Updated on August 14, 2018
2017 Winter Break: Journey to China
Winter break of 2017.
For reasons out of my control, this could be the only holiday that I could (or at least, willing to) spend with my parents who lived in China, who had been yearning for my visit ever since I left for graduate school in the states. Well, partly that’s because my mom had some major surgeries during the last summer, and I happened to be away during all of them, the oh-it’s-tomorrow-but-I’m-booked-on-flights-today sort. And, it turned out that my winter break would be much longer than I expected. I was looking for a two-week official winter break, only to be told that at University of Maryland, this was followed by another two weeks of winter semester, during which nothing happens. So to forward goodwill with my mom, and to bring to the states all my online shoppings of 2017 (I know two checked bags for my first trip were never enough for years of study), I decided to spend this winter break in China.
The images in this post are hosted on Imgur. Email me should there be any display problems.
Unfortunately, the ticketing of this trip turned out to be more of a hassle than I’ve expected.
To begin with, I had a return ticket on Air China from JFK to Beijing with my summer trip. But another single-trip ticket from China to Washington DC during January at a decent price wasn’t easy to come by, and the lowest I was looking at was like 400+ dollars. (Although later, like 45 days before departure, which wasn’t early for booking a trans-Pacific flight, Delta was offering one-way fare like 300+ dollars on my preferred days.)
However, a change of mind and this return ticket with Hainan Airlines at 500+ dollars came to my attention, followed by some tedious maneuverering over their website and call centers to fix the exact date and itinerary of the trip.
I found this ticket on Google Flights, where the return trip was late night SHA-PEK followed by an overnight stay (paid by Hainan Airlines by the way), and next day PEK-BOS-BWI. However, on Hainan Airlines’ website (and their call center), they insisted giving me a morning flight of SHA-PEK that departs like 8:15am, which would be too early for me with the earliest train into Shanghai. After hours of searching, I found Jan 18 to be the only date when they offered direct PVG-BOS flight at the same rate, and that’s it.
- This ticket could only be purchase from Hainan Airlines’ international site, hainanairlines.com, not their domestic site, hnair.com, where the only choice of connection was Seattle. This is somewhat indicative that Hainan Airlines had two different ticketing systems, maneuvering between them would never be easy on the customer’s side.
There are many things I need to put up with for this trip. To begin with, my flight to China was downgraded from Air China’s sky queen 747-8i to Hainan’s broken dreams 787. Yes, I hate the windows of 787 so much that a window person like me would reserve aisle seats. And for jetBlue, E190’s awful distance between windows made it my second most hated model.
After my flight to Beijing, I had the choice between an evening flight to SHA, or a layover at Beijing with free hotels onto next morning’s flight to PVG, which is the more distant airport of Shanghai. By all sensible means, I should have chosen the latter and opted for a decent night’s stay. But somehow, I had this weird
bad luck with airline ticketing for the year of 2017, that I was expecting something bad to happen, thus I can change my itinerary to my advantage. Well, since it’s not a very long connection at Beijing, I may miss my connection and got rebooked onto next morning’s flight to Hangzhou, which would save me another journey by train. Well, luck was on my side earlier 2017, with Qatar Airline’s changed schedule and Malaysia Airline’s delayed bags. But this time, things went well, and I spent 6 early morning hours at Shanghai Hongqiao waiting for the first morning train out, which wasn’t as bad as it sounds, probably because I slept all the way on the previous flights.
B6290 to Boston
GPS tracking is at https://www.wikiloc.com/flying-trails/2017-12-27-dca-bos-b6290-22389971.
So on the morning of Dec 27, I got on one of the first few metros out of College Park for Ronald Reagan National Airport. Oh yes, since there’s heating anywhere in the university, this was the first time that I ever put on sweaters and jackets for this winter.
Unfortunately, the structure of Ronald Reagan Airport meant there’s no sight of sunrise or twilight or stuff, so I sat through the entire uneventful wait.
A north-bound takeoff following Potomac River meant I got treated with sights of National Mall.
After which it was cloudy all the way to New England.
Jetblue’s cabin service includes a lady walking down the aisle taking everyone’s order of drinks. Bottled waters were served immediately, any other drink she would fetch from the kitchen after all orders were filled, which took forever long probably because I wasn’t used to getting up at 4am in the morning and was so eager to catch some naps during that flight. For the same reason I wasn’t interested at all in trying out Jetblue’s WiFi onboard.
After which there were snacks, which were awfully salty.
Finally, the clouds cleared as we approached New England.
Boston City Tour
I didn’t want to spend seven boring hours waiting for my connection flight at the airport, so I decided to tour the city of Boston instead.
From the airport there’s Silver Line express bus that goes downtown, and amazingly, it’s free to board, and it drops you inside the fare gate at South Station. So basically one got a free ride of Boston’s metro system.
At first sight, I believed this got to be more than Bostonians’ hospitality, there must be some sort of surcharge going back to the airport, which there weren’t. No wonder the airport ranked top as “Easiest U.S. Airports to Get To”.
It was a cold winter morning, most of Boston suburb’s pavements were covered in snow, which made walking difficult.
My first stop of the day was Bunker Hill Monument.
Bunker Hill Monument
On June 17, 1775, New England soldiers faced the British army for the first time in a pitched battle. Popularly known as “The Battle of Bunker Hill,” bloody fighting took place throughout a hilly landscape of fenced pastures that were situated across the Charles River from Boston.
Fifty years after the battle, the Marquis De Lafayette set the cornerstone of what would become a lasting monument and tribute to the memory of the Battle of Bunker Hill. The project was ambitious: construct a 221-foot tall obelisk built entirely from quarried granite. It took over seventeen years to complete, but it still stands to this day atop a prominence of the battlefield now known as Breed’s Hill. Marking the site where Provincial forces constructed an earthen fort, or “Redoubt,” prior to the battle, this site remains the focal point of the battle’s memory.
Unfortunately that morning, the grounds of Bunker Hill Monument was covered in snow, and the National Park Service thought this would be unsafe for visitors to climb the tower (is there any logical connection between these two?), so it was closed.
So I made my way to the next stop of the day, USS Constitution.
USS Constitution is a wooden-hulled, three-masted heavy frigate of the United States Navy, named after the Constitution of the United States of America. She is the world’s oldest commissioned naval vessel still afloat.
Since USS Constitution was still in active duty, the only way to tour the boat was through guided tours provided by US Navy. The first part of the tour was on the ship’s deck about the ship’s history. The story in short was that, after fighting for its independence, United States of America sold all its naval ships to pay off the war’s debt, then American merchants were complaining about being robbed by pirates, so the United States reformed its navy and built these ships.
Then we got down to the first deck, where the cannons were placed.
Engraved above each cannon was its name like “liberty”, which was named by the sailors in charge of it, so that the sailors didn’t confuse themselves among otherwise similar cannons. Not surprisingly, all cannons here were replica.
In the center of the room there’s this demonstration of two types of cannonball, one circular to kill people, one like dumbbells to damage sails.
Next, we got further down to the second deck where the sleeping quarters were located.
The basic sleeping arrangements were that sailors of higher rank slept at the sides of the ship where there’s more fresh air and light, while sailors of lower rank slept in the center of the ship, both on hammocks though. Only the captain would enjoy his private cabin which was off visitor limits.
After that, I left USS Constitution and made my way back to downtown Boston.
Soon, I was at my next stop, Faneuil Hall.
Faneuil Hall has been a marketplace and a meeting hall since 1743. It was the site of several speeches by Samuel Adams, James Otis, and others encouraging independence from Great Britain. Now it is part of Boston National Historical Park and a well-known stop on the Freedom Trail. It is sometimes referred to as “the Cradle of Liberty”
The first floor of Faneuil Hall was a crowded marketplace and tourist information center, while its second floor with a different entrance was an assembly hall operated by the National Park Service, where famous speeches were made.
Quincy Market is a historic market complex near Faneuil Hall in downtown Boston, Massachusetts. It was constructed in 1824–26 and named in honor of Mayor Josiah Quincy, who organized its construction without any tax or debt. The market is a designated National Historic Landmark and Boston Landmark, significant as one of the largest market complexes built in the United States in the first half of the 19th century.
Nowadays, Quincy Market is basically a giant food court. Since it’s a freezing cold winter day and the market’s got heating, it’s rather crowded at lunch hour. Good thing I already had lunch elsewhere.
Old State House
The Old State House is a historic building in Boston. Built in 1713, it was the seat of the Massachusetts General Court until 1798, and is one of the oldest public buildings in the United States and the oldest surviving public building in Boston, and now serves as a history museum operated by the Bostonian Society. On July 18, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed from the east side balcony to jubilant crowds by Col. Thomas Crafts (one of the Sons of Liberty).
It was a frigid winter day in Boston, which turned out to be too much for somebody that stayed in heated rooms for the previous few months like me. So after three hours touring the city of Boston, I felt that’s more than enough for me, and I headed for the airport before being frozen to death on Boston streets.
HU482 to Beijing
The international Terminal E of Boston Airport was modern, clean, tidy, to a degree of un-American.
Again, something to talk about this Hainan Airline ticket.
Unfortunately, I bought this ticket on Hainan Airline’s website, and an “intelligent” feature of the website was that it recovered a HU frequent flyer number I registered long ago. Of course I didn’t want this trip’s mileage to be credited to HU account, but there’s nothing I could do about FFP on their poorly designed website. So this morning back in Washington, I got two boarding passes from Jetblue counter, the second of which had that HU number on it, which the Jetblue guy told me there’s nothing Jetblue could do about that HU number, and asked to resolve this with HU guys in Boston. Well, at Boston Airport, the smiling lady over check-in counter said there’s nothing they could do either (which was ridiculous), and told me to call Hainan Airlines instead. Two calls to Hainan Airlines later, even more to my entertainment, I found it’s Hainan Airline’s Frequent Flyer Department, rather than their ticketing department that’s in charge of this (excuse me? My logic was that passengers can choose to credit their mileage on the same ticket to any partner airline, so my request was purely about the ticket itself, and the ticketing department should take care of this among similar requests like meal or seat selection.), and all they could do was to delete that number for my subsequent trips. For the flight already taken? Send us an email and we hopefully will resolve this.
Conclusion: they got shitty FFP departments.
Update: After I completed the trip, I had only minor difficulties in crediting its mileage to my Alaska account.
About Hainan Airline’s ground staff at Boston, which was outsourced to SwissPort I believed. Yes, they were smiling and friendly, on the surface. But when I got greeted with the same “enjoy your flight” every time I came across them, when nobody would say anything of variety like “have a pleasant trip” that I believe come from sincerity, it began to feel robotic, artificial, fake.
As I said before, I sat in an aisle seat, so there weren’t many photos to offer for this flight.
Then about Hainan Airline’s cabin service, which I would say was very basic. To begin with, the only choices of juice were orange, tomato, and maybe because it’s “Hainan” Airline, coconut. The popular choice of apple was absent. The meals offered were far from exciting, and the mid-meal sandwich was little more than two pieces of bread glued together. And they didn’t offer any bottled waters to customers, so good thing I was sitting in an aisle seat, the back-kitchen snacks and bottles were very much available.
And there’s only one power outlet per three coach seats on Hainan Airlines’ 787. Excuse me?
On this flight, right across the aisle from me was one of the few non-Chinese passengers onboard, who apparently was drunk and was constantly banging on the seatbacks and armrests, not even his girlfriend could stop him. Right before landing, the couple were moved to the front of the plane, and presumably were taken into police custody after landing. So basically that gentleman exchanged 12 hours of elysium for like days of North Korea human-right-less work camp, not a good deal.
Since I would be having a six-hour layover in Shanghai waiting for the first train of the day out, I tried to catch as much sleep on this flight as possible, so that’s as much as I remembered about this flight.
We encountered some departure delay in Boston for cargo loading, so we landed slightly late. Fortunately, we landed in the correct runway of Beijing Airport which was 36L, after which a short taxi and we were at the gate.
However, that day the customs at Beijing were at first, abnormally hard at work by insisting everybody go through their useless X-ray machines, so the queue for two simultaneous HU arrivals were like more than 100 meters. It took them like half an hour to realize that doing this would result in everybody missing their connecting flights, after which they turned abnormally sluggish by letting everybody go. Well, they go extremes.
HU Connection at Beijing
Then, about Hainan Airlines’ connection service at Beijing.
By their pamphlet, there’s like a “connection service room” right next to the baggage belts, where I can drop my checked bags. It wasn’t there (at least it’s closed). So I dragged my bags through the meandering cloister connecting Terminal 1 and 2 of Beijing Airport to HU’s domestic terminal, and it’s like 55 minutes before next flight’s takeoff time.
Again, something absurd is about to happen. Hainan Airline’s domestic check-in cut off time should be 45 minutes, but when other passengers and I got to their check-in counters, we were like ushered to some “special counter” as if we were late-arriving passengers, and we need to manually hand our checked bags to some “last-minute” screening site 20 meters away, which was guarded by a unhelpful airport security guard.
Worse, since I performed check-in at some “special counter”, somehow they couldn’t recognize my reserved seat, so much to my dismay, I got dumped to a random (aisle) seat, and that’s the end of any fun of this segment.
HU7603 to Shanghai
It’s on time (unbelievable), a box of snacks were served (better than nothing), I sat right across a security guard (redundant), nothing else to talk about.
Layover at Shanghai Hongqiao Airport
After that, I would have a 6-hour layover at Shanghai Hongqiao Airport from 12am to 6am.
I attempted a similar layover at Kuala Lumpur Airport earlier in 2017. But that time, I didn’t catch much sleep on the inbound flight, so those were 6 excruciating hours. This time, I literally slept all the way from Boston to Beijing and then onto Shanghai, so amazingly, these six hours turned out to be piece of cake for me.
There were quite some companions to spend the night at Hongqiao Airport, most of whom were sleeping on the sides of departure hall, on benches. I got enough episodes of animation, but if one preferred to catch some rest, that’s where the night-shift policemen spent most of their night, so safety was never a concern. Nearby, there were ample power outlets, so safety wasn’t a concern either. There were public WiFi’s, but since it’s China it required SMS verification. Luckily, it’s one of the few public WiFi’s where one could log in with a foreign phone number. (P.S. I had been getting quite some Mandarin-speaking robocalls lately, and Shanghai’s Airport Wifi is one of only two scenarios where I offered my US number. In hindsight, I would say those services should be used at one’s own risk.)
The nearby Hongqiao Railway Station opened at 5am, with the first train leaving at 6, and I caught it to Hangzhou, back where my parents lived.