Monday, July 23, 2007

Travel to China

Never before had I been in China, so I was looking forward to this trip to the HCI conference in Beijing. A few weeks ago I had gotten my visa from the Consulate General of China in Manchester - the express issue within 1 hour costs 40 pounds.

Because I wanted to stay over in Germany for a few days, I had to organise my travel in two separate trips. For convenience I decided to fly with Lufthansa this time, as I could have a direct flight from Frankfurt to Beijing. The only disadvantage: I would not get miles credited on my Northwest Airlines / KLM account...

At Frankfurt Airport the Terminal 1 is the exclusive Lufthansa hub. Long lines at the checkin, but there were many express checkin points where I could myself print the boarding pass. Since I had already my seat assigned, I decided to do this.

There are shops in the Frankfurt airport, but they are outside of the secured zone. This means that they are available also to visitors at the airport who do not intend to fly. While this is quite convenient for those visitors, it is less suitable for the traveler: being in a hurry, one wants to pass the control checks as soon as possible, and then stroll around after the check. So instead of visiting these stores, I decide to continue and go into the gate area. Well, the Terminal 1,A is quite an old-fashioned 1970s building, which was state of the art at that time, but now looks less impressive. There are no restaurants, no decent shops. A smell of old cigarettes is in the air. The new Terminal 2 is much more pleasant, as far as I remember. Overall, this is no comparison at all to the experience at Schipol Airport, where the gate area is full of opportunities for activities, with its Rembrandt exhibition, its many stores and food places. I think in the future I will rather to through Amsterdam than through Frankfurt.

The flight is full. I see already a familiar face of someone who is also going to this conference.

17:20 schedule of start
17:35 roll off from the gate
17:50 lift-off

The onboard service is somewhat disappointing. First there is no headphone on my seat (maybe it dropped somewhere?), then the headphone which I get has defective cables - the sound is most of the time silent, unless I jiggle the cable around, and only the left speaker works. Well, I will skip the movies anyway, to get some sleep. But the seat spacing is remarkably small - I have a hard time sqeezing myself into a convenient position. Ok, I am a bit spoiled from the First Class upgrades on Northwest Airlines, but even the KLM seating seemed to have more space that the Lufthansa B747-400 in row 50.

Food choices include Chinese entrees - and so I have for dinner a Wok Chicken, and for breakfast noodles with chicken. The serving of the food is done quite slowly and not very efficiently. The light stays on for a very long time, so one cannot fall asleep well. And for breakfast there is also a whole 2-hour period taken - this could have been shortened much more, as I remember it in other flights with KLM or Northwest.

As we approach Beijing, three forms need to be filled out. One is about health: it relates to the bird flue, and it ask about symptoms of cold / fever / sore throat / snivel and mentions that a quarantine officer measures body temperature. I begin to worry that I would have to be in a quarantine, because I still have those cold symptoms - which I had so far kept under control, now with a set of Doritrhicin tablets. Surprisingly my health state has not gotten worse - I had drunk cold beer, eaten ice cream, and been hiking up a mountain and been outdoors in general, and I still was not (yet) worse off. But what would the Chinese health inspector say when I would sneeze?

But my worries were not justified - I just handed the filled-out form to the official, and that was it - no further control of my health was done.

Before going through customs, I wanted to get some money from an ATM machine. In Germany I had tried one machine at a Autobahn rest station, but it did not work, due to "service temporarily not available". I had very little cash, and was now worrying if I could get some more for small purchases. But the ATM machine of the Bank of China told me "this card is not available"... whatever that meant! So I went to the next ATM machine from Citybank, and there my Maestro card worked fine.

Walking outside to the taxi stand I went to the short queue. The temperature was relatively warm, humid. Similar to LA. But much worse smog! While landing, it was not possible to see anything of the landscape - everything was in a yellowish haze.

The taxi driver does not understand where I want to go. I repeat several times: Continental Grand Hotel. With the help of his colleages he finally seems to get the name. Next time I will print out the address from the web site, in Chinese fonts.

The roads are busy. The direction he drives seems ok, and we arrive at the convention centre. But then he stops at the Crown Plaza hotel. He must have misheard and confused "Grand" with "Crown". Fortunately both hotels are next to each other - I wonder what would have happened if the Crown Plaza would have been at the opposite end of the town?

I am a bit tired from having only 2 hours of "rest" in my cramped airplane seat. But nevertheless, I take a quick shower, then walk out into the smoggy air, to explore the surroundings of the hotel. It is noon by now, and it feels very warm, probably around 35 C. In LA it had never been that smoggy, in all those years that I lived there. Here in Beijing is a lot of construction activity. A large highway passes by at the hotel. I find a few small stores nearby where I buy a few bottles of various drinks - I need to explore the local stuff, to see what is available and how it tastes. There are also a few restaurants, but I decide to play it safe and go to the restaurant in the hotel. They have a nice buffet lunch there, with many different items. I am quite hungry and try various things - tastes not bad.

Then I feel quite exhausted and take a nap.

In the evening I skip dinner and work on the presentations I am supposed to give here at the conference. Fortunately the internet works fine, except with a few limitations...

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