This tenth installment covers the overnight flight from Hong Kong to Sydney, a spot of aerial photography, and Char Leong.
Hong Kong Airport
Check In Hall
Continuing on from we we left off in the previous installment, the check in hall at Hong Kong Airport is quite a vast space.
Sloped walkways leading into the check in hall. Below, the arrivals hall can be seen...
On on end, there is a model Wright brothers' biplane (or was it one of those yellow WWII specimens) suspended in mid-air between the sloped walkways leading from the transport concourse to the rest of the terminal building. On the other end, through a side window, the neon lights of the HKIA branch of the Regal Hotel chain (with its characteristic "R" logo) could be seen, perhaps beckoning any tourists whose travel plans may have been delayed by another one of those blasted volcano things (Note: on our last flight out of HKIA there were long queues in some parts due to the Finland volcanic eruption; by the time we got to Singapore, it was initially bemusing to see stacks of sleeping bags piled up in the corners of some vast empty floor spaces... that is until we began to hear of the travel delays affecting many travellers, and the emergency measures such as free food and water being offered to stranded passengers in a side area beside our boarding lounge). Fortunately, there was none of that nonsense this time round (or even any major world events for that matter).
As in every other airport, it is divided into a number of different islands or lanes (denoted with large dark blue signs with large white letters hanging from the ceiling), with different carriers assigned to different counters. Given that our bags had already been checked through via the Airport Express service, there was nothing really to do in this part of the terminal, apart from a little bit of sightseeing (though that was tempered a bit by sore feet - my heels were absolutely killing me after a week of the doing about a year's worth of exercise in 5 days in a pair of shoes with insoles which had suddenly developed a tendency to slide backwards within a few steps).
Although there were an array of shops along the back wall of the check in hall (NOTE: the toilets are located within some of the recessed "bays" between shops here, and there are a few ATM's clustered with little rooms with glass security doors nearby too), I'd seen enough shops (especially of the tacky/opportunistic tourist gorging variety) littered everywhere already to have had enough of them by this point. Instead, unless you have some urgent last minute "need to by souvenir" or "need to get some extra luggage" shopping you need to do (or perhaps some family/relatives have come to see you off, and you'd like to hang on to them for a few more minutes), at HKIA, I strongly recommend that you pass through security earlier. Unlike at the horrid LAX, or Sydney, Christchurch, and a handful of others where all the good food outlets (or just food outlets outright) are actually located outside the secure area (seriously, don't make this mistake at LAX, otherwise you'll end up starving while staring down some overpriced stale cookie-cutter hotdogs and tiny bags of potato chips from a little dingy convenience store, ruing the fact that you didn't instead dine in comfort at one of the many foodcourt restaurants outside), at HKIA all the good stuff is actually inside the cordon (see below!).
Christmas decorations at HKIA 2012 - Right in front of the display
Another view of the Christmas decorations from another position further down the hall...
As in many places around the world, but Hong Kong in particular, there was a Christmas display of sorts at the airport. Although in absolute terms this is not a particularly extravagant display, it's still far from being a shabby effort! From the shots here, it can be seen that this display was sufficiently interesting to be eye catching from a distance as you enter the terminal.
Immigration and Security
Perhaps one of the most iconic parts of Hong Kong Airport as far as popular culture goes (hint: it's often used for the "last moment change of mind" scenes) is the departures wall:
Behind this wall though is a slightly less well publicised area, partly since it's probably illegal to actually take photos of the stuff in there given how paranoid some people in some parts of the world are about these matters still. Having said that, no one said anything about having the scene described in detail - haha - though in this case there's really not that much to report!
The setup behind here is actually quite spacious, orderly, and overwhelming calm. At the time we passed through - about 6 to 6:30 - there were only a handful of people at each queue (if you could call them that), with everyone getting cleared relatively quickly but without being rushed through (unlike at a few other airports - *ahem* Sydney - where you're barked at by their outsourced security scanning staff who treat everyone like criminals until proven innocent and have hurriedly stuffed their belongings back inside their bags).
Firstly, there's a row of immigration department counters. Overall, these guys are quite stern and scary looking, giving everyone a good suspicious once-over and doing a little passport flick-thru. As usual, these are split into two or three categories IIRC (locals, foreigners, and VIP's). Behind the counters, there are the familiar "no stopping" signs and yellow markings on the ground.
Behind these counters (and behind another divider IIRC), was the security screening area. There were about 3 scanners in this wide area. Cue the familiar bag emptying, pocket splaying, jewellery/watch dropping dance. Grey trays. Simple metal detector scanners (none of the nasty XRay stuff). On the scanning line to the far left, a few pilots and flight attendants quickly breeze through, while everyone else slowly shuffles. Tray. Laptop. Walk. Grab. Cram. Grab. Grab. Walk.
Overall, nothing really alarming here.
Foodcourt and Char Leong
Finally, we get to "the good stuff (TM)" at Hong Kong Airport! I strongly recommend that you leave yourself enough time so that after passing through all the official business you can comfortably sit down and enjoy a meal and a half at the foodcourt located inside the secure area. While some of these are still technically "just" fast food vendors, their offerings can hold their own against stuff out in the city. Shops here included a Cafe De Coral fast food franchise, and a branch of the Michelin-starred Tasty Congee & Noodle Wantun Shop.
Logo of "Tasty Congee & Noodle Wantun Shop" - Remember this one!
(And yes, it does have such a long name)
When planning some things I wanted to do while in Hong Kong this time, there were several "must do" things which came to mind instantly:
1) Taking a ride on the Peak Tram
2) Seeing the Christmas Lights on Victoria Harbour
3) Eating my beloved Char Leong
So far, I'd managed to do the first two during my stay. However, the last one of the three was still as elusive as it had been for the past two years (i.e. nowhere to be found, since the last of the three restaurants in Christchurch which used to serve this on their lunch menu closed suddenly following a bizarre employment dispute). Standing in the airport departure lounge, I'd basically given up hope of managing to accomplish the last of these. This is especially considering that very few restaurants offer this on their menus (even dim sum restaurants with other "cheung fun" on their menu in Hong Kong!), and the fact that I hadn't managed to easily run across any eateries offering it during my week long stay so far, the chances of finding it on the menu of a food vendor at an airport (within the secure area no doubt, and whose name only mentions congee and wontons) was a bit of a stretch.
At this point, I was just looking to have a little drink and perhaps a snack before the flight. It would probably be a while before any meals were served (though I did still have that bag of chips I got from the vending machine back in Sydney before the last flight if things came down to that). Initially, it looked like the options were likely to just be between wontons, congee, or perhaps a meal combo from Cafe De Coral. And then, I spotted it on the menu here: "409. Crispy Chinese Donut Rice Noodle Roll" (actually, I spotted the photo first). Wow!
Finally, after 2 long years, and literally minutes before leaving Hong Kong, we finally met again! Yum yum yum! Perhaps the best part was that it wasn't a big letdown (as these things can often be). Instead, their Char Leong turned out to be some of the best I've had: the donut was nice and crispy (and just the right size), while the cheung fun on the outside was nice and thin (supposedly it takes more skill to get it thin than thick and sloppy, though there are times I just like a nice and thick layer for the texture), and the soya sauce actually had flavour (instead of being just watered down brown water with slight flavour, or even worse, flavourless brown colouring floating in a sea of oil).
The only downsides were: 1) I only had time/appetite for one plate at the time, 2) I'll have to wait till the next time I fly out from this airport (or perhaps if they offer the same menu at their city restaurants, the next time I'm over in HK) to have this again :( Boo hoo!
Oh, and before I forget, according to a copy of the menu I made sure I grabbed from their counter (hey, they had a whole stack of 'em) so that I could trace down the name of this shop once I got home for future reference, I found that in fact, this was the cheapest of all the Cheung Fun dishes on offer (15 HKD vs 25-35 HKD for everything else)! By golly... what a bargain for such a rare delicacy.
In addition to Char Leong, I also had some congee (NB: I've always thought it ought to be/is referred to as porridge, but apparently, the latter only applies to oat/wheat based variants of this class of food, even though the basic purpose/style of cooking and presentation are basically the same). Specifically, beef and fish fillet. Although I wasn't initially that keen on having congee at that time of the day (as I'm used to only having it as more of a lunch-time thing; many people apparently have it for breakfast too, as I tried one morning) it turned out to be quite good. I particularly loved the beef slices here (soo soft and tender and juicy).
However, I wasn't that impressed with the fish, since in HK they use a special type of fish for this (given a sample size of n = 2; the previous being my breakfast encounter with this stuff a few days earlier in Tsim Sha Tsui). This type of fish is served as thin (~0.3 cm thick) and long (1-2 inch long) slices. These have two layers: a white fleshy layer up the top, and a greyish layer (fat?) down the bottom. There are perhaps two reasons why I'm not so fond of this type of fish (compared to the nice stuff they use back in NZ): the white part is a bit tough to chew, while the bottom (grey) part has a bit of a sandy/gritty texture which feels like you're constantly chewing through many small soft bones. Perhaps some people might like it, but for me, I prefer the fish they use here any day, though I don't know what it's called!
Finally, having completed all of the things I'd planned to do in Hong Kong (and more), I was ready to happily head home and look forward to my next visit. What a great way to end my stay in Hong Kong :)
Departures Lounge Architecture
Whereas the check in hall is a very wide space, the departures lounge is quite long and narrow. This is because the main terminal building is actually shaped a bit like a plane! I didn't really realise this until I saw an overhead shot of the building during a documentary once.
Hong Kong Airport building layout.
Getting back to the current trip. After finishing our meal, it was time to start heading to the gate. To get from the foodcourt down to the gates, you have to go to the centre of the foodcourt area and head down a pair of escalators, which are pointed straight down the main straight-stretch of the building (as pictured above).
Standing at this point, you can't help but amazed by the architecture around you. Perhaps this is the true meaning of "feng shui" - none of that garbage about placing certain charms in certain places for good luck, but rather, the study of "flow" and how to manage/channel this for a really comfortable environment. At least that's my understanding of the matter these days. Personally, when standing there, right in the middle (or what seemed like a natural midpoint) of the building, I was struck by the strong lines of the building. These ranged from the mighty centerline, which loomed above your head (and straight over) and stretching downwards as far as the eye could see, to the way the roof formed an apparently infinite tunnel with edges converging.
QF 128 - Overnight A380 Flight from Hong Kong to Sydney
One disadvantage of collecting our boarding passes early in the day via the Airport Express was that they did not mention which gate we'd be leaving from (apparently, they only really know this about 3-4 hours before departure). So, there was a bit of scrambling at the airport trying to check out the departure listings to figure out which gate to head to. From the photo below, it looks like it just a short walk over to Gate 15.
At Gate 15 waiting to board the A380
By the time we got there, there were already a fair number of people present, but nowhere near the hoards of people present in Sydney. At least that's what it seemed like at the time. When we got there, there were some people lying across several seats in their sleeping bags, while others were either sitting or standing around idly. Out on the tarmac, the A380 stood ready to begin the boarding process.
Over the loudspeakers, an anonymous voice announced that boarding had commenced. As we were not in a rush to get on board and try to snare some extra overhead space for some oversized "hand carry" items, we decided to wait until the queues seemed to be getting shorter before lining up, to avoid having to stand around for so long.
After a few minutes, the queue started to get down to just a few people. Perfect. Time to start lining up. And then we noticed: the queue we'd been staring at was the First/Business/Premium line. Gah! On to the other side of the gate, there were in fact many many more seats, a kids playground, and a mid-sized queue. Argh! Who would've known there were all those seats over there?
While waiting in line, I noticed a few luggage trolleys which sat abandoned on the side. On them, was an Airbus A380 advertisement:
Love at first flight - Indeed.
The queue moved quite slowly. Shuffle shuffle. Wait a few minutes. Shuffle shuffle. Look out the window.
It soon became clear why this was the case. On the airbridge, there were 7-8 uniformed security staff (complete with blue shirts, hats, and black woolly gloves), manning something like 6 stations on either side (3 on each side). In the center, a lone guard stood, redirecting each and every passenger to the next free station. WTF?! Didn't we already pass through security scanning?! While waiting in line, we're told that the Aussies have some specific security laws so they'll now need to hand-check everybody's luggage again, lest we carry more liquids than the measly dribble allowed, bombs, knives, or poisoned/diseased apples and food. Gah! Seriously?! Didn't we already check for this already? This process was causing quite a bottleneck, as now everybody's bags had to be turned inside out, further messing up everything inside and increasing the risk of accidentally losing or breaking something, in front of every other passenger who you'd be spending the next few hours cooped up with, and causing massive delays to the boarding process as they took some 2 minutes or so per bag. This is madness. Pure and plain paranoid PC madness. You have been warned.
Finally cleared, we headed onto the plane. While we were seated in the first cabin (red) last time, this time we were in the second one, which is further back, and has green seats. Apart from the seat colours, I wonder if there's any difference between the seating in these two areas...
Taxiing to the runway from the terminal building takes a good 10 minutes or. As well as the usual sights that you'll set at various airports, such as various sized jets parked at the terminal building (but predominantly for the "local" carrier) and the control tower, at Hong Kong airport, you also pass what looks to be a giant parking lot for jets, where they're just lined up row by row, complete with lighting towers and row number plates.
Although it had been raining on and off all afternoon, by departure time, the rain seemed to have cleared, so the windows were nice and clear to look out from. As anyone who's travelled on an A380 will know, one of their best "features" is the "tailcam" - a forward facing camera mounted on top of the vertical stabiliser/fin, giving you a nice view of the whole plane and its surroundings. However, for most of the flight, it was too dark to make out anything (at least from my screen, though AFAIK they use the same/a similiar feed in the cockpit while taxiing, so I assume that it must have been working, just probably not turned on for passengers for some reason).
The Cathay Pacific jet parked beside us, and the wingtip of the A380
On the move...
On the move - AFAICT, the control tower on the left, and the jet parking lot on the right
Rolling alongside the terminal building, with more of these arched units visible.
More jets parked outside the terminal for "local" carriers
Left: Cathay Pacific (the main/long established airline),
Right: Hong Kong Airlines (a new carrier serving just the Asia market)
Approaching the runway, there were a few jets ahead of us in the queue to take off (as is usual for all large airports these days)...
A Cathay Pacific jet steaming past (one of several to take off/land before us) - I love the way tail fins get illuminated :)
Turning along a side path - another jet approaches, following us (i.e. the cluster of white lights following that blue-green path perpendicular to us on the LHS)
Getting closer as we complete the turn...
As we rolled off down the runway - quite slowly at first, then increasingly fast (though at no point plastered into our seats) - here are some of the sights which sped past outside the window...
Several jets lined up on the parallel lane waiting in line...
Looking down at Hong Kong Airport - heaps jets just sitting around beside the terminal (or not) here...
For the first hour or so of the flight, the lights remained dimmed. With nothing to see out the windows once we started to pass through the clouds (which were quite low that night as it had been raining all week), most passengers set about trying to get some sleep. At least that's what it seemed like, as everyone else around me appeared to be fast asleep within minutes. Sometimes, this isn't too much of an issue. However, after a few failed attempts at falling asleep, and my lower left leg increasingly feeling "dead", this was beginning to get a bit uncomfortable.
Shortly after the plane left the ground, the passengers in the row in front of us decided to start reclining their seats back hard. At the best of times, the amount of recline you can get using these seats is minimal at best, and is IMO close to useless for making it easier to fall asleep or be comfortable sleeping. However, its impact on passengers behind you is quite severe to say the least. In this case, the guy in front of me reclined his seat hard - that is, basically, as far as it can go back, which is where his headrest ends up within 3 inches of your face. While this is uncomfortable, it is somewhat bearable. What is not so great was that my knees ended up being wedged firmly into the back of his chair as a result, meaning that it was quite difficult if not impossible to move my legs around much to relieve any pressure/discomfort building up.
So, there I was, boxed in for over an hour in the darkness in quite an uncomfortable position. In addition to being unable to stretch my legs forward under the seat (the way the seat angles worked out, that became almost impossible) or backwards towards my seat (with knees already stuck in the back of the seat in front, nudging upwards a bit more proved prohibitively difficult), I soon found that there was also no space to the left to deflect into a bit instead (though I remember that in the past, there would always be a little bit of gap between the LHS of the row of seating and the wall panels due to the curvature of the plane).
Making matters worse was that as this wore on, my lower left leg increasingly felt "dead". It was quite a strange feeling: it wasn't numb, tingling, painful, or pulsing, but there was perhaps a light "squeezing" or more of a "stale" feeling. Almost as if it wasn't there.
And then, there was that baby. About 15-20 minutes it, and then again once every few minutes after that, it would cry. A scratchy, persistent wailing. Normally I like to think I'm pretty tolerant of babies (toddlers and those annoyingly overactive brats who can't sit still for 2 seconds and need a constant stream of noisy stimulation to keep them at bay are a different matter). Heck, I was surrounded by some 4 or so of 'em on the way over, crying, burbling, and making other noises and random movements. But this baby, even though I could not exactly see it in the darkness, apart from vaguely seeing the silhouette of a poor dad who was hugging it and pacing around a few rows in front of us near the galley trying desperately to placate it, was really getting on my nerves. It needed to be silenced somehow, but that really wasn't going to happen.
With sleep ever elusive and no menu in sight (or cabin crew for that matter), I was beginning to wonder if there would end up being any evening meal served that night. Thoughts of whether I should have had all of the congee, instead of leaving a bit at the bottom (as I was starting to get a bit full, and also to save some appetite for any coming meals served). Perhaps I'd need to call on that bag of chips, or perhaps make a raid of one of the snack bars at the back, if only I could get out of the seat! Cry baby cry! The seat in front leaned back a bit, and the side wall seemed ever closer. Argh!
Eventually I finally managed to get out of the box when the other people in my row woke up briefly. Seizing the chance, I freed myself to take a walk to the back of the plane. (Getting out from there was not quite so easy though: when wedged between your row of seats and an inclined row of seats in front of you, it's difficult to maintain balance without falling backwards into your seats and/or causing yourself some back strain in the process. It didn't help either that the inner arm rests wouldn't fully retract, and the outer ones not at all, so just sliding across horizontally while seated wasn't really an option). Finally, able to move around a bit, it took a good 5-10 minutes of standing around at the back of the plane (around the staircase leading up to the top deck), alternating between giving the leg a good shake out, doing various stretches, pacing around, and some more shaking to get things feeling a bit more normal again.
There were a few people waiting around for the toilet at the back at the time, and they were probably wondering why there was a random dude standing around looking like he wanted to kick holes in the floor. There were also a few people who ventured down from the top deck to quickly grab some snacks. Curious, I headed up the staircase to try and see what it looked like upstairs I knew that the Premium Economy seats should be located right up the back there (I was curious to check out for myself if they looked like they would be more comfortable for long haul flights). Unfortunately, they had a sort of gate-thingy with some unlocking mechanism I couldn't quite figure out how to open while standing there in the dark (well, not quite, as they had some very low-level blue lighting around the edges to help you see the steps, but just the steps). So, from where I stood, I had a brief look around the cabin up there. Verdict: the seats up there look only marginally better, especially from where I was standing. They were probably still likely to cause minor knee-seat contact, and the headrest infringements looked like they were still going on in full force, especially as those seats could reportedly recline further. Overall though, it looked slightly less clustered up there.
As I headed by to my little dungeon, I looked across at the old guy sitting in the aisle across from us: what a lucky little old man he was, for he was seated in seat 71d. If you look this up, you'll find that this is actually located right behind the maintenance hatch door, which means, THERE IS NO SEAT IN FRONT OF SEAT 71D! Yep, a jolly decent amount of leg room, and no chance of the guy in the seat in front of you being able to recline his headrest into your face. Argh!
After about two hours into the flight, the flight attendants finally started walking through the cabin: quietly and slowly at first, and then gradually with increased pace, rushing back and forth. Soon the lights were going up, menus were being handed out, and reclined passengers were being asked to put their seats upright. So, a meal *was* going to be served that night, but only after many passengers had probably fallen asleep, and were now half-groggily waking up to stuff down some food like zombies.
As for the food itself, there's not much to be said about it. Pretty standard airline fare - chicken or pork IIRC. One point that I should point out though, is that IMO, the catering tends to be a bit crap when flying out of airports in Asia (when compared with those in NZ and Australia), at least in my experience. This seems kindof odd, given the amount of good food in these places.
Once the trays were collected, the lights were dimmed, and most people resumed their sleeping.
As it happened, I never really did get much/any sleep that night. Instead, after trying (and failing to sleep again), I ended up watching a few movies on the inflight entertainment, which was showing quite a few films I'd intended to see but never got around to over the past few years.
(... To be continued in the next installment...)
- Enough is enough. Hopefully this will be the last time I ever end up having to fly economy (at least for long haul flights). As a "problem that money can solve", IMO any "savings" of a few thousand are really not worth the sort of cramping + discomfort, long queues, and sleep deprivation this costs. At least from my investigations so far, a business class seat to a few places I'd like to head to is definitely possible at least a few times (especially if booked early enough it seems).