Updated on August 19, 2017
Journey to the States
I accepted offer from the Graduate School of University of Maryland, and this summer I embarked on a trip to US that would hopefully lead to a bright new chapter in my life.
In short, from my home city of Hangzhou(杭州), it was a Cathay Dragon flight to Hong Kong, connecting onto an Air China flight to Beijing, and then the next morning another Air China flight to Newark, after which I would take Amtrak to Union Station, Washington DC, after which it was a Uber ride to College Park, Maryland, where my school was located.
From the moment I decided on this itinerary, I knew it would be phenomenal.
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How it began
The reason I booked such crazy itinerary was mostly out of economic concerns (and it’s fun by the way). Given this was in the middle of summer (and I was probably looking at a single trip ticket to US), and Washington DC was not a competitive market for China-US flights, I was looking at single trip fares like 1500+USD which was way too much.
That is, until a friend of mine told me about this Air China Hong Kong campaign offering 5000 HKD return trip from Hong Kong to New York in the middle of summer, freely changeable and 600HKD refund fee. He stayed in Guangzhou(广州), a short boat or train ride to Hong Kong, and he would be attending Columbia University, so this Air China promotion was perfect for him.
I guessed Air China offered promotions like this because it counted as international-to-international transfer, a market Air China tried to seize (but they won’t be able to). So Air China authorized its Hong Kong affiliate to sell tickets so cheaply, while for trips originating inside Mainland China, it’s a totally different story.
I chose not to believe the conspiracy theory that this has something to do with Air China being a puppet of Chinese Government exerting influence in this rogue state.
As for getting from Hangzhou to Hong Kong, it’s a no-brainer using my British Airways miles for a Cathay Dragon award flight. This would be my first award flight by the way.
For citizens of the People’s Republic of China, click this text to display this part.
In theory, as a citizen of the People’s Republic of China, I needed “Exit-Entry Permit for Travelling to and from Hong Kong and Macau” (“Card” for short, gosh it’s a long name) with two visit permits, one for outbound trip and one for inbound trip, at least that’s what the local police station told me.
But the fact was that, for my outbound trip, I was only asked about this “Card” by the check-in agent of the Cathay Dragon flight. Chances were that she didn’t check my visit permits, so “Card” along with no permits should be fine.
After that, when leaving Chinese borders, I just showed the guy my connecting Air China ticket, and he bought into my story of connecting from Hong Kong to Newark, and so did the guy at Hong Kong immigration. No questions asked.
Given the recent Air China incident of denied boarding at Paris, I thought it’s best to prepare the “Card” with visit permits for the outbound trip, although “Card” along won’t hurt. You only got passport, chances were that you won’t persuade the check-in agents in China and won’t get boarding passes.
KA623 from Hangzhou to Hong Kong
So on the morning of August 9th, my parents dropped me off at Hangzhou Airport. After a not-so-emotional goodbye, I stepped inside the Airport’s international departure hall, only to learn that check-in for this 8am flight wouldn’t begin until 6am.
After that, I learned the security lines won’t open until 6:35am.
Well, I don’t think “open-late” was a passenger-friendly feature, not at all for business travelers hoping to enjoy lounge comfort (by the way I heard that the lounge at Hangzhou Airport International Terminal sucks). If passengers must be held waiting, better keep them on benches than in lines.
By the way, it’s awesome that a few counters were enough to perform check-in for an A333 in an hour.
Well, we were the first passengers to use this international terminal on that morning, and to my both surprise and disgust, I found there were quite a few cleanness issues with the terminal floor, with biscuit scrapes and stains all over the place. Didn’t they clean it up after the last passengers the previous night?
Our flight’s boarding was on time that morning, but after that we waited on the ground for almost 30 minutes for air traffic clearance, which was typical of Chinese departures.
As for the plane, it was an A333 older than me. So although Cathay Dragon fitted it with the latest IFE systems, the flight map was still in miserable resolution.
That morning the safety belt sign for our flight was turned off at near 2200 meters in elevation, the earliest I’d seen. I guessed the cabin crew was eager to serve meals to hunger passengers, but this might be just way too early.
Compared with Chinese Mainland carriers, the safety belt sign was usually turned off after cruising.
Well, since this was Cathay Dragon, I was expecting Häagen-Dazs ice creams, which didn’t come. Well, guess this was part of Cathay group’s cost cut.
Since we were flying West into Hong Kong, I was expecting to catch some views of the bustling metropolis of Hong Kong. However, the cloud base over Hong Kong was pretty low that day, so there’s not much to see.
There’s an Air China transfer counter just before Hong Kong immigration. I guessed that if I resorted to them, they would help retrieve my checked bag and check it onto my connecting flight. But since I’d like to enter Hong Kong for departure tax refund, and there were already some people waiting at that counter, I just went past it.
CA112 from Hong Kong to Beijing
Then there’s the not-so-nice experience with Air China’s Hong Kong ground staff. Well, since my Cathay Dragon flight was on time, I had more than enough time to make it to my connecting flight of CA112. With Hong Kong Airport’s free WiFi, I learned on FlightRadar24 that both CA112 and CA102 before it were delayed, expectedly. And the ground staff at Hong Kong insisted that the previous flight CA102 was full, so he could only check me onto my original flight of CA112.
And then it seemed that Air China changed the plane model from A333 to A332, and in doing this invalidating my seat reservations. So there’s this painstaking process of selecting seats at check-in counter.
After that, the not-so-friendly ground staff told me that my bag was overweight. Well, this was the first time I was having difficulties checking in a 27kg bag with 23*2kg allowance. (I knew this didn’t happen with AA.) I resolved this by bringing out a laptop from my bag, only to realize later that I got a spare backpack in that bag, and I could have check two bags…
After that, it was departure tax refund in the main concourse. Since there’s nobody else before the counter, I got my lunch money of 120HKD in minutes.
After security in Hong Kong Airport there’s a huge food court, and expectedly, McDonald’s was the most popular one. Since it’s lunch peak hours, there’s some difficulties finding an empty seat.
There were occasional downpours that day in Hong Kong, so the airport capacity was greatly impeded as I watched the incoming plane for my flight circled around South China Sea for like half an hour.
After my plane arrived, we sat in the passenger terminal for like 2 more hours waiting for air traffic control clearance. This wasn’t too bad as some flights to Beijing or Shanghai just got cancelled all together.
The schedule takeoff time for CA112 was 1410 and arrival time 1730, but after boarding, we were told there’s another 30 minutes of waiting making our expected takeoff at 1800, our captain told us this was due to military activities near Beijing and weather along the route.
Just North of Wuhan(武汉) we were instructed to hold in circle for like 10 minutes, that’s why I got these spectacular shots of sunset glow over our wing. I guessed this was mostly due to weather as soon we were flying right along some thundering clouds.
Luckily that night we landed on the right runway of 01, so it was just a short taxi to, sadly, apron. But at least we didn’t need to wait for the shuttle bus (how did I have such low expectation for Chinese Airports?).
And I got my checked bags rather quickly, which wasn’t characteristic of Beijing Capital Airport. (Or maybe it’s because this wasn’t a long-haul flight so not everybody has got checked bags?)
Since Air China provided free hotels for overnight transfer at Beijing (my friend told me about this), I signed up through their rather obscure and outdated website. So after that it was a bus ride to a hotel designated by Air China.
Although online comments were mostly negative about the hotels provided by Air China, but I’m rather pleased with what Yinyang Hotel offered me, a good night’s sleep. Well, they were at the bottom of Air China’s hotel options and their WiFi wasn’t up to speed, but since it’s free and I slept well, I’m fine.
CA819 from Beijing to Newark
So the next morning guys at the hotel woke me up for a 6-am shuttle to the airport. My flight was schedule at 0920, which left me plenty of time for bag drop and security.
Since Beijing was Air China’s hub, there’s an unbelievably large volume of passengers taking their early domestic flights out of Beijing, so there’s a huge line in front of basically every Air China counter.
The end result was that there’s like 3 counters for two flights to New York and Newark, one 77W and one 748, the two biggest models of Air China fleet, so we got like the longest lines of all Air China counters. But at least they opened early, and nobody was left out.
After an abnormally long lines at the bag drop counters, there’re few people waiting at the border and security. Guess early morning wasn’t peak hours for international departures.
It seemed that secondary security check for US-bound flights were eased up a little bit to random checks. So I saw some of my fellow passengers were able to sneak water onboard, which was quite useful as Air China didn’t provide any bottled waters for passengers.
was 32 minutes late should be considered on time by Beijing Airport standards. Guessed due to air traffic congestion, we used Mongolian airspace for our journey North, same as my last year’s AA flight to Chicago.
One thing about the seats, that I found it’s equipped with the best IFE system I’d ever seen. First, Air China was aware that movies were shot in 21:9 aspect ratio, so it left blanks instead of cutting screen, sadly, only for some of the movies provided. And the route map was of incredible resolution, one of the best I’d seen. Well, those were the only two aspects I cared, and I felt quite comfortable with what Air China offered.
Expectedly for Air China, the whole cabin crew completely disappeared after meal services, except for occasional water services, which weren’t as frequent as my China Eastern flight to Chicago this April.
Air China provided the second meal service halfway into flight, with it came an additional sandwich (which I guessed should count as “third light meal” just before landing). Quite a few passengers didn’t consume that sandwich onboard, which created some trouble at US customs (since they didn’t allow fruits in).
To stay away from sunshine, I wisely picked a seat on the starboard side, so there’s no sights of the big apple before landing, and downtown Newark wasn’t nearly as exciting as New York.
Even though I rushed as soon as I got off the airplane all the way to the immigration, there’s still like half the plane’s people in front of me, and it took at least 30 minutes for me to clear the immigration. Well, I don’t think this should be normal for US immigrations, and CBP didn’t seem to be addressing that.
After that I tried to caught the aerotrain to Newark Airport Railway Station. Unfortunately, the last leg of that aerotrain was under maintenance, so it was a shuttle bus ride instead, just a lot less convenient.
At Newark Liberty Airport Station, I took a NJ Transit Train to Newark Penn Station, and got ready for my next leg of Amtrak Train to Washington DC.
New York City Tour for 2 Hours
When I bought these Air China tickets to Newark, I knew I would be riding Amtrak to DC. Some (but very few) Amtrak trains did stop at Newark Airport Station, but my choices were limited. So I chose to depart from Newark Penn Station where trains were more frequent. (No, New York Penn Station was like too far off for me.)
Partly because Amtrak’s Northeast Regional trains were cheaper later in the day, partly because I want to leave ample time in case the lines were miserable at Newark Airport, so when I arrived at Newark Penn Station there’s like 3 hours left before my train departed.
Well, I could have changed to an earlier train (for a sizeable fee), but I chose to check my two bags (yes, Amtrak did this for free, and Newark was one of the few stations where they offered this service), and then took a PATH subway to New York, where I could spend two hours touring the city.
There’s quite some distance between Newark Penn Station and New York. But since the PATH train only called at like 5 stations along the way, I was in the futuristic World Trade Center Station in half an hour.
After that I proceeded to Federal Hall, a National Memorial building in lower Manhattan. I tried to visit it during my first visit to New York City, and found it only opened during the week.
Federal Hall, built in 1700 as New York’s City Hall, later served as the first capitol building of the United States of America under the Constitution, as well as the site of George Washington’s inauguration as the first President of the United States under the Constitution. It was also where the United States Bill of Rights was introduced in the First Congress. The building was demolished in 1812, where later Federal Hall National Memorial was built in 1842 as the United States Custom House.
This was only a small dome, and I guessed the first congressmen must have a hard time squeezing under this tiny roof.
After that, I wandered around in Lower Manhattan.
Irish Hunger Memorial
The Memorial, designed by artist Brian Tolle, contains stones from each of Ireland’s 32 counties and is elevated on a limestone plinth, and represents a rural Irish landscape with an abandoned stone cottage, stone walls, fallow potato fields and the flora on the north Connacht wetlands. It is both a metaphor for the Great Irish Famine and a reminder that hunger today is often the result of lack of access to land.
To keep the grass in its greeny state, the Memorial used sprinklers to water them. However, those sprinklers won’t well-tuned, so they sometimes sprinkled water onto the stone trail, and it’s a road-crossing game to avoid them.
After that, I took the PATH train back to Newark Penn Station, and caught the Amtrak Train to DC.
Unfortunately, that Amtrak Northeast Regional Train was badly delayed, and I just missed the last MARC train from DC to College Park. So I called an Uber instead, and made my way to College Park, Maryland where I would be spending the night.
End of a phenomenal journey.