Saturday, 23 June 2012

Gimpo to Beijing to Hong Kong on Air China

I flew Air China in 2004, when I was living in Japan. An Air China flight through Beijing was, by far, the cheapest ticket from Kansai back to Canada. After taking the flight, I understood why: the armrest on my seat was duct-taped to the frame, they played movies that had been pirated from cinema by handi-cam, and they used the overhead speakers instead of headphones. The food was really bad, even for airline food. And that's without even talking about the Chinese passengers who spit into their cups throughout the eight-hour flight to Vancouver.

Fast-forward to 2012 and Air China has improved to the point it's essentially indistinguishable from any other generic international carrier. Sure, it doesn't offer the service or amenities of a non-budget Asian or SE Asian carrier, but it gets the job done.

My flight from Gimpo to Hong Kong, booked 3 days in advance, cost $270. That seems kind of steep, but keep in mind that it involved over 5-and-a-half hours of flight time. Of course, this involved a stopover in Beijing, whereas a direct flight would clock in at almost exactly four hours. Even so, it still  seems pretty steep for the region, but that was the cheapest I could find at the time.

Gimpo is the smaller airport for Seoul, used mainly for shorter flights, while Incheon is used for long-haul international flights. Gimpo is connected by subway, while Incheon is connected by express and commuter trains, making them both pretty darn convenient, although Gimpo is closer to the city and very convenient if staying in Hongdae.

Gimpo feels a little quiet and lacks the bustle and (duty free) shopping outlets one expects in international airports, but it was perfectly functional and modern.

The smog at Beijing International seemed familiar from when I flew through there in 2004, but this time I have photographic evidence. It's pretty incredible, and I seriously doubt that the air-traffic controllers in their tower can always see planes that are on the runways or at the far ends of the terminal.

Deplaning in Beijing
Deplaning in Beijing.

Tower smog
The control tower is close, but already obscured by smog.

It's pretty ironic that I connected through Beijing on a flight booked so that I can receive a Chinese visa, especially since most nationalities can obtain a visa-free 72-hour stopover in Beijing so long as they have a connecting flight through the airport. So I ended up being stamped into China by immigration at the Beijing airport, while on my way to an embassy that would give me a visa so that I could be stamped into China.

The terminal was virtually empty when I was there around noon, but the callow youth staffing the expensive luxury boutiques were doing their best to send text messages to their friends while ignoring the few people who did venture into their stores.

Montblanc attendant
Western brand, Chinese service.

Showers in the airport
Free showers in the bathrooms, with heating lamps above! You've got to like that... but for some reason the bathrooms look much older than then airport.

Atmospheric perspective at Beijing airport
This is called atmospheric perspective, where things farther away are fuzzier and less well defined. It's usually seen between mountain ranges or hills that are farther and farther away, and not between airplanes at terminal gates.

Visibility on takeoff
Visibility on takeoff. Where does the terminal end?

Visibility in HK is slightly better...
Hmmm.... visibility is just slightly better in Hong Kong.

About to land
About to land on the airport's artificial island.

The symmetry between our winglet and the other plane's tail is completely accidental.

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