As the Seattle summer collapses and finally gives way to the weight of the dreary grey that is to envelop the city for the following nine months, Seattleites collectively emit a sigh of resignation and slump their shoulders at the acceptance of the oncoming seasonal depression that will, in one way or another, affect everyone.
Myself, I was riding out the last of the residual serotonin I had built up to a peak fervor in what was a busy and eventful summer. I had seen my younger sister get married in a Hollywood-befitting weekend of love and top-shelf vodka. I had sworn to myself that I would savor every moment of the precious sunshine, and I lived up to my commitment, riding my motor scooter, playing badminton, throwing Frisbee, exploring parks, taking hikes, swimming the lakes, hosting bar-b-ques, and doing many of these activities all in the same day. But as November approached, and the buzz began to wear off, I knew it would be necessary to do something.
As autumn set in, the big project I had sunk two years of my working life into was put on hold again, morale at my company was at an all-time low, my favorite coworkers were leaving the company in droves, my job changed, my best friend and roommate moved to London, and I was riding the confusing waves of post-breakup aftershocks from yet another relationship where I had somehow found a way to both get attached and change her life, yet had to end things because I had convinced myself that she just wasn't everything that I was looking for.
For the first two weeks of November, the grey clouds were somewhat high, and driving down First Hill, looking west, I could see their edge giving way to blue skies somewhere out past Puget Sound and the Olympic Peninsula. Somewhere, if I moved far or high enough, the world was still warm and sunny, and perhaps far enough away from the negative elements that threatened to join forces with the grey clouds to push me into a nine-month grey hole.
So, six weeks off were not requested but stated as fact to my new manager, and hastily, as is my typical strategy, tickets were purchased for somewhere in the area of fourteen flights that would take me through China, Myanmar, India, and Bangladesh, with a few transit stops in Bangkok, Thailand. It all seemed so simple on the map, but I quickly learned that through a combination of deceptively large countries, and poor border relations, I'd be spending time in third world airports for a reasonable percentage of my trip. I wasn't one to be discouraged, so I booked the tickets anyway, which came frighteningly close to worthless at some points, as it looked like my rush processing on my numerous visas might not be accomplished before the deadline of my departing flight.
My Chinese and Indian visas were issued with little fanfare, but the others proved a little riskier. I had scheduled my Bangladeshi visa application to arrive in Washington DC on a weekend, which turned out to be some obscure Bangladeshi holiday as well. So, with the embassy closed on Monday, and a backlog of other requests sure to accumulate in the meantime, I was a little concerned that my request for rush processing might not be noticed. My phone calls were alternately received by indefinite ringing, comments that the people working at the embassy were too busy to talk to me, or sometimes simply a hang-up as soon as I presented myself.
Once the Bangladeshi visa finally came through, in the nick of time mind you, I still had the unresolved issue of my Burmese visa, which I was trying to arrange to pick up on arrival. I had been connected with someone who I was told represented a travel agency in Yangon, and after sending them numerous photos by email and answers to various questions about my state of employment and my father's name, the individual was supposed to have a visa waiting for me at immigration. When some of my emails reminding them that I was to depart in a couple days went unreturned, I became more alarmed than I had been already. I finally got an email from a woman named Yin who told me that since the government was moving their offices, my visa application might not get filled.
Huh? Government moving its offices? What kind of an excuse is that? Some bureaucratic bullshit on the government's part, or was I getting yanked around by this agent? A Google search reminded me just how isolated American news media reports are as an article explained that yes, the military junta that has appointed itself as government in Myanmar was moving all of its operations into the jungle, 600 kilometers away from its previous location in Yangon. The move to the area that was to become called Naypyidaw began on November 6, just one week before my departure, and its effect on stability in the country was anyone's guess. My mother cringed at this story, and got it into her head that if I were to actually make it into Myanmar, it would certainly be the end of me. Thankful for the paltry international media coverage in America, she didn't know about the 500 bombs that went off in a single day in Dhaka, Bangladesh three months before my departure. I wasn't going to be the one to enlighten her.
I landed in Beijing, China, in the late afternoon. With the plane parked at the terminal, a couple dozen feet from the airport, I could scarcely make out the outline of the windows on the side of the building. I was peering through a thick fog that had nothing to do whatsoever with my sleep-encrusted eyes or oily glasses. Surely, this was just a foggy day for this city that wasn't anywhere near a sizable water source.
As I deplaned, the distinct smell of coal smoke crept through the gaps between the plane and the terminal, and sure enough, the thick haze that brought visibility down to the dozens of feet was a permanent phenomenon: coal, powering a significant portion of this country, had brought air quality levels to the point that the sky maintained a dirty pink tone throughout the day, and blue sly was only glimpsed in the most rural areas. As the taxi to downtown Beijing sped down the freeway, headlights were visible as conical shapes, and the other cars competing to be the first to their respective hotels appeared suddenly out of the ether at disturbing speeds.
I was picked up at the airport by a recently-divorced coworker, Charlie, who had discovered that single life as a tall, redheaded Caucasian was tough to beat in China, particularly since he was fluent in the language. That night, he took me to a restaurant where we met up with two other coworkers, who I knew from our Seattle office, and we were eventually joined by Miss China and one of her friends.
Miss China was friendly enough, but the common response from the men in the party was "that's Miss China?" I concluded that looks were not the only criterion and that she must have done quite well in the "I want to use my prize money to save the whales" portion of the contest. In any case, I lost handily to her at a game of billiards, a feat which I am sure few westerners could boast of.
That night, I was treated to the luxury of the long-term executive apartment/hotel that was home to two of my former-Seattleite coworkers. I enjoyed a down blanket on a thick Queen mattress, which I knew to savor, as I could not expect to find such luxuries in some of the filthiest cities on Earth, which of course were my principle destinations on my itinerary.
The next morning, I woke at dawn and watched the sun rise over an endless expanse of new construction. That explained the incessant tinking sounds I had heard throughout the night. That was the sound of progress. China, in an effort to dominate the world, host the Olympics, and provide $2 DVD players to all, is in a desperate, 24-hour-a-day race to develop every habitable inch of the overpopulated country, and redevelop anything that has the slightest hint of pre-technological revolution architecture or lifestyle.
I took a taxi with my hostess, Beth, to the offices of eLong.com, a Chinese online travel agency, which had recently become a subsidiary of my company. I wanted to see what the tech workplace looked like in this pubescent country, and discovered that despite the slightly more urban atmosphere, the prevalence of plenty of cheap delicious street food, the filthy toilets, and the slightly grimier building, the workplace is very much like ours in Seattle. I did have a few hours to speak with workers out there about the challenges of bringing the concept of self-planned, non-organized-tour travel to a country where the middle class is a newly-emerging concept and with it the idea of leisure travel. Of selling things online to people who don't use credit cards, and of convincing a nation of people trained by their government to not think for themselves that they really do want to spend large amounts of their newfound disposable income to plan their own travel.
Having seen enough to satisfy my curiosity, and because the last thing I really wanted to do on vacation and 4 hours of sleep in the wrong time zone, was talk more about work, I got a ride to the train station in the VP's private van. The train station in Beijing is an awe-inspiring place. From the skybridge that I approached the station, I saw an amorphous black blob swelling and teeming with activity. Literally thousands of black-haired heads bobbing and making way past each other in a rush to get from here to there, or there to here.
Upon being enveloped into the heaving mass, I realized that everyone was on their mobile phones and yelling very loudly. Indeed, I am convinced that anyone talking on a mobile phone in China is either at the train station talking to someone else, or talking to someone who is at the station themselves.
"What's that? I can't quite hear you; I am at the train station!"
"What? Oh, I'm at the station too! Can you hear me now?!!"