Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Oct 08 2006

I had to get up at 5am to catch my flight to Shang…

I had to get up at 5am to catch my flight to Shanghai. Packing the night before, thanks in part to a healthy dose of procrastination, took much longer than it should have, and I didn’t get to sleep until after 3.

I packed two bags, my backpack and my big backpack I’d bought a few days before. The latter was a mistake; too heavy, too big and covered with useless straps and clips. It was filled with clothes I wasn’t even sure I’d need. I’d have been better off with a tote bag. But the weather was cool as I crossed the bridge to the MRT station, and, I thought, surely it’s even colder in Shanghai and Beijing.

I managed not to fall asleep on the MRT, no mean feat, and caught a bus to the airport, whose name, according to the signage is now a confusing mixture of “Chiang Kai-shek International Airport” and “Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport” with varying combinations of the two. The last iteration I’ve heard of is “Taipei Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport”. I don’t see how they could make it even more bland and simultaneously confusing, but I’m sure they’ll try. We arrived at the older terminal, which I found I preferred to the new glass-and-steel terminal as the former evokes a cool 60’s vibe, lacking only period cars and men in hats smoking in the corner to complete the scene.

The place was packed, the ticket counters resembling a cattle market, but a helpful China Airlines staff member showed me a cool little machine that automatically checks you in, provided you don’t have any check-in luggage, and my big pack just managed to clear the carry-on box’s limits. I wandered up to immigration, got the usual questions about the apparent incompatibility of my nationality and appearance, and found myself almost two hours early for my flight. Damn, I thought, I could’ve slept in.

I watched planes flying in and out, the larger ones majestic in their apparent defiance of gravity, as well as pulling themselves around the runways surrounded by tiny airport vans. The planes parked at the terminals resembled upside-down boats at a dock, their rudders sticking into the air.

The waiting room gradually filled up with passengers as our 747 pulled into its berth. As always I waited to be the last one on the plane, and discovered that all of the hassle I’d saved with the automatic check-in machine had merely been transferred to the boarding gate. While all the other passengers could just get on the plane by relinquishing half of their boarding pass, I had to have all of my travel documents examined before I could board. “Am I the only one who used the machine?” I asked the gatekeeper, as I suspected my unusual status was somehow influencing the procedure.

“Oh, no, there were, uh, three others,” he replied.

As I crammed myself into my window seat, though most of my view was blocked by a wing, I found that, either I’ve been growing over the last few years, or the seats have been shrinking. I could barely fit my knees in the space between my seat and the one in front of me.

The flight was uneventful, Jim Northrup’s favorite kind, but my whole morning had been spent in a kind of feverish anticipation, such was my pent-up longing for travel. Airports! Tickets! Getting on a plane! Boarding announcements! All these ordinary aspects of travel I’d been craving for years. I’ve always enjoyed flying, but this time watching the clouds streak by outside the window held an even greater appeal due to my heightened appetite for such things. Even the in-flight meal, a bland noodle dish, tasted better than it normally would have.

We got in to Hong Kong around noon. Thanks to political issues, flying from Taipei to Shanghai is an all-day affair, when it should only take an hour or two. Direct links to China have been on the table in recent years, but as of now things are still tied up in matters relating to sovereignty, trade, designations, air space, boundaries, and many other factors. I still hope someday to take a cruise ship from Keelung to Shanghai, but I’m not holding my breath.

Hong Kong’s new airport seemed much more international after Taiwan, with modern stores and vaulted steel ceilings. My connecting flight, I found when I picked up my boarding pass, was booked solid. The impatient clerk dressed me down for wanting a window seat, when even aisle seats were unavailable. For me, looking out the window of a plane is half the fun of flying, so I wasn’t nearly as happy about this flight as the last as I put my heavy bags in a cart and wheeled it down to the Dragon Air, where I found many more people waiting to get on the plane than it seemed the plane could hold. Like a clown-car act at a circus, however, the long line of passengers somehow managed to disappear through the boarding gate. I followed, and found that I’d apparently been assigned the seat that no one else wanted, smack in the middle of the middle row, and directly underneath one of the TV monitors.

I passed the time in the air this time by reading and listening to whatever was playing on the TV. The sun, now low in the sky, shone into the cabin, and I took pictures of the backlit passengers as we flew into Shanghai.

The airport was another steel-and-glass leviathan structure, but I was excited just to be there, though airports are never really “there” but some intermediate limbo, only slightly related to the cities they serve. I passed a desk for Taiwanese nationals and asked if I needed anything, but a couple assured me I had all the right stamps. Apparently you can fly to China without all the stamps; as long as you have the olive-colored “Tai Bao Zheng” booklet, you can get any stamp you need at the airport.

Immigration presented me with another sea of people, divided roughly into indistinct lines for “Foreign Nationals” and “Chinese Nationals (including Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan)”. I joined the latter, assuming it would provide speedier service, but found it moved no faster due to a clueless Japanese tour group, filled with people who spoke neither English nor Chinese, that had bumbled its way through the line, right up to the counter. The Chinese around me expressed dismay at this interruption, and the airport official prodded them back into their group when it tried to take advantage of a break in an adjacent line. “That’s strange, I thought Japanese were usually more organized,” I said to a woman from Hong Kong next to me in line.

When I reached the immigration counter, I wondered if I would have a problem. It was the first time I’d ever traveled to China with a Taiwan passport, and I didn’t know how they would react. The official took my documents without a second glance, examined them, and then asked, “How long have you been a Taiwanese national?”

“About 12 or 13 years now.”

“What is your purpose of travel?”

“Pleasure,” I said, thinking to myself, this is going far too normally. “Do you get many cases like mine?”

“A few,” the official said. “I’ve never seen any myself, but I’ve heard of it now and then.”

I wanted to ask him more, but I felt I was pressing my luck, and in any case the travelers behind me didn’t look amenable to more delays, so I let it go and proceeded into the airport.

I’d been told a bus was the best way to get into the city, but I wanted try the new, very fast maglev train, as I’d never been on a bullet train, much less a maglev one. With an incoming flight ticket stub, it’s only 50 RMB. The waiting room was adorned with red PRC flags, most likely left over from the recent National Day celebrations. A woman on the staff held a group of people off at the escalator leading to the maglev platform while the train disgorged its passengers below, and then we were allowed down and onto the train, which looked much like an ordinary fast train. It was grey and short, with only a few cars. Curiously, the seats inside were very cheap and covered with low-price, ill-fitting canvas, and bolted crudely to the floor.

We set off into the dusk, past groups of single-unit houses set among swampy canals. The train’s speed was displayed on an LED at the front of the car as we accelerated to over 400 kilometers per hour, the train bumping along the tracks like an airplane on takeoff, though we were going much fast than that.

The train’s speed topped out at around 430kph and stayed there as we flew past the adjacent highway traffic, now illuminated by the full moon rising over the swampland. It was Mid Autumn Festival, I recalled, and thought of all my Taiwanese friends having barbeque out on their roofs, leaving the mess for stray cats.

A train official with a military-style cap sat at the front of the car. As we arrived at the terminal station (there’s only one stop) I asked him how fast the train could go. “431 kilometers per hour,” he said by rote, as if he got the question all the time, which he probably does.

“Are you sure it can’t go faster?”

“No.”

“I thought I saw it going 432 just now.”

“No, it didn’t.”

“Are you sure? Hasn’t anyone ever wondered if it can go faster?”

“No.”

The train left me at a subway station. I gave the ticket vendor a handful of the unfamiliar money for a ticket into town, and he handed most of it back, along with a ticket. The subway in Shanghai appears much older and more used than the MRT in Taipei. As I got on the green-and-white train I saw the business cards were strewn all over the dark gray floor. I thought it was part of some ad campaign until two men walked down the aisle throwing similar cards at each and every passenger. Most of them threw the cards on the floor in disgust, while a few looked at them.

It was odd to hear the mainland Chinese accents all around me, with some unintelligible Shanghainese thrown in. A couple of men who looked like migrants from Western China, looked at me with what seemed like open hostility.

At one point a young girl in a green sweater came up to me with a glass. She was a beggar and asked me for money, but the other passengers shooed her away.

I got out at the last stop, the Zhongshan Park Station, and went out on the street for my first real taste of Shanghai. I was surprised to find myself on a sidewalk that looked exactly like a Taiwanese sidewalk, in front of a mall that looked just like a Taiwanese shopping center, right down to the Mister Donut store. It was an uncanny feeling. I walked to the adjacent park and called Lennet, who offered me lodging while I was there. I’d planned to walk through the park to the rear entrance to meet him, but the guard said I’d get lost and told me to walk around. I met Lennet at the rear gate and he took me to his high-rise apartment along the Suzhou Canal.

After Taipei, Shanghai feels like an alternate universe, where just about everything is similar to normal reality, but you never know when you’ll bump into something completely different. Everyone speaks Chinese, but it’s not Chinese as we know it, Jim. The traffic is chaotic, but not like Taipei chaos. More people honk their horns. There aren’t as many scooters. The buildings are taller, almost Hong Kong-esque. I was high on the differences, though; I needed to get out and explore. But that was for the next day.

posted by Poagao at 4:09 am  

5 Comments »

  1. I find it interesting that both you and Mark commented that Shanghai’s subway is more beat up than Taipei’s MRT, yet when I visited Taipei, I didn’t notice that the MRT was cleaner or newer-looking than Shanghai’s subway system.

    I’m not saying you or Mark is wrong, just that it’s funny what we notice.

    Looking forward to more of these observations.

    Comment by John — October 9, 2006 @ 3:48 am

  2. Hello,
    I’m Taiwanese-Canadian and I have a Chinese-Canadian friend living in Shanghai. I’ve never had the feeling to visit China so I’ll be looking forward to your stories of China.
    Jeanne, Toronto,Canada

    Comment by Anonymous — October 9, 2006 @ 3:48 am

  3. I like the alternate universe description. It’s not really like it’s an alien place. It’s the same place you’re used to, but… warped somehow.

    BTW, you were lucky you got the maglev into town. I got into the airport late at night and it was an hour long taxi ride for me.

    Comment by Mark — October 9, 2006 @ 3:49 am

  4. John, maybe it’s because I’ve known the MRT since it was new, and it changes my perception of it. Or maybe I just always happen to get the newer cars there and older cars here in Shanghai the three time I’ve taken it. My superficial observations of Shanghai after only a few days can’t be that representative after all.

    Comment by TC — October 9, 2006 @ 3:55 am

  5. John, despite the Shanghai subway being beat up and despite its rude commuters, I still liked it more. Why? They don’t have “no food or drink upon the threat of thousands of $$ in fines” rules.

    Comment by Mark — October 9, 2006 @ 5:52 am

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