In order to relate the most noteworthy events of the first hours of my adventure, I’ve listed the most memorable quotes of the day within context.
1. “It’s a matter of pride!”
As my relatives drop me off at Sea-Tac International Airport I coolly refuse their generous offers to help me carry my gear to the ticket counter. Insistently, I wave them off and haul my two giant duffel bags, backpacking backpack, day pack, and carry-on bag to the ticket counter. Less than a minute later I realize that although my itinerary is booked with American Airlines, my flight is operated by Hainan Airlines whose ticket counter is several hundred yards away. The actual second quote of the day was a four letter word not worth mentioning here…
2. “Follow the people instead of the signs.”
Wise advice from a fellow anonymous traveler. After the sweaty, stuffy 12 hour flight from Sea-Tac to Beijing, I’m hit with a steamy wave of hot air as I follow the string of people walking down the stairs from our plane to the tarmac below. So this is what 34 degrees Celsius feels like…
After a shuttle drops us off at the main terminal, I make the mistake of following signs towards “international transfers” (a bit too intuitive I suppose). Of course, at the end of the nearly-vacant quarter-mile corridor a man at a booth points me back towards where I came from where I re-join the herd.
3. “This way, friend…”
Now on the other side of passport control in Beijing, I reach the baggage carousel. Although my luggage is supposedly checked through to Ulaanbaatar, I find my bags rotating unattended on the baggage claim. Noticing my confusion, a kind security officer helps me ask other airline personnel about the arrangements. Thankfully, I will not have to carry everything with me. This is good because I’ve picked up a third carry-on bag in the Seattle airport full of American mementos for my soon-to-be Mongolian friends. The officer assures me the bags will be delivered and checked through to Ulaanbaatar.
Seconds later, the helpful officer loads my carry-on bags onto a cart and escorts me right past his coworkers through the next x-ray security checkpoint. He then points me towards the next shuttle to the correct airport terminal for departure. I have several miles on the freeway to feel guilty about expecting him to ask me for a tip!
4. “Of course I’m right!”
Upon reaching Terminal 3 and miraculously locating the next check-in counter within mere seconds, I check-in to get my boarding pass to Ulaanbaatar. “I’m sorry but you have too much baggage,” the Chinese woman at the Mongolian ticket counter says, without a hint of remorse.
“I was told earlier by Hainan Airlines [my first leg] that everything was set to go through to Ulaanbaatar. I already paid 110 dollars!”
“We have no affiliation with Hainan Airlines. You can talk with them about it. You’re only allowed to have 23 kg. After that it’s 45 remnimbi per extra kilogram.”
“So how much is that in dollars?” I ask, kicking myself for not checking the most recent exchange rates.
“Oh, about 20 dollars.”
“Alright. That’s no problem.” Whew. I thought it would be more than that!
“See the man down there? Take him this form and pay him.” Why is everything at least fifty yards away from where I need it to be?! In the sweltering heat, I haul my three carry-on bags that together must weigh about 23 kg.
When I reach the desk, the man is wiping his brow as the sweat beads up on his forehead. Handing him the form and my credit card, I wait expectantly for the receipt. When it comes, I’m shocked.
“275 dollars?! She said it would be twenty US dollars!”
“No. It’s 275 dollars.”
I’m pissed. I ask the man for his calculator, in the process embarrassing him greatly. Re-checking his calculations with the numbers the woman gave me, I reach the same figure. Snap!
“You’re right! Wow, that’s expensive.” “Of course I’m right!!” he yells back at me. Only now do I recall the concept of face, and begin to realize how rude I’ve just been. Blame it on the heat!
I don’t complain anymore.
5. “Burger King!”
Looking to replenish my energy and morale after that massive, heart-wrenching hit to the pocketbook, I steer towards the first beacon of hope I can find, an illuminated Burger King sign that shines brightly. The chicken sandwich is slimy and I barely touch the fries and Coke. Still, at this point it’s good to have calories in my system.
6. “Over here!” “No, here!”
Perhaps the best part of the trip so far… Two attractive (take notes American TSA!) female Chinese security officers each grab one of my arms and pull me back and forth towards their twin yellow pedestals. The surprise victim of a tug of war match, all I can do is smile wide in disbelief as they giggle, vying to pat me down. The initially playful back and forth escalates into forceful jerks on my arms.
Keep my shoulders in their sockets, ladies! “Woah!”I yell. [Recall that by now I’ve walked several miles with large bags today. Also, the evening before was whipped around on an inner tube behind my uncle’s boat at speeds of around 30 mph!]
The initial grabber relinquishes her grasp and the other triumphantly pushes me up onto the yellow foot-printed pad. The ensuing pat down experience is quite refreshing, but awkward. Afterwards, I wonder if I should have left a tip for the extra attention devoted to my shoulders… I should have told her I had a knot to work out!
7. “My bag isn’t here.”
After a couple hours of thirty seconds naps, nodding myself awake to avoid drooling on the Mongolian gentleman next to me, we touch down in Ulaanbaatar just before midnight. After making it through passport control and security and passing several Mongolians with signs in English for foreigners – none which have one with my name – I reach the baggage carousel. I spot two of my three my bags immediately, then try my best to suppress my anxiety as, one by one, Mongolians pull their luggage off of the rotating belt and walk past me to the exit. So this is what happens when you insult the man in charge of your baggage in Beijing…
With my hosts nowhere in sight, I ask two airport employees about who to talk to about lost luggage. They point me over to a lone desk by the exit.
I wait for ten minutes behind an irate Thai resident of Mongolia, who left his house keys in his bag that didn’t show up either. “For the last time, I just want to borrow a phone to call my friend to find a place to sleep tonight.” “Sir, one moment!”
While the conflict continues, with no other passengers in sight, I make my way towards the exit to see if I should arrange for a ride. Yes! They’re here! Two Mongolians roughly my age are waiting with a sign for me! I greet them from 30 feet away with a wave.
“Hi! My bag isn’t here. I’m waiting to fill out a form.”
Kindly, my Mongolian hostess helps me communicate with the clerk in charge of lost bags. Shortly after, I’m whisked into the night towards our guesthouse in UB! After avoiding T-boning several vehicles in unmarked intersections of the pothole-filled streets, we reach our final destination…