Tuesday, March 27, 2012


Eight months have passed since I last sat in an aluminum tube to be propelled by gas turbines over tundra, mountains and frozen seas. Eight months without the liberating rush of escapism, sunrises in unseen cities and interactions with people who have never needed nor wanted to speak a lick of English. Eight months without standing a watch, earning a wage or having to say goodbye for another two or three or four months.

It has also been eight months since I was last inclined to write. My time over the past three quarters of a year has been filled with analyzing business cases, fumbling through excel spreadsheets, concocting power point displays and enduring an endless torrent of academic stress. This morning though, when I woke up with a throat as dry as the air of a Chinese winter, all I wanted to do was record the last 24 hours and the next ten days as my cohort makes it's way from the Great Wall of China to the Shanghai Bund.

The flight was long and uncomfortable, as they always are, unless you're working for a company that values your jet setting sacrifices or are faculty at a state university. Real sleep is never an option for me at 34,000 feet but I tend to drift off now and then. Had it not been for the sun's recent record setting coronal mass ejection it might have been an unmemorable flight but a severe jolt of lower back pain caused me to turn in my seat and subsequently look out the window.

Stretching across the arctic sky, well above Orion's up stretched bow, quivered a green band of solar wind. For half an hour I watched as the undulating strip of green expanded and shrunk and flickered like wavelets on the ocean. Unlike seeing the Aurora Borealis from sea, where the tendrils of green reach from the horizon to over your head, from this vantage it was nearly at eye level. The moon was just beginning to wane so the endless white of a frozen Siberia only enhanced the scenery. I tried to take a few photos but the plastic cover over the window caused the images to blur.

The flight track from O'hare to Beijing normally would have taken us closer to the North Pole than I had ever flown before but due to the solar flare it had been augmented. I'm not sure what they call it in the cockpit but at sea this would be referred to as a composite sailing. By combining a great circle and a rhumb line where the apex or maximum latitude (North or south depending on which hemisphere you're in) brings the vessel too close to a hazard, like a storm in the North Atlantic, the added distance is minimized by sticking to the Great Circle for as long as possible. In this case we were avoiding the worst of the radiation that percolated through the ionosphere which the pilot knew could interfere with electronic systems in the aircraft.

My first impression of China at midnight was the air; cold, dry and smoky. It stung my eyes and hurt my chest and only worsened as we got closer to the city. The Beijing airport was absolutely massive but completely empty save for our plane and a handful of sleepy immigration officers. It was built for the '08 olympic games and from all appearances was a little too large for the post olympics demand.

It was all ready past two in the morning by the time the bus dropped us at our hotel. Too wired to stay in the room a few of us walked down the street to find the only open place for food, a McDonalds. I'm pretty sure that in a younger more idealistic frame of mind I swore to never eat in a western establishment while traveling but four weeks of beans and tortillas in Guatemala showed me the value of a globalized egg McMuffin. Unlike the well lit and warm interior of McDonalds the streets outside were absolutely desolate. The lack of bright street lights and a dusty moonlit sky added to the loneliness of the scene as we we walked back to the hotel.

The following morning a stiff frigid breeze had cleared the air of smog and the city had come alive. According to our local guide the hotel our tuition was paying for was the most expensive in Beijing and the quality of the breakfast convinced me. I find the first meal of the day to be the hardest to navigate when faced with unfamiliar food so I was happy to see eggs and pancakes mixed in with fermented egg, noodles and rice congee (porridge).

As a class we boarded a bus for Tianemen square and soon found ourselves surrounded by a large scale display of patriotism somewhere besides the United States. At the center of the square a white obelisk rose above sixteen flag poles flying the Chinese flag of four yellow stars on a field of red. To the west a monolithic government building fringed with dozens of red flags and banners loomed over the perimeter mirrored by a similar looking museum to the east. To the north was the tallest flag pole of them all guarded on four sides by eight stone faced soldiers. This flag was ceremoniously raised and lowered every day according to the sun.

The annual National People's Conference had just begun nearby so security had been enhanced and it was apparent. Surveillance was also prominent as every lamp post had more cameras than lights. Despite a heavy display of security everywhere in the city I didn't see a single rifle or pistol the entire time indicating to me that firearms are not normally carried by police or soldiers.

At the northern edge of Tianemen square a portrait of Chairman Mao hung from the southernmost gate to the Forbidden Palace. Passing over the outer golden water bridge we walked through the gate into the fortress. All ready having a penchant for castles I was astounded by the massive series of moats, walls, gate houses and chambers. Each gate we passed through led to a courtyard larger than the one before and eventually to a throne of some heavenly significance. On the periphery of the largest courtyards labyrinths of smaller dwellings had housed the palace's servants, concubines, government officials and other dignitaries. Lining the interior walls huge brass pots once filled with water were evenly spaced in case of fire. We were told by our guide that during the winter the pots were heated and covered with blankets when the emperor resided here.

I could have explored the palace all day but traveling with a group meant abiding by a set timeline. After an hour we had reached the northern gate and encountered the first hawkers selling unconvincing knock off watches and boiled corn on the cob. That afternoon I split off from the class with two friends, one of whom I had attended maritime college with and was in the same program as me, to check out a Confucius temple and a traditional tea house. The Chinese tea ceremony ended up taking up most of the remaining day and was the best way we could have been introduced to Chinese culture. I only wish I had spent the night in that tea house and not downtown. My stomach would have thanked me the next day.

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