Three Weeks in China

“There is some crazy shit going on here, no one is really telling me anything, I might not make it in to pick you up [in Beijing]. I need you to do everything you can to try and contact me and to check to see if my flight has made it in. If I’m not there, go into the city, find a hotel and don’t stop until you get a hold of me. If you haven’t heard back from me within 30 hours of landing, go find the embassy.”

—Matt July 6 12:21 p.m.

This was the final text message I would receive before my cell phone lost service, minutes after the United Airlines Boeing 747 I was aboard lifted off from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, en route to Beijing and the mysterious land of the Orient.

On this day, I was embarking on the first leg of a three-week excursion to a land, and to a culture that very few North Americans, myself included, know much about. I was leaving to visit an old childhood friend who had spent the last year studying, living and travelling within China. Matt’s fluency in Mandarin, coupled with his impressive knowledge of both the local customs and culture gave the whole idea legitimacy and provided some form of comfort to my parents and to all those who were naturally concerned for my safety and security.

Despite this tremendous opportunity, in the days leading up to my departure, my father in particular urged me to develop a solid contingency plan in the event that, for whatever reason, Matt was unable to meet me in the airport and I was left to fend for myself. Of course, being young and slightly reckless, I largely ignored the advice and figured things would just work themselves out. In fact, I left Winnipeg that morning with only a very rough idea of what I would be doing for the next 23 days of my life. I knew that Matt had just finished his studies at Shandong University, in his adopted hometown of Jian and was to spend a week exploring the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the northwestern extreme of China. He would be flying in from the regional capital of Ürümqi in time to meet me at Peking International in Beijing, at which point he would take me around the country to grasp a “real” Chinese experience, ending up somehow in Shanghai, in time for my flight back home at the end of the month.

As it turned out, Matt chose an awful time to visit Ürümqi, an area with a documented history of ethnic tension existing between the local and predominantly Muslim Uyghur peoples and the traditional Han Chinese. The day before I was to arrive, Ürümqi was the site of an eruption of renewed protest and violence. Reports on the precise occurrences of that day vary significantly, but the scenes of bloodstained streets and burning vehicles on the TV in O’Hare gave me more than enough cause to be apprehensive.

As I cautiously reclined in my aisle seat, watching as the Windy City slowly disappeared beneath the clouds, I found myself contemplating both the irony and the gravity of the situation. I was quite realistically facing the absolute, worst-case scenario, my worst nightmare. Here I was, flying halfway around the globe into one of the largest and most culturally unique regions of the world knowing whether my good friend would be alive, let alone be there to greet me. Further, without being able to understand a single word of the native language, even the prospect finding my way into the city by myself was daunting. It is a testament then, to my ability to stay cool under pressure, or perhaps just a reflection of my well-developed procrastination skills, but after a few minutes of fret, I simply said to myself, “screw it, it will make for a good adventure. There is nothing that I can do for the next 13 hours, so I’ll just deal with it when I get there.” It was only in that mindset that I could finally turn off my brain and enjoy the flight.

In what always counts as a blessing when involved in long transcontinental flights, I managed to find a comfortable position in my chair and catch some serious shuteye. My snooze successfully carried me through the last third of the trip, allowing my eardrums to be spared of both the persistent shrieks of the two young children nearby and also of the grating, yet ever-present, rumble-squeak of the flight attendant’s food cart. My slumber was so deep, in fact, that I somehow managed to sleep through the entire landing, as well as the runway taxi process, until I was suddenly awoken to witness a startling scene. Two men, fully outfitted in what resembled biohazard suits, were hastily making their way down the two aisles on the plane. At each row they would stop in front of a single passenger and proceed to point and click an electronic contraption against the patron’s forehead. In a state of groggy disorientation, struggling to regain my bearings, I was seriously questioning whether I had just touched down in China or in Chernobyl.

Luckily, the lady sitting across the aisle accurately noted my befuddled expression and explained that the Chinese government was conducting random symptoms checks for the H1N1 flu virus aboard all incoming foreign flights. She warned that any sign of sickness could lead to an immediate seven-day imposed term of solitary confinement in a Chinese medical quarantine. Of course, in many ways I understood the global fears associated with the H1N1 outbreak and I had heard news reports back home detailing the piggy flu paranoia beginning to sweep through parts of Asia, but this nonetheless seemed overdramatic and excessive to me. More importantly, the absurdity of the entire bizarre spectacle forced me to snap back into my harsh reality. Clearly, I was not “in Kansas anymore,” and I had a best friend to find.

The first and most important step at the time was to avoid the quarantine at all costs. I prayed to all of the major deities that I would not so much as twitch my nose while in the presence of the inspector. Understandably then, I was very pleased when the health official chose to bypass me in favour of the blonde girl to my right. As soon as passengers were given the green light to get off the plane, I grabbed my stuff and hustled towards the front exit, waiting to step into the terminal tunnel. As I finally approached the open door, I was greeted by an overwhelming burst of hot air. For at least the third time that day, I was caught up in a moment of utter bewilderment. “I must be directly behind the fumes from the plane’s exhaust funnel,” I assumed. “Wait, nope, my God, that is just the actual outside temperature.”

(An aside: The weather in Beijing, situated in northern China, was actually among the mildest that we experienced on our whole trip. Never once on my journey did I personally see the temperature drop below 27 degrees Celsius. While many of you who have been forced to endure this “summer” in Winnipeg might kill for that kind of weather, trust me, a four-hour hike along the Great Wall of China is a mighty tough challenge when you are doing it in 39 degree heat.)

Once inside the terminal my fellow passengers and I were herded towards a second H1N1 testing checkpoint, where we were told to declare any symptoms that we may have had. Shockingly, we were also required to inform the officials if we were suffering from any “unusual mental diseases.” After finally being cleared from all swine flu suspicion, I went through the standard customs procedures before finding my way onto the tram, which transported passengers to the next terminal, where our luggage carousel was located. By the end of my trip, I had become fully acclimated to the full-contact sport that was Chinese mass transportation, but on this first day I found the constant bumping and shoving quite discomforting.

Arriving at the luggage station, I was thrilled to see my bag quickly pop out of the shoot and I took it as a sign that maybe things were going to turn out all right after all. Literally knocking people around as I snatched my luggage off the carousel, I weaved my way through the lobby and up the escalator into the main arrival and pick-up area. Now, without any doubt or qualification, I can honestly say that I have never been so overwhelmed with relief as I was when I saw Matt standing there, nearly a head above everybody else, with a large jackal-esque grin plastered across his face. He shrugged his shoulders and I told him he was a crazy son of a bitch. He laughed, told me it had been a wild day, but that we should go. There was apparently a lot for us to see and not all that much time to see it.

My Chinese journey was a combination of vastly different experiences. My voyage took me through the open countryside air to the crowded and smoggy streets of Beijing. From the tops of scenic mountain ranges in Hunan province to the dingy depths of Guilin’s water caves. I observed the rough and tumble agricultural lifestyle on the steppes of rural rice terraces, and caught a glimpse of Chinese high life while sipping from a $12 cappuccino in the 87th floor bar of Shanghai’s famous and ultra luxurious Grand Hyatt Hotel. As a tall white man in China, I also became immediately aware of the dual label placed around my neck. At once, I was both a king and target. It seemed as if everybody wanted to look at us, talk to us, even to touch us. While every door was always opened wide, the minute we stepped inside, it seemed we were immediately encountered by all sorts of hustlers, cheats and liars, trying to squeeze us out for our very last dime. From the separate restaurant menus in English and Mandarin that sold the same items for different prices, to the taxi drivers who made us pay a fare upfront, even though the eventual ticker price was often much cheaper, just getting through the day with both our sanity and our wallets intact was often an exhausting prospect. I was also left astonished and impressed by the blinding rate of change occurring all around me. In many places, Mao, as in Zedong, the famed Communist leader and revolutionary, has become less visible then Yao, as in Ming, the Shanghai-born, seven-foot-six star forward for the NBA’s Houston Rockets.

After spending nearly a month in China, the reasons for Ming’s rapid ascension to fame and mass popularity became apparent. On the whole, the Chinese people have been engrained with an unquenchable thirst for urban and economic development. Just from being in this atmosphere, I sensed the strong desire for “more” and “better.” I could sense how the common mindset has shifted towards a greater appreciation for the Western lifestyle. The Chinese people I met were not merely content with the construction of new buildings and the development of new trains, but rather, they wanted to see the tallest buildings and the world’s fastest trains in China. Ming, a larger-than-life individual in almost every way, is loved and revered simply for his success in the world of Western-dominated professional sports. Although I was often enthralled by the urgent vibrancy of the big cities’ bright lights and the buzz of their modern outdoor shopping plazas, I was profoundly disturbed by the sight of the hobbling old ladies, resigned to a life begging on the street, or the sign just outside the city of Chongquing, that read, “dumping baby girls is prohibited here.” It was in these moments that I came to the sobering realization, that despite all of their recent growth and undeniable development, in many societal aspects, China still has a long way to come.

The experiences that I gathered, the challenges that I endured and the adventures that I enjoyed throughout my time in China, have fundamentally altered my outlook on life and of my own self-perception. As a small example, the usual lack of suitable laundry mats often forced me to wash and wring out my clothes by hand, teaching me an important lesson in self-reliance. I felt I grew and matured as a person, having overcome the many moments when I was pushed well beyond my comfort zone. The night that I spent on a boat down the Yangtze River, holed up with four other people in a grimy 12 by 8 room occupied by cockroaches and noisy river rats, certainly qualified as one of those uncomfortable moments that I’m sure I will always remember. Most importantly, my time abroad reminded me just how fortunate I am to have had the time and the ability to pursue such an adventure. Although there were numerous aspects of my trip that brought out confusion and frustration, I am left with many fond memories and will always be thankful for the time I was able to spend travelling with a close friend in the summer of 2009.