A Trip to China: My first time in Asia

Back in April, I was perusing through Google Flights one day, just to see what’s there. After all, I watch flight prices much like some people watch the stock market: just to see what the prices – in this case, ticket prices instead of share prices – are.

When I discovered that Hainan Airlines – which happens to be a five-star airline – was selling round trip tickets on its Boston Logan to Beijing Capital route for $659 round trip, I was extremely tempted. And while I didn’t go ahead and buy the ticket same day, like I did when I stumbled upon an exceptional Norwegian Air Shuttle fare, I waited barely 24 hours before booking. This would be my first trip to Asia, but – given that the date was April 30th – it seemed so far in the future that it was barely real.

As summer turned into fall, however, I realized that things were getting real. I had to obtain a visa, which was a lengthy process, but it eventually came. Additionally, a week or so before my departure, I found out that the China Southern Airlines flight that I was supposed to take from Beijing to Chengdu on the Airbus A380 was downgauged to an A330. Instead of keeping that itinerary, I found that CS was running an A380 between Beijing and Guangzhou, so I ended up switching my ticket to that flight instead. All told, I’d be in Beijing for four days, Guangzhou for one, and Shanghai for one.

November 5, 2016

Saturday morning, I woke up around 5:30 a.m. – far earlier than I’d intended. While awake, I decided to check flightradar24 to see what aircraft I would be flying to China on, as – whatever plane it is – would be inbound to Boston from Beijing as HU481.

To my surprise, instead of the Boeing 787-800 that was scheduled to operate the route – I was initially disappointed that I’d booked this flight for just a week after the 787-900 was to be taken off the route for the winter – the plane inbound to Boston was a 787-9! I’d never tried this aircraft before, only the 787-8 that I flew on to Norway and back, so I was excited at the prospect of flying on the larger version of Boeing’s latest fleet addition.

The only bad news was that the flight had left Beijing three hours late. As a result, we would be delayed three hours leaving Boston. My guess is there was a mechanical issue with the 787-8 that was scheduled to fly the route, resulting in a 787-9 being swapped in to take over the flight. Generally speaking, I don’t like equipment swaps, as it means that I don’t get to fly on a particular model, as I usually choose my flights carefully. This one, however, was most welcome.
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Hainan Airlines 787-900 B-1540 at the gate, sporting the Kung Fu Panda livery.
Ready to Fly

After a somewhat extensive boarding process, I found myself seated in 43K. We pushed back from the gate relatively quickly, and – just 15 minutes after pushback – we took off from Runway 33L. Upon rotation, I saw the wing flex, and then droop somewhat, as it was evident that the plane was extremely full of fuel. A minor observation, but one that I found intriguing.

As we climbed through the clouds on our plane, which just made its first flight in August of 2016, I watched the in-flight map for a while. Throughout the 14 hours we were in the air, I watched a variety of things on the TV, including The Wolf of Wall Street. I even managed to get four or so hours of very good sleep, a major boon, thanks to the fact that I had three seats to myself (43H and 43J were empty). For its part, Hainan was excellent, and I understand why it has garnered the praise it has: the food, service, and accommodations all exceeded my expectations.

We landed at Beijing Capital on Runway 01 around 10:20 p.m., local time, and – after an extensive wait on the tarmac – were bussed to border control.

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The Kung Fu Panda design at the front of B-1540, as seen after landing.

November 7, 2016

Barely 8 hours after arriving at my hotel, I was on the road again to Beijing Capital to board a flight to Shanghai Hongqiao. Shanghai wasn’t originally on my itinerary, but I felt tempted to see it, as it’s the biggest city in the world. Given that I ended up ditching my planned two-day trip to Chengdu in favor of a single day venture to Guangzhou, I realized that I had time to see Shanghai. And when I found a cheap round trip on China Eastern Airlines for a day trip, it was an opportunity I wasn’t about to pass up – despite the first leg being less than 24 hours after I was to arrive in Beijing!

A330-300 Adventure

The flight from Beijing to Hongqiao was on an A330-300. Though I’d previously flown on the A330 during my winter trip to Miami, those were both on the A330-200: this was my first trip on the A330-300. In the United States, A330s are used mostly on intercontinental flights, with a few being used for high-volume domestic routes. In Asia, however, there are a significant number of A330s used on domestic routes – a testament to how populated the continent is.

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Boarding the China Eastern A330-300 – B-5969.

After a significant wait for takeoff – we sat for around 45 minutes without moving – my flight to Shanghai eventually took off. It was relatively short, around 2 hours in length, and we landed at Hongqiao – on Shanghai’s west side – around 2:30 p.m., giving me almost seven hours to make my 9:15 p.m. return flight out of Shanghai Pudong – the city’s major international airport located on the east city of the city.

Having taken the subway into the city, I explored for a few hours before boarding the maglev train to Pudong. I arrived with plenty of time before my flight – due to depart at 9:15 – and finally had some time to relax.

Time For Sleep

My flight from Pudong to Beijing was on an A321. I was pretty sure that it was originally supposed to be on another A330, but I could well be wrong. Much like the flight down, we waited a significant amount of time on the tarmac before takeoff – a symptom of the incredible congestion that is pervasive in Chinese airports, which is understandable given that the country has more than a billion people. Either way, I was excited to finally get back to my hotel room for some well-deserved rest.

November 10, 2016

After a Tuesday spent mostly resting and a Wednesday spent in Beijing, it was time for my first trip on the Airbus A380. While I always have and always will prefer the Boeing 747-400 for aesthetic and sentimental reasons, I was eager for just my third quad-jet trip (the first two coming during my trip to England in 2014).

On the way to the airport on this cloudy Thursday morning, I debated selecting a seat on the upper deck or not, as I didn’t want to have an experience that – barring a ride in business class – I would never get on the 747-400. However, I decided that I absolutely would try it for a couple of reasons: 1. Besides the price of business class, British Airways – the only carrier that I’d ever want to fly on the upper deck of a 747 with – does not have forward-facing window seats on its 747s, and I wouldn’t want to fly on a rear-facing seat. 2. As much as I love the 747, the A380 is generally larger, and thus this represented an excellent opportunity for me.

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China Southern Airlines A380 B-1540 at the gate.
When I went to the check-in machine around three hours before the flight – yes, I got there early – I wanted to see what I could get. As it turned out, there were window seats on the right available, so I selected what I thought was an upper deck seat – 64K. When I went to board the plane, however, I followed the signs for my given seat group, and was surprised to learn that I was actually on the bottom floor.

Whether this was my mistake or the computer’s, I’m not sure, because I’m fairly certain that I selected the upper deck seat map. Regardless, I explained to the flight attendants asked the flight attendants if there were any seats available upstairs. They said that there were two aisle seats available, but I didn’t want an aisle seat – I wanted to be by the window.

Upstairs at Last
Refusing to take no for an answer, I snuck up the stairs at the back of the plane, and waited around at the back of the cabin, looking out at the seats that were available. Some were unoccupied, but we were far from finishing boarding. I managed to bargain with a different flight attendant, asking if I could hang out and see if – after the cabin door closed – any window seats were left, and that I’d return to my seat downstairs if not. He said this was fine, so I did exactly that.

As it turned out, there was exactly one window seat left when the cabin door closed – 72A. I sat down, happy with the outcome, and looked out the window at the majestic view from the second floor.

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The view from 72A.
Unlike both my flight to and from Shanghai, we had a pretty quick taxi to the runway. While there was an evident spool-up from the engines, the plane was extremely quiet during takeoff, and seemed to gracefully float into the sky. Despite being larger than the 747, the A380 is in fact quieter and takes off at lower speeds – both likely due to the fact that the latter is significantly newer than the former. I’ve been critical of the A380s aesthetics, or lack thereof, but I cannot argue with its performance.
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Up above the clouds.

We floated through a layer of fog (or smog, I’m not sure) before eventually getting to our cruising altitude. Throughout the 2 1/2 hours we were in the air, I was extremely impressed with the A380, while also finding its size mind-boggling. We touched down in Guangzhou on Runway 02L around 12:30 p.m., bringing my inaugural A380 adventure to an end.

To fill the six-hour gap between my arrival and return flight on an Air China A330-300, I ventured into Guangzhou on the subway, and found the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall. I’m not usually one for museums, but this was an incredibly compelling place full of intriguing history. Though it was raining, I walked around the city for a while, before boarding the metro to return to the airport.

Much like my night flight from Shanghai to Beijing, this flight was relatively uneventful, although it’s always fun flying on an A330. Certainly my favorite non-Boeing aircraft, even after flying on the A380.

November 12, 2016

It was finally time to go home. And while I certainly had an incredible week full of awesome experiences, I was certainly looking forward to being back on American soil.

I arrived at the airport around three hours before departure, which is the recommended amount of time for an international flight. And it was good that I did, as – when leaving China – you have to pass through immigration control, which took around a half-hour. Even so, I was still through security a full two hours before my flight.

A common theme at Beijing is that – because it’s so big – a number of planes are forced to sit at stands and have passengers be bussed out to them. In fact, 2 of the 3 flights I took out of Beijing all boarded from stands, which was somewhat frustrating, as boarding from a jetway is significantly easier. Oh well, I guess that’s simply the possibility you have to accept when you’re at a large airport.

The Return Home

For this flight, I would be on a 787-800 painted in Hainan’s traditional livery. While I was surprised and excited to fly on the 787-900 on the way over, I did want to fly at least once on a plane with Hainan’s traditional livery. Once we were all boarded – I was seated in 43A this time – pushback and startup was relatively uneventful, and – thankfully – our takeoff queue wasn’t that long.

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Hainan Airlines 787-800 B-2731, our return plane.
We took off from Beijing’s Runway 36R shortly after 2:40 p.m. After a relatively uneventful ascent, during which I could see contrails from our plane coming out of the engine – which was pretty cool – the afternoon soon turned into night. My only complaint was that my TV wasn’t working which, despite doing as the cabin crew instructed and letting it sit for 10 minutes, didn’t change.
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A nice view from shortly after takeoff.
After several hours of darkness, during which I was able to sleep on and off, we finally re-emerged into daylight. At this point, we were still hours away from arrival, but I began to feel much more “optimistic” about being home soon.
A Memorable Ending

The most fun part of the flight was easily the last hour. I knew that we’d be flying over Southern Maine via the Kennebunk VOR on our way into Logan, but I didn’t know how much I’d be able to see, if anything at all. Turns out I saw a ton: my hometown of Freeport, the Cousins Island power plant in Yarmouth, Halfway Rock Light way out in Casco Bay, and an extensive amount of downtown Portland. I snapped a few photos for good measure – discreetly, of course – and did well to contain my excitement as we continued our descent.

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An annotated photo of my hometown.
After flying downwind for a bit, we started our final approach to Runway 33L. It seemed to be a long approach, but perhaps my view was skewed by my anticipation of the upcoming touchdown. Soon enough, however, we flew over the threshold, floated for a bit, and then smoothly touched down at 1:58 p.m.
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B-2731 parked at the gate after landing.
Getting through customs was a bit of a drag, as we came in around the same time as BA213, the afternoon British Airways 747-400 from London Heathrow, as well as a couple of other flights. Even so, it wasn’t all that bad: from touchdown to being through customs was around 50 minutes.

After arriving home, I was surprised to find that I wasn’t nearly as jetlagged as I’d anticipated being. Part of that owed to the fact that I slept most of the day before my return in an effort to be as rested as possible for the flight. Regardless, I was extremely happy to have gone on this trip: while the flights were indeed memorable and awesome for me, the visit to China was memorable for many additional reasons as well.