It was supposed to be a simple transaction: I bought tickets for a flight to Shenzhen, the airline should supply the plane and get me there. I think these things work differently in China.
The time was 16h50, we were standing outside exit 7 of Shaanxi South Road metro station waiting for Shahnaz to exit. She would be dog-sitting while we went away to Shenzhen and Hong Kong during the Chinese New Year holiday.
Our flight was scheduled for 19h15 from Hongqiao International Airport, Shanghai's other international airport. It's closer to our house than Pudong (30 minutes by metro vs. 1h45), and local flights from there are generally cheaper.
The dog was sitting at our feet as the warm Shanghai air swept leaves and takeout boxes around the empty street. Exit 7 on Nanchang road is usually pretty devoid of cars, but the fact that most of the city was already deserted due to the upcoming celebration made it seem almost eerily quiet. Dundun stifled a bark and hopped; we couldn't see her, but Shahnaz must be near. Within 5 seconds we saw her head pop up above the top step of the escalator, her hair blowing across her face from the surge in air coming from the metro. She grabbed the lapels of her grey, speckled jacket and walked toward us. Dundun was itching to run up to her. "Woof woof," and off she went!
Shahnaz's coat and fingers got a good nipping as we told Dundun to calm down and stop biting. "My fingers aren't treats Dundun!" she said as she pet our pup. "Ready to go?" Shahnaz inquired.
-All set. Thanks for taking care of Dundun while we're away.
-No problem! Thanks for giving me a break from my roommates!
We handed her the leash and some keys, and off into the metro we went.
Line 10 is great. Not only is it a three minute walk from our apartment, but Anna-Lisa's school is only 20 minutes away, and Hongqiao airport is only 25 minutes away! We went through the security check, hopped into the metro, and 25 minutes later we were at terminal 2 of Hongqiao airport. Painless so far.
Baggage SuggestionsThe official baggage allowance on China Eastern flight MU5357 from SHA to SZX is one checked baggage of 20kg and one carry-on of 5kg. The actual allowance is pretty much anything you can carry with you.
Now, maybe the airlines are more lenient because it's Chinese New Year and people are going back home to see their families, or maybe the check-in staff just doesn't care at all; regardless, people were checking in all kinds of weird things: taped up moving boxes, sewn up mesh bags, oddly shaped boxes and bags, tied up packs, really anything they could wrap their belongings in. And it wasn't just one per person; people were checking in five or six each. And what they didn't check in, they just carried with them: backpacks, purses, travel bags, carry-on luggage. It was a thrilling, if somewhat worrisome experience. All those boxes, packs, bags, and luggage will end up on our plane! Hopefully it won't weigh us down.
We eventually reached the counter and checked ourselves in. Again, absolutely no regard for baggage allowance! The smartly dressed check in counter attendant asked if we had anything to check in. My 80L backpack was sticking out at least a foot above my head, she had to have seen it. "No. Nothing," I casually replied. And that was it. We were through. Easy enough.
Next Stop: BoardingSo far so good. On to the boarding gates!
I forgot what it's like to travel by air outside of the USA's sphere of influence. A quick glance by a security guard, a simple wave of a constantly-wailing metal detector, and we were through. Are you kidding me? I was still wearing my WWE Championship-belt-sized, metal belt buckle and no one asked me to remove my shoes! Amazing.
The walk to the actual gate was fun. The way was littered with high end boutiques, coffee shops, and restaurants. We glanced around and continued on our way. Gate 55-72 --> We're heading in the right direction.
Over this walkway, through this corridor, down this escalator, and... voilà! Gate 64, in view.
Now we play the waiting. (I know, it sucks. I would much rather play hungry hungry hippos)
And a waiting game it was. As usual in China, and much like the baggage allowance, departure times are merely a suggestion, by no means must any airline adhere to them in any way. The moment we sat down, we heard notice after notice announcing the delay of every single flight departing from every single gate surrounding ours. Was this some kind of Chinese New Year miracle? Were we being spared the wrath of the angry horse, whose year was swiftly coming to an end? We sat anxious and hopeful that, for once, our booking might depart on time.
18h10, so far so good. We're supposed to board at 18h35.
18h20, still looking bright.
18h30, we're getting antsy. Will we be boarding soon?
18h40, our hopes are wearing thin. We should have boarded already but there have been no announcements. Please, Jade Emperor, if you truly exist, let our flight depart on time!
16 February 2015, 18h47. Mark that down as the exact time at which we learned that the Jade Emperor does not truly exist.
"The plane for flight MU5357 is now being cleaned, boarding will take place later." And that was that. The most useless word anyone can ever utter, and one of every Chinese person's seemingly top 10 favourite English words: "Later."
The importance of precise languageWhat does later even mean? Nothing. It's just a catch-all word to cover your ass. And I guess that's what everyone is always trying to do here. "Later." Is that 10 minutes? or 10 years? If boarding happens at all, it would inevitably happen "later."
Well we soon found out that "later" meant 19h25 as a China Eastern employee was startled out of an apparent nap behind the boarding counter and hopped up to softly say: "飞行到深圳，现在登机。" Translation: "The flight to Shenzhen is now boarding." Let the mad rush begin.
About 150 people all sprang to their feet to rush to the gate, but none faster than +Anna-Lisa. "Pick up your bag, we're boarding!" I heard, as she sprinted away, leaving a cartoonish, Anna-Lisa-shaped dust cloud behind her. Not bad. At least we're first in line.
BoardedWe boarded the plane first and sat in our seats. For the second time that day I would rather have been playing hungry hungry hippos, but we were playing the waiting game.
20h10, there's an announcement! The flight will be leaving soon. Soon! Finally a word with some meaning. It might not have any truth behind it, but at least there is less ambiguity. At least we know we'll be leaving today!
*CLUNK* A towing vehicle begins to pull us away from the gate. "It's 20h15, if we take off in the next 15 minutes, we can still catch the metro," I think to myself. Yeah right. "Due to heavy traffic, the plane will have to wait to take off," is the first thing I hear after that thought crossed my mind.
"It looks like we're gonna have to take a taxi," I tell Anna-Lisa as I pull out my phone to find the hotel's address in Chinese.
Was that movement? Is the plane moving? Will we actually depart in time for us to catch the metro?
We hear engines. Yes! I immediately take back everything I ever said about the Jade Emperor. He exists! Of course he exists. And he's here to watch over us.
We take off. It's 20h25.