My first trip to China started as something of a lark. My wife mentioned that some friends of hers belonged to a singing group that was scheduled to give a concert in Shanghai, China. In addition, they had signed up for a tour after the concert. We joked about her joining the group for the tour and for me to act as the "official" photographer. The cost was very reasonable and my schedule had some flexibility so before we knew it we were on a plane heading for Inchon, Korea and from there to Shanghai.
We took Asiana Airlines and I was immediately reminded of all that was wrong with U.S. airline companies. Here were perfectly attired stewardesses, not a hair out of place, not an extra pound to be seen ready and willing to serve you, and you in standard class with metal utensils no less. To be absent of frumpy matrons glowering in the aisles made me almost giddy, oblivious of any frequent flier miles I might be forsaking. Here was airline travel as it used to be, as it should be. The only complaint I had was not the fault of the airline but rather that of several passengers who felt it was their duty to tell one and all their life stories while I was trying to sleep. It never fails to amaze me how some people who would normally be fairly tight-lipped end up talking like a drunken sailor while aboard a trans-oceanic flight. Conversing with strangers over family problems is not my idea of "passing the time".
Most travel, and certainly the rewarding kind, involves depending on the kindness of strangers, putting yourself into the hands of people you don’t know and trusting them with your life.Paul Theroux
After a long flight across the Pacific Ocean, we made a stop at Inchon, South Korea to change planes. We had a couple of hours to wait for our connecting flight so we went to a restaurant for something to eat. I think if my stay in South Korea was any longer than a couple of hours I would surely starve to death. While my wife found plenty to eat I, on the other hand, saw nothing digestible without the chance of revisiting it a short while later. The airport, on the other hand, was modern and spotless. After our brief respite, it was time to board the short hop to Shanghai airport. Before we knew it we had arrived in China. On disembarking the plane we passed through customs and passport control that was no more difficult than any modern city and less frightful then returning to the United States where it always seems I have to prove to some official that I do really reside in "his" country. One difference I did notice was that they took heat sensor readings of all newcomers checking for possible Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
Unlike the historic cities of Nanjing, Beijing, Luoyang, and Xi'an, Shanghai's history is that of a far humbler origin. A fishing village in the 11th century, by the mid-18th century it was an important area for growing cotton and by the 1800s it was on its way to becoming the largest city in China. Foreigners flocked to Shanghai due to the forced opening of foreign trade after the Opium Wars. The British, along with the Americans and French, were allowed to live in certain territorial zones without being under the Chinese laws. As a result of all the foreigners, Shanghai became greatly influenced by Western culture. During the early 20th century, opium sales along with the gambling and prostitution that went with it brought vast profits to those that controlled the illicit trade. After World War II the Nationalist Chinese government regained control of the city from the Japanese only to lose it to the Communist. During the Cultural Revolution China was closed to outsiders but after the horrors of that period subsided and especially after Deng Xiaoping's open-door policy, Shanghai was once again at the forefront of international business and finance.
We were greeted by a shiny new bus that would be our home on the road for the next 13 days. Thus began my first experience with traveling the highways and byways of China. To describe it to someone who has been to Europe but never traveled in modern Asia would be difficult. To explain it to someone who has never stepped foot outside of the United States would be impossible. Imagine if you will a 19th-century country that woke up one day with modern freeways connecting its major cities. Also, imagine that you have just been given the keys to the first automobile you have ever seen and was told to "hit the road" so to speak. Imagine also a group of peasants who refuse to acknowledge your, now motorized existence and you might begin to understand the challenges you would be required to overcome during our trip. Thank God we had an experienced driver and a well-used horn, for in China the horn is a drivers best friend. You're not so much as driving than you are swimming either with or against the tide.
After off-loading our luggage it was off to do some quick site-seeing at a popular open market. There was nothing special about this market except for the fact that half of Shanghai's 30 million people seemed to have had the same idea as you. The market had two distinct areas. One that sold food and one that sold all of the rest with a special emphasis on pirate DVDs and counterfeit clothes. I had come face to face with the free-market Asian style where every item is not what it seems to be and retail bears slim resemblance to the final street price. In fact, if you bargained correctly you should only pay around 20% of the starting price. The vendors were all quite open with regards tom the dubious providence of their "branded" merchandise. My hands were dirty when I would later buy a set of Alfred Hitchcock DVDs in Nanjing.
Later on, in our tour, we would return to Shanghai. While there we attended what I was told was the Chinese version of Romeo & Juliet. Had I not been told that I would never have guessed that the musical/circus act was actual written by the Bard though now spoken in Chinese. What I saw were tumblers, contortionists, "death-defying" aerialists plus singers and dancers of all stripes that would have made Ed Sullivan proud. The costumes were, of course, wonderful and the entertainment was a non-stop kaleidoscope of noise and color.
Finally on our last day in China had arrived and we did a little last-minute souvenir hunting and I found a special branch of the Post Office that sold Philatelic items of which I bought mo0re than my share including special commemorative books and coins. That afternoon my first Chinese adventure was over and we were to return to the United States.