This introduction is tale of a high stakes gamble on plane ticket and visa conditions.
It certainly did not strike you even if you realized that this flight was back in early 2013, but this flight was on the day before Chinese New Year (and the flight back was the day after the Lantern Festival). In other terms, it was the Chinese equivalent of flying on Dec 24th and January 2nd, throwing in Thanksgiving traffic in addition for good measure, and therefore in red in both this calendar and seat availability.
Finding an affordable plane ticket in economy out of Taipei with a layover in Mainland China at these dates required a Platinum level determination, because one and a half billion Chinese, Taiwanese and Vietnamese were going to travel at the same time. Even four months ahead of time, it was a formidably challenging task.
I had three options: - FB award tickets, but the only affordable ones were on CZ flights with a 9 hour layover in CAN, and it was unclear if I could leave the airport to spend time in a rather second rate Chinese city, tourism-wise. There were availabilities in Y+ on the PVG-CDG route, but none on the TPE-PVG leg. A 19’30” phone call to FB’s hotline did not provide me anything better than was available on the website.
- Lion Travel, which had sold me a round trip on SQ on Chinese New Year the previous year, where Ms. Huang recognized me immediately. She was indeed intelligent (this was the meaning of her first name in Chinese), but only in Taiwan could you select Meow as a “Western” first name.
She searched for a long time, and eventually proposed a roundtrip for 50,000 TWD on KL, and 60,000 on CX i.e. about 1,250 EUR and 1,500 EUR at that time. The quality – price ratio was not enough for the former and the price was too much for the latter.
- And last, the World Wide, very wide Web, where Matrix had indicated the possibility of an interesting combination of four flights on three different airlines. I searched for two weeks, and I was about to give up when I finally found a German on line travel agency, with a website in German only, which was selling it and had only 4 Plätze verfügbar (4 seats available). A brief exchange of SMS with Mainland China and ten minutes later, I was disposed of a problem and of 878.95 EUR.
That was a hard core Economy routing, with an interesting progression starting with a comfortable day flight on Air China, a 9h25’ layover in PEK and then a flight leaving in the middle of the night out of PEK's second rate Terminal 2, sold by MU, but operated by AF (the 3-4-3 steerage class specialist), and a fully MU trip back to TPE, with a 5h30’ layover in PVG to recover from a night in a 332, and a grand finale in a 346 on a short haul flight to TPE.
But this was the measure of friendship, because my best Chinese friend lives in PEK, or rather in Beijing, because it would be simple if she was working airside in PEK. She is a Chinese citizen and could not obtain a Taiwanese visa at the time, and conversely it was very difficult for me to obtain a Chinese visa while living in Taiwan.
The administrative loophole that I was counting on was the possibility to enter China without a visa for 24h in Beijing (and 48h in Shanghai) in case of international transit. For Beijing, it was little more than hearsay on the internet (but well documented for Shanghai, and I knew a Flight Reporter who had done it), but it was worth taking a bet on it. Hence the interest of this long evening layover in PEK.
That shaky gamble paid off in early December 2012 : the Beijing authorities announced the setup of the 72 hour visa exemption (which was to be later extended to half a dozen other Chinese cities), on the condition of having a passport of one of 45 countries and flying onward to a different country, which was going to be my case.
Four months elapsed, and the day before my flight, I received this e-mail.
Everything seemed OK : they had not forgotten me, and I could even "jetzt online einchecken". The hyperlink pointed at Air China’s German website, which refused to recognize my ticket number, my reservation number and my passport number : nothing worked. I tried Air China’s Taiwanese website, to no avail. And then I had a terrible doubt: was it a bug in Air China’s website (OLCI was a rather new concept in Mainland China), or a problem with my ticket? I shared my anguish with Mrs. Marathon, who noted that I was suggested to book "Ihr Hotel in Paris" and wondered if I really wanted to join her.
What should I do ? Call the hotline in German at 0.14 EUR/min, or bet that everything was OK? I took the bet, but quite frankly, I had a very very bad night. My plan B, checked on the internet, was the availability of an FB award ticket the day after, which would make me lose face, my Friday evening in Beijing with my Chinese friend, my whole Saturday with my wife and 80,000 FB miles plus fuel tax + airport tax. I won’t say which was worst, but all four together were enough to have a very bad night.
[This was the first time I experienced an OLCI failure; I was later to have many other cases and sleep much better when they occurred. There is always a time when you are a rookie.]
Arrival on D-Day at TPE’s Terminal 2, with a taxi because I was moving a maximum of stuff back to France, before my final departure from Taiwan in June that year, with checked luggage at the maximum weight limit and a hand luggage well beyond the weight limit (I knew from experience that they never check the latter in TPE and PEK). The taxi driver that I hailed proposed a flat 1,200 TWD rate. The deal was very slightly better for him because of the very fluid traffic, but a few more red traffic lights would have changed the balance, so it was fair.
A yin-yang sculpture in from of the walkway to the parking lots.
I had arrived to the airport very early in order to have time to play the phone call card (at 0.14 EUR/min, in German), but I was so anxious that my picture of Air China’s check-in counters was completely blurred.
And then I felt an immense relief when I was confirmed to be indeed booked on that flight and received this BP to PEK, with a window seat at my request.
The only problem was that my luggage could only be checked to PEK (same ticket connecting flights were a new concept in Mainland China). They were going to be an embarrassment (because they were at the weight limit of my allowance), and my Chinese friend suggested to meet her at her home rather than in the restaurant. Fortunately, my wife knew her and her unquestionable morality.
That was another major aspect of my visa gamble : without confirmation of the visa exemption, I might not have been able to recover my luggage in PEK, or check in onwards to CDG, for that matter.
Contrary to the previous time I had boarded this flight, Flight CA186 was posted on time, and since the plane had already left PEK at the time I took the picture, the prediction was credible.
Going through security check was fast ; not only was the staff there smiling, but he spontaneously helped me replace my laptop in its case. I would advise training in Taipei to security staff of some other airports. Note the access to the Evergreen (Eva Air) lounge at the upper level in the background, with its access on the left, just after the immigration counters in the foreground.
And since this access overlooks the immigration control zone, I could take this overall picture of the place (I never quite understood what is so sensitive at these nondescript counters, where pictures are prohibited in all countries).
I could also take a picture of the Chinese New Year wishes of the Taiwanese immigration.
There was a symmetrical China Airlines lounge, providing a similar panoramic view on the other immigration counters.
A small sample of the duty free shops, with this tea shop.
The inevitable Chinese New year decorations
One of many free internet access stations for self-use, without any time limitation or censorship.
That provided me the opportunity for a corporate screenshot, with advertising for Taipei-Shaba flights for 2,288 TWD on Air Asia.
This is an exhibit on the Pili puppets, which revisit this ancestral art with modern heroic fantasy aesthetics and themes.
One of the children play areas
With Lego Duplo building blocks, for free use without any supervision
With regards to the Alishan narrow gauge railway, a former logging line, which climbs from Chiayi to Alishan, some 2,000 m higher, better wait before placing it on your travel plans : a typhoon destroyed the track in 2012, and as of 2016, traffic only reaches halfway up. (The rehabilitation of the line was initially scheduled to be completed by 2014)
There are prayer areas like in JED, but here, there are three next to each other, for Buddhists, Christians…
… and Muslims here, with rather nice prayers rugs, the required direction of Makkah and a Quran on a tray table out of this picture.
For Chinese New Year, it is a Taiwanese tradition to decorate the entrance of private and professional premises with calligraphies, always in black ink on red paper, and you can often see professional calligraphers propose their services, like here.
But there, this was an entirely free workshop, for traveler keen to try this form of art.
The plane operating BR’s 13:10 flight to CAN had not arrived yet, which spares you the view of a Hello Kitty A330. But you won’t escape the Hello Kitty nursing room (from the outside)
Or a coin operated phone decorated the same.
A temporary exhibit on painted umbrellas from Meinong, a village in the south-west of Taiwan, whose population is entirely Hakka, a minority from the province of Fujian (opposite Taiwan on the Mainland). Quite frankly, I was not impressed by Meinong when I visited there.
A reading room
It was not the best time of the day for plane spotting and the windows were very dirty because of the rain of the preceding days.
A CZ A321 had finished its pushback, with an MU A320 in the foreground
… there she is
A JL 767 JAL, poorly focused
CI 738, seen through rather dirty windows
Xiamen Airlines 738
Arrival of a CX 777
A KE aircraft taking off behind a JL 738
Shenzhen Airlines 738
It was time to reach Gate D4, where boarding was imminent.
This was the plane which was going to fly me to PEK
As promised by the Germans, she was indeed a 333.
From the lower level
What was interesting about this aircraft was that she was dedicated to flights to Taiwan: the Mainland China flag is missing in the livery, just aft of the first door, unlike this 332 seen when I took this PEK - CSX flight.
They removed their flag (which must have needed months of behind the scenes negotiations), but the deal apparently said nothing about cleaning the aircraft. Or maybe Air China’s cleaning staff seems to have been trained by that of Air France.
Boarding was announced and a long and reasonably orderly line took shape immediately.
Two newspapers offered at the entrance of the plane : Mainland China’s China Daily and a newspaper in Chinese that I did not identify
The Y cabin, before it was completely full
This was going to be my vital space during the 3h5’ of flight announced by the captain. Not bad, wasn’t it?
The seat pitch was honorable; the edge of the seat headrest was halfway up my head
The safety information card, both sides
Some plane spotting during boarding, despite the poor weather conditions
A JL 767 JAL taxies away
Arrival of a CI A330
And of a CI 747
Boarding was complete, and we pushed back
A CZ A321
A Jetstar A320 plying the SIN-TPE-KIX route (with 5th freedom on the TP-KIX leg), which was going to take off just before us
The safety demonstrations were on the collective IFE screens, in English and Mandarin with sign language translation.
Taxiing past a CI A330
And in front of a CA A340. You probably guessed that it had started to rain.
Taking takeoff pictures required split second action, just after the rain drops on the window had been washed away and just before the low cloud ceiling was reached.
The roofs of Terminal 1
Looking up, there was of course blue sky
And also an undecorated winglet
The paint was peeling off on the wing too
I always admire the skill of the Taiwanese and the Chinese for taking a nap anytime and anywhere they have a chance.
The meal service started with a drink.
As usual, I asked for a cup of coffee. It probably came from Taipei, and the taste was to Taiwanese air travel standards, i.e. awful.
The FAs had donned an apron for service, as always on Chinese flights. The decoration of Air China’s apron is very similar to that of the standard uniform, and you hardly notice it.
The menu was announced orally in Mandarin and English, with the inevitable choice between chicken-rice and beef-noodles. My frequent readers will not be surprised that I chose 鸡肉米饭 jīròu mǐfàn, a.k.a. chicken-rice. The FAs were friendly and efficient, but did not smile. I suspected that the ones assigned to my seating area spoke minimal English, but I did not try using this language.
The weak pepper sauce was quite strange, but OK, and the rice was correct. The yogurt was smooth and really excellent. There was no doubt that it was Taiwanese catering too. First of all, because the labeling mentioned that it had been made in Hsinchu, but also because a straw is always provided with a Chinese yogurt for sipping, because there no way you can open a Chinese yogurt the Western (or Taiwanese) way.
My neighbor went to the toilets and I did the same for an urgent photographic need. I lowered the lid, because it was dirty, unacceptably dirty, and worn too. Water had been splashed on the sink, too.
A rather blurry view of the cabin on the way back
The clouds had cleared, but the plain south of Beijing is rather nondescript, especially with a snow cover.
The IFE screens shifted to the air show towards the end of the flight
It revealed a detour typical of a flight in the Chinese airspace where the air force takes the lion’s share.
Did you notice something strange on this map ?
An unexpected typo : the capital of Hebei province is Shijiazhuang, with a final g. The sound is very different in Mandarin.
The IFE shifted to the display of connecting flights… including some on the next day. It was also announced that the luggage would be on line 37.
The frozen plain
Approaching Beijing, and its housing complexes (I jacked up the contrast in the next pictures)
The tool gates of the expressway branch to Terminals 1 and 2
And the toll gates for Terminal 3
Terminal 3 is so huge that it seems very flat
Some aircraft parked at the international end of Terminal 3 : Qatar and United
Two other United
Arrival of an Asiana A320
Egyptair 332 (SU-GCJ, if you are curious)
Deplaning : two pictures of the rather small J cabin in this plan in regional configuration.
And a short walk in Terminal 3
It was not obvious at first sight, especially because the eye was attracted by the unusually long lines at the normal immigration counters, but there was a new specific counter for handling the 72 hour exemption. Note far left the keyboard used by travelers to rate the quality of service of the immigration officer.
There was no waiting ; the policeman was quite gruff, placed several phone calls to check if the MU flight on my e-ticket print-out was indeed flying to Paris, whatever else, and eventually gave me my passport back with a stamp which took a full page for very little information. I was done much faster than the travelers with an ordinary visa.
Now I had to go down and take a people mover
And reach the luggage delivery room, where a staff was straightening the incoming suitcases.
Mine arrived quite quickly. I went past the crowd of people waiting for passengers. The lifts to Level -1 are undersized (this is a design flaw of that terminal): several passengers gave up taking even slower travellators, and I could board the first one, which was not expected.
It was PEK’s world upside down : a long wait at immigration (but not for me), but negligible waiting for a taxi. At 17:01, i.e. ETA+46’, I was in this taxi.
The expressway’s toll, already seen during the descent
Like this one
It was not a usual Friday : the traffic on the expressway was smooth all the way to the Second ring road, and also in the Dongzhimen neighborhood, because many people had already left on vacation, giving me five hours of conversation with my friend before heading back to the airport.
This is the end of this FR, and I know offer you a tourist bonus on a seldom visited monument in Beijing.
These were the headquarters of the Chinese army and navy from 1906, in the final years of the weakening Qing dynasty. It entered local history for being the location of the “18 March 1926” massacre, when the police opened fire on Communist and Nationalist demonstrators against the Unequal Treaties, leaving 47 dead and over 200 wounded.
This is where Liu HeZhen, a student of the Women's Normal College died : this information would ring a bell to most readers, because 纪念刘和珍君 (In Memory of Miss Liu Hezhen), an emotional essay by Lu Xun (a major early 20th century writer) has long been required reading in Chinese universities.
This plaque, and another one giving the name of the place are the only identification of this place which is absent from tourist guide and hidden behind anondescript entrance alongside ZhangZiZhong Avenue. The buildings are under state protection since 1992, according to this plaque, which does not imply rehabilitation.
Brick housings similar to the ones lining The Workers’ Stadium North Avenue (see the bonus of this flight report) have been built after WWII in the vast grounds surrounding the original buildings. One day will probably come when they are replaced by much more upmarket ones, given the location in the heart of Beijing.
The original 1906 buildings with their oversized ceilings heights will remain. They had been transformed into housings according to pure Mao era standards, with these semi-collective kitchens in the corridor with locked cupboards for the stores of each family.
The buildings were still in decent condition, despite the degradation. It was sometimes difficult to identify what was closed for unspecified repairs, disused or occupied by the elderly residents wandering like waifs. I had a pervasive melancholic feeling in this Sleeping beauty castle, in these utterly silent premises, shielded from the Beijing road traffic din by the thickness of the walls.
The hodgepodge of used stuff stored everywhere, the linen drying on clothing lines like in all other popular Chinese neighborhoods gave the impression of oversized building of a forgotten civilization invaded by squatters.
I have seen similar scenes in second tier cities elsewhere in China, but this place is unusual in Beijing where so many historic buildings have been destroyed to give way to a Disneyland copy or a glass postmodern skyscraper.
I took these pictures in 2010, but there is a fair chance that nothing changed since. If you check it out and find out it did change, let me know !
Taipei - TPE
Beijing - PEK
The flight was rigorously on time. The food was to Chinese standards (and the coffee was unfortunately to Taiwanese standards). The comfort was very good for Economy. My only regret was the absence of smile from the FAs.
Both airports were easy to reach by taxi ; public transportation would have been inconvenient with the amount of luggage that I had.
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