Tuesday, March 2, 2010

As for the next flight...

I didn't particularly want to be leaving Taiwan, mind you - I had friends here who were showing me around to some excellent places to eat in Taipei, the weather was pleasant, and the people far, far nicer than in mainland China. In fact, Lin and two of her friends were about to take a week-long bike trip down the wild and scenic East Coast of Taiwan, and, from the little I got to see of the coast earlier, I think I'd have really enjoyed coming down with them... (more on my life and times in Taiwan in a soon-to-come post... I promise). But, I had a flight to catch out of Hong Kong a day later, so it was time to go.

The whole crew at Lin's apartment in Taipei, huddling around my backpack

Five of us biked up through the hills to the nearby hotsprings of Wulai the day before

My flight out of Taiwan was aboard Cebu Pacific Airlines, a Filipino-based carrier, whom I had grown to sort of like, back when I was in the Philippines in December. It's a budget airline, but they [generally] do budget well: the planes are new, seats are comfortable enough, and, hey, they are cheap! So, while I wasn't exactly expecting a reprise of Eva Air with three passengers on board, I figured I had reason to be optimistic. And the flight to Manila was optimistic enough, as I had a whole row of three seats all to myself. I probably even slept for an hour and a half.

Manila was where things started to get a little more interesting - I got off the plane and headed out to look for my next flight. Encouraged by lots of Transfer signs in the terminal, I skirted around the lines for immigration and ended up at the Transfer desk. Which was empty. Except for a security guard, who called for an agent. We waited for an agent... This was at about 4 in the morning, so my patience wasn't on its best behavior after some 10 minutes. After another 10 minutes and a bit more prompting from me, an agent materialized. And slowly sauntered down the hall. Finally(!), she made her way down to us (another plane had landed in the mean time, and the transfer desk was now home to three of us), and announced that we had to go and get our bags. I was not amused - why!? My luggage tag clearly indicates Hong Kong as the bag's destination. She babbled on about airport regulations. I felt she was full of shit and clueless, but followed.

Of course, between us and the baggage counter lay immigration. I, once again, pointedly noted that I wasn't actually staying in the Philippines, so I didn't need immigration. We went anyway, came around the line, and ended up with a Filipino entry stamp each. I thought about running out of space in my passport, we moved on anyway. Finally at baggage claim, a good 45 minutes after deplaning, I got my bag, and was told to take it over to another transfer desk, this one down on this level. Some more in-decipherable chatting followed, then my bag was taken away again, and my original luggage tag returned. We walked back towards the gates. I inquired as to the whole point of this process, since it seemed completely pointless - they didn't need me to come down to baggage claim, through immigration, just to carry my bags 50 feet. My Cebu agent prattled on about regulations and how new this terminal was. I paid just enough attention to start to gather a picture (in the mean time we passed back through immigration... and didn't stop this time. I knew I probably should have said something, but I didn't really want a Filipino exit stamp for my 3 hour stay at the Manila airport).

Anyway, the picture: the staff at the airport aren't allowed to handle passengers' bags. Security measure, I guess. But, how do you do transfers then? Well, some background - Cebu Pacific has an entire terminal in Manila. Apparently, this terminal was built some 7-8 years ago, then sat unused for about five years, while everybody fought and argued about what should be done with it. Somehow, the argument was never really resolved, and Cebu (which might not have even existed 7 years ago?) ended up with the terminal almost by the default. I suppose they are the 2nd biggest Filipino carrier, after Philippine Airlines. But whereas Philippine Airlines, being a somewhat established carrier, has automated transfer facilities in its terminal, Cebu is a budget carrier, specializing in point-to-point flights, so they do not. The rules still apply though, so if you do end up with an international transfer in Manila, at the Cebu terminal, you have to carry the luggage yourself, all the way to the transfer desk 50 feet away - the staff aren't allowed to touch it, and the machinery hasn't been installed. My sauntering agent-lady claimed it wasn't installed yet, as this terminal is so new, however as the terminal has actually been around (if not used) for a while, I suspect Cebu just hasn't bothered, since they don't get a lot of international transfers. And immigration, of course, expects you to be stamped into their country before you can go to baggage claim.

So, this took an hour and a half in the middle of the night, and I learned a little more than i had wanted about the Filipino Civil Aviation regulations. But, of course, I wasn't actually done with Cebu yet, I still had a flight to catch to Hong Kong. Mine wasn't scheduled to leave till 8, but another departed at 5:45. Agent lady claimed I'd have to rebook (and pay the fare difference in fare) to get on the earlier flight, but now I knew she was full of shit, so I went for the gate and asked about stand-by's. They explained the flight was already over-sold. I sulked a bit, and headed over to find some early breakfast - just as my salmon and cream cheese focaccia was arriving the gate agent came back looking for Mr Alex, and announced that they did have a seat available for me.

I prefer waiting in Hong Kong to waiting in Manila so I went off. My bag, unfortunately, didn't have quite as much free will to direct its own destiny, and, after 10 minutes on the walkie talkie, we decided it was still going to be on the 8 o'clock flight. I didn't really care, so things got interesting. I landed in Hong Kong and confirmed that my bag wasn't joining me, as expected. I didn't really want to hang around for two hours waiting for it though, so I went off searching for another Cebu agent to see if they could help with this situation. An agent was, once again, difficult to locate (I was getting annoyed with them by now... maybe because I had slept for about 3 hours total, all on airplanes), but I eventually found one upstairs by the check-in counters. She considered my situation - I proposed leaving the bag with Cebu till that evening when I would actually need it for my flight to London - and stated that they weren't really allowed to that. However, here's the number for Lost and Found, just go into town now and make sure to call them in a couple hours to verify that they got your bag, and come back to get it a couple hours early. And you didn't hear any of this from me! I considered the solution to be fairly ingenious, in spite of finding a few potential potholes in the execution, so I went with it and got on a bus for Hong Kong. A couple of hours later, a helpful gentleman at Lost and Found confirmed that they had, in fact, located my bag - I promised to come back for it around nine, and they assured me it would be waiting. Well, I actually showed up around 10 (I played frisbee in the afternoon, and felt I deserved an hour's worth of massage before spending a second consecutive night on an airplane; and that was time and money well spent!), but the bag was, in fact, waiting for me, after some 20 minutes of talking, checking and waiting.

Hong Kong wasn't quite this gray and sinister on this day (I did enjoy a few hours of playing frisbee on the beach shortly before taking this picture on the ferry back), but it was rather overcast.

So, finished with Cebu, I now headed over for Qatar Airways, my 5-Star airline destined for London. I continue to suspect that the 5-star rating is self assigned... First, of course, I had to re-pack my bag once again, as Cebu charges for checked luggage over 15kg, so, obviously, I just carried 5 extra kilos of carry-on luggage with me (what, you thought I'd be willing to pay, sauntering agent lady?).

The Qatar flight came in two legs: about 8 hours to Doha, Qatar. Then another 8/9 hours from there to London. My Doha layover could've just been a couple of hours, but I opted for a later flight, spending some six hours in the state of Qatar. I figured I might see something... Well, what I saw wasn't particularly interesting - the Persian Gulf countries are dominated by, well, sand. And flatness. On the horizon, I could see the gleaming towers of Doha. Nearby, I could see dusty two and three story buildings, that wouldn't have looked any different in any other part of the world.

And Doha has this weird water tower thing to greet you...

All the planes I saw on the ground were Qatar Airways. The only other one I saw was from Air Atlanta Icelandic, which seemed horribly out of place here, in the desert. I later learned that it belonged to an Icelandic company that simply leases planes around the world. This was likely one of the two they had out on lease to Saudi Arabia

And I had plenty of time to take all of this in, as we landed, deplaned, boarded a shuttle bus, then must have traveled some 20 minutes to reach the chaotic terminal building (dominated by the sprawling duty free store). Considering that the whole country is flat, sandy, and empty (as far as I can tell), I'm not sure why the runway couldn't have been closer to the terminal, but maybe they have a reason... The whole time, I kept expecting Dubai's newly constructed Burj Dubai to poke over the horizon - it's the new tallest building in the world, and at over 850 meters in height (that's almost a freaking kilometer!), it's over 350 meters taller than the 504 meter Taipei 101, now #2 in the world. Alas, it's apparently not quite tall enough to be visible from Qatar. Well, it is almost 400km away... Slightly ruining my pre-conceived notions of the place, was what I could not see around me - not a single mosque... There was one inside the airport, of course, but, I suppose, this isn't Saudi Arabia, so we are probably not quite as fanatically Muslim around here...

As for my 5-star flights? Well, they were nice, albeit not quite overwhelming. I slept most of my first flight, and kept myself busy watching TV and drinking French Syrah on the next one. 5-star or not, but they do provide as much complimentary wine/beer/spirits as you can handle - I landed with a bit of a headache... The food was pretty good, and the entertainment system, of course, absolutely blew anything on an American-based carrier away. But it also lived in a computer box under the seat, which limited my leg room, which I didn't appreciate. All in all, certainly one of the nicer flights I've been on, but Emirates was definitely better, and Thai Airways could probably give it a run for its money!

And four flights and three cities after leaving Taiwan, I finally arrived in London, which was cold, but at least not rainy!

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