk. This was not a good sign. Not a good sign at all.
Looking out the window, I saw my plane. That magnificent piece of machinery that defies gravity. The one I should be on. The passenger walkway retracted.
This was an even worse sign.
For the second time in about 10 minutes, the unthinkable happened. My heart sank, again. This time accompanied by panic. A soul encompassing panic. Unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.
I started rushing around looking for anyone who could help me. No one. This is what isolation feels like. This was diabetes personified, but instead of starvation in the midst of plenty, it was isolation.
The Second Saviour.
In my wild-eyed frenzy, I stumbled upon another older man, this one a member of the airport cleaning staff. Stooped over, he looked at me as the words spilled chaotically from my mouth. He didn’t speak any English but lucky for me, distress is universal – he knew, he could tell, that I needed help. He went out of his way, stepped away from his work, and walked me to an info booth, speaking to me in Mandarin the whole time. Softly. Gently. Comforting. Trying to wrap me in his soothing words like a baby swaddled in sheepskin.
The woman at the info both, like most of the people I’d interacted with at this time, only knew a few words of English, said that the plane was gone, that I can’t board, that I would have to go back to the other terminal again and re-book on another flight.
At least that’s the gist of what she said in very few words.
I walked in the direction she pointed to return to the other terminal but couldn’t see where I needed to go to get back on the return train. I ended up back at the info booth. It was as though I was stuck in groundhog day, stuck in an infinite cycle of repetition. A negative feedback loop. Trapped.
After a couple of repeating circuits (funny how under heavy stress we do the same things over and over again, expecting different results…), I finally understood what the woman had been trying to say – I had to take the lift down, and then down again, to get to the shuttle
When I got to the bottom, I didn’t recognize the area as the shuttle train area, so I found a security guard and used Google translate to type in “missed flight”. She understood and pointed out the door to buses. Apparently it was shuttle buses to get back to ticketing from here. On the way to this terminal, it had been a shuttle train.
I got on the first bus while it waited to fill up. I wanted it to hurry, but as always when you’re in a rush, the world isn’t. Stop signs. Red lights. It waited. And waited.
Finally, after an eternity of waiting, of sitting with those feelings, we departed for the terminal. When we arrived at the baggage pick up area, I again found a security guard and asked for directions, since I still had no idea where I was and didn’t recognize any of the signs. This time I understood a bit better – I had to go up to the 4th floor to the ticketing area, and this time back directly to the Air China duty agent.
He spoke English.
I explained my situation and he started to say they would re-book me for tomorrow afternoon. The power of words again.
This was the point where I was on the cusp of one of those epic airport meltdowns. The ones you read about in the news, the ones where YouTube videos show people acting the fool. The ones that sometimes end in tragedy.
If you’ve ever wondered why people have them, I feel like I have a small idea of how it happens. How otherwise reasonable people end up doing unreasonable things. The snap. The break from reality.
I took a deep breath and slowed my breathing rate. My eyes, certainly blood shot, locked on his. I spoke slowly and carefully and measured my words.
A Little Bit Crazy
My voice, quiet, still came out with a jagged edge I didn’t or wouldn’t have recognized.
“Sir, I’ve been here since yesterday evening, because of a missed connection due to your flight coming in late, you didn’t get me a hotel, I’ve barely slept in 36 hours, and couldn’t get on any earlier flights. I was waiting at the departure gate for an hour and half before the flight and the gate was changed. There was no way for me to know. I need to get to my destination today.”
The red, hot burning behind my eyeballs welled up. Tunnel vision. My teeth hurt from clenching my jaw so hard.
Everything except the duty agent blurred from my consciousness.
He sensed my desperation. Or took pity on me. Or just wanted to avoid the confrontation that would have ensued with this unkempt man, his hair in a slovenly, greasy ponytail, his vacant eye, sunk in deep into the sockets from obvious lack of sleep.
“OK, we will get you on the 2:30 pm flight.”
It was 1:30 pm at this time. He directed me to the special counter for people with close departures. That agent was able to find my luggage and have it directed onto my new flight. And then I was off.
I ran. Boy did I fucking run. My backpack and carry on bag digging into my shoulders. My lungs burning as I don’t train cardio. I didn’t care. I was going to make that flight.
Having just gone through security not even an hour earlier, I was a pro: took everything out. Every camera lens, every battery, every thing that had slowed down the process the last time.
I found my gate and immediately confirmed it with the counter agent. There would be no mistakes this time.
As you’ve probably noticed, I never once discussed toileting.
There hadn’t been time. There had been too much stress. And it had been a long, long time since I had peed. Was it worth it? Could I chance it? My bladder wasn’t really giving me a choice, so I found the nearest facility to give my bladder peace.
It couldn’t have been more than 5 minutes total time when I returned and they’d already started boarding. As I joined the line, I pulled out my phone and sent a quick message letting my party know I would see them on the other side.
I had a window seat right next to the emergency exit. I put on my special red neck pillow, pulled it tight, and closed my eyes. My body was finally able to shut down.
I woke up as the wheels touched down on the runway a couple hours later.
After nearly 40 hours since I’d left my home, I’d made it.