The Sichuan International Travel Expo Center (photo by David Cogswell)
I left my apartment in Hoboken at 7:45 a.m. on Tuesday headed for Newark Airport to catch the 10:45 a.m. United flight 87 to Shanghai. China is really on the opposite side of the world, with its time precisely inverted from New York time. You just switch a.m. for p.m. and you’ve got it.
It seems it would be pretty much a tossup whether you headed either east or west to get there. I wondered which way we would go. I had been to China via Los Angeles and also via Chicago, and I tend to think of it as being to the west, but either one ought to work.
At first it appeared that the pilot also was undecided. He went neither east nor west, but headed due north. He kept me in suspense for a while which way he would go. Then he veered east over Newfoundland and Greenland, and then headed south over Scandinavia and into Asia.
I followed the route on the map provided on the in-flight entertainment system. On that flat Mercator projection with its east-west orientation, the flight path looked like a drunk driver meandering around aimlessly. But if you look at the route on a globe, it makes perfect sense. It’s a Great Circle route, really the shortest distance.
The flight was 16 hours to Shanghai. I had the dreaded middle seat in economy class, which meant I could not get up to use the bathroom or stretch without waking my neighbor or interrupting his movie.
The seat was fine, except for my arms and legs. If I hadn’t needed to find a place to put those appendages I would have been perfectly comfortable.
As it was, by airline economy class standards I felt like I was trapped in a tiny box that was barely large enough for my torso, with no optional extra space for arms and legs. I felt like a chicken in a tiny cage.
That’s the madness of economy class. It’s fine for a four-hour flight. But when you get to 16 hours you are about ready to kill your neighbors, or yourself.
At mealtime, when I opened the cellophane pouch for my plastic utensils, the spoon flipped into the air and onto the floor below my knees, a space no human being in my position could hope to access. So I just left it. All I really needed was the knife and fork anyway. They were so flimsy I was afraid I was going to chew them off as I ate.
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I had the good fortune to find myself seated next to a friendly and interesting lady. We started talking when I first came to my seat and kept it up for four hours before taking a break for movies, reading or sleep.
The neighborly conversation helped to pass the time pleasantly. The movie selection was rich, and even in economy class there were plenty of good films to watch. I watched “Miles Ahead,” the movie about Miles Davis featuring Don Cheadle. Good stuff.
When first boarding, the 16-hour flight time seemed to stretch into infinity. But eventually, almost unbelievably, the conclusion came and we arrived in Shanghai. It was my first time there.
The airport was spotless and shiny. There was excellent signage in English leading you easily to immigration and baggage claim. And there were English-speaking people stationed at points to help you find your way. It was all amazingly easy for a foreigner who can’t begin to decode a series of Chinese characters.
Shanghai, however, was not my final destination. I was headed to Leshan, a town in Sichuan province, to join up with members of the National Tour Association to attend the Third Annual Sichuan International Travel Expo.
I had a three-hour layover before my flight to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. It turned out to be the ideal amount of time to make a connection without being rushed through immigration and baggage claim.
Chengdu is in southwestern China, far inland and approximately equidistant, about 1200 miles, from Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. The province is next to Tibet and the Himalayas to the west.
The flight to Chengdu was another four hours. I was thrilled to arrive. However, I was still a two-hour drive to Leshan.
The area around the airport in Chengdu was spectacular even at night, with giant neon Chinese pictographs on the sides of giant hotel towers. It was an impressive introduction to Sichuan. As we drove out of the city, the darkness enveloped the scenery until we came close to Leshan, which is itself an impressive city of 3 million.
It’s one of China’s top tourist areas, known for Mount Emei, one of China’s four sacred mountains of Buddhism. It’s also known for Pandas and some of the most beautiful fall foliage in the world, which I may be in time to see.
We pulled up to the Century Sunshine Hotel, which is one of the headquarters hotels for the Expo. I was met by representatives of the Expo, who greeted me warmly and helped me to get oriented at my new home for a week.
The Century Sunshine Hotel is a 20-story tower, splendidly decorated with monumental sculptures in its atrium and luxurious, well-equipped rooms with giant flat-screen TVs and free Wi-Fi.
So many things have been standardized throughout the world that a luxury hotel in China will be much the same in many ways as in other countries. But make no mistake, this 16-hour journey into inland China places you in another world, with deep roots going back through thousands of years of evolution separate from the Euro-American culture that I and most readers of TravelPulse are used to.
Anyway, it’s all in a day’s travel. Tomorrow I will experience the Sichuan International Travel Expo.