Sunday, December 03, 2006

Tis the Season To Be Jolly - in Shanghai?

I’m not sure how to feel about my impressions from this latest trip across the sea. It’s now closing on 6 weeks spent in China over the course of the year and oddly it’s starting to feel like just any old trip. Like going to Phoenix. This struck me last night as I was waiting for my friends out in front of the Renaissance, maybe it was the cold air or the giant Christmas tree or maybe the twinkle lights in the potted plants or Santa’s sled and reindeer. I don’t know, it just didn’t feel special any more. I remember that first morning back in February when I bravely headed out to wander through New Century Park across Ya’an Xilu. It was like I was walking out on another planet. Now it’s just another home base.

This trip over was about as routine as one could possibly imagine. On the Albuquerque to San Francisco leg the most exciting thing was the guy who plopped down into the window seat next to me only to discover he should have been one row up. How you can get confused in the first 4 rows of a 10 row plane, I can only guess. But at least it broke up the monotony of loading. The only other moment came when someone in the back rang their flight attendant bell and the resulting sound was so loud that everyone on the plane jumped a foot out of their seats. We went into SFO without any further incident, not even any fog this time. Bought some books at a well stocked traveler bookstore and sat to people watch for a bit. I love people watching. Decided to take the shuttle across to the international terminal to avoid a second trip through security (although my Albuquerque search was easy, my bottle of hand sanitizer was gleefully approved by the TSA agent and there were no tractor parts salesmen or itinerant tinkers in line ahead of me. Everyone even had the correct sized baggie.)

The shuttle is good for a chuckle. You board it, drive 10 yards and get out. An easy walk, but since it’s below the jet way the powers that be must have decided that they don’t want to run the risk of having a grandma on a world tour getting sucked into a 747 engine. This time though they took us on a different route – more like 50 yards and unloaded us at the elevators. A 4 foot tall south Asian man with hennaed hair had the role of cramming us into the sole elevator for the 3 floor ride up to the concourse. “Please move forward, many more space up here. Many more room for passengers.” The elevator is one of those big, stainless steel lined freight jobbies and it is slow. Probably holds about a dozen people with their roll-arounds. We were pretty much relegated to the second group and standing there when some American woman in the back of the surge piped up and asked, “Aren’t there any stairs we can use?” She was ignored. The doors opened and the helpers pushed us into the cage using big poles wrapped in mattresses. Well, not really but it’s not the worst of ideas.

We headed for our favorite Japanese restaurant and a bowl of mouth-scalding Udon noodle soup. Next down the escalator to the boarding lounge where I ran into an old friend of mine, also heading to Shanghai. Odd that these days we run into friends in international boarding terminals the way our forbears ran into their friends at the General Store.

One advantage of traveling a lot is the upgraded status you get with the miles you accumulate. I used to be last on the plane, now I’m first. Had my favorite seat on this leg, an aisle in the center rank that butts up against the galley wall. You pay a bit of a price because the seat does not recline as far as it should, but you gain a bunch of undersea storage because there is no one behind you. This frees the area for your feet completely.

It takes a long time to board a 747 so I stood around and waited until my row filled up. Luckily I had a tiny man next to me so there was no chance of tween-seat overflow. Dodging this most dreaded product of our ever expanding society has become even more important than having on time departures.

The rest of the trip was de rigueur. Lunch after an hour or so was noteworthy only for the number of people around me complaining to the attendants that their chicken entrée was not cooked completely. Probably not the best idea, serving undercooked chicken dinners on a 13 hour flight.

We went out on time and headed up the coast – the board showing the plane’s progress (both heartening and depressing at the same time, depending on when you look at it) showed us slowly climbing the arc around the rim. We passed Juneau and headed towards the Aleutians.

The movies were mind-sucking as usual – Talladega Nights, some Robin Williams vehicle I’d not heard of along with an Ian McClellan piece of the same ilk. “The Lady in the Water”, a movie I’d had some interest in when it was in the theaters failed to engage me even as a captive audience. I focused instead on doing crosswords, reading the William Langeweische book (The Outlaw Sea) I’d picked up in SF and listening to the Stones. Nodded off for a while listening to Bach Lute Suites, the best possible music for zoning on long flights. The guy next to me sat there watching South Park on his iPod and laughing out loud.

Next up on the food regimen is the famous noodle bowl, the one part of the trip I always look forward to not only because of the pleasure of eating salty re-constituted meat but due to the delicious risk of the hot water being poured into your lap. I’ve now mastered the proper way to prepare them – leave the lid down on the bowl for at least 5 minutes to avoid eating crunchy noodles. And if you’re planning to eat them with chopsticks, it’s best to drink the broth first. Beats having to wipe off your MP3 player multiple times.

Read some more, drank some more, walked around and stopped to talk to my traveling companion, Matt some more. The bathrooms by now had developed especially sticky floors which made me wonder about the strategy of walking in there with bare or stockinged feet that most of my fellow passengers were employing. The hand towels ran out, as did the back up supply of Kleenex which meant you were now reduced to throwing the bolt and opening the latch with your cuff. Note to self - plan to put that shirt in the hotel laundry upon arrival.

The external battery I bought to drive my video iPod worked beyond expectations. I was able to watch 18 episodes of The Office while only consuming one light of four on the meter. We might not need to discuss why I chose to watch 18 consecutive episodes, let’s just leave it that the battery worked well. So well that it merrily re-charged its symbiotic friend while I was off visiting. Nice when gizmos work better than expected. Which also applied to my new 8 GB Nano – 10 or more hours of music played on it with a barely detectable decrease in overall battery reserve.

We slogged on, now making the left turn for the haul down the Pacific coast. This time we crossed the Kamchatka Peninsula to stunning views of rugged, snow clad peaks. Living in Albuquerque, every flight out takes you over the big empty, but you rarely see expanses of land without some identifiable presence of man – dirt tracks, the occasional ranch building, etc. This place was a raw as anything I had ever seen, and the view was greatly enhanced by the low angle illumination of a sinking sun. Although I was looking at it across the aisle and three intervening seats, it was about as beautiful a stretch of scenery as I have ever encountered from the air.

We crossed Japan and headed in for the landing which was very abrupt and rough and not fully expected because the monitor on the movie screen suggested that we were still 1000 feet in the air.

Off the plane and through customs without incident. I helped the 1st-timer woman in line ahead of me navigate the ATM and informed another fellow that the exchange rate was not 50 to 1 as he expected (it’s 7.7.) I educated her that here in China many of the ATMs require you to log off, lest you leave the machine available to the next person in line who in turn can help themselves to the contents of your account.

Waited a long time for our bags, generating that semi-nauseating feeling that yours isn’t coming out. Grabbed them and headed to the taxi queue which held about 1000 people. Deciding to take the Maglev train instead, we slogged back up the stairs and over to the station. Bought VIP tickets and ran our bags through the x-ray machines. Being simultaneously tired and dense, we entered passed through the entry gate before we realized that the bags exit the x-ray machine on the outside of the fenced area. A nice policeman came over and kindly tossed our bags across the fence.

We were the only two VIP travelers among 100 other riders so we had a personal escort to the VIP car. The young train lady told us to go down to the end and we dragged out bags through car after car. Finally we just sat down in an empty car of cheap seats figuring they were good enough. The train lady came up and told us “no”, the VIP section was further down the way so we headed off again. The nighttime speed on the train is “only” 300 kph so it took us a couple of extra seconds to reach the terminus in Pudong.

Construction at the station got us turned around but we found a cab and off we went. Little traffic on a Sunday night meant a quick trip across the Nangpu Bridge and out into Hongqiao and up to our hotel, festooned in the brightest holiday manner.

We unloaded, met in the penthouse and headed out to the local Italian restaurant where I had a nice dish of shells with thyme sauce – Profumata al Timo. It tasted precisely like the tomatoes and capacola dish my Mom used to make for me when I was but a lad and was loaded with small tomatoes, chunks of chicken and pancetta. Perfect remedy to the cold and blustery walk back to the hotel.

Collapsed in my room with 28 hours awake and 7000 miles under my belt, looking forward to another day in Shanghai.

No comments: