While planning my China trip everyone said, “It’s crowded there.”
“I know,” I said.
“Really crowded,” they said.
“I know,” I said.
“No, you don’t know,” they said. “However crowded you think it is, you’re not thinking enough.”
“Whatevs,” I said.
I was flying Sichuan Air, a carrier you might never have heard of, and that I hadn’t either, but for $595 I wasn’t looking for a famous name as much as I was looking for a couple of engines that didn’t stall over the Pacific, and maybe a set of working landing gear.
Our plane, an Airbus A230 that seats about 236 Chinese or perhaps 100 typical corn-fed Americans, was absolutely packed at the check-in counter. The line was so long it went all the way to Gardena, and everyone had six items more than the allotted amount, and each extra item weighed 50kg, and every customer wanted to have a long discussion with the counter person about why they couldn’t check everything for free, and by discussion I mean “any minute people were going to start throwing punches.”
Just because everyone had a ticket and an assigned seat didn’t mean that anyone was laying down arms at the gate, either, as the jostling, pushing, shoving, elbowing, toe-stamping, and dirty-looking started before we were even called to line up. There was an energy that felt like the Tokyo Yamanote Line at 7:00 AM in Shinjuku station times four hundred thousand billion million trillion, and the whole thing reminded me of the only Josef Stalin quote I ever heard that was worth remembering, which is “Quantity has a quality all its own.”
Once we took off everything worked perfectly. The engines didn’t stop, the toilets flushed, and the food arrived, a spicy chicken dish that was so hot it burned through the seat tray like the acid from the critter when they tried to cut it in Alien. Everyone on the plane was Chinese except for me and a lady who happened to be sitting next to me, and she was angry about everything.
“I hate traveling to China!” she said.
“Then why do you go?” I asked.
“I have to for work. Last time, our flight from Shanghai arrived late at Chongging at 10:45 and I tried to explain to aircraft personnel that I have a connecting flight, which no one understood as NO ONE could understand or talk English.”
“You were in China, right?”
She ignored me. “Luckily, a passenger could interpret for me. Can you believe it? Instead of announcing on the plane that everyone needs to sit down and only those affected need to disembark first, they didn’t announce anything.”
“Maybe they did, but it was in Chinese.”
“Do I look Chinese? They did have a shuttle bus to take us to the international terminal but we were informed our luggage wouldn’t be on the flight and would only arrive four days later. Four days! Can you believe it? Then when we got onto the connecting flight and there was a person sitting in my seat, and if you do not speak Chinese, well, no luck for you! And of course NO ONE from flight personnel could speak English. NO ONE.”
“Sounds like there’s a lot of Chinese is being spoken in China.”
“Nothing but! It’s ridiculous! And I was at the back of the plane so by the time the food gets to you there is no choice but the spicy chicken because all of the other choices have all been given out, not that you would be missing out as the food is terrible and the drinks are warm and if you’re sitting behind the bulkhead, which I was, be prepared to get your feet trampled or legs bashed as they everyone and their goat walks through. And don’t bother complaining because … ”
I interrupted her. “No one speaks English?”
After about twelve hours we landed in Hangzhou, where I was supposed to change planes to go to Kunming. Just as my clever fellow passenger had predicted, everyone there seemed to speak Chinese, and frankly, if you can speak Chinese things are pretty easy to navigate, so I was in luck. I got on my connecting flight, which was a mere four hours long, and things were going swimmingly until we started to descend.
I listened to the announcement as hard as I could but all I got was “Changsha Airport,” which is halfway between Hangzhou and Kunming and wasn’t on the itinerary as far as I knew. No one seemed surprised when we landed and all got off the plane. I finally screwed myself up and asked a lady where we were.
“Changsha,” she said.
“But I thought we were going to Kunming.”
“Then why are we in Changsha?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe they need some gasoline?”
I thought about that and figured that if they did need gasoline, I’m glad they stopped, but if it was more of a cigarette break type thing, I might be pissed. After two hours we were told to get back on the plane, and as hard as I tried to listen, no one seemed to be complaining or to even be surprised.
We flew for a couple of more hours and then landed in Kunming. I got through security, then immigration, then security, then customs, then security, then security, and finally through security, after which I was standing in the main arrival lobby, red-eyed, jet-lagged, and overwhelmed. “China does indeed have a billion people,” I thought. “And all of them are right here.”
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