This trip to China started in auspicious fashion. I spent my last day with the family (wonderful time) and got everything packed the night before. As is always the case, I travel light. This is my luggage for a 5 week trip:
They don’t call it a “Chinese laundry” for nothing. PassageMaker is a relaxed place, as is most of southern China. It is too damn hot in the summer to wear a suit and in the winter everyone bundles up, so you can get away with very casual clothing. I go with black as much as possible, as China is a dirty place and it hides stains.
I got up early Wednesday morning to start the 30+ hour odyssey that is the trip from Salem, VA to Shenzhen. I was looking through my passport and was amazed at just how many times I’ve made this trip. 13 PRC Visas, many of them 12 month multi-entry. The number of trips is hard to gather from all the jumbled stamps, but it is a bunch. Rolled out at 4:45 AM for a 6:00 AM flight to O’Hare (ORD).
Even though I had checked in the night before online and had my boarding pass, I chatted up the nice folks at the check-in counter and was able to secure an “upgrade” to the “the cheapskate’s business class”, an emergency exit row aisle seat by the rear galley. Most legroom and right next to the food and water and away from the bathrooms.
As with many things in life, the food is instructive. I had what turned out to be a very nice breakfast at the Roanoke Regional Airport (ROA), an egg & cheese bagel. I’d expected some nasty microwave thing, but instead got a beautifully cooked egg that was so hot off the grill I actually burned my mouth. Good start to the day!
Whenever I travel, I try to keep it filling and bland. Acid indigestion is a bitch at 35,000 feet. Nothing but water. Alcohol and flying don’t go well together in my book.
The flight to ORD was a little bumpy at the outset, as it always is when clearing the mountains around Roanoke, but we had a strong tailwind and arrived 25 minutes early. Then had to sit on the plane for about 25 minutes while they got the gate ready for us. Oh well.
O’Hare that early in the morning is pretty quiet, so I was able to get to the Red Carpet Club (RCC) without fighting the crowds. The RCC is definitely on the list of things in life that don’t suck. I had several hours to kill before my flight, and if you have to spend a morning at a busy airport like ORD, the peace and quiet is priceless. What is also priceless is the clean restrooms. As someone who has traveled the world, a clean restroom is one of the under-appreciated joys of life that is easily taken for granted.
I once gave a toast at a relative’s wedding that included the line, “if you still love each other as much as you do now when 40 hours only gets you to Wednesday and your 3 favorite restaurants are in airports, then you will know you found the right person”. That was off the cuff when I said it, but it has become one of my tag lines since then. I was speaking from personal experience. There was a time when that was true for me. One of those restaurants is the SaladWorks in the Jazz Food Court in the C concourse at ORD. I always enjoy a Newport Salad before I board a flight to China. Since you are going to be stuck in a metal tube for 16 hours eating some of the worst heartburn inducing slop on God’s green earth, better eat something good before you board.
I also stock up on Twix bars and nuts before the flight, especially when I am flying economy. They never feed you enough and the only thing that sucks worse than heartburn is being hungry at 35,000 feet.
Boarded and met my seat mates in the emergency exit row, both of whom pretty much slept through the whole flight. I’ve actually made friends on planes in the past. The best flight to China was in 2007 when I met an American expat working for an huge multinational who now lives in the Philippines and a young Vietnamese girl who lives in Minnesota. We chatted through the whole flight, much of it in Chinese. I still correspond with them regularly. Not so on this trip, but at least it was quiet.
I fly United exclusively because they have the best straight shot to China. And also because I have so many miles it is pointless to fly anyone else. Despite their deficiencies, they do a pretty good job taking care of their Premier customers. ORD to Hong Kong (HKG), 15 hours of flying time sounds terrible, but in reality it is far preferable to other flights that break up the trip with layovers in Japan. When I am trying to get to HKG, I want to go straight there. Having a 3-4 hour layover when you are already tired stinks on ice.
One disappointing thing about this flight though was the movies. We only had four (4) with some TV re-runs thrown in. Some of the TV shows were interesting (Treasure Quest and Building Da Vinci), but 4 movies in 15 hours is a bone headed decision. Want the flight to go smoothly? Show the cattle some more movies! As to the movies we did see, Love Happens was only worth seeing to look at Jennifer Aniston, Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs was great, Four Christmases was Vince Vaughn talking too damn much and 500 Days of Summer was delightful.
Another disappointment, for which we have to thank the Christmas Bomber, is that they disabled the map and flight info that is usually displayed between films. I am an admitted geography geek (I can name the capital of most countries in the world – try me sometime) and I enjoy tracking our progress. I guess it is sort of valid that you don’t want to give the terrorists all the info they need to time the bombing over the airport, but how the maps did that when there are WINDOWS in the plane is beyond me. It is not for nothing that the TSA now stands for The Stupid Agency.
So anyway, flight landed precisely on time and I got out of the tube early. Managed to be one of the first to get to passport control and was through in under a minute. This is something, because I’ve spent over an hour in that line before. Since I carried on and had nothing to declare and don’t look like a member of the Religion of Peace (I saw them checking the bags of several Middle Eastern men), I walked straight out into the arrival hall of HKG, which is still one the coolest places in my world. I practically grew up in airports and they say a great deal about a city. Americans often miss this or are too utilitarian in their thinking (LAX for instance is a national embarrassment), but the Asians GET IT. HKG is a beautiful airport, well laid out, with soaring interior spaces and great restaurants. You know you are someplace worth being when you land at HKG.
I caught the bus to the ShaTouJiao border crossing which is near our office and nearly forgotten about. This is a very good thing, as the last thing you want after traveling for 24+ hours is another line to schlep through. I’ve crossed at the main LuoHu border crossing when I swear there were 10,000 people trying to get through at the same time. Number of people in front of me at ShaTouJiao? Zero. Perfect.
Out into the cool, damp night air of Shenzhen, my second home. There are many reasons to knock Shenzhen – it ain’t pretty – but when Dave Learn said “welcome home” he was right. If I can’t be with my family (who prefer to live in USA), this is the place to be.
Off we went to the now etched-in-stone traditional Whit’s-first-night-in-China-meal of Xinjiang cuisine. Xinjiang is called China’s Wild West and while I’ve never visited, I love the food. Good spicy lamb dishes, and despite being a Muslim restaurant, they serve ice cold beer. When people say “Chinese food” I always smile, as that is really like saying “European food”. There are so many different regional cuisines, it is really kind of silly to lump them all together.
After dinner, back to the company apartment and off to bed, well deserved after 30 hours of travel. I sleep very little on these flights, and I always strive to arrive at dinner time so I can have a big meal lubricated with plenty of beer. When you go to bed and wake up the next morning, you’re right on schedule with local time and no jet lag. Maybe a hangover, but no jet lag.
This morning, up at 8 AM and feeling fine. After a call home to talk to the kidlets and the lovely Mrs. Kelly, Brian Garvin and I headed over to a friends house to watch the NCAA National Championship game. Roll Tide! Great game and an interesting group of American expats. One interesting thing was the decor – as a Virginian, it is good to Robert E. Lee represented in PRC.
His apartment was on the 19th floor (I’m not much for heights), and the view was quite interesting. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of Chinese apartment building architecture, but it is amazing how they squeeze so many people into these developments. This is what the “forest of Shenzhen looks like 19 stories up.
After the game, off to the office. I had not been back since the recent growth spurts have required many new staff to move into our offices, necessitating a big renovation. The place looks awesome, decorated with Chinese traditional wood carvings. And the new sign looks great as well, though I’m not quite sure why the old one is still up. The new logo is a big improvement over the old, I must say.
All in all, a great start to the trip. Tonight, dinner at Mao Jia, the House of Mao, a Mao themed chain of very good Hunan style cuisine.