I’m sitting in O’Hare now waiting for my baggage to come out. I picked up a netbook in HK and am so glad I did. It’s perfect for blogging or answering emails in brief moments like this when my iPhone is kind of a pain but bringing out my behemoth laptop sounds a little frightening. I think this little guy will actually see more use than my laptop in the near future.
Getting home was trickier than I thought it would be, but thanks to my awesome operator and travel manager Adam I made it home in one piece, or at least back to O’Hare, and I assume I can make it the rest of the way.
Because I flew as a “companion” of Adam’s it meant that my flights were super cheap compared to for realz international tickets. The downside was that I had to fly standby. When I went to Beijing, I took a bus to Chicago then flew direct from there. Because I flew out at the beginning of Easter weekend, very few Americans were headed abroad and so I was upgraded to a mostly empty business class. However, I would not again be met with such luck.
I spent the last week in Hong Kong hanging out with Frankie and her family and bumming around CUHK. There is a direct flight from HK to Chicago, and it looked to usually have open seats. On Sunday I headed to the airport and registered for the flight.
Ok bag just came out on the luggage claim in Chicago; I’m going to go grab it.
Alright, now I’m sitting on the CTA headed back in to Chicago. I suppose I could just write this as though it was all written in one cohesive narrative, but since I think I write these more for myself than for readers (sorry 3 people who read this), I like to include details for my own enjoyment later.
I just overheard a foreign language and looked up to see two Asian girls on the train with me. One is holding a guidebook that looks like it’s in Korean. My usual jealousy of tourists is a bit tempered by my desire to get home, but still it’s hard not to envy somebody whose journey is just beginning as mine draws to a close. Alright, back to the HK narrative.
I was listed for the flight on Sunday, and had even gotten a celebratory text from Adam indicating his confidence in my making the flight as the check-in agent came over to tell me I had not made the flight due to weight restrictions. I talked to Adam, and evidently for whatever reason most flights out of HK go off with 5 empty seats, but are at the weight limit, so what looked like pretty easy flights to get on were actually packed to the max. The next week from HK didn’t look good, and I knew I had to make it home by Friday for my friend’s wedding.
Fortunately Frankie stayed with me the whole time, so when my plans changed we just turned around and grabbed a bus to go meet her parents. While I rode, Adam investigated flights from Shanghai, Beijing, and Tokyo, and thought that Shanghai looked best. However, the window was small. Monday from Shanghai I would have a decent chance, but for the rest of the week it looked very tight.
Once I met up with Frankie’s parents, her dad helped me to buy a ticket from Hong Kong back to Shanghai. Fortunately I have a multi-entry Chinese visa that doesn’t expire for another week, so I would be able to land in Shanghai, go out through immigration, clear customs, collect my bag, change terminals, check back in, go back through exit immigration and customs, and then hopefully make my flight. I started to relax once we found a relatively cheap ticket for me to Shanghai early the next morning.
We spent the rest of the day hanging out at the mall where I bought a Samsung phone that runs Android. I haven’t played with it yet using my ATT SIM (though I verified that it works), but even over WiFi it was pretty damn cool. It’s a lower end Android phone so it doesn’t have huge performance benefits over my iPhone, but Google Voice integration is sweet. I’m looking forward to skipping the awkwardness when people ask me to give them my number by calling them, and I have to explain that the caller ID my phone shows is inconsistent with the number I want them to call.
For dinner we had pizza hut which was actually really awesome. The variety that Frankie ordered had thousand island dressing for sauce, which sounded kind of crazy but turned out to be super tasty. We got some huge crazy meal that came with chicken wings, pork chops, and garlic bread. As we chowed down I became reacquainted with a facet of American eating that I had started to forget: as we ate I got progressively more and more tired, but it was delicious! After dinner we hung out, watched Extract and Arrested Development, then went to bed.
Early Monday morning (it’s still Monday but this is going to be like a 35 hour long Monday for me), Frankie’s dad drove me to the airport. I actually had a seat for realz on this flight, so things were a little bit more straightforward as I checked in and boarded.
I landed in Shanghai and tried to quickly make my way out of the airport to get my bag so that I could come back in and check in for the flight back to the US. The airport was a ghost town, so customs and immigration lines were really short. However, I hit a snag when going through immigration. The officer gave me a quizzical look when she read my departure card and saw that for “destination” I had scrawled, “PVG airport to get bags and change airline.” I explained what was going on but she wanted to see a ticket or e-ticket receipt to back up my story. I didn’t have one since I was going to check in as a standby at the gate. After arguing for a while, she finally let me pass. I scurried out, got my baggage, and cleared entry customs which seemed kind of silly and unnecessary since I was only going to be in the country for 2 hours, but I understand that that’s how the system works.
Once I was free in the airport, time was running out and I couldn’t find the United check-in counter. I then realized that Shanghai Pudong (PVG) has two terminals, and presumably United was in the other.
This time, after a harrowing wait at the check-in counter along with all the other non-revenue standby passengers, I was assigned a seat. It was not business class, and was in fact a middle seat, but I was on board for a flight to San Francisco, and then hopefully on to Chicago.
Once I made it to my seat I discovered that I was in “economy plus” which on United means extra leg room (very comfy). Moreover, the guy who had the window seat in my row had been upgraded to business, so I moved up the arm rest, slid over, and stretched out. The flight went really well. I took an ambien at the beginning and spent some time half-sleeping half-tripping for the majority of the flight. As we neared San Francisco I sobered up and ended up watching the better part of The Blind Side and really enjoyed it. Unfortunately we started a descent right at the climax, so I’m not really sure how things turn out. I think I also watched an episode of House and some movie-esque thing called The Philanthropist that featured the actor from Rome who played Marc Antony, but those were on during my ambien trip so who knows.
In San Francisco, I deplaned, cleared customs, and made my way to the gate for a flight from SFO to Chicago that I would hopefully make. Anybody who followed my twitter or facebook feeds knows that it was a really close call for me to get on that flight. Initially there were like 60 open seats and I was number 5 on the standby list. It looked like it was going to be a piece of cake. Then, suddenly, there were 20 open seats and I was in slot number 23. Things looked grim as the line advanced. Finally, with only 6 open seats left, I somehow jumped forward as there were a couple of no-shows into the #6 slot and just barely cleared. Once again I had economy plus seating, so it was a pretty comfy flight.
From O’Hare, I took a CTA line back into the city, wrote most of this post, and then spent the evening with Adam and Mary Kate. The next morning had another close call as I was almost late for my bus, but yet again dumb, undeserved luck won out and I made it.
Just woke up, and it seems are train is going really slowly now. This leads me to infer that we must be pretty close to Shanghai by now. I slept pretty well, about as well as I could hope to sleep on the top bunk of a short bed on a train. I think I’m going to need some additional napping when I arrive at Connie’s in order to feel rested, but that sounds like it’s going to happen anyway.
Honestly, this train ride felt much shorter than my flight. To be fair, the flight to Beijing was like 2 hours longer, but the train ride felt like half the trip. Maybe the advantage is in leaving when you’re about to naturally sleep anyway.
Right now I have a queue of like 5 new blog posts sitting on my iPhone that I want to get launched, so hopefully Connie’s place will have wifi.
I’m on the train now headed south to Nanjing and then on to Shanghai (and Connie, woo!). This will be an exciting trip in travel abroad.
I bought a deluxo-seat on an ultra-modern train. These trains would be the envy of Eurorail and put Amtrak to utter shame. I guess I actually got a bed rather than a seat. The D class trains that run between Beijing and Shanghai are the pride of the fleet and boast truly flat bed experiences for those willing to shell out upwards of 600 RMB (~ $90). For those on a budget there seem to be decent regular seats more in the 300 RMB range.
It was a pretty exciting and hurried trip to the train station. Zhi hui, my new buddy from the coffee shop at Jingshan park, recommeded that I take a bus or taxi to the nearest subway station. Once I got my bearings, I opted to walk to Tiananmen West instead, failing to take into account how far North-South the Forbidden City runs.
Just finished having a tea ceremony in Jingshan park. I was “hooked” off the street by promises of coffee and tea and was quickly talked into a tea ceremony. It seemed reasonably priced and I was bored so I figured it was worth a shot. As we went through the ceremony there were definitely many points where the hostess was trying to upsell various products and teas. I was playing along with her script until she showed me a cup with Chinese writing on it and asked if I knew what it meant. I could read the beginning that said China but didn’t know the second two. She pronounced them for me and I recognized xiang mao as panda bear (or bear cat) since Jie had taught me yesterday after I showed her my awesome panda hat.
At that point we started to go a little off script, and things got a lot more interesting.
I’m writing now from the Pavillion at the top of Jingshan Park. I found my way to Tiananmen Square, or at least the South gate of the Forbidden City, then entered the outer walls before opting not to buy a ticket and skirting around the water to the East.
I was wandering around by myself on some side street when a guy outside a store started talking to me. He was real friendly and was giving travel recommendations, then came the catch as I was walked into his store to look at his art.
I got a neat lesson in Chinese art and caligraphy and learned some alternative Chinese forms of “Daniel.” Ultimately I did buy this big painting of a tiger at I’m sure not a good price, but I really liked it and was pretty happpy with it. Plus, it was on his advice that I came up here, to the top of Jingshan park. It’s this park just north of the Forbidden City. I guess it’s more of a hillside garden. It’s pretty breathtaking, and the panoramic views of Beijing and the Forbidden City are about as cool as advertised, so I guess all in all it wasn’t such a raw deal.
Independence so far is going ok, but it’s a little lonely, especially when I can’t even eavesdrop on other conversations. I need more confidence before I try eating alone; I never know what to order and when I try, everything that looked good tastes awful and vice versa. I think I’ll be meeting friends soon, so maybe I’ll just hold out in the hopes that my lost dinner in Beijing will be a good one with friends.
Last day in Beijing. I’m on the subway now headed from my hotel at PKU down towards Tiennamen Square. I’ve been spelling it like five different ways so I doubt that’s correct. Just witnessed some nice civility. An elderly couple got on the train and there was only room to stand. They were ready to stand and weren’t looking aroud expectantly. Two people got up, one near me an the other a beautiful girl across the car, and actually tapped the old folks so that they’d see a seat had been opened for them. I also got up with them and some dude stole my seat, but whatever.
I spent the evening tonight visiting Hou Hai, a kind of touristy lake-ish thing surrounded by bars, kitschy shops, and fun people. It had some great and interesting food. I had some tasty strawberry mousse, ate some kind of tasty pancake-ish thing that took forever to cook, and a bunch of crab-apples on a stick. Crab-apples are kind of yucky, but these ones were glazed in sugar, so that was cool. I could only eat about 4 of the approximately 500 crab apples on my 3 RMB skewer before I was ready to throw up a sugary mess, but it was a fun ride while it lasted. It also here that I got what will surely be one of my greatest travel mementos of all time.
People who know me well know that I have no special love for pandas. Their Chinese name, though admittedly cute, is stupid, too. Bear cat? Come on. They’re lazy, dirty, kind of mean, and yet they’re totally idolized. In all honesty I don’t have any thing against pandas, but I feel like I need to do my part to balance out all of their undeserved love. So imagine the great opportunity for irony when I saw people walking around wearing these adorable Panda heads! Ultimately I think the hat looked better on my friend Xiaobei, but I won’t post the picture of her wearing the hat so that I can continue looking cute in mine.
I’m just wrapping up work in Beijing now. Tomorrow will be my last chance to do tourist stuff in Beijing so I’m planning on visiting the Temple of Heaven, Tienanmen Square, and maybe the Forbidden City. I think its name in Chinese is much less exciting because whenever I say it in English nobody knows what I’m talking about until I point at a map, and they dismissively say something in Chinese.
Tomorrow night I’ll catch a sleeper train bound for Shanghai where I’ll hang out with Connie (and do laundry, woo!) for a couple days, then catch a train out to Suzhou. There I’ll meet Izzie, a friend of my friend Jing who will show me around Suzhou. I’ll stay there for a couple days then visit Hangzhou for a weekend. Hopefully this time around in Hangzhou I won’t be sick and my friends there won’t have to take care of me. After that it’s back to Shanghai for a day or two before I fly to Hong Kong where I’ll bum around my friend Frankie’s apartment, visit Kowloon and HK, and maybe poke around the Chinese University of Hong Kong and even sit in on a lab meeting or two. After that it’s back to Chicago for a mini-vacation with my awesome fantastic buddies Adam and Mary Kate, and then just a short ride on the Megabus back to Ann Arbor. I think I counted it up, and I’ll sleep in a total of 6 different beds on this trip before I make it back to my own. So far I’ve only been in one hotel, so it’s time for my vacation to heat up.
Because I’ll be away from the lab for 2 whole weeks (woah!) I’m going to try to assuage my work-guilt by continuing to, uhm, work remotely. Honestly I think travel is a good chance to get some good projects done on days when I don’t feel like going out. That way I can work where there’s nobody to bother me, and also not feel like a total bum when I feel lazy and don’t want to take advantage of all the awesome adventures that are waiting just beyond my hotel doorstep.
In my rambling narration to a crummy video I took on my way home tonight, I mentioned that being in China, at least where I am, kind of feels like staying at camp. The bathrooms are kind of crummy and gross, the food ranges from awesome to bizarre, not everybody is nice to you, and the paths leading around are often uneven and littered with random stuff, but despite all of the wacky environment, everybody bonds, you collect all sorts of cool and cheap tchotchkes wherever you go, take tons of pictures, and promise everyone you’ll write, but usually don’t.
I had this clever plan to start a “days without sickness in China” calendar/counter on the side of my blog, but unfortunately it would be reset at 0 at the moment. Although I’m 99% sure this is not the kind of trip-ending serious illness I had last time and is instead just a lame-o cold, I was pretty freaked out at first when I felt myself getting a sore throat a couple days ago. I spent virtually all of yesterday in my hotel room, reading Malcolm Gladwell (on Blink right now), watching the Cleveland Show on Hulu, or eating KFC that Jie graciously brought me. I only went out for about an hour for lunch, and when I got back what was supposed to be a nap quickly turned into bedtime. I’m glad that was the case though, because I quickly finished the sore throat phase of my head cold and have moved on to waning congestion. My appetite has also resurged which usually means I’m getting healthier.
Well, I should probably sign off and get some sleep to try to finish my recovery. I’m starting to sneeze rapidly, so that’s probably my cue to take some nyquil, which I happily brought in great quantities with me this time.