After 5 hours on the plane, your back and legs start to hurt, and your eyes and throat dry out. After 9 hours, you start to wonder if you have been on the same plane the whole time, or whether you have woken up on a different flight, one that just has shocking similarities to a previous bit of travel. This feeling of déjà vu persists on and off for the remaining 5 hours. It is in this space of time that you truly become lost in that strange world suspended far above the earth. At times, it becomes difficult to distinguish whether the sound of the engines is loud or soft, or if it is even a sound. It is as though you forget about the noise, only to find yourself here and there suddenly feeling as though you have noticed the sounds around you for the first time. The atmosphere of the flight and your thoughts start to merge. Then, with the almost predictably violent sound of landing, I find myself suddenly in China.
All told, the trip from New York to Beijing took about 21 hours, factoring in the layover and delay that we had in Chicago (courtesy of snow). By the time I stepped into customs at the Beijing Capitol Airport, I was having difficulty believing how far from home I actually was, and the experience as a whole as it remains in my memory borders on a dreamlike state. I don’t remember what I was asked as I entered the country, and everything up until searching for my bag is little more than a blur. Despite this lack of clarity, the grandeur of the airport was not lost on me. Of all the places that I have traveled, the Beijing airport is without a doubt the most amazing design that I have encountered, and perhaps the most tactful bit of engineering that I observed on the trip. Its roof is an ever undulated metal latticework, and because there are no divisions or obstructions to your line of sight, it appears that you can see miles away within the building. Cavernous does not do the space justice, and though I was exhausted, I think much of my initial confusion was simply distraction caused by the pure size of the space. One cannot but feel that there is a statement being made in within its construction.
Following the locating of my bag and our passage through the remaining inspection point, I met the first true character of the trip, our tour guide, who immediately introduced himself as Ronald McDonald. Chinese who are early in their study of English, or who are working at hotel desks and other service counters, often pick English names that leave visitors a bit stumped. At one particular hotel, I would later be assisted by three employees, who’s name tags read Passion, Rocky and Journey. In this particular circumstance, I suspect that the names had been directly translated from parts of their respective Chinese names, as words describing natural elements are not all that uncommon. Other names drifted away from funny and more toward confusing, however, and the students within my group often commented on the strange choice of name combinations that exist.
The same is true for non-Chinese trying to come up with names for themselves to use while in the country. I have found, almost invariably, that it is not possible for a westerner to come up with a name that the Chinese do not find incredibly amusing. There is far more culture within a name than natives of a region realize. It is only when an outsider tries to replicate this process of selection and creation that this complexity is revealed. Ronald McDonald did not surprise me nearly as much as some other names. For one, Ronald sounded very similar to our guide’s given name (which, for the life of me, I can’t remember). For tour guides in any part of the world it is important to quickly connect with the guest, and I believe that McDonald was chosen with Americans in mind, built off of a perception of the McDonalds franchise as being one of the most deep seated aspects of American culture. True enough, I doubt that there is anyone who, upon hearing the name, does not immediately associate it with our beloved craftsman of cuisine. Used domestically, this name would certainly cause its bearer some grief, but within China it was apparent that it was very effective. Everyone in the group was immediately at ease in speaking with our leader, and there was no chance that any of us could forget who he was. Over the course of our time in Beijing, Ronald and his assistant Ben proved to be not only the finest of guides, but also vital in keeping our group on time and together. As he would later note, he had previously acted as the tour guide for all of the Mrs. Universe Contestants, as well as Cyndi Lauper, and was quite proud of these successes.
The first major realization that I had upon our arrival bore absolutely no relation to China. It was, in fact, the immediate awareness that the mobilization of a group of 200+ students was not only impractical, but unreasonable. After a lot of shuffling, some hurry up and wait, and a moment of yelling (a terrible idea in any airport), we took maters into our own hands, and, finding that we had all of the members of our subgroup present, headed to the bus and decamped to the hotel. The city of Beijing is formed by a series of concentric circular roads, with Beijing proper lying within the inner three. Outside of these lie three additional circles, of massive diameter. Ronald told us that the widest of these had a circumference well in excess of 200 kilometers. Even with a knowledge of the city’s population standing in excess of 13 million, this still shocked me.
Our hotel, called the Xiyuan, lies just within the third ring road, to the northeast of the center. The layout of the entire city stems from a central point, namely the Forbidden City. Though they are called roads, the name is not quite correct, as each of the rings is an artery for travel within the city. They are nothing short of highways, and are almost never at a lack of traffic. The first few days of travel are more than a little bit overwhelming, and at times you cannot but wonder how it is possible to make it anywhere without getting into an accident (perhaps more on this later).
By the time we had arrived at our hotel, most people were completely subdued by sensory overload, and headed to their rooms for the night. Figuring that there was no time to be wasted, I tried to fight off exhaustion and head out with a few others to see the surrounding neighborhood. Making it as far as a massive Santa Clause and Reindeer Ice sculpture in front of the building, the lights and endless honking of the city night immediately began to overwhelm me, and I did not spend more than 20 minutes looking around. Standing on a bridge crossing over a very large roadway, I thought over and over again about where I was, but was still unable to process the idea that I had finally made it to China.