Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The China Diaries: The One About Getting to China

Interspersed throughout this entry will be ill-organized notes from my journal.

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For the three or four hours I managed to sleep, I slept pretty well the night before I left. I got up at around four-thirty, and was ready to go by five. There's nothing quite like an early morning slog to the airport; there's no one else on the roads, which is great, but I always end up wondering how I got to the terminal in the first place, like highway hypnosis extends from the car to checking in and security.

The connector from Nashville to Chicago took off as scheduled, around 7. The plane was so small that I could not stand upright in the cabin, which was a new experience. I usually make regional flights with Southwest, so I haven't been in a puddle-jumper, as my family calls them, in a very long time.

* Cities look beautiful from the air. Their sprawl can be a bit terrifying, but they look gorgeous and impressive. Small town centers, where all the development is low-lying and gathered in a small spot surrounded by farm fields or what-have-you, look like a scar on the Earth, as thought everything has died and gone black.*

The nerves started to settle in when my plane pulled up. Even then, though, I was surprised by how calm I felt. My last text was to my mom, saying "I'm about to board the plane. I guess I was serious about this whole China thing."

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I set a goal of listening to all ten of Gustav Mahler's symphonies during my travel. The total running time for them is about twelve and a half hours, so it's a pretty serious goal, but I thought with 24 hours of travel time, it would be easily accomplished. I was wrong. So wrong. I made it through five. It was an odd experience, because his music is full of a lot of portent and doom; I don't think it helped make me feel at ease. Have you ever played Soundtrack, where you put on some instrumental music and go about your day, seeing how it effects your mood and your perceptions? Behold the picture to the right, taken not too long after take-off. The sky is perfect. No turbulence, a lovely blue tint, gorgeous fluffy clouds. Yet, with Mahler's Symphony No. 3 playing, I found myself checking for gremlins on the wings. Strangely enough, I spent most of the trip alternating between Mahler and Suede.
*The sky looks beautiful, yet the pilot and the plane insist it's turbulent. Jerks.*

Here are some of the pictures I took flying over Eastern Russia and Northern China. If you click on them, they get much bigger, and they look quite nice.

The flight lasted a surprisingly quick 14 or 15 hours; I did not think it was that long. I also forgot how the flight TO China is quite gentle on jet lag. Because of the flight path, the sun never sets. I arrived in Beijing in the afternoon, and was in my apartment around 10 Tuesday night.

*Greeted in Beijing by a massive billboard of Nicolas Cage trying to sell me a watch, and a book store playing "The Way You Lie." Cultural hegemony: It's everywhere.*
**To be fair, that is the point**

Beijing airport was an impressive, impressive place. The metal bars you see in the photo to the left were all across the ceilings. It doesn't seem like much in this photo, because the room is flat and straight, but in the bigger parts of the airport, where the ceilings domed and turned and had unexpected angles, the effect was stunning. I tried to study a bit of Chinese before I left, but just about everyone who worked there knew just the right English words for their role. "You have laptop? Take out," said the nice woman at security.

The final connection flight to Xi'an was quite pleasant. I was unconscious for most of it (otherwise, I would have gotten in that sixth symphony), though the woman who sat next to me lives in Naperville, one of the Chicago suburbs. She's a native of China, but moved there a long time ago. I tried out what little Chinese I knew, in the context of "If you could help me, that'd be great."; "No," she said, "It's not understandable. My son is much better than you." I'm sure he is.

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My transportation from the school was waiting for me at the airport. They took me straight to my apartment, where I spent about an hour unpacking, and then passed out.

After all the travel, after 30 hours spent mostly awake, after landing successfully in China, a country with which I am almost completely unfamiliar and where I will be spending the next year of my life, laying on an almost impossibly hard mattress, my last thought before falling asleep was, "Did I fucking ask you if I was better than your son?"

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