May 13, 2008

GP08 China, Race 4, "Hello Again, China" part 1

Getting back into China was a little more difficult this time around, as increasing restrictions and bureaucracy led to frustration and annoyances, and a whole lotta hassles! It's not just about the long journey to get to the Middle Kingdom, but the country's dynamic is moving and shifting so rapidly in certain directions, and tediously slowly in others, that I never really know what to expect once I leave Pudong Airport in Shanghai. Would it be the same crazy place, filled with colorful lights and distractions of every sort so you don't see the filth in the streets and the people looking to capitalize on every tourist in some way? Would it be more sedate and self-confident as China geared up for the oncoming Olympic Games? You never really know what you're going to get . . . and the sleeping giant never disappoints. I spent my time there, quite possibly my last visit for the foreseeable future as the Chinese GP is likely to be dropped from the calendar next year, quietly reflecting on my previous travels there in 2005 (not to mention last year's incredible trip!), and trying to absorb and understand as much of the people and the culture as I could. I sure as heck didn't get anything from the ruling party except a headache, haha, but overall I was very happy to have spent more time in the Far East, and I truly wish I could have extended my trip this year. There will be time, though, because the world isn't going anywhere right now. I am!

The Team converged under rainy skies in Frankfurt, Germany, meeting from all points across Spain and Italy. The riders would be flying in a day after us, as is the norm, and we were looking to land on Tuesday morning before lunch - perfect timing for an afternoon of traipsing through the ancient city's corridors of completely new and extravagant excesses, old world, traditional vendors peddling fruits and vegetables, and everything and anything the Orient could dream up and sell. I was stoked.

While our Lufthansa jet wasn't one of the newer ones, I still managed to get some rest and watch a kooky asian flick about two magicians and a girl in the middle. I think it was called magic boy, but I wasn't paying much attention and I thought the ending was a total cop out. We didn't have tv's built into the seats, so it was a bit of a strain to watch the movie up on high from my window seat. ARGH! How I loath the window seat (always opting for an aisle when given the option), especially for the "long haul" flights where I'm more likely to need to get up and use the bathroom. In any event, I woke up from one of my naps to find this noodle dish available for breakfast - and on a German flight! I always get a kick out of the Lufthansa Asia flights, because they have they're own branded chopsticks, and I think I still have a pair stashed away from more first year in GP's.

Eventually, the 12 hour jump from Frankfurt to Shanghai came to a close, but not before I'd taken the time to read a nice technical article concerning airflow, carbon fiber gliders, and the benefits of winglets, pictured here. It was great, and it gave me some things to think about.

We did land approximately on time, sometime about 10:30 AM, and I was pumped and ready to go. "Hit the decks running" was the foremost thought on my mind, and also on the rest of the Team's! We all powered through the Customs/Immigration counters, having our official Visa's checked, and then we were through to wait for our luggage. It was something of a fiasco just getting my Visa for China this year, as I'd detailed in an earlier episode of , but for those of you that missed it, it goes something like several hours (4.5) spent waiting in crowded lines in and out of the rain at the Chinese Consulate in BCN, then being informed that this year the rules are different for Americans wanting to enter China . . . and I'd need to travel back to the US to apply for and procure the Visa. I eventually prevailed, having found a sympathetic ear with an older lady working there who managed to arrange a Visa for me, although I was to learn later that the Visa cost has increased for Americans this year (presumably to take advantage of everyone headed over there to check out the Olympics). Anyway, Visa charges and hassles aside, we'd barely begun to collect our baggage and some material for the race when we ran into a couple more issues. The money exchange center didn't seem particularly prepared to have actual customers looking to exchange money (also, they enacted a new limit on the amount of hard cash you could convert, which threw quite a few teams for a loop), and they weren't overly concerned with what I would call "customer service". Time wasted and frustration mounting, we pulled all our gear through Customs and ran into a major snag. We managed to get someone curious about the box of team t-shirts we were bringing in to wear at the race, and this boiled over into a full blown Customs inspection and general haranguing. If I had to be completely honest, I would say that we were being "rolled" by the customs officials and they were nickle and dime-ing us for everything they could. It was weird because we were only allowed to deal with an intermediary agent, who then would bargain with Customs. Things went back and forth several times, and I noticed other material from Gresini and Kawasaki, and I would guess most of the teams had some kind of difficulty getting in to China. We paid our dues and were told to return to the airport several hours later in the late afternoon, when the Customs people had returned from their lunchbreak. It was infuriating, because there wasn't any way to deal with these people, and their language capabilities were limited. I just really came away with the feeling like they were robbing us with their system, and later in the paddock I would hear more and more stories of how the officials had selectively targeted certain teams after certain riders had made public comments and delayed or rejected their material. Fiasco.

At this point, we'd wasted several hours dealing with the Chinese officials (who also made us walk a mile just to talk, haha), and the entire team had been waiting for Felix and I. We got back with our group and since everyone had been sitting around starving (the thought of lunch in Shanghai had gone completely out the window), we ended up eating at Burger King for our first meal in China. UGH. I couldn't believe it, hahaha, but I had a burger and a coke and then it was time to get in our busses and roll.

You know you're in China when you see the Police scooters and the biggest cop bike is a 250cc Suzuki clone!

We had rented three big vans to transport the Team and our luggage everywhere for the time that we'd be a in China. None of us (foreigners) were legal to drive in China, and this is just another method of control that forces you to either take taxi's or rent a driver for the duration of your stay here. Our driver spoke absolutely zero Engrish, and if he was confused, he'd just pull over without saying anything (like on the Freeway!) and call his "supervisor" for advice, haha. We pulled out with three vans a'loaded and made our way to our hotel in An'ting, which was on the other side of Shanghai, and further out then the circuit. What should have been a 1.5 hour to 2 hour drive was delayed by heavy traffic and a lot of accidents, and we got to our hotel by 4 PM. It was looking more and more grim for us to get into the city that afternoon, since Felix and I had to go back to the airport and get our stuff out of Customs, so we seperated from everyone and headed back to Pudong at 4:30. Just a short break at the hotel to use the bathroom, or in Felix' case, make some calls and send a fax or two.

I won't say how bummed I was that I had wasted an entire day dealing with these jerks, but I will say that I was quite bummed, haha. It's amazing to see how different the level and quality of life is in this country. Massive, monolithic structures, luxury hotels and shopping malls, burnt out industrial remains, houses made of dirt with tarps for roofs, it's simply incredible to see.

Maybe the first bit of light I had that evening was getting all of our gear out of the lock-up, and buying an actual, authentic Boba (Pearl Milk Tea drink) at the airport! The taste was unusual, nothing at all like my favorite place to get them, either on Clement St. in SF, or in Cupertino, San Jose.

The sun was setting as we left the airport, but Felix and I decided that we needed to have a real Chinese dinner so we headed into the city center. The pollution is so bad, you can look directly at the sun.

With the rush hour evening traffic, getting from the airport into the city took about an hour and a half, and by the time we disembarked, it was night proper. Here's a shot from one of the bridges headed into the center showing the skyline of Shanghai, the Tv Tower in the background, in the general direction of the Bund. THe most important thing in this photo are the barges and riverboats. You won't believe how much building material and earth/rocks/gravel is transported via river on these barges. There are streams and waterways criss-crossing the surrounding areas and at all moments of the day and night you can see these barges being loaded and unloaded.

Anyone who's been to People's Square in Shanghai should recognize this spot. Raffles! This is where we jumped out of our van, and since Felix needed to get some shopping done, I thought I'd take us through Xintiandi and Nanjing Road.

Unfortunately, while I was able to take a decent photo while balancing "karate kid" style on a post, I wasn't able to accurately remember exactly which way to go so I accidently took us up Huai Hai road instead. It's a street filled with luxury European boutiques and high end watch stores, and Felix commented that we could buy any of this stuff at any major city in the world. The difference being, the stores here were empty and devoid of customers.

We continued our walk up Huai Hai, with Felix dragging his computer/roller bag behind him, and headed off in search of bargain goods and adventure. I'd managed to contact my old friend, Scott, and unbelievably enough he lived on one of the upper cross streets of Huai Hai! In all of Shanghai! I still can't believe it, but it worked out great and when we continue the tale later this week you'll all see the little adventure that Felix and I had with Scott one night in Shanghai. Not to mention the rest of the week and the race! Lots more to come, so stay tuned!


Great article Liam...Your airport-capades leave me wondering how badly botched an affair the olympics is going to be. Onward, Greg

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