The first leg of our trans-Pacific journey back to Laos (PDX-SFO) went better than we ever expected, especially considering we’re traveling with a dozen bags and a 2.5 year old, and that it was our three-month-old, Riley’s, very first flight (and he’s got a cold). That’s not to say we didn’t encounter a few hiccups once we arrived in San Francisco, but surprisingly, none kid-related.
Given that we’re a mere seven hours into a 40-hour journey, we’ve still got lots of time for this trip to turn on us. Will the remaining 33 hours to Vientiane be so kind?
Second Leg: San Francisco, CA (SFO) to Guangzhou, China (CAN).
The skies over the Pacific are home to some of the most consistently unstable air in the world, largely due to entering and exiting the Jet Stream, and skirting powerful tropical cyclones that keep things interesting. Generally, you get a smoother (and quicker) ride west to east, than you do the other direction, largely owing to the fact that aircraft are generally beating into (or crossing) the Jet Stream for large portions of the journey.
On our outbound journey into the U.S. last August, we made record time from Guangzhou/Canton (essentially Hong Kong) to Vancouver on a B787 Dreamliner with the help of a 150 mph tailwind due to a well-positioned Polar Jet Stream, bringing our cruising speed (ground speed) up to 730 mph and getting us into YVR in 11 hours flat. B787s seem to get a lot of press for accomplishing this, such as this record-breaking flight from New York to London a year ago. We had no illusions of doing the same on this return trip, however, and judging by wind and weather forecasts, it was evident we’d be crossing the Jet Stream (or beating into it) for much of the journey, making a 15-hour flight seem more likely. One glimmer of hope, however, was the remnants of a tropical cyclone spinning counter-clockwise at lower altitudes. If we could catch that, we might shave some significant time off.
It was a rough takeoff out of SFO, barreling straight into the Jet Stream from the get-go, and remained bumpy for the next four hours.
Unlike other carriers we’ve flown with, the Chinese seem to take a no-nonsense approach to these trans-Pacific flights. They flip on the Fasten Seatbelt sign and basically keep it on for the duration of the flight, with the understanding that passengers know when it’s okay to move about the cabin (but with caution), and no one’s going to tell you otherwise unless things get really hairy.
Korean Airlines, on the other hand, flip the dang thing on and off dozens of times throughout a given flight, and expect you to strictly adhere to the light the second it goes on to the second it turns off. And God help you if you have a sleeping baby in a bassinet, cause that baby’s coming out each and every time.
China Southern? They just have a fortified strap-in system built into the bassinet, meaning no need to remove the baby.
As for the pilots, I got annoyed on my two trans-Pacific flights with Korean Air that every time we hit unsettled air, they’d flip on the Fasten Seatbelts light, then change bearing or altitude to try and avoid it. Every friggin’ time, it seemed. On China Southern, they just ease up on the throttle and beat into it. If things get too hairy, they change altitude a couple thousand feet.
Once we were settled, I decided it was time to check out the in-flight entertainment, specifically, the flight information screen (I like to follow the route we’re taking and what places we are currently flying over). I switch it on, and click “Show Nearby Points of Interest.” We’re a hundred miles of the Oregon Coast and the first thing that pops up is…
Roseburg! With a population of 22,000 and no globally significant heritage sites to speak of, Lori and I got a good chuckle that our hometown and the place we just spent the past five months featured so prominently on China Southern’s flight map (along with being the first thing to pop up!). Yay, Roseburg. On to China!
The Jet Stream jostled us around for the next four hours as we traced the coastline of Alaska. It was a relatively gentle jostle, certainly not on the rougher end, but enough to trick our bodies into thinking we were still on a plane hours after getting off. At 11:40pm Portland time, we finished up our dinner and readied Noe for bed. Riley was already sound asleep in Lori’s carrier, but Noe fought it. We thought this might be a repeat of our trans-Pacific flight in August where Noe was up for most of the flight and couldn’t get comfortable. Then, something magical happened. The little dude closed his eyes and completely passed out. At that moment I looked down at my phone to mark the time.
Happy New Year!
At least in Portland. Local time, we likely crossed that threshold an hour or two ago. This calls for a celebration! We ordered two glasses of wine and toasted the New Year and two sleeping kids on a long-haul flight. The wine was terrible (apparently, we’d been spoiled from five months of Oregon wines), but it didn’t matter.
Cabin crew collected our trays and set up Riley’s bassinet. After a late-night feed, Riley went right off to sleep. The cabin lights dimmed, and we didn’t hear a peep from either of our kids for the next six hours, during which time we watched a movie and managed to get some sleep ourselves.
About four hours into our flight, we left the Pacific and crossed over the coastline of Alaska. The jostling immediately stopped, our ground speed increased by about 100 mph and we cruised along smooth as silk over Alaska, the Bering Strait and down through Siberia for the next several hours.
After about eight hours into our flight, the aircraft made a hard bank to the right (our first turn the entire journey) and we plowed into a rough patch of air. The cabin crew took their seats momentarily. I looked at the map, and sure enough, we had just entered China. Figures.
Just under five hours to go!
We did end up catching some sort of tailwind along the way, getting into Guangzhou at 5:15am, 13 hours and 30 minutes after departing SFO (and an hour ahead of schedule). Other fun tidbits about this flight: In all those 13.5 hours we flew in total darkness, leaving SFO long after sunset and arriving at CAN before sunrise. We also left on December 31st and arrived January 2nd. I guess technically our New Years Day was shortened, but in reality, it just sort of felt like we skipped it altogether.
13-hour Layover in Guangzhou
Current conditions in Guangzhou: Cold, windy, and “foggy.”
Yep, we’re south of Miami straddling the Tropic of Cancer and we’re freezing our butts off! And best of all, we’ve just arrived in one of the biggest, newest airports in the world, on one of the largest aircrafts in use, and we get to haul our two kids, two rolling suitcases, and three backpacks down two flights of stairs, onto a shuttle bus, off the shuttle bus, up more stairs, then an elevator, an escalator and some more stairs — as we look on in disbelief as passengers depart effortlessly via jet bridges from tiny A320s. Welcome back to China!
On a more positive note, a day or two before departure we learned that China Southern offers free accommodation to passengers with layovers longer than eight hours (night or day). Our connecting flight didn’t leave until after 6pm, so we definitely fell into this category. Can you imagine a U.S. carrier offering the same? Heck, they don’t even offer hotel vouchers half the time for cancelations and delays that are the fault of the airline, never mind long layovers.
When Lori first brought this to my attention I was pretty skeptical. What’s the catch? What kind of dirtbag place are they going to put us up in? How far away from the airport are we going to have to travel? I’m very pleased to say that it was 100% legit. The process was painless, the hotel they put us up in was quite nice by China standards, and it was a 15-minute [free!] shuttle ride to and from the property. No delays, no run-around, no up-selling, no BS. The only downside of all of this is that we’d need to apply for a temporary permit to enter China, as we would be leaving the international transfers section of the airport to go to the hotel, which, from our flight back to the U.S. in August, we knew was a bit of a hassle with a toddler. Whatever the inconvenience, however, it beat hanging out in the terminal for 13 hours.
We followed the signs marked “International Transfer,” then followed the placards for “Temporary Entry Permit.” We handed over our passports and immigration cards and proceeded to wait for about 45 minutes for our passports to come back with the entry permit.
Tada! Riley’s first ever passport stamp. And it’s China, of all places.
After receiving our 24-hour stay permits and going through immigration, we followed the instructions on a little post card given to us to get to the Transfer Accommodation Counter, which was easier said than done. We checked in with the counter clerk who offered a range of accommodation, both closer to the airport or city center. We opted for being closer to the airport this time around. A year ago when we found ourselves with 12 hours during the day in Seoul, we opted to meet up with a friend and spend the day in the city center. With no cold-weather clothes to speak of, no carrying apparatus for Noe, and no stroller (we had checked it at SFO through to Vientiane), a quick jaunt into the city center seemed unlikely. We like to think of ourselves as a bit more adventurous than average, but we’re not crazy. With that settled, ten minutes and a shuttle was waiting just outside to whisk us to Airport Express Hotel.
Yep, definitely back in China.
Sorry, fam, you’ll just have to wait on that update.
We were pleased with our free accommodation, to say the least. The room was clean (before we got to it at least…)…
…and well appointed…
With only six stories and fire sprinklers throughout, fire escape hoods were still included in every room. Maybe a bit overkill under the circumstances, but why more high-rise hotel complexes around the world don’t include these is beyond me.
Sure, the fire escape hoods are a nice touch. But the real kicker in all this was the free breakfast buffet (by now it was still well before 9:30am). And a pretty darn good breakfast at that! (particularly if you ignore the sad little Western breakfast corner of white bread slices and fruit). We’re in China! And when in China, it’s hard to pass up the noodle and rice dishes, steamed sweet pork buns, potstickers, steamed pork in banana leaf, and hot tea, even [especially!] for breakfast.
Noe thought he was in heaven. And Riley? Well, he got his first taste of being a baby in Asia…
We did get a stern talking to (in Chinese) by the lady running the place about how few clothes Riley was wearing in this cold weather (the restaurant was decidedly not heated). We tried to explain that we’d left our cold weather clothes in the U.S. because we were simply transiting through this inexplicably cold place (at sea level in the tropics (what’s up with that???)) headed back to 90-degree weather in Southeast Asia (a mere 800 miles due southwest of here). But somehow I don’t think she got the message.
With full bellies, we trudged back to our room in a daze fit for a family of zombies. Lori put the arm chair and ottoman together and made a nice little bed for Riley. Noe got his own “big bed,” which he was thrilled about. We asked him if he wanted mommy or daddy to sleep with him, and he responded with an emphatic “No mommy-daddy sleep with Noe!”
Not 15 minutes later, all four of us were out cold, and stayed that way for the next 3 hours until our alarm clock woke us.
By 2:30pm, we were bundled up in whatever we could throw together, and headed downstairs to check out and catch our shuttle back to the airport. A brief stay of only about six hours total, but one that served us well.
Off to the airport!
Third (and Final) Leg: Guangzhou, China (CAN) to Vientiane, Laos (VTE)
The remainder of our time at Baiyun International was relatively uneventful. Like the previous two legs, our flight was on time, and we boarded ahead of the bulk of passengers (priority boarding for passengers with rugrats). I prefer not to board ahead of time with the little ones since it’s just more time on a plane wrangling [Noe] and keeping [Noe] busy with something. But with two carry-on rolling suitcases in tow, it’s necessary if we want to ensure access to them (i.e. extra diapers) somewhere close to our assigned seats.
We bid farewell to Guangzhou as the plane ascended into the yellow soup of Chinese “fog.” 10 minutes later, we emerged from the sheet of “clouds,” and in another five leveled off above the less carcinogenic (i.e. actual) clouds. It was good to see blue sky again.
This final two-hour-and-fifteen-minute flight was the hardest on Noe. His sheer excitement compelled his model behavior on the Portland-San Francisco leg. His sheer exhaustion on the 13.5-hour second leg meant that he mostly slept, ate, and zoned. By the third leg, he’d had it with airplanes.
I was actually a bit excited that he was having difficulties. It meant that after 37 hours of travel, I was finally able to pull out the ultimate super-dad travel gadget that I had been waiting all this time to show my Raffi-obsessed two-year-old son: The volume-limiting fleece panda headphone headband.
Noe (and I) could hardly contain our excitement. He stopped whining immediately and asked, “Please, daddy! Please! Noe please wear Raffi hat!”
I checked to make sure the volume was good, then placed it securely around his head. Ahh, silence.
…which lasted approximately 90 seconds before…
“All done Raffi. All done Raffi! ALL DONE RAFFI. ALL DONE.”
At the very least, I managed to snap a picture before the amazing panda headband earphone thing went back into hibernation in the dark recesses of my backpack. We’ll try again next trip.
What did end up keeping him occupied for the better part of the flight was a pack of magnetic squares that he had received as a Big Brother gift…and his monkey.
By this time, I peered out my window and was amazed at what I saw: The ground! I consulted the map app on my phone, and sure enough…we had just left Chinese airspace and were now over Vietnam. Under an hour left to go!
Some time later, I looked down and eyed a familiar body of water.
Well, hello Nam Ngum Reservoir. It’s been a while. Looks like we’re back in Laos!
I’ve noticed that every time we fly into Vientiane (we’ve done it a dozen times, now), the cabin is absolutely silent. Not in an eerie way, but akin to being alone in a Buddhist temple.
The air is still (we don’t get a lot of wind in this flat, low-lying, landlocked city). It almost feels as if we’re gliding, but for the constant and reassuring hum of the twin engines. Like today, half the trips into Wattay International have been at sunset — and it’s a stunner this evening. There’s a thick haze from dry-season field burning in Thailand coating the otherwise green landscape below.
We pass over the snaking Nam Ngum River before banking to the left to line with the Phou Phanang Mountains off to the right.
Suddenly, the dusty two-lane national highway (Road 13 North) passes quickly beneath us (if you blink, you miss it), followed by a sea of green — the runway is flanked by rice paddies, which, fittingly enough, are the last thing you see before the narrow lonely strip of Wattay’s single runway pass under the wheels of the plane before making contact. It’s 6:15 pm, local time — 15 minutes early.
Current conditions in Vientiane: Clear skies, light breeze, 83°F (28°c).
And just like that, we’re back!