I leave Harbin Thursday AM. It’s a slow ride to the airport. The van driver’s license plate is even, but today only odd numbers can drive on the main thoroughfares, so we wind through back streets and get stuck in traffic. No problem though, when I get to the airport my flight is delayed about half an hour.
It’s mid-afternoon, I look at my watch as we land in Beijing. I have about thirty minutes to get to the gate of my next flight before it closes. It takes at least fifteen minutes to get off the plane. I don’t know where my gate is. Terminal 3 is HUGE. I run. I find my gate, only to discover … it’s also delayed. They haven’t started boarding.
Twenty minutes later, we board the plane. And we sit and wait and sit and wait and sit and wait and eat a meal and sit and wait. We don’t even move away from the gate. Three hours later, at 7:30 they let us get off the plane. The airport is completely packed. Bad weather they say – but the skies only look a misty gray; there’s no storm here … yet.
Standing around the gate overhear some other passengers speaking English, so I join in the conversation. Charlie is a high school junior from Xinjiang and he’s returning home for the summer from Virginia (USA) where’s he’s been studying this past year. Leonard and Carol are from Belgium. It’s their first time to China.
We pass the time eating chocolate cookies and talking about high school in America. Charlie shows us his yearbook, and his football team photo, and it makes me remember how different American high school is from that in China.
An hour later we board the plane again. This time it’s more promising because we actually leave the gate and taxi out to the runway. We taxi and turn and circle for an hour; people are getting pretty fed up. Two hours go by and the stewardesses are so stressed and fed up with having to give answers to questions that they really can’t answer that they start to cry. They feed us a second meal, which calms people for a bit, but at three hours, people start to call the airline, the airport, news agencies, and the police. By now there’s quite a bit of lightning, so there’s little chance we’ll take off. At four hours, we pull up to a gate (still at Terminal 3). Five hours after our second time to board the plane we finally are let off into the pouring rain and massive thunderstorm. We jump a puddle to board a bus and are taken to luggage claim.
Where to go? What to do next? No one is making any clear announcements. Some on the plane put up such a fuss with the guards that they go together to find some airline official. I didn’t want to go that route. Looking around, it seemed everyone else in the airport was in the same situation. I ask some other workers and they tell us to claim our bags and go to the 3rd floor to re-check-in for a new flight. I find Charlie. We find our bags and look for Leonard and Carol. They don’t know any Chinese – and since we’re all going to the same place, might as well stick together. By now it’s past midnight.
Upstairs on the 3rd floor, it’s worse than a train station at Chinese New Year. All the flights from 2 PM onwards have been canceled. People are sleeping on benches, their luggage, and on towels on the floor. Massively long and wide lines stretch out from all the counters. Those at the front of the line are so squeezed in that they can’t get out even if they are finished getting a new ticket. The lines don’t seem to move except for a few people weaving through. Once and a while these line cutters are stopped by glares and elbows.
Leonard and Carol give up on the line after a few minutes. They haven’t slept since they left Belgium and would much rather go back home rather than face this line. Charlie and I decide to stick it out. We wait for an hour. As we wait, every once and a while we hear groups shouting in protest and sometimes a few large bangs like people are fighting. I can’t see what’s going on, but people pull out there cell phones to record the action.
Some people make their way out of the line and as they pass, others ask if they got a flight? “No, there’s no flights to Chongqing.” “No Guilin.” “No Nanjing.” We don’t here anyone mention the city we’re going to – Urumqi, so that leaves me with a glimmer of hope, but I start to wonder … will I make it in time? I send a message to my friends who will meet me in Urumqi. Charlie starts to think about backup plans. He says he might take the train to Xi’an and could fly from there. That would cost me too much time and I’d miss the backpacking trip!
The line doesn’t seem to be moving, and we’ve also realized we don’t see anyone else from our flight, so I send Charlie to go ask around while I watch our stuff and spot in the line and pray desperately that there’d be a way for me to get there in time. He comes back a few minutes later with good news! He saw some people from our flight and they’ve got tickets from another counter for a flight leaving at 6 AM. We grab our stuff and move one aisle over to stand in a much shorter line. Finally, at 4 AM, 12 hours after our first flight was to leave, we’re checked in for a flight leaving at 9:30AM.
“What’s next?” Charlie asks. “Coffee,” I say, knowing that there’s no chance I’ll be able to get any sleep after such an ordeal. We pass the time sipping our coffee, exchanging bits of life stories, and talking with another Chinese girl on her way home after a semester in Illinois.
Later, as we were leaving the coffee shop to go to the gate, we run into Leonard and Carol. They’d slept for a few hours in Burger King and still didn’t have a flight to where they were going. We told them where we’d got our tickets, but at that point it’s all we could do. I sure hope they managed to get where they needed – what an experience for first time to China!
Looking back, that was probably one of the worst travel experiences I’ve had while in Asia (aside from a 26 hour journey by pick-up truck, train, bus, and another pick-up truck the northern Thailand to the beach in the south). But at the same time, it was one of the most meaningful travel ordeals. Normally when I travel alone, I don’t interact with the other passengers. Maybe a polite hello or nod to the person sitting next to me, but beyond that, as an introvert – I travel in a shell. This trip I didn’t. I couldn’t. We were strangers, but we were looking out for one another, making sure we got to the place we were going. Somehow in the midst of chaos, I found blessing. I’m not sure if I’d have made it otherwise.