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Explore the World: China, First Impressions

In November 2009 Beaker and I traveled what seemed a million miles away to China.  One day I saw a trip being advertised on one of the travel websites and the price was incredible. It was $900 per person, and it included air tickets from San Francisco to Beijing, air from Beijing to Shanghai and back to San Francisco. The price also included hotels in both cities, airport transfers and daily breakfast. The dates were in late November which was all right with us. We consider off season the best time to travel: the prices are cheaper, you encounter less crowds and you are able to take advantage of travel opportunities.

When reading my new series of articles about China, please keep in mind that China has the most amazing contrastbetween modern and traditional, rural and new, communism and capitalism.

Air China
My pre-trip research told me that Air China is not a good airline to travel. People on the Internet complained about small leg space, tiny TVs that show movies in Chinese with English subtitles, horrible, smelly food and not enough place for the overhead luggage.

When we boarded the Air China plane in San Francisco, we were prepared for the worst. What we experienced was not bad at all. Our luggage fit in a overheard compartment just fine. The leg room was decent. Beaker is over six feet tall and I am 5’10″, so we do need some leg room. The food was bad but have you ever had a delicious meal on a plane?

The flight was a 12-hour non-stop direct flight from San Francisco to Beijing. TVs  indeed turned out to be small and were located only in the front section. Most of the films were in Chinese with English subtitles. If you didn’t have a portable DVD player, you pretty much had to entertain yourself.

Your entertainment options were not too bad. You could read, listen to your Ipod or go to the end of the plane and get to know some travelers over a drink or do some tai chi with Chinese folks. Chinese people know that it is important to move around during long flights, and indeed they do move around a lot.

Like most people I hate airplanes bathrooms: claustrophobic small rooms with dirty, smelly toilets that threaten to suck you in when you flush them. Now imagine about four hundred people on the big plane using a very few bathrooms over the period of twelve hours. You probably don’t want to imagine it, right? Air China had the cleanest bathrooms I ever saw. In fact, later on, I was impressed with the cleanness of all public bathrooms in China. I think Chinese make a point to clean their bathrooms. Some of us need to learn this from them.

It was bad. As soon as we were outside and started walking to our tour bus, I smelled something metallic in the air. This metallic taste slowly moved into my throat and settled there for the next ten days. Mistakenly I thought that something was burning. Finally, I realize that it was the infamous Chinese pollution.

The pollution was thick, heavy and had a life of its own. Early morning you could see blue sky but by noon all you could see was grey polluted air embracing the city. You could feel its metallic taste in your throat.

We noticed that a lot of Chinese people coughed a lot. They also hacked a lot. In fact, you had to be careful when someone hacked close to you. If you stood too close, some hacks may end up on your shoes. Not on purpose, and it would be your fault because you were not watching.

Chinese people didn’t say “excuse me”, “I am sorry”, “I didn’t mean to.” If you were in their way, they would push you, move you and would not look back to check if you are okay. In the airport when I was pushed aside, and Beaker almost got run over by a cart loaded with luggage, I felt like I was back home in the good old Soviet Union. More of this resemblance will come later.

Yes, you have read it right. In spite of the horrible pollution and traffic you could not possibly imagine, China is very conscious about their open space and … sustainability. For example, in Beijing we discovered that hotels in China make sure you don’t leave your room lights on when you leave your room. Your room key serves as a power trigger. You open your door, you put your room key in an allocated power pocket and the lights come on. You leave your room, you take out your key from the power pocket and your lights go off. Simple? Yes. Great? Absolutely.