More details than you probably wanted to know...
08.07.2008 81 °F
I'm happy to report that I'm not dying from breathing in polluted air in Beijing. Yes, I've been here for only 28 hours so far, and at least half of that time has been spent at my cousin's central air conditioned house way out in the 'burbs. Ask me how my lungs are feeling next week and I might be singing (or wheezing) a different tune, but for now I'm of the opinion that the haze that has been written about, reported on, criticized, etc. for months is not dissimilar to the smog you see in cities like LA: fine dust particles (from the Gobi Desert) mixed with air contaminants mixed with fog. Stay tuned for an update.
So I made it to Beijing after an uneventful trip from Seattle via Seoul. I got to Sea-Tac at 11:30am on Tuesday morning, three hours before take-off. While checking in at the Korean Air counter, the women told me that my big red suitcase (aka "Clifford") was 3 or 4 kilos over the weight limit. When they told me this, my other check-in piece already had been put on the conveyor belt and disappeared into the bowels of the airport that mere mortals never get to see. That meant I couldn't transfer anything to the duffel bag. I sat there with Clifford open, pushing things around, and realizing I couldn't do a whole lot. Finally the Korean Air peeps told me to reweigh the bag, and after they saw that the weight hadn't changed much (I had taken out 2 lbs. of coffee) they said I could check it in but that I would need to stay within the limit the next time. Sure, no problem, since EVERYTHING in Clifford was for my cousin and his wife or my mom.
On the plane I got bounced around from one seat to another, not by the flight attendants but by other passengers who were trying to keep their respective groups together. I can appreciate that, but since I always travel solo I'm the one who gets asked. I went from a window seat to an aisle and finally back to a window, four or five aisle ahead of where I originally had been. Plus, I was fortunate to have a really nice Korean woman (probably in her mid- to late 30s) and her cute daughter (8 or 9 years old) as my aisle-mates. The mother spoke English fairly well so we chatted on and off during the 11-hour flight. She even showed me the proper way to mix bibimbap, the well-known Korean rice dish. When you order it at a restaurant, it usually comes pre-assembled or close to it. Korean Air, however, served it in components that you had to blend yourself. The meat and vegetables were in one bowl, the rice in another, and the condiments separate from that. So following the instructions of Nice Korean Woman in Seat 30G, I dumped the rice on top of the meat/vegetables, drizzled a packet of sesame oil on top, and squeezed out a small tube of hot pepper paste. Mixed well, ate, and enjoyed.
The Korean Air flight attendants, starting with the ones who greeted us as we were boarding and ending with those who said goodbye when we were deplaning, assumed I was Korean and therefore spoke to me in Korean. This is not the first time in my life that such a thing has happened. Usually Asians are pretty good at deciphering who belongs to what ethnicity based on facial composition, but I guess I look Korean because I kept getting "Anyeong haseyo!" and who-knows-what-else thrown at me. I almost felt embarrassed revealing that I wasn't one of them - it's like telling them they've been fooled. As far as I know, this doesn't happen to anyone else in my immediate family, even though my younger sister Christine is a carbon copy of me (with longer hair).
I have to say, Korean Air has a great in-flight entertainment system. Each seat has a screen as well as a remote control that pops out of the armrest. You can watch a number of different things (full-feature movies, short movies, documentaries, news broadcasts, sports, etc.) and even pause and restart if you need to use the bathroom or something. I watched four movies and four travel shows in between the two meals, which is about equal to my exposure to TV over a five-month period. Just another reason that foreign carriers are usually the way to go when you have a choice.
Nothing to report on my short layover in Incheon (the actual location of the Seoul airport), other than having to guzzle an entire bottle of water because I couldn't take it through security. The water was in my 2008 Great Lakes Regional Barista Championship commemorative bottle that I didn't want to leave behind, so the only option was to empty its contents...into my stomach, as I would have lost my place in line had I left for the bathroom. On the flight to Beijing, we were served another meal that was a bit perplexing. There was a plastic container of a white gelatin-like substance, but the entire label was in Korean with no indication in English as to what was inside. I opened it and found that it had a creamy texture, but I wasn't sure it was tofu or if it was supposed to be sweet or salty. There was a sauce packet that, again, was labeled only in Korean and therefore not indicative of being sweet or salty. I dumped that over the creamy white blob and tried it...salty. I'm not a huge fan of cold tofu, but this was passable so I ate most of it. As many of you dear readers know, I hate wasting food.
Arrived in Beijing and breezed through immigration and customs. Literally. The whole episode was anti-climactic, since my cousin had gotten his supervisor at the U.S. Embassy to sign a letter attesting to my identity, relationship to my cousin, and location of their residence. The plan was to whip it out in case I got hassled by the authorities because I wasn't going to stay at a hotel. No problem there. The only problem was getting through the thing that looks like a metal detector but actually measures your body heat. I think it was installed during or just after the SARS outbreak, because I've seen it at the Shanghai airport as well. The one in Beijing Terminal 2 kept going off and the people manning that station didn't seem to know what to do. Fortunately I squeezed to the front of the line and managed to avoid setting the alarm off, meaning that my body temperature is normal. Well, duh...I'm such a cool person (har har).
I was going to blog about our short trip out to the Huanghua section of the Great Wall as well as the Chinese acrobats show we attended, but it's now past 2am and I'm having trouble staying awake. So I'm going to post this now and try to catch up later.