The flight itself was doable. It started with an awkward exchange with her Chinese-speaking seatmates as she climbed over them, already settled with pillows and blankets, to get to her window seat. She usually reads before going to bed, so, hoping her brain was conditioned like Pavlov’s dogs, she opened a book with the possibility it may have lulled her to sleep. After reading through 40%, however, she knew she was in for another sleepless flight (her body never let her sleep on airplanes) and switched to a movie to help pass the time. Thirteen hours and three crappy airline meals later, she landed in Beijing, ecstatic at being half a day closer to Korea. It was eight in the evening, and all she could see out of her tiny airplane window was the garish glow of orange lights on the landing strips and along the roof of the airport itself.
Exiting the plane was fine, and even as she approached the line for immigration, stretching back one hundred or so foreigners, she felt sure that she would pass through quickly and make it to her gate for a hearty Chinese dinner (breakfast for her). As she moved through the line and got closer to the security officer, however, she heard the problems of those before her and started to sweat. The officers were asking for the itineraries of each traveler passing through security, a pretty standard procedure (she guessed). But Carly stupidly didn’t print her itinerary as she assumed she would receive all three boarding passes from her initial check-in desk in Baltimore. Since her flights to Chicago and Beijing were on a different airline than of that to Busan, her attendant in Baltimore had told her to get the boarding pass from the Korean Air desk once arriving in Beijing. The only problem? The check-in desks at the Beijing airport were located outside of immigration. She desperately tried to get on the airport wifi in order to bring up her online itinerary, only to find that the network required a confirmation VIA TEXT MESSAGE in order to log on. Cursing the stupidity of whoever came up with that idea, she waited the rest of her turn in line, hoping one of the officers could look up her itinerary on her computer or else send her somewhere she could access the internet. That was not, however, the case. After explaining her situation, she was sent to another, “special”, line to have her itinerary confirmed. Upon making it through this line, she was told she “couldn’t be helped” and was sent to an American Airlines desk across from immigration in order to print her boarding pass.
Sighing again and situating her luggage so it didn’t fall on the floor for the hundredth time, she made her way to the AA desk, where she was (thankfully) given a verification code for the wifi. She was unable to log onto expedia, however (be it because of the slow internet or because of China’s massive firewall, she never figured out) and asked the women at the desk, with tears in her eyes, to please look up her itinerary using their computer. They told her there was no way they could (but, like, they could’ve let her borrow one of their phones, right? Come on, people!), and so Carly thought to call her Mother for the information while she still had access to wifi. She re-coiled in horror as she saw her face in the self-camera of her phone. Blotchy, sweaty, and inhumanly puffy, she hoped the face on her mother’s end of the camera was blurry enough to disguise what resembled Him from The Power Puff Girls. Her mother answered soon enough and sent her the screen shots of her itinerary that were necessary.
With tears of frustration streaming down her face, she marched past the AA desk (hoping they felt bad for not letting her use the computer, despite what corporate rules were set in place) and hopped in line again at immigration. After waiting in line for another fifteen minutes and being sent to another “special” line, she finally felt she was in the right place and was ready to pass legally into the land of China. A security officer roaming along her line told her she would not be able to pass through because of the lack of date on her itinerary, and told her to hop out of line until she could find a screenshot with a date. Not wanting to lose her place or waste another moment on Kakao, she coyly slipped past the security officer and made eye contact with woman approving immigration stamps. She stepped up to the woman, who smiled, checked her screenshot of the itinerary, and promptly stamped her passport, ushering her to the other side of immigration. Victory bells went off in her head, and it took every bit of restraint to keep from jumping into the air or doing some sort of Irish step dance. She wasn’t sure if the woman at immigration decided to overlook the missing date from her itinerary or didn’t think it was an important matter, but either way she felt thankful and proceeded with her head held high.
Her confidence, however, was short-lived. Upon making it to the baggage claim area, she found that, after two hours, the luggage from her flight from Chicago was no longer on the carousel. Depressed by yet another setback and desperate for a sponge bath, she shuffled to the help desk to communicate with another unfriendly member of the staff. She explained her situation and was sent to another office in baggage claim, and then told that her bags would be available for pickup in Busan, contrary to what she was originally told upon leaving Baltimore. She triple-checked this information with every member of the office, but remained highly skeptical due to the language barrier. But, exhausted and fed up, she proceeded to customs, figuring that, if lost, her luggage could be found, but her sanity could not.
After putting her carry-on through the x-ray machine, she was told that the international terminal was only accessible by airport shuttle, which she would have to catch outside of her current terminal. She ignored the fact that she had, indeed, just come in on an international flight, and decided that the staff knew best. Waiting for the elevator down to the first floor, she was pushed and shoved from behind by other waiting travelers and, once the doors finally opened, she was nearly stampeded as the others rushed into the elevator, putting its capacity to the limit and preventing her from boarding. She gave each passenger a death stare as the doors closed, hoping they would remember her angry, exhausted, jet-lagged face for eternity.
Once (finally) making it outside, every sliver of confidence she ever had about being a good traveler evaporated into the smog of Beijing. Buses and people were everywhere. It was very early morning, maybe 1:30am. The glare of the lights – traffic lights, bus lights, and airport lights – reflected off her glasses and nearly blinded her. Using her hand as a visor, she made her way through the crowd to a nearby ticket desk and desperately asked the vendor if she spoke English. She immediately shook her head and look to the person behind Carly in line, waving them up so she could accept their money. Carly moved into the vendor’s line of sight and asked, despite the language barrier, “International terminal?”, her voice breaking on the last syllable. The customer behind her pressed himself against Carly’s back, and she took that as her cue to leave. She made her way to a map explaining the local buses, but even the English writing was confusing. She thought she remembered one of the customs officers telling her to take bus number five, so she stumbled to a marked post and waited. The bus arrived a few minutes later, and as she was just about to board, she croaked “International terminal?” to the airport official monitoring the buses. He looked at her, puzzled. “English?” she asked, the tears finally overflowing and beginning to pour down her face. He looked shocked, and rightfully so, considering this strange, tall, smelly, white girl was sobbing in front of him for no reason, and ushered over a female co-worker. “International terminal?” Carly said again, about ready to give up and climb onto any bus, as long as it took her away from this damned airport. The woman smiled shyly at her and pulled her away from Bus number five, leading her away from the crowd of people. She pointed to a smaller, trolley-sized bus down the line, which had the words “Airport Shuttle” written on the side. Resisting the urge to hug the woman, Carly bowed her head (unsure if they even bow in China, but give the girl a break!) and nearly ran to the shuttle.
She sat down and, relishing the emptiness of the vehicle, gave her face and appendages a bath with wet wipes and tissues. Surprisingly, she made it to the right terminal (although she had to triple check with the staff upon arriving) and managed to find some fellow EPIK-ers waiting in line at the Korean Air counter. Relieved that she now had other people to share the stress, she made it through security (the most thorough and inefficient she had ever experienced, by the way) with relative ease, and by the grace of God made it to the correct gate.
It was very tempting to flip the bird to the smelly* Beijing airport as her plane took off, but she exercised some restraint in front of her new acquaintances. She fell asleep instantly, amazed that her seat on this smaller airline had more leg room than that of her premium seat on the boeing 787, and dreamed sweet dreams of Korea.
*Author’s note: Guys, the Beijing airport was really smelly. I’m not trying to be rude, but it was real stinky. Like really bad.