12 July 2008
China Light…Or Not So Light
It turns out that to get to Southeast Asia “on a shoestring” from Shanghai, you actually need to fly from Hangzhou – a small Chinese lake town of just 6.5 million located 64 minutes from Shanghai by way of high-speed train. Kyle and I met at the subway stop near me and headed out, his pack about half the size of mine, my stomach about twice as likely to explode. At some point in the days prior to departure I had gotten my first Chinese bout of “food in China tastes hao, makes stomach bu hao” (food in China tastes good, makes stomach not good).
Stomach pains aside, we were both pumped to get out of the big city and, as we realized later that day, ready to get out China. The train was a cool 86 degrees on board (the thermometer told us so) and the A/C was apparently also “bu hao.” We arrived alongside a sea of Chinese people, all clamoring to be the first off the train, the first through the exit gate and the first in the taxi line. Our decision was to hang back, which meant 20 minutes to get out of the station and 40 minutes in the covered, humid, crowded, smelly, a/c-less cab stand located underground. Yep, this was still China. No holiday yet.
Post cab and hostel check-in we began what we thought would be a simple search for a money exchange so Kyle Long (my travel buddy is also named Kyle, so if I refer to a “Kyle” in these blogs I am in fact not chattering on about myself in third person but instead chattering on about something he said or did) could get rid of his Chinese Yuan for some good old far less valuable US Dollars. It turns out this is no easy task in China. Neither is finding insoles for one’s shoe.
Eight hours later we had neither in-hand, which meant the following morning would also be spent seeking out both. We arrived at the bank bright and early, ready to get some cash! Kyle (the other one, remember) told the lady what we needed to do. She told us to take a number and have a seat. Forty minutes later our number was called. Of course it wasn’t this simple. “Wrong window. Wrong number. Over there,” the teller told us, pointing over our shoulder. That window was an entirely different ticket system. Perfect. Twenty minutes later it was our turn there. Still not that simple. “Only $500 per person per day.” That meant we would be changing only 25% of what Kyle had hoped for. We took what we could get. Several forms, photocopies of our passports, inspections of visas and family health history explanations later, we were sent to another line to actually exchange the money. Had we been at the front of the line, this would have taken 10 minutes. Unfortunately, we were behind a guy who was apparently exempt from the $500 rule, as he received what appeared to be roughly 20,000 British pounds – the equivalent of $40,000.
By the time we actually had the cash in-hand (three people had to count it while another stamped an uncountable number of forms with the “official” red stamp) it was time to go the airport. Check-in and security was seamless, as was finding our assigned seat on the plane. The engines started up and we were both overjoyed – a holiday from China. Perfect! At that moment the engines shut down and the captain’s voice boomed from the loud speaker: “The Chinese Military is conducting a war game at the moment so we are grounded for at least an hour.” Perfect. Finally, nearly 90 minutes later, we took off, bound for Southeast Asia and it’s literally billions of fever people. In the midst of all the madness we were able to catch a gorgeous sunset over the lake, which was fairly redeeming. I do love me a good sunset! Malaysia soon.