Day 1: China

Seal School: Day 1

Tuesday 1 November 2011

I woke up this morning on a Monday and now, as the sun is going down, it’s a Tuesday. But that doesn’t really matter as I have a long way yet to go.

My first impression of China is the smell of fuel and dirt, reminding me of the smog I had experienced in Los Angeles years earlier. Up a ramp, through glass doors, and down a long hallway into a huge room where we are divided into Chinese nationals and foreigners. Foreigners are directed through a vast maze of cordoned pathways that lead to the customs windows. The young woman who greets me from behind the bullet-proof glass speaks a little English, smiles and checks my passport, asks for my intended destination and purpose of visit, then sends me into the terminal behind her. First thing to do is look around and get my bearings. Some head off to pick up luggage (my only luggage is the Nike duffel bag I had been using for boxing class. It has two straps that allow it to be used as a backpack—but I don’t recommend it, it’s not very comfortable used that way. Instead, I sling it over one shoulder, switching shoulders from time to time). Some line up at the kiosks for exchanging money. Since I haven’t brought American currency to turn into Chinese yuan, I follow those still moving forward down the large central aisle. I see an ATM off to one side and, as cautiously as I can (I had heard pickpockets were common), I withdraw the maximum amount it will let me take from my credit card ($475.63). I’m relieved the machine has an option for English, that it accepts my card and finishes the transaction without any problems, and that I now have enough Chinese currency in my fanny pack to last for a while. I find a security guard standing in the middle of an intersection between hallways and, in my best attempt at Chinese, ask where I can find an information desk. He responds with a blank stare. I then remember the pictures I’d seen of the big question marks in white in a blue circle above these desks and simply say “info.” He smiles and points behind me. I’m standing with my back to the counter with the big blue circle over it. In my best Chinese I say “thank you” and go over to the counter. I ask the girl, in my best Chinese, if she can speak English. With a peeved expression she replies, “What do you need?” In my best English I explain that I want to to to Hangzhou and wonder what’s the best way to get there. She points off into the distance and says to follow the “long-distance bus” signs. I had already noted, with relief, that almost all the signage was in both Chinese and English. I didn’t think about it until later how lucky I am to live in a time when my own language is considered the universal language. The signs wouldn’t have done me much good if they were all in Chinese and German or French, for instance. I follow the long-distance bus signs down aisles and around corners, and down an elevator packed with Chinese. At least they don’t stare, or even seem to take any notice of me. When I had been to Japan years earlier during college the young children would see me, tug at their mother’s sleeve, whisper, and point in my direction. Sometimes the Japanese children would just cover their mouths politely and giggle when they saw me. I guess any Chinese at the airport has already seen plenty of foreigners.

Straying From the Plan

The signs point me outside into the darkness and a dingy bus stop. Young and old Chinese stand next to the wall with their luggage, obviously waiting for a bus to arrive. Buses are parked here and there but none have any names or numbers on them. I make my way down to the ramshackle building that seems to be a bus station. This is where I depart from the plan. The plan began the week before in my Chinese art class when my teacher wrote a note in Chinese that said, “I want to take the subway to the train station.” The plan was for me to take the subway from within the airport, proceed to the downtown Shanghai train station, and take the fast train to my final destination in Hangzhou. I had already seen the schedules that said the train took about an hour and the bus took about three hours. My Chinese friends had all agreed it would be easier, and better for me, to stay indoors in the modern, clean subway and train stations where everything would be available in English. Whatever I did, I was not to go outside into the darkness where pickpockets and other undesirables, newly arrived from the countryside and unable to find work in the city, would be waiting for me. Maybe a stubborn streak was coming out, or maybe since I had already found the bus stop and didn’t feel like retracing my steps to start over in search of the subway, but here I was standing in the dark in front of a sign in Chinese that seems to be a bus schedule. I tell the girl behind the glass that I want to go to Hangzhou. She corrects my pronunciation and tells me the price. I pull out a few of my newly minted currency and she points at what she needs ($15.85). With ticket in hand I head for the sign that reads, in English, “Waiting Room.”  It is actually two rooms across the hall from each other, packed with people sitting and watching TV. I can see a ramp at the other end of the room so, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, I walk through the crowd, past the TV, and up the ramp and back outside to where I had started. My ticket says the bus leaves at 6:00 PM—only  a few minutes away. People are standing around, which I take as a good sign the bus hadn’t come early, so I stand with them. After a few minutes I notice a man in uniform (I don’t know what kind of uniform) sitting at the corner of the building. I ask him in Chinese—I think it won’t hurt to practice—if this is where I should wait for the bus to Hangzhou. Without turning to look at me he nods his head about an inch in a quick bobbing sort of way—at least I take if for a nod. But I get the distinct impression he’d prefer it if I went away, so I choose not to continue the conversation. After more minutes of waiting (it’s now well after six) a bus arrives and a young woman comes out of the bus station proclaiming loudly “Hangzhou!” With relief I hand her my ticket for inspection, board the bus, and take a seat by the window not too far behind the driver.

From Shanghai to Hangzhou

I’m one of the first on board. I had heard that if you waited in line and politely let others in front of you, as we often do in Oregon, you’d be left standing forever while the Chinese efficiently push and shove to get where they need to go. I decide to step right up when the door opens, while most of the Chinese are busy stowing their luggage in the bus luggage compartments. As the bus starts to fill someone sits down next to me, thinks better of it, and gets up again to take another seat further back. A young man in suit and sunglasses, talking on his cell phone, is not so intimidated and takes the vacant seat beside me. The bus starts out into the night and I get a good view of the airport as we circle around it. We head east on the freeway toward Shanghai. I’m used to calling them freeways at home but there is obviously nothing free about them here. Every few miles is a checkpoint across the road where vehicles funnel past windows manned by young women in uniforms who collect the tolls from each vehicle going by. On the road are BMWs, Cadillacs, and familiar Toyotas alongside every sort of pieced-together Frankenstein vehicle imaginable. Tow trucks and police are busy every few feet with the many trucks (usually trucks) pulled off alongside the road. The bus driver honks frequently as we swerve through traffic. We pass by the city and continue southwest. In the center of the aisle above the driver’s head is a monitor playing the movie Rush Hour, with Jackie Chan as a Hong Kong police officer in Los Angeles, in English with Chinese subtitles. When it ends the sequel takes its place. I had seen both movies before so try to concentrate on taking in as much of the scenery as possible. There isn’t much to see in the dark and the haze (smog?) gives everything a cinematic quality. Run-down warehouses, billboards half in Chinese and half in English, side-by-side with vast, obviously newly-built, apartment complexes make it seem like the set for a post-apocalyptic movie. Many of the buildings have turrets or towers, in a mish-mash of architectural styles—some Egyptian, some Classical, and some Italianate. Huge columned entries rise through several stories while above them castle-like ornamentation juts from the roof. It reminds me a little of the pictures I’ve seen of Disneyworld or Las Vegas all viewed through a hazy filter. I start to nod off during the ride but remind myself to stay awake. What was supposed to be a three hour trip probably takes more. Traffic is heavy, although this might have been normal, and I’m pretty sure the driver takes a detour after having to stop for a while. I’m pretty sure because he stops and turns around and for a while goes back the way we had come. There are factories along the way with terrible chemical odors. Billboards are frequent, often in Chinese with English subtitles, most with pretty girls with dazzling white teeth, often selling American or European cars. It’s clear when we approach Hangzhou as houses and factories become apartment complexes and high-rise buildings. I’m not sure if there is an official bus station—it seems as if the bus just pulls up along a busy city sidewalk and lets us out. I get into a waiting taxi just as I step off the bus and tell the driver in Chinese where I want to go. When he gives me the now-familiar blank look I pull out the directions to the College that I had written out beforehand. A few minutes later he lets me out across the street from the College main entrance. I have arrived.

  • Awake at 3:30 and leave Portland at 6:00 AM (2.5 hours)
  • Flight to Vancouver, B.C. (1 hour)
  • Layover in Vancouver Airport (6 hours)
  • Flight to Shanghai (13 hours)
  • Wait for bus (1 hour)
  • Bus to Hangzhou (3 hours)
  • TOTAL 26.5 hours

… and the day is not over yet.

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