The trip from Colorado to Shanghai took around a day, approximately 24-hours of waiting and dozing off and… well, more waiting. After a short trip to Seattle from Denver, my sister and I officially left the US for China.
We flew with Hainan Airlines and despite the impending long, arduous flight, I was both excited and nervous to be on my way to a different country. I have a slight fear of flying, hence the nerves, but being surrounded by Chinese citizens returning home and an incredibly kind (and gorgeous) flight crew, the differences in culture were already starting to sink in. Soon, I would be in a different country with alien customs of which I had learned about through history class, tv, and books.
Our flight set off from Seattle in the morning and we spent the next half day running from the sun, caught in a strange sort of twilight. We sped up and along the west coast of North America and across the Bering Sea into Russia. Narrowly avoiding North Korea as we came in the south over Eastern Asia, our path led us across the Yellow Sea and finally into Shanghai. As we descended toward Shanghai Pudong International Airport, a thick sheet of clouds hung over the surface of the earth as far as the eye could see. From the air, it was nearly impossible to see what the city looked like, let alone the flat land around the airport.
Once our airplane had safely landed, the flight crew politely ushering us onto the tarmac, we hopped onto a large transportation vehicle – alongside every other passenger; it was a tight fit – and drove off toward the main body of the airport.
After another hour and a half of my sister and I trying figure out how to convert our currency and navigate customs, we were released into the wild. Thankfully, our older sister and her daughter were waiting for us just outside with signs in hand. Shanghai was their home at the time, and they were ecstatic to share it with us.
My elder sister and niece had a driver with them named Tony. Now, I’m sure his name wasn’t actually Tony, but he owned a private transportation business that worked closely with the international school that my sister worked for, so he was responsible for the staff and family of the staff when it came to long journeys via car. He was a nice man, and even though his English wasn’t perfect, he did his best to tell us about the history of his home country.
Once we had our luggage and bodies in Tony’s van, he fired the vehicle up and pulled away from the curb at Shanghai Pudong International Airport.
That was when the real adventure began.
Simply put, driving Shanghai is bizarre – in a good way – and entirely different than how things work in the states. Within a few seconds of us pulling into traffic, I thought Tony was going to crash two or three times. He kept his hand pressed to his car horn and wasn’t shy about using it to let people know exactly where he was. At first, I thought he was just an aggressive driver, but after a while, I noticed that every other car around us was doing the same thing; blasting their horns while operating within a few inches of each other.
Despite the perceived aggression, no one yelled at each other or reacted in a negative way. Honking is a form of language on the roads of China, and people use the language to have this sort of transcendent conversation. They say ‘here I am ‘ and ‘excuse me’ and ‘be careful’ simply by positioning themselves in a specific way and using their horn just as intentionally. This realization amazed me and set the stage for the rest of my time in the beautiful and amazing country of China.
The highway opened up quite a bit and we settled into a comfortable cruising speed toward the megacity of Shanghai.
It was surreal to be halfway across the world, and the weather that hung over us made the fantastic feeling even more unique. The heavy clouds and moisture in the air made it nearly impossible to see very far. I was disappointed at first because I wanted to locate the main portion of Shanghai, in other words, the Pearl Tower and the gigantic skyscrapers packed it around it.
“Where’s the city at?” I asked my older sister who had lived there for about year.
“All around us,” she responded.
I nodded and turned my attention back toward the thick wall that concealed the horizon.
Soon, buildings began to appear out of the fog like titanic ghosts standing on the fringe of reality. The first buildings I was able to see were housing complex’s and stood at what I would’ve guessed to be no less than twenty-five stories a piece. The sheer number of them was astounding. You always hear about how populated China is, and when you see clusters of apartment buildings sprouting from the earth miles into the distance, you understand the reality of what one-fifth of the world’s population actually looks like.
Then, out of seemingly nowhere, the clouds cleared up and visibility greatly increased. Billboards and neon lights filled the sky with their vibrant colors and thick, bold Chinese characters. If there were no accompanying pictures I could only guess at what was being advertised. With the lights and images and smells, Chinese culture was beginning to synchronize with my senses.
Pulling off of the highway sent us straight into a different world, one with more people and way more neon lights. My sister’s apartment was no more than five minutes from the highway, so once we turned onto the main boulevard everything that we were seeing was what my sister had been experiencing on a day to day basis for the past year. I saw everything from car dealerships to restaurants to massage parlors. And above all else, I smelled authentic Chinese food.
We pulled into a back alleyway to get to my sister’s and when we did the big, wide world of Shanghai disappeared behind tall buildings. As Tony avoided people on scooters, bikes, and foot down the back alley, I twiddled my fingers in excitement. The megacity I was in was enormous, and that was based on first glance.
There was too much to see a small amount of time, but I was determined to take in as much as I could. That night I would rest, but when the next day rolled around I vowed to hit the tourism hard, and that I did.