I wrote this post earlier today, but we lost our internet connection for most of the afternoon, so I wasn’t able to post it right away.
We’ve been in Mongolia nearly 48 hours now, and I’ll write about our first day in a bit, but I wanted to post about our 19-hour layover in Beijing (our first “trip” to China) before I forget the details.
Since I first started telling people we were going to Mongolia, everyone’s response has been, “What an adventure!” They meant it in a positive sense – how exciting! But adventures can go a number of ways. Our adventure started while we were checking in at the San Diego airport. It’s never a good sign when the desk staff at the airport can’t help you and have to send you on to a specialist, who then spends a good 15 minutes looking from a computer screen to your printed itinerary, frowning. Finally, it emerged that the computer thought we needed a visa for our layover in Beijing and wouldn’t give us boarding passes, so the specialist needed confirmation from elsewhere that we did not in fact need a Chinese visa. We didn’t – I already knew that China has a 144-hour visa free program for US citizens traveling on to another country. Besides, Emma and I had planned to stay in transit and get a couple of GoSleep sleeping pods in the Beijing airport. Emma in particular was looking forward to spending time in a “stasis pod,” as she kept calling them.
But, as it transpired, we couldn’t stay in transit because we would be in China more than 8 hours. United couldn’t check our bags through to Ulaanbaatar, so we’d have to leave the transit area to get our suitcases. So, no stasis pods for us. We were both very disappointed, and I had only a vague back-up plan because I hadn’t encountered the 8-hour rule before. I’d always been able to stay in transit on longer layovers. Anyway, our flights from San Diego to San Francisco and then on to Beijing went like clockwork. We had both been up all night (Emma reading manga and I cleaning and packing), so we both slept on the plane.
The neat thing about flying from San Francisco to Beijing is how much of the flight is over land – across Alaska and the Bering Strait into Russia, and then down into Beijing. Of course, I slept through most of it, but a woke up an hour before we landed. It was a beautiful day in the parts of China we flew across, and the scenery was fascinating. First, green forested mountains and lakes, followed by a patchwork landscape of agricultural fields and high-rise apartment blocks, which appeared as if they, too, had sprung from the earth. This landscape continued until we landed.
Then, the time came to navigate the Beijing airport. It is, like many other things in China, absolutely huge. As a foreigner, I had to get fingerprinted by a machine (Emma was exempt because she was under 14). At that point, we were both feeling pretty punchy, and I kept cracking up because I couldn’t smash my fingers tightly enough together to match the outline on the computer screen. The machine finally accepted my prints, and then we went on to apply for the visa-free visa, our temporary visitor permits. By the time we got that, there was almost no one at the immigration line, so that part was fast. Then, on the train to the part of Terminal 3 where we could get our luggage and figure out what to do next.
It took a lot of asking around to find out that there was a Left Luggage place in the airport. I’ll skip some of the details, but we were sent to several different floors of the terminal by well-meaning airport employees who probably didn’t understand what I meant when I asked where we could leave our four huge suitcases until the next morning. But a woman at the domestic travel information desk in the 4th floor departure area knew exactly what I meant and sent us to the right place. If you ever need help in the Beijing airport, go ask those women because they know what they’re doing.
Then, with only our ridiculously heavy knap sacks to haul around, we decided to get a hotel room. I had seen a desk that said “Hotel Reservations” on it, so we went there. Only one person there spoke English, and she was on the phone a lot. But eventually we found ourselves on our way to the Something-or-other International Business Hotel. At this point, it was about 5 pm local time, but we fell asleep before we could get dinner, though the hotel beds seemed carved from stone. I never was able to sample the “hometown hand hammer” from the room service menu, either.
We caught the 4 am shuttle back to the airport, because I’d been warned about how long it can take to get through airport security in Beijing. Once again, when the check-in counters opened at 5 am (we were the first in line), the guy who was checking us in to our Air China flight to Ulaanbaatar spent a lot of time scrutinizing our itinerary and his computer screen, and made a few phone calls. Whatever it was got resolved, because eventually he handed me boarding passes and sent our luggage down the belt. We were lulled into a false sense of security by how easy it was to go back through immigration, and the security lines were still short at that hour. The signs just said to take out liquids, laptops, and large cameras. Easy, I thought.
But no. Beijing has this thing about batteries and cables, so a security officer went through all of our bags and pulled out everything electronic, and some things that were not electronic (my binoculars apparently have a battery I never knew about). Then my underwire bra set off the metal detector (the last time this happened was in Ethiopia), so I got to stand on a box while a woman ran a wand over my bra repeatedly and everyone else looked on. Emma’s necklace also set it off, so she was right there next to me. After a while of that, we got to go reassemble our carry-ons.
The good news is all of this was relatively minor, and we had ample time before our flight. We now also know what to expect when we come back through Beijing in December, with a 23-hour layover. I’m going to figure out a way to spend some time in the stasis pods, at least.