03 December 2010

China, Day 1--Newark to Beijing

The morning of our departure, we awoke to a clear autumn day. The leaves were a little behind upstate NY, where they were nearly all off the trees, except for the oak tree in our front yard, which annoyingly clings to its leaves well into December, usually until after the first snowfall, and well beyond when it's anywhere near pleasant to be outside raking. In New Jersey, the trees were still in the middle of dropping their leaves, and my uncle pensively remarked that there would be much raking to do upon their return. But the leaves would wait. China filled our whole windshield--it would be our only concern for the foreseeable future.

We buzzed through breakfast. Between bites, we compared last minute notes on things we were bringing. A couple people were bringing something to help them sleep. Dad was still debating about bringing his Crocs, as was I. Not having been able to decide before leaving home, I had thrown two extra coats and three pairs of shoes in the trunk of the car. What to wear, what to wear... Although I was concerned that it would be cold and windy on the Great Wall, I decided the need for a warm coat would be brief.  A windbreaker with a hood for wind and with the hope we would not be forced out in the rain for too long would do.  I could layer for cold.  I went with my old broken-in sneakers for the Great Wall and in case it rained. As "ugly American" as they are, I decided to wear my Crocs on the plane--they were just too light and comfortable (and easy to take off) to leave behind.

The airport bus arrived, and it was time to go. Dave's wife Cheryl and their daughter Jeannette served as our farewell party, wishing us safe travels and waving us off.

The trip to the airport, checking in, getting through security, all were pretty routine. The big 777 waited for us at the end of the gangway. I gave the plane my customary pat on the fuselage as I got on: Good plane, trusty plane, I know you will get us there safely. I had a middle seat between my two cousins. We all like to play games, so there was some thought we might play cards--Lord knows I was prepared for that, with a half dozen games in my backpack--but it never happened. Continental gave us each our own personal entertainment system, with movies, TV shows, games, an in-flight map, music... We each took advantage and passed a great deal of the time watching our little screens. I didn't sleep more than half an hour, if that. I read a little, watched two movies, wrote in my journal a little, talked with Dave and Paul. I got up a couple of times to go to the bathroom and stretch my legs. I won't say 13 hours went quickly, but it went by pretty smoothly.

Our flight path took us north over Canada. After passing Hudson Bay, we crossed the Arctic circle, and passed within shouting distance of the north pole. We skirted the north coast of Alaska, then headed south over Siberia before making our descent into China. Flying almost seven miles high, it was hard to comprehend exactly how far we'd traveled. Nothing was really visible, and the flight was smooth as silk. The frozen wastes slid by under us, unseen beneath layers of clouds. Our screens glowed with information about our flightpath and the conditions outside our flying cocoon. The outside temperature, mere inches away from the faces of those by the windows, was -70 degrees F, but we were comfortable (if a little cramped) inside a technological wonder hurtling along at 600mph. What a far cry from the trip my father, my uncles and my grandmother made in the opposite direction in 1937, fleeing wartorn China across an ocean of danger in a cargo steamer.

We arrived in Beijing in the mid-afternoon. Locally, the time was nearly 26 hours after the time we left Newark, although we had been on the plane for about 14. We deplaned into the new Terminal 3 of the huge Beijing Capital International Airport. The massive Terminal 3 expansion, opened in 2008 to accomodate the influx of visitors to the 2008 Olympics, has made BCIA the world's second busiest airport in terms of passengers served. Terminal 3 was the third largest building in the world in terms of floor space when it opened--it is currently the fourth largest. It's also the cleanest airport I've ever been in. The floors--all of them--looked like they were just polished ten minutes before. The massive ceiling rose dozens if not a hundred feet overhead. We followed the crowd and the signs that directed us to the immigration check, where hundreds of people were gathered in several lines waiting to have their passports and visas checked. There were no questions, merely a brief, diligent glance to compare our pictures with our appearance and stamps in our passports indicating our arrival.

Heading down to baggage claim, there were a couple of indications that we weren't, as they say, in Kansas anymore.  First were the replicas of some of the terracotta warriors--those life-sized statues unearthed in the ancient capital of Xi'an. We paused there for some of us to hit a nearby rest room, and I noticed a sign that I couldn't resist photographing.  If I'm not mistaken, this is a sign advertising the 590th anniversary of, presumably, the construction of the Forbidden City in Beijing.  A sign advertising the 590th anniversary of something is something you just don't see in the good old (but relatively young) U.S.A.

Once we claimed our bags, we had to run a gauntlet of drivers, business associates, friends and family members waiting with little signs with the names of travelers. There were hundreds of them, all crowded behind a rope, waiting just outside the inner terminal door. There was something almost chemical about the coming together of the fliers and those awaiting them--the fliers walking down the line until they recognize or are recognized, then the two parties, separated by the rope and the crowd, joining up with each other at the end of the line and peeling off to go to their cars or buses or the train to leave the airport together. Like floating electrons, we were gathered in by a nucleus--our tour guide, Jasmine--and we formed a new atom. We shuffled to one side of the stream of fliers and those awaiting them in order to make introductions and gather up to move on to the van waiting to take us to the hotel.

From the word "go," Jasmine was a dynamo. She already knew all of our names, and--this being a family trip for which she had helped to prepare for over a year--all of our relationships to each other. She was--is--the soul of preparation and anticipation. She was constantly in motion, as demonstrated in this, my first picture of her, in which she appears as a black-clad blur with a white headband. Throughout our trip, she was either in preparation for the next phase of the trip, watching over us like a mother hen, or telling us something interesting about our surroundings. In emails she sent before the trip, she had forewarned us about not drinking the tap water, not crossing the street alone, and keeping our travel documents with us at all times.  As promised, she had water waiting for us in the van, and also snacks. We would learn that we could rely on her to anticipate our every need, and to have an answer to nearly any question about our surroundings or about China.

Jasmine's first task was to shepherd her weary travelers down to the garage level where our van awaited. She introduced Mr. Tan, who would be our driver during our stay in Beijing, and as they packed our bags in the back, we packed ourselves into the front. On our drive into the city, I felt very little jet lag, eagerly staring out the windows to take in the look and feel of the city. Working our way towards the heart of the capital, we saw an urban landscape similar to that of most U.S. cities: raised highways passing rows of high-rise apartment houses. The difference was in scale. Most U.S. cities have a beltway or two that encircles them, providing a bypass for travelers who wish to go around the city, not through. Beijing, a city that has added approximately 10 million people since 2000 (current population estimate is over 22 million), is currently up to six beltways--known as ring roads--and is currently working on a seventh. As the kilometers of apartment buildings went by, we caught our second glimpse (Terminal 3 being the first) of the amazing modern architecture of the city: the CCTV tower, known colloquially (and for obvious reasons) as the "Big Pants."

Finally, we reached our hotel. As we clustered together in the lobby and Jasmine gathered our passports to give them briefly to the hotel staff for recording (something we would have to do at every hotel), I felt a mixture of feelings: The uncertainty of being inexperienced at international travel, mitigated by the growing confidence that Jasmine had our back where the details of travel were concerned; excitement at realizing that I was a Chien in China (how cool!); topped off with a growing weariness from being awake for nearly 24 hours.

I must have been more tired than I realized because I'm fuzzy on the sequence of events for the rest of the day. I know we went out to eat, but I can't remember if we walked or drove. I remember that it was at this meal that I ate eggplant for the first time in my life and didn't hate it as I always imagined I would. There were oddities about our room at which my brother and I were either puzzled or surprised: There was an inch of water in the bottom of the waste basket in our bathroom; the beds were hard and our pillows were filled with buckwheat hulls or something similar and, while surprisingly comfortable, were decidedly not fluffable, making it difficult to sit up in bed; there was no Wi-Fi, so in order to let Lori and the girls know I was there and OK, I used my cellphone to call around 6:15pm, which was 6:15am for them--the middle of their getting-ready-for-school routine. With an early morning planned, we finally managed to settle down and get some sleep, which one would imagine would have been easy after being awake for over 24 hours, but was not: Knowing I was in China for the first time--where my father was born, land of my grandfather's family, land of how many unknown ancestors and current relatives, a land that was a mystery waiting to be unfolded--was enough to keep me awake well past a prudent bedtime.

No comments: