All that remains is to document the journey home. From a sunny 16C BCN to a humid 37C BNE via AMS, PEK and CAN. Pip and I had slept poorly following lashings of richly prepared, rich food and red wine and our intention of rising early quickly went out the shuttered windows. When we eventually struggled up and made some coffee and tried to eat as much of the accrued food as we could it was nigh on 10am. Our deadline had always been noon – when Anna from the agent had said she would arrive to take the keys. Packing, cleaning and checking under things had been carefully timed to allow showers at the latest possible moment – we had about 33hrs travel ahead.
Anna arrived at 11:30am and swept through the apartment in about 2 minutes taking one set of keys and calling out behind her for us to leave the other keys on the table, turn off the heater and close the door behind us when we left, which is exactly what we did at midday. Out on the street with our luggage, we had already planned for catch the subway to Placa Catalunya and the the Aerobus to the airport, which again is exactly what we did to find ourselves at the airport at around 2pm, a full three hours before our KLM flight to Amsterdam. Terminal 1 at the Barcelona airport is very large and the gates are very distant, but the place is filled with shops to keep the mind of the nervous traveller occupied I guess. Our luggage was consigned straight through to Brisbane, so our purchases, which were moderate but several, needed stowing amongst our carry on gear. We had coffees. We had lunch. We sat at the boarding gate for a while till inevitably it was time to commence the marathon.
Flight 1 to Amsterdam was only 2.5 hours and was on KLM, so refreshment was in the form of rye bread sangas with cheese and or ham (not Jamon – just plain old ham like we have) and, if you wanted it, Heineken. Flight uneventful – service pleasant – seats comfortable. We arrived at Schipol airport with a tight schedule to keep, but we had the boarding passes for the next leg, so we just had to find the right gate and not be distracted by the fabulous airport. I really wanted to wander off onto the transit forest for a rest under a tree, but time is a cruel master and there was barely time to stop for a beer near our gate and take a picture of a clog display as proof of Dutch stopover. Two sips into the beer and the flight was called – a large queue was forming for the security check, in case we managed to purchase something explody in the transit area and munger young expressed concern at the two large cylinders people were entering – those new full body scanning thingys that can see through your clothes and detect the number of fillings you may have. After the scan, you wait on the other side till the guards get a stylized, no naughty bits graphic of the hot spots they need to paddle and frisk you in. Probably highly effective, but painfully slow. We boarded flight number 2 – back on no smiles China Southern, which interestingly was going to Beijing on the way to Guangzhou, a fact that wasn’t mentioned on our tickets. We were also slightly apprehensive at the fact that neither the Barcelona or the Amsterdam checkin counters had been able to print number young son’s boarding pass for the Guangzhou – Brisbane leg of our journey. 15 hours of non smiling, officious service and impossible to understand PA announcements. Pip had the misfortune to be seated separately and next to not one, but two babies, who luckily turned out to have wise, pharmaceutically prepared parents. This flight delivered us rather unceremoniously to the tarmac at Beijing airport where the temperature was 1C. We were separated onto the tarmac into the thick smog and into buses with the other ‘in transit’ passengers and driven to a shed some 10 minutes away, where we were ushered in and could see that we were going through a customs/emigration point. On the plane, we had been offered emigration cards, but told they weren’t necessary for transit passengers – au contraire – China is obviously running some kind of boost the tourism numbers scam by emigrating transit passengers and issuing them with two month entry visas. Questioning the officials was useless – they had no idea what we were asking and rather than calmly apologizing for the delays and stupidity of the processing we were undergoing, they got angry and told us they did things differently here. Meanwhile the crisply uniformed girls processing passports performed a kind of hand-ballet, half turning and rotating documents with flourishes and multiple stamps and origami precision – each one identically processed and hands returned to crossed on the counter after completing every one. After this farce was completed, airline staff invited us to climb three flights of stairs to, “Rest please” in a room with not enough chairs for everyone outside a larger empty room for the first class and business passengers. There was no information available – no flight board – zip – nada. We waited for far too long according to those who thought they new the schedule until the little blue bus reappeared and we were bussed back to the tarmac next to our plane, which had been cleaned and had the blankets, pillows and headsets removed for what was now, we figured, a domestic Chinese flight of 5hrs to Guangzhou. Not the sort of treatment well received by those who’d already been traveling 22hrs straight. The journey to Guangzhou was not improved with the addition of local meals, which were largely inedible and, to add insult to injury, sans alcohol.
Our arrival at Guangzhou continued the farce. Again, halfway along the air bridge a flight attendant with a roll of yellow dot stickers was motioning for those who’d travelled from Amsterdam to descend to the tarmac to collect their luggage – ours is consigned straight through to Brisbane we advised. We were yellow dotted and told to wait. After much discussion amongst the staff, we were told to descent to the tarmac anyway and squished into the bus, which drove us to a terminal where more staff were waving their arms and motioning for those traveling to Sydney to go here and those traveling to Melbourne to go there – Brisbane, we enquired? Blank looks and more discussion – wait there. We didn’t have a lot of time here and we knew that we still had to get a boarding pass for number young son, so we did the only honorable thing and bolted. We raced thought the arrival hall asking every Information attendant for directions to the Transit Desk and receiving blank stares until we almost found ourselves out on the footpath in downtown Guangzhou. We ended up entering the airport as if we were coming in from outside and went to the international departures hall, where we finally found a checkin counter and a guy who was happy and capable of helping – he printed the boarding pass and directed us to the international departure gates, where the queues started again. First the security checks and a couple of stamps on the boarding cards and a good read of the passport and a bit of hand-ballet before the toughest checks we encountered – they actually go through your bags – then the customs hand-ballet again, because naturally as we’d been given a visa to enter the country in Beijing, we had to be processed as leaving the country in Guangzhou. Tired and near beaten, we arrived at the boarding gate with a half hour to spare, only to be offered a 500ml water in a shop for the equivalent of AUD$10. We weren’t that thirsty. Goodbye China – couldn’t even get a laugh out of your badly translated signs.
8 short hours of which several were actually spent asleep and slap in the face heat – we’re back in Bris-fizzle.
- Would not fly China Southern again – too unfriendly; too difficult to understand what’s going on, and; too going through China – we got the feeling that we’d be totally screwed if something did happen. Also thought that if China wants to be a world player, they need to accept that English is the Lingua Franca (like it or not) of international travel and stop pretending that they know it. I don’t pretend I know Chinese (or French or Spanish or often even English) because I can understand two or three words.
- Barcelona is beautiful.
- The Catalans eat a lot more Jamon than I could have ever imagined.
- Italy still holds the coffee crown. While the Spanish have a bar culture that is Italy’s equal, their coffee is severely let down by the milk.
- I need to select walking shoes more carefully.
- Never carry rovello mushrooms into a crush of people.