A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Sunday, June 19, 2011

I Hate to Say Goodbye - Time to leave the Middle East

I don’t think anything prepares you for the final goodbye, and when it does come you always find yourself wishing you had more time to say all those things that were always understood but which somehow you never managed to say to the ones you care about.

I have been working in the Middle East for most of the past 12 years. First in Jeddah, then Riyadh, then Abu Dhabi and lastly in Dubai. It has been one helluva journey and I have met some wonderful people on the way and I wouldn’t have changed it for the world.

But the time has finally come when I am leaving the region and moving on to pastures new – in this case my new pastures are in Beijing, and if the visa comes through as planned I could be starting work there before the start of July.

Inevitably one looks back at the time one spent here, remembering mainly the good times, since the brain is very good at filtering out the bad; sure there were bad times, frustrating times, infuriating times… but all the good things have a habit of negating all those negative feelings.

Of course, there are some things I will certainly not miss – Dubai’s immigration officers, for instance (who have to be some of the rudest in the world); the RTA – Dubai’s public transport authority – who regular readers will know from my blogs are a total disaster area; the arrogance of some of the Emiratis; the hypocrisy that is so widespread across the entire region; the racism which is actually enshrined in law in many Arab states and which the Arabs should be thoroughly ashamed of….

I could go on; but why bother? For in equal measure there are all the good things about the region which is what I hope will stick in my memory. The tax free salaries; the fact that despite searing temperatures, it is always a pleasure to swim in the sea on any day of the year; the amazing shopping; the amazing lifestyle; the cheap petrol (in Saudi it cost around 6 pence per litre when I was there); and the fact that the Gulf is in the centre of the world in terms of getting almost anywhere you may care to go.

But it is my legions of fans that I will miss most of all – old and new; female and (a few) male. Oh OK, maybe not legions, but certainly a wonderful handful of  Filipinos, Indians, Indonesians, Chinese, Americans, Canadians, Zimbabweans, South Africans, Swedes, French, Germans, Syrians, Lebanese, Saudis, yes, and even Emiratis, Irish, Scots and Sassanachs.

Hey guys I love you all and will surely miss you.

So as I sit in the airport lounge, I can hear a great wailing and gnashing of teeth going out from across the region. Come visit me in Beijing! Yes, all of you! Not Adieu but a grand Au Revoir. Until the next time that we all will get together…..

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Dance Bars in DXB - BS catches up on his education

I think I've led a very sheltered existence – certainly during the past few years I have been in the Middle East.
I had been to a business meeting with 'Miss S' and 'Mr P' in the Royal Mirage One & Only Hotel – one of Dubai's better establishments - and by the time we emerged, S said she was absolutely famished.
P suggested we go to a restaurant on the Sheikh Zayed Road to do something about her hunger pangs and we piled into P's car and headed north.
Well, what with S prattling on the way she does, it was hardly surprising that P totally drove past the required exit (that always used to happen to me when S was a passenger in my car!) so we decided instead to go taste some real Indian cuisine in Karama. I know just the place, said S, holding a poker-straight face, casually mentioning she wanted to enjoy a "real beverage" with her food.
We headed towards Karama – one of Dubai's many "little India" suburbs – and finally piled out at the Karama Hotel. North Indian or South Indian food – that was the question; but after a little negotiating with the staff and ascertaining which had the best bar, we were shown along the corridor, a door was held open for us and our ears were assaulted from all sides by the sounds of "cheap Bollywood" – "paanwallah music" as S described it.
[If you are as ignorant as I am, then you might care to know that a typical paanwallah operates a small stall, roadside booth or push cart selling Betel leaf and areca nut, where local people generally gather around to chew and talk.]
As we rounded the corner, there in front of us was a stage area with a motley collection of females moving under flashing lights.

We were shown to a tiny table in the dance bar where all seats faced towards the stage area and very soon we had ordered drinks before we sat back to enjoy the "show".
These girls, explained S, came from small villages in the south of India. They would come over for about three months, make an absolute fortune (in their terms) and then be shipped back home again.
I say "moving" rather than "dancing" as it was clear that no one had ever shown these girls what to do. Choreographer Saroj Khan [self styled Queen of Bollywood, who teaches young nymphettes on NDTV's Nachle Ve show to do simple dance routines] would surely have wept into her Guinness.
There were 14 'dancers' in all, wearing a variety of outfits from the simply tacky to dresses that were way over the top. Two of the girls wore heart shaped breast plates over their bras; some looked like they had got dressed after the lights had been switched out; most of the girls were running to fat (one even looked like she was 6 months pregnant) and I could have sworn that one of them was a drag queen (P concurred with me).

One of the podgier looking girls looked daggers at S (who incidentally was the only female in the audience, and attracted as many glances from the rest of the motley bunch swilling beer as did the girls on stage). And if they thought for one moment that this handsome Brit would be turned on to the sight of them gyrating their hips (or whatever it was they were gyrating) then their hopes were surely dashed when they saw S lean towards me and shout something over the din of the music.
We munched on chopped carrots, a bowl of nuts, and later a platter of melon, grapes and apple slices, accompanied by kebab pieces, while the thump thump thump of the music continued relentlessly. I wondered if these girls went back to India at the end of three months with permanent hearing loss. An officious-looking well-built guy in a black suit – who I presume was the bouncer (just in case the comatose audience couldn't resist throwing something at one of the girls, perhaps?) strutted up and down looking, well, officious. He too probably went home at night with his ears ringing.
Normally around four or five of the 14 girls would perform whilst the others sat out, eyeing up the audience and sharing a private joke or two between themselves (or could this have been an act, as I am sure they could not have heard a single word uttered in that place). One of the girls kept on looking at her watch; another found herself dozing off, before a spotlight would brush over her and she would wake with a start, instantly switching on her well-rehearsed smile and pretending she was enjoying the experience.

Our waiter shouted at P, as he competed with the loudspeakers, that for a mere 100 Dhs, we could award one of the girls with a "crown" – a gold coloured plastic tiara that, P explained to me later, would let the particular chosen favourite know that you were interested in her so that at the end of the evening you could more freely negotiate other services from the poor brat. I suggested that perhaps S could pretend she was a lesbo – something that P thought a great idea – in order to liven up the place and see what the reaction would be, but for some unfathomable reason, S shied away from the idea.
One of the girls decided it was time to do a solo act. She had obviously been inspired by whirling dervishes, as she wheeled round and round throwing her hair about like a demented bit part actor in Wuthering Heights. She was rewarded after just a few minutes with a tiara and the look of relief on her face was touching – until she saw who was intending to book her favours, at which point the smile became more forced and she tucked the piece of paper that had been handed to her into the back of her knickers.
Inspired by her colleague, no doubt, another girl wearing a white dress got up to dance. (Hey dear, did your mother never tell you not to wear a black bra with a white dress???). The Bollywood number included the immortal line My name is Sheila I'm so sexy for you as a chorus to the Hindi lyric – something that could not have been more inappropriate. Whereas I might even have offered to pay her to stop dancing, someone else decided that she too was worthy of a plastic tiara, which all goes to prove that there is no accounting for taste.
Soon after that plastic tiaras were being offered up one after another, as the beer-swilling audience obviously realised that if they waited much longer they would lose their chance of a pick up. As S continued obstinately to refuse to play the part of a lesbo, it was clear that the fun would soon be coming to an end; and as the fruit and kebab nibbles disappeared off the plate, it was time to move on.
The sheer bliss of no longer having a full frontal attack on our eardrums was heaven as we walked out into the hot night air. I wondered aloud how any of those in the audience could possibly fancy any of the dancers, with those spare tyres around their waistlines; but as P pointed out, Indians like something to take hold of with their women – More bangs for your buck, as S added helpfully.
A bang with one of these girls would probably be around 150Dhs, P explained, obviously realising that my education was sorely lacking after such a long time in the Emirates. And, it turns out, almost all the Indian hotels in the area have similar dance bars devoted to matching village girl with local hustler.
Of course, to the 150 bucks, you would have to add the cost of a room at the hotel (after all, the hotel needs to get something out of this arrangement too) but it struck me what a perfectly civilised way this was of continuing the oldest profession in town. It sure was different from the way they do things in Beijing. Yet another difference between Chinese and Indians I decided as we drove off into the night.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Dubai’s RTA site needs a good kick up the *%^$#@*!, if you ask me

Regular readers of my blog will know that though I think that Dubai has made tremendous advances in its overall passenger transport system in the past couple of years, I am no fan of the Road Transport Authority which runs the service.
I am trying to put myself in the place of the hapless tourists who gullibly swallow the marketing hype of the publicity spinners and book their vacations in this city. How do they cope with getting around – apart from taking taxis to and from every possible location?
This line of thought is especially poignant for me now that I have had to sell my beloved car and travel with the masses using the aforementioned public transport. I decide to do some research to see just how easy it is to get from A to B – bearing in mind the RTA’s slogan of “Moving People” (gad – did someone get paid for thinking up that one; not to mention a subsequent stunner of a one-liner: “Get Around the City at your Convenience”?)

As I have a temporary base in a compound to the south of Ibn Battuta Mall (called Muntaza Compound) I think to myself it could be useful to know how often the local feeder bus route operates so that if I needed to get, say, to the airport, I could let the RTA move me! Ibn Battuta Mall metro station is a mere 18 minute walk away, but in the heat and humidity of Dubai, that is not something to be entertained lightly.
So I log onto the pride of the RTA site – a subsite called Wojhati, or Journey Planner. I tell it that I want to go from Muntaza to the airport. And in no time at all it tells me that I should take a number 99 bus going towards Jebel Ali to reach Ibn Battuta.

Oh dear; we have a problem already. The bus to Jebel Ali has come from Ibn Battuta already. What we actually need is a 99 going towards The Gardens, not Jebel Ali. Zero out of 10 so far! The site also helpfully mentions that the fare to the airport will be AED 4.10 (ie two tier zones). It isn’t. Due to the fact that the bus’s ‘Nol’ electronic fare system is fed by an inaccurately set up GPS system, the overall fare comes in at AED 5.80 – ie three tier zones, where it should only be two.
OK, so I am hardly going to complain at paying 5.80 instead of something approaching 100 in a taxi, but that RTA site still scores a hefty zero in my book. At least it gets the number of the bus right, even if it is going in the opposite direction!
I log on to Dubai Airport’s site – dubaiairportguide.com – and read with interest about the night buses serving the city at half hourly intervals throughout the night. Unfortunately there are no longer any night buses in Dubai – they were discontinued eons ago by the thoughtless bureaucrats who never, it would appear, use public transport themselves.

Those hapless travellers will also need to know that they have to buy “Nol” cards before using any public transport in the emirate. Where to get them though? That is the question faced daily by frustrated visitors. I look up the Dubai Airport site again. Ticket offices are located in the 10 open metro stations, it tells us.

Errrr…. Just a minute. A number of months have now passed since almost all the stations on the red line were (finally) opened – including Airport Terminals 1 and 3. So another zero out of 10 for useful information.
In frustration I eMail the web master of the site – which in fairness has asked for comments from its readers.  Within 16 hours I am sent a reply… “Thank you for contacting Dubai Airport Guide. We aim to reply to all questions or queries as soon as possible and usually within 24 hours. Kind Regards Dubai Airport Guide”

That was three weeks ago. I have stopped holding my breath!
Back to the RTA’s web site for more erudition… But their Dubai bus map is not only of such low resolution that it is almost impossible to read any of the bus routes, but worse, it is of July 2010 vintage – well before the majority of Dubai’s present bus routes were either introduced or changed. Once again zero out of ten.

The metro map is not much better. It may well list the stations on the red line, but calmly tells us that most of these have not yet been opened. Again zero out of ten.

So I turn to the RTA’s very own blog site. “Thank you for your interest in our website,” it purrs. “This page is dedicated to share our experiences related to Dubai bus [no mention of the metro I notice] where we can all share our experiences. Your comments will contribute to this blog’s success.”

I make my contribution, suggesting they update their site. But it turns out the so-called blog is moderated, and again, three weeks later there are no signs of my comments.
I turn to their picture sharing section where I am thrilled to see three pictures of Dubai buses.

 I turn to their video sharing section but as of now no one has thought to share their videos of Dubai’s buses. Shame!

Devastated not to be able to enjoy a video of a Dubai bus, I turn to the rules and regulations section and discover that under the rules of the Metro, one is not allowed to distract the driver while the train is in motion. An interesting thought indeed, given that Dubai is so proud of its driverless trains!

But friendly to the last, the site tells us that the following fines have been put in place to ensure you have a great experience on the metro. Try telling that to the very many tourists who are regularly hauled off the trains for such heinous crimes as drinking water from a bottle, or just chewing gum. I’m not sure they would really describe their experience as a great one.

But looking on the bright side, it also tells us that we must not throw any litter or spit through windows. So that comes as a great relief for all of us.
So, dear tourists – don’t say you have not been warned. Oh, and by the way, you will also most likely have read on numerous web sites that the UAE is famed for its Arab hospitality. But hey – who believes what one reads on the web anyway?
Sorry RTA – you still score zero in my book for your abysmal web and your even more abysmal ‘blog’. But think positive – at least we can all be assured that it can only get better from here on in!


It appears that it is not only the RTA's web site that is in urgent need of attention, if the signs at Ibn Battuta Metro station are anything to go by. Want to buy a ticket during the rush hour? Too bad if you want to use the automatic machine...

It is "temporarily out of order". But never mind, we can always go to the ticket office...

Oh shucks... it is closed. But no matter - there are two ticket office booths:

Whoops. There is no one manning the ticket office during the rush hour. But hey, we can always queue up for 15 minutes to buy our tickets at the Information booth opposite.
Want to let your nearest and dearest know you are gonna be a little late due to lack of facilities at the station? Too bad if you haven't got a mobile phone...

But first you have to find any other booths with a working phone (sounds a bit like London's phone boxes doesn't it!). In Ibn Battuta, there are 11 phone stations with no installed phones!
Frustrated with the station facilities and just want to get out - perhaps across the road using the footbridge? Huh! Think again! The station has only been open for some eight months - hardly enough time for the powers that be to get their escalators working, surely?

So admit it! Now you are thoroughly pee'd off? Sorry again. The loo is closed for maintenance...

Else just in case you didn't get the message, your convenience is out of service. Sorry for the inconvenience! :))

Of course this is always assuming you can get INTO Ibn Battuta station in the first place!

Oh, and BTW - is there anyone out there who can explain to me why it costs 1.80 dirhams to go from Ibn Battuta to Muntaza, but 4.10 to go from Muntaza to Ibn Battuta?

Addendum 2

OK, so maybe the powers that be read this blog? Two days after it is posted, I go along to the bus stop at Muntaza and wait for the 99.... and wait.... and wait.... and let me tell you that waiting in 45 degrees for a bus that never comes is not the nicest experience.
Eventually I hail a passing taxi and take it to Ibn Battuta (10Dhs rather than the 4.10 I was complaining about).
I then ring up the RTA's "Help Line" to enquire what has happened to today's 99. Oh hello, Mr Brian, a girl called Sarah answers. Thinks: how does she know who I am? It must have been from when I last rang up the RTA some two years ago. Obviously at least one of their computers works in this place!
I am informed that the 99 bus has been withdrawn from circulation. No announcements on the bus; no notices on the bus stops; just withdrawn. One day it is there. The next day it is not.
I ask why no one in the RTA thinks it is important to let the passengers standing sweltering in the sun know that the bus they are waiting for no longer exists. Not surprisingly Sarah has no answer.
But actually the answer is perfectly clear. It is yet another example of RTA's philosophy of Fuck the Customer - We have a monopoly so see if we care!
Customer service? Oh please - don't make me weep!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Beijing Tarts: Over the Hill at 30

There are a number of professions I think where short termism is very much the order of the day. Think back to the Olympics of yesteryear and remember those almost pre-teen girls from countries such as Romania excelling at gymnastics; how many contestants could possibly hope to win gymnastics gold when they were well past their prime by the time they had reached 16?

Or what about the legendary David Beckham, who last year every football commentator was tipping for retirement … at 35!

(And yet conversely, how many aged pop stars from the 1960s are still out there strutting their stuff when simple logic dictates that they should have hung up their microphones decades ago!)

Sometimes life just doesn’t seem fair and ageism hangs like a curse around the necks of those who would wish to fight the ravages of growing old.

I was reminded of all this on a recent visit to Beijing. My hotel was near the Embassy quarter, near Liangmaqiao station on Line 10 of the metro. There I was one evening, walking along minding my own business when this Chinese floosie sidles up to me, puts one arm around my left arm, and in the most beguiling manner, eyes all a-flutter, murmurs “You wan sexy massage yes?”

“Err, no, actually,” I riposte, taken somewhat by surprise.

“But I vely cheep. Only 1200 kuai. I spen night wid you yes? You like me. I vely good.”

She flutters her eyes again. She is indeed very cute, but I have never picked up a hooker in my life before and I don’t intend to start now. “I am sure you are very good, but I’m going back to my hotel to bed,” I say firmly trying to shake her off me.

“Yes, meester. We go bed. I vely good. You enjoy sexy massage. Vely cheap. Where you hotel?”

I continue to shake her off determinedly, deciding to appeal to her better nature. “I’m sorry, I’m tired,” I lie. “Not tonight.”

“OK then. Tomollow night. You take my card. I vely good. Vely cheap. You call me tomollow yes?”

And at that moment a bolt of lightning strikes me. How stupid am I FGS? For those that know me well also know of one of my (more) unusual hobbies, for want of a better word: I have been collecting prostitute calling cards for well over a decade!

Floosie disappears back into the shadows, only to be replaced some 50 metres along the road by another cutie. “You wan sexy massage meester?” she says, sidling up to me. “I vely cheap. For you special price. Only 800.” We walk under a street light and it is clear this lady of the night is a little older. Perhaps in her mid 20s.

I repeat that I am just a little tired but perhaps I might feel up to it tomorrow night. “You have a card perhaps?” She does indeed. She blows me a kiss and goes on her way.

The next night I am approached by two guys. “You want sexy girl? Vely young. Velllly bootiful. Beeg blests. She please you. You choose which girl. You stay here. We call girls here now. You will love these girls. Vely young. Vely cheap. Vely bootiful.”

“How much,” I find myself asking. “They vely cheap. Special plice for you. 1400 kuai. You get big pleasure. You wait here yes?”

Again I trot out my well rehearsed answer and am rewarded with a handful of cards for my collection.

And finally it dawns on me that here too we have a market that is dominated by ageism; and in which age is directly related to the price charged. For it is an unfortunate fact that Chinese women age much faster than their western sisterhood. This was explained to me by a nursing professional friend that it is down to the food the Chinese eat – something to do with the fats found in their diet that don’t give their skin the elasticity enjoyed by western women.

And this of course translates directly into the price charged. The youngest girls can charge premium prices – in this case 1400 kuai (also known as Yuan, or Renminbi – equivalent to just over $200). By the time they are in their mid 20s, the price has fallen to around 800Y. Approaching 30 and you can probably negotiate the rate right down to 400-500Y.

On one evening, I was stopped by three women who all looked like they were in their mid 30s. They were touting for much younger girls; but I didn’t realise this at the time. When I asked how much they charged for their ‘sexy massage’ they fell about laughing and was told I could have all three of them together for 500Y! But that surely I would prefer one of their very young charges?

So spare a thought for poor Zhang Xiao Qing. Xiao is a tour guide working for the CITS (China international Travel Service) HQ. It says so on her card. And now imagine something akin to a cross between Ugly Betty and Genghis Khan. For that is what poor Xiao looks like. Not that she appears too phased by this unfortunate quirk of fate. She is 35 years old (she tells me proudly) and she much prefers her evening job to simply taking tourists around in the day time.

Xiao tries to lead me into one of the information kiosks that are to be found everywhere around Beijing and deftly grabs poor Junior, miming in no uncertain terms what she will do to him when we spend the night together. “For you, only 200. For the whole night.” I wince at the thought. “OK. For you 150 for the night.” I mentally do my calculations - $23. I decline once again. “100 kuai?”
At this rate it will not be long before she is offering to pay ME for the privilege of doing everything she has got it in her mind to do to Junior. She gives me her card. Not a titillating picture in sight. Just her business card for the CITS coupled with the Beijing Air Service Company.

I am left wondering what her office says when (if) someone there ever answers her phone to a desperado asking for a ‘sexy massage’. I wonder, too, if it helps to know that our beloved Xiao is also registered with IATA?

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Flying HMMOG Airways - and living to tell the tale

I am worried. No, I mean it; I’m really worried. I have just mentioned to fellow Dubai blogger Miss Sunshine that I have booked myself a return ticket with China Southern Airlines to Beijing and her reply is beginning to haunt me. “Holy Mary, Mother of God!” she says. “Are you mad?”

It turns out that she has flown this exact same trip with CZ some six months ago; and to say she did not enjoy the experience would probably be an understatement.

I explain to her that as I booked at such short notice, my normal first choice – Qatar Airways – was full. Surely it can not be that bad, I press her. I mean, I add matter-of-factly, nothing could be worse than British Airways, save perhaps for American Airlines or Tarom of Romania? Surely?

Her reply gives me further room for concern.

I decide to do some homework. After all, Ms S may just have been unlucky. I look up Trip Advisor. It usually contains a load of unbiased reports which in the past I have found quite useful.

But the omens are not good: “possible savings aren't worth it - if you're getting cooped up in a plane for however many hours, there are a lot more comfortable and safer ways to do it than with CZ”… “You get what you pay for. Not a lot.”… “Seats are very tight; a major issue for anyone over 6 ft, chap behind me had his legs in the aisle most of the trip and can't blame him”... “Planes slightly seedy”… “I wouldn't choose to fly China Southern if I had a choice”.

But it is too late. I have booked the non-refundable ticket and I am destined to fly with them, like it or not.

I decide to think positive. Let’s do some research on the airline itself; and what better place to start than their web site. In 2009, I learn, CZ was the world’s 3rd largest airline by passengers carried. In addition, it was Asia’s largest airline in terms of both fleet size and in passengers carried. It is also the 4th largest airline in the world in domestic passenger traffic and 6th largest in scheduled domestic passenger-kilometres flown. China Southern Airlines also carries more domestic cargo than any other airline.

There you are. It surely can’t be that bad if it is that successful! China Southern Airlines is committed to providing timely, convenient and considerate services to every passenger, the CZ site continues, which provides some slight relief before I read on to one of their news releases…

Secretary of the Ministry of the size of China Southern Airlines Xinjiang Flying School: May 5, 2011, China Southern Airlines Xinjiang Branch of shares from the party secretary to the Ministry of flight segments, branch secretary of the agency to learn together the microblogging knowledge. On the microblogging definition, characteristics, uses, development status, usage and advantages of such a comprehensive understanding, focusing on China Southern Airlines, China Southern Xinjiang Branch was registered micro-blog columns set up for use, influence, etc. terms of discussion and study, it was agreed that micro-blog --- this highly malleable social media platform will surely be a new flight safety department, exchange of experiences, technical seminars, business improvement, security branding, internal communication, etc. from to the far-reaching implications. Secretary also said you should set an example, full use of micro-blog the development of this platform for sustainable security.

I think this is where I am meant to write ‘sic’ after this entry! So, errr, there you go. I’m not intending to fly to Xinjiang and hopefully the English spoken on board my flight to Beijing will be slightly more comprehensible…. Hopefully…

I turn to another section of the CZ site. Ah – here is something I can better relate to: China Southern held its sixth flight attendants recruitment competition at Wanda Square in China’s Chongqing on May 14. The competition is going to recruit 1,500 new flight attendants and it attracted 3,000 local beauties to compete for the posts.

Well, they always say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder…

I try to reserve a seat on the flight rather than take a chance I will be assigned an aisle seat. Leg room is always a problem for me on Asian airlines; none more so than with Cathay Pacific which not only has its seating laid out for midgets, but also has the most uncomfortable seats that could ever have been designed, and that have recently been installed on all their aircraft. So I get back onto the web site and press the myriad combination of buttons to try to get me to the seat reservation section.

No can do. It appears only some flights can have their seats booked online and Dubai to Beijing is not one of them. I make a mental note to arrive at the airport in plenty of time to assure myself of my necessary comforts.

Fast forward a couple of days and Dubai Airport is once again graced by the presence of your favourite blogger. I am fourth in the queue at check in and a charming check-in girl from DNATA handles my booking. She gives me an aisle seat and wishes me a pleasant journey. I run the gauntlet of Dubai Airport’s ghastly immigration officers and then settle down with my Samsung Galaxy to pass the time till boarding.

It appears that the entire flight is made up of Chinese passengers, save for two Indians, a couple of Arabs and me. As the flight is called, a surge of passengers tries to be first in the queue. The moment of reckoning has arrived….

I squeeze myself into the melee and find myself on board a brand new Airbus A330. Could I have jumped in time and space into a parallel universe? Or am I still lying in my bed dreaming my impossible dreams?

For starters the leg room is better than anything I have ever experienced in any economy cabin on any airline. (I find myself wishing, later in the flight, that the passenger immediately in front of me would put his seat back so that I can reach the pull down table with my onboard meal, it is that far away!)

Even the onboard toilets in Economy class have flowers placed in them – not plastic ones, but real carnations - which adds a nice touch.

True, the flight attendants are, as many had previously written, surly to the point of rudeness; but during the flight I do not see a single Chinese passenger saying thank you or even acknowledging the trolley dollies as they hand out drinks and meals. Breaking the mould, I venture a smile and a 谢谢 as I am handed my glass of apple juice and am rewarded with a charming smile and excellent service from there on in.

The girls, by the way, all look as if they have been picked from the ranks of China’s basketball teams, for they are all tall and slender – probably, I decide, so they can easily reach the overhead lockers that so many of the passengers have great difficulty coping with.

As the flight is not full, the passengers don’t even wait for the doors to close before wandering around looking for a better seat. A game of musical chairs ensues as one moment a middle aged woman wearing a micro skirt plonks her bottom down on an empty aisle seat, only to find on going to the loo that her place is immediately taken by an old man who is dissatisfied with his place at the back. An argument breaks out on her return, but the man is adamant that this is now his chair. Unfortunately floozie’s original chair has been taken by someone else and so the charade continues up and down the plane.

We taxi to the end of the runway and we’re off. A pre-recorded tape is played to those few of us who don’t understand the very detailed Chinese announcement being made. We cherish the chance to serve you, we are told, as the flight attendants simultaneously bow to the passengers, Japanese style. Could these girls have been trained by JAL, I wonder?

The lights are turned off for the night time take off and we are away. Almost everyone falls asleep as in common with many airlines, the heating is turned up sending everyone into a comatose state.

Twenty five minutes later the lights are turned on again with drinks being served. But the majority of passengers keep on sleeping, and I wonder if this is a deliberate ploy on behalf of the cabin staff to lighten their workload.

The courtesy wash bags with complimentary toothbrush, earplugs, eye shades and so on are handed out. One old guy, unsure what to do with his ear plugs, carefully pushes one up each nostril before seeing where others stick them. He slowly removes them and stuffs them into his ears before curling up and going to sleep.

All is now quiet on board as the lights are again turned down to almost zero. The so-called entertainment system consists of some overhead screens showing in turn a couple of Chinese films and a Harry Potter movie covered in Chinese ideograms. I don’t see anyone bothering to watch.

Some of the passengers decide to use the generous leg room to curl up on the floor, rather than adapt their bodies to the shape of the chairs. After one bolshie individual sticks her legs out into the gangway, tripping up every person brave enough to stumble up the almost pitch black aircraft, one of the attendants comes to remonstrate with her. But she will have none of this and continues cursing everyone who trips over her legs throughout the flight.

Eventually it is time for breakfast. The lights are turned up everso slightly as hot wet towels are handed out to those very few people who are actually awake at this ungodly hour. The majority continue to sleep on and are only finally woken up when the lights are switched on to full power as the trolley dollies once more start handing out the breakfast trays.

There is a choice of beef noodle or chicken noodle. Not a chop stick in sight. Just a very small fork and spoon. But the food is not at all bad as airline meals go and I, in common with the Chinese, slurp up the noodles with my mini-fork hoping the gravy doesn’t fly everywhere as I do so.

Finally a short film is shown going through loads of possible exercises that can be performed in the comfort of your seat to relieve cramped and tired muscles. This, it appears, is the moment the passengers have all been waiting for. Almost in unison the planeload of people go through their callisthenics together, waving arms in the air, bending their heads in all directions and generally having a jolly good time!

We arrive in Beijing a full hour ahead of schedule and tumble out into the old and slightly dilapidated Terminal 2 building (in complete contrast to the brand spanking new and very impressive Terminal 3).

I step back into my original parallel universe. Could this really have been the same airline that Miss Sunshine had warned me about? I make a memo to self to check at a future date that we were indeed talking of the same flight. For I would certainly fly China Southern again, even if Qatar Airways was not fully booked another time.

Holy Mary, Mother of God – what an airline!