China travel log
Melinda and I are ready for bed, staying with er4 jiu4. It’s 21C outside, 22C inside but we have an air conditioner above our bed this evening. It’s hard to believe we’ve been on our trip for only two days. Let’s review.
The trip started for us late Thursday night in San Francisco. I left work early Thursday because the hours before a two week vacation aren’t really that effective, anyway. Melinda and I went out to dinner, slowly, and still had maybe two hours to pass before heading to the airport. Park Chow, some internet, and a cab ride later and it’s going on midnight in the International terminal at SFO. The flight’s at 1:30a and leaves only 20 minutes late. We’re in the back of a 747-400 along with 320 other Economy class passengers but the ride’s decent enough. We sit next to Jacob, a 30-year old from Shelton, WA, who’s happy to chat about his life for most of the flight, and Melinda’s happy to chat with him. I doze on and off, most of the time with the blanket over my head(!). The cabin’s a little chilly and our seats are next to the galley where there’s extra noise and light during the flight. Covering my head with a blanket seems way better than just being uncomfortable. I end up sleeping for at least half the 12.5 hour flight.
Our bag is checked through to Shanghai so when we land in Taipei we need only make our way to the connecting flight gate. We don’t have boarding passes for the next leg and TPE’s security check point doesn’t seem to care about that fact. Maybe it’s that it’s 6a and there’re very few people in the terminal just yet. Melinda and I find our way to the gate, don’t see anyone there, then ask for directions for where to check in. Handy that Melinda speaks Mandarin! We find that we’d walked past the check-in counter, due to the zeal of airport staff in directing all transfers down a specific hall, but we’re quick to check-in. The counter already has our boarding passes printed – I guess there’s few people who make this transfer. Back at the departure concourse we walk through some art exhibits, including one on the indigenous people of Taiwan. Not deeply informative but passes the time. We also discover free Internet on the concourse so we check e-mail before the next flight leg.
We’re again on a 747-400 on this flight leg but the whole flight is less than 90 minutes. This time restriction doesn’t stop them from serving lunch in flight. And it’s a welcome meal, too, for me, as I’m curiously hungry (curious because I’d eaten just four hours earlier). While waiting for the flight I sneak off to change my shirt; I’m feeling much more comfortable now.
Melinda and I pass through customs in Shanghai easily and are out the door without a few minutes of picking up our checked bag. Yulin and Edwin, as well as San Jiu [Melinda’s Third Uncle, of three], are waiting to greet us. They’ve hired a van and driver, Mr. Wong, for us for the next two days, and we pile in to the van parked near the exit of baggage claim.
[Note: it’s now Saturday morning. All of Friday disappeared due to the time change and the flight. We’ll get half that back on the return flight about 10 days from now.]
Our first stop is a noodle house not far from the airport. It’s … very local. There’s some discussion about what we’re eating (sounds almost like an argument) but most of us end up with noodles. They’re tasty, and even the dish with oil and sliced peppers isn’t really spicy. Shanghainese cuisine isn’t all that spicy even at its worst, apparently.
We then head out for Chongming island, located just north of Shanghai city and within the delta of the Yangtze. We find the A30 (we get lost first and ask someone along the street for directions – we’ll end up doing this pattern several times on this trip) and drive for maybe 90 minutes in total. From where we eat we’re quickly on a multilane highway with very little traffic; that highway then turns into a tunnel and bridge crossing the Yangtze. (When Melinda was here 15 years ago there was no bridge and the ferry boat crossing took four hours.) On Chongming there’s even less traffic but the roads are still two lanes in each direction (plus a shoulder, which apparently is a-okay to use as a lane if you want to).
Let’s talk about driving for a little bit. First, what’s on the road. We saw vans (small, 8-passenger vans), some cars (VWs and Benzes), and a lot of scooters. Scooters come in various shapes and sizes, including the three-wheel variety (small flatbed scooters), the bike-with-a-motor variety, but often the Vespa-like sitting-upright variety. Maybe one-third of the scooters had a passenger in addition to the driver, and we saw even one scooter towing another scooter. There’s also small tractors, which have four wheels, a flat bed, and a two-stroke motor mounted way out front, out beyond the front wheels. You can see the engine turning a big drive wheel on one side – the engine isn’t placed in a neat box like it would be on a car or even a Western tractor. Every time we saw one of these tractors I thought of the hrududus from Watership Down.
Next, the rules of driving. They’re more like guidelines than strict rules. You drive on the right, except when you want to turn around on a divided highway (although there wasn’t any traffic in that case). Stay within a lane but the shoulder is a lane for the purpose of this definition. Pedestrians and scooters assume you won’t hit them, and they’re right. You should signal that you won’t hit them, especially if they get out of your way, by sounding your horn. You can also sound your horn to encourage traffic in front of you to move, rather than be parked in the lane of travel, or to vent any grievances you may have. Safe traveling speed varies but is nearly never limited by the posted signs nor is enforced by local police. Passing a police car with its lights flashing is not the unwise offense it would be in the States. Periodically there are cameras (or other sensors?) monitoring the roads, which I infer must measure speed, because only when we approach them did our driver ever slow down (and he did slow down, just as we passed by, and sped up again afterward, despite there being no other traffic). One tour bus swerved onto the shoulder to avoid one of these checkpoints.
[Incidentally, it’s now nearly midnight Monday night and Melinda and I are in Tainan, Taiwan. Writing LJ has been slower than I guessed, due mostly to me being sleepy in the evenings.]
Okay, so, back to driving. The van eventually pulls off the road, turns down an alley, down another alley, through a gate and up to a tiny apartment building. The outside looks sort of dilapidated – in fact, most buildings in China seem dilapidated from the outside – and, well, the inside is small, too. I’ll post pictures soon, I hope. It’s in this apartment that Melinda spent several weeks one summer when she was growing up, living with Da Jiu [Melinda’s Oldest Uncle] and Da Jiu Ma [his wife]. We collect these people at this stop, but only after many hellos and introductions, and head out the alley ways back to the highway. The van is now very full of people and luggage, and occasionally Melinda or her mom translates something for me. Otherwise I just look out the window, smile politely, and mentally practice pronouncing the two or three phrases I’ve been taught so far (xie xie and ni hao).
Both Melinda’s mom’s parents were born on this island, Chongming, as were many generations before them, in fact. Recently at a construction site some workers discovered the urns of many people, unmarked in the ground, but each urn marked. One of them was the ashes of Yulin’s grandfather; the workers turned it over to her brothers, and they’ve since placed it in a family plot in a cemetery on the island. We visited the cemetery and the plot, and the headstone shows photos of Melinda’s po po, gong gong, and his parents (the ashes of only the grandparents, not po po and not gong gong, are there). The siblings set out food for them, burn an offering of gold and silver “money,” kowtow, linger for a moment, then head out (bringing the food with them, of course). The cemetery has hundreds of plots like these, the more recent ones smaller than the earlier ones. The cemetery was opened just in the 1990s but, as it’s just urns of ashes in the ground, it’s not hard to move in long-passed relatives into a new cemetery. I found it sort of odd that basically the entire place was concrete – the walking paths, the plots, nearly everything but for two small planters on each plot. Maybe it’s safer for when relatives burn offerings, or maybe it’s just easier to sweep than to mow.
The days on this trip proved long and filled with activity. Melinda and I have been waking up way early, in part because that’s when the sun comes up and in part due to jetlag. But that’s meant so much time to see and do things. And see and do many things we have. Our first day is hardly over in this LJ post, even.
Driving around Chongming we saw very few people so it was to my great surprise when we pulled in to Dongping National Forest Park and found scores of cars and hundreds of people. The park is a mix of Enchanted Village and Northwest Trek, an analogy useful only to those living near Seattle. It’s a park, in that it’s filled with trees, but it’s also a recreational attraction in that there’s bumper cars, a paintball shooting range(!), and a tiny roller coaster. The forest looks very natural and is left to grow naturally, from the way it looks, but it was planted by someone lacking an imagination but possessing a yardstick. Around and through the park run many paths, all of which are paved, and around the outer loop path runs a tram every five minutes. Melinda, Edwin, San Jiu, and I are dropped off at the park which the van with the others heads to the house to prepare dinner. Our group of four heads out to walk around the park. I take a picture of the map but there’s no scale and I don’t think anything of how long this affair will take. (Hint: it’s much longer than I’d have guessed.) Walking into the park there’s a row of birds in cages – mynah birds, I believe – that some people are trying to coax into repeating them, without much success. The paths in the park are mostly shaded, which is pleasant, and we bring some water. After maybe 45 minutes of walking we’ve passed a few recreational attractions, and several trams have passed us. Lots more walking and I finally notice that the trees are planted in a grid, “just like in the real world.” When we reach the water park(!) we decide to keep going around the park, but at this time there’s no longer any option to take a short cut if it proves too long. But no matter – we complete the circuit, almost (there’s to entrances separated by a few hundred meters) and it’s probably about five miles in total. The van picks us up and we head back to the house to join the others.
More driving along the roads but they’re narrowing and we’ve lost the lane divider markings. We turn off the road to a driveway, little wider than the van itself, but made out of concrete, not asphalt – it’s a durable road. Wending past wheat and bean fields we pull through a gate in front of one house, a three-story structure. Our bags, and the others, are already inside so we join them. Inside we find a large and mostly empty house; it’s the brothers’ vacation house, it turns out. They built it a few years ago but they use it only maybe a few times per year. There’s a large family room and adjacent dining room, a kitchen, and a few suites of rooms + bathrooms. Melinda and I like the two bedrooms + one bathroom design. The floors are wood or tile, but dusty, but there’s lots of slippers at the entrance door for us in exchange for our shoes and to keep our socks clean. I see the dining table is entirely covered with the ingredients and results of making dumplings, and Da Jiu and Da Jiu Ma are in the kitchen starting to cook them. Melinda and I get the tour and busy ourselves making things comfortable – this house will be our accommodation tonight. Dinner’s soon ready and there are more dumplings than anyone could possibly eat. And they’re good, too – can’t beat a fresh dumpling. Our hosts don’t speak much English but between what they do speak and gestures they encourage me to eat as many dumplings as I can. I finally remember the trick about leaving *some* food on your plate, in order to avoid the “your plate is empty so it needs to be refilled” reaction which I’d been drawing.
After dinner we show pictures from the wedding and New York reception, and then sort of just talk down the evening. Eventually some of our extra guests depart but several people stay with us for the night. It’s still sort of early – maybe 10:30p – but Melinda and I are so very tired so we call it a night.
Ah, yes, sleeping: let’s say something about accommodations. Melinda and I were given a bedroom with one queen-sized bed. The bed itself is composed of wooden slats, but there’s no mattress. Instead we get a thick comforter as our mattress, then a fitted bottom sheet and one more comforter for the top. It’s not terribly comfortable but I’m good at sleeping and I’m out within a few minutes.