Our Trip Back to Asia During the Coronavirus Outbreak (or “My Timing Could Be Better”)

지난달

Our travel back to Mongolia after our holiday visits to the USA is usually pretty dull. Whatever small amount of anxiety I have is usually reserved for whatever unpleasantness might come from the TSA in the SeaTac airport or the Chinese government in Beijing airport. But given recent events, this time was a lot different.

The coronavirus first came onto my radar sometime around mid-January. But it wasn’t until about a week before our planned return to Mongolia that it got to the level of ‘concerning’. Our flight back was scheduled for Jan 27th with a stopover in Beijing, and as our departure day approached the news from China got steadily worse. The day before the flight, the warning signs got so bad we reached out to United Airlines to reroute our flight. While the initial representative said there wasn’t anything he could do with our final travel leg being with a non-partner flight, his supervisor was a lot more helpful. Working with him, our travel agent in Mongolia, and Miat Mongolian airlines, we were ultimately able to get the flight rerouted through Seoul at no extra charge. I’ve often said negative things about United Airlines customer service, but I gotta give credit where credit is due… United Airlines did well by us and deserves praise. I don’t think our risk of exposure would have been high going through Beijing (at that time anyway), but it was a chance we were grateful we didn’t have to take.


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The lovely view shortly before landing at South Korea's Incheon Airport


I found it remarkable how empty our San Francisco to Seoul flight was. Overall it looked only half-full, and it was hard not to think the epidemic in China had something to do with it. Still, only a minority of people were wearing masks at the time and none of the flight staff were wearing any if I remember correctly. But once we got into the Incheon (Seoul) airport it was an entirely different story. Well over 75% of people were wearing masks in the airport, including almost all the airport/airline employees.


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San Francisco Airport… Hardly any masks to be seen.


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South Korea’s Incheon Airport? Masks masks everywhere…


Other than the masks, things didn’t seem much different from last time I was there. The two notable differences were the temperature sensor stations being actively manned, and at the time we went through those said stations had a separate line for the passengers from Thailand and another line for those of us coming from San Francisco (makes sense if you want to reduce potential infection risk between travelers). The second thing that stood out was at the South Korean customs checkpoint, when one of the women a little ahead of us in line was politely escorted aside by a customs official to a separate area. I couldn’t help but notice she was holding a Chinese passport in her hand. When it was our turn going through I had expected to be asked if we’d been to China recently, but interestingly enough they didn’t bother.

Our final flight wasn’t until the next day, and unfortunately the airport staff said they wouldn’t hold and route our checked luggage to our next flight (only if your flight is less than 12 hours ahead). This was different from last time we went through Korea… either things have changed or it was a specific airline policy. We had a total of nine checked bags between the five of us, so hauling them around was a big pain in the butt (BTW I did find a place on the departures level that you can pay to hold luggage, but they have limited space). The next bit of bad news was one of our bags got torn rather badly with our things spilling out onto the conveyor. It was just a cheap duffel bag and nothing appeared to be lost, but it was still a problem to be addressed. This is where a small bit of preparation came in handy; we had on hand a couple spare trash bags and just put the bag inside and tied it off. Looked like total redneck luggage, but it worked!


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One of Incheon Airport’s friendly robot helpers. Doesn’t eat… doesn’t sleep… doesn’t catch the coronavirus. Now only if it repaired luggage…


If it were just me I’d have been okay staying overnight in the terminal. But with family traveling with me I had arranged a stay at one of the local hotels by the airport. We didn’t have a local SIM card for our mobile phones, but the staff at the airport information desk was extremely helpful in letting us use their phone to call the shuttle driver. I was sweating a bit from handling the baggage, but the woman at the desk didn’t hesitate to give me the phone to talk to the driver. At least they had disinfecting wipes on the counter for me to wipe it off afterwards.

Our wonderful customer service experience was not to last though... the hotel shuttle driver that came to pick us up turned out to be a downright ornery bastard. He immediately started complaining about how many bags we had and saying he’s going to cancel the reservation. After five minutes of arguing we eventually got him to relent, telling him there was plenty of room in the van and I’d load it all myself. Still, he bitched in Korean the whole short drive to the hotel. It turned out the ‘hotel’ was in reality just a number of rooms in one of the large complexes by the airport, so the shuttle driver was probably also the manager and/or owner. The room was decent and I didn't mind the somewhat unorthodox hotel, but the driver soured me on the place nonetheless.

My wife later asked her brother about one of the Korean words he kept using, and I could hear him laughing right afterward. But it’s all good… I was saying some rather unpleasant things in my limited Mongolian vocabulary at the same time too 😉.

While I don’t see it a LOT, the driver’s behavior is not unheard of in some parts of Asia (I’ve seen a bit of it in both Mongolia and China). If I was forced to guess I’d say sometimes it’s about getting the other party to make a concession (other times it’s just them being an ass). Still, looking back I find it weirdly amusing to see somebody like this getting worked up about mundane stuff like extra bags when one has got a growing epidemic next door.


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The business park next to the Incheon Airport. Seemed awfully dead for being rush hour…


After checking in I ventured out in search of two things: food, and a repair or replacement option for our damaged bag. Fortunately there was an E-Mart just a couple blocks away. For those who aren’t familiar with it, E-Mart is in essence the Korean version of Walmart… usually a bit smaller but much nicer. To make it even better their airport store accepts purchases in dollars, so it’s a nice alternative to finding a bank or a currency exchange shop. I picked up a hot pepperoni and fried potato pizza at their pizza counter (yeah it’s weird but potato is hardly the strangest pizza topping in Asia), a large bottle of water (the tap water at the hotel seemed questionable), and a roll of heavy-duty packing tape for our torn bag. Duct tape would have been preferable, but packing tape works well enough for ad-hoc repair to a torn bag. Or at least it does when you use up the roll to wrap the whole friggin’ bag with it! Now it wasn’t just redneck luggage… it was redneck luggage with flair! 😁

The next morning we checked out and Mr. Grumpy the shuttle driver took us to the airport… this shuttle trip was better than the last (why? because I knew it was the last time I’d have to see his bitchy mug again!). Check-in was a breeze and we finally got to send our luggage on its way. The South Korean airport security was polite enough, but one of their employees managed to drop one of our passports between the cracks in the conveyor belt feeding the trays through the X-ray machine. It took them at least five minutes to fish it out. While well-meaning clumsiness/ineptness is certainly less irritating than the surly, mild harassment common with the TSA, time-wise it turns out they both cost you about the same.

Now before we managed to get the flight changed, we set a strict rule that we weren’t going to eat any food prepared in Beijing, airline meals included. But figuring the food at Seoul’s airport was a reasonable risk (probably would feel different at this stage), I picked up some over-priced Taco Bell for the family to eat at the gate. Though we didn’t spend much time in it, the Incheon airport was a lot better than Beijing's airport. The food options appeared to be a lot more numerous and appealing, plus it wasn't cold and drafty in the winter like Beijing airport’s international terminal. So if price is roughly equal, in the future I will take the Seoul transit over Beijing every time!


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Incheon Airport is definitely one of the better airports I’ve been to.


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I’ll take Taco Bell or Quizno’s over the KFC and McDonald’s in the Beijing airport any day…


The general atmosphere on our flight to Mongolia was notably different from the previous one, with just about everyone wearing masks and everyone (except for the handful of kids) being rather reserved and quiet. Our entry into Ulaanbaatar was was unexpectedly routine, and I was a little surprised the Mongolian Customs didn’t ask if we’d been to China. I didn’t notice any temperature scanners either.

We did have a moment of panic when we came up one bag short at the baggage carousel, but it turned out it had been singled out for random inspection by the customs officials. Not the first time this has happened, and as usual we got the questions about any plans to re-sell any of the items in the bag (it’s very common for Mongolians to bring stuff in for resale, and government as usual wants their percentage!). So if you’re ever traveling to Ulaanbaatar and don’t see one of your bags, you’ll need to be persistent in questioning the customs and airport officials if they have your bag. As of this writing they inspect the bags beyond the door next to where the conveyor belt emerges, but the layout will no doubt be different whenever the new airport opens up. Still, if you can manage it try to get through customs and to the baggage area as early as you can. Just like anywhere else there are opportunists willing to “add an extra bag” to their cart when leaving.

Looking back, I still think had we gone through Beijing as originally planned we probably would have been okay. There were some passengers on that flight and thus far there have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus here in Mongolia (though it’s worth noting just a couple days later Mongolia stopped ALL commercial flights coming from China). Regardless, getting the alternate route instead did give us a lot more peace of mind. It also kept us out of that “having traveled in China post-outbreak” category. As a foreigner with chronic allergies, I’ll stand out enough in a bad way without THAT label adding to it… 😏

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I expect any travel around Asia is 'interesting' right now. I saw some heat cameras when I was flying around back in the SARS days. Hope everyone stays healthy and that this outbreak does not get much worse. It can be scary.

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It is getting pretty crazy. Rumor has that today Mongolia's first coronavirus case was confirmed and unfortunately they died from it. It hasn't hit the official news yet, but the rumor is apparently spreading because today the supermarkets were packed. I've never seen so many people grocery shopping on a weekday before. People are stocking up...

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