Avoid flying domestic in China

Xi'an Xianyang International Airport (XIY) departure hall

I originally intended to blog about each city I visited during this vacation in Hong Kong & mainland China, but I got so busy with the actual tourism that I didn’t end up writing anything except for Hong Kong.

However, recent experiences flying (first from Xi’an to Shanghai Pudong, and then from Beijing to my birthplace) have been sufficiently dissatisfactory to warrant a rant about the state of domestic air travel in China.

1. China Southern Airlines problems

Supposedly this is one of the 10 worst airlines in the world, according to Business Insider/Zagat.

Xi’an to Shanghai

Our flight from Xi’an to Shanghai was delayed by about 3 hours. The incoming flight was late supposedly due to weather in Shanghai, so it wasn’t necessarily the airline’s fault. However, communication about the matter was rather poor (see complaints below about the XIY airport) and the delay estimates didn’t seem to be updated in the airline’s electronic systems, even though they knew pretty early on that our flight wouldn’t be able to leave til nearly midnight. China Southern’s website, Google, and (I think) FlightAware, were all providing inaccurate information as a consequence.

Meanwhile, multiple other airlines seemed to have no problem getting planes to fly the same route on time.

Beijing to my hometown

The flight left on time.

Curious observation, not so much a complaint: why did they think it necessary to serve food on a 1.5 hour short haul flight that left at 11 pm? It was a sausage bun of the sort you’d find at an Asian bakery for very cheap… not that one should expect very much of economy class airline food.

I did have an issue with the no mobile phone policy; mobile phone use is prohibited, even in airplane mode. Supposedly this is a Chinese government regulation for which foreigners have been detained for violating. I’m sure older planes with unshielded wiring could be affected by the cumulative effects of everyone’s EM interference—and that’s probably part of why China’s rules haven’t caught up to Europe’s or the US’s—but I really doubt the A320 would have faced much risk from smartphones in airplane mode. A flight attendant actually came around to enforce the rule. Oh well. I suppose we’ll have to blame the government for this obsolete rule.

Deplaning on the tarmac
Deplaning on the tarmac toward a bus to the gate. Sorry for the blur; I took the picture in a hurry.

2. Airport problems

Xi’an Xianyang International Airport (XIY)

The airport was grand and modern—far bigger than was necessary given the remoteness of and air traffic to that city. When we arrived from Hong Kong by Dragonair, we were basically the only arriving international flight; all the other gates seemed to be empty, and our flight’s baggage came on the only active conveyor belt, right next to a sign with such bad Engrish that it substituted an f for what have been a t in “tag”.

The departure hall, too, was much bigger than this city needed. There were other more serious problems, though.

Xi'an Xianyang International Airport (XIY) departure hall
Xi’an Xianyang International Airport (XIY) departure hall

For one, the technology seemed to outpace the capabilities of the people—a recurring observation on this trip. Airport employees made simultaneous, overlapping announcements on the PA system, talking over each other. They also made that gross blowing sound into the microphone each time before starting an announcement, as a mic check. For comparison, I’m told that at many Western airports, announcements are recorded and placed into an automated, prioritized queue (e.g. see Phonetica).

Second, the departure hall featured at least one smoking chamber. The one I observed was a glass booth for people to smoke their cigarettes… but the glass walls didn’t reach the floor, so the booth wasn’t actually isolated from the surrounding environment. Smokers also didn’t close the door fully, which led to that entire gate area smelling like smoke, unfortunately triggering my asthmatic cough repeatedly for those three hours we were delayed there.

Third, there was a ridiculous lack of use of digital information systems. The counter at the gate where we were waiting appeared to lack an airline reservations/logistics computer, and delays were usually not reflected on the airport displays, instead being announced in Chinese and broken Engrish on the PA. On the counter hung a piece of paper, hand-filled with the flight number and the fact that there was a delay. Eventually when we boarded, I don’t even recall if our tickets were scanned—just checked by the gate agent a flight attendant at the gate.

XIY gate counter, with no computer or TV screens specific to that gate
XIY gate counter, with no computer or TV screens specific to that gate

Whatever illusions of modernity and professionalism one got from the physical appearance of the airport were disrupted by these oversights.

Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK) Terminal 2

Never mind that Terminal 2 (T2) and Terminal 3 (T3) are practically separate airports with a minimum connection time (MCT) of 160 minutes for domestic<->international connections… or that the Airport Express train only goes from T3->T2 and not the other way around…

Possibly because of the passenger load at PEK, the airline would not accept checked baggage prior to 3 hours before departure. Consequently, I could not go through security, and had to lug around my heavy suitcase to coffee and dinner in the unsecured area for a few hours… while coping with the dearth of general (i.e. not paid restaurant) seating space prior to security. While I was sipping my drink, I began wheezing and coughing—remember my allergy-related cough?—because some unscrupulous customers were smoking, indoors, in an open restaurant. I can’t believe no one else complained. At last, a waitress told the smoker to put it out.

The story doesn’t get much better after screening. Once inside, I found that my boarding pass did not indicate a gate, and that the terminal displays did not show a gate assignment. My impression, and I could be wrong, is that PEK—and perhaps other airports—does not assign gates until shortly before departure. Unfortunately, that also meant no clear direction to go in the secured area, and nowhere really to sit…

Well, hey, at least I got to charge my phone at a charging station… which other patrons seemed to treat as a garbage bin in table form.

Patrons' food and garbage at a charging station in PEK T2
Patrons’ food and garbage at a charging station in PEK T2

3. The alternative: high speed rail

High speed rail in China is a wonderful thing. We took it from Shanghai to Nanjing in 2nd class, and from Nanjing to Beijing in 1st class seats. In each segment, top speeds exceeded 300 km/h. Trains always left and arrived on time, and seats were more spacious than any economy class seats on an airplane. Typically trains run about every 15 minutes along this route, and all the ones we took on this trip seemed to be filled.

High speed rail from Shanghai
High speed rail from Shanghai

Here are some photos of Chinese high speed rail stations and trains, from my last visit in 2012:

Given that a trip from Shanghai to Beijing in 2nd class would only be 553 RMB (about $89 USD)—uniform pricing regardless of when the ticket is purchased, unlike airfare—and that train stations are generally more convenient to get to/from than airports are—where a high speed rail link exists, I would definitely choose it.

4. Is it any better in the US?

I don’t fly that much in the US, and when I do, it’s often a rather short flight between Philadelphia and Boston. JetBlue and American are pretty nice, though. Even then, the convenience of taking Amtrak to/from 30th Station in Philadelphia and South Station in Boston usually makes rail travel far preferable to short haul flights when rail is an option.

But I doubt the US will ever develop high speed rail as China has. There’s not enough space or money or will—and, arguably, there is no comparable need.

Do you have comparable complaints about domestic air travel in China or the US? Please share.

Day 1: Browsing Wuxi

I have neglected this blog for so long that I owe it to myself to post some more stuff here. Since I’m in China for about two and half weeks, I might as well blog about it — complete with photos*.

* I apologize in advance: most of the pictures are low quality photos from my cell phone.

Purchasing Power Parity and Prices

From what I saw yesterday (let’s call it Day 0), items that are cheap in Canada and/or the United States can be insanely expensive here, while others that are reasonably expensive in Canada are dirt cheap here.

There’s a supermarket / department store chain called Carrefour that has everything imaginable, from imported milk to cell phones to oranges to suitcases. Asian ice cream bars can cost as little as $2 CAD for a package of multiple bars, while I saw a knife priced over ¥1500 and woks up to ¥809.

Expensive wok in China -- ¥809
Really expensive wok in China -- ¥809. I guess some Westerners might be willing to pay the equivalent amount in USD for their pans, but this is still really high.

Aside: there’s an abundance of Engrish products, like “Woman Honey” and “Cuboid Sausage”.

Yet cab rides in Wuxi are dirt cheap. ¥15 brought four people from one side of town to the other — and I would probably estimate a bill of $15-20 USD (+tip) for the equivalent ride in Philadelphia. (I sometimes wonder how that money can possibly be enough to cover the insurance needed for such risky driving.) I’m told that public transit is even cheaper — something like ¥1 fares, not to mention seniors ride free.

The problem with the high prices here (inconsistent with purchasing power parity, which suggests that the price of a good here should be roughly the price of a good in Canada, for example, times the exchange rate) is that incomes are also lower in comparison. When nominal wages are low and prices are high, we come to the uncomfortable conclusion that real wages remain incredibly depressed for most citizens, and the inevitable result that the ordinary standard of living here still falls behind Canada and the US.

But food can be cheap

A bowl of wontons for breakfast

Restaurants can be pretty cheap. For breakfast today on Day 1, I went somewhere that is held in high regard for this particular type of breakfast/dim sum. ¥8 for a bowl of wonton, or for four meat buns (小笼包).

Steamed meat buns from Wuxi
Delicious meat buns, with a unique Wuxi recipe.

Aside: to eat 小笼包:

  1. Pick up carefully with chopsticks from the tray seen above.
  2. Bite a small piece, preferably in the lower half, on the side.
  3. Without letting go, suck out the juices inside. (Caution: may be hot!) There’s a lot of it, and it tastes so good — it would be wasted if you ate the bun normally and let it leak out.
  4. Bite and chew rest of the bun as you might ordinarily do.

Aside: I thought this was tea — but it’s actually vinegar.

In essence, a delicious breakfast meal can be had for $3-4 USD — under the price of a Starbucks mocha in North America.

Road rage is normal

I’m a little afraid to be on the road here.

  • As a pedestrian accustomed to drivers yielding the way, I’m likely to get injured, because here, people have to yield to cars, for the simple reason that the cars drive aggressively.
  • As a rider in cabs, I’m afraid every time the taxi makes a turn, because it always feels like we’ll hit a bike or a pedestrian. Every lane change is practically cutting someone off. And on at least one occasion, the driver has gone onto the opposite side of the road to bypass really slow cars.
  • There is no f’ing way I would drive here, or even survive trying.

Also, there are mopeds everywhere.

Mopeds parked

Some people on a moped

China’s learning the good and the bad from American capitalism

On the bright side, Chinese people seem to have learned that there’s money to be made from taking risks and launching small businesses. There are lots of little shops of all kinds, many of them fashion or textile shops (people love to browse them but not buy from them). Some of these stores occupy the first floor of an otherwise decrepit building — but the shops themselves are nicely renovated and decorated.

A textile and fabrics store in Wuxi
A textile and fabrics store in Wuxi

On the opposite side, the income disparity seems to be increasing rapidly. Some alleys have people labouring to survive (e.g. cleaning shoes, fixing bike tires) while nearby streets boast Louis Vuitton stores and Häagen-Dazs ice cream.

Louis Vuitton store in Wuxi
Luxury stores are all around

Interestingly, rich and poor seem to coexist in the same spaces in Wuxi. Unlike the sharp divisions between good and bad neighbourhoods in some American cities (*cough* Philadelphia), it’s hard to find lower-income citizens in a place of their own.

Alleyway of labourers in Wuxi
Alleyway of labourers

I walked by an alleyway where construction workers probably lived. There was a cluster of people around something that resembled an outdoor food cart, but it wasn’t open to the general public — it was set up so that the community of laborers could eat affordably.

Labourers getting food for brunch in Wuxi
Labourers getting food for brunch

Historic gardens (preview)

I’m going to post more photos from this venue in Part 2 of Day 1. We took somewhere between 250 and 300 photos of this historic site, where ancient architecture and estates from earlier eras, trees hundreds of years old, and an intricate system of stone wells that collect mountain water, have been preserved. I’m going to need some time to sort through the photos.

(My uncle, who teaches martial arts, served as a tour guide and explained the historical/cultural significance of many of the sights.)

Scene from preserved building

I also saw beautiful slabs of stone with engraved calligraphy, from different eras hundreds of years past. Even hundreds of years ago, the basis for the modern written Chinese language had already been set.

Slabs of engraved calligraphy
Slabs of engraved calligraphy

Anyways, all that and more will come — in Part 2.