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Traversing China. Again.

By David Haldane

Sept. 21, 2023


The first red flag got hoisted at Manila Airport.

Eager to check in early for my Air China flight to Los Angeles via Beijing, I joined a lengthy line of travelers similarly inclined. And noticed immediately the absence of any ticket agents sitting at the counter.

“Damn,” I thought, “I’ve done it again!”

Let me explain.

Four years ago, I booked another flight—for me and my then-eight-year-old son—from Manila to Los Angeles, that one with a long layover in Chongqing. Here’s how I described the experience in a subsequent column:

“A bit of advice: when someone on a Chinese airplane tells you to consult the ground crew regarding where to catch your connecting flight, don’t believe him. There are several reasons: 1. The ground crew will be nowhere in sight; 2. Even if they are, they won’t speak a word of English; and 3. Even if they speak a word of English, they won’t know the answer to your question. Bottom line: my son and I were on our own at an abandoned foreign airport in an obscure foreign town.”

So I vowed to never fly through China again. Until now.

The second red flag came when the agent who finally checked me in mentioned that, unlike most airlines most of the time, this one wouldn’t be issuing a boarding pass for the connecting flight out of Beijing until I got there.

“Really?” I inquired. “And how do I obtain that boarding pass?”

“Don’t worry,” she assured me, “someone will be there to help.”

That someone wasn’t among the first five Beijing airport employees I queried. Finally, the sixth one nodded vaguely in the direction I was headed and said, “Just go to the Air China counter.” Wherever the hell that was.

In fact, I almost missed it because it also served 13—count ‘em—other airlines. Oh yes, and because no one was sitting at that counter either. I was still milling about with a gaggle of other alarmed and bewildered passengers-in-transit when a harried-looking airport employee suddenly appeared out of nowhere. “Los Angeles?” she inquired in barely discernable English amid a chorus of haggard hallelujahs.

And so we formed a line.

I won’t bore you with the details. Let’s just say there was a measure of comfort in communing with other stranded foreigners. Also, the bits of paper on which we’d been instructed to scrawl our names, phone numbers, and addresses, both home and email, were never collected. And, finally, let me continue my tale of woe by relating that, after thirty minutes of processing by the unsmiling handler, we were directed to—oh no, another dreaded airport security check? Again?

And here’s the worst of it; my fellow suffering vagabonds miraculously disappeared. What is this, I thought, the Twilight Zone? And so, paralyzed by the gripping certainty that I’d somehow missed a turn and would spend the rest of my life aimlessly wandering the cursed corridors of a Chinese airport, I grimly submitted to what was easily the most aggressive, penetrating, intrusive, and frightening security check of my exceedingly long life.

Upon finally reaching the promised land of Terminal 3’s exit gate following a frantic 45-minute zigzag through mazes of number-bearing signs, well, I was sorely tempted to kiss its holy ground. But decided to hold off until I got to Los Angeles.

So what have I learned from this excruciating experience? To never, ever again traverse China. This time I really mean it.





David Haldane’s latest book, A Tooth in My Popsicle, is available on Amazon and Lazada. A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, Haldane is an award-winning journalist, author, and radio broadcaster with homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines, where this column appears weekly in the Gold Star Daily.




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