The cheapest route I could find to Asia was a nonstop flight from Seattle to Shanghai. On the day of my departure my mother drove me to the subway station. We hugged and then I turned and began my day-long journey to China.
I didn’t sleep at all during the 11-hour flight. After we landed, I had to face two Chinese customs agents who seemed shrewd and mistrustful of me, a young American lad with a button-up shirt tucked into my adventure trousers, with plans to be in China for no more than 30 hours. I’d read online that if you are leaving China within 48 hours of your arrival, you are granted a free layover visa. Even so, the agents carefully inspected my passport and immigration slip. They even summoned a third agent for another opinion on my paperwork. After phoning my hotel to confirm that yes, I was staying there and not meeting up with American spies or whatever else they might have suspected, my passport was stamped and I was let past the podium and into China.
The taxi driver I flagged down outside the airport spoke as much English as I did Chinese (none) so I showed him where my hotel was on a map I had screenshotted on my phone. After about 15 minutes of highway driving, he exited and dropped me off on a busy shopping street. I looked around at the neon signs and groups of people walking in dark, full-length coats and thought about how crazy it was that I was in China. Up until then my only foray into Asia was a technical one: crossing Istanbul’s Bosporus channel, which marks the continental divide between Europe and Asia. I only spent one day on the Asian side before ferrying back across to Europe.
I was not prepared for the sharp cold of Northern China in January. I had packed for the infamous humidity of Southeast Asia and was wearing my only jacket. Gusts of wind blew through the streets and turned my ears red. I inadvertently passed the entrance to my hotel several times before finally finding the elevator, which carried me up three stories.
I got the Wi-Fi password from the concierge, who was sure to remind me that both Google and Facebook were inaccessible here in China. Once I got into my room, I collapsed on my bed and slept hard until morning.
When I awoke, I dressed and scanned a map on my phone for the nearest park. My only plan for the 20-odd hours I had left in China was to walk around and observe. I took a few screenshots of the surrounding area and set off for a stroll into the chilly morning.
I had chosen this hotel because of its proximity to the airport. It was far from the city center; about 16 miles. I saw no other Westerners. I got lots of stares and double-takes from people as they walked or drove by. I wondered if this is what it was like to be famous.
I turned off the sidewalk and walked through a red traditional Chinese archway (later research informed me this is called a Paifang). A brown river ran through the park. I crossed a bridge and passed a lone old man. He was facing the water, singing a sort of bouncy lament with no hint of self-consciousness. I slowed my pace to listen to his song. He didn’t seem to notice me.
Standing high above the trees in the middle of the park was a tall temple, sporting the same traditional, symmetrical architecture as the park entrance. The handsome archways were stacked and repeated maybe a dozen times. I would’ve loved to climb to the top, but the temple was closed for construction. I walked on.
There were a few groups huddled around tables playing checkers. I heard birds singing, but when I looked up, I saw not birds but grey speakers attached to light posts, playing loops of birdsong. This discovery was disconcerting, presenting me with alarming evidence about the air I was breathing. If a place isn’t good enough for pigeons, what could it be doing to my lungs? To the lungs of everyone in this city?
After I’d traversed the park’s perimeter, I returned to the street in search of an ATM. I needed some Yuan for food. Like many places in Asia, cash is king here in China. After ten minutes of crossing streets and hoping I could remember my way back to the hotel, I found one, installed in the wall outside a bank. It took me a few tries to successfully withdraw some Yuan notes, all of which featured the same bland, unsmiling portrait of a serene looking Mao.
Evidently Mao is still a hero in China, or at least being sold as one by the current administration. In high school I’d heard nothing but bad things about the guy, from his “purges” to the subsequent starvation of many Chinese under his rule. Plus, being an American, I’m supposed to oppose communism outright. This bleak section of Shanghai was not a vote in favor of that ideology.
My journey to the ATM had taken me away from the shopping streets immediately surrounding my hotel. The sky was grey and the temperature a biting cold. These streets were sparsely populated. The words “ghost town” did not seem an exaggeration for this district. Cars and people were unsettlingly infrequent. I gave up trying to find a café and turned back in the direction of my hotel.
I passed an alleyway with lots of lights and people and turned in. Life was concentrated here. There were stalls on both sides selling clothes and food. I browsed a little for a beanie, but they were all goofy and I couldn’t justify the 40 Yuan (~$5) when I was less than a day away from 90+ degree temperatures. Instead I just suffered and let my ears glow red with cold. I’d even had my hair cut back in the States right before I left, a foolish endeavor for a couple of reasons. Not only would longer hair have provided me with warmth during my stint in China, but I would soon discover that haircuts in Southeast Asia are easy to come by and stunningly cheap.
Some of these alleyway stalls sold animals. There were cages with rabbits and chickens, and one with a small white cat with scars on its face. I tried to call to it. Its ears twitched but it wouldn’t open its eyes. There were well stocked fish tanks and a small bucket filled with hundreds of baby turtles the size of doorknobs that were all clambering over each other. One of the cages contained half a dozen puppies that couldn’t have been more than six weeks old. They huddled together, brown and black and white, shivering. I was cold myself, and hungry.
At the end of the alley was a small restaurant selling hot pot soup. The woman stirring the giant pot of spicy broth showed me through gestures how the operation worked: I pick out ingredients (ranging from chicken to bok choy to mushrooms I didn’t recognize) and load them into a bowl and hand them over. The woman then sautés my fixings and then ladles in broth from her giant (hot)pot.
I had scribbled down some basic Chinese phrases in a small notebook and tried a few when paying for the meal. The woman smiled at my attempts, and I realized just how starved I was for smiles.
“Where you from?”
She kept smiling and seemed like she wanted to say more to me but couldn’t. She handed me the soup. I carried it inside the little restaurant alcove and sat at a long plastic table with a few others and waited for the steaming bowl to cool. When it had, the soup was hot and spicy and warmed me greatly.
On my way back to the hotel I passed more storefronts. There seemed an inordinate number of shops selling ladies underwear, with window-facing mannequins boasting brassieres and panties for all to see. And here I was thinking China had a women shortage. These shops were mostly empty, apart from a lone employee sitting at a desk, playing on their phone, bored.
I had to see the skyscrapers that came up with every Google search of Shanghai I’d made in anticipation of my trip. These included the Oriental Pearl Tower which, with its base pegs and bulbous top, reminded me of a dated computer-generated variation of the Space Needle. I also wanted to see Shanghai Tower, by far the metropolis’s tallest building at an impressive 2,073’ (the Empire State Building stands at 1,454’, with its antenna). Shanghai Tower is unflinchingly modern. The whole building twists gently, attractively. It’s a glass and metal marvel blending style and substance as well as I’ve ever seen from any skyscraper.
To get to the feet of these giants I had to cram myself into a crowded metro train and travel 16 miles underground. I got off at the most popular downtown stop and joined the horde marching up the stairs into the center of one of the most densely populated cities in the world.
Right when I got out of the tunnel, I was accosted with the largest billboard I’d ever seen. It was as wide and tall as a city block, a mammoth piece of advertising for H&M or Nike, I don’t remember which. As I wandered around, moving with the flow of the crowd, bewitched by the signs and buildings, I was approached by two German tourists. They were looking for a pub. They were perplexed that this was difficult. I told them this was my first day in China and I had no idea what the pub situation was, and then I briefly entertained the idea of joining them on their quest for pints, but then I was happy strolling around by myself. I eventually dipped into a dumpling joint.
They made things easy for me with an English menu and I ordered pork and garlic Potstickers which came almost immediately. I asked the proprietor for a beer, in English, but she said they didn’t sell any.
The Potstickers sat in a flavorful broth and had a wonderfully chewy freshness as a result of the hand-made, hand-rolled dough. Most of the Potstickers I’d had in my life had been factory made and previously frozen, then unceremoniously dunked in soy sauce. While I ate, I watched a table of four Chinese slurp down their meals with their eyes on their phones. I paid for my meal on my way out (the equivalent of $3) and walked into bitter, crowded night.
As I wandered the streets, now myself vaguely searching for a pub, I took stock of people’s fashion. There were the dark coats I had seen in my hotel’s district, usually of the puffy/down variety. On people’s feet were chunky, expensive looking sneakers that were either new or kept clean. Round glasses were in vogue here, the same style I had. At the time I felt round glasses had yet to take off in the U.S., and I felt a small amount of pride for being ahead of the curve.
I didn’t see any obvious pubs, but I found a café where people seemed to be drinking. I went inside and approached the counter to ask for a beer. The proprietor instructed me to me sit down, which I did, by the window. She came to my table with a green bottle of Tsingtao and opened it for me. I took a drink. It was a nondescript light lager but refreshing all the same. A group in the middle of the café (consisting of two white men and two Chinese women) was toasting small shots of whiskey. The beer cost more than my dinner, so I skipped a second round and began the journey back to my hotel.
Once I got off the metro, I couldn’t help but wander back into the alley where I’d lunched and had the kind of experience I’d loosely hoped for from my 30-hour Shanghai escapade. At 9:00 P.M. the alley no longer bustled with people and conversation. No scooters passed, rolling doors were pulled over restaurants, and only a few stragglers remained. Some were sweeping with crude, witch-like twig brooms. I moseyed in as far as the puppies, who were still there, globbed together for warmth. Their shopkeeper owner was there, too, halfway packed up into his truck, talking with another man.
With the hotel concierge I arranged a 4:00 A.M. lift to the airport. At that ungodly hour a middle-aged gentleman was there waiting in the lobby, yawning and looking exhausted. When he dropped me at the gate, I gave him a small tip which seemed to both surprise and please him. My plane took off into the hazy grey, red-sunned morning, aimed at Bangkok.