I started off writing this as a journal entry, but I liked it enough to put it online. The 2nd person has always felt a little pretentious to me, but hey — I was writing it to myself.
At home, stay up until 4am, then drive to BWI. Sleep on the 6AM flight to Chicago. But it’s only two 2 hours. Walk off the Chicago flight, sleep deprived, dazed and confused.
Retrieve your baggage because you’re switching flights. Realize that going the reverse direction around the baggage carousel and then stopping at the baggage source is the optimal strategy to locating your baggage. But then realize it doesn’t even matter because your baggage is first off the conveyer belt. Astonishing luck. Must be some sort of universal karmic equalization for last time when you had to wait hours. Does karma have subcategories for things like “baggage claim wait time,” you wonder.
Optimistically turn right back around to get past security… but then realize that you can’t go back into the airport because Hainan airline check-in isn’t even open for another 4 hours. Be surprised this is even a possibility. Consider booking a hotel to sleep for the couple-of-hour-long layover in Chicago (your next flight is at 3PM), and get as far as the hotel lobby, but then reconsider when you discover that the cost is more than 200 dollars just for sleeping for a few hours. (Seriously, 200 dollars? Come on, Chicago.) Sit, bored in the terminal, watching some streams on twitch.tv, enjoying the free wifi. (Little do you know this is the last time you’ll be able to enjoy wifi, or Twitch for that matter, for quite a while.) Be unable to fall asleep; you’re concerned that someone may steal your luggage, and while the probability is low, the consequences would be absolutely disastrous, so the expected value of sleeping is still negative.
Stumble through security, sleep-deprived. Eat some food. Eventually, hop on the longest flight of all time. Sit next to a nice Chinese lady and her son, who demands your window seat (her son, not her). Allow him at first, but then renege when you realize there’s no way you’re going to get to sleep if you’re sitting in the aisle, and you are so tired. Your good will towards children only goes so far. But then realize as you try to communicate that the lady can’t speak more than 5 words of English. This is what those in the literary business refer to as “foreshadowing”. Abandon english and pantomime the fact that you are insanely tired. She understands! But her son doesn’t care.
He wants to look out the window. You completely understand; who wouldn’t? Looking out of the window of a plane while it takes off is one of life’s simple pleasures. You can’t understand why passengers shut their windows. Propose a compromise: the kid can look out of the window while the plane takes off, and then once it gets boring, you can go to sleep there. She doesn’t understand at all. Pantomime an airplane taking off and a switching motion. Now she just looks confused.
Watch the safety instructions. Notice that it constantly switches between safety tidbits and random statements about how we should preserve the earth. Figure it must be a cultural thing.
Finally move to the window seat. Fall asleep. Sleep uncomfortably for 7 or so hours on the flight (seriously, there’s no sleeping position that doesn’t hurt your butt). Wake up and realize somehow that those 7 hours was only half of the flight. Panic mildly. Consider options. Try to watch the episodes of the Wire that you sacrificed precious data to download right before the flight. Unfortunately realize that your headphone jack has finally bitten the dust, so you can’t hear a word. What timing. Reach for your book. Oh wait, it’s in the seat you switched out of, and the lady there is passed out. She was pretty nice and forgiving to your pantomimes; you don’t want to rouse her. Try to watch something on the TV console (now you are really getting desperate). It’s broken. You’re out of options. Stare blankly ahead. For 7 hours.
Nah. Open up laptop. Thank god the charging port in the plane is still US-style chargers. There’s no way you’re doing anything productive, you’re way too tired. Flip randomly through files on your hard drive, that time-honored past time of being incredibly tired while really, truly having nothing to do. Somehow stumble upon the manual to the original Starcraft I. Become amused when you realize that the latter half the manual is an extensive history of the 3 races in Starcraft: Protoss, Zerg and Terran. Reading material at last! Realize that the entire history of all 3 races is just nonstop warfare. Ponder that the concept of “peace” has not apparently been invented in the Starcraft universe. Ponder also that the author has a pretty dim view of humanity; they pretty much just exist to get stepped on by the other races. Wonder who was paid to write 30 pages of racial backstory in a manual that no one would ever read except on 14 hour flights. What’s that sort of life like? Wonder how they were hired. Wonder what they’re doing now. Admit that would be a pretty cool job.
Look outside. It’s dark. Is it morning? Night? Time has lost all meaning. You have no idea what timezone your body thinks its in; its a rapidly shifting and amorphous thing. How strange it is to wake up in pitch darkness, then wait a few hours and still be in pitch darkness.
The sun is rising! The colors are beautiful. You’ve never noticed before how when the Sun just begins to rise, there’s a band of green between the yellow of the sun and the blue of the sky. Makes sense; blue + yellow = green. But you’ve never seen green in the sky at any other time.
Wait. The Sun can’t be rising. The sun goes East to West, right? And so are we? So how is it possible that the sun is rising? The only explanation would be that we’re outpacing the sun, which seems crazy. We only travel about 600mph, surely the sun goes faster than that! Or does it? The Earth’s diameter is about 25000 miles*, meaning the sun would have to travel at over 1000mph to cover the entire diameter daily. (Ponder for a second about what it means for the sun to “travel” 1000mph, when it’s actually not moving in a meaningful relative sense at all.) Wonder if the earth’s diameter is really 25k miles.
Calculate it out. A flight from MD to CA is 3000 miles and takes 5 hours. You know the flight from MD to Chiang Mai is roughly halfway around the world; if you know how long the flight would be, you can do a ratio comparison to see how far you travelled. And you do - the sum total of your trips is 2 + 14 + 4 + 4 = 24 hours. So halfway around the world should be 15000 miles. You feel like Eratosthenes, discovering the diameter of the earth! At least, until you realize you’re wrong. Your trip isn’t a straight line to Chiang Mai, it’s a zigzag. Great. But you can’t deny that you’re looking outside the window and the sun is rising slowly over the horizon. And it has been slowly rising over the horizon for at least the last two hours. You wonder if this is why they call Japan the land of the rising sun…
Realize you are watching a sunset in reverse. Is that the same thing as a sunrise? The plane shifts course, and since you are no longer going directly west, the sun begins to sink again. Wonder if this is what life is like in the arctic when they only get a few hours of sun every day - the sun halfheartedly rising over the horizon, then sinking back down. Wonder if there’s some sort of mathematical isomorphism from the path we’re flying relative to the sun to the path you travel as the earth rotates in the arctic relative to the sun. Give up; figure that everything is isomorphic to everything if you try hard enough. (You recall reading an article saying that mathematicians use the word “isomorphic” to describe 2 things that map to each other and computer scientists use the word “isomorphic” to attempt to feel smarter than the person they’re talking to. You feel vaguely guilty about using it, so you add a parenthetical remark.)
You also wonder if the timing of your trip with the rise of the sun was intentional, because you’d have to time it precisely to see the sun at all - maybe someone considered flying out an hour later but figured 14 straight hours of darkness was too depressing to contemplate.
Continually try to see any signs of life or lights from cities from the airplane window, but be stymied by the enormous airplane wing right outside the window. Then, realize that mainland China is covered in smog.
Listen to the captain talk about landing procedures and declarations. Or rather, “try to listen” would be more accurate; the captain and stewardesses are completely inaudible. Instead, watch the video on screen authored by the Chinese government. The quality is so poor that the subtitles are illegible. Become alarmed even though you literally have nothing to declare. After the second video ends, the it restarts, except overdubbed into english instead, with the speaker’s lips clearly not matching the words spoken. Wonder about the guy whose job it was to put the video together. Who’s idea was it to have an animated magnifying ball effect roll over the URL to the Chinese government? Did no one tell him that the US got over that effect in the 80’s?
Land. Actually, “smash into the ground” would be more accurate; you’ve never experienced a rougher landing than this. You genuinely wonder if the wheels have snapped off and the airplane is now skidding out of control down the runway. Somehow survive. Behind you, someone says “I never want to do that again.” Everyone else murmurs in shock.
Turn on your phone. It looks like Verizon works in Beijing, which is remarkable. It texts you about data plans in a message that starts with “Welcome to China.” You look at the period. Not even an exclamation mark? I travel halfway across the world and you can’t even dignify that with an exclamation mark? A few hundred years ago not a single person had done this. Now it’s so routine even automated messages are unimpressed. You disagree with the author of the Starcraft manual. Humanity is awesome.
You accept a roaming data plan, and try to use your phone. You try to text someone. Nothing happens. Alright, perhaps it’s not as easy as you thought.
Step outside. The smog is real; it’s dark and visibility is poor. Send a text to your friends about the pollution in Beijing. Immediately have visions of being thrown in a dank, smoggy underground prison somewhere for speaking out against the government and regret it. Not that it matters; the text couldn’t even send. Thanks, Verizon.
Walk down the ramp and onto the bus to the Airport. My god, you mean that airplanes don’t need to connect directly to terminal gates? It makes so much sense! China is truly more advanced than America.
Stumble into Beijing Capital airport, wondering aimlessly if you should feel tired or not now. Set the timezone of your iPhone to Chiang Mai. You should have done that ages ago. It reads 6PM. Which means it’s around 6AM back home. It feels like neither. You are in some weird localized timeless void. Mull about the state of the Beijing airport. For what should be the airport of the capital of China, it’s a bit of a let down. The floor is dirty, walls are broken or have holes in them, the architecture is uninspiring. And, yes, the smog.
Go up to the immigration officer, show him your passport. He asks why you’ve come to China. Tell him it’s just a layover and you’ll be leaving in the morning to Hong Kong. He demands your itinerary. Uh. Itinerary? For a layover? You remember that your booking service sent you a list of flights; hopefully that’s good enough. It’s not. He demands flight names and numbers, which the list doesn’t have. Well, that’s fine - surely you can just look up the more extensive itinerary sent to you over Gmail. Oh wait, you have no 3G. And the wifi doesn’t work here. And Gmail is blocked in China. And you don’t have your next boarding pass, because you chose the budget option that flew on 4 different airlines. And you don’t know which airline it is, because why bother memorizing that anyways? And all your friends and family at home are asleep, so they can’t help you (if you could even text them).
He kicks you out of line to go stand at a table for further assistance. You stand there for about 30 minutes and watch as the customs line grows from 5 people to over a hundred. No one comes for you. You begin to doubt his word and get back in line. Flipping through your Safari tabs idly on your phone, you hit an astonishing bit of luck: you have a cached version of the itinerary open in one of your very old tabs - possibly opened when you first bought your flight. It’s enough, apparently; the customs agent reluctantly stamps your passport.
As you continue through Chinese customs, contemplate whether Chinese officials are competing over who can check your passport the most times. Wonder why sometimes you have to pass through multiple gates, where at each one all the official seems to do is again verify that, yes, you still haven’t lost your passport. (Become suddenly concerned about what would happen if you were to lose your passport.)
As you walk outside of Chinese customs at last, look over the door that would normally say something like “after you leave these doors, you must proceed to the exit.” Here, the translated English reads “There’s no turning back now.” You are mildly concerned.
You go to information to find a hotel room, and the lady behind the counter informs you that you should arrive 3 hours early, which puts your wake up time at… 4 AM. Ouch. You silently vow to never choose the budget airline option again. She then takes a piece of paper and writes down a bunch of Mandarin. The only symbols legible to you are “4:00”. She tells you that the price of the hotel will be 200 yuan. You have no idea how much this is in USD, but it sounds like a lot. (When you finally leave China and look up conversion rates, you’re pleasantly surprised!) She hands it to you and tells you to give it to the hotel receptionist; it will explain when you need to be back at the airport. You look at the paper dubiously, hoping it doesn’t say something like “chuck this guy in the ocean.” You make another vow: the next time you have a layover in a country where you don’t speak the language, at least learn the words for “thank you” and “I have no clue what you just said.”
At the hotel, silently consider the possibility that not a single person in the entire building speaks a word of English. (Again chastise yourself for failing to learn at least a few words of Mandarin ahead of time. But you remember that you incorrectly believed you’d be sleeping in Hong Kong instead.) Upon seeing you, the hotel receptionist spits out a long and unintelligible phrase in Mandarin. You stare at her in confusion. You say, “sorry, I didn’t understand that.” Now she’s giving you the same face you gave her. Both of you realize you don’t understand a word of the other’s language at the same time, and laugh. Then you hand over the slip of paper. She nods and asks for your passport. This is feeling excessive. Nevertheless, you oblige. She gives you a room key.
Finding the WIFI password in the hotel is like piecing together clues in a point and click adventure game. There’s Mandarin characters everywhere, and you have no clue what any of them mean - but you can piece together broad strokes when you see the accompanying pictures. Finally, you find a piece of paper taped to the bed: “Wife: 6badskjfh6a”. That’s a weird name for a wife, you muse. But it ends up to be a fine Wifi password.
You aimlessly surf the Internet. Google is blocked. Gmail is blocked. Facebook is blocked. You go to check your stats on Soundcloud only to realize that that is blocked too. (Really… Soundcloud?) Try to send some messages to your friends, but then realize you don’t know how. Every messaging protocol you use is blocked, and when you try to text them, your texts don’t go through. Feel strangely isolated. Become anxious about being trapped here, but realistically know that China would like nothing more than to get rid of you as soon as possible.
Then, feel thirsty. Have doubts about Chinese whether water is potable. The Internet confirms your doubts, and informs you that hotels generally provide free bottled water to their guests. Be unable to find any in your room. Go online and look up the Mandarin word for “water”. (That’s a good one to add to your list.) Contemplate pantomiming a drinking motion to the receptionist. Wonder if she'll ask for your passport first. Then, find a water dispenser outside. All that preparation for nothing. Press the wrong button and be surprised to discover that it actually dispenses boiling hot water.
That’s the first water dispenser you’ve ever seen that actually dispenses hot water.
Get a drink. Go back to your room. With a sigh, set your alarm for 3:40 AM. Crash on the mattress, which is hard as a rock. You recall reading that hard mattresses are the best for the back, and ponder if this is why asian people are healthier.
Wake at 3:30 AM to a phone call with more unintelligible Mandarin. Figure this is probably your wake up call for a shuttle.
Be surprised that you don’t actually feel all that tired. In the airport, the Starbucks is closed. That drives home how early it is, which is fortunate, because otherwise you wouldn’t know. The bright lights of the terminal, the hustle and bustle of people, your shifting circadian rhythm all make it feel like it could be any time at all.
As you board the plane to Hong Kong, realize: you’ve never seen Beijing when it’s not pitch black outside.
On the descent to Hong Kong International Airport, wonder if what you’re seeing is actually possible: you seem to be landing on an island off of Hong Kong. As it turns out, it is. HKIA was rebuilt on an island about 20 years ago. Hong Kong International Airport is incredible; it’s what you imagined Beijing Capital Airport to be like. The terminals are mindbogglingly spacious, and the hallways for the gates stretch on to the vanishing point. By now accustomed to wasting hours of your life this way, you go fetch your baggage and re-enter the airport.
You still have hours in Hong Kong, so you wander around the airport idly. Every part of it is different, but all the pieces fit into a cohesive whole. Rooms that would be forgotten about in other airports are adorned with giant abstract art installations, or huge blocks of marble. Elevators shuttle people up from underground tramways through glass shafts. Escalators have cute cartoon notices to look up from your phone and take care of your elders.
Past security, the airport is dominated by an enormous shopping mall. The airport back in Baltimore just had convenience store shops, but HKIA is populated with upscale technology stores and high end clothes stores. The bookstores aren’t selling trashy romance novels like they were in BWI - now they’re selling books on how to be a CEO in a company with overseas branches. Very clever marketing, you think; it gives you a clue as to why HKIA is so much more upscale than BWI. You pass by more stores - audiophile paraphernalia, juice shops, jewelry shops. Wait. Jewelry shops? This has always bothered you. Who goes into an airport to buy jewelry?
You buy some ramen at a fast food joint. Holy smokes, this has to be in the top 3 ramen you’ve ever had in your life. And it’s just at a random fast food joint. Either you have a terrible taste in ramen or you have a lot to look forward to.
* Initial misconception retained. Jesus, I was WAY off on this. Where’d I even get that number from? And yes, airplanes can outpace the sun! How awesome is that? Of course, it depends which degree of latitude you are. On the equator, the Sun will be slightly faster (~750mph) than an airplane (~600mph). On the north pole, the sun moves 0 mph. Extrapolating, it seems logical that I was at a latitude where my speed was just faster than that of the Sun.
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