On Sunday, May 18th, I woke up, showered, dragged my big suitcase out my door once again and drove 2.5 hours to Newark airport where I then got on a 14 hour flight direct from the US of A to Shanghai, China.
Before I get into the trip itself, let's just talk about that flight a little bit. Flight time, like distances running, are relative. A five or six hour flight used to seem like an eternity to me but now it is pretty easy. A 14 hour flight, however, is a beast. When you're in your tiny seat for 8 hours and look and see that the time to arrival is still 6 hours away? Sheesh. However, marathon training has taught me a lot about these "endurance" things and how to break it up mentally. Like when going out for a 20-mile run can be a challenge when you think, "Holy crap I have already run 12 miles and I still have 8 more??" Which is why, I mentally break my runs into smaller runs and broke the flight into smaller shorter segments.
The flight was tough, but not unbearable. What made it the most stressful was that half way through the flight while I was doing some work on my laptop, the screen broke. I traveled to China for work and the thought of not having my laptop or the presentation I had to give made me really, really, really nervous and anxious for the rest of the flight! I watched some movies and TV shows though, read, slept, listened to music, ate a weird egg thing, etc.
Our in flight food consisted first of a choice of a vegetarian or chicken lasagna, then we got a little turkey sandwich and a cup of ice cream, then for breakfast they must have decided that were were now more on the Chinese side of our journey because our choices were "eggs or noodles?"
When is "eggs or noodles" ever the two alternatives to one another?? That was when I really started to realize my culinary adventure was just beginning. I had spent a lot of time preparing for the trip on the work side of things and realized as I was packing that I had done little to no research on the practical side of things. What kind of converter do I need for my electronics? What is the exchange rate? How do I say hello and thank you in Chinese?
When I arrived at the airport I took out the most amount of money that the ATM would let, which, I had no idea how much that translated to, but I hoped it wold do the trick for the time I would be there. I got a pretty impressive wad of 100s which made me feel pretty badass, I must say! Later I learned that the translation is about 6:1 RMB to dollars. I used my calculator on my phone a lot throughout the week multiplying by .16 to get the exact translation of what things cost in China. Some things, like Subway rides, were really cheap (3-4 RMB) and other things were a lot more expensive than in the U.S. (such as coffees at Starbucks!) Which, Starbucks had a completely different menu in China, by the way...
As I headed from the airport to the hotel, I tried to take in everything around me. The sky was just completely gray, which I wasn't sure was a factor of the smog I had heard so much about before traveling to China or if it was just a cloudy, rainy day. Everything felt very quiet since I had gotten out of the plane too. In the airport, on the roads, etc. it all just felt very subdued, which was a little surprising to me because given the amount of people who live in China, I figured it would be chaotic and crowded almost always!
Shanghai is the most populated city in the world with 24 million people living there. New York City has 8.5 million people and knowing how cramped and loud that is, I guess I was surprised that the roads weren't a complete noisy cluster.
Aside from that, my first observations from the car were that it was rather... ugly? I don't like saying that about a city but the gray skies really don't do anything for a new place and there were heavy duty transmission lines everywhere and TONS of large construction cranes everywhere. Seriously, I am not really that observant of a person, but the amount of construction cranes were undeniable. It immediately told me that Shanghai is still growing and scaling up as fast as it can.
I checked into my hotel, showered, and then went directly into the office where I stayed for a few hours before meeting an American friend I have who has been living in Shanghai for the past 18 months for dinner. When I checked in to the hotel, they gave me a cup of tea while I was waiting, and I swear, I stared at it for a good 30 seconds trying to figure out if there were fish in my tea or if this was a part of the cup... I ended up having to stick my finger in and touch this because it was playing mind tricks on me. I didn't want to drink a fish!
When I walked out of the metro at the Jiang Temple stop (awesome metro stop name, by the way), I immediately realized that Shanhai was a city like Las Vegas, where during the day it isn't much for the eyes, but it is almost breathtaking by night.
There were lights everywhere. Lots of neon signs, twinkling lights in the trees, and a great energy. It was drizzling a little bit and I was jet lagged, but energized by the new scenery around me.
My first meal in Shanghai I was like a bright eyed little kid. I wanted to try everything and take everything in and I felt very thankful that my first meal in China was with a friend and not coworkers! He was very patient with me learning the chopsticks, asking about the foods, language and life in China in general. I learned that the Chinese don't usually use soy sauce with their food, but vinegar. And the Shanghaiese speciality for dumplings are made with some soup or liquid inside and were really delicious!
The other thing that stands out from that first meal in Shanghai was that the toilets had a button that you could press that played noises like running water. How cool is that??
Anyways, I luckily did pretty well with the jet lag, with the exception of waking up a few times throughout the night on Monday night and having a little bit of a slow start on Tuesday, I felt good! I ran on the treadmill in the morning, which I think really has helped me adjust to time zones in the different places I have traveled. However, due to the smog, it was an indoor run for me.
I was in China for work but was luckily able to spend some free time on Tuesday exploring Shanghai a bit and checking out "the Bund" which is this cool area that provides a beautiful view of the city. On one side of the river is the newer financial district of the city with buildings such as the Oriental Pearl needle and the under construction Shanghai tower, and on the other side is some of the more traditional building, including a little shopping area I explored.
I actually bought something in a store that was called "bread cheese" and took one bite, spit it out, and threw it away. How can something called "bread cheese" not taste good?! I have no idea, but I couldn't even swallow a bite.
I had dinner with my friend again, this time at a vegetarian restaurant that was pretty cool and again, lots of new food, and even more questions I had for my friend after a day of exploring and making some observations. In the picture below you can see his hands pointing out what everything in front of us is on the menu :) We had a really good time at dinner, and at the end of the meal a colleague of his came and met us out and we all went to a local rooftop bar for a drink, which was great to get additional perspectives and thoughts on life in China -- this time from a native European.
The following day I spent more time in the office and then one of my coworkers arrived and I took her to see what had been some of the coolest spots in Shanghai I had seen the day before.
We ate dinner overlooking the Bund, which was really interesting to notice how the smog in the city changed from day to day. The day before when I had been there by myself it was a beautiful and clear day. That day, it was way smoggy and the horizon was a blur. You could also taste the smog as you breathed in on the bad days, which was gross and disgusting to feel like you were polluting your lungs just by breathing (the first few days I was in Shanghai I only ran on the treadmill!)
We made it an early night (after catching up on work from the hotel room!) as our official business meetings started the next day. I knew that once the official meetings took place, we'd have a packed schedule -- and man, was I right! However, the first few days in Shanghai were truly eye-opening, exciting, a learning experience, and fun. The adventure had barely just begun though!
(Part 2 to come!)