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Shanghai surprise

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaThe plane truth about why goodbye is the saddest – and longest – word.


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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Sardine passengers can wait a long time in Shanghai

How long have we been waiting?/ photo-illustration: Vijay Verghese

THE best part about any business trip is the end. And the most delicious moment of any conclusion is the fastening of the seat belt, feet at full stretch, waiting for those huge Rolls-Royce engines to growl into life before the plane screams down the tarmac bearing you home to a saucy siren, soggy TV dinner, or bratty kids. The unpredictable terrors of home and the grim reaping of all that rumpled chino stuffed into your once-svelte cabin bag fade into blissful inconsequence.

As Paul Theroux said, it's the journey not the arrival that matters. China agrees wholeheartedly, or at least that is the impression you gain whilst enjoying the hospitality of its glittering airports that never wish you to leave. But, sadly, there has to be a goodbye, and thus it was after yet again failing to find good Shanghainese nosh in Shanghai (which stubbornly favours Cantonese and Japanese) I found myself headed into the arms of one of my favourite airlines, Cathay Pacific, this time flight CX369 flying back to Hong Kong at 5.30pm. This would get me into Hong Kong by 8.15pm.

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I got in early and was checked into the 4.30pm Dragonair KA875. Hurrah! I would now touch down at 7pm, well in time for that soggy TV dinner. Such are the joys of interlining and a Marco Polo gold card. At the lounge we all waited patiently for the master chef to turn up to serve the obligatory wonton soup. At my boarding time of 4pm I cheerily bade the receptionists goodbye. The gate was deserted with nary a plane in sight. A new boarding time of 4.30pm was announced.

I sat down to enjoy the free WiFi, which is one of the great privileges at China airports. Anyone can log on to this service. All you need to do is provide a few details – your boarding pass information, full name, seat number, flight number, mobile phone number (where a password might be sent), location of hidden mole… and, perhaps details of your relatives twice removed not counting inbred third cousins who play haunting hillbilly music when not molesting visitors in the Appalachian wilds.

{I was enveloped by a warm and fuzzy feeling. We were going HOME. I got warmer still. And fuzzier. Finally I asked a stewardess to switch on the aircon...

Did I really want those two million online censors poring over my intellectual estate, be it just dreary correspondence and viral videos of Godzilla battling Predator? Not really. I decided to stay offline. Bliss. No nagging mail. No office. No agenda. Now THAT’s freedom. China understands this.

Back at the gate I joined a few anxious foreigners waiting for the aircraft to lumber in. As 4.30pm came and went we marvelled at the complete absence of any local passengers. Puzzled Americans and Europeans exchanged glances and went back to their iPads. The mystery was solved shortly when someone came racing up waving his arms frantically. “The gate is changed,” he said, as we all stampeded like migrating wildebeest across the vast Serengeti. The announcements had been made in Chinese. Courteously, the foreigners had not been disturbed.

At the new gate there was still no sight of our plane but there were two queues, one short and the other considerably longer, the line curving away into the distance. “Marco Polo” we cried as one, triumphantly, gazing at the hapless souls in the extended line. “This way sir,” said a man in uniform, depositing us at the end of the longest queue. This is called Progress. Uplift. Amelioration. Development. Trickle Down. Call it whatever, but everyone in China is apparently a Marco Polo member. It is a joyous thing to behold, especially from way back at the farthest fringes of the throng that will take up all the available overhead bin space before you have a chance to even glimpse your seat.

We boarded. It was that delicious moment of conclusion. Strapped in, I was suddenly enveloped by an indescribable warm and fuzzy feeling. We were going HOME. I got warmer still. And fuzzier. I finally asked a stewardess to switch on the air-conditioning. Seatbelts on we waited for those huge Rolls-Royce engines to growl into life. Ah that head rush when the plane surges forward.

The intercom crackled to life. “This is your captain. Unfortunately due to traffic congestion… ” The sun went down. The moon rose. Or so we sensed, through the smog. Two hours later, we trundled off to queue for takeoff. The cabin crew were excellent in the midst of the gathering passenger storm. They smiled and brought out the duty-free discount signs and ran the safety demonstration, in several languages.

The captain flew his heart out and stepped on the gas. God bless him. Dragonair landed in Hong Kong at 8.15pm, my original arrival time (a lot better than my last 6.30pm flight from Beijing that left at 2am and landed in HK at 5.30am). Meanwhile, Cathay CX369 was nowhere to be seen on the arrival boards. I got home for a late soggy TV dinner. What did you do?

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