Hong Kong - Beijing - Harbin

Harbin has been on my radar for a number of years because of its ice festival, where huge ice sculptures light up in various colours in a winter spectacle. There are 2 major winter festivals in this part of the world, with many in Hong Kong visiting the Sapporo one. I had set my sights on Harbin, although the direct (not nonstop) flight on a mainland carrier had stopped operating.

With rumours in the press that Hong Kong Airlines has been running into financial difficulty even though its parent, Hainan Airlines, has been in financial trouble for a while now, I wanted to go for a safer bet. China Eastern and its Shanghai Airlines offered the next cheapest option with reasonably short flights via Shanghai.

Then I realized I had a bunch of Asia Miles expiring, so I went for the best and most comfortable choice, flying Cathay Pacific to Beijing and then transferring to its sister carrier Air China for the domestic leg into Harbin. On the return, I would take the high-speed train back to Beijing with a stop in Changchun for more sightseeing. More on why I didn't fly later.

Unfortunately, any Air China redemption requires calling into the hotline, which is a hit or miss. Sometimes you get through with a lengthy wait, at other times they ask to leave a message. Calling first thing in the morning or during the seemingly quiet overnight hours didn't make a difference. I had pieced together all the legs by checking Cathay's availability on the Asia Miles website and Air China's availability on the Aeroplan engine. It was just a matter of giving the agent all the flight numbers and I was all set. The outbound would be a redemption on Asia Miles while the inbound would be a redemption on Avios.

The Asia Miles agent had trouble putting together the itinerary on the phone. After a bit of troubleshooting, he told me Air China cannot be bundled with Cathay for a single journey's redemption, and that this would be priced as 2 separate redemptions. Great. The total cost would be 20,000 Asia Miles, as opposed to 15,000 for a one-way. The only way to get around this is not to fly Air China and Shenzhen Airlines, which ironically is also a part of the Air China group.

So back to the drawing board, and I returned to Aeroplan's engine to check Shenzhen's availability. The direct from Shenzhen straight to Harbin was not available, but I could fly a connection on Cathay to either Guangzhou or Zhengzhou then connect to a Shenzhen domestic to Harbin. Both transits would be fairly lengthy and require getting up very early on Jan. 1 after a long night of festivities. Eventually, I capitulated and went for the more expensive Air China connection, and would train back to Beijing instead of paying another 10,000 Asia Miles for the domestic leg back to Beijing. The high-speed train would cost only about CNY 440 anyway.

20,000 Asia Miles later, I would fly out on Cathay at 9am with an almost 5 hour connection in Beijing before my domestic leg into Harbin in the late afternoon.

The Marco Polo counters in aisle B have 2 sections to drop your bags. This isn't particularly well-advertised, and I noticed one side had a long line while the other was empty. The agent couldn't push my bag all the way to Harbin, and asked that I take it out in Beijing to check again for the domestic leg. She was able to print me both boarding passes though.

Today's flight is operated by a 777 that has not been retrofitted with an extra seat yet. The IFE interface seems to have changed for the better. Being a lowly Green member, I was able to get on board way before the plebian chaos, and could still manage to snap a few cabin photos. The crew was good dealing with the seat lice, asking firmly to see all their boarding passes and getting the right people in the right seats. Seems this is only an issue that comes up regularly for PRC flights.

The flight time was announced at just under 2.5 hours. After pushing back on time, we made the typical long journey to the end of the island to take of towards the east. That took a good 20 minutes. By then, the blue sky started to poke out and I managed to get some decent aerials over the city.

The clouds started to dissipate over Tsing Yi with the huge container port below. We continued east past Sai Kung before we turned northwest. Behind me was the skyline.

The ride was bumpy for the first hour or so to the extent that the flight deck requested cabin crew to stay seated and suspend service. Once past Changsha, we were able to grab some breakfast. By the time the cart reached to me, only the Western option was left.

The skies cleared out entirely at this point and it was a smooth ride into Beijing.

As I brought up earlier, the IFE interface has changed. I wasn't used to navigating it yet, but the visuals looked better than the historic menu look. I had a bit of trouble zooming into and out of the flight map though.

As we descended into Beijing, I noticed it wasn't as hazy as I had originally expected. On my left was the skyline at Guomao in the eastern part of the city. It was my lucky day for aerials.

We landed on-time and uneventfully into a sunny and cold Beijing.

There was an announcement on board that all foreigners need to be fingerprinted to enter China nowadays and that there are machines to do so once we enter the terminal. I saw a series of kiosks for this but was confused whether this needed to be completed before lining up for immigration, or they could do what Japan does not to combine it with the immigration counter? I wasn't interested in trying to find an answer at this point and just went for entry.

I haven't flown into Beijing for a number of the years, but this huge airport is quite dreadful to use. There was a huge line for international transit that blocked inbound immigration. As usual, it was confusing and staff could not care to help or organize the lines. There was a line for the automated immigration kiosks but it kept moving steadily and soon I was downstairs boarding the shuttle into baggage claim.

The Bombardier terminal shuttle was heated like a sauna and we slowly edged our way into baggage claim. The bags didn't take too long to come out and I went to the back of the section where there was a domestic transfer entry. A few years ago, I found the hard way this gate closes early, just after dinner hour, and late evening arrivals would need to exit landside and re-clear security to enter the domestic area.

Once inside, my bags went through the X-rays and after that were a few Air China counters that took my bag. I showed the surly agent my onward boarding pass and she tagged my bag for the Harbin leg. Customer service in China seems to remain in the 70s but this agent did give me a candy at the end, but still not much of a smile. I couldn't complain given she did the work efficiently anyway.

Back upstairs, I joined the security line. As with other Chinese airports, an agent has to check my boarding pass first and then stamp a few times on it, then I would go through the scanning.

Once air-side, the domestic section wasn't crowded even though there was quite a large number of flights leaving. The space is huge and there are a lot of seats to dissipate the passengers.

It seems this C-pier of Terminal 3 is Air China's territory. Once the new airport south of the city opens, I wonder whether the other domestic carrier groups will leave PEK once and for all?

Northeastern China isn't a particular hot domestic tourist destination even during the warmer months, although Harbin is an anomaly during the winter. Even then, browsing the flight board, there wasn't much heading into this part for a good part of the afternoon. I could only see 1 flight at 14:40 to Changchun which I had considered to redeem.

Although I had about 4 hours left even after immigration and dropping my bag again, I didn't want to venture out into the city. It wasn't cheap to take the airport train both ways, and factoring in transport and clearing security again, I only had about 1.5 hours sightseeing left. Luckily, my flight would leave from the empty Pier D so it would be a pleasant and comfortable long stay.

Getting to Pier D was a bit odd. From Pier C, head downstairs and go for the bus. Although the train does go through D, there is no stop. The bus was comfortable with plenty of plush seats (not the bare plastic ones) but like many transit vehicles, public washrooms, and train platforms in China, there is a strong smell of cigarette smoke.

The ride wasn't long and I emerged in a heated and warm Pier D. Being my first time here, I marveled at the tranquility compared to the teeming international pier and even the relatively quiet Pier C. At my gate, I spotted a Dalian Airlines plane already parked there. I guess there is no reason for a delay due to a late inbound today?

I spent some time walking around Pier D's various gates. Spotting from here is pretty much Air China. The international pier is across on the other side.

The restaurants seemed closed even though it was only mid-afternoon.

I took a seat under the afternoon sun with my electronics charging beside me. The traffic flow steadily increased from me only at 2pm to a sizeable group by the time boarding was called early at 4:10pm.

Despite being the state carrier, the crew was far more friendlier with a nice smile. We were pretty much all seated with bags stowed on the old 737 in about 10 minutes. We waited a bit until an announcement came that we were waiting for 1 last passenger. I didn't see anyone emerge afterwards and we pushed back on time. This is quite a feat - 2 on-time flights on the same day!

We took off uneventfully into the sunset. There was no flight deck announcement, but the flight attendant provided details such as the distance to Harbin (1000km) and the flight time. We encountered light turbulence occasionally but the flight attendants seemed to have made a big deal out of it by asking us to stay buckled down.

With the dinner hour approaching, we received snack boxes with a warm BBQ bun pastry that actually tasted quite decent. This was better than Cathay's bun from the short Taipei and Manila hops. Inside the snack box was a pre-cooked egg and also some fermented vegetable condiments. I didn't expect a full meal given the flight time was under 2 hours. I would fill up with a late dinner on the ground.

Dalian Airlines is one of Air China's brother and sister companies. Some of these city carriers in China are quite confusing but it seems they find their way back to one of the big carrier groups eventually. I had flown them before years ago to Dalian and then onwards to Japan.

We landed in Harbin on-time. The terminal looked quite new and it was well-heated, a necessity in this part of China where temperatures can easily drop to -30C. I was lucky today. It wasn't half as cold. Downstairs by the baggage claim, there were a few private changing stalls, something that I didn't even see in Yellowknife.

After reading the travel forums, it seems taxis are quite notorious in filling up their vehicles with random people. It wasn't cheap to ride one into the city either, so I went for the airport bus instead. Just after exiting the baggage claim, the bus counter is well-signed on the right and I went straight to Line 1's window. I was bound for the railway station, although I also saw another window saying express to the train station.

By now, it was only 7:10pm. My luggage went into the lower compartment, with each piece having a lock. The driver handed me the key to keep. This was a first, and not a good sign perhaps on the area's safety?

We waited until just after 7:30pm before leaving the airport. The whole trip was smooth and after a few stops en route, I was on a quiet street just off the construction site / railway station in 40 minutes.

The Air China experience was quite a surprise. Despite surly looks on the ground, they got the job done and I got a candy to munch on. In flight, the crew was attentive, full of smiles, and got their job done efficiently. If China wasn't so nasty on the delay front, flying is actually quite decent if all flights are like this.

Harbin Photo Gallery
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