Our trip back to San Diego was just about bad enough to turn me off air travel forever. In order to save a few hundred dollars, I had booked our flight with United Airlines and their partner Air China via Beijing (the best alternative, which would have taken us through Incheon, Korea, cost quite a bit more). I bought the tickets back in late August, when I had some time to take care of these things. I expected some itinerary changes because of the amount of time involved, but things got a lot more complicated than I expected.
It started well before we left, when I noticed that our tickets from Ulaanbaatar to San Diego via Beijing and San Francisco was missing the first leg. Somehow, United Airlines had dropped our Air China flight from UB to Beijing, and Air China had no record of it either, so our return trip somehow magically started in Beijing. I brought my print-out of the full itinerary and ticket to the United Airlines office in UB, and a few weeks later got notification that we were back on the Air China flight. This was in April.
Sometime later, I was double-checking our departure time and noticed a slight itinerary change. Instead of flying via San Francisco, United had re-routed us from Beijing to San Diego via Newark. Um. Thousands of miles of extra flying there. I once again contacted the United office in UB, and they told me it wasn’t possible to change our flight to anything via the West Coast. Everything was booked solid. It didn’t matter that I’d bought my ticket in August. Well, OK then. I had ordered the extra legroom seats, and we still had those, so I was willing to go along with it if we couldn’t change back.
A few days before we were going to leave, I checked the tickets again to make sure there had been no further changes. Everything looked the same. Then the day before we were to fly, I got a notification that the Beijing-Newark flight was going to be delayed because of thunderstorms on the East Coast of the US. Our flight crew wouldn’t be able to leave Beijing on time because they had been delayed coming in and needed a certain amount of time to rest before flying again. Good policy, in my opinion. I noticed we would miss the Newark to San Diego flight, but I figured they would have to put us on another flight, probably the next morning, so I sent an email to the house sitter that we’d be back a day late and prepared for a very long trip.
On Monday morning we took our luggage to the airport in a taxi. We had the same luggage we’d come to Mongolia with, with the exception of an additional small rolling bag (smaller than the usual carry-on size, sized for a laptop and some extra stuff) that was supposed to be my carry on. I had made it light, packing everything we’d bought in Japan. According to my tickets and the Air China baggage policy online, we were supposed to be able to check two bags each for free. I knew one of our bags would be over weight, but I was prepared to pay the extra for it. Since we had flown in with the same luggage, and since Air China and United Airlines’ policies were the same, I wasn’t worried that we were checking four bags. Can you sense what is coming, dear reader?
The Air China agent immediately said we were only allowed to check one bag. I had the print-out showing that we were allowed two free bags each. She said, no, according to the system, we were only allowed to check one bag each, and I would have to pay for the additional bags. Also, one of our bags was “oversized” and I would have to pay extra for it. It’s a bag I’ve travelled with for about five years now, and no one ever told me it was “oversized” before. It was the one that was also heavy, so I said, OK, whatever. But another bag came out heavy by a couple of kilograms. At that point, she wouldn’t let me redistribute the weight to another bag, because there was a line behind us. OK, whatever, I’d pay for two overweight bags. But then she added on the charges for two “extra” bags. And as we started following the other Air China agent who was going to take my money for the bags, she said, “Wait, you can’t bring that big bag on the plane!” The “big bag” she was referring to was the small rolling bag. I argued with her, but she said the flight was full and we absolutely had to check it. At that point, I just wanted to get the hell out of there, so I let her check the bag. (Of course, someone else on our flight had the identical bag as a carry on, and several people had the full-sized rolling bags, so that was bullshit.) When she gave me the boarding passes, Emma had seats all the way through to San Diego, but I had been bumped out of my extra legroom seat on the flight from Beijing to Newark, and they weren’t able to issue me a boarding pass for the Newark to San Diego leg of the trip. Interesting. But she told me I’d have to talk to someone in Beijing about it.
The other Air China agent who was collecting the money for the luggage was dealing with a few other irate passengers as well, including another woman who was told her bag was “oversized” even though she’d traveled with it before. Of course, they had us in a tough spot, because we were already at the airport and wanting to leave. So, between the “extra” bags ($200 each), the heavy bags ($250 total), and the bag she made me check (also $200), I charged $850 to my credit card, and we were on our way, feeling very cranky.
The Air China flight itself went smoothly, and we now had plenty of time in Beijing to eat lunch and find our flight. We hadn’t been in transit in Beijing before, because we had always had a longer layover and had had to collect our luggage and leave the airport. I figured the transit security would be similar to what we’d experienced before, so we had packed our carry-ons accordingly, with anything that could be construed as a battery in one place. Emma had her violin as her second carry on piece, and I only had my knapsack because I’d been forced to check the rolling bag. I had to send my knapsack through twice even though I had unpacked almost all of it, and I was just putting it back together when I saw a security guy asking Emma something about her violin case. I was zipping my bag shut and looking up to deal with it, when I saw that Emma was gone.
I looked around and asked the security staff who had been checking my bag what happened to my daughter. He didn’t answer. I collected all of our stuff (her knapsack was still there, but her violin case was not), and I noticed that I had her passport, but not mine. I went to a different security person and asked what had happened to my daughter. No reply. Then I went out of the security area into the terminal and looked around, but I knew that she wasn’t likely to have wandered away from me on her own. I tried to remember what the security guy had asked her about the violin case, but I had just thought they were going to run it through again, which wouldn’t have required removing her from the area. I mean, it was a violin, a bow, a tuner, some rosin, and two music books. It had passed through security last time. What could be the problem?
I went back to the security area and started saying loudly to anyone who looked like they worked there, “What happened to my daughter? Where is my passport?” None of the security staff would answer my questions. At that point about ten minutes had gone by, and I was starting to panic. I was nervous about making too much of a fuss, because I was worried about repercussions for both of us. We were only in transit, not trying to enter the country, but airport security is not to be messed with under any circumstances, as far as I’m concerned. I know how much power TSA has in the US, and I could only imagine the situation being more serious in China. I didn’t want to get arrested for trying to find my kid. So I just kept asking, very calmly, what had happened to my daughter.
After a few more minutes of no responses, I went back out of the security area and tried to think of who I could approach for help. Then I saw her running towards me with her violin case. She ran up to me a hugged me. But she was also laughing. Apparently the problem was that she had two rosins in her violin case, and she was only allowed to have one, so the security person, who didn’t speak English, was trying to communicate this to her and get her to choose which one should be confiscated. She had been physically grabbed and pulled away before she could say anything to me, and when she told the security person she needed to tell her mom, the woman had said nothing and pulled her harder. So she was freaked out by the whole thing, too. I realized as she was telling the story that I was shaking, but I laughed when she said, “Yeah, I could totally hijack a plane with a violin rosin.” She also had my passport because the woman who had dragged her off had grabbed it. She said the woman had kept looking at her and looking at my passport, like “Is this really your passport?” Well, of course not.
I’ve got to say, the whole thing has made me reluctant to ever fly via Beijing again. Which I was, anyway. What with human rights violations and all.
It also made me think about the family separations going on in my own country. Separating a child from their parent under any circumstances is upsetting and traumatic, but what the United States has been doing to migrant families is designed to be harmful and punitive and cause lasting damage. In our case, it was only about ten minutes. I couldn’t imagine never seeing Emma again. But it made me feel renewed compassion for the people whose lives are being shattered by my government.
Once we had our reunion, it was time to look for lunch and check on the status of our flight, which was supposed to leave in the late afternoon. It wasn’t on the board, though flights leaving at the same time or later were there, so I had to consult the information desk. She immediately gave me a gate number, but we had about four hours, so we decided to try to find some vegetarian food.
Beijing Capital Airport’s Terminal 3 is huge, but it doesn’t have a lot of food or retail options, though a lot of things seem to be “Coming Soon” (and were “Coming Soon” in January, too). Emma, fresh from two weeks in Japan, wanted to just find a convenience store, but there wasn’t anything like that on the map. So we started to make our rounds of the restaurants. The Thai and Chinese restaurants had nothing vegetarian, and a pub called something like Murphy’ or O’Grady’s also only had meat options. We finally ended up at Pizza Hut because by this point we were just really hungry. Cheese pizza wasn’t on the menu, but unlike the Pizza Hut in Ulaanbaatar, they did make them, according to the person I asked when we came in. (The Pizza Hut in UB does make cheese pizzas for delivery, but not if you are in the restaurant, at least, not the one in the State Department Store.)
We were feeling a bit punchy after our security experience, so the whole ordering process at the Pizza Hut seemed funny to us. We got a seat right away, but it seemed almost impossible to get someone to take our order. Other people were ordering, just not us. I waved at a server several times without result. I finally got up and walked to where the woman who had seated us was standing and said, “We’d like to order now.” I pointed in the menu, showing the drink Emma wanted (iced milk tea), the drink I wanted (iced green tea with grapefruit), and then asked for a cheese pizza. She ushered me back to the table, and then took the order again while I was sitting down. OK. So then, when they brought two of the grapefruit iced teas, Emma and I just burst out laughing. The server ran away, and it took me a while to get her to come back and explain it was the wrong thing. She kept picking up the bill that had been left on our table, which erroneously had two of the same drinks on it (in Chinese, but still). Then she brought back a menu, and I once again pointed to the iced milk tea (which was on a different page from the green tea, so that wasn’t the problem). Emma finally got her drink, but at that point we were just laughing at everything.
Then we went to wait by the gate. I was still calming down from the adventures in security, but Emma settled into drawing almost immediately. She has become an incredibly easy person to travel with. She loves drawing and reading, not to mention pouring over the thousands of saved Instagram memes stored on her phone. She not only keeps herself occupied but is genuinely productive under most circumstances. (She’s better than I am at this point; I’m writing this post while waiting for my car to be repaired, but I am distracted by so many things. Like the kids having a meltdown over there.) I kept getting up to look buy drinks and snacks from Costa’s and to look for the Keihl’s pharmacy I remembered seeing last time (which seems to be gone) and to see if I might have missed a news stand or convenience store that wasn’t on the terminal map. (I hadn’t.)
What I was waiting for and nervous about was for the gate agents to show up. Remember how they’d bumped me out of the seat I had paid extra for? We were now sitting rows apart – Emma in row 20 and I in row 38. Also, the fact that we were going to miss our connecting flight in Newark. When the gate agent finally showed up, I was first in line (there were several other people in the same situation). When I asked about the seat change, she said that it showed that I hadn’t paid for the extra legroom for myself, only for Emma. I had the receipt showing the payment, but she said in her computer it didn’t show it. Far out. “But I’ll give you the seat anyway, because you should travel with her.” Interestingly, the seat next to Emma’s (20A, which had been my original seat), happened to be free, so she sat me in it. OK. As for the connecting flight, she was able to get us on a flight from Newark to San Diego the following morning. “And you should get a free hotel room for that, so make sure to ask when you get to Newark.” We also got around $30 worth of food vouchers for the Costa’s I had already bought us drinks and snacks at. Oh, well.
The plane left nearly on time. The flight was looooong, of course (almost 15 hours). United had canceled our vegetarian meal requests, of course, but we were able to get an ovo-lacto option anyway. Emma watched movies the whole flight, while I slept for most of it. I tried to watch Captain Marvel (which she had watched on our flight from Japan), but I fell asleep. When we rolled into Newark, I was feeling mostly human, but that would end soon. The immigration line at Newark was insane, and though I managed to download the TSA app, I thought we were almost through the line, so I decided not to bother with it. Well, turns out after that first line, there was another line, but now I have the app for next time. Anyway, I thought, we have until tomorrow morning.
We finally got to the front of the line, and the guy didn’t ask me what we’d been doing in Mongolia for six months, but instead asked me about the $600 in stuff I was declaring on my customs form. I said, “Well, we just went to Japan for the last two weeks and bought a bunch of souvenirs there.” “Samurai swords?” I said, “No, just yukata and stuff like that.” And then we were through. Someday, Emma is really going to look like an adult, and I will lose the traveling-with-a-child advantage, but evidently I still have it.
After that, we were reunited with our ridiculous luggage, and had to haul it through customs and out to the recheck line for United. At this point, it was around 10:45 pm. When we got to the head of the recheck line, it was 11:00. We were able to recheck the bags, but I heard the woman say to another worker that the baggage handlers were going off duty at 11:15. Anyone still with luggage at that point would be stuck with it until morning. Judging from the length of the line behind us, quite a few people had to spend the night with their luggage. I was glad it wasn’t us.
We got vouchers for a hotel (something called Country Inn and Suites, in Newark?) and around $60 in food vouchers for the airport, as well as our boarding passes with seats in the very back of the plane. Oh, well. I asked if I’d be able to get a refund for the economy plus seats we were supposed to have on our old flight, and she said, yes, once our flight was completed, if I requested a refund online. (I did. Still waiting…) So we went off to find our hotel shuttle. We’d have to be back at the airport at 6:30 am to check in for our 8:30 flight, so we didn’t have a ton of time to sleep. We waited outside near one of the couples that had been on our flight from UB. He was working for the US embassy there, but they’d only been in Mongolia for three months when his mother unexpectedly died, so they were trying to get back to Maryland. They had a flight to DC the next morning.
So, we waited for the Country Inn and Suites shuttle. We waited. And waited. And waited. Shuttle after shuttle came and went. Marriott. Courtyard by Marriott. Fairfield Inn and Suites. Best Western. Another Best Western. Crowne Plaza. Holiday Inn. Embassy Suites. All the hotel brands. At around 11:35, I asked a passing Marriott shuttle driver if there might be a vacancy. He looked it up and said $352 dollars for the night. At that point we were looking at a 5-hour sleep, so $70 an hour. Pretty steep. He said the Fairfield would have a room for $170, so try that. But while we were waiting for a Fairfield shuttle, a small gray 12-seater van pulled in at the far end of the strip. We could tell by the mad rush that it was a Country Inn and Suites shuttle. Around 30 people ran up to the van, pushing each other out of the way to get to it. Emma and I walked over in time to hear the driver say, “We can take six people. There’ll be another shuttle in half an hour.”
I walked back and relayed this information to the waiting couple. Emma and I looked at each other and said, “Let’s just go back to the terminal.” So we did.
When we got to Terminal C, we decided to try just going through security. I wasn’t sure we’d be able to, and sure enough, we were informed that because our flight was for the next day (it was 11:53), we’d have to wait until after midnight. So we sat on some steps, and then went back to try again. There was another family with young children also trying to go through. Security in Newark was a breeze compared to Beijing, especially since there was almost no one there. Then we went to locate our gate and find a place to sit for the next eight hours until our flight boarded.
Terminal C wasn’t exactly hopping. In fact, it was pretty deserted. We found seats relatively near our gate (they’ve rearranged the terminal so there is no seating at the gates themselves, but in the central areas). Cibo Express had self-checkout, so we could get food and drinks. For us, at this point, it was mid-afternoon, and we were both hungry. Emma stocked up on Starburst and Cheezits and a Snickers, while I got salt and vinegar chips, a Snickers, and a Clif bar. Lunch/dinner of champions. Then we sat. Emma drew on her art tablet, while I read The Mists of Avalon, which I had started in Mongolia after we’d binge-watched the Merlin series on Netflix. The seating at the airport was all separated by metal arm rests, so it was impossible to lie down or put your feet up. Elsewhere, there were seats without arm rests, but they were bolted to the floor, so you couldn’t move them around. The place was clearly not designed for overnight or long-term guests.
The night passed. Not particularly quickly or slowly, but it passed. It was kind of interesting to see the progression of cleaning that happened in the early morning hours with few people around to be in the way of floor sweepers and polishers and other cleaning tasks. At one point, all three women’s restrooms on our side of security were closed for cleaning. At the same time. So I popped into a men’s room without worrying too much about someone else coming in.
Eventually, 5 am rolled around and the food vendors started opening for business. Staff had been showing up since around 4:30 to get things ready for the day. I had spotted a bagel place, but I wasn’t sure when it opened. A woman was prepping various bagel toppings, and I asked her what time they opened. She made a point of not looking at me and not answering. Typical New Jersey; for a moment, I felt like I was truly home. As soon as they opened, I hopped in line to order us some toasted bagels and buy a dozen to go. Figuring out the ordering system was a bit much for someone who had just sat up all night, but once I did, I really liked it. All the food vendors had tablets to order on, and once you placed your order, you went to a central location to pay for it (or, in my case, use my vouchers), and then go back to pick up the food. It was like the cash register system in Mongolia, where every floor had a centralized register and you got your item once you brought the receipt back to the salesperson. Of course, the bagel place didn’t have coffee, so I had to go elsewhere for that and then add a bunch of other things to get up to the $10 voucher amount.
The rest of the trip went fine. We left a bit late, and got in a bit late, but it wasn’t too bad. I just missed having the extra legroom. It made me realize why I tend to get the economy plus seats on longer flights. I am not a tall person (5 foot 7 inches, or 170 cm), and I have short legs. Even so, I was very uncomfortable in my regular airplane seat; I didn’t used to be, until they started putting them closer together. The difference between the United seats and our seats on Korean Air to Japan was remarkable. Fortunately, I managed to sleep most of the way. After a trip of one thing going wrong after another, it was a relief to be on the last flight. Suddenly, we were beginning our descent into San Diego, passing over the Salton Sea.
The car service was waiting for us to help with the luggage and take us home. The drive home was kind of endless, but our driver was really interesting to talk to. He was from Ethiopia, and he told me about a water filter he’d been developing with a local organization for people to use in Ethiopia. He’s going to bring a shipment over in August and start distribution. Talking about the need for clean water in places like Ethiopia definitely made the car ride to our house go a lot faster.
Then he was helping us drag the suitcases up to the front door, and I was digging out my keys. We could hear the dogs stirring on the other side of the door. We walked through and saw them jumping up and down on the other side of the dog gate. Just like that, after nearly 48 hours, we were home.