As I head from my plane into Shanghai's gleaming new airport terminal, amazingly built in one year, instead of being greeted by machine gun totting soldiers and intimidating stares I encounter the schmaltzy strains of muzak Moon River playing over the sound system and a sprinkling of unarmed military.
It's an airy space with a less overt security presence than you'd find in Tampa, Tokyo or Rome, all airports where battle fatigue wearing soldiers carry visible automatic weapons. A huge Chinese flag hangs from one wall and reminds me that China, the former Soviet Union and the U.S. lead the pack in national iconography. The only hammer and sickles I spy in the airport in this titular "Communist" country are attached to the payphones.
As I shuffle in line behind a group of arriving Olympians from the Ivory Coast, Chinese parents point out the novelty of Black men to their wide eyed kids. As the customs agent breezes me through my check in, a push-button electronic sign invites me to rate the experience from "Very Good,"push the green happy face marker, to "Bad," indicated by a red frowning face. I push "Very Good" and wonder who the hell would give a customs agent here or anywhere a bad review.
I'm catching a connecting flight to Chongqing to hop a Yangtze River cruise before continuing on to Beijing and the Olympics and am surprised when my bags are fully opened and searched before boarding this internal flight. My Air China jet to this huge city in China's interior features a sword-and-slaughter in-flight movie with more beheadings, impalings and villager massacres than I've seen on a lifetime of Air Canada flights.
I'm impressed that the pre-take off safety video features signing for the hearing impaired and am convinced that a man dressed all in black and who moves easily from the staff area at the front of the plane as well as among the passengers area must be some kind of sky marshal.
As we plow through the darkening night sky the clouds seem unnaturally sooty-black and I can't help wondering if China's legendary smog can really reach this high. I'm certain I smell cigarette smoke coming from the cockpit but a chuckling flight attendant assures me I'm wrong and encourages me to drink some more awful Chinese red wine which I foolishly do.
Something tells me resolving my reality with my expectations as well as determining what lies beneath a surface that's at least as murky as the coffee-coloured Yangtze River will be a major part this unfolding adventure.