Two Backpacks

Mount Bromo

Chapter 6 - A memorable flight for all the wrong reasons!

           We’re at Kuala Lumpur airport and about to travel to Beijing. Ron and I are waiting for our Air Asia flight to Tianjin, the closest city to Beijing that Air Asia flies into. We’ve chosen to do so for one simple reason; the flights are cheap as chips!

            Air Asia is trying to break into the Asian market; to do this, they’re offering flights at ridiculously low prices. I’ve already booked two flights for next to nothing, all we’re paying is the airport tax of twenty pounds for each ticket. Each night I check various South East Asia destinations hoping to pick up more bargains.

            Waiting for our flight to be called, I reflect on our time in Indonesia. Bali was a holiday, a chance for Ron and me to relax. Returning to Surabaya was a much more emotional time but also an opportunity to lay my demons to rest.

            Now it feels as if our adventure together is finally beginning. I’m looking forward to seeing friends and exploring more of the country that has always held such a fascination since childhood.

            I watch passengers mill around in the departure lounge and realise we’re the only Europeans. A few minutes later, the Tianjin flight is called, and there’s a mad dash towards the glass-fronted departure point. Travelling the Chinese way is chaotic as passengers push and shove less determined travellers aside as they struggle to be first through the gate and onto the tarmac.

            Ron and I look on in amazement – the phenomenon before us alien – after all, we’re British; we queue for everything!

            We wait for the hullabaloo to die down and then make our way to the gate where our boarding passes are checked. Walking toward the plane, we watch as our fellow travellers jostle for position on the metal stairway up to the plane’s entrance.

            ‘It’s a free for all! Do they think it’s first come, first served?’ questions Ron as we watch men and women struggle up the stairs, clutching carry-on luggage.

            With no idea what to expect, we reach the top of the steps and enter the plane. Chaos greets us as passengers choose their seats with total disregard for the allocated seat shown on their boarding passes.

            Unable to make our way down the crowded aisle, Ron and I watch as fraught flight attendants endeavour to seat passengers in their correct seats. We make our way towards our seats only to find a rather large man and his youthful wife in our places. I wave our boarding passes and point to the seat numbers.

            ‘Our seats!’ I say, pointing again at the numbers below the overhead locker, hoping he understands.

            The man waves his boarding documents at me and lets loose a tirade of Mandarin. The queue behind us is growing, and people are getting annoyed at the holdup.

            ‘Tell him to move,’ insists Ron, standing behind me in the aisle.

            ‘I don’t speak Mandarin, and he doesn’t speak English. What do you propose?’ I snap back, beginning to lose my rag.

            A stewardess pushes her way passed Ron and asks for our boarding passes. A rapid exchange follows, and a few seconds later, the man and his wife move to their correct seats on the other side of the aisle, scowling at Ron and me as they do so. I try not to look in their direction and buckle up, ready for the flight.

            But that’s not the end of the mayhem! As we taxi to the runway, twenty or so passengers decide to use the toilets or talk to family members and friends in other parts of the plane. Flight attendants rush toward the culprits shouting at them to return to their seats just as the plane’s engines roar into life and we begin to pick up speed.

            Once airborne, everyone relaxes, and the four-hour flight passes relatively quickly. Ron starts a conversation with a young woman seated next to him.

            ‘She’s a student at one of the Kuala Lumpur universities,’ he reports later. ‘She and her friend are on their way home for the holidays. Her name’s Julie. Her mother is meeting her at the airport. She says she can give us a lift to the railway station. What do you reckon?’

            I’d been worried about how we’d get to Beijing once we arrived in Tianjin. The offer of help was a welcome one; I only hoped the young woman’s mother agreed!

            The plane begins its descent – a buzz of excitement sweeps through the passengers. As the wheels touch the runway, the clatter of seatbelts is quickly followed by scores of fellow passengers leaping from their seats to wrench open the overhead lockers.

            Overworked, flight attendants tried to regain order, running up and down the aisles and shouting at passengers to sit back in their seats! It’s pandemonium! Frenzied passengers drag out cellophane-wrapped boxes and carry-on luggage and begin to walk towards the exit.

            ‘Air travel has never been so dangerous but so much fun!’ remarks Ron, seated next to me.


            In 2009, swine flu is sweeping the world. First detected in America, it’s also reached China.

            ‘What is it with me and contagious diseases?’ I mutter as Ron and I make our way to the airport building.

            I’d been living in Qinhuangdao, a modern city in north-east China, when SARs hit in November 2002. Now here I am, back in China, with another virus running amuck.

            Inside the terminal, officials covered from head to toe in protective suits and masks greet us. It’s like something from a horror movie.

            With Julie’s help, we complete the forms giving travel information, including countries visited and ongoing destinations and then pass through an infrared camera check, where another group of doctors are waiting for us.

            Ron, who is more than happy to let me do all the official stuff, looks at me. ‘Can’t you answer for us both?’ he asks before being guided to one of the many waiting doctors while I’m led to another bay.

            Once all the checks are completed, we’re free to leave. Julie is waiting for us on the other side of the barrier.

            Once we’re through the checks and customs, we retrieve our luggage and follow Julie to where her mother waits beside a car. After a short discussion, the woman smiles, and Julie helps load our bags into the car’s boot.

            ‘Mum’s happy to take you to the station,’ confirms Julie.

            Tianjin is a modern city with development work still evident. Road works hamper our journey. Julie’s mother drives carefully over the unmade, rough roads and then points to a nearby building. It’s the train station.

            ‘I’m sorry, but you’ll have to walk from here,’ explains Julie. ‘The road’s under repair; we can’t get any closer. I’ll come with you and help you buy your tickets,’ she offers with a smile.

            We thank Julie’s mother for the lift and pick our way over the claggy earth to the railway station. Inside, we follow Julie to the ticket window, where she buys two tickets for the bullet train that is due to leave in fifteen minutes.

            We say goodbye to Julie and thank her for her help before walking down the steps to the platform.

            ‘Our first bullet train! Isn’t it exciting?’ I enthuse.

            Ron doesn’t seem that impressed, but once we’re seated and the train begins to pick up speed, I can see he’s enjoying himself. The ride is smooth and fast, covering the one hundred and forty kilometres to Beijing in thirty minutes.

            Beijing railway station is the same as when I’d been there some eight years before; even the foreigners’ ticket window is still operating.

            ‘Come on, we need to get a taxi,’ I tell Ron, who, bless his cotton socks, is carrying our two heavy backpacks while I shoulder our smaller bags.

            At the taxi rank, I show the driver the map I’d printed out before leaving Kuala Lumpur, detailing the street and name of the hostel in both Mandarin and English.

            I’d chosen Beijing Backpackers because it’s not far from Houhai lake, one of my favourite spots in the city. The hostel is in an old huton area, full of cafes, bars, restaurants, quaint streets, and traditional Chinese houses.

            It feels so good to be back. I can’t wait to show Ron the city’s sights.