Wednesday, 1 June 2016

the long haul

I’ve travelled from Hong Kong to the UK more than twenty times in the last forty years, and I’ve never regarded the journey as anything other than an ordeal. However, things have changed in a lot of ways during this time. Until the early 1990s, it was necessary to avoid the Soviet Union, so planes flew along the southern edge of the Asian landmass, stopping in either Bahrain or Abu Dhabi. In those days, passengers were allowed, even encouraged, to disembark and spend an hour in the airport transit lounge while their plane refuelled, but this practice seems to have been abandoned long ago.

You also had to pay for any alcoholic drinks and for access to the rudimentary in-flight entertainment systems of the time. Both are now free. Some changes have not been as welcome. Leg room has been reduced slowly over the years in economy class, and the impression I gained from my most recent flight, last weekend, is that the seats are now narrower. On the second leg of my journey, I noted that the Boeing 777 I was travelling in had ten seats across the cabin, the same arrangement as the Boeing 747. However, the 747 is 6.1 metres wide, while the 777 is only 5.82 metres, which means that individual seats are almost 5 percent narrower in a 777 than in a 747.

For many years, I used a huge hold-all with minuscule casters on the bottom, which was hard work to lug around. I eventually swapped this for a suitcase with two wheels, but this wasn’t much easier to haul around, because I still had to bear much of its weight. Nowadays, both my check-in case and my carry-on case have four wheels, making their transportation relatively easy, except on the odd occasion that I will come to later.

The first part of the journey is always straightforward. Our house is a 15-minute walk from the terminus of one of the many airport bus routes in Hong Kong, and only a small number of passengers board here, so it’s always easy to get a decent seat and stow your luggage. The route between our house and this terminus is completely flat, so wheeling my cases is easy.

Having checked in, I proceeded to immigration, where I discovered that my Hong Kong ID card wouldn’t work in the automated gates. I looked at the long line of passengers queuing to show their passports at the immigration counters with dismay—until I spotted a counter, with no queue, for Hong Kong residents. I suspect that it was there for people like me whose ID cards wouldn’t work in the automatic gates (I believe that mine malfunctioned because the chip it contains has become corroded).

As I waited at the departure gate, I noted with dismay that I’d been allocated a seat near the front of the cabin (I prefer to be at the back, so that the galley is close at hand when I want a drink). When I finally boarded the plane, I noticed that it looked pretty full, but the two seats next to mine were still unoccupied. Imagine my surprise, a short while later, when I heard a PA announcement that all passengers were on board, and the two seats next to me were still empty!

I’ve flown Qatar Airways for several years now, partly because it’s the cheapest but also because I prefer to have a break halfway—on the few occasions when I’ve taken a direct flight, I’ve found the experience of 12–13 hours on a plane almost unbearably tedious, although I haven’t flown direct since I acquired an MP3 player, which makes long plane journeys more bearable. I no longer bother with the in-flight entertainment, and why would I? I have 800 carefully selected tracks, from the 1950s to the 2000s, on my MP3 player, which I set to random play. Once the security video has been shown, it’s playing throughout the flight.

The other ingredient in a minimum-stress flight (for me) is plenty of drink, and Qatar Airways will give you as much drink as you want, just so long as you don’t make a nuisance of yourself. I tend not to drink too much on the first leg of the journey, because I know I will have to navigate my way through Hamad International Airport. Until last year, because the airport terminal was still being built, passengers were embarked and disembarked a long way from the functioning part of the terminal, which was tedious. Arriving at the terminal this time, I was surprised not to have to go through any security checks before entering the main concourse, which was eerily silent and with very few people at 4 o’clock in the morning.

I was even more surprised not to be security checked before boarding my onward flight, although I did have to pass through one of those portals that are meant to detect metal—with my case, which contained quite a lot of metal! I did notice that two people were having their bags searched on a counter to my left, but I was waved through to the main seating area straight away.

I may have been the only person with three seats to himself on the first leg, but on the second leg I don’t think I’ve seen an emptier plane. Not only did I have three seats to myself, there was nobody in the seat directly in front or directly behind, so I really could relax. As soon as the seatbelt sign had been switched off, I was off to the galley for a gin and tonic, a trip that was noticeably downhill.

It’s not really a complaint, but a lot of cabin staff tend not to put enough gin in the glass, which means merely that I drink it faster. However, on my third trip to the galley, when I asked for a gin and tonic, I was asked whether I wanted a ‘light’ one or a ‘strong’ one. A strong one, naturally. On my next visit, I looked for the member of staff who’d served me earlier, but he wasn’t anywhere in sight, so I asked another staff member. There were several hanging around, because they have very little to do during the middle hours of a flight, so I thought I might address the whole group.

“This is how I like my gin,” I said, indicating an imaginary line halfway up the tumbler. “Only one piece of ice, gin up to there, and just give me the can of tonic.”

As I said, the staff on Qatar Airways will give you as much drink as you want, unlike some European airlines, which can be annoyingly stingy. The rest of the flight passed off very pleasantly, but I knew that I had a problem to resolve in Manchester. I always buy my train ticket from the airport to Penrith in advance, but I’d noticed a couple of days before my flight that I’d inadvertently bought an indirect ticket and would therefore not only have to change trains, I would have to change stations. There was a direct train departing around the same time, and I’d decided that I would take this instead, leaving my original ticket unused. However, the ticket clerk assured me that the transfer from Wigan Wallgate to Wigan North Western was straightforward, so I took him at his word.

Imagine my dismay when I got off the train only to be confronted by a long flight of stairs. However, just as I was about to embark on what was sure to be a herculanean struggle—my main case weighed 25 kilograms—somebody shouted out that there was a lift. Phew! The second station was just across the road, and it also had a lift up to the platform level. I had only one more obstacle to negotiate, and I wasn’t looking forward to it.

My home town of Penrith has the only station on the west coast main line that doesn’t have lifts. This isn’t a problem when alighting from or boarding a southbound train, but when leaving a northbound train, the only way to reach the station exit is via a subway. And the only way to access the subway is by flights of stairs. It looked like I would have my herculanean struggle after all, except that someone offered to take my small case on the downstairs section. Naturally, I was grateful, but I certainly didn’t expect what happened next. The person who had helped me insisted that I took my small case, while he hauled my big, heavy one up the flight of stairs in the above photo. What’s more, I barely had time to thank him before he was gone. I can’t imagine that this person will ever read this account, but I’d like to say how much it meant to me. His actions turned what had already been my most comfortable journey ever from east to west into a perfect trip. I even had time to go down to the pub for a couple of pints with friends, once I’d dumped my cases at home, which is less than 300 metres from the station. The pub is even closer. Cheers!


  1. With an angel in the underpass!

    1. That won’t happen again either, although my prognosis is based on the fact that they are building a footbridge (with lifts). When it’s finished, the subway will be closed.


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