My First Time on a Mainland Chinese Carrier: China Eastern to Kunming
Bangkok BKK – Kunming KMG; $250, business class, 26 August
I didn’t know what to expect in terms of routing on my way to Kunming to BKK. It turned out unexpectedly that Kunming is a “focus city”[i] for China Eastern (MU). Cool. Also, they were selling a business class ticket for the same price as a Thai economy ticket. Well, I was sold.
That said, MU has a reputation that is most succinctly described as “shitty.” Given the relative complaint ratios, MU could be thought of as United with Chinese Characteristics – pilots smoking in the cabin, unruly passengers, dingy planes from the Reagan/Deng Xiaoping era, inedible food, et cetera. Did that deter me? Of course not!
Circa 1:30 pm, I caught a Grab[ii] car from the Millennium Hilton to Bangkok Suvarnabhumi airport. I enjoyed the no-hassle fair price of paying 450 baht (billed to my US Amex, btw) versus haggling with a Bangkok taxi driver.
I went to the business class counter where the MU ground staff efficiently checked me in at the empty Biz class counter. She explained that MU uses the Thai Airways business lounge and pointed out the one closest to my departure gate. Quelle surprise! I was expecting some mediocre contract lounge with cold coffee and staff that despises you. I was not expected a non-allied (Thai is Star Alliance, MU Skyteam) carrier’s home airport flagship lounges.
I changed my last remaining Thai Baht to Chinese RMB and breezed through premium security. Making my way to the lounge, I enjoyed a Thai chicken curry, a couple of Singha beers, and these delicate Thai desserts – mung bean paste molded into the shape of other fruits – peaches and cherries. Well done. The internet connection in the lounge allowed me to easily do some light browsing and whatsapp chatting.
At boarding time, I made my way to the gate just as boarding for biz class passengers was called. I found myself on a perfectly adequate plane – certainly not a museum exhibit from the 80s. That said, it wasn’t a brand new delivery, either. The crew offered me a pre-departure drink (water or juice, I opted for water) and a warm towel. So far so good. I found the seat pitch to be suitably generous for the domestic and regional flights that these aircraft serve.
After take-off, I decided that a Tsingtao beer was in order, which required ice as it was warm. The propaganda in the above newspaper drove me to drink. This moment marked the beginning of my adjustment to particularities of life in China.
Inflight service consisted of a Chinese chicken dish with rice, veggies, salad, fruit, and dessert. This blows away what you get on non-JFK/BOS/WAS to LAX/SFO US premium class services. I love those mung bean desserts shaped into miniature fruit.
IFE was on overhead screens, so I needed to check my phone to know where we were (GPS vaguely works in airplane mode). I did enjoy what I think were views of the Mekong river in Laos.
Upon arrival, we parked at a remote stand. Economy passengers went into a bus, and Biz passengers into a van. I have come to be thankful for that van. (Stay tuned for my intra-China adventures).
Baggage collection turned out to be interesting. I noticed that myself and a few others all had their bags. Surprise: we unhappy few who remained were all biz passengers. I was tempted to make a joke about class warfare/flying in kulak class to the PRC. We commiserated and discussed the next step. I thought back to my arrival in Bali, and went over to another belt. There, I found our bags spinning around all alone. I waved my new acquaintances over while holding up my recovered chattels.
A brief wait in the taxi queue, I was in a cab, and 40 minutes later, I crossed the threshold of my home for the next four months.
[i] A city that’s not quite a major hub, but is a significant point in a carrier’s network.
[ii] Like Uber, but in SE Asia. There is a long and storied history of those companies’ cutthroat competition.