Here is a mostly unsorted list of what I learned in China last week - the lessons will also tell the story...
FYI: what was supposed to happen was that I leave Canada on May 12, stay 3 days in Shanghai (and see the famous water town - China's Venice), then take a train to Nanjing to speak at a conference, then fly to Xi'an to see the terracotta warriors, then fly home.
1. Even if you are an experienced, old-china-hand, been-there-done-that kind of person, you can still do something really stupid like show up in time to board a flight to Beijing with everything ready and in hand EXCEPT A STUPID ENTRY VISA. It's OK to feel like a moron - you are. Slap self silly and run down to the Consulate to see if you can get an emergency Visa in time for tomorrows flight.
2. Earthquakes have a way of messing up travel plans, especially if you have already started off on the wrong foot. Finding out about them while standing in line to go to that country can cause you to doubt your sanity. It also makes your friends and family doubt your sanity (if there was any doubt before, there no longer is)
3. You can get a Visa in the Chinese consulate in less than 2 hours if: a) you've been to China several times before without misbehaving, b) are staying at pre-booked hotels, c) have return tickets already purchased, and d) are willing to pay extra for same-day service.
4. Upgrade certificates to First Class are cool. Air Canada's new "Star Trek" seats are a gadget junkies dream. There are more options to recline and the seat than I thought could exist. I can't justify a business case for first class for my normal travel, but with upgrade certificates, I wouldn't miss it.
5. Beijing's new airport is BIG. No, you don't understand - it makes Heathrow look malnourished and you could combine LAX, Denver and LaGuardia together and they would still fit inside it. Pay attention to where you are going, because if you get lost you'll need a GPS unit, a good map, and a Sherpa guide to find your way out. As long as you don't get lost, it's actually pretty nice. They actually check your baggage tags, so don't lose it.
6. China Spree, my travel agent, booked a really nice hotel in Shanghai that just opened up (the Shanghai Skyway Landis). I liked it a lot. Note to self - choose this hotel for CSMT.
7. My friend Susan Li took me to the watertown (Zhujiajiao) and it was very cool. But the best part was just sitting in a nice tea house talking with an old friend for a few hours. The biggest mistake travellers make is to not allow time for things like this.
(I assume before deployment to the earthquake zone)
14. China has an interesting view on religion. In general, they consider religions to be interesting and colorful, if somewhat outdated. However, if said religion does anything political (like hold a rally, protest, etc) then it will be treated like an organized political opponent and dealt with accordingly. I'm a firm believer in separating religion and politics, but the Chinese take it to an extreme.
15. Xi'an has a very cool Muslim temple dating back at least a thousand years. Tourists can go most places, but only male Muslims can work there or enter into the prayer areas.
You can see the prayer rugs facing Mecca.
16. People care.
All flags flew at half mast for 3 days
Every Hotel I was in Collected Donations
(Naturally I gave - who wouldn't?)
During the 3 minutes of Rememberance at 2:28PM
This guard had tears in his eyes at the end of the 3 minutes
17. The terracotta warriors are cool and should be seen. Apparently, almost none are intact and have to be rebuilt. Between looting, fires, flooding and earthquakes, they have taken a beating. Wait... did you say "earthquake"?
18. Apparently, Xi'An is just north on the same fault-line as Sichuan. Lovely. That night, everyone in China with a cell phone (which is almost everyone) received a text message from the government warning about another potential very large earthquake. This caused some concern. In the old days, the government would not have sent this warning for fear of unrest due to panic - things are changing. And there was no unrest, just a bunch of people who decided that it was safer to stay outside of their apartments for the night. Tons of them. Lesson for the Chinese government: the Chinese people can handle being told bad news. Lesson for the Chinese people: the government is beginning to act like it trusts you. This is a good trend on both sides.
People sleeping outside in Xi'an after second earthquake warning.