2004.05.21 Beijing, China

Joyce and the fish made
of mango pudding

My stay in the capital has been extended by a couple days: I missed my flight back to Urumchi.

I was to have left Wednesday morning, but we arrived at the airport scarcely half-an-hour before the flight departed. The policy on domestic flights in China is strictly enforced. Passengers who haven't already checked in 30 minutes beforehand are not allowed to fly and surrender half the cost of their ticket. Getting on another flight that day means paying full-fare for a new ticket.

I had this same experience flying within China once before. On both occasions I was firmly refused passage approximately 25 minutes before departure time. The rare occasions I've shown up within that window for a domestic flight in the US, the unstated policy seemed to follow this procedure: the ticket agent informs me that the flight is closed, shrugs their shoulders--then books me on the next flight without penalty. In fact one time--when missing the flight was completely my fault--the airline actually paid me six dollars and gave me a free trip to San Francisco. This is how that happened:

I spent several weeks of late autumn 1999 working in rural Nevada. With sales spiking the month before Christmas, the company for which I worked would send its office employees from headquarters in Seattle to help out at warehouse locations around the country. I wound up in Fernley, 40 miles west of Reno and typical of small, isolated desert towns.

The routine was grueling: work shifts were twelve-and-a-half hours of manual labor in a filthy warehouse. The hotel was back in Reno, so the commute wasted another 90 minutes every day. There wasn't enough time to get a full-night's sleep, let alone do anything else. Even if I had the energy to explore, the only places left open after my shift were the casinos.

I took the opportunity to get out of town every weekend. I spent one visiting a friend down in Pasadena. On the return trip back to Reno, I knew even before I reached the ticket counter that I wouldn't make the flight.

David: "I don't suppose there's any chance I'll make this flight?"

Ticket Agent I: "Nope, it's in the final boarding process."

David: "What time is the next flight?"

Ticket Agent I: "That was the last one until tomorrow."

David: "Oh. I'm supposed to work tomorrow. Could you route me through a different city perhaps?"

Ticket Agent I: "I'm looking into that possibility now. If I do come up with alternate flights you'll have to pay the difference between your ticket and whatever the new routing costs."

I imagined this would be a lot, the airlines charging whatever they could for a walk-up fare for the next departure.

Ticket Agent I: "Okay, I can get you into Reno at 11:00 P.M., flying via San Francisco."

David: "How much is that going to cost me?"

Ticket Agent I: "Well, the non-stop routing you were on cost $124.18. With a stop in San Francisco the fare is $118.12. If you'll sign here we'll credit the card you used to purchase the ticket with the difference."

David: "Huh? You're going to pay me six bucks 'cause I missed my flight?"

Ticket Agent I: "That's the difference in fares."

David: "Okay, I should do this more often."

When I arrived at the departure gate for my first leg the electronic reader-board announced the flight was delayed by two hours. This would mean missing my connection. The next gate over was preparing for a different flight to SFO, with a departure time five minutes earlier than mine was scheduled for. I went to the second gate to see if I could get on the earlier flight. There was indeed room, so I was booked onto my third scheduled flight out of LAX that evening.

Upon reaching SFO I met further complications. The ticket agents at the Reno gate announced that the status of the flight was delayed: the aircraft hadn't yet left L.A. If there was to be a flight that night, they said, it would leave at least two hours late. Resigning myself to a fourth itinerary, I sat down in the restaurant next to the gate and penned a few Christmas cards over a bowl of clam chowder. After an hour I strolled back to the ticket counter to get an update on the flight status.

David: "Any word on the flight to Reno?"

Ticket Agent II: "Reno? That just left ten minutes ago."

David: "But at 10:00 you said it wouldn't leave for at least two hours. You said the aircraft was still in L.A."

Ticket Agent II: "We also said not to go far in case there was a change in status."

David: "I've been sitting inside this restaurant twenty feet from where we're standing!"

Ticket Agent II: "Sorry sir, we sent out airport-wide pages."

David: "Okay, okay. It's just been one of those nights. When is the next flight to Reno?"

Ticket Agent II: "Tomorrow at 8:00 A.M."

David: "Tomorrow? Sigh. Any seats available?"

So I found myself having to spend the night in a city I hadn't even expected to be passing through a few hours earlier. It wound up being one of my favorite trips.

I was lucky to have been carrying an address book in my wallet which contained the 'phone number of my cousin Jade and her partner Christine. We stayed up late at their apartment, sipping wine and catching up. By 5:00 A.M. I realized I was not going to make that 8:00 flight, so called the airline and changed my ticket yet again. For some reason I was still thinking I might manage a half-shift in Fernley if I left on a noon flight. However, after waking up we all decided to take dim sum that afternoon with another cousin, Tina, also living in the Bay Area. I finally realized there was no point in hurrying back to Reno, so again revised my ticket--to an evening flight--and made the most of a full day around the city.

I recall experiencing a surreal sense the entire time: frequently blinking, looking around, and trying to figure just how it could be that I was in San Francisco at that moment. It was wonderful. Any unexpected bonus day free from the warehouse would have made me happy enough, but spending it in a vibrant city with people close to me was beyond belief.