Friday, August 01, 2008

Heading Back

Today dawned somewhat auspiciously with my first night’s sleep of a straight, uninterrupted 6 hours. Isn’t that always the case, you get switched over to the new time zone the day you come home? The payment for that rest though was a splitting headache that was no doubt due in some part to the severe alveolar trauma I suffered last night by way of that aspirated peppercorn.

Accompanying my the rise from my night’s rest was a beautiful blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds. I took a couple of photos of the glass-clad skyscraper across the street from the hotel as it was nicely reflecting the dawn sky to my east.



Breakfast put away and bags packed, I headed out into the humidity and asked for a cab. The doorman’s question as to which terminal through me for a moment – I’m just not used to there being two options here. I said “2” with a fair degree of conviction and double-checked my itinerary.

The cabbie headed out of the lot in the opposite direction of the way we normally come in which can mean one of two things, either he’s taking one of the other two ways to go or he’s taking me to the wrong airport. This is why I always leave early, just in case it’s the latter, which it never is. As we neared that incorrect alterative, he took the outer ring road which put us back on track.

This commute gave me an opportunity to ponder how oblivious we are when riding cabs in China. No seatbelts, little tinny Volkswagens and tons of traffic. The point was driven home explicitly when a 12-wheel construction lorry took the unusual step of attempting to smear us along the inner guardrail. Here, we hand ourselves over to these crazy-men, at home our wives and loved ones would demand the keys to our cars if we drove them to town like this.

We were doing fine until we hit the Lipu Bridge where the traffic ground to a crawl. A variety of reasons brought this on – a woman in a dead SUV, a collision between a delivery truck and a car, a guy towing a dead vehicle trying to cross 6 lanes – it seemed like every quarter mile there was another snag. Tiring of this, my guy asked me the time and took the next exit. We were going down into the streets!

It’s truly amazing how quickly you can travel when you use both sides of the street. My guy pretty much treated the inner lane of the oncoming traffic as a special use passing lane for him and him alone. The look of horror on the faces of the oncoming squad of scooters will forever be one of my fondest memories of this trip. His creative use of that special, spatially variable space between two trucks driving side by side was quantum physics worthy. As we bombed down the boulevards into places in Pudong completely alien to me, all I could think of was how each of the women I love would be fighting to stick theirs heads out the windows. It was just that nauseating.

Eventually he headed back across town towards the A20, the highway out to the airport. We were flying now, and he couldn’t contain his disgust for the regular drivers out on the street. I think cabbies here have little respect for citizen drivers who aren’t willing to put their BMW into harm’s way in order to make that next red light. With no skin in the game, how can they expect equal treatment on the road?

Back on the highway which was now pretty much flowing with ease, I gave him a hearty double “hen hao” to show my appreciation for his skillful maneuvering. He smiled and laughed. We arrived 1 hour and 45 minutes on the dot, about 15 minutes and 20 RMB more expensive than a normal ride, but not too bad considering the obstacles. I let him keep the change and told him “hen hao, hen kuai” – very good, very fast. Sometimes you get a mouse, and sometimes you get a Cheetah!

In the never ending scheme of pre-Olympics security checking actions, today they had a bomb sniffing checkpoint just inside the door. A young woman stepped up and swabbed my suitcase and handed the sample to a young man operating a mass spectrophotometer. He loaded the sample and I was directed to walk over to a set of theater ropes blocking my entrance. Satisfied that the urea levels on my bag were within tolerance, another woman opened the ropes and invited me to enter the terminal.

I forgot to mention last night that they were x-raying everyone’s carry-on bag at the entrance to the subway. Judging from the great increase in x-ray machines I’ve seen on this trip, I am wondering if the State Security Bureau got some kind of grant.

Check-in was a breeze as my special treatment line was completely empty. Security went fast too aside from my wallet which for some reason sets off the hand wand every time I go through. The guard opened it and bent it and folded it, looking for some sort of credit card sized machete. They also didn’t like the looks of something in my bag and asked if I had a lighter which of course I didn’t. I’m guessing they spotted the hand sanitizer taht I was illegally bringing into the airport (No liquids are allowed in your carry-on in China) but for some reason they decided not to push it and so, sent me on my way.

So here I am now sitting in the Business Class Lounge listening to businessmen conduct business is a whole variety of languages. Interestingly, there does seem to be an awful lot of Germans around here today.

A Coke and a mini-muffin later, I decided it was time to head down to the gate. Wandering by, I heard a page “Meester Tehwee Bwown, please come to the podium.” Apparently my Business Class upgrade had come through. Instead of printing me a new boarding pass, the agent simply scratched out my original seat and wrote in a new one. I’m sure that will be just fine.

Hanging around for a bit, the bad news came – we are delayed due to the “hot situation” in the cabin. I suppose this means it’s too warm to load the passengers and so we’re looking at an extra hour’s wait. My last trip out of here we also had a “hot situation” and we ended up not going at all. Apparently United fails to understand that Shanghai is hot in the summertime, and that it’s generally a good idea to have the air conditioner working. I don’t know if we have a mechanical problem this time or if they just forgot to turn it on this morning. In either case, it’s one more inexcusable execution error.

I wandered off to use the lav one last time figuring that I may as well. The new terminal is far better than the old one which has the bathrooms down two flights of marble stairs, about as steep as an Alp. These are on the main concourse and are very well appointed. Aside from the fact that they must have forgotten to leave a place for the paper towel dispenser and so added it as an afterthought just as you head to the entrance/exit through the serpentine maze they use these days instead of actual doors. The outcome – a pile-up of bags and people with those coming in getting jammed up with those going out. It also results in you having to use your wet hands to handle your baggage. What were they thinking that day?

The view from this terminal is exotic – big planes nosed into a modern window backed by concrete runways that give way to a green swale and finally cargo ships lazing on the dirty, mud-colored Pacific as they wait to bring their loads up the Yangtze River. It’s a premier example of a rank Asian river delta in the 21st century.

We ended up getting off about 1:15 late which would cause a world of hurt for many connecting passengers. I didn’t really think too much about it, but as it turned out I was closer than I might have thought I was.

This flight was offered not much to remember. I had a window seat and as we lifted up I was able to see much of the delta. We curved around a bit down south and crossed just over the new automobile bridge to Ningbao, the longest in the world. You could see it extending off into the hazy distance.

We crossed paths with many container ships out at sea and some island off the coast of China. Eventually we entered Japanese air space on the southern islands. The thing that is most amazing about Japan from the air is how densely packed and completely open it is at the same time. Little flat land for building, it is a highly folded piece of real estate, consistent with its violent geology.

For once I had a row mate with few foibles. I had to help him with the reading light as he could not get it to stay on. And I wondered about his profession, because each time he opened his brief case I was assaulted with a strong stink of moth balls. A traveling insect repellant salesman?

We got in lat as expected and the 1st class passengers were met by United officials who would grease the skids for them and help them make their connections. The rest of us just had to run and hope. I was first up the long lane to Immigration and then my progress stalled as there was a huge group of Chinese students taking up every line. I waited while the family in front of me was checked and double checked. The guy behind me was in a panic because he only had 35 minutes. When the second half of my line opened up I charged forward only to be told to stop – the agent was going on break. Makes good sense when you’re backed up 25 people I guess. My obstacle finally cleared and I went on to wait for my checked bag which came pretty quickly, it having been properly marked as “priority” this time.

From there it was out into the throng, for some reason the airport is mobbed today. The line to circumvent security between the domestic and international terminals had to have 200 people in it. They have a wait, as the bus only holds about 20.

Today was my first time through the Clear lane. Clear is a special pass for special people like me that allows me to avoid the long serpentines at security. A few weeks ago I was fingerprinted and retina scanned and a badge arrived in the mail following a back ground check. I walked up to the line which was empty, handed the young woman my badge, allowed them to scan my thumb and then was shown to an empty x-ray line where another agent got me a couple of bins and put my case up on the table. Judging from the rest of the lines, I probably saved ½ hour.

And so I made it to the gate with about 1 hour to spare, now it’s on to the next leg and home.

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