In that routing, there is a gap between XMN and LCX. Three hours by bus from XMN, and trois hours by taxi from LCX, in the southwest corner of the province of Fujian lie unique buildings which I had wanted to visit for years: the Tulou. These buildings, round or rectangular, are amazing battered earth fortresses built during over the centuries until the 1930s. The two meter thick walls were impregnable to the armed rogue bandits which plagued the region, even when they had light artillery. Contrary to European medieval fortresses, they were built collectively by the village peasants, and provided to each family which had contributed to the construction a room of the same size, with kitchens at ground level and a shrine and at least one well in the center.
An amazing collective defensive housing, which survived the 20th century vandalism so much better that it was impeccably politically correct at the time of collectivization in China. You can see traces of it like the "Long live Chairman Mao" slogan in red on the front of our hotel, installed in a historic tulou.
Leaving the area was an equally unique experience, for Longyan airport is unlikely to handle many individual foreign travelers.
You cannot find it in an English language tour book, or in a tourist oriented website, and you could search for ever in this brand new Chinese road atlas of Fujian province: it is not marked there either. With adequate research, you can find it, and satellite pictures prove that yes, it does exist.
It is the most unlikely airport in my rich career as an Asian airline passenger, which set a new record in the low traffic category, in the long list of all those that I had patronized until then. After Mainland China's Xiangfan airport and its four daily flights, after Taiwan's Beigan airport and its three daily flights (weather seldom permitting), I had found an airport which handled four flights… per week, to a single destination: Shanghai – Hongqiao !
(Note : I was to fly later to Taiwan's Hengchun Airport (HCN), which had only two flights per week. See the report here)
This Nowhere Else airport was well worth spending hours juggling with my vacation plan to leave from there AND have a plan B if the flight was cancelled, since the next flight would be two days later.
Getting the best price for seats on the flight that I needed was a good example of the Chinese air transport market, where a flight is never cheaper months ahead. I needed some cold blood, because if flight HO1146 of November 10th was suddenly full, we would have wasted the whole following day struggling to reach Xiamen by bus and fly from there. We would also hope to find a seat on a XMN-SHA flight if flight HO1146 was cancelled at the last moment. - Until Day-60, seats were simply not available. - From Day-60 to Day-30, they were full fare, at 1000 RMB (+ 190 RMB tax and fuel surcharge) - On Day-30, the price fell abruptly to 300 RMB + 190, and I rushed to secure two seats on the net. But the price for the Nov 7 seat remained at 1000 RMB as long as I checked.
I had arranged through the hotel manager for a local driver to drive us around Yongding for two days (you could spend a week touring that remote area of Fujian province), and drop us at Longyan airport on the evening of the second day. A three hour drive from Yongding, according to the charming hotel manager, where Longyan is a mere 70 km from Yongding? I expected such a low average was due to severe road conditions, but when the driver set his GPS after the last visit, it displayed the distance: 176km!
We were 13km from Longyan when I took this picture, but it took us another hour and a half by expressway to reach the airport.
Longyan Airport is actually nowhere near Longyan, but outside LianCheng, and it is 98km from the Longyan West toll on G76 expressway to the Longyan exit toll gate on the G25…
The route went through some spectacular hilly terrain where no decent airport would ever fit. G76 was no stranger to us: we took another brand new section of it further north, where it must have cost an arm and a leg to build so many tunnels and viaducts through the mountains of the Guizhou province. We left the G25 somewhere near Km 3120: when it is completed, it will run all the way from Shenzhen, outside Hong-Kong, to the far north east in Changchun, well beyond Beijing.
The only mention of Liancheng Airport on the way is a tiny road sign on a wide avenue in the outskirts of the city, one hundred meters from the terminal. It was pitch dark when we reached it, and it was really not as brightly lit as it appears on that picture.
It was actually completely empty, nearly entirely dark, with only two young policewomen in the only lit space, shivering in their winter overcoats because the outside door was wide open.
The driver made no mystery of his anxiety of leaving his foreign customer in such a place. In his heavily Hakka accented Mandarin, he insisted: Do you really have a ticket issued for a flight here, at your names?, stressing each single word. The printout of the confirmation e-mail was not enough for him: even though check-in would not start before another two hours, he insisted to have an airport staff come, start the computer, and check that yes indeed, there were two tickets issued to the names on our passports. And yes, the incoming flight from Shanghai was confirmed.
But how about dinner?, he worried again, knowing that we had skipped lunch to maximize our visiting time. You do not catch me off foot on this kind of issue, and I knew that the chances of finding food in such a place would be at best remote: I have instant noodles, instant coffee and cookies. Nice try, but this was the one airport in Mainland China where there was no hot water, because the machine was switched off. No problem, the lovely policewomen, perched on Nowhere China high heels (a pair of which covered with glittering fake diamonds) switched on the lighting and the TV set in the far end of the hall where there were a few picnic chairs and tables, and brought us their own kettle and plastic glasses.
They even went as far as explaining me that check-in will be at Counter 3, and pointed out to the security checkpoint, like if that was the first flight in my life. They were just so cute… Next time you witness an airport policewoman in your home country deploy so much motherly care towards a Chinese traveler, old enough to be her father and stranded in an airport two hours before the check-in of the first flight, you will know that the war between East and West is lost and that China has taken over.
The driver was still there, even though he was another three hours drive away from home and has not had dinner either. He kept reporting on the situation to his base in Hakka on his cell phone, and eventually told me: I am going to leave you now, but please, when you board the plane, do call the hotel manager to reassure her that everything is OK.
I saw the Mercedes vanish in the night, in that empty terminal, feeling somewhat like the commando brought by a retreating submarine on some alien shore on a mission to bring a special envoy to some secret rendezvous by a circuitous route. I had burnt my ship with a vengeance, and we were now alone in an empty Chinese airport in the middle of nowhere at night: the plane from Shanghai had better come.
My wife, who understands no Chinese, felt that her husband had outrageously exceeded her vague specification of visiting remote areas in Fujian. You should never leave so much space for interpretation in a contract with a supplier abroad (I was stationed in Taiwan at that time).
An hour later – which gave us ample time to have dinner in the largest and most empty restaurant room I ever saw -, a first group of Chinese arrived, and then another busload. We are in the middle of nowhere, but from that nowhere came enough people to fill a plane which eventually turned out to be booked solid. No wonder there are no sales booths in that airport.
The check-in and security check were quite commonplace, only that it took at least ten minutes to get the X-ray machine started.
Check-in continued nevertheless, because it appeared that all the members of the Chinese groups only had a small hand luggage each.
See on the far right one of the policewomen, who was some ten inches taller than I, with the unfair help of four plus inch high heels.
Beyond the security check, there was the boarding area, vastly oversized when it handles a single flight.
The overhead sign on the right claims that there is a restaurant, but it only had tables and chairs. One day, food may be served there, too.
I did not need a wide angle lens to take a picture of entire shopping area (see again the overhead sign). The staff closed the shopping area shortly before the incoming plane landed, because their real job description, betrayed by their uniform, was cleaning lady, and they needed to clean the plane in the short time before we would board the plane.
There were two TVs for the comfort of the passengers (left and right, in the background), each set on a different TV channel at full blaring sound setting. It was great to improve my level in Chinese in stereo.
There was a single aircraft on the tarmac, which also justified visiting Longyan Airport: this Yun-5 was copied from the Antonov-2 when China and the USSR were on friendly terms. This STOL aircraft can take off and land in less than 600 feet and is nowhere to be found outside China, or in a standard airport. My wife expressed deep reservations about its adequacy as a backup airplane in case our own did not show up.
even more so that the terminal was at the far end of the runway,
a white Airbus 320 emerged from the darkness:
Juneyao Airlines Flight 1145 from Shanghai-Hongqiao was on time!
Note that the ladder on the left: each piece of checked luggage was hand carried in and out of the hold by the ground staff. Chinese Civil Aviation rules, displayed in the terminal, mandate that the weight limit of an individual piece of checked luggage be 50 kilos, but nobody appeared to test it that night.
We boarded on time, and I briefed the hotel manager as promised, even more so that I discovered my room card in my pocket that I had forgotten to return when checking out. She had been so nice during these two days that she deserved being reassured that her customers were safe and sound.
There were Chinese language newspapers available on board, but also the Global Times (one of the two major English language Chinese newspapers), which is exceptional, especially on such a line. Or maybe it was available because we were booked on that flight.
The seat pitch was normal, which means comfortable, and the layout commonplace for a domestic flight: two rows of business class in 2+2, and the rest in 3+3.
You cannot expect much food on an evening flight in Mainland China, much less on a late night one. A 20-gram pack of peanuts, but my wife asked for and received Coke and coffee (and a smile too).
Shanghai-Hongqiao may be Shanghai's old airport, now handling mostly domestic flights, it is light-years away from Longyan, with Shanghai Airlines, Air China and China Eastern aircraft here on the brightly lit tarmac.
An unusual and convenient feature of Shanghai Hongqiao's arrivals level is that there is a fork in the corridor : if you have hand luggage only, you can take a shortcut here on the left.
In the background you can see the bridge which allows passengers with hand luggage only to bypass the checked luggage delivery room, an efficient design that I have never seen elsewhere.
It was 23:39, six minutes ahead of schedule. There were still three flights to land that night, at the end of a long list from all over China.
… in this boundless luggage delivery room
It was too late to take the subway, but the efficiency of the taxi stand at Shanghai Hongqiao is second to none (I described it in another report, landing on a day where all flights had been delayed by the weather).
The end of story? Not yet
Only when I was back home and started writing it did I pay attention to details that I had missed. Why was this airport missing in the road atlas of Fujian that I had bought last summer? Why was this flight so late? Look at this indiscreet satellite picture. The expressway and its exit lanes were still in construction when the picture was taken, but that is not the most interesting thing.
What is the use of a taxiway for so little traffic? What are all these facilities alongside the runway, if there is not even one flight per day? Where do all these branching taxiways lead?
The answer is simple: this is really a People's Liberation Army airbase, and the Chinese do not want to publicize excessively its existence, much less so the exact details of the concrete hangars which shield and hide the fighters and bombers. All is suddenly clear: the airport is not called Liancheng, but Longyan, to mislead observers. And the only commercial flight is scheduled late enough so that even on the summer solstice, it is night, and passengers can see nothing of the base during landing, taxiing and take-off.
Flight HO 1146 is for the kids who dream that one day, they will board the plane they see in the sky Flight HO 1146 is for the students who spent so much time learning a foreign language Flight HO 1146 is for the graduates who want to carry their backpack where there be dragons. Flight HO 1146 is for the seasoned frequent flyers, bored at the prospect of yet another business trip. Flight HO 1146 is for the pensioners who claim that they have visited China
Everybody should board Flight HO1146 once in his life.
I boarded Flight HO1146.
Longyan - LCX
Shanghai - SHA
This is again an un-rateable flight; I outrageously jacked up the grades of LCX because both the driver and the policewomen had been so kind in an airport which really offers next to zero services. The accessibility is un-rateable too: this may be the airport which is furthest away from the city that it takes its name from. No IFE, but I had an unexpected English language newspaper.
Flight HO1146 joins Flight KN2927 (Chengdu to Beijing Nanyuan) on the podium of my most exotic flights in three years of travels in Mainland China. From buying the ticket to boarding the aircraft, I enjoyed it all the more that I thought about the Flight Report that I would write to share this unique experience with you here.
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