As the Air China flight from fogged out New Delhi to the world’s biggest airport in Beijing prepared to take-off on Sunday after a 13-hour delay, my cell phone beeped. “Lots of snow, land safe,’’ messaged a Beijinger.
The public mood of contained anger at the international airport in New Delhi was a world apart from Beijing where the Chinese capital was covered with its heaviest snowfall since six decades that led to 832 flights cancelled on Sunday and schools closed on Monday.
I was among the thousands of airline passengers waiting in Delhi during the weekend whiteout. Every conversation I overheard from the lobby to the hour-long immigration queue ranted against the Delhi infrastructure. “You don’t just build an airport. You have to manage it,’’ said a mother who couldn’t find milk for her child.
Airline announcements were rare and walking to check the signboards meant losing one’s seat. Some passengers brought pillows. Some sat cross-legged on the cold floor. The lobby food counters were empty and I considered opening my suitcase stuffed with packets of soya chakli and Haldiram chivda.
Passengers stalked the cafes until a dozen burgers and bread pakoras arrived and were sold-out within minutes. Beyond security check, the cafes were stocked but buying even a bottle of water involved queuing for half-an-hour. “Have milk only for one shake,’’ said a man single-handedly taking orders, serving and billing, as I ordered a Nirula’s chocolate shake.
We finally landed smoothly on a snow-capped and calm Beijing airport at 1.30 am on Monday, watched by workers shovelling snow. Foreigners wearing kurtas and toting sequined cloth bags from Janpath disembarked, unprepared for the minus 15 degrees dawn.
Most of Beijing’s taxis stayed off the streets. The airport staff quickly formed two queues of hundreds of passengers and we stamped our numb feet to stay warm over the two frigid hours exposed to the Siberian wind. Every five minutes, a taxi was found and directed alternately to either queue. When two irate men began shouting, the staff cajoled them back in line.
The taxi drove past volunteers clearing roads to the airport. At 5 am, the cabbie heaved my suitcase through the snow, but didn’t demand a tip.
China began 2010 preparing for a winter of fuel, power and gas shortage despite talk of nine per cent growth this year. For now, residents are coping and not complaining.