My nerves are on edge. My stomach is empty and churning. It’s two hours before I’m leaving to the airport for my first trip to China. If there is a word for both my state of mind and state of luggage, and that word is over-prepared. Feel free to debate that hyphen.
I’ve spent my last few evenings searching blogs, websites, journals and such to give me tips on what to bring and hope to maintain a semblance of a North American lifestyle whiles overseas. Why I felt I had to stay the same, while being in a totally foreign place, I have no great answer for. Fear of the unknown, I expect. I will discover on my trip that 99% of what I read was off target, and overly specialized to those particular writer/travelers. Whoever wrote these editorials seems, now in retrospect, like they were preparing for a month of backwoods camping in some Chinese forest and not a regular itinerary of hotels, trains and short hop flights between Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. What I assume falls into the majority of first-timer’s experience to China. Putting aside the adventure seekers and Tibet trekkers for a moment. Let’s run down the absurd list of things I ended up taking mostly due to the internet advice. Sugar packs, tissue, business cards, calculator, hand held fan, rubber bands, paper clips, Vapo rub, compass, alarm clock, batteries, super glue and cereal. I didn’t need ANY of it. A reasonable person could look at the list and conclude that 13 out of 14 of these items or more is probably made in China, and easily findable there. But I did combine the glue and cereal as soon as I got to my hotel for a “get high, eat cereal by yourself” kinda night. Kidding! Really, the only things I ended up needing were;
- extra memory card for my digital camera
- a notebook
- Tic Tacs
- an adventurous appetite.
There has been no chance of a few hours respite for sleep due to the over-activity of my brain, but to compensate for this I have pushed up my arrival time at the airport, where I plan to take full advantage of my guest pass to the Maple Leaf lounge to employ both environmental and alcoholic methods to enhance my calm to a level suited for international travel. The drive to the airport is lightning quick, and check-in follows the same routine. On my way through security I wave a farewell to my Dad who’s dropped me off and walked me through the airport. As I turn my head to talk to a security guard I hear my Dad shouting over my shoulder. He is pointing at a giant sign above my head for cheap long-distance plans for my cell phone. Another travel must have that my research didn’t turn up…
Wearing only my backpack and standing in Pearson Airports International terminal a realization both calming and electrifying dawns on me, “I’m DOING this”! The thought jolts in my head and shoots down through my shoulders and straightens my back, making my arm hair stand on end. Up until this point my travel experience has been limited to England, Jamaica and the United States. You can get by reasonably by speaking English in all those places, except Louisiana. Now I’m headed by myself to a country on the other side of the world, for 3 weeks, with a total of $200 U.S. on me. My next paycheck isn’t too far away but a combination of paying off student loans and paying for the ticket of my trip has left me with the finances in mildly better shape than a gambling crackhead. At least for the next 15 hours during the flight my way is paid! Still high on adrenaline from the thought of freedom, I muster the courage to ask an incredibly gorgeous flight attendant on her way by if she knows where the 1st class lounge is. She looks like a mix of Black and Asian, with the accent of a Francophone who’s learned English. “Thank you Montreal” is my next thought . I realize I’m staring at her, after she’s answered and pointed to the end of the terminal. I contemplate asking her if she could show me exactly where it is, but my confidence hasn’t grown that much. Let’s assume someday it might.
As I walk through the sliding glass doors of the Maple Leaf lounge for the first time ever, I notice the doors are frosted 80% of the way up to dis-allow the privilege of seeing inside to any passerby. I think to myself “It smells rich in here.” A decent buffet spans the room in front of me instantly glossed over because a line of upturned liquor bottles with their own pumps has me tunnel-visioned. They are giving me the controls here? Not smart. No shot glasses so they have kind of forced my hand here. My drinks of choice are double shots of vodka poured into a wine glass and DIY Irish Car bombs. Magazines and a crossword pulled from a fresh newspaper occupy my time for a while.
Another hour goes by, and 45 minutes more. It’s close to the end of boarding time for my flight so I head to the gate passing by duty free and clothing stores on my way, nothing I see makes me want to buy. I’m one of the last to board the plane. I stow my gear above me in the compartment aside from two GQ magazines I brought and a How To: Mandarin guide book that I keep with me. I’ve got a pretty nice buzz on and am a little disappointed that I’m seated next to an elderly lady, instead of someone I might have more in common with to chat to. The taxi and take off is identical to all the others I’ve been through in my life, but this time I barely notice it because I’m lost in thought of the world of possibilities such as “What kind of people will I meet?”, “What will I see?”, “How might I fuck this up for myself?”. The stewardess comes around once we’re in flight to inquire about drinks. I decide to stick to my plan of drinking hard liquor on an empty stomach. Mostly in a mis-guided attempt to only have to use the airplane bathroom in a Do-Or-Die situation. I order 2 little bottles of CC Rye while Auntie Em next to me gives me rolls her eyes. A set of headphones come my in handy here too.
By hour five of the flight it is clear that 90% of people will sleep the trip away and wake up in Beijing. I however, through a mix of booze and boyish excitement, can’t sleep. A Beastie Boys line “No Sleep Til Brooklyn” repeats in my head. Watching Avatar eats up the first 3 hours of my trip. A terrible choice to watch the most visually stunning movie of this decade on a 6 inch screen at 30,000 feet…but there’s no unseeing it now! It’s dark out, I assume because we are flying over the Arctic where there is maybe 4 hours of daylight at this time of year. Clearly I’m already a travel genius.
But the next time I look out my window, I’m not prepared for what I see. A palate of only white and grey paints the ground 5 miles under me an abstract canvas of gorgeous tundra. For the next hour stretching plains and mountain ranges trade places back and forth. Huge, white expanses only broken up by dark, grey rivers, frozen over now. I wonder if they ever thaw? It is Siberia. I am transfixed looking out my window down on the same river. It’s miles below and enormous; it must be a mile wide for most of its run. It completely frozen over and I can’t help but feeling like I’m watching some monstrous snake weave through the Siberian arctic. I feel like it is leading me to China. But much in the way that how I ended up on my way to China it is not a straight path from decision to action. A series of lucky turn of events and more lack of decisions, than employment of them has put me here. The one choice I did make was that Europe was cheap to get to, but expensive to travel around. Whereas China was more expensive to get to, but would be dirt cheap to move around in once I got there.
Part 2 will let you know if that decision was right.