China :: Part One

China was such a foreign concept. It’s halfway around the world and places like Shanghai and Beijing only existed in history books and movies for me before the summer of July 2011.

My journey began on Friday morning. I woke up around 3:00 am, was in my car by 4:00 am and at my generous aunt’s house by 4:30 am. I was fully awake and the journey I was about to partake in didn’t yet seem real. With no sign of the sun on the horizon, I was dropped off at the airport, hugged my aunt goodbye, and proceeded cautiously into the first of many airports.

I like to take pictures, and so I nabbed a window seat first thing. I wanted to capture every moment as best as I could. Unfortunately, I’m a little shy when taking out my DSLR on airplanes, I don’t like attracting attention to myself, so before take off, I snapped a picture with my iPhone and ran it through Instagram. The sun was rising and condensation ran down the window by my seat.

China_1

It was a little after 6:00 am when my plane took off for Las Vegas. As we approached Las Vegas, I finally built up the nerve to bring out my DSLR. Most people were snoring around me and I figure they would just assume I was some chick, photo enthusiast. I snapped a few shots, not being too wild about the results, but I think one turned out decent enough.

China_over_nevadab

Rolling hills and rocky, mountainous terrains always fascinate me; a characteristic of growing up in Dallas and living in flat Kansas I suppose. I saw the Hoover Dam for the first time, a real treat flying a mile high. When we landed, looking out my window, I saw the vast land spreading out before me into the fast rising brown rock formations. It reminded me of PAY IT FORWARD and noted that the filmmakers did an excellent job of capturing the Nevada landscape. Naturally, as we taxied to the gate, I snapped a photo with my iPhone and ran it through Instagram to share.

China_1

In Vegas, I was finally feeling the effects of waking up at three in the morning and going backward in time.As I walked off the plane, hauling my two carryons behind me, I immediately foundrefuge in a narrowly built Starbucks almost hidden between the bathrooms and news stands. Given the morning hour, there was a b

it of a wait, but it was worth it. I bought a coffee, made myself comfortable by the gate, and devoured one of the three bananas I packed.

After satisfying my stomach and giving myself a caffeine boost, I talked with my mom and my friend Aisha on the phone to giving them updates on my travels. There wasn’t much to say, but it was good to hear familiar voices. Later I took out the ‘ol DSLR, snapped a few shots, but then put it away. It’s very limiting shooting in airports because I have to have my luggage with me at all times and I’m so nervous that security will think I’m taking pictures for some terrorist organization. Anyways, here are some shots I came away with. Nothing great, but, it helped pass the time.

China_nevada_airport

Soon enough, it was time to board again and head to Los Angeles. Again I grabbed a window seat, not knowing what pictures I could get as we flew toward the Pacific. It would be more first time at LAX and all I knew about it was what I saw from LOST. I really hoped that the terminal we landed in would be the same one the passengersfrom Oceanic flight 815 boarded in, but alas, that was not the cast. The flight passed without any real events worth mentioning, and I shot the picture below with my iPhone as we taxied toward the gate.

China_1

I was a little disappointed to find that the part of LAX that I walked into looked like your typical airport terminal devoid of outside exposure and central lighting, but it was LAX after all. Walking quickly I scanned the monitors for my flight to Shanghai but couldn’t find anything that resembled the information on my itinerary. Finding some cops, because they know everything, I asked them how to get to Delta’s terminal. I was told I needed to take a bus and they would drop me off in front of the entrances to the check in counters. Looking at my watch, I had about two hours to spare before my flight left for Tokyo. I hopped on the first blue bus I found and rode it unceremoniously to the correct terminal.

The first obstacle I encountered was the self check-in monitor. After several attempts, and trying to help a couple from Sweden too, I could not do self check in. I told this to a Delta lady standing around and she told me to go to special services toward her right. The line was long and full of people also trying to get to Tokyo; I was the only non-Asian in line and I got my fair number of stares. Panicking on time, I called my mom (thanks mom!) and she reassured me I’d make it on time. Finally after a handful of families with five+ members each along with all their “luggage” that were boxes and boxes of who knows what, I made my way to the counter.

I told the ticket lady what happened, that the self check-in computer wouldn’t take my passport and she says, “Well that’s because there’s a visa we have to check.” She acted like I was dumb and this was a common sense. “Ok.” I said back, handing my passport over to her. “You should have never gone to try to self-check-in.That’s not how this works,” she said.

Again I said, “Ok,” and let her do her thing. Usually I would have something smart to say back, like how there weren’t any signs saying that if you had a visa you can’t do self check-in, but I swallowed my pride and smiled at the families standing behind me.

After gaining clearance to go through security (uneventful), I found my departing gate for Tokyo and sat for a bit. I realized then that I had yet to convert my money over to the Chinese Yuan and I was hungry.

I was told that LAX had currency exchange booths in every terminal and so I set out to find one. It didn’t take much effort, and I found one behind a small wall that jutted out into the wide center walkway of the terminal. I handed over my beloved American cash and exchanged it for even more Chinese Yuan. I felt like a drug dealer. I quickly packaged it and slid it into my bag as if someone were watching me and were going to try and nab it. Anywho, food was next on my list. I wanted something healthy but gave up that plan the moment I saw a California Pizza Kitchen. This would be my last “American” meal, so I got myself a pepperoni pizza and dug in. I couldn’t finish it of course and they made me get my water from a bar across the hallway; random.

Finally, it was time to board the massive plane to Tokyo. I was in the first boarding group because I sat near the backof the plane. There were two aisles and all I could think of was the Brady Bunch movie when they went to Hawaii and did that song… I had an aisle seat, I think ideal for a 15 hour flight, and I settled down. A few minutes later however, I look to my left and see a family of three sliding in next to me. A single mom deposited her children quite abruptly onto the blue seats and I watched in horror as a boy and a girl both under the age of five started crawling toward me. The mom just smiled at me and sat down in the other aisle seat at the end of our four-seat row and left the children to play between us. Needless to say, it was a long flight.

The children were fine at first, keeping to themselves, acting out who knows what with their plush dolphin and tiger respectively, but then they started getting restless. At this point, the mom was fast asleep, and the girl kept using my left side as a pillow, side table, and trash can. I kept trying to nudge her off me, but she kept at it. Annoyingly though she kept looking at me, saying “sorry,” but then she’d just continue. She ended up falling asleep on my left arm for an hour or two. Thank goodness I didn’t have to pee.

When the girl wasn’t abusing me, I had some plane food, which consisted of some rice pilaf, salad, shrimp I didn’t touch, a random lemon, and a mini loaf of bread. I ate the rice, picked at the salad, and stowed the bread away just in case I couldn’t handle my first round of authentic Chinese food. They had movies too at our disposal and I watched JUST GO WITH IT (surprised to find Nicole Kidman in it; she was hilarious), The DILEMMA (good, but slow) and PAUL (hilarious!). I also tried watching SOMEWHERE, but the children kept looking at my screen and it was rated R, so I felt socially responsible to turn it off…darn moral complexes.

It was hard to fall asleep, so after three movies, I decided to enrich my mind a little bit and kept reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried that Ann let me borrow.

China_1

The sun never caught us; strange how that was. We just kept going forward in time flying over the mighty Pacific. I never got a peek outside, but I think that’s for the best because my mind kept wandering back to LOST.

We landed in Tokyo in the late afternoon local time as the sun was finally beginning to set. I don’t know what I was expecting, perhaps an airport decorated as if it were from TRON, all sleek and smooth and minimal, but the Tokyo airport looked like any other American airport I’ve been too. The one difference however was how eerily quiet it was.

The security was minimal and I didn’t have to remove my shoes (a plus!) and I hurried along the long corridor with everyone else. We gathered around the monitors, flashing between English and Japanese, and I finally found where I was supposed to go. Along the way to the gate I passed high-end shops like Hermes and Cartier, but didn’t bother to look. I bought a sandwich that I didn’t eat (there was mystery sauce present) and began my wait for Candice with another banana from my carryon and bottle of water.

Out of boredom I chatted it up with some other Americans who were traveling to China to work at an orphanage. Candice passed me before I registered that she was in the vicinity, but we finally found each other and were both exhausted and ready for the next leg of our trip to China. Some businessmen sat down across form us in the waiting area and bragged about China and how they’d been there before. They tried giving us advice and I tried to one-up them by saying that Georger’s dad was is a big deal in Hangzhou. I kept eyeing their McDonald’s, my stomach was growling, I wasn’t in China yet, and I broke down and asked where the McDonald’s was. With about 10 minutes before we had to board the plane to Shanghai, I walked briskly, ordered myself a cheeseburger, walked back to the chairs, ate said cheeseburger, and was ready to go.

Candice and I were two rows off from each other and I finally fell asleep on the plane. Halfway through, however, I woke up to a surprise. While I was asleep, the flight attendant had lowered my tray and served me orange juice and my in-flight meal. At first I was annoyed, but then glad to have something to eat.

After a quick two hours we were in Shanghai. A long, narrow hallway led us to immigration and we were promptly separated into two lines: one red and one green. Candice and I took our places dutifully, laughing from exhaustion, and I took a picture with my iPhone as we slowly moved forward. Apparently, you’re not supposed to take pictures while going through immigration and Candice and I couldn’t quite decide if someone near us told me to put my camera away. But to be on the safe side of the law, I did.

Immigration

The moment we stepped freely into the airport in Shanghai we were immediately greeted with airport personnel who welcomed us and kept asking if we needed a taxi or to make a phone call. One was quite insistent, but friendly, and borderline creepy on the matter, that Candice and I decided to peel off from the  crowd and try Georger’s cell. After a failed attempt, our personal airport person noticedand asked me if I had the right number and if I had the right international code. I kept saying that I was fine, I knew Georger would come for us, but we couldn’t quite shake her. Finally, Candice spotted Georger running in our direction and I abandoned our helper.

After a quick restroom break and introduction to Georger’s dad’s friend who drove us to Hangzhou that night, we loaded, sleepy-eyed into the car. I remember being impressed by the airport garage with their bright colors and smooth concrete floors, and heading out into the night. I tried my best to stay awake, to convey my excitement for being in China, but the car ride was a blur. When I was awake and had my moments of lucidity, I took out my iPhone and tried to take video and pictures. They highway that we were on was familiar; there were tollbooths and late night motorcyclists, giant billboards, etc, but what stood out the most for me were the groups of high rise apartment buildings lining the highway. The were beyond tall, clustered together, each their own color and shape. It was like looking up into the Chicago skyline, only instead of skyscrapers inhabited by big, corporate companies, they were apartments.

Two hours went by and the car slowed as we hit the main roads of Hangzhou. The night was young and people littered the streets on their electric bikes hitting up restaurants and socializing on the street corners. We veered off into a narrow road somewhere and approached the hotel we would stay at for the next two nights. Georger graciously had already checked us in, so we took the elevator to our room and nearly fell onto the beds. Georger warned us of mosquitoes and told us we’d see her bright and early the  next morning. I took a shower, Candice did a bit of homework, and we finally went to bed, completely drunk with exhaustion and with the AC blasting at 18 degrees Celsius.

The next morning would be our first day in Hangzhou.

 

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