On a Spring Break trip with my wife and teenage daughter to visit China’s Yunnan Province, I used Delta’s new international premium economy (called Premium Select) as far as Beijing.  There we connected (on a through ticket) to Delta SkyTeam partner China Eastern for the 3.5 hour internal flight Beijing to Kunming (Yunnan provincial capital).  The following morning we took a Shenzhen Airways flight from Kunming to Lijiang in northwest Yunnan, and a week later flew China Eastern once more KMG/PEK to connect with Delta for our flights home to RDU.

Having little idea what to expect in 2018 connecting to and flying domestic flights within China, I was pleased that basic airport and airline service standards were maintained.  Though with some Chinese quirks that spiced up the experiences.  The big takeaway was that things worked at the airport and on the planes, reassuring to business and leisure passengers who need to fly inside China.

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Beijing passport control.

On arrival to Beijing, we hoped to make an earlier China Eastern connection PEK/KMG.  No dice. First, the Delta flight was late landing, then taxied for 20 minutes before finding the gate, a common occurrence, I was told, at extremely busy PEK Airport. When the doors opened, we embarked on what felt like an endless march to the immigration screen, so long that it made Heathrow plane-to-immigration distances seem short, followed by a long, unhurried queue to get passports stamped. By the time we reached the well-marked China Eastern transfer desk to domestic (internal China) flights, the earlier flight to KMG was closed.

Disappointing. One big consolation, however, was that China Eastern allowed us to use one of several lounges at Beijing, a perk for premium economy customers. I tried to understand why; that is, was it because we held premium economy tickets, or was it because we were international transfer passengers between partners.  But I couldn’t get across the language barrier sufficient to be understood.

Otherwise, I was prepared to go to one of the Priority Pass lounges that come with my American Express Platinum card.  As it was, we had a good selection of Chinese dishes to sate our appetites in the China Eastern lounge.

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China Eastern lounge at Beijing Airport

Eventually, we walked to our boarding gate for Kunming, the 4th largest airport in China.  Boarding was chaotic compared to U.S. carriers zone- and elite-based practices, but we crushed through the jet bridge quickly and found our miniscule seats.  Way back in coach.  Though on an international premium economy fare basis supposedly all the way to Kunming, China Eastern has no PE—or even seats comparable to Delta’s Comfort+.  SkyTeam partner perks go only so far, and not very far.  Oh well,I thought, at least we had been able to enjoy the CE Beijing lounge.

The China Eastern 737-8 flight (3.5 hours Beijing to Kunming) left almost on time from the gate with every seat filled, most with Chinese citizens.  I saw one other Western family on board, from Scandinavia, I think. Wholesome hot noodles were served, and everyone slurped (us included).

I noticed that our China Eastern 737 was configured with a special few rows up front that are sectioned off for their own elite passengers, but even having paid for premium economy, we couldn’t get a seat there. Why not? Gotta wonder again about the code share and fare agreement between DL and CE.

Here’s a photo of the special coach section. You can also see, forward of that, that China Eastern means business about not going into the first class section!

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China Eastern is strict about coach passengers entering business class, even on domestic flights.

The plane was as tight and claustrophobic as a 737 could be, too, with our row devoid of windows, making it worse. I endured it, barely. Not fun. Not comfortable. And way too hot.  Arrived Kunming 20-30 minutes behind schedule.

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Kunming Airport arrival hall

After finding our overnight hotel in a small suburb of Kunming not far from the airport, about which I will write in another post, we had a good night’s sleep and adjusted to the 12 hour time difference.  The following morning we took the modest local hotel’s free shuttle back to Kunming airport for our flight north to Lijiang.

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Kunming Airport dropoff entrance

The Chinese are fond of bombastic airport designs. That’s certainly true of the Kunming airport, shown above. Outside, it’s a monstrous pagoda style that somehow reminded me of the Denver Airport’s sweeping white peaks of bombast. Inside, it continues with too much bigness. As already mentioned, the airport is the 4th largest in China, serving the 3.25 million residents of Kunming and many millions more in Yunnan.

Our morning flight Kunming to Lijiang was on Shenzhen Air, which I’d booked more or less blind online.  I did not know what to expect, and I was very happily surprised!

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Priority Pass Lounge (Lucky Air VIP Lounge) downstairs at Kunming Airport

After clearing a TSA-style security screen for this domestic flight, I searched for one of the Priority Club Lounges at Kunming Airport. Turned out to be downstairs; I had to ask the Information desk to find it.

Priority Club uses the Lucky Air VIP Lounge at KMG Airport.  It’s small, but with a friendly staff and everything we needed, including a good spread of Chinese dishes. Also water, tea, juices, etc. I charged my phone and relaxed.

Even though ours was not a Lucky Air flight, the nice young Staff called us at noon for our 12:50 PM Shenzhen Air flight at gate 49 for Lijiang. Took nearly 15 minutes to walk to gate 49. There we boarded early at 12:15 PM and left 5 minutes early.

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Kunming Airport gate 49

Except for the Pagoda roof of the Kunming airport terminal in the background and the Chinese characters, the above picture could be an airport anywhere in the US. Note the Delta Airlines Sky Priority sign (for boarding Delta SkyTeam partner China Southern flights that also use gate 49).

We were flying on Shenzhen Airlines in an A320 that looked brand new inside and out. Boarding music was a Chinese recording of the great Hank Williams song, “Jambalaya” (you know: “Son of a gun, we’ll have big fun on the bayou”).  On a continuous loop, no less. The singers were struggling to pronounce “bayou” in English.

Listening to this song play, I mused that Kunming is 12 times zones away from Raleigh in a Chinese province far away from the center of things in Beijing. Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, and Tibet border Yunnan. India, Bhutan, and Bangladesh aren’t far away. Kunming should be as far from things as you can get from America. It was a bit disconcerting to see Delta Sky Priority signs and to hear a jazzy version of an American C&W song about Louisiana bayous. Even stranger to hear the Chinese woman across the aisle from me humming along with it.

The world isn’t as big as it used to be.

I sighed.  On to Lijiang in Yunnan’s northwest.

The flight was too quick to become uncomfortable in the cramped economy seats, professional, uneventful.  Just like I like them.  I’d definitely book Shenzhen Air again.

Lijiang Airport is nestled in a valley of surrounding Himalayan foothills.  It was a bumpy but beautiful drop onto the tarmac.  Lijiang Airport was sparkly clean.  Even the men’s room.

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Pristine clean men’s room stall at Lijiang Airport.  By comparison, many similar, non-airport facilities were filthy.

Random observations:

Cell service in China – Last two times we were here (2004 and 2010) I had trouble using Google or apps like CNN, NYT, WaPo, and Politico. Blocked by the government, I presumed. No problem this trip. I used Google to navigate and to make the usual queries, and I read all my news apps every day. AT&T has an agreement with China Mobile, and there seem to be few, if any, restrictions.

Plenty of militarized police everywhere, and not smiling or friendly. Not ever. No hassling, though. Just a quiet, visible presence.

The government is watching, too. Cameras everywhere.

That said, the happy and prosperous Chinese young people crawling all over Lijiang and everywhere we went (most looked young) seemed oblivious to the police and video cameras. I guess if you grew up with it…

Maybe police in China get botox injections to their facial muscles. It’s disconcerting that they never smile.

I didn’t once turn on my Wi-Fi in China after a Washington friend with lofty government credentials put the fear of God in me.  He claimed that either the government or pirates would scrape every bit of data from my phone if I used Wi-Fi, public or private.

A week later—all too soon—we found ourselves back in Kunming preparing to return to Raleigh.  It felt ridiculous to be staying that night at the luxurious Crowne Plaza in central Kunming after the modest and wonderful places where we’d rested our heads the past week. My IHG status earned us a primo 16th floor room overlooking the heart of the city, as the below photo from our balcony shows. I got a good rate through Travelocity months ago and grabbed it, so there we were.

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Kunming CBD from Crowne Plaza Central Kunming

It had been drizzling and 46° F. when we stepped off the train (25 mins late) that early evening from Dali. Inexplicably, no taxi would take us to the hotel, not far away (but too far to walk) from the central railway station. We were getting soaked, so I finally hired a tout for 40 Yuan ($6.35) to take us to the Crowne Plaza. Seemed outrageous at the moment, but of course was a bargain in the cold rain.

Kunming is located at an altitude of 1,900 metres (6,234 feet) above sea level and at a latitude just north of the Tropic of Cancer.  In 2014 Kunming had a population of 6,626,000.  The city has an interesting history.

More observations:

The government is always watching. Cameras are everywhere, backed, I’m told, with sophisticated facial recognition software. Americans probably notice it more than Chinese because of our tradition of individual freedom. Cameras flash photos of drivers and front seat passengers day and night everywhere to augment the cameras on buildings along sidewalks.

Drivers there are much more courteous than Americans. They nearly always use their turn signals, and they let people in. Maybe it’s a tolerance driven by the reality of having to live among 1.375 billion of your friends and neighbors. Or maybe just because the Chinese, behind the wheel at least, are more polite than we are.

Chinese courtesy in driving is especially interesting because, by contrast, the Chinese have little patience with queues, as we observed everywhere a queue was needed, including at airports before security and at gates before boarding.  The chaos at queues is tolerated and ignored even at airport security areas.

A lasting impression was how nice and good humored most Chinese continue to be to each other and to us, strangers in their land. And how prosperous and well-informed the average citizen appears to be. Cultural differences linger, but are shrinking rapidly.

The following morn we began our long flights home, about 25 hours en route altogether. China Eastern to Beijing, then Delta to Detroit and Raleigh, with the relatively spacious Premium Economy seats only on the 13-hour flight from Beijing to Detroit.

I splurged and took a cab at 600am to KMG due to our 9:00 AM departure on China Eastern.  It was raining and 46° F. Same as the previous evening and the same when we got to RDU: raining and 46° F. The taxi ride took about 40 minutes in good traffic (no congestion).  I am told it can take twice that or more once the morning congestion gets underway.

Once inside the airport, the signs were wrong for where to check in.  Asked airport staff until found the right place, which was not obvious.  But the check-in staff were friendly and efficient, and it was no sweat getting boarding passes on MU5703 KMG/PEK in row 32.

CE aircraft row numbering schemes don’t seem logical.  Row 32, for instance, was the second row of coach.

Turned out that the aircraft was an A330 configured with international business class (see photo).  Reserved bulkhead row ahead of us for “special” CE passengers, presumably super-elite, but no special economy section as there had been on the 737 flight to Kunming the previous week.

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China Eastern A330 international business class seats in a 2-2-2 configuration

After a fast taxi, we were airborne for just under three hours.  However, once we landed at PEK, we arrived to a Beijing Airport ramp stand only after a grindingly slow 30 minute taxi due to tarmac congestion.  Then a bus to the terminal, also slow.  China Eastern passengers in business class were put on a special cushy bus of their own that left immediately.  Once again, my Delta Platinum credentials and our premium economy fare tickets got no juice from China Eastern.

When our tarmac bus finally vomited everyone out at the terminal, we then endured five security screens to get through Immigration, the last one being the serious one.  Though we had landed at 12:20 PM, it took until 1:20 PM just to get to the 4th security screen, which was Customs.  We finally joined the Immigration queue at 1:30 and exited the 5th security screen at 2:00 PM.

At 2:10 PM, almost two hours after landing from Kunming, we found the Delta SkyTeam lounge, where we were refused entry.

As I’ve said, we were flying in Delta’s new Premium Economy , with the Beijing-Kunming-Beijing on SkyTeam partner China Eastern.  On the way over when we changed in Beijing from Delta to China Eastern, CE welcomed us into their lounge for the domestic flight PEK/KMG because it was an international connection and because we had bought Premium Economy tickets even though China Eastern has no PE cabin, at least not so far.

Yet going home, as we traversed Beijing in the other direction (China Eastern from Kunming to Beijing, Delta from PEK to Detroit), Delta staff refused entry to the three of us to the Beijing SkyTeam Lounge, saying that only I, because of my Platinum status, plus one guest, could get in. Two, but not all three of us.

I then thought that my wife could get in on her Amex Platinum Card, but they refused, saying SkyTeam Lounges don’t honor it, only SkyClub Lounges. When I pointed out that Delta international gateways in the States have lounges labeled SkyClub and SkyTeam, and the Platinum Card works there, they didn’t care and showed me the door.

This despite the fact that all three boarding passes said “PREM” on them just like the Delta One boarding passes, and flying Delta One gets each passenger into the lounge.

Infuriated and frustrated at the stupidity of such convoluted rules, I left and  found the Priority Pass lounge next door, which is the Air China First and Business Class Lounge. It was very classy, and that’s where we waited tranquilly for our Delta flight 188 PEK/DTW.

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Priority Pass Lounge (Air China First & Business Class Lounge) at Beijing Airport

After inquiring later with American Express, it turns out that, annoyingly, Amex Platinum IS only good for SkyClub lounges. So the Beijing SkyTeam staff were correct. If it’s not branded SkyClub, Amex doesn’t work

The other bit is more complicated. As a Platinum, I think I should have been offered a discount rate for the third guest.  However, I was not able to verify that.

No matter; I took Joe Brancatelli’s advice on the aggravation and went to Zen, let it go. The point was getting club access, not getting into a particular club. That’s why I value the Priority Pass. The Priority Pass club there was probably just as good as, or better than, the SkyTeam lounge.

Except for improved software handshakes between the SkyTeam partners of Delta and China Eastern to make the premium economy service we’d paid for a seamless experience, I came away from the trip confident that Chinese airline flights wholly within the country, along with Chinese airports, are consistently executing well on customer service and schedule reliability.  That’s pretty impressive.  It makes traveling by air in China for business and pleasure something we can rely upon and almost take for granted the we do in the United States.

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