Saturday, July 10, 2010

Some Travel Notes

I haven't managed very many interesting pictures on this round-the-world trip. Partly it's because my stopovers have been pretty short, and I haven't had much time to explore anything new. I may put up a post of random pictures when the trip is done. But for now it's just a few observations of the week's travel.


I come downstairs to the darkened and quiet hotel lobby in Guangzhou at 4:30 AM. A prearranged car arrives for me. Another driver in a dark suit with white gloves. The car is a black Honda Accord with a camel leather interior. There are water bottles and the day's newspaper in the seat next to me. He verifies which airline I'm taking and we are off.

I've never done this before, caught a domestic commercial flight within China. Of course it needn't be anything too mysterious: people moving from town to town via airplanes; this is something with which I'm quite familiar. Still, one doesn't know what one doesn't know, and I worry that there are things I've overlooked.

The closest I've come to a domestic Chinese passenger flight was about six months ago when I took Cathay Pacific from Hong Kong to Taipei. Technically, this also constitutes a domestic Chinese flight since both Hong Kong and Taiwan are territories of China. But both are also Special Zones in China, and there is greater freedom of movement in and out of these places than in mainland China. Hong Kong especially is a virtually open city. My company is gradually moving its operation in this part of the world from Guangzhou to Shenzhen, which is near to Hong Kong (all three of these places are within 100 miles or so of each other). Hong Kong is one of the favorite layovers for airline operations since there is so much to do and see there, and the question of how easily one might get from Shenzhen to Hong Kong on a layover naturally arises. The distance is nothing--maybe 30 miles--but there is a border crossing involved, and there is a question of whether we are allowed to sightsee while on an airline crew visa.

These issues spring to the fore as I make this trip. Our crew visa does not allow us to just gallivant around China once we're inside the border, and I realize that I'm quite without resources if questions arise as I'm traveling. Sometimes in airline operations our passports will get a hand-wave treatment; what if my entry visa is not properly stamped? What if they ask me how I came to be in China in the first place? I can show them my Crew Customs Declaration from the inbound operating flight which lists the names of the crew. But why am I not with the crew now? Where are the other crewmembers? I especially wonder how I would deal with these questions when I arrive in Shanghai; here in Guangzhou I could likely call the hotel and, if absolutely necessary, they could rouse the captain from my inbound flight to inquire (though he is my captain no more). And there is always my company's designated gateway manager for this hub of operations (and one in Shanghai as well), but there would be some hoop-jumping to get the person's name and phone number, and I don't know that anyone who might detain me would be very interested in helping me.

Typically when we arrive in a foreign city our company's operations manager meets us with an information sheet and whatever materials we will need for the remainder for our stay, to include the specifics of our outbound flights if any. But on this flight no such information was forthcoming.

As it turns out, everything went off without a hitch. I looked on the departure monitors and found my flight, and the displays told what check-in counter to go to. Nobody balked at my passport, and they took and tagged my bags just as one would expect. Security was a normal affair (I had secretly hoped they would not confiscate the Diet Cokes--liter and can--in my computer bag. Alas.), boarding was quick and painless and the flight was very professional (as I remember of Cathay Pacific as well).

And in fact the whole trip came off as smooth as a baby's bottom. I'm the only person in First Class in the 737, and I am treated to a nice breakfast of utterly unidentifiable components (apart from some watermelon and a wedge of something that is like, but not like, an orange). There's a strange oatmeal-based cereal with what seems like stewed acorn parts in it and an oddly savory character--like they made their oatmeal with a bit of bacon grease. Not bad. Then there is a square of deep green gelatinous material with what look like chunks of some herb in it. It's slightly bigger than a deck of cards, and seems rather like a dense, room-temperature spinach jello but slightly sweet. Also good. Then there is a selection of dumpling-like things, one a glob of deep-fried potatoes with an unidentifiable greasy flavor. Then there's a steamed white dumpling with a mystery meat in the middle, orange like crab but not seafood, I think. Finally there's an oblique slice from some kind of deep-fried log, like a bit of a large egg roll-type thing that is good but also mysterious. Finally, there are two dishes of sliced, pickled vegetative matter that I sampled but couldn't motivate myself to finish.

Service was very prompt, and I was offered two or three moist, warm towels to freshen up. I sent an email yesterday to the hotel in Shanghai asking how I should get from the airport to the hotel, and I received a prompt reply that a driver would be waiting for me at baggage claim. Sure enough, there was a porter in full Hilton regalia (including white gloves and pillbox hat and a double-breasted white blazer with gold buttons that looked very like a marching band uniform from 1980). He had my name prominently written on a large Hilton sign. There was a huge crush of people waiting outside baggage claim, and this fella was right at the front and center of the crowd. He took me through the maze of the airport to a waiting Lexus LS-430 limousine, and another uniformed driver whisked me the 30 miles or so downtown to the hotel. I was again given a warm moist towel. I began to feel truly clean for the first time in my life.

Once at the hotel, things are a bit more familiar (though I've been here only twice before, and neither time for more than a few hours).

A couple things stand out as I walk around Shanghai. First, there is this sense that the city is, and isn't, the real China. Of course as China's largest city Shanghai is as "real China" as it gets. There are so many elements of culture which differ from the West, from the language to the food to some of the nuances of how people interact, that one naturally feels immersed in a foreign culture. And yet China is a giant place with a huge variety of cultures and languages, and so much of the country is rural and agrarian. There is no sense of these things to a foreigner walking around a huge city, so there is for me always a sense that I'm becoming passingly familiar with only one aspect of a large and diverse country. What one does sense here is a very plugged-in culture and an immense number of people--and there is no sense of this being anything new or different for the city's residents; they seem quite accustomed to density and crowding and lines and congestion.

The other thing that strikes me--and I've sensed this in Guangzhou and Taipei as well--is an offshoot of this high population. There are simply very many more people in public works roles here than I remember seeing anywhere else. There are uniformed crossing guards at many intersections, sometimes multiple guards for a single intersection if it's a busy one. There will be traffic cops standing in the middle of busy intersections, despite the full array of traffic lights. And any busy street will have monitors at the crosswalks, sometimes one for each side of each sidewalk. They have full uniforms and whistles and they corral people so that no one crosses against the light and no one has even a foot off the curb before the light changes--and they tend to be quite insistent about absolutely strict obeisance to the traffic lights. (There is a good reason for this, since pedestrians do not have the right of way here and traffic is chaotic and nearly lawless.) There are uniformed guards at every subway station, on the platforms and at the entrances. Security guards are at every construction site, and the airport is crawling with officials. Every single airplane is met by security forces, even our cargo planes in the middle of the night parking out in the remote areas of the vast airport property. All public buildings seem to have official sweepers and moppers, and shopping centers big and small have their contingent of security police (whether the security is keeping tabs on the shoppers or the shopkeepers seems open to debate--maybe both; maybe it's the scrutiny that's the thing, not who is being scrutinized). Most sections of sidewalk have a designated sweeper, and there are attendants at all public toilets. Road work seems to be largely done by hand, and work crews are everywhere. People work on the public plantings, and there are folks walking around picking up trash.

Everything is a reminder that human beings here are an almost unlimited resource. If the Communist system is paying a base salary for all of these people, it's not surprising that all kinds of jobs are found for them, jobs which in America would have been run thru an efficiency matrix and condensed from ten guys to one guy and a machine.

Once again I note that people are clean and well-behaved and largely self-effacing. Almost no one seems to self-promote; people don't talk loudly or wear loud clothes or otherwise draw attention to themselves. Again I walk on different streets from my last visit and no one seems unhappy to see me or indeed to pay any attention to me at all.

I'd love a longer layover here so that I might walk in wholly different directions. My three out-and-backs from the hotel have all been in the same general area, though I've varied the exact streets a bit. But it's a gigantic place, and I've seen only a tiny bit of it. I'd also love to take the maglev train sometime. Maybe next time.

1 comment:

Jon said...

As always, an interesting look into another world. The only thing you forgot to mention was the heat. But then you have in the past. I especially liked the part about the drivers with white gloves, now thats first class traveling!