On March 31st, I arrived at the International Terminal of LAX for the umpteenth time. I had wrapped up my life in Utah, spent a couple weeks preparing for my travels in LA, and even managed to squeeze in a quick trip to Nor Cal to visit friends & family. It had been far too long since I'd hopped on an international flight, and I was very ready to go.
I arrived in Shanghai, via a quick layover in Seoul, well-rested and with few hassles to report (thanks for that Ambien, Mom!). Erica met me at the airport, we got on the airport bus, and were at her apartment in central Shanghai in no time. On the way there, with our crazy bus driver weaving through lanes and honking at everything that moved, we passed by a construction site where a handful of Chinese men in hard hats and flip flops were welding a piece of steel about 6 inches from the road, wearing no eye protection whatsoever, at 9 o'clock at night. There was no doubt about it: I was definitely back in Asia.
I spent the next week mostly in Shanghai, with a few days of checking out nearby Hangzhou thrown in. Shanghai is a big, Asian metropolis with plenty of the modern mixed in with the ancient. The traffic seemed absolutely dead-set on running me over, the subways were clean but jam-packed, bicyclists pedaled down the most crowded of streets alongside motorbikes & taxis, charming alleyways abounding with charm and stories of laundry drying in the breeze would pop out of random urban blocks, people of all ages practiced Tai Chi around every corner... it was the China I had been expecting.
Hangzhou was a breath of fresh air -- literally and figuratively -- with its beautiful silver lake and multi-tiered pagodas popping out of the mysterious mist that perpetually lingers in the air. I wandered around the shores of its lake and finally felt like I had discovered the other, more zen-like side of China. Whereas Shanghai was the modern, crazy China I had expected, Hangzhou was the more etherial, ancient China I had dreamed of.
From the first hour, China presented many challenges to me. The language barrier was absolutely huge -- in no place I have traveled to before has English been so absent. The basic Chinese I struggled to learn was essentially useless, given that I couldn't understand anyone's responses and, frankly, was probably pronouncing everything wrong anyway. An ever bigger challenge was the food issue. I have been a vegetarian for 5 years now, though I'll dabble in fish if & when it sounds good. China seemingly is unaware of what vegetarian food is, and even when I would try desperately to order tofu or vegetables dishes, they would inevitably arrive with chunks of pork floating around in them. (I will say, however, that on my last day in Shanghai I discovered a restaurant with a 100% vegetarian and MSG-free menu that was divine!!) Initially, I had a radical itinerary planned, but once my jet lag kicked in, and the reality of my Chinese travel challenges set in, I opted to take it easy, abandon my grand plans, and shift my pace down to a much more leisurely one.
It was -- as it always is -- a good call. I became familiar with Shanghai and got to discover many of its beautiful parks. On a Sunday, I went to the "kite-flying park" and spent hours walking around as old men played chess in secluded leafy corners, Tai Chi masters taught classes to the public, and traditional Chinese music ensembles got together to play music & sing songs. That same day, I also got to have not one but TWO exceptionally delicious meals with Erica's family, who were also visiting from the States.
This first trip to China was only a short one; essentially, an extended layover to check things out & visit Erica as I made my way on down to Southeast Asia. But I'm headed back after my rounds in the South are done, with even grander plans for traveling through southeastern China, Tibet, and Beijing.