I’ve traveled by air within China a number of times before, and in general it has been much less hassle than traveling within the US. All the TSA’s security measures of questionable effectiveness seem to provide much bother for little real safety gain. Until recently, you could take up to a liter of liquid with you on a domestic flight here, and there was none of that take-off-your-shoes foolishness.
Well, I don’t know if it was just in honor of the Olympics or a permanent change, but the convenience factor here took a nose-dive on the recent Yunnan trip. To add to the confusion over what you can and cannot do or bring, each airport seems to have its own interpretation of the rules.
The hassles started more or less from the moment we left home (and were not actually security related). The new rapid transit train to the airport is open, so we decided to take advantage of it and save on the taxi fare. It’s normally about ￥80 for a taxi from my place to the airport. The train is ￥25 per person. As far as we were able to tell, there is no way to get to the train without navigating stairs. You can take a big lovely set of escalators from the ground level down, but that puts you on a landing where you have to go down a short flight of stairs to a security checkpoint, where you have to run your bags through an X-ray machine.
That puts you inside the Beijing Subway system. To get to the Airport Express, you have to go around to another area to purchase your ticket. Then you go through a security checkpoint where you have to run your bag through an X-ray machine. I think there must be some way to get to this point without going through the first checkpoint, but that would also mean that you can get to the subway without getting X-rayed. Hmmm…
Anyway, from there you go down an escalator to a very small landing area where you wait for the train. It’s a relatively nice train, but there is not a lot of room to stow bags, so unless you’re willing to put your bag at the end of a car and sit where it is out of view, you have to stand up if you have more than a carry-on.
It takes 17 minutes to get to the new Terminal 3. Our flight to Kunming, however, took off from Terminal 2, so we stayed on the train. Total time to T2 is about 30 minutes. All of which are faster than a taxi.
When you get off at T2, you go through another security checkpoint, there’s only one officer checking everyone, so when a train lets out, you end up with a big long line. All they do here is run the little chemical-sniffing paper over parts of your bag. (At T3, they have a fancy sniffing machine, but T2 has to be content with the old tech.)
After you check in and get your boarding pass, you get to the regular security line. The usual, laptop out of bag and so on, but no need to remove your shoes. We were only going for a weekend, so we hadn’t planned on checking anything, and crammed all we had into our carry-ons. They ran D’s backpack through the machine twice before opening it to search. They dug through it for what seemed like forever, not finding anything to complain about, then finally triumphantly held up a tiny bottle of Purel sanitizer. Aha! Not allowed. They confiscated it and let us proceed to our gate.
Right on time, we got onto our plane. We could see out the windows that it had started raining outside. By the time everyone was on board and they went through the safety spiels, the plane was rocking back and forth from the buffeting wind, and rain was hitting the windows as hard as if we were already in the air. We started to see flashes of lightning outside.
They announced that we would have to wait for the weather to clear before we could take off. A wise decision, of course, but it was already getting pretty stuffy inside the cabin. Before long they brought around the drink carts. They did not seem to have any alcohol available.
After twenty minutes or so, the storm slacked off a bit, and we could see other planes taking off. They told us we were waiting our turn in queue, and would take off soon. But before that time came, the weather took another turn for the worse and all take-offs were halted.
Then they brought around the food cart. It was a mid-afternoon three-hour flight, so we normally would have had dinner an hour after take-off. Feeding us seemed like an admission that we would have at least an hour more on the ground. Just after we started eating, there was an announcement that operations had resumed and we would be leaving soon, so we all hurried to wolf down the food.
It was another false alarm. By the time we finally left the ground, we were almost two hours behind schedule. I had built a two hour layover in Kunming before or connection to Lijiang just in case, but this pretty much ate that up.
Aside from a bit of turbulence and the lack of any further food, the flight south was uneventful. Beneath us we saw nothing but clouds until just before landing.
Of course we had missed our Lijiang flight, and as it turned out there was no other one for us until the following morning. I guess that’s one down-side to buying steeply discounted tickets.
We stopped at the ticket window and arranged a replacement flight at 11 the next morning, then called the hotel in Lijiang to tell them we were stuck in Kunming. We asked at the airport information desk where we could find a hotel, and they said there was one across the street.
The less said about our hotel arrangements that night the better. It was really cheap and not really worth the pennies we paid.
When we got to the airport the next morning for the Lijiang flight, D’s carryon again had problems. It contained exactly the same things that had passed muster in Beijing after the Purel was ditched. This time they pulled out a 14oz. (396g) tube of skin lotion. On reflection, I have no idea why they let something so large through in Beijing. This lotion is fairly expensive stuff (and not readily replaceable in China), so we dropped out of the line, put the hand lotion into a different bag, and went back to the check-in counter to check it. So much for our carry-on-only plan.
That did the trick and we whizzed through the Kunming security line this time.
I’ve already written a number of posts about our short time in Lijiang and our visit to the Stone Forest. But getting home again presented challenges. At the little airport in Lijiang they have a big sign that informs you in Chinese and English that you have to remove belts and shoes in order to pass through security. That’s something I’ve never had to do in China. But we complied and there was no problem.
Back at Kunming, we had already worked through their process, so it was no problem.
I think that now the Olympics are past, things may have lightened up a bit – maybe someone else can confirm that in a comment. It strikes me as odd that in China, a country widely regarded as featuring strong monolithic central control, should have such regional variation in a matter that is so tightly regimented in the US.
I’ve used the Airport Express train since then, and this time the first escalator was closed down for maintenance, leaving me to lug my big bag down a long flight of stairs. As far as I can tell, the train is not accessible for a wheelchair at all. I looked all over and did not see an elevator. The airport stations seem to be accessible, and the trains themselves have fold-up seats in designated areas for wheelchairs, but I don’t know what a person in a chair would do once they got off the train on the Beijing end of the line. It is possible to get onto the Airport without going through two X-ray machines, however. When the attendant saw me approaching the first one with my bag, she asked if I was going to the airport; I said yes and she waved me past it – which of course means that if I had lied, I would have been able to take my large unscanned bag onto the subway.