Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Lost in translation or something

I have nothing against China, the Chinese, Air China, Beijing or even Chairman Mao.

But boy do I hate Beijing airport. And I'm writing this in the airport itself, while enjoying quite a reasonable cup of coffee. Although my judgement may be skewed because it's about 6am UK time and I've had a total of 2hrs sleep in the last 24hrs.

Getting here was easy enough, despite the -7 degree temperatures recorded in Bristol on Saturday morning. By the time I went to the station it had warmed up to a balmy 0 degrees. I didn't even need a coat.

The flight was easy enough too. They didn't run out of western breakfast (although that could still happen. Edit: it did but I had the lychee yoghurt with the rice porridge this time) and we touched down in Beijing at 12:10, local time. The city looks weird from the air, almost like it was made from Lego. So many buildings and tower blocks are identical.

The plane landed at the terminal, which was a plus. Last time it was miles away because they hadn't figured out how to build a terminal with enough surface area to handle all the planes. So if you get lucky, you get a berth.

But then it got harder. I couldn't quite remember from last time how I was meant to transfer to Shanghai then Sydney. There are no departure boards anywhere but we were told on the flight we had to go to gate E08 to catch CA175. By good fortune we were in terminal E. Simple eh?

Hah. I had to get back 'into' the terminal so I did the obvious thing and lined up at the international transfers immigration control. It took a while but when I got to the front, the officer said 'no, your boarding card says terminal C, you have to go to the emergency lane.'

Argh - I vaguely remembered this from last time. There was a slow moving queue there so I joined it, got halfway down then realised I'd probably need an arrival card, so ended up at the back again. And as I got towards the front, there were several 'emergencies' who needed to get through before me as their flights were about to leave.

Two very slow, strictly by the book officials (with masks on) for dozens of clueless international travellers. It was the most inefficient system I have ever seen and I work in the UK.

It took me the best part of an hour and a half to get through, and when I did I noticed a suggestion box. 'Rebuild your [obscene gerund] airport so that it works.'

I got to domestic transfers, wandered around a bit wondering whether I should pick up my luggage. But I couldn't see it and couldn't be arsed going to lost and found so I just followed some people who looked like they might be going to Australia. Or anywhere other than China. The lack of departure boards is infuriating.

At last I found a departure board. And even then had to wait till it cycled through 15 pages to show my flight. It went from C53, but this was an illusion. We boarded a bus at gate C53 and were driven back to terminal E. Gate E08, to be precise. Which looked rather like the plane we had flown in on.

[time passes]

I got the flight to Shanghai and we repeated the procedure, but in reverse. We had to check out of the country which meant going through immigration again. Sigh.

Who gives the go ahead for these masterpieces of usability? Is the place designed to be inefficient simply to keep large numbers of Chinese employed? Actually I think that might be the case.

I did note someone in the queue behind me saying it was like this in every communist country he'd travelled in. Basically it's not about putting people first, it's about fitting them into whatever system the government has deemed appropriate for its populace. And other populaces who happen to be passing through.

I got to Sydney in the end. Only an hour later than scheduled too, which was a miracle.

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