The check in row for my flight was row J. The queue for the check in started five rows beyond that, and that was after the serpentine thing they do in front on the check in desks. I found my way to back of the queue where a Frenchman (as he turned out to be, a wine grower visiting Asia to promote his premium wines - mostly Grenache and Syrah) confirmed this was indeed the end of the queue.
I looked at my watch. 2.5 hours until my flight left but knowing the usual immigration delays I doubted I would make it. We inched our way forward. I had already resolved never to fly Thai airways again. It was convenient you see. I wanted to try and get my air miles up on Eva Air but it would have meant an overnight stay in each direction in Taipei, which was an unnecessary hassle. No. Just fly to Shanghai and take the bus to Hangzhou. My last flight on Thai airways was to LA when they did their non-stop flights (now cancelled) and that was fine. It is just four hours, how bad could it be. My answer crawled forward before me.
As the National airline Thai airways appear to have just two check in rows at their home airport (save for the first class at the end of the building). Singapore airlines have a whole terminal to themselves! I listened to the complaints. Some started fidgeting as their departure time loomed. Finally one person appeared with some boards with flight numbers on them. These were the flights that presumably had already left. At least it made the queue shorter as these people despondently left the queue to find a troop boat to take them home.
I got through to the departure gate just as they changed the sign to next flight. But there was no rush. No, my flight required us to catch a bus to the plane, something I thought they had stopped twenty years ago except in remote Russian airfields. I eventually found my seat, plugged in my headphones and opened my book. Our departure time came and went. Finally there was an announcement. We were waiting for some passengers who inexplicably were delayed. There are long queues in immigration today we were told. Yes, there were, but only the normal ones. Perhaps the 14 mile queue for your check-in counters, of which only 40% were manned, could also be a factor. We left 45 minutes late with a reassurance there would be a strong tail wind and we could catch up the time. I watched as the last passengers found their seats. Why do the late passengers always have that smug smile on them as if everyone is watching them as if they are Leonardo di Caprio. Do they not see the hate in our eyes.
It was a new plane but the seat pitch was the least I had ever seen. If the seat in front of me had been any nearer it would have been behind me. When the chap in front but his seat back, just a little, I could have kissed the top of his without leaning forward (although I refrained). Not long I told myself, and I found some Big Bang Theory on the entertainment system and sat back to watch that whilst having my head kissed by the person behind me.
The meal was very reasonable, a pork chop with potatoes and vegetables, although the service was a little haphazard as if they had never done it before. But I managed to get some wine - oh I must tell you, I saw one Thai person ask to see the bottle and he scrutinized the label as if it was Premier Cru Chablis and he was checking whether it was the 1997 or the 2001 year. We are in economy you cretin, the choice is red or white.
As promised we caught up the time and after clearing immigration and getting my bag - a fairly painless ordeal - I found my way to the long distance bus station. I realized the sign was not actually for long distance busses, but they were indication the bus station was a long distance away. 18 kilometers later I found a discrete doorway leading to an escalator which, upon descending led to a spartan room with a ticket office just to my right. 'Hangzhou please' I said in my best Mandarin (which sounded a lot like 'Hangzhou please' to the untrained ear). The ticket was 100 baht which was reassuring as that was the price they told me it should be in the Interwebby thing. Six 'o' clock she gestured. I looked at my watch, one hour to wait. I passed through a security inspection - redundant in my view as a bomb could only improve the place - and I sat. I soon realized that all announcements were in Chinese only so I moved seat to where the departure 'gate' was. All signs were also only in Chinese but I had time so I studied my ticket to match the characters on the signs. Luckily there was only one bus leaving at six and the woman at the gate glanced at my ticket and tore off the stub and gestured me through, which I took to be a verification I was getting on the right bus.
The bus was not what you would call a limousine bus and it was crowded, to the extent I was told at one point to go and sit in the seat indicated on my ticket. Well how was I to know. But it was by the window so I could watch the fireworks from the last day Chinese New Year and the two and a half hour journey passed quickly enough. As I got off the bus I was approached by several taxi drivers. I chose the one who seemed to have the best English but before being taken to his taxi I found the Chinese directions to my hotel that I had carefully printed off and showed them to my driver. Do you know where that is, I asked. He studied them. Yes, yes, he said, in a moment of revelation, and he rushed off with my bag beckoning me to follow. It was ten minutes into our journey when he stopped in the middle of the road (leading to a volley of horns from the cars screeching to halt behind us) and brought up the GPS on his phone that I first started to have doubts. One hour later those doubts had grown. Hangzhou has a population of 8.7 million, bigger than Bangkok, so my taxi driver's approach of driving around until we happened upon the hotel was unlikely to meet with success. I found the number for the hotel and called it. I handed the phone to the driver. He stopped in the middle of the road (leading to a volley of horns from the cars screeching to halt behind us) and spoke for some minutes with the receptionist. He drove off slowly and then took a sharp left turn. Another fifteen minutes passed. Attempts to communicate with him failed in all respects. OK, close now, he told me, for the thirtieth time. Or maybe fortieth. I was beginning to doubt we were close. Finally I called the person I was due to meet tomorrow to tell him I may be late as I was likely to still be in this taxi. He spoke to the driver. Call me in ten minutes if you are not at the hotel, he said, you are close now. I had heard that before.
Finally I saw the green sign for the Holiday Inn, where a king size bed and hopefully some food, but not necessarily in that order, was waiting for me. I gestured frantically toward the huge neon sign. Yes, yes, my driver said, close now. He drive straight past. No, I shouted. I was so close to going into Prince Philip mode. I am 55 years old and I have a wife and a d0g I love, I shouted at him. I was hoping to see them again before I died. Please, turn around and just do what I say before I fucking strangle you. Yes, he said, close now.
I think it may have been my increasingly mad demeanour that led him to think it would be best to just get rid of me that finally made him give up his random hotel searching approach and to actually just do what I said, even though it was clear he did not think I had any clue where I was going. As we drew up outside the hotel reception and he unloaded my bag he beamed at me. No problem, he said. I paid him the 280 reun he asked without question, about the same as first class ticket on Thai airways to Shanghai, and made my way to check-in desk.
No, the restaurant closes at 9.30 today, they told me. You are very late, but we have room service. So you found this intrepid traveller sat in his hotel room with a bottle of wine from the mini bar, eating a tuna salad sandwich at midnight whilst watching Man City vs. Chelsea on the TV. I reflected on my day. I had left my home at 6a.m. that morning and 18 hours later had arrived at my destination, a 3.5 hour flight away. I took another bite of my sandwich.
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