Thursday, April 17, 2014

China 2014 Day 1-2: Veggie Baozi, here we come

China 2014 Day 1-2: Veggie Baozi, here we come

And... off we go!!! This is Michal and my first international travel trip together, so it's suuuuppperrr exciting. I really can't believe Springs is taking me here (that's her nickname, so for the rest of this travel blog be forewarned that "Springs" = "Michal" = my awesome girlfriend)... it's so unbelievable. This is a special trip from her work as a reward for her hard work last year, and it's so nuts that she's able to take a guest, and even more nuts that I'm that *insanely lucky* guest. :) GREAT times.

We started at SFO and got into the airport lounge (sweeeeet), though it was a little too early in the day for a Scotch. :) I got up super early today and worked like a madman until 10:17am... was originally planning to leave my apartment at 10:15 ;) It was stellar to really finish the work I was doing so I could comfortably put it out of my mind for the next week. The taxi driver on the way to the airport was from Burma, so we had a pretty interesting conversation about world politics, Russia, Economic and human rights... pretty interesting chat and he had some interesting and generally positive thoughts about China too. This trip is gonna rock.

We got to the airport and found an awesome headphone splitter so we could watch movies on the flight on my iPad. Fancy! We also almost got upgraded to Economy Plus (oh well!), that would have been cool but whatcha gonna do. I "stole" a stack of tasty snacks from the airport lounge for the very long upcoming flight. And off to the flight! Excited for lunch! The first food was a "Vegetarian option, with Chicken". haha.

Tasty International airplane meal
The flight actually went very quickly. The last couple hours I got a bit tired but not a big deal. We watched the movie "Frozen" which was friggin' epic. So awesome.

There was also a 2nd dinner-like meal (at... um, is it breakfast time?) and of course I ate that too... but was probably not super necessary. Haha.

And... more food
Our first destination is Shanghai, but our first stop today was Beijing. The smog has been hitting record levels in Beijing over the past few months, so we are actually not visiting there, just stopping through on the way to Shanghai. To be honest, I was a bit nervous of the smog because the levels of "PM 2.5" smog (bad, large particles that can stay in your lungs) had reached record levels ("off the charts") hitting up to 45x the "recommended level of particulate matter" in the air deemed safe by the World Health Organization standards. That amount being a rating of 20, and smog ratings hitting well over 500 on some days. (See more here: From recent reports, Beijing had been significantly worse than Shanghai and other areas, though that does seem to change with the temperature and winds. We weren't intentionally skipping the visit to Beijing due to concerns of the smog, as we both really wanted to go to Hangzhou instead and I am SO excited to go on the epic tea plantation tour there. So excited!!

I was a fair bit more comfortable with how our plans worked out for travel. Seeing the Great Wall would have been awesome, but the smog definitely concerned me a lot. Someone did tell us that this extreme bad smog has been affecting both business and also tourism to China. Interestingly, I read some articles saying how Shanghai is taking this smog very seriously and is actively closing some 1500 coal-burning facilities in factories this year alone to help address the problem. Very impressive response. So, I do certainly hope this is some of the last extreme smog that China ever has!

Smog coming into Beijing
Anyhow, upon arriving in Beijing, the smog actually was not as bad or as intense as I had worried about. I think there was a strong wind and favourable weather over the past few days which improved visibility quite a bit. It was nothing like the pictures I had seen (though, this is a smog rating of 150-ish, whereas the record setting smog values a few months prior were apparently in the 500-900 range).

We went through immigration quite quickly and there was an interesting button that lit up as soon as your customs person finished your paperwork... for you to RATE the quality of immigration service with a smile or a frown (say, if they were unfriendly or took too long!) Wow. Never seen that in any other country, ever. Impressive. Things were quite fast and smooth. It was a good introduction to China! Even a cart carrying some elderly people to their gate had a very sweet and soft "Ding Ding!" sound... no loud horns or general hecticness. That was nice after such a long flight.

Whoa, check out my iPhone's Cell Network name!
Relax, a train comes every 3 minutes
Vending Machines like in Japan
Coke Zero!
Talking Croc
Fancy gum packages
We wandered a little bit and found a cool Japanese-style vending machine with a Coke Zero, and a cool 24/7 store like the 7-11's I remember from Japan. Super amazing. There were some funny packs of Gum there that looked really fancy, and we got some face wipes. We also saw some "water purification taps", which were basically water fountains with also an option for hot water for tea. They were very clear on the taps that this was purified water and was potable.

Then came a large amount of indecision as Michal encountered her first experience with "Jetlag Mike", the version of me who is so tired that he can't make any decisions. We got to the Air China lounge and couldn't get in for free, but were trying to figure out if it made sense to pay to get in. I couldn't put any words together at that point, but thankfully Springs is good at reading me and we decided to go in via exchanged eye-darts, a few winks, and some random senseless muttering on my part.

Once we got in there... EPIC!!!!!!! What a decision. There was free food so of course I lit up (for a moment, and then jet lag hit me again, and then I woke up again... that cycle continued for a bit). They had a HUGE food section with awesome hot food. I got some Veggie Baozi (steamed buns) that were one of Michal's favourite foods on her previous China trip. MAN they were good. I ate like 6 of them. Also there were some amazing pickles, Beef ramen soup, Marble cake, Loose leaf tea of different varieties, a funny Mochi thing, and even some Beijing beer!! Crazy!! I, obviously, went to TOWN.

Wow!! Air China Lounge!!!
Going to town on a Veggie Bun
Mmm... Beef Ramen
Vegetable Baozi, Pickles
Himalayan Peanuts, Funny bread and Mochi, Loose Leaf Tea
Beer and "Dry? Ginger Ale"?!
OMG free loose leaf tea aaahhhh
The internet in the lounge seemed to work (as I needed to email my parents to say we were almost there), but you needed to scan your passport to get a ticket for it.

Sunset in Beijing
We then left the Beijing lounge and got on our Air China plane to Shanghai. Crazily, they had ANOTHER dinner meal on that plane?!! Insane. I got it (for some reason) but just had a couple bites and the awesome dessert. Wow. So much sitting and eating today. Michal slept, which was undoubtedly a better use of time than more eating, but I was content.

Funny Ashtray in seat on Air China plane
In Shanghai!
We arrived in Shanghai and met "Kate", a nice lady who was from a local tour company and was meeting us on behalf of Fairmont. We chatted for a while as we waited for the taxi and it was a long line but again, very fast and very organized! China is definitely showing off some good organization already!

Springs impressed Kate with her grasp of Mandarin already. Kate assumed Springs had been learning for a long time but in reality it had only been a short intensive course a few years ago. Kate was very impressed (I am too!). I told Kate how many Baozi I ate and said "After this trip if I keep eating these, I will turn into a Baozi!" She laughed and said, "No, no, Happy Buddha!" hahahaha. Amazing. That reminded me of the random Japanese group I ran into on the street in Nozawa Onsen a few years ago and one of the guys in the group patted my (then, much larger) belly and laughed super giddily, saying something about me being a "Happy Buddha". Hilarious!!

The Taxi arrived and Kate kindly instructed us that the "Green ones are better", since they always turn on the Taxi meter so it's a good price and not a flat/more expensive rate. We drove into Shanghai from Hongqiao Airport, and arrived soon after at the Fairmont.

The arrival was amazing. People were treating us like "VIP" guests, tripping over themselves to help us out and welcome us and make us feel at home right away. Someone even walked us up to our room as another person brought our bags up for us! Super fancy!!

We got up to the room and... OMG amazing. The Jazz Bar and the Sakura/Bonsai tree in the lobby are SO awesome. I will check those out some more once I've slept!

Also waiting for us in the room were some tasty Milk candies called "White Rabbit" - I remember those from when I was younger, as I think my Dad had a grad student from Shanghai who brought those to us once. Very tasty. There were also some awesome cashews and funny almond cookies which Michal just LOVED (I wish I could find out what they were called!). Also some tasty fruit: apples, banana, plum, longans, and "orange thingies" (aka kumquats).

We read a welcome book and also learned there would be a TEA CEREMONY ahhhhh!!!!!!!! Amazing. We also got luggage tags with our names on them... SO amazingly organized!!! Wow. We also had our train tickets for the next day waiting for us. In the book that everyone from Michal's work was listed in, there was a nice bio of Michal and it said my name as her guest and that I was her "Better Half". Sweet. :)

Had a quick shower to clean up a bit from such a long flight and had to be careful to remember not to gargle with the water as the tap water is not potable. We were being extra careful, not sure if that was explicitly necessary, but better to be safe. By muscle memory, I turned on the tap water directly onto my toothbrush... bah. Fortunately there was an extra there so I tried it again and made sure to use bottled water the second time. :)

And, now... SLEEP!!!!!!!!!! We were so tired but definitely just over-the-top excited about this trip. So amazing, I can't believe I am here! So excited to go to Hangzhou and just to experience everything with my epic lady.

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