In mid-August 2018, I started a new gig as a technical editor with a new client. One of the chief prerequisites of the job was that I be comfortable with frequent international travel. Upon accepting the gig, the first thing I needed to do was submit an expedited application for a 10-year travel visa for China, as I had just a few weeks until my first trip to Chengdu, China. I got that visa with just days to spare — no stress or anything!
The journey to Asia: Friday-Saturday, September 7-8
My path would take me from Portland to Seattle, then to Shanghai, and then to Chengdu — which is in south/central China in the Sichuan province.
My first flight was delayed. Not by much, but as it was already a very small layover, it was just enough so that shortly after I got off the inter-terminal train to to my departing terminal, I heard my name on the intercom. I had to run like mad to the gate and was the last person onto the plane.
The gal seated next to me was the perfect seat buddy: friendly but not chatty. We talked just a little, then we ignored each other for most of the rest of the flight. Perfect. I watched three movies, but as the power outlet at my seat didn’t work, I used my iPad (a.k.a. my entire library of books) as little as possible. I was being cautious not to deplete my battery should I need my devices later.
When I realized we were near Japan I opened the window shade to take a look, and caught some pretty cloudage.
After many hours, we finally got to the eastern edge of China. The shoreline looked very odd. Eventually I realized that this was probably due to what I’d heard about how China had been basically manufacturing land by extending their shoreline. What I was seeing made more sense in that light, but by then we’d already gone past it with me having only captured one barely-adequate picture:
As we came to the Shanghai airport, I commented to my seat buddy, who had taken many trips to China before, that the airport looked to be massive. She said that they built it and other things up quite a bit for the 2010 World’s Fair.
Once inside the Shanghai airport, I turned into a stupid American.
First you go to a machine that reads and catalogs your fingerprints, but it seemed none would read mine. After three tries, twice asking an attendant with very little English for help, I was handed a red card and told something incomprehensible. The card said, and I paraphrase, “No fingerprints taken. Go to no fingerprints line.” I toddled away, but had no idea what to do next so returned and asked the guy to just point in the direction I should go.
Off I went and got into another line. I showed my red card to an official-looking person, who indicated I should get into a different line. Soon I saw that this new line would eventually funnel me toward a series of stations, one of which indicated it was for people with the red cards – success! Eventually I was able to trade my fingerprints for a stamp in my passport.
But now what? Nobody had looked suspiciously at my suitcase or asked if I had brought any ebola-infected Florida oranges with me. Had I wandered through to the wrong place and accidentally skipped a part of the process? I wandered about, asked a few official-looking people with zero English who just waved me off, and I eventually decided that I must be okay.
There were many things I could have photographed along the way, but I had other stuff on my mind. And a few times when I thought to take a picture, I was afraid of someone yelling at me about it, so I didn’t.
Next I needed to get to my connecting flight to Chengdu. A colleague was going to meet me at the gate, which is when I could relax and just gratefully follow his lead. I wasn’t there yet, so I was still in Stupid-American-mode.
Way back before customs I had seen an area for helping people find their connecting domestic flights, but I’d wandered so far afield that I was on my own. I asked four or five people for help, clearly annoying some of them, and finally found an information desk with a helpful, competent English speaker who told me exactly where to go. Finally!
From the time I landed in Shanghai to when I was seated at the gate I’d spent about 90 minutes in almost pure bewilderment.
The gate area at Shanghai, at least in this terminal, seems designed to be as jarring and harsh as possible:
Soon, my colleague found me seated at the gate and we got on the plane for Chengdu, but by now I was pretty fried.
My boarding pass said my seat was 45LC. On one said of the aisle were seats A, B, and C. On the other side were seats J, K, and L. First, I settled in seat C until someone let me know I was in their seat, so I moved across the aisle — until someone said I was in their seat, so I scooched to the window seat. All the while, there were several teenage girls two rows behind me who were angrily screaming at each other in Chinese to the point that it seemed like it might turn into a fist fight. Luckily they calmed down soon after take-off.
It was a weird flight. I was very amused listening to the announcements: in English “Seatbelts please,” then in Mandarin a full 30 seconds of speaking, presumably to instruct passengers to make sure their seat belts are on. Either Chinese is a very inefficient language, or they were giving the Chinese-speaking passengers a lot more information!
By the time we got to Chengdu and got outside to look for a taxi, it was well after midnight on Sunday morning, in local time. As we walked out of the terminal, we were approached by freelance drivers every minute or so who offered to give us a ride outside. This is, of course, outside of the official taxi system, so is a bit risky. We kept insisting that we’d take a real taxi, until we saw the line with easily a hundred or more people in it, all waiting for a taxi. We turned around and headed back to the freelancers.
The next guy who asked, we said yes. We told him the address, he told us a price (130 yuan — about $19), and we were off on a long walk to his car in a far distant parking lot. A part of me was a litle worried, but the rest of me was just enjoying being able to go on a long walk! Once inside the car, the taxi driver said “Smoke?” and held a cigarette pack. My colleague/travel companion, an asthma sufferer, said No to what we both had assumed was a request for permission; but a moment later the driver lit up. We opened the windows. Twenty minutes later we got to the hotel. [Note: I would not have taken the freelance un-taxi ride had I been traveling alone.]
The Intercontinental is a beautiful hotel — even nicer than the JW Marriotts that I’m used to. I was too tired to think about taking pictures when I first arrived, but it is an extremely photo-worthy lobby that I knew I’d be spending a lot of pixels on. We checked in, said our goodnights, and went to our rooms: My colleague to the 26th floor and me to the 12th.
Once in my room, I figured out where to plug in all my devices, unpacked, then checked email and finished up a few things. By 2:30 I was heading to bed, although it took me a while to figure out how to turn out all the lights. I was sound asleep by 3am.
Asian jetlag: Sunday, September 9
I had set my alarm for 9:30am, but couldn’t force myself to sleep beyond 7:00. I showered and dressed, then got a bit of work done.
My room is very large and quite nice, with an odd design element: It has this strange wasted-space corridor, about 3 feet wide, all along the two window-sides of the room, divided from the room by curtains:
Here’s the interesting room-dividing structure on which the curtains hang:
The view from my room is okay, but not great:
While the skyscrapers in all their functional glory held none of my interest, which is saying a lot coming from this architecture enthusiast, just next to the hotel and visible from the vantage of my room was something that looked interesting and that I looked forward to investigating:
Very few of the photos I took from my window are worth sharing. This is because my room is only on the 12th floor, I am not facing the more interesting direction, and the air quality is so bad here that even nice views have a dull cast to them.
I went to breakfast at around 9am. As I’d noticed when I’d arrived just seven hours earlier, the lobby is gorgeous, with lots of plants, a few waterfalls, a small koi pond, and the sound of singing birds:
I filled my plate of food at the enormous buffet, then spotted my colleague having his breakfast. I joined him and he introduced me to another contractor from Japan. We chatted a bit, then went our separate ways. On my way to the elevator, I saw the source of the birdsong — there were little cages throughout the breakfast area. They were delightful, but I hoped they were released from those tiny cages into a nice, large aviary when it wasn’t time for them to sing for the hotel guests.
I returned to my room and worked on some other client projects, then my colleague called to invite me to join him for lunch. Having been with this particular client for about four years, he was kindly doing an excellent job of chaperoning me into this new gig. I was very grateful. We met in the lobby at 1pm, then went upstairs to a fine Chinese restaurant. I was amused that in China, this was called a “Chinese Restaurant.”
Chengdu is in the Sichuan province, or, as I would typically see it spelled on restaurant signs in the US — Szechuan. Back home, Sichuan food is famously spicy, so I’d spent weeks steeling myself for very spicy food. At this meal I learned two things: I’d never really had spicy food until now, and, as my brother had often said to me, the Chinese food we get in the US is a sad shadow of what they make in China.
There is a Sichuan pepper that is incredibly spicy, but that also numbs the tongue, making it a little easier to actually taste the wonderful food instead of recoiling from it. (Don’t mind my blather: I’m a spice wimp.)
After lunch we saw a lovely terrace garden and walked along a corridor that overlooks the lobby, which is hung with enormous banners with Chinese script.
I said to my colleague, “I wonder what is written on these,” and he said, “Probably: If you can read this then you are too close.”
This was in the terrace garden:
After lunch, I was starting to seriously drag. I’d traveled to Europe and Korea before so was familiar with jetlag, but this was hitting me hard. I was in China! I should be out there, exploring! But I went back to my room, got a lot more work done, then took a 45-minute nap. After my nap, which I’d expected would invigorate me, I was far more groggy and never really snapped out of it. There were no real dinner plans, so I just settled in my room for the night. I read a bit, caught up on emails, and just forced myself to stay awake. I tried to make it to 9pm, but eventually gave in and was asleep by 8:30.
Exploring Chengdu: Monday, September 10
I slept well, getting nearly seven hours of sleep. I got up at about 5am, finished up some work, then had a leisurely morning transferring photos from my devices to my computer and weeding out the chaff.
Here’s more about my room — and this is a complaint that I’ve had about a few other hotels before: as they strive to be modern, they end up going for form over function. Case in point: It was difficult to figure out where the light switches were, and then it was difficult to see which switch controlled which lights. Here is how the switches look in a semi-dark room:
In order to see which switch to use, I had to get my phone and turn on a flashlight so that I could read the tiny light beige text on the light gray background:
Or another thing: I was unable to close the blackout curtains on Sunday when I arrived after midnight. Finally figured they must be electronic, I started a search for a switch or a remote. Finally, after literally ten minutes, I saw a bank of completely unreadable switches waist-level on the wall behind a lamp that was attached to a table and thus could not be moved out of the way. Again, my camera was a required tool: I positioned the camera behind the lamp and took a picture just so I could see what was what:
One time in Chicago I looked all over for the light switches and finally had to call the front desk to ask them to send someone up to show me where they were. I had to do something similar in the London — that time the switch I was looking for was actually above the bathroom door of all places. So I guess I shouldn’t complain about things in this room too much. At least the switch wasn’t on the ceiling!
I was to meet my colleague in the lobby for breakfast, so I got there just a little early to take more pictures. When I got there, I saw that they were having a performance of tai-chi in the lobby accompanied by a traditional Chinese stringed instrument — something that they did every morning, with an open invitation to the guests to join them:
It’s actually odd. They are performing while people are walking by and even through the performance, and the cleaning people are doing the floor just as if the performers aren’t there. (I love that this woman was probably wondering why the hell this crazy tourist is taking her picture):
Breakfast was pretty great — I should have taken a picture of my plate as it was very Chinese-looking. Our first meeting started at 3pm, so my colleague and I decided to meet in an hour and go out to explore.
First we explored the shopping center behind the hotel. It looked to be a recently constructed area built to look like an old village: this is the interesting cluster of old-looking buildings I’d seen from my room.
We’d hoped to be able to shop a little, but apparently everything was closed — I later realized that it was mostly restaurants and was intended as a night spot. There was a small lake behind it (which I can just barely see when I look down from my hotel room). As we drew near, it was incredibly stinky — a reminder of the benefits of all the regulations that businesses are subject to in the US!
Next we walked to the nearby Swan Lake, which had two lovely little bridges, one of which emerged onto a busy street:
Once on the street, we walked quite a lot and saw some interesting architecture:
… and a cool sculpture:
The concierge at the hotel had suggested we visit a temple that is a 15-minute taxi ride away — so we got a taxi and headed out. Once we got to our destination, we learned that the temple was closed for some reason today until 1pm — which would have been too late since we had a 3pm meeting. So instead we wandered around in what seemed like the “real China.”
We went into a shop that sells fine tea supplies. Once the shopgirl realized we were tourists with money who really intended to buy something, she brought us upstairs to the pricey area. This stuff was spectacular, with delicate tea cups and bowls that were works of art selling for $300 on up. We had a wonderful time seeing these things, but it was too rich for us. We went back downstairs where mere mortals could afford to buy things, and my colleague bought a set of nice cups for about $35.
I inquired about some tea, and the gal offered to let us taste it. I hadn’t expected this at all, but asking to taste tea meant that we would get a mini-ceremony:
It was wonderful to watch her make the tea and serve it, and it tasted great! I completely intended to buy it, but it was $75 for a handful of ounces. I’m not really much of a tea drinker anyway, so no to that. Instead I bought a neat little canister for about $8.
By then we were pretty tired. We taxied back to the hotel and had lunch in the bar — I ordered the least spicy thing on the menu and it was about six times the amount of food that one person could or should eat (and it was very spicy!). It was very warm and muggy, and the air conditioning was definitely not up to what Americans are used to. With the long walk in the muggy air and the spicy food, I was pretty overheated. I asked for water, and was brought a nice big glass of very warm water. I was bewildered, and my colleague explained that this is typical in China. It amazes me what people take for granted, and very interesting to find these differences.
After lunch I went back to my room, moved the 125 photos I’d taken on our walk over to my computer, then then headed to the meeting. When I got back to my room after the meeting — maybe at 5:45pm, housekeeping had done a turn-down service:
The slippers were a homey touch. Instead of a chocolate or a mint on the pillow, they placed this jar of Chinese herbs on my bedside table — which I never would have recognized if I hadn’t visited a doctor of Chinese medicine back in the 1980s. I considered of brewing the tea to check it out (my room had a full tea service, of course), but I decided against it.
Before I went to sleep I filled out a huge card with my breakfast order to be delivered to my room between 7 and 7:15 the next morning, then hung that on my door.
Meetings and the journey home: Tuesday-Saturday, September 11-15
On Tuesday, knowing that someone would be knocking on my door with breakfast, I got up at 5:30 despite not having gotten enough sleep so that I could be all done with showering and whatnot. And the breakfast never came. I could have slept more! I ate a few nuts that I had brought with me and headed to my first meeting, hoping there’d be fruit or other breakfast munchies for the meeting attendees, but there weren’t. [I didn’t realize that the magnificent breakfast buffet was included with my room, otherwise I would have gone every day.]
The meetings were interesting, although easily the most completely-over-my-head content I had ever listened to. The best part of the day: In the first meeting, someone who had called in forgot to mute his phone and a room full of 100+ engineers got to listen to a maybe-3-year-old little girl chatter adorably for about half a minute, to the delight of the entire room.
In the evening there was a social function. I stayed for about an hour, ate a little food, drank half a glass of wine, and that was it. Check out the beautiful melon sculptures:
By 8:30pm, I was in my room and fighting to keep my eyes open.
Wednesday and Thursday were long, surreal days. I was in meetings from 9 to 5 on Wednesday and about half that long on Thursday. The topics of these meetings were so far over my head that I found it hilarious. I earnestly took notes and tried to follow everything that was said, as I knew eventually this would start to make sense, but, wow! Normally this would stress me out, but I know that I in no way misrepresented my background or knowledge: the client knew I would need to ramp up and didn’t really expect me to understand things at this point.
I had dinner plans with some folks on Wednesday, but they fell through, so I ended up trying an Italian place. It wasn’t great, but not awful. On my way back I stopped in at the gourmet bakery in the hotel lobby (which they called a delicatessen), and I bought a single chocolate macaroon. I didn’t expect it — but they packaged it in a very high quality box and put that in a very high quality bag and the thing cost 13 yuan… which comes to about $1.90. In US just the packaging alone would have cost at least $5.
On Friday there was a single long meeting that started after lunch, after which my colleague and I enjoyed a small meal with a few glasses of wine in the hotel bar.
Earlier in the day my colleague had received a notice from the airline (Delta) that our flight the next day from Chengdu to Shanghai had been cancelled. We spent the time while we ate our dinner trying, failing, and trying again to contact the airline — finally reaching someone and making new arrangements. Our original plans had been to leave the hotel early in the afternoon to fly to Shanghai, enjoy a several-hour layover, then head to Los Angeles in the evening to catch a connecting flight to Portland. Now, rather than add another day to our trip, we rescheduled to a flight leaving Chengdu at 7am.
Just like that, our easy Saturday travel day had just become a little bit grueling. It was about then that the waiter came to ask if we’d like more wine, “Only if we can get it to go,” I quipped. He left the table, then came right back with a half-full bottle, corked it, put it in a paper bag, and left it on the table. (The bottle didn’t appear on the bill, so I left him a big tip.)
The next day, Saturday, after leaving the hotel at 4am, we took our 7am flight to Shanghai, then spent about eleven hours waiting for our next flight to Los Angeles. Luckily for me, my colleague was a Diamond-level traveller with access to the lounge and other niceties, making our long, long, long day little less unpleasant.
By now almost brain-dead, I took very few photos, other than this wall outside of a Starbucks:
When we arrived in Los Angeles, I found the ceilings decorated with colored strings very interesting.
After a brief stay in the lounge at LAX, we flew to Portland and I was happy to see the PDX carpet once again (even though it’s not the good ol’ familiar original carpet!). It was good to be home.
[Here’s the list of all my international travels.]