The arrival at Beijing International airport was my third time in a Chinese airport (I had transited through Hong Kong International on my way to and from Lao 4 and 5 years earlier), and I went through the standard arrival procedures of checking my connecting ticket to LAX. This time things were a bit different, however, because Swine Flu was apparently on the mind of the Chinese government. Upon arrival all passengers were asked to fill out and sign a form saying that they were not suffering from any of the symptoms of the flu. Unfortunately, I have always suffered from allergies to airborne allergens and had been congested that day because of this. So, being the honest Mennonite that I am I dutifully checked the “Nasal Congestion” box and handed the form to the customs official along with my passport. This earned me a trip to a specially cordoned-off waiting area from which I watched all my fellow passengers pass by on their way into the international departures area. About 10 minutes later a man and woman in scrubs and white lab coats arrived with my form and the man started asking me some questions. “Where have you been traveling?” had a difficult and lengthy answer, but eventually we got around to the reason I had checked the “Nasal Congestion” box. The man spoke English fairly well so it was easy enough to explain about my allergies. “Ah, yes.” He said, “That’s alright.” Five minutes, several stamps, and a few signatures later I was on my way.
I had over 5 hours to kill before my plane to LAX left and I had decided that I would try to get out of the airport if at all possible. When we had been planning the trip we had decided against going to China because of a visa cost of over $400 per person. However, Matt had told me that he had met someone in Beijing who had been allowed to leave the airport for a few hours during his layover without a visa. This gave me an idea and as I talked to the customs official at arrivals I asked if it was possible to leave the airport for a little while before my flight left. He said yes and told me where I needed to go get out of the international terminal. So, when I finally saw the terminal entrance I walked toward it exuding as much confidence as I could muster. I was walked upstream through the flow of arriving Chinese travelers arriving at the arrival customs counters from the wrong side. I watched two stewardesses and a few captains walk out through a small gate along the right side of the room and headed that way. When I arrived, however, I was firmly but kindly stopped by a security guard who told me in Chinese and pantomime that I was going the wrong way and pointed me toward the departure lounge. I didn’t take no for an answer, however, and, apologizing to the guard, went to the nearest customs box. I politely got the attention of the young woman stamping passports and tried to explain my hopes and dreams of being able to walk around outside. All I succeeded in doing, unfortunately, was confusing her and so she made me understand that I was to wait there and she would call someone to help. A few minutes later a man who must have been a supervisor approached and in clear English asked me what the problem was. There was some hemming and hawing and a few more questions about reasons (”There are very nice restaurants in the departure lounge.”). But my polite persistence eventually won the day! The supervisor gave my passport to the young customs official to stamp and told me which monorail line to take and off I went.
For about 2 hours I walked the streets of Beijing in the area near the airport. It took about 20 minutes to get from the airport to a nearby market where I went to a bank and found that the ATM only offered currency in RMB (renminbi). I had literally never heard of the RMB and was expecting to withdraw Yuan. It was a good reminder that there is still a lot out there to learn. I did eventually learn that the RMB was the official name for the currency with the yuan being the name for the unit of currency. Anyway, I withdrew about 100 yuan and used it to buy some delicious Dragon Fruit, a pomello and a few other things for a nice picnic lunch in a small park from which I could watch Chinese life go by. The sounds of bicycles, pedal taxies, a few cars and busses and many voices in a language I didn’t understand made for an appropriate backdrop for my last day in Asia and my last “Cultural Experience” of the trip. With just an hour and a half to go I headed back to the airport and got through security and customs with few problems and prepared for a long plane flight to LAX.
The trip was remarkable only for the length of time it took and the packed 747 on which it took place. I chatted a bit with a Chinese family returning to their home in LA and an American business man who had been working in Beijing for a few weeks and then everyone settled down to some fitful, airplane sleep. As we approached LA many hours later, I spend the last 20 minutes of the flight looking out of the window, watching the coastline of my home country approach after 4 months away. The city bustled with cars, and few bicycles or pedestrians could been seen from the air. Roads were clean and it seemed like ads plastered every visible inch. Just before our gentle landing I caught a glimpse of a flaming hillside and billows of smoke just outside the city. The huge forest fires I had read about while waiting for departure.
A uniformed, American customs official kindly welcomed me home and, after picking up my bag I walked outside into the warm, California air. Waiting me were my girlfriend Rachel, my sister Elizabeth, and my Great-uncle Ned. Elizabeth, Rachel, my brother Levi and roommate Chris had all taken a trip through the American Southwest to pick me up. They had stopped at Ned and Marge’s house and then come to pick me up. It was nice to see some familiar faces after almost two weeks on my own and Ned and Marge prepared a wonderful supper for us during which all of us talked about our adventures.
My time overseas had ended but I still had a few days of adventure driving back across the US before the trip would be at an end.