Wednesday, August 26, 2009


We have no difficulty waking up at 4 a.m. In fact, we were both awake for quite a while before the alarm went off. Who could sleep on those beds? Feeling a bit battered and bruised, we got up, grateful for release from the obligation to try to sleep any longer, since it was futile anyway. Since our suitcases were already packed, we were dressed and ready in no time at all, and downstairs well before 5 a.m., to join our group. A smiling young man from the hotel took most of the luggage downstairs, with some help from our men, bless their hearts. What would we do without them?

The bus arrived and the luggage quickly disappeared into its underbelly. We boarded, ready and anxious to get this flight behind us. The trip to the airport was very short, and soon we found ourselves unloading again and heading into the Ulaanbaatar airport. Susan, Batsengel, Oyuka and the others saw us off, and were waving at us through the windows as we disappeared beyond the gates. We'll miss them.

The trip through the Ulaanbaatar airport is a breeze, compared with what we know awaits us in Beijing. Since we were there very early, there was no crowd, no lines, and we were at our gate in just a few minutes. Oh no! That gives us time to shop, and I don't need to spend any more money! However, Eloise and I know this airport from last year, and know very well that there's a shop downstairs that sells some beautiful cashmere goods. I try to forget that little fact, and make a real effort to stay in my seat. Alas, one of the men mentions that he'd like to pick up something in cashmere for the lady in his life, and naturally, I can't let the poor guy fumble around alone. I offer to show him the shop. Fifteen minutes later, I have made my own purchases and am sheepishly returning to my seat upstairs. Oh well, one doesn't visit Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia very often.

Very soon our flight was called, and we boarded, ready for the trip back into China. One of our men noticed a plane sitting off to one side, which he was very sure was Air Force Two. He's a pilot, so I'd think he would know. Since we were taxiing at the time, we only got a glimpse of the plane, but he felt sure he was right. Naturally, we wonder why Air Force Two would be here, but no one knows, so it goes into the file for Unexplained Things We Have Seen.

The plane is in the air quickly and we settle back to enjoy the excellent breakfast served by the Miat Airlines cabin crew. As always, they're Mongolian, they're efficient and pleasant, and take very good care of us. We expect to be able to see the Great Wall this time, as there is no cloud cover visible. After a while, when we are beginning to think we might be near enough to Beijing to be able to see the wall, we feel the plane begin to slow and descend. We haven't seen the wall, and just as I'm wondering how we managed to fly over it into Beijing without seeing it, the pilot opens the intercom to make an announcement.

It seems we are not approaching Beijing. We have been rerouted to another airport some distance away from there, due to "bad weather." We don't even see any clouds. This seems very strange. Still, there's not much we can do but ride along and see what happens. Naturally, we wonder if this has anything to do with the presence of Air Force Two in this part of the world. That would be enough to merit some pretty tight security in and around Beijing, I would think, especially if Air Force Two was headed there.

The plane is definitely descending, and the strange, convoluted outlines of the Chinese mountains are beginning to take shape. After flying low over some farmland and a small town, we make an easy, uneventful landing at a very small airport. Easy, but I did have the impression that the pilot was using all his tricks to stop the big plane. It's 8:07 a.m. local time, wherever we are.
Someone finds out that we are at the airport for a town called Hoh Hot. I will certainly be looking this up on the map when I get home! The pilot tells us that there are "very bad storms" over Beijing, which is about forty minutes flying time from here, and we can expect to be on the ground here for about two hours. Aargh. This is not a pleasant prospect, but of course, safety comes first, and if there really are storms over Beijing, then we'd prefer to be right here, safely on the ground.

Naturally, there is a lot of conjecture as to what is really going on. For one thing, since Beijing is a busy international airport, and if all flights are being rerouted due to bad weather, we would expect that there would be several planes here with us, waiting out the storm. This is not the case. Other than one freighter, we are the only large plane on the ground. The freighter is deserted, looks like it could have been there for a while. There are two or three small ones, but no airliners. This seems very odd.

At this point, no mention is made of deplaning, and the more experienced travelers among us explain that it will be unlikely that we will be allowed to do so, due to immigration policies. As though anyone would want to venture off into the wilderness we see around us, but still, we have to understand. We prepare for a long wait. A few people get up and move around the plane. At one point, a cabin attendant makes the announcement that everyone needs to return to his or her seat, as the plane is "unfueling." Exactly what that process is, and why people need to be seated while it is going on, we're not too sure, but everyone complies. Except one man. Why is there always one in every group?

This particular man has drawn my notice already, and his non-compliant behavior does nothing to reassure me now. He is about fifty, tall and thin, with dark skin and long dark hair worn in a ponytail. His features are unusual, I cannot easily identify his ethnic background. There is an Asian component, but there is something of the Middle East as well. He never makes eye contact with anyone. He never stays in his seat either, but instead wanders the aisles all the time. Finally, after another announcement from the cabin staff, he sits down, stays about two minutes, and is up and off on his aisle-walking once more. The staff never confronts him. I look around for something to conk him with if anything happens, but can't find anything but my camera. It's too light. Oh, well. Telling myself I'm being melodramatic, I settle down to wait with everyone else.