On our way to Mongolia we had to change planes at Beijing, as well as changing airlines. Now this may seem, at first glance, a fairly simple procedure. That is certainly what we thought as we left our Singapore Airlines flight secure in the knowledge that our luggage had already been booked right through to Ulaan Bataar. All we had to do was find the transfer desk. The transfer at Beijing was to take under two hours and I considered that this was a good thing considering that I have experienced the boredom of a five or six hour period of transit on numerous occasions. Just remember that, less than two hours was a good thing. After all, the last thing we wanted to do was spend hours hanging around a departure lounge.
After disembarking from our flight and finding the transfer desk, we encountered our first problem. We were politely told that this desk was only for those people transferring onto Air China flights and that we had to go further down the hall. We were given very vague directions and ended up at a point where we were clearly heading towards the exit from what we thought was the ‘arrivals’ area. Realising that we could not possibly be exiting the airport without a visa, we asked a meandering member of staff where we should go, and were summarily directed back towards the international transfers counter. We presented out tickets once again, and again there was much shaking of heads and consternation before we were once more told that we needed to go ‘down to the end of the hall’. Once more we were pointed in the direction of the exit from the ‘arrivals’ area. Our explanation that we had no visa was brushed aside as this apparently did not matter!
So off we went on our way down to the desks marked ‘Arrivals’. On our way we passed a counter where we noticed that we could, if we wished, purchase a visa for China. Was this perhaps a good idea? We gave it serious thought before deciding that it was probably unnecessary. We were, however, still nervous as we approached the counters that marked the way out towards immigration. We showed our passports and air-tickets to a man who showed no real interest in them, barely even glancing at them, before waving us through. That was easy! What now? I can say that at this point I felt a wave of relief. Perhaps this wouldn’t be too bad!
We found ourselves standing in another hall that had counters where people were queuing, but they all appeared to be for Chinese nationals. We walked all the way up to the end and back again before we saw a counter that had ‘d/p’ above it. We took a punt that this meant departures and went up to the bored-looking policewoman sitting there. She politely told us that we needed to fill in an Arriving Passengers form before we could come through. We retreated and filled out the little blue form (one that we had declined when the cabin crew had handed them around on our last flight as we were not stopping in China), hurriedly checking our flight and passport numbers. Our passports were then scrutinised and our blue forms taken as we went past her. All this time the clock kept inching towards our departure time.
Confusion then returned as we went the only way possible, which led us down to the baggage claim area. Once down there we searched in vain for a transfer desk. There was none. Two circuits of the area re-affirmed this. There could be no option other than to go through customs and into China. But surely this was not an option without a visa?
The lack of visa turned out not to be a problem (they appeared to have a liberal approach to visas and other bureaucratic paperwork – was this really China?), but before we could go through we had to fill out another form to declare that we had nothing to declare. We waited in a queue for what seemed like an eternity, constantly glancing at our watches as the time ticked by. Once we had handed in our forms and shown our passports yet again, we went through into China. Then we had to work out where to go to check in to our Mongolian International Airlines flight.
The main hall of the airport was full of people meandering or hurrying in various directions, and it was not immediately obvious where we had to go to find the check-in area. By now it was almost an hour since we had disembarked from our inbound flight and we were keen to check in as soon as we could for our next flight. Perhaps two hours had not been enough? I was beginning to think that we might be in danger of missing our flight. I could hear the clock ticking away in my mind and I must confess to feeling the merest hint of mild panic. I tried to ignore it.
After much confusion we found out that the departure lounge and check-in area was on the floor above us. So we made our way up the escalators to another big hall where we once again had to fill out a form, this time to declare that we were not taking anything out of the country. On top of this there was another form for departing passengers, but by now my passport and flight numbers were indelibly imprinted on my brain so there was no need for opening the passport yet again. Yet more queuing had to be done at this point, each minute seeming like an eternity. This was the time when someone in front of us decided that they didn’t understand, or simply didn’t like, what they were being told by an official, leaving me looking on in an agonised state of half-panic mixed with a desire not to look angry and upset myself, while the argument ensued; all the time watching as my departure time moved ever nearer. After a few minutes, which seemed like hours, an official, who looked like a military officer, decided that we were looking stressed enough and called us over to check our forms. They were in order, and we were waved through. Another hurdle had been overcome!
We wiped the sweat from our brows and carried on, soon finding ourselves at the check-in area. Thankfully it did not take too long to find the appropriate desk for our flight. To our initial relief there was still a substantial line of people waiting to check in, but it soon became apparent that the line was barely moving. Unfortunately the clock was still moving and I once more began to wonder whether we would get to our flight or whether we would end up watching it soaring gracefully into the sky. Thankfully this also occurred to staff members, who made sorties from their positions to tag the baggage before it got to the desk, significantly increasing the speed of the process. This worked and we were soon checked in, although there was some consternation that we didn’t have baggage with us. However we managed to convince them it was checked through from Perth and would be already on the plane. At least we hoped it would!
It was getting tight with time, about fifteen minutes until departure, so we hurried through the departure lounge, only to be met with the passport control area. Of course there was a passport control area, there’s one at every airport, but in our haste we saw it as just one more obstacle put in our way in an attempt to stop us catching our flight. There wasn’t another flight until the next day, and we didn’t fancy trying to catch up with our guide who might be half-way into the Gobi Desert by then! There was yet another form to be filled in and a nervous wait in a queue, waiting to be ‘checked’, as we watched the minutes tick by for yet another agonising period of time. Common sense told us that we were among lots of people waiting for the flight and that it wouldn’t leave without us…but you never know, do you!
We needn’t have worried, as once we found the appropriate gate with about three minutes to spare, we were left to wait for another 25 minutes before boarding. Of course we had to the same in reverse when we came back through Beijing on our way home, but being ‘experienced’ in the process we managed to get through in about half an hour, even getting a smile from the same policewoman who was once again sat at the ‘d/p’ desk. We were able to look at nervous transit passengers with an air of superior knowledge and comfort, and patiently explain the process to those panicky and worried faces that hung on our every word like it was gold. Five forms and a few queues later we were on our flight to Singapore, with, I must add, our luggage, which apparently had no dramas at all on its round trip from Perth to Mongolia and back.