Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

I hate to use up that title so early in my wayfaring, but as I was wandering the Bangkok airport it suddenly struck me.  This is my life now: planes, trains, and automobiles.  Always traveling; even if I have interludes where I’m in one place for a bit, it will always be temporary and eventually I’ll be off for someplace else.  It was not an unwelcome thought, but it is a strange one.  Humans tend to be nesters, and there’s always a “home” somewhere.  Not everyone likes where they’ve ended up nesting, and people sometimes say things like “I never felt at home there”, or you may be desperate to get out or away, but there’s still the expectation that you’re getting away *to* somewhere, a better nest to be found.   When you cut loose from that, as many people have, it’s… odd.

I don’t know if there’s a good way to do it without doing two things that seem like opposites at the same time: first, be more self contained, resting back into your own sense of self, independent of others, so that you are in a sense your own home; and second, expand your sense of “home” to the world, so that all of it becomes a part of your identity the way a nest does (putting what the Scientologists call your “anchor points” out on the world they way they used to be on your house and your stuff).  As I look at those two things, I’m a bit suspicious that I’m reading my own characteristics into the process — that I see them as “necessary” because they describe me and how I accommodate the change.  But, I suspect they’re more general than that, and that the people who are drawn to being nomads and are suited for it are the people who are like that to begin with: independent and unattached to things.  If they weren’t, they couldn’t travel for long periods.  I grew up moving, for most my early life and in intervals thereafter, so it was always a part of me to begin with; I just needed a reason to wake that part up and give it some exercise.

Well, enough of that.  Koh Samui is behind me, thank the maker, and I’m now in Sapporo, where the temperature at 6pm on a day in the middle of June is a balmy 59° under cloudy skies.  After 2-1/2 months of tropical swelter, this is more welcome than I have words to express.  Yay, traveling!  (Specifically, traveling away.)

I left my island residence at 12:30, riding with Ian once more to the airport.  I’d had the A/C on, for the first time, since mid-morning, so that I wouldn’t sweat through my travel clothes, and that was a good thing because even with the A/C on, very much movement at all and I’d start to break a sweat.  The A/C was Ok — not superpowerful, fighting the ambient warmth of the cottage and the poor insulation — but Ok, however Ok plus 70% humidity is insufficient to the goal of sweat-free exertion.  I managed to clean up and pack without it getting too bad, but I still stopped and stood in front of the fan from time to time.

Leaving after 2-1/2 months, I’d feel slightly nostalgic about the place if I’d found very much about it to be pleasant at all.  I should say, I’m reasonably certain that there are nicer places on that island.  I have a friend who swears by it, and I know that other locations are closer to proper towns with more amenities, have better beaches, catch more ocean breeze.  Heck, the airport had a steady breeze the whole time I was there.  But, while those nicer places may exist, I shall never see them, because I am never going back there. Ever.

I gave it a good review on Airbnb, though.  I’m not a monster.

I got rather lucky at the airport, this time.  My flight, I think scheduled originally to leave from Gate 1, had been moved to Gate 7.  Why is this lucky?  It seems that Gate 7 is for international flights (even though this plane was only going to Bangkok), and it is air conditioned!!!  Soooo happy.  I had about 1/2 an hour hanging out there, and then we rode the tram to the plane — which was also air conditioned! (The plane, not the tram.)  An excellent start to the trip.  But you know your life’s taken a weird turn when the highlight of your trip is the air conditioning.

BTW, I don’t know if you recall me mentioning, during my brief trip to Kuala Lumpur, that the men’s room by the airport gate had an aquarium over the urinals.  I couldn’t provide a picture, then, because there were other people using the urinals and how weird would *that* have been?  But it was just me this time, so here you are.

You're not putting that in here, are you?

You’re not putting that in here, are you?

The flight took off as scheduled, and the view from the plane, coupled with the stiff ocean breeze in the airport, made it pretty clear that there were other, nicer areas of the island.

Yes, you look great. But we're *not* getting back together!

Yes, honey, you look great. But we’re *not* getting back together!

Flying into Bangkok, it looks as exotic as you’d expect.

It's possible that I was missing some of the more scenic details.  Oh well.

It’s possible that I was missing some of the more scenic details. Oh well.

Wow, talk about missing scenic details!  I was trying to catch a shot of downtown, over the airplane wing, and completely missed the temple complex around the lake until I looked at this picture just now:

In fairness, I wasn't looking at things, I was taking pictures.  Unless you're careful, those are mutually exclusive activities.

In fairness, I wasn’t looking at things, I was taking pictures. Unless you’re careful, those are mutually exclusive activities.

I was only transiting through Bangkok airport, but you kind of hate to be in a reputedly amazing city like that and not see *any* of the sites.  So:

I feel spiritually uplifted already.  Though that could just be the caffeine. (The difference being...?)

I feel spiritually uplifted already. Though that could just be the caffeine. (The difference being…?)

Bangkok was the first of the minor trials to beset me on this trip.  My flights from Bangkok to Beijing and thence to Sapporo were on Air China.  So, I get off the plane in Bangkok Airport, which is large and quite modern, and start looking for the in-terminal Air China ticketing desk (obviously, I’m not going out through security if I don’t have to).  After some consultation with maps, I find the location of what is either the desk or their lounge or both and and start walking. The part of the airport I was in had two long sections, an East Wing and a West Wing, and the West Wing was the less presidential one — by which I mean less A/C.  I was, of course, near one end of the East Wing, and my destination was naturally in the West Wing, so it was a bit of a trudge that got warmer as I got hotter from the exertion.

I should mention that my time of relative inactivity in Koh Samui had not helped me with that backpack, which felt at least 10 pounds heavier.  And the Koh Samui airport had required the whole unpacking/repacking thing again to get through security because of that insanely pointless “laptops have to be removed and run through separately” BS.  This one might have been the worst of my trip so far, as the attendants puzzled over every gods damned hard drive as if they’d never seen one before.  It. Took. Forever.  And, by the way, I had to do that in *every* airport.  Staying in the terminal did not protect me from having to retraverse a security checkpoint and go through the whole unpacking/packing nonsense every time.  I’m seriously going to have to reconfigure these packs for my next round, maybe rig a separate, detachable, laptop pack that I can just pop off and hand them.  Having them in the specially designed laptop slot under everything else is really not working.

Anyway, eventually I got to the Air China place, which turned out to be just a lounge, but they pointed me towards the ticket desks not too much farther away.  I got to the area, a large alcove off to the side with a dozen carriers’ ticketing desks in it, and there was a sign in front of the area that mentioned Air China but no desk had an Air China sign above it.  After a couple of passes through, by now sweating a bit, I stopped at an arbitrary desk and asked the lady where Air China was.  She didn’t recognize the name, which was troubling, but after a couple of goes around she twigged on who I was asking about and said that they wouldn’t open until 2-1/2 hours before my flight.  It was a little after 4pm, and my flight was at 7:35, so I went to some nearby seats to sit and wait and move as little as possible in the hopes of cooling off in the tepid air.  This did, in fact, work, and by 5:15 I felt like I’d stabilized a bit.  So I loaded up my massive pack again, walked over to the desk area, and now one of the desks had Air China displayed over it!  I think the lady had just arrived, but she processed me quickly and I had my next two boarding passes.

I made my way to the gate, and found it was entirely empty of amenities and seemed to have no way to get out once I showed them my pass and got in.  So, I turned around, made my way back to a nearby food court, and had a double scoop of coffee ice cream in a slightly leaky waffle cone.  This made me much happier, and a little cooler.  So i found a moderately comfortably armchair (of sorts) in a waiting area, and settled down to meditate for a while.

About 40 minutes before the flight, I made my way back to the gate, which was getting fairly crowded, and took a spot against one wall near-ish to where I thought the boarding entrance was. I had a couple of minutes to just relax, and then did the usual pre-flight prep on my backpack, detaching the daypack to go under the seat and binding the backpack straps so that I could carry it as normal luggage (much better for fitting into overheads).  Just as I was finishing, they started to board, and it was everyone all at once with no zones being called out.  Also, it turned out that the place I thought they would board from was for the upper class seats — my boarding door was actually almost right next to me.  So, when the huge mass of Chinese people rushed for the boarding door, I was actually right there and was able to force my way into that flow pretty easily and get in early.  (This is vital for have overhead compartment space for this pack.)  Over many years and many stories, my Chinese ex-officemate Wingwah has taught me that the Chinese take no prisoners when it comes to lines (they leave prisoner taking to their government) and if I want to get in there I’d better be ready to be assertive and claim my space, and so I did.  And it worked, so thanks Wingwah!

I must say, two things that I really like about air travel in Asia: surprisingly good airplane food, and lots of overhead luggage space.  This is true no matter how long the flight is or how large the plane is.  I had luggage space issues flying to and from Albuquerque and Bozeman, but never to a tiny tropical island or anywhere else in Asia.  So, score one for them.

I landed in Beijing at 1:05 am local time, and the place was dim and quiet and deserted.  I was supposed to be able to go to an international transit desk, and I found it, but there was no one there except for a European couple looking just as lost as I was.  I figured I was going to have to wait out the night on a bench until they reopened, and had settled down on one a little ways away, when I decided it would be better to be closer.  A good thing I did, because the desk attendant had returned (bathroom break, maybe?) and the couple were being processed as I walked up.  So I stood behind them, and when I stepped up the attendant looked at my documents and said that *my* airline was handled at a different desk downstairs.  So I went where she pointed, and followed the signs to a different desk (where the European couple had been sent also), had my papers ritually perused and marked, and continued on to another security checkpoint with another round of unpacking/repacking.  Because this is what you do at 1:30am.

Once through, I was out in the regular airport (which had been inaccessible from the gate area I’d arrived in, until I’d gone through the checkpoints).  Beijing is a much more modern airport than Hong Kong.  The Hong Kong airport was a huge labyrinth of 1950s Bauhaus design, all concrete and right angles and 6 level escalators.  Beijing, like all modern airports, looks like a shopping mall.  In this case, a shopping mall with nothing open, but still.  I found a luggage cart for my backpack (yay!), and I found signs to a transit hotel and thought maybe it would be worth the $70-$80 to get the 4 hours sleep and a shower that I’d be able to manage before I had to rise for my 8am flight.  But, when I got there, the attendant said that the rooms were $120, and $180 for one with a shower.  No.  That’s not happening.  (It almost did happen — it took me a little bit to work out the Yuan to Dollar conversion rate and realize what she’d be charging my card.  Fortunately,  I worked it out and stopped her in time.)

So, I went back, found a quiet bench with an electrical plug for charging my phone, and actually did get somewhere between 60-90 minutes sleep before some nearby workers started talking loudly and woke me up.  So, somewhere around 3:30, I was up again and meditating to try to clear out the tiredness (and fix my neck, which had gone out a bit over the course of the day).  I was successful, and by 4:30 I was wandering about hoping for a coffee shop to open.  And having a delightful text conversation with Mark, which brightened the morning considerably. (Given the topics, I’m still slightly surprised that the Chinese government didn’t detain me before my flight, but maybe they figured they’d be rid of me more easily if they just let me leave. I wish more people would think of that.)

I found this, as I wandered:

But, really, I only include this because it's the closest I will ever look to Tintin.

But, really, I only include this because it’s the closest I will ever look to Tintin.

And, FYI, at some point in my stay here, this happened.

For the record, I was only in this stall because the urinals were taken.  I am grateful that this was true.

For the record, I was only in this stall because the urinals were taken. I am grateful that I needed nothing more.

I did find a coffee shop, and had a decent cup of coffee and an entirely adequate ham and cheese sandwich. And then a couple more hours of waiting (and device charging, and some stretching and light exercise), and then boarded with little fuss and was off again.  This time, I was on the aisle, next to a Chinese lady and her 3 year old son.  The son was fine, but the lady was just a bit too loud, and way too inclined to talk in my ear while addressing the stewardess, which was hard not to tense up about.  And she could not figure out the entry/customs forms, which required a lot of talking in my ear.  Sigh.

Also, they delayed the meal for so long that I thought there wasn’t going to be one, so I ate the last Epic meat bar that I’d brought with me from the US.  Then, not 3 minutes later, the food trolley trundled by and they started serving.  Sigh, again.

But, aside from those travails, we arrived without a hitch and I deplaned in Sapporo, Japan, quickly, and made a great discovery on the slidewalk outside the plane.  I normally re-attach the daypack to the backpack outside the plane because the main pack part is really too heavy to carry as luggage for long.  It takes a couple of minutes to do, and this time I didn’t want to stop to do it and have the whole plane get in front of me in customs.  So I took the time on the slidewalk to just pop the backpack straps out, figuring I’d wear the main pack and carry the light daypack separately and that would at least be better.  Turns out, it’s a lot better.  The, I don’t know, 6-8 pound daypack, being attached to the part of the pack farthest away from my center, seems to add considerable to the pack’s imbalance.  Once off, I found the main pack was way easier to wear, felt lighter (of course), and I could walk much more comfortably, even with the daypack slung over one shoulder.  I’m going to be doing this much more often now.

I had some trouble with my entry form when I got to the front of the line: they’d asked for the address I’d be staying at, and I gave them the one Airbnb had included in the e-mail.  But when I got to the gatekeeper lady at the front of the line, she said they also wanted to name of the hotel.  I told her it wasn’t a hotel, I was staying with an Airbnb host, and then she wanted the name of the host.  I only knew his first name, Kenta, so I spent what must have been nearly 10 minutes standing to the side of the line trying to coax my slow iPhone data connection through the Airbnb pages to where I’d seen Kenta’s full name spelled out.  I never did find it.  In truth, I knew they just need a name, and they didn’t really care how accurate it was.  It was something like “Tadashi” or “Takahashi” or something similar, so I just picked one, wrote it above the address on the form, and they let me through.  It wasn’t dishonest — it was the name to the best of my memory.  I have at best 20% confidence in that memory, but they didn’t ask me to rate it, so no problem.  I do wish that the form had said “Hotel Name and Address”; I might have guess at Kenta’s name earlier, on the plane, and saved myself the nuisance in line.

The customs agent was a kid who looked like he was between gigs acting in horror movies.  There’s a look to Japanese supernatural horror people, where their hair is parted in the middle and the front bangs fall forward over their eyes, parted just enough that you sometimes see the dead look or maniacal glint and wish you hadn’t.  This kid totally had that hair, maybe 10% more normal.

I did the Google Image Search so that you don't have to.  And that is not a search you want to do, trust me.  So, you're welcome.

I did the Google Image Search so that you don’t have to. And that is not a search you want to do, trust me. So, you’re welcome.

Other than that, he was delightful, and after a brief discussion of my travel plans, he let me through.

At this point, it was nearly 1:00 pm local time, and I was meeting Kenta at his place at 4:30 after he got off work, so I had some time to kill.  Fortunately, Sapporo airport is a great place to do that.  It’s not a big place, airport wise, but it makes up for it by having tons of shops and restaurants on 2-3 levels, all designed for buying souvenirs to take home to friends and family.

Why this shop has a poster of a baseball player adjusting himself, I couldn't tell you.  Not that they don't, but, still.

Why this shop has a poster of a baseball player adjusting himself, I couldn’t tell you. Not that they don’t do that, but, still.

Buying souvenirs for friends and family is a bit of a social obligation when a Japanese person travels, so the Sapporo airport was crammed to the gills with snacks and chocolate and booze and keychains of Hokkaido (the large northern island that Sapporo is on) and bear toys (it’s famous for its bears) and packaged fish and crabs and so forth.  It had a pretty impressive fish market and grocery that looked like it had been sliced from a Whole Foods and implanted in the airport.  It even had a Pokemon store, which I’d have totally explored if I hadn’t felt like a bull in a China shop with my pack on.

There's a full Pokemon Center in the city, I'll go there instead.

There’s a full Pokemon Center in the city, I’ll go there instead.

While I was roaming, I was also exchanging texts (via the Line app) with Holly, who advised me to look for flavored Kit Kats, which apparently they have a lot of, and the flavors are seasonal.  The cheesecake Kit Kat she mentioned sounded really exciting but I didn’t find anything Kit Kat in the airport itself, so they may be out roaming wild through the Sapporo streets.  I’ll keep an eye open for them.

Gift melons.  Speak up if you want one.  (So that I can laugh at you.)

Gift melons. Speak up if you want one. (So that I can laugh at you.)

There was so much shopping, at first I honestly thought they'd attached the airport to a live shopping mall.  Then I remembered the importance of souvenirs, but, still.

There was so much shopping, at first I honestly thought they’d attached the airport to a live shopping mall. Then I remembered the importance of souvenirs, but, still.  Wow.

At a bit after 3:00, I headed out, finding an ATM to pull out ¥30,000 (about $240) and making my way to the Japan Rail (JR) train on an airport sublevel, coughing up about ¥1,400 for a ticket into Sapporo, and getting a seat facing the aisle with a place on the side to tuck my backpack.  40 minutes later, and much passenger and scenery watching later, I’d arrived in Sapporo Station.

That was Wednesday afternoon.  It’s currently Friday morning, so I’ve got more, but this is probably long enough for now.  And I should really get out and see more stuff, so I’ll end here, and try to get the next installment out quickly to catch up.

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4 Responses to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

  1. Wingwah says:

    This one is so shinny and new but ……. a hole on the floor. I was told some people, or a lot of them, are not accustomed to the ‘sit down’.
    Imagine try to get up after 15 minutes.

    • Charles says:

      I’d seen and used those during my Nepal trip. There’s increasing evidence that squatting toilets are supposed to be better for you, and I wouldn’t mind using one if the sitting kind weren’t available. But it’s not my first choice.

  2. Olive Biggerstaff says:

    wow, that was quite a trip. what an enjoyable read! I hear Japan is a fantastic place to visit. Am looking forward to your next installment.
    love to my favorite nephew from your aunt olive

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