Chinese Buffet – Part 20: An Air China Ending

This is the final installment of the 20-part Chinese Buffet series that chronicled the travels of an American woman visiting China for the first time.

Before I begin this story, let me clarify that the airline I write about in this post is Air China, and NOT China Airlines, which has been in the news this week for its frightening runway explosion. However, it should be noted that Air China has received its own share of bad press in recent weeks too.

I had read some of that unsettling news just days before I boarded an Air China flight to Beijing in early July. I was a little leery, but too eager about my trip to lose any sleep over it.

The flight to China on CA982 was fine — once we got off the ground. We were held on the runway at JFK for almost an hour before taking-off, but I blame that on the airport and not the airline.

Three weeks later, I took another Air China flight to leave the country, and this time, it was the airline’s fault that we did not depart on time.

I was headed to Melbourne, Australia. A one-way ticket on Air China was the cheapest I could find without having to make three or four plane changes. In fact, CA177 was a direct overnight flight — ten hours straight to my destination while I slept.

Too good to be true, huh?

I should have been on alert after my ticket purchase fiasco a few weeks prior: I booked over the phone, and arranged for an Air China messenger to deliver the paper ticket to where I was staying in Shanghai. There was no e-ticket option available, so the messenger also brought a credit card machine so we could complete the sale on the spot. That proved to be quite an ordeal, since he could not get a signal for the portable machine, and subsequently spent an hour walking around the parking lot of the Green Court apartments in Pudong trying to get the transaction to go through. After several phone calls and lots of pacing, the sale was eventually completed.

I didn’t want to admit it, but this seemed a warning sign that things might not go smoothly. If it was this complicated to buy an airline ticket in China, what was to be expected at the airport and on the flight?

Uh….this:

I showed up at Pudong International about 3:30 pm on August 1. The flight was supposed to start boarding at 5:30 and I think this sign (with the wrong airline name on it!) was posted at 6:30. “Mechanical Trouble” is so much worse than a bad weather or air traffic delay — suddenly there were a bazillion unknowns, and nothing to do but sit around and wonder about all of them while we waited for flight status updates.

In this case, no news was certainly NOT good news.

About an hour later, with no further announcements, dinner was served! Passengers started lining up in the boarding area for dishes of warm rice and pork — the actual meals that we would have received on the plane:

At this point I was happy to have befriended a great gal from South Dakota (of all places!!!) named Emily. A photographer, world traveler and blogger too, Emily and I soon learned that we had much in common and plenty to talk about. Which was a wonderful distraction from the fact that we had no clue whether or not we’d be boarding a (possibly “malfunctioning”) airplane.

About an hour after they fed us, there was an announcement made in Chinese and everyone started to move. An airport staff woman approached Emily and I, explaining that, “The shuttle will now take you to the hotel.”

We were corralled back through immigration into China again, then bused off to our “Super 8 meets Motel 6″ airport hotel:

Thank goodness I had a cool roommate that kept me laughing, and well-connected with her high-tech travel gear. Emily, who had recently moved to Shanghai, was headed to Sydney on a business trip (CA177 flies to Sydney after Melbourne), and was traveling with a GSM mobile and laptop. She let me borrow the phone to contact my friends in Australia, and use the web to shoot an email to family back home. We chatted about blogging, looked at each other’s photos online, and laughed at our freakishly similar sleeping attire — a Kodak moment, no doubt:

The only instructions we received from the hotel staff was to stay put in our rooms and wait for a call in the morning to return to the airport. Needless to say, I did not sleep well and was on alert when the call finally came at 6:30 am:

“Hello, please come quickly! The buses will leave for airport at 6:30!!”

I looked out the window to see folks already boarding bus number one. We frantically gathered our belongings and hopped on the third shuttle bus within ten minutes. Back at the airport, we then went through immigration again and resumed the waiting game. They directed us back to the same gate where the same “mechanical troubles” sign still stood.

It was hard to tell if I was uninformed because of the language barrier, or because Air China was keeping us in the dark about what was going on. I think it was a bit of both, because I definitely saw Chinese passengers complaining and asking questions. I just had no clue as to the specifics of the scenario.

Eventually, boarding began, and as passengers went through, an Air China official gave each person 500 RMB as compensation for their troubles. But lots of people were still not happy — there was all sorts of discontent among the crowd. We asked for someone to translate. Folks were questioning the safety of the plane, demanding more money back and refusing to board.

Although I too had my concerns about the safety of the plane, I was not interested in hanging out with an angry airport mob. I figured that if the pilot was willing to fly it, the plane must be in good condition. I had to believe it was safe to fly. So I boarded, and spent two hours watching these guys remove luggage from the cargo bin for passengers who had decided not to go through with the flight. It was all quite nerve-racking…

And I had lost my new buddy too! Emily and I parted ways when I chose to get on the plane and she called off her business trip to Australia. There was no longer any point in waiting to see when the flight might leave — she’d never make her meeting in Sydney on time.

I think it was sometime around 1 pm when we finally departed. For much of the flight, I fought off a nagging fear that the “mechanical troubles” would return. It was the first time I’ve ever felt afraid to fly, and at one point I did breakdown and shed a few tears of exhaustion. I ate very little of my last Chinese meal since nerves had by now wreaked havoc on my stomach.

But I love flying, and this experience hasn’t changed my opinion. Although I felt clueless throughout much of the delay, Air China did “take care of us” to some degree — they fed us, gave us a place to stay, and efficiently transported us to and from the airport hotel. I sat next to a Chinese man on the flight who was angry that other Chinese passengers refused to board without additional compensation. He was right, it was frustrating — we would have departed much earlier if these folks had not held out for more money. (In the end we each got 800 RMB for our troubles.)

Last I heard from Emily, she was still trying to get a refund for her ticket from Air China. You can read her version of our adventure here. (Be sure to look at the funny Chinglish signs from our motel room!)

After those flying solo tears were done, I took some deep breaths and selected a movie for my viewing pleasure. This delayed departure from China could have happened in any country — it was not a uniquely Chinese experience. Although, I sensed something orderly about the chaos of the airplane debacle that had surfaced at other moments during my three weeks in the country.

It’s challenging to find the right words to close with — because this was simply an introduction, an overview, an appetizer. I left China slightly frazzled, but satisfied with my first look at the PRC. I suspect that so much will change before I return (even if it’s just a year or two from now!), that it might feel like an introduction all over again, the second time around.

Chinese Buffet – Part 19: Visit is Over. Memories Remain.

Chinese Buffet is a month-long series that chronicles the travels of an American woman who visited China for the first time in July 2007.

I wish I could have experienced China on a bicycle. Riding through the streets, forced to lay my camera aside for awhile, I’m sure I would have viewed aspects of the country differently from a two-wheeled perspective.

But I am a horrible bike rider!

This was as close as I got to riding my own bike in China. On my last day in Shanghai, we rented a bicycle-made-for-three in Century Park. With four wheels and no traffic, it was smooth sailing during our early morning ride:

And then there was my rickshaw driver in Suzhou, who gave me a taste of what authentic bike riding in China is all about. He did the pedaling work while I simply enjoyed the view and cool breeze. When the ride was over, he totally tried to swindle me out of more money than we had agreed upon, but I couldn’t care less. Just look at the smile on this guy:

He must have been one of the most jovial pedicab drivers in town, and kept me laughing the entire time. And that’s what I’ll remember most.

So what if I didn’t get to do everything I wanted? It’s really all about who you meet in the end. The more I travel, the more I believe that it’s not really about the places at all — it’s about the people you encounter.

I don’t want to spend my life trying to check off sites from a list of places I should see before I die. I just want to visit different countries and see what each reveals to me, no matter if it’s mundane or extraordinary.

Take Maurice, for example. Just an ordinary guy visiting Suzhou the same day I was there:

This tall funny Frenchman appeared like a mirage — walking towards me in his bright qipao shirt with a mobile phone in his hand at the exact moment when I was frantically searching for a payphone. He was such a cheerful champ when I asked if I could borrow his phone. We chatted briefly and parted ways, but several hours later I ran into him again in one of Suzhou’s gardens. We talked a bit more, and I asked for a photo, to capture our memorable meeting.

More often though, it was the other way around — people would approach me and ask if they could take a photo together. When this happened, I sometimes asked if we could also take one on my camera, so I could remember them. Usually I was approached by Chinese tourists who were making their first visit to the big city:

This Chinese woman was visiting Beijing for the very first time with her husband and son. She approached me in the rose garden at the Temple of Heaven.

“Excuse me? You take picture with me?”

“Sure.”

“Thank you. And welcome to China! You are a very beautiful woman.”

I’ll miss these unsolicited “beautiful woman” compliments!

I also met Heng Yi Ling at the same park, a sweet 18 year-old visiting Beijing with her dad. While we listened to women singing opera, Heng Yi’s dad encouraged her to practice speaking English with me. Talking to Chinese children was especially amusing and enjoyable.

In Shanghai, a woman making her first visit to the city sat next to me while we ate dumplings. When we were finished eating, she asked for a photo…and I asked for one too:

There was usually limited conversation with the older Chinese tourists I met, but they were encounters just the same, and interactions with people always seem to linger longest in my mind.

As I type this, I’m remembering other folks too — there was Cedric from Philadelphia, who I said hello to at the Forbidden City because I noticed he was wearing a tee shirt from the school I used to work at. After chatting for a few moments, he snapped a photo of me too!

I met lots of expats also, and was grateful for the perspective they shared — my Couchsurfing host, the folks at The Bookworm and True Run Media, my Shanghai friends and their network of international pals.

So… I didn’t get to ride a bike through the hutongs of Beijing, or try some hot pot, or visit a tea house or do the touristy thing and buy a latte at the Forbidden City Starbucks in the final days before it closed!

But I met a whole bunch of interesting people. And learned that the world is full of a lot of snappy happy folks, including myself! Which is not such a bad thing, because I now have a virtual memory box of faces, names and interactions that shaped my first look at China.

There is one more special person I met on my way out of the country. I’ll wrap up the Chinese Buffet series tomorrow with a story about the adventure we shared…

Chinese Buffet – Part 18: Xi’an Excursion Day Two

Chinese Buffet is a month-long series that chronicles the travels of an American woman who visited China for the first time in July 2007.

(Note: Read Day One of the Xi’an Excursion and some recently announced news about the Terracotta Warriors upcoming visit to the USA!)

After a filling breakfast at the Hyatt’s massive buffet, we piled in the car with Bob and headed out for another full day of sightseeing. The Banpo Museum is on the eastern outskirts of the city, along the way towards the Terracotta Warriors. It is the excavated site of an ancient neolithic village that dates to 4500 BC, over 6,000 years ago!

Discovered in 1953, archaeologists have determined that the village was inhabited by the Yangshao, and each section of the dig site exhibits different aspects of how they lived. We walked through several rooms full of relics – ceramic bowls, clay pots and ancient tools used for fishing and hunting.

After this quick stop, we drove about an hour to the site of the Terracotta Army. The road was jammed with tour buses and we sat in traffic for awhile. Bob navigated us there as quickly as he could, sometimes using the access lane to pass other vehicles — our daredevil driver!

A golf cart was our next mode of transport. The Terracotta Army complex of excavated pits is quite far from the parking lot, so we decided to splurge on the round-trip golf cart ride that stops directly in front of the actual museum entrance. A visit to the Terracotta Army costs 90 RMB (about $12 bucks) and the golf cart was an additional six yuan — no big expense.

But be warned!! The ride, although cheap, is advertised as round-trip — which it is NOT.

I’m jumping ahead here for a moment…

After spending several hours walking around the warrior museum, we boarded another golf cart for our ride back to the parking lot. But the return trip only goes a short distance, before passengers are asked to disembark and walk through a huge new pedestrian shopping strip lined with vendors hawking souvenirs. For some reason this really bugged me:

I can’t say I was surprised to see this commercialized exit extravaganza, but I was irked that we were forced to walk through it. We thought we had paid for a ride back to the parking lot…which would have been nice, especially for a four-year-old and his pregnant mommy!

But I digress…

The actual viewing of the warriors was wonderful, so let me get back to that.

This grand army of stone statues was discovered in 1974 by peasants who were digging a well in a field. They uncovered the burial grounds of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, a now famous World Heritage site. There are three main pits and we spent about two hours moving through them. The first building, essentially an airplane hangar, houses the most impressive collection of the life-size soldiers and horses. There are more than 1,000 figures, and amazingly, only one fifth of this site has been excavated:

Archaeologists have determined that no two soldiers are the same. They wear various coats of armor, display different levels of rank, and have unique facial expressions and hairstyles:

The second pit we visited was much smaller, and full of headless warriors and guys in pieces:

And the third pit is still largely unexcavated and said to possibly hold more warriors than the first two pits combined. In total, estimates predict there may be over 8,000 warrior and horse relics buried in the area. It really is incredible to see them all together like this and thing about what went into the process to create this life-size army. We took time out for a touristy moment in this third building:

And then began the journey back to the parking lot to meet Bob — a short golf cart ride followed by a long walk through the new Terracotta Warriors International Shopping Plaza, full of signs like this one:

An authentic experience — until the end, in my opinion. I’m just not a fan of consumerism shoved down my throat, and after viewing such an ancient and sacred memorial, the barrage of souvenir stands and yells from store clerks just left me feeling grumpy.

Bob next offered to take us to the actual tomb of Qin Shi Huang, located just a short ride from the Terracotta Museum. But we decided to pass, since we’d read that it’s just an artificial hill with not much else to see. We ate our lunch in the car as he drove us to our final stop, the Huaqing Pool:

The hot springs and imperial bathhouses located at the foot of Lishan Mountain were very popular with the emperors, who would spend the winters here keeping warm. There is a lift that goes to the top of the mountain, but there would not have been much to see on such a hazy afternoon. We got a kick out of the restrooms, formerly the site of the Imperial Toilet:

We took another golf cart here, because, well….we were exhausted:

We had hit a wall. And knew that it was time to stop:

Ryan had surely had his fill of “adult things”, as he often referred to our sightseeing adventures. He had the right idea for how to spend the hour ride to the airport:

Beth and I were happy to be done with “adult things” for awhile as well. I felt like a slacker for even admitting that I was tired — she’s about five months pregnant and responsible for an active four-year-old as well. What was my excuse for feeling like a weary road warrior?! We joined Ryan for an afternoon siesta, which gave us just enough energy to make it through the uneventful flight home.

It was a jam-packed journey. I don’t usually travel that “fast” but it wasn’t a horrible way to see the main attractions in a short amount of time. Overall, Xi’an is surely worth a visit, and I’ve read that there are lots of other scenic side trips that can be taken from the city center. For me, what made the trip special was my traveling companions. I’m not sure I would have enjoyed the visit as much if I had done it solo. In fact, I know I wouldn’t have. What’s memorable is that we conquered Xi’an (but not it’s city wall) together!

Chinese Buffet – Part 17: Xi’an Excursion Day One

Chinese Buffet is a month-long series that chronicles the travels of an American woman who visited China for the first time in July 2007.

One of the places that my friend Beth really wanted to see before leaving China was the historic city of Xi’an, so she invited me to join her and Ryan on an overnight excursion to the home of the Terracotta Army.

We began our trip to this very ancient city by taking the super-modern Maglev train to the Pudong airport. This state-of-the-art magnetic levitation train transports passengers 20 miles in a mere seven minutes. For 50 RMB (one-way ticket), you can get to the airport in a flash, and experience the thrill of going from 0 to 427 km/h in just five minutes:



(It was my poor photography skills – and not the speed of the train – that prevented me from getting a smooth shot on this second picture. But you get the idea, right? It’s a FAST train.)

For travelers arriving in Shanghai via the airport, the Maglev may not be your best option, since it doesn’t run into the central part of the city. It goes only as far as the Longyang Road Station in Pudong, which is still quite a ways from downtown Shanghai. But you can get the metro from there and continue your journey into the city that way.

But getting back to the airport…

We got to Pudong International with plenty of time to catch our China Eastern Airlines flight to Xi’an. The flight was less than two hours, leaving me just enough time to read up a bit on our destination. We were headed to the capital of Shaanxi province, a city of more than five million, that at one time served at the imperial capital of China. We were making the trip, like so many others do, primarily to see the Terracotta Warriors. But we hoped to squeeze in a few other sights as well.

Thanks to our own personal tour guide, we were able to do just that. Bob, a private driver who contracts work through the Hyatt Hotel, picked us up at Xi’an’s airport (40 minutes away from the city) and right away offered us an optional sightseeing stop on the way to into town:

Bob suggested we visit Xianyang, the site of China’s very first dynasty, the Qin. Relics from the former palace of Qin Shi Huang have been gathered into a museum with two main sections. First, we visited a building which housed many of these relics, including a miniature terracotta army:

The uniforms and costumes that the figures had been dressed with are now long gone, leaving these poor little guys naked. (There were a few female figures discovered at this site as well.) The second section of the complex is an underground museum, where we could walk above and around the excavation site, wearing blue scrub slippers they provide:

This was the first of several archaeological dig sites we would visit over the next two days. Since Ryan’s a dinosaur fan, he especially enjoyed seeing these dirt pits full of bones. But no Tyrannosaurus Rex here…

A theme of old vs. new seemed to be running through our adventure. We took the modern Maglev to begin our journey to a historic ancient city full of relics from the past. Yet the city is far from old anymore.

The contrasts continued as Bob drove us through the hectic streets of this booming manufacturing hub:

We passed a Home Depot on the way to the Hyatt, and I marveled once again at the constant boom of construction that defines modern China. I wondered, what would those ancient warriors think of all this growth?

Xi’an’s famous city wall soon came into view. We had read that renovation had recently been completed to the wall so visitors could now walk or bike around the entire top. After a visit to the bell tower, we attempted to gain access to the wall, but were repeatedly unsuccessful. We walked the perimeter of one section where we had been told there was an entrance. But it was smack in the middle of a dangerous roundabout loaded with speeding cars, bikes and buses. Ryan was a trooper, following along during our futile attempt to get on the wall. Eventually, we sat for a drink and felt kinda like the guy at the table behind us:

So we gave up. Some walls are just not meant to be scaled…by us, anyway! We took it as a sign that we should be hunting out some good food instead of access to an ancient wall. Good warriors we’d make, huh?

We’ll be laughing about our adventure mishap for a really long time. And we started over dinner — yummy pizza and a round of darts at the Hyatt’s pub and pizzeria:

Bob was coming back at 8 am to take us to see the Terracotta Army, so we were soon off to bed. Part two of our Xi’an excursion will continue tomorrow…

Chinese Buffet – Part 16: Shanghai’s Culture Square

Chinese Buffet is a month-long series that chronicles the travels of an American woman who visited China for the first time in July 2007.

Shanghai’s People’s Square (Rénmín Gu??ngch??ng) is a manicured patch of green in Pu Xi, the western side of the city. If you’re a culture vulture, this is a good place to begin your tour of Shanghai’s museums. Several are concentrated in this area, and with some stamina, can surely be tackled all in the same day.

The haze was thick on the sweltering morning when I decided to attempt this museum marathon. It was a perfect day for hopping from one air conditioned building to the next.

But I got off to a bad start.

I began with a visit to the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center, where I quickly gathered that Beijing’s Planning Exhibition Hall (which I had visited the week before) was clearly the better of the two museums. Shanghai’s museum is older, and it shows. The architecture of the building is futuristic but uninspiring, and many of the displays were closed for repair and without English signs. The building was hot and had an unpleasant odor. As I sped through, I wondered if they are planning to spruce it up before the World Expo hits Shanghai in 2010?

Here are my photos of the urban planning museums in each city: Beijing and Shanghai. I give Beijing’s two thumbs up — it is a modern and stylish exhibit in a sleek contemporary building — definitely worth a visit. In contrast, Shanghai’s was an unimpressive disappointment.

Hoping that some artistic intervention would brighten my day, I headed next to the Shanghai Art Museum, located just a short walk around the corner:

I headed up the grand staircase of this beautiful old building, imagining what it must have been like years ago when it operated as a race horse clubhouse. There is no permanent collection here, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

I was treated to several interesting exhibits, including one that transported me back home for a short while. There were old Westerns playing on a movie screen, and walls full of bright Santa Fe colors. Out West: The Great American Landscape was a delightful collection of pieces by American West artists that has traveled throughout China as part of a cultural exchange organized by the Meridian International Center. It was comforting to find this warm connection to home:

But I was also happy for the introductions I received to several Chinese artists, including Shen Roujian, a famous print-maker and water-colorist; and Xinle Ma, a contemporary painter from Xi’an. The visit to this art museum had restored my confidence in the day. It’s amazing what a little color can do to brighten the day!

Rejuvenated, I continued on, stopping briefly for a snack in the park, where I was approached by some of those “art students” I’d read about in the guidebooks. This young woman began chatting me up soon after I snapped this shot:

In both Beijing and Shanghai, tourists have been scammed by these “students” who attempt to get folks to visit art galleries or teahouses, where they are then swindled for money. I was approached by young Chinese couples (always a guy and a girl together) at least three times during my day roaming around People’s Square.

Since I was on to the scheme, after just a few minutes of talking to her, I gathered my belongings, politely excused myself and moved on. My next stop was the Museum of Contemporary Art:

This newer and smaller museum also lacks a permanent collection. It rotates one main installation at a time. I saw an exhibit called Reversing Horizons, which featured more than 30 artists reflections on the ten year anniversary of the Hong Kong handover. It was a funky modern display housed in an artsy space, with plenty of room for interpretation and imagination:

After about an hour here, I contemplated my next move. I’d been at it since 9:30 am and it was now pushing 2 pm. At this point, some folks might decide that they’ve reached their culture limit for the day, head back to their hotel and rest up before dinner.

But I pushed on, and often do when I’m on my own. I’d saved the largest museum for the afternoon, the one that all the guidebooks say is a must-see. There was some logical thinking behind why I had saved the Shanghai Museum for my last stop of the day…but that logic escapes me now!

By this time, I was definitely hungry for a first-class permanent collection and some traditional Chinese art. This was the place for it. Established in 1952, the Shanghai Museum is known for its comprehensive collection of over 120,000 pieces of Chinese bronze, ceramic, jade, sculpture, coins and calligraphy. There are also galleries dedicated to Chinese painting, seals and furniture:

The museum is well organized and provides fantastic English-language pamphlets on each of the ancient arts represented. If you’re a real art history buff, you could spend a full day or more here, but three hours was more than enough for me.

There are plenty of other pockets of culture throughout the city (like the Shanghai Art Gallery or 50 Moganshan Lu), but the People’s Square of Culture is a central location with several good offerings — ideally laid out for travelers with limited time in the city. The museums’ close proximity to each other make it easy to visit several in one day.

Be sure to look for the art beyond the walls of the museums as well. I spotted this reflection in the glass of the Shanghai Museum as I headed home, full from the day’s feast of ancient and modern Chinese culture.