Sunday, February 19, 2006

Leaving the Middle Kingdom

Greetings from this side of the world.

I never would have thought that the light snow I mentioned in my previous posting would end up having such profound impact on my travel plans. But it did.

We started the day with our final penthouse breakfast, this time loading up on pastries, considering the fact that food in the short term was going to be a challenge. We would be on a plane, after all.

Catching a taxi for the trip out the Maglev Train was not a problem. Our final ride was pretty good in a couple of ways. First of all, the car itself had received a coating of sun shade on the windows at some point in its past. My window was completely opaque save for a 10 inch diameter hole in the sun shade, clearly due to generations of taxi riders picking away at it. Secondly, the wet roads really afforded the driver a chance to show off his skills. We went across the town and across the Huangpu for one last time.

We arrived at the train with plenty of time to spare. It was freezing in the station, due to the fact that it was completely open to the elements. Very modern, but very frigid.

We bought tickets (100 RMB or $12 for the "VIP" section and went up the platform. A young security officer met us at the top of the escalator, checked our tickets and escorted us to the VIP Section. Everyone else was at the other end of the station, even though the difference in price was only about $4.



This sign about says it all, you're either a VIP or you're Ordinary!

The train pulled in and we boarded. It was quite impressive, and totally silent - the benefit of magnetic levitation technology. No moving parts, no wheels and no friction.


The difference between the VIP and ordinary boiled down to seating. VIP, fancy leather, two to a side. Ordinary, pretty nice fabric, three to a side.




The seats were comfortable and the cabin was absolutely silent. I wonder what it's like during rush hour? The subway was mobbed, and I imagine that someday this will be too. For now though, it runs only from Pudong out to the airport, about 40 kilometers. The station though is designed to allow it to also run in the Shanghai direction and I gather that someday it will. Perhaps it will be possible in a couple of years to catch the train at the plane and be at the hotel in 12 minutes. That though would replace the cab ride, which is really a nice "Welcome to Shanghai" when you come in.

I've included a couple of shots of the speedometer. Sorry for the focus, while the train was smooth, it was not completely smooth. My camera battery was running low and I could not get these last two shots with the flash, which would've helped. Perhaps the rapid increase in speed is better conveyed with a little camera shake?



We topped out at 460 KPH, or 285 MPH. Did I say it was fast?

A shot out the window. You really don't get a sense of the speed, except in relation to the cars that you pass. They appear to be standing still. The snow gave a nice dusting to the country side which was otherwise flat. This is the delta of the Yangtze, and like all major river deltas, there isn't much to it except miles and miles of board flat plains.

We arrived at the airport and took our place in line. Unlike most airports, the gates at this one are not open unless there is a plane to load. When it gets to within three hours of departure time, the agents come out of the team room (off to the side) and march single file to their stations. They then open the gates. I made what turned out to be a fateful decision and checked my bag knowing that I'd have to collect it at San Francisco customs. We went off to the concourse to kill some time.

The duty free zone was pretty amazing. Prada, Ferragamo and lots of liquor. Also cigarettes. Rows and rows and rows of cigarettes, entire stores dedicated to them. Amazing. Bill stopped for a Coke and I sat down across from him. The little restaurant was pretty crowded, and smoky. As we were talking, a man smoking behind him let out a lungful, and Bill's head was suddenly crowned with a halo of blue smoke - from shoulder to shoulder. That was it for me, I headed out to a duty free curios shop where I picked up a little terra cotta soldier (like the armies in Xian) for 20 RMB. We headed down to the gate where 400 of our closest friends were waiting to board.

About an hour passed and the announcement came, sort of. "Time to board" sent all 4 groups and all people to the door. The plane was not at the gate, it was out on the tarmac being de-iced. We had to ride buses. What the agent failed to mention was the fact that they only wanted the 1st class travelers and that mistake turned the boarding area into chaos. Everyone jammed the doors, which naturally opened into the crowd. One bus came, the lucky 1st classers left and then they announced a delay due to the weather! While that sank in, three more buses came up and we boarded them. So much for coordination. I think China is moving forward quickly, but often the little things throw a fly in the ointment. The bus ride was uneventful, climbing the cold, wet stairs to the big plane was not nice, but it felt good to be heading home. Got on board, grabbed my seat and then was treated to an announcement of a 1 hour delay. Seems one cannot de-ice a plane while fueling, it has to be a serial process. Now, we knew the plane was leaving last night, but why bother when you can wait until the last minute? Let's do both things in order, while time runs out. All this from a little snow. Now my connection was close - 2 hours, and I was starting to get just a bit antsy about the mess I would be facing if I missed it. Some of you know, Albuquerque is not the easiest place to get into in a pinch. What really came into quick focus for me though was that decision to check my bag. If we were late, and if I had to run, I had essentially cost myself 30 minutes of leeway. Dumb, dumb, dumb.

We did get off, about 55 minutes late and climbed quickly. Having a window on the way out was nice - I was able to see the mouth of the mighty Yangtze and as we crossed Japan with the setting sun to our backs, I could see the lights of the island's mega-cities come twinkling on.

The first meal was pork loin and potatoes. Just about everyone I know hates airplane food but I have always considered it a treat. It's not great, but considering the circumstances it's hot, it tastes good and it brings some cheer. I do miss the old metal combination spoon/fork that used to accompany the meals. Today they're plastic, and a step down in grace.

A rumor passed through steerage that the 1st classers were roasting a pig and having a luau. I didn't see any evidence of that, but it did sour the mood among the proletariat. I thought back to the Maglev sign - VIP or ordinary. I was feeling plenty of the latter.

Caught some sleep and woke of for the second meal - Ramen in a cup and the requisite dance with danger of having steaming water poured in your lap. Dozed off again and was abruptly awakened by serious pain in my right leg. The guy on the other side of my row (we thankfully had an empty seat between us) was trying to bring down the middle tray table. Only one thing stood between him and his mission - my knee cap. I mentioned this and he apologized profusely. Slept some more and woke up for the last meal - stir fried pork and noodles. The food on these flights has clearly had some Chinese influence, and I assume that's due to the 85% easterners on board.

I was treated to the sight of the sun slowly rising over the leading edge of the wing - the reverse of the sunrise I saw way back on last Sunday. The map on the movie screen showed us closing on home, over the Pacific, directly across from Eugene. The sun came up and the sky was filled with puffy white clouds. Figuring this was the perfect moment, I dialed up the 3rd and 4th movements of Ludwig's 9th and turned it up. Another life moment - the Ode to Joy as we flew over Point Reyes in a beautiful clear blue sky, heading into SFO.

By now, I'd resigned myself to missing my connection and began to mentally develop my recovery plan. For some reason, Customs was checking passports at the end of the jetway. I enabled wireless on my phone and was surprised to find a voicemail message. Dialing it up, I was treated to an automated message from United apologizing for my missed connection and cheerfully informing me that they'd taken the liberty of booking me on the next available flight. At 7 PM that evening, arriving at 10:30 PM. It was now 9:45 AM.

Handed in my customs form and went to the baggage check to wait for my bag. I still had about 35 minutes and an outside chance of making it. If only my bag would show up. Which it didn't, for exactly 35 minutes. Watching the time tick off and with my fate finally accepted, here comes my bag. Last one off the plane.

Walking out of the international terminal, I checked the screen if only to torture myself. But, Albuquerque was there, at the top of the list with a gate change and a delay. Could it be? Scheduled to leave at 10:49, it was now 10:36.

Walking really, really fast, I hit the first security check - mobbed. I explained my predicament to the guard. Checking her official TSA script, she told me to go to the next one. Trying my story there, the guard told me to get in line, I'd make it. So now I went into super fast mode and threw things on the table like a dervish. My glasses and phone flew out of my coat pocket and onto the "secure" side of the folding cafeteria tables. I was nearly tackled while trying to retrieve them, a guard finally handed them over. I cleared the check, read the gate and did an Olympic record 440 down the concourse. Of course, it was the farthest gate but I made it! Gasping for air, I handed my ticket to the agent. She blithely informed me that we'd be boarding in 30 minutes. I told her I'd just run all the way from Shanghai, she said "You didn't....where's Shanghai?"

I knew I was in America.

One last little tidbit from my great adventure. Recall in the very first post that the Canadair 700 does not have room for carry-ons, they collect them at the end of the jetway. No different this time, I was handed a ticket as I crossed the tarmac (another outside boarding) and walked my bag over to a pile of suitcases. A middle-aged Japanese man was doing the same but didn't quite get the drill. He looked at the pile and continued to walk toward the stairs. I told him he had to leave his bag there and that there was no room on-board. He understood and left it, boarding the plane in front of me. The ride to Albuquerque was uneventful. I nodded as we flew across the center of the Grand Canyon. As we left the plane, I moved to the side to wait for my bag and the Japanese man came off and stepped up to join the queue. He took a look out of the jetway window and said, "This is not Burbank."

And no, it wasn't.

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