I’m beginning my China journal at 11:15 pm on Friday, July 14, at the computer in my spacious apartment in Chengdu. By Chinese standards, this is a luxury apartment, with living room, bedroom, office, kitchen, bath, and laundry room. This is the Foreign Experts residence, just across the winding Sand (more like sewage) River which skirts the campus of UESTC. Best of all, in this subtropical climate, I have air conditioning. I’ve just finished my first load of laundry, and I’m trying to make myself tired, so I can adapt to an almost complete reversal of day and night.
I don’t know exactly where this journey began. I’m still in shock from the 24-hour trip that began in Tucson AZ on Tuesday morning, then continued to Los Angeles, Shanghai, and Chengdu. Somewhere in the process, I lost a day. I’m feeling slightly queasy, my eyes burn constantly (I didn’t bring extra Visine!), and the humidity and heat make me slightly sick.
In the space of three days, I did WAY too much flying, and my sinuses are feeling the effects of five or six different climates: Missouri, Denver, Arizona, LA, Shanghai, and now Chengdu. If I never see another airplane seat, it will be too soon.
The first surprise of my trip: at the China Eastern check-in at LAX, I didn’t have to pay ANY overweight charges for my baggage! They just checked my two pieces, and I saved $100. The flight to Shanghai was full, and I was in the very center seat – no view, no movement. They fed us two meals, plus a sandwich I didn’t eat, and attendants passed by constantly with drinks. 12 ½ hours later, we landed at Shanghai Pudong airport, where we went through Immigration. I then proceeded to get lost, was ushered through a side door, went up two escalators, then got lost again. I found a coffee bar, where I ordered a large espresso and ate a chocolate bar. I took the first photo of myself in China. The steamy night air came in through the airport entry doors, and felt like a wet blanket.
After endless walking, I got to the gate for my local flight to Chengdu, which arrived there at 12 midnight. By this point, I had been up for 24 hours, with perhaps one hour of sleep on the plane. We got off the plane a distance from the terminal, walking down metal steps where I almost fell, and my first Chinese “surprise” was to see three bicyclists riding across the aiport tarmac! We were herded onto shuttle buses and taken to Chengdu air terminal. When my luggage didn’t appear on the carousel I got worried, but a friendly woman employee walked up, took my baggage claim checks, and had my bags personally delivered on a cart – I guess they had to be cleared through Customs.
Then the adventure began. Several taxi drivers were soliciting passengers, and after collecting my luggage I finally accepted an offer from a young man. He would drive me to the Tibet Hotel for 100 yuan, very reasonable. We wheeled my luggage outside to his broken-down car, and two other men helped him load my 110-pound suitcase into the car, along with my other stuff. I sat in the front seat with him, and gawked at my first sight of buildings in Chengdu. The area around the aiport looked run-down but very exotic. I was in another world. We turned a corner and continued a short distance, and by this time there was lightning, signaling an approaching thunderstorm. The driver said we would have to make a brief stop to repair the driver’s side window, because it didn’t close. He made a U-turn, and pulled into a driveway where what looked like a run-down repair shop appeared in front of us. I began to worry. Was this a trap? The young man went up to the building and pounded on a window and a door. He was joined by another young man; I decided he wasn’t carrying a weapon, and abandoned my plans to flee. He started to operate on the car door by the light of a cell phone, using a screwdriver. He had no luck, so the two were joined by another young man, this one shirtless, with a T-shirt flung over one shoulder. By this time I was getting upset.
I then thought about all the books I had read about travel in China, in which bizarre things happened constantly, and there was nothing to do but accept the circumstances with patience. I actually debated about whether or not to get angry. If I were in LA, I would have demanded to be taken back to the airport, where I would find another ride. This, however, was another world, with different rules. I decided that this was going to be an interesting experience to write about, and to just see where it led.
Eventually, the shirtless young man maneuvered the door cover off, and manually raised the driver’s window. He put the cover and door handle back on, and we were off. I began talking to the driver, who turned out to be a student at the university where I’ll be teaching. He spoke decent English, and told me that he was 23, and had been driving a taxi for four years. By age 30, he wanted to go to the U.S. to study and to make money. He was studying electronic management at UESTC. He asked me lots of questions, and told me about Chengdu.
We followed a highway into the central city, then proceeded up the main boulevard, lined with double rows of trees on each side. Eventually we came to the huge statue of Chairman Mao, arm raised benevolently, presiding over a large square which was torn up for construction of the new subway. We arrived at the Tibet Hotel at 1:30 am, where I paid my driver and said goodbye. I checked in, then luxuriated in the splendor of my deluxe “Tibetan” room, and took a shower in a glass-enclosed shower stall. I lay down on the king-size bed, more dazed now than tired, and ate my Rocky Mountain Rock Candy from the Denver airport. Soon, I was out like a light.