Time always seems to go by in a flash when you are spending quality time with people that you haven't seen in many, many years. Soon enough, my five days in Changsha gradually came to an end, after touring the city's major attractions and enjoying huge family meals with members of my extended family.
Sure, there were some really interesting moments where the descriptions of some authentic Chinese dishes at a buffet got lost in translation, but to be honest, I must say that Changsha was amazing! It's the perfect place to go to get away from the immense amount of tourists in major cities, and experience a city with its own history and culture.
It was finally time to head to our next destination, Beijing, where we would spend a week touring the well-known sites of the capital city. I've been here once before, when I was 7, but unfortunately, I didn't have the ability to appreciate the cultural and historical significance of the places that I visited. This time, I wanted to get the best out of the city of Beijing and its neighboring areas, and visit as many sites as possible throughout a week.
Before The Flight
Since my uncle's apartment was a fair distance away from Changsha Huanghua International Airport, we left around 6AM after a quick breakfast. Our flight would be departing at 10AM, and we wanted to make sure we didn't miss our flight due to the massive delays in the security and check-in queues, common of airports in China.
Once we arrived at the domestic check-in area, we followed the signs to Air China's check-in counters. One thing that I really liked about this airport is that, like most other Chinese airports, it features an open design that lets a lot of natural light into the terminal, literally "brightening up" the passenger experience. However, even at this time Changsha Airport was significantly crowded, with most travelers booked on the morning rush of flights.
After successfully checking in and receiving our seat assignments (again within the last five rows of the plane), we proceeded to our boarding gate, where a 1-hour delay was promptly announced as we waited to board. Fortunately, this delay was not extended further, and boarding commenced, without respected priorities roughly 50 minutes behind schedule.
Our aircraft today would be an Airbus A321-213, with tail number B-6363. It has been with Air China since 2008, and exclusively flies domestic routes within the country. I should mention that the hard product on Chinese Airlines' domestic fleets are akin to those of low-cost carriers, the only difference being the seats that have extra cloth padding compared to those on the low-cost carriers. There is no in-flight entertainment whatsoever, and no wifi. Although many people have complained about flying on "the big three" in the United States, they are really a huge improvement over domestic flights in China (save for the service sometimes). The market in domestic China has so much demand that airlines are able to fill up their planes without having to introduce some new innovation to attract passengers. The sheer amount of demand in the Chinese air travel market alone does not justify investing in new and innovative products, unfortunately.
August 18, 2016
Air China flight # CA 1344
CSX (Changsha-Huanghua International) - PEK (Beijing-Capital International)
Airbus A321-213 (B-6363)
Flight Time 02:57
I wasn't really having high expectations as I walked down the glass-paneled jet bridge. Air China's domestic aircraft are about as basic as it gets, with overhead screens and newspapers as the only form of entertainment. I passed the small business class cabin, which consists of several recliner-type seats, and made my way to the very back of the economy class cabin. The temperature difference between the outside of the aircraft and the interior was so great that the cold air being pumped into the cabin was starting to condense into mist.
The seats on Air China's A321 are very basic, but come with a good amount of padding, making it much more comfortable than the slimline-type seats on most modern aircraft. There was no in-flight entertainment, as expected, but I had already brought a newspaper in from the gate, so I was prepared.
We pushed back 54 minutes behind schedule, and had a fairly quick taxi to the active runway. Changsha airport is actually not crowded at all, despite having only a single runway. Soon enough, both CFM56-5B/3 engines roared to life, and we leaped off that runway on a very steep climb, which caused some kids sitting a few rows ahead of me to scream. After banking north, we had a very smooth climb up to 10,000 feet, where the service begun (while the seatbelt sign was still illuminated for some reason; Air China apparently never turns off the seat belt sign, even when the aircraft is cruising smoothly). At this time, the overhead screens dropped from the ceiling, and started playing a Chinese drama that I don't remember the name of.
One flight attendant saw me take pictures with my phone, and proceeded to ask me to turn it off in a rude manner. I immediately complied, because I didn't want to risk getting detained by Chinese authorities, but I still find the "no cell phone" policy on most Chinese carriers extremely ridiculous. Basically, cell phones are to be turned completely off as long as the aircraft is in the air, no exceptions. Fortunately, there have been talks of having that policy repealed, though I think it'll be quite a few years before that policy is gone for good.
As there was nothing to do, I took a nap before the lunch cart reached my row. At that time, there was only one option left, the spicy ground beef with rice. It was very similar to the lunch that I had on the flight down to Changsha, but was much tastier. It was served with the same condiments, including bread, chili oil, and pickled radishes.
After I finished my lunch, I basically slept until the landing announcement was made, since there was nothing else to do. By the time I woke up, we were already halfway through our final descent. It was raining in Beijing that day with low-level clouds, so it seemed like we did an automatic landing, as I couldn't see the runway until about 3-4 seconds before touchdown. Touchdown on runway 36R was fairly firm, and we taxied to a remote stand just outside Terminal 3, where some stairs and buses pulled up. One thing I really don't understand is that there were many gates open at Terminal 3, so we should have been allowed to park at the domestic area there instead of at a remote stand. Nonetheless, disembarking at a remote stand allowed me to get some close-up shots of our ride up to Beijing.
The bus took us to a location inside the terminal, which, thankfully, was only a short walk from baggage claim. This time, the bags came out within 5 minutes of our arrival, and we were on our way to our hotel in the Shunyi district of Beijing within 40 minutes of disembarking.
Unfortunately, flights on Chinese Airlines' domestic aircraft are fairly uninteresting, in terms of the hard product offered. Fortunately, internationally-configured wide body aircraft are offered on almost all high-capacity trunk routes within China. There are several huge differences to flying on a domestic aircraft in China and the United States, the most striking being the less innovative hard product on Chinese Airlines. There's no entertainment except for what's being shown on the overhead screens, and no internet connectivity as well. The one positive thing about this flight was that we encountered relatively few delays along the way, and had a smooth flight without much turbulence as well. Overall, Air China's domestic product is a solid way to get around the country, though it has none of the perks that travelers in the United States are used to, as bad as air travel in the U.S. is.