I woke up 4 hours into the flight. It wasn’t because the coach class seat felt cramped but just out of sheer habit. Flying for 4 hours over the Atlantic usually means we are two thirds of the way to Europe which means its time to catch a quick movie and some brekky before landing in a European city, my usual being London Heathrow. However, something felt different and I quickly shrugged my sleep away and flicked on my seat monitor. I was flying over Alaska, just south of the Arctic Circle and I sat up straight; I had to peer out of the window to see a sight I had never seen before!
I was on a moderately new Korean Airlines Boeing 777-300 flight from Chicago to Seoul, change aircraft there and then on to Cebu in the Philippines. The monitor displayed my flight status as altitude-34,000 ft, flight time remaining, 9 hours. Nine Hours!!!! That too after having flown for four and half hours already! This was going to be a long one!
The window shades were down and the aircraft was dark so I wobbled my way to the rear where the tiny porthole on the door would allow me to see what I craved for. I looked out and the polar sun was shining bright high in the sky. The Alaskan landscape below, just north of the Alaska Range and Denali, was rugged topography with snow-capped mountains, glaciers and deep blue glacial lakes. I was hoping for a polar flight as that was the route taken by the same KAL flight the previous day, something I learnt on Flightradar 24, but, just then, the aircraft made a gentle bank to port and I quickly realised today’s route would be more southerly, over the Bering Sea.
I was still thrilled though. This was my first westbound flight over the Pacific to East Asia and after having flown over 300,000 miles over the last 4 years between India and the US through Europe, the novelty factor of flying this route was high. It looked like, however, that I was the only person on the plane who was really excited about the travel as everyone slept soundly or watched movies, some English, most Korean.
The boarding itself was a strange feeling. The flight was full of Koreans (naturally) and it seemed I was the only non-Korean or non-American passenger on the flight. I did see a couple of Filipino passengers, but that was it. I’ve been used to flying the trans-European and trans-Atlantic routes where flights are usually very multi-racial and multi-ethnic so there is a sense of familiarity in the environment. But this felt different initially. The announcements were all in Korean and then followed by heavily accented English. But, the alien environment soon began to feel more comfortable as I settled back to explore my 14-hour Korean experience. And I was floored!
I’ve flown ultra long-haul flights between North America and India, especially on United, Continental and American Airlines where the crew were on duty for the 3-4 hours into the flight and then disappeared for 6-7 hours to rest, leaving passengers to help themselves to soda, water and OJ. But on this flight I saw the crew working continuously. We were offered snacks and refreshments every 2-3 hours and they worked through in the darkness of the flight, noiselessly moving through the aisles, cheerfully helping passengers, politely excusing themselves if they disturbed anybody. It was an amazing and refreshing change!
The food was more Korean-centric which was not really a bad thing. Fried rice and pork with vegetables was easily digested and the bread was fine, although the menu was dessert-light. That is probably my only complaint about the cuisine, as fruit does not replace pudding as a dessert. Not on my table anyway! I had my first taste of Bibimbap, the unique and delightful Korean dish, complete with an instruction card on how to mix the food in steps. Having done it, it felt all too familiar to me as there is something very familiar about mixing meat and vegetables and sauce with rice to an Indian, especially a Bengali like I am!
I was glued to the exit door window at the tail of the aircraft as the rugged landscape slowly gave way to a more flat and featureless Tundra and I saw a green land for the first time, spotted with numerous arctic lakes. The flight path showed me that we would fly over the Bering Sea and then turn south over Siberia, Kamchatka, North Korea and then onto Seoul-Incheon. I guess the Captain had other ideas and I could not help but think about the Korean Airlines flight KAL 007 that was shot down by the Soviets over Kamchatka for, as the Soviets maintained, straying into restricted airspace. My flight was KAL 038 and times today are much changed, so I knew we were safe, but moments in history do creep back into the mind. After all I have flown Virgin Atlantic over Ukraine just a couple of weeks before the Malaysian Airlines flight was shot down, so fate is a strange bedfellow!
Seven hours into the flight and having left the Bering Sea behind us, as I followed the flight path, we seemed to drift more south than east, flying parallel to Kamchatka and east of the volcanic Kuril islands and Sakhalin, beyond. I could see the gorgeous island chain that forms the archipelago north of Japan and forms a disputed region between Japan and Russia. The beautiful volcanic spires rose above the morning haze of summer like a protective barrier between the warm waters of the Pacific and the much colder waters of the Sea of Okhotsk and the Kuril basin adjoining Sakhalin and Siberia. I remembered my Geography lesson on the Kuroshio warm current that flows northwards from the region around the Philippines Sea and the Oyashio or Kuril cold water currents that originates in the region I was currently flying over. The intersection of both currents around Japan is why it is one of the worlds leading fishing regions.
Geography lesson aside, the flight was relatively more uneventful now as I realized we would not be flying over North Korea and, instead, fly south parallel to Japan and then westwards, cutting over the island of Honshu towards South Korea. It was brunch time on the flight and the flight attendant asked me, most politely I have to say, to return to my seat and wait for breakfast to be served. I was delighted to see more rice on the menu and opted for the Korean breakfast with OJ. It left me feeling hungry for more as I managed to finish way it too quickly! There were still 3 hours left in the flight so I settled back in my seat and decided to spend some time in the company of Mr. Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant.