Wednesday, June 4, 2008

China Trip Introduced

Now that I am back in mind, body, and circadian rhythm, I feel ready and obligated to write to those I love and let ya'll share a part of my journey with me. This is going to be long, but you can read it piece by piece if you wish, it is unreasonable for me to expect you to drink such distilled experience in one gulp! Sip on this my friends, and I pray that my thoughts are clear, experiences vivid, and that you are entertained as well.

I have spent the last two weeks traveling in China. Two weeks is indeed cosmically short, only about one-fiftieth of a lap around the sun, but 14 days spent in a new land among new friends, can change a life forever. I adventured with a friend from “Unie” (that's how we found the Britons refer to college) who is a fluent mandarin speaker. She made the trip possible and proved to be a fantastic traveling companion. Traveling with a person who speaks the language helped me to experience the culture in a deeper manner than most.

For more pictures check out my Picasa album here.

The Journey

We began our trip in Seattle after Katie drove up to Pullman from Utah. We stayed with my cousins (Nathan and Emily Fitch) and Katie visited her brother the submariner. The Fitches were fantastic and I wish I could give them more than the 20 yuen fan bartered from a Chinese storekeep. On Monday we then flew to Chicago where my mother's extensive network of former voice students provided us with another wonderful place to stay. Thanks again Cameron and good luck with school!

On Tuesday/Wednesday we then flew to Shanghai from Chicago. The fourteen hour flight was made more than bearable with the help of empty nearby seats, on demand Tetris, and a fantastic selection of movies. American Airlines is a marvelous way to travel to China and I would recommend it to all those who wish to make the haul. They kept us well watered, fed, and comfortable.

It took a while for it to sink in that I was really halfway around the world. It was hard to tell at first. Everything wasn't upside-down as one would expect on the opposite side of the globe. Through the window of the airplane the same sun shone, the same lines stitched the runway, and the captain welcomed us to our new destination. The customs people greeted me in English and looked over my paperwork. It wasn't until I went to exchange money that I realized that I was in a completely different place.

I smiled at the man in the glass booth and slid my money through a little cage in the bottom of the counter. He wanted something else. What else did he need? I gave him the money, what more could he want? I give you the Benjamin's, and you give me the Maos. Dollars for Yuans. Apparently there was more to the equation and that's when I realized that I was in a different place. This was the first of many times that Katie became my voice. I needed to give him my passport first. Money was then exchanged and it finally sunk in that I it was going to be an interesting few weeks.

Day One in Shanghai

We got a Taxi from the airport (always say no to the people that ask you if you need a taxi, look for an official taxi with a meter and signage) and started the drive from the Pudong airport to East Nanjing Rd. As Katie chatted with the driver I looked through the windows. Skyscrapers towered through the haze like the trees of a steel jungle. Cars, most of them taxis, pulsed down the highway like schools of piranha, weaving around each other and jockeying to get ahead even the slightest bit. After about an hour we made it to our hotel where we checked in, dropped off our stuff, and hit the streets of Shanghai.

I remember people, scooters, and more people. I remember laundry hung over the sidewalks dripping water on my head. I remember lights, LCD signs, and the smell of street vendors steaming dumplings and frying eggs. I was in China. I had read books, seen documentaries, and talked with friends, but nothing can give you a complete picture until you have seen the grandmas gossip in front of shops filled with bike parts or two lovers walk close with entwined arms. Chairman Mao referred to the vast populace as “The Paper Dragon of China” and in Shanghai I saw the dragon's bowels.

That night we walked to the Bund. Once a great row of international ports its now a walkway where young people smoke and hawkers sell toys and tiny carvings. We looked across the river and saw the giant Oriental Pearl TV building lit up like a bulbous Eiffel Tower. We got noodles and an Ice drink, then walked back to the East Asia hotel where I fell into a windowless coma.

Our Chinese Friends

We made some friends with some vacationers from Xi'an. I only remember their English names (I'm sorry) so will now refer to them as Vickie and Amy. We met them and ate lunch together on Thursday. Vickie (the short one) came with us to the Shanghai museum and the three of us strolled through thousands of years of bronze casting and calligraphy. They also had an exhibit on Greek art installed for the Olympics. That night we saw a performance by some traditional Chinese acrobats featuring such time-honored acts as driving motorcycles around in a giant hamster ball and dancing to the theme song from Titanic. My hat goes off to the announce as well, her dress was stunning and while we often weren't sure if she was speaking Chinese or English, she presented with such confidence that we didn't really care.


Friday we went to Zhouzhuang with our friend Amy. The town is famous for three things:

  1. Its a canal town with boats like those in Venice.

  2. It has an ancient “Twin Bridge” that is oft referenced in Chinese poetry and art.

  3. It has a famous pork dish known to have saved a man's life from the emperor

I saw the canals and they indeed have boats similar to those in Venice. I saw the twin bridge, a marvelous structure, and I ate the pork. All I can say about the above is that the emperor must have been a fan of pig that still had hairy pieces of skin on it and that gave him diarrhea.

We also drank flower tea in a traditional ceremony and saw a bunch of cool households that had been restored from long ago. (I didn't write down the dates, bit I want to say at least 500 years). That night we hung out at the studio of a painter and as Katie tried her hand with brush and ink, I walked the dark streets a bit.

Two children dashed across the cobblestone and as I looked at the plaster alleyway I thought that this night was not too unlike any other night in this place for the last few hundred years. Men gathered outside their closed shops and ate noodles while playing dominoes and red lanterns threw their muted light along the canal. If the people in the nearby building where to turn off their television, I could have traveled back in time and not have noticed too much. Katie finished her painting and we drove back to Shanghai with our friend.

Separation Anxiety

Saturday was the true adventure. We decided to split up for the morning. Katie fretted over me like a mother sending her child to his first day of school. “Now where are you going?” she asked as I traced my path to Chairman Mao's house on our torn map of Shanghai. I thought I saw I little tear of pride hang from her eye as I crossed frogger style through the weaving scooters.

And then I walked. If I was smart I might have realized that it would only be like two dollars to take a taxi, but I enjoyed the stroll. I passed through shopping centers, neighborhoods, and lots of people. I was getting anxious to leave Shanghai. I saw Mao's place. He only lived their 11 months and afterwards didn't spend much time there. I read some of the signs and walked back to meet Katie.

Sacrament in Shanghai

Sunday we went to church with American ex patriots (a subject for another essay) and there made some friends with a couple from Utah. We went with Kevin and Jen to the Yu Yuan Gardens. The buildings where all in a traditional style (even though they couldn't have been more than twenty years old) and we soon said goodbye to our friends so we could make our night train to Beijing. From our hotel we took a cab to the train station. As we got out two attendants demanded to see our tickets and offered to help us with our bags. They then started to tell us that we were going to miss the train. Excitedly they told us to pay them 100 Yuan! They would help us get there on time and slow down the train. No thanks. We were 40 minutes early and made it to our sleeper fine. I wonder how many times they get foreigners with that.

I had never taken a train with a sleeper before. We shared it with two other men traveling for business. We talked with one quite a bit. His name was Zhou Ying Hui and he lived in Germany for many years before returning to China. He was very friendly and helped the ride go by much faster. I slept great and had a dream that I was a cowboy in Mongolia with a friend from high school. I wish I could remember more of it because I recall it was epic. I woke up in Beijing Monday morning ready to explore the forbidden city.