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Started: 2016-02-07 19:40:03

Submitted: 2016-02-07 22:15:54

Visibility: World-readable

12-13 January 2016: In which the intrepid narrator departs North America to visit the People's Republic of China

Following my new expedition nomenclature, I am hereby designating my two-week trip to the People's Republic of China in January 2016 as CX1. (I am retroactively designating my first visit to the People's Republic of China, the one day I spent in Guangzhou in 2012, as CX0; since it was only a day-trip it does not deserve to be identified as CX1.)

When I learned that I would be laid off from the job I'd held for seven-and-a-half years, I thought about various options for traveling to Greater China, including some schemes for a longer-term visit in an attempt to learn more Mandarin Chinese and see if I could find a job in a place we wanted to live. (That proposal lost some of its attractiveness when we went to Tennessee for Thanksgiving and remembered just how much hassle it still is to travel with Julian as an infant.) When I accepted my new job at Google in San Francisco, I planned my start date to give me seven weeks between jobs -- a sabbatical in which I wanted to travel to India (which I'd already scheduled), ski, prepare to move back to California, and travel to China -- somewhere I'd visited only briefly but I've been studying for years.

One weekday afternoon in early December I was bored at work (which wasn't hard -- there was only so much documentation I could write and design presentations I could give to transfer knowledge to my coworkers unlucky enough to be left behind before my eyes threatened to glaze over. I had almost two weeks before I left for India, so if I was serious about visiting China that seemed like the best time to get my visa, so everything would be lined up when I returned in January and all I had to do was get on the plane and go to China.

Before the Chinese consulate in Chicago would consider my visa application, though, I needed to actually buy my plane tickets, presumably so they'd know I was serious. I'd done some searching online, and for a two-week trip, I figured out that there was one Tuesday in late January when I could return from Shanghai and get a ticket that was half the price of any other return date -- just over US$600. Since my dates were almost entirely flexible, that sounded like a great idea. I briefly considered buying a flexible ticket, so I could adjust it later if I failed to get the visa (or needed to make changes for some other reason) but decided against it; the flexible ticket was twice the price, so if my visa fell through I might as well just write off the price of the ticket and walk away.

I bought my plane tickets, found a plausible hotel in Shanghai with a liberal cancellation policy (which I later exercised, and found other lodging arrangements), and found the nearest FedEx drop to send my passport and visa application to a private visa agent in Chicago (whom my employer had used to get my visa to India for IX2 in 2012).

I waited, nervously, the rest of the week to see what would happen to my passport and visa (and whether I'd actually get my passport back in time to go to India -- though with almost two weeks to spare I did tell them I absolutely positively had to have my passport back by Friday before I left, and the visa agent adjusted their level of service accordingly). Early the following week I received an e-mail saying I'd gotten the visa I asked for (a ten-year, multiple-entry tourist visa) and they were shipping my passport back to me. I had my passport back, with whole days to spare before I left for India, with a brand-new visa for the People's Republic of China inside. I was thrilled, and immediately told my Chinese coworker Hong, who hooked me up with a WeChat group with a couple of her high school classmates who still live in China in the places I'd be visiting.

I put my travel planning for China on the back burner while I was actually in India. My plane ticket flew in and out of Shanghai, so I decided to spend four days in Shanghai, take the high-speed train to Beijing, spend four days there, take the high-speed train back to Nanjing, spend two days there, and finally take the high-speed train to Shanghai to fly home.

I left home on Tuesday morning, 12 January, in a shuttle van to the airport, after spending a week home in Colorado. For the novelty value, I decided to fly on United's once-daily 787 Dreamliner service from Denver direct to Tokyo, then catch an ANA flight, codeshared with United, from Tokyo to Shanghai.

United 787-8 at DIA gate B32
United 787-8 at DIA gate B32

My flight was not full; I ended up with an empty middle seat next to my window seat, which was a nice novelty for a long-haul international flight. United had e-mailed me the day before to say my flight would have WiFi on-board, but after closing the cabin doors the PA announced that we would not, in fact, have WiFi after all -- so I was forced to spend the entire flight to Tokyo without being connected to the Internet at all. (According to the in-flight magazine, only 60% of United's 787 fleet currently has WiFi.) I was pleased that the AC power jack under my seat worked, and would reliably hold my laptop's power cable, so I could at least work on photos and blog posts from my trip to India. (The state of affairs in which I was not finished posting pictures from and writing about my last international trip before starting my next international trip was not lost on me.)

787 wing somewhere over the northern Pacific Ocean
787 wing somewhere over the northern Pacific Ocean

I set my watch for Tokyo time and took a mid-morning-the-next-day nap on the plane, in an attempt to begin adjusting my body clock to my new time zone. When I awoke I saw on the in-flight map that we were somewhere over the Aleutian Islands, which I could in fact see out my window when I squinted through the glare of the sun over the ocean, somewhat attenuated by the LCD window shade on maximum opacity.

787 wing over the Aleutian Islands
787 wing over the Aleutian Islands

(I like many things about the 787 Dreamliner, but something about the window screws up the focus on my cameras, so it's rare that I can get a decent-looking picture out the window while in flight.)

We crossed the International Date Line somewhere over the ocean, probably while I watched Mad Max: Fury Road on the video-on-demand in-flight entertainment system. I'd missed the movie when it was first released (then missed it again on DVD). I thought the movie, and the amazing action and practical effects, were excellent. Then I read Kameron Hurley's excellent essay about the movie, which I'd been saving on my phone for months until I had seen the movie.

UAL139 DEN-NRT in-flight map (in Japanese)
UAL139 DEN-NRT in-flight map (in Japanese)

I amused myself for a while trying to read the Japanese text as it flashed by the in-flight map -- at least the parts written in Kanji, which I can read when I can read the equivalent Chinese Hanzi character. Some time ago I noticed that Tokyo uses the Kanji characters for "eastern capital" (and, according to my Chinese contacts, is pronounced in Chinese as one would read the characters in Mandarin, "dongjing"), and I noticed the Japanese returned the favor by printing the Hanzi characters for the Chinese cities shown on the map, most of which I could read.

At length we made landfall over Japan, shortly before local sunset -- it was after midnight in Colorado (a fact I tried to ignore, fixing instead on the amber glow of the setting sun out the window) but we'd followed the sun west around the world, and into Wednesday afternoon. I gazed at the Japanese countryside as we descended and landed at Narita International Airport.

We disembarked, and I followed the signs through security to my international transfer, so I didn't actually have to officially enter the country. I found my departure gate, with several hours to spare before my flight departed, and wandered around the concourse until I found somewhere I recognized from my transfers through Narita in 2012 and 2013. I found the same noodle bar I ate at in January 2013 and ordered a bowl of udon noodle soup.

I made my way back to my departure gate, where the gate agents were paging the Americans on the flight so they could check their passports to make sure they had the proper visas to enter China. (United's check-in agent had checked my visa before I left Denver, but I wasn't going to begrudge ANA for doing their own due diligence.) The Japanese staff tried to page the American passengers over the PA but had trouble demangling their names to separate first and middle names -- they tried to page "Mr. Nelson / Ryanjames" and "Ms. Nelson / Valerieelizabeth", with little luck. (I travel under the name "Theodore Logan", without specifying my middle names, which makes it harder to mangle my name in that particular way.)

While waiting in the boarding area I scrambled to put together my travel notes on my personal wiki and export the notes into an ebook so I could transfer it to my phone and have it accessible offline. In general I've found this is a very useful thing to do while traveling (even to the extent that writing everything down in a linear order forces me to remember it better), but my current process requires a live and reliable Internet connection back to my server, preventing me from working offline. I put the finishing touches on my ebook and retrieved it on my phone as they were boarding, then rushed to the boarding gate to catch my flight to Shanghai.

It turned out I could have waited a bit longer -- all they were doing was piling everyone into a transfer bus so they could drive out to wherever the aircraft was parked on the tarmac, somewhere out of reach of a jetway. At some length we pulled away from the terminal, and drove around in circles on the tarmac until the driver figured out what plane was supposed to be ours, or figured out how he was supposed to get there. We boarded a 787 in ANA livery (the first time I'd flown in a 787 operated by the aircraft's launch customer), and the plane turned out to be almost completely empty. I picked a window seat in the rear economy cabin, so I could have a view unimpeded by the wing, and I had the entire row -- all nine seats across -- to myself. There were about five people total sitting in the 102 seats in the cabin.

After takeoff, I set my watch for Shanghai time, an hour earlier than Tokyo time, and gave up on trying to remain awake, even though it was still early evening in Shanghai. The economy seat, though, was too small and cramped for me to get much rest in for the three-hour flight to Shanghai.

We landed at Shanghai Pudong International Airport and waited for the plane to taxi to the gate. It was well after dark, and all I could see out the windows of the plane were the lights of the airport and the lights on country roads shimmering in the fog. We disembarked, and I stopped to use the restroom -- which proved fortuitous, because when I reached the immigration queue the staff were just in the process of waving foreigners into the lanes designated for Chinese nationals. I arrived at just the right time to be waved into the empty Chinese national lane, jumping the queue ahead of a bunch of fellow foreigners who were also being distributed between the newly-available immigration lanes.

The immigration agent checked my passport and visa, and stamped my passport, formally admitting me to the People's Republic of China. "Xie xie", I said, hoping I got the pronunciation (and tones) right, and worried that I didn't.

I claimed my bag and exited customs through a lengthy queue that didn't actually accomplish anything except occasionally pulling people out of the line for additional scrutiny of their bags. On the way I passed a trash bin with a sign reading something to the effect of "throw your foreign and anti-Chinese propaganda here" -- and I knew I was in a country where the relationship between the state and the people were different then where I'd grown up.

I wanted to take the fancy high-speed maglev train from the airport, but it was about 21:45 by the time I emerged from the airport and I was worried that I'd be stuck in the middle of Pudong when the entire metro system shut down around 22:30, so I headed to the taxi rack, pushing my way through several groups of touts trying to get me to take their off-brand taxi rather than the licensed taxi at the rack. (One guy quoted me ¥300 -- about US$50 -- to get to my hotel, but I knew that was too much money. I ended up paying ¥167 for my taxi.)

I took the taxi through the highways of Shanghai, observing my surroundings and trying to match what I was seeing with the maps I'd seen of the city. Pudong airport is about an hour away from the city center, but the city is gradually expanding eastward in the direction of the airport. There is already a complicated mesh of superhighways connecting the city and the airport, none of which seemed to go in quite the right direction at quite the right time. We crossed a big cable-stayed bridge over the Huangpu River, then drove up the Bund, where I could see people walking on the waterfront, overlooking the historic buildings on the left bank and the fancy new skyscrapers in Pudong on the right bank.

Astor House Hotel in Hongkou, Shanghai
Astor House Hotel in Hongkou, Shanghai

The taxi reached my hotel, the Astor House Hotel, in a historic building immediately north of the Bund in the Hongkou neighborhood. (Despite having several GPS navigation systems at his disposal, my driver wasn't quite sure where the hotel was; I'd seen it out the window as he drove around the block and pointed it out, otherwise he might have turned the wrong way down the street.) I checked in, took the elevator to my fifth-floor room, and went to bed -- nearly twenty-four after leaving home Tuesday morning.