Chapter 1: Oh, Shanghai Mark!

The Shanghai airport was, as ever, a wonderland of weird shit.

I nearly collided with the huge sign above the escalators that said “Don’t Collide!” while trying to take a photo of it.

Our hotel was no less odd. The Pay-Per-View movies on the TV were divided into genre categories, my favorite genre being “Dracula.” Somehow they knew that Mission: Impossible and Jason Bourne are two of my favorite Dracula movies. Sea of the Sea was not one of Dracula’s best, honestly.

The room service menu was full of such delights as “Boiled Hair and Blood,” “Black Pepper Cowboy Bone” and the mysterious “Denim.” Stay gross, China.

Photo by Sheila O'Donnell

We also found this in a drawer. Yeah.

Smoke mask? Free cosplay aid? Maybe Daft Punk is playing later? Oh, Fire Escape Hood. I’d made the mistake of thinking that was either an architectural feature or an unsavory character lurking in NYC. I like the last photo where she’s clearly going to blast straight through the wall in spite of the considerable handicap of having no legs.

We’d been a little lucky to make it to the hotel at all, really, since our taxi driver from the airport didn’t speak any English and had never heard of our hotel before, deflating my pride in having the hotel name printed out in Chinese. Addresses aren’t quite a thing in China in the same absolute way we’re used to, so I ended up Google Mapping our way to the hotel and handing my phone under the bulletproof partition to the driver, who propped it precariously on his dashboard and looked back at me with a concerned face every time my phone spoke the directions in English. Dude, just follow the green line. Instead, he fell asleep multiple times during our not-that-long drive to the hotel. I think this would have freaked my mom out if she hadn’t also been asleep. At least one of us was awake. Ah, China.

Our objective in Shanghai was, of course, Shanghai Disneyland. Because I’m suddenly that guy. The next morning, we were out of the hotel and in a taxi to the park before anybody knew what had happened.

Shanghai Disneyland is much bigger and newer than the Hong Kong park, and though nowhere near as empty, it was still very manageable. It was fascinating to observe the differences between a park full of Hong Kong residents and a park full of Shanghai folks, who were like night and day, culturally. The people in Hong Kong are much more Westernized and independent-minded, conveniently English-fluent and with more of the sense of courtesy in public that we’d consider normal. The crowds in Shanghai were mainland Chinese, with everything that entails. There was no public defecation, thankfully (or somewhat disappointingly? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯) but line-cutting (or just being completely oblivious to the very concept of lines) was pretty rampant and everyone talked nonstop like using your outdoor voice in all situations was going out of style.

It was okay, I still loved them. All of us have been all of those things, at some point in our long development. My mom and I had a great day with relatively few international incidents requiring embassy intervention, and it was a lot of fun to see Chinese families out enjoying themselves.

Photo by Sheila O'Donnell
“That white guy said we talk too much!” Uh-oh. Time to go. Also you guys have a terrible sense of direction.
Little girl with a bubble gun. Awesome.

The castle at Shanghai Disney was truly impressive, inside and out.

Photo by Sheila O'Donnell

The theming at the park was amazing. The entire huge area around Pirates of the Caribbean is styled after Tortuga and is both beautiful and totally immersive.

The actual ride itself is a brain-melting update on the original. It seems like it’s going to be more or less the same classic Pirates of the Caribbean after you board the boat and drift through the canal, past the faux-outdoors patio of the attached restaurant. Then suddenly the boat turns around backwards and you’re sucked into a vortex down beneath the sea, drifting among the sunken ships as a huge squid circles overhead. Are we dead?

The ride combines boats and other physical objects with a massive dome screen overhead that’s somewhat akin to Soarin’ Over the Horizon, creating an illusion where on our first time through the ride, I wasn’t sure what was really there and what wasn’t. It was completely disorienting and overwhelming, in a magical way. You coast through a massive ship battle, populated heavily by the characters from the movies, before being blown backwards out of one of the battling ships in a huge explosion. It’s pretty easy to make a case for this being the best ride in the world.

My other favorite thing in the park were the Challenge Trails on Adventure Isle. This is a unique attraction where you put on a harness and clip into an overhead rail system, then proceed to navigate an elaborate obstacle course, jumping from one wooden platform to the next, fifteen feet off the ground, inching along the narrow rim of a cliff over a waterfall, running across the top of tall pillars like a ninja, crossing dilapidated, collapsing bridges and balancing your way across slack ropes. So basically my normal vacation.

I’d been out of a harness for like 12 hours, tops.

Photo by Sheila O'Donnell

The attraction has two paths, and each one has three versions of each challenge, each one more janky than the last, so you can choose your own difficulty. The thing about it that was unexpectedly great was that you could basically make it as real as you wanted it to be. Almost everyone clung to their harness and essentially hung from the overhead railing, like they were doing the challenges with training wheels on. But I quickly figured out that you could do all of them without actually utilizing the harness at all. So you were legitimately accomplishing the jumps and genuinely tough feats of balance as if you weren’t wearing a harness, you just had it there as a safety net in case you fell off.

It was a blast.

Walking away from the Challenge Trails with my mom, I looked down and realized I had blood running down one of my legs, which probably isn’t a good look for Disneyland. Okay, I think I took that attraction a little more seriously than everyone else. We were two of maybe five white folks tops in the entire park, so right now there’s a Chinese blogger somewhere writing about how white people don’t have the good manners not to bleed heavily in public. Once I’d got cleaned up in the bathroom I admitted to myself that more than anything else I badly wanted to go back and try the second trail, so my mom opted for a second spin on Soarin’ while I explored the only way to really hurt yourself at Disneyland.

Many of the Shanghai Disneyland attractions would be familiar to anyone who’s been to the parks in the US. You have Space Mountain, the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, and the Toy Story rides, with a variation on the Midway Mania target shooting ride called Buzz Lightyear Planet Rescue.

Never fear, Mom kept us safe from Emperor Zurg.

In Shanghai, the spinning teacups are Pooh’s Hunny Pots instead, out of a fear of appearing disrespectful about China’s deep love of tea (really). The little kid dark rides that I still love are pretty minimal in all the non-US parks, with only Peter Pan and Pooh making an appearance here. They do add a large Roaring Rapids water ride with a huge monster at the end that gets you wetter than you’d expect for Disneyland.

The big unique attraction, aside from Pirates, is the Tron Lightcycle Power Run roller coaster. I somehow managed to not get a single photo of that thing, which is pretty funny since it takes up about half the park. Blog fail. It’s massive and very well themed in a cold futuristic style, inside and out, and offers the unique experience of riding a roller coaster while perched on top of an individual motorcycle like a futuristic badass, rather than inside a car with your grandma like a lame present-day person. The initial acceleration on the ride was much, much faster than I was expecting, a lot like the Aerosmith ride in Orlando, leading to abundant internal swearing on my part. The rest of the ride is a very much like the Star Wars version of Space Mountain, frantic flailing in the dark. It is fun, but honestly way too short for all the hubbub that precedes the ride.

One of the real treats of any Asian Disneyland is seeing how people dress up for the park.

Photo by Sheila O’Donnell
Photo by Sheila O’Donnell
Photo by Sheila O’Donnell

My mom was fascinated by all the women dressed in matching outfits.

Photo by Sheila O’Donnell
Photo by Sheila O’Donnell
Photo by Sheila O’Donnell

For our part, we matched pretty well.

Photo by Sheila O’Donnell

The time constraints of our pre-Tibet blitz prevented us from exploring many of the non-Disney parts of Shanghai, other than what we saw after we fled the park that evening, while I tried to explain to our non-English-speaking and terrible at charades taxi driver that we needed to get to the airport for our evening flight to Tibet. We eventually made it, after discovering that Shanghai has two entirely different airports, just to be a dick.

Chapter 2: The Chengdus and Chengdon’ts of Giant Panda Breeding

Jump forward two weeks. On our way home from Tibet at the end of the trip, we had a long layover in the city of Chengdu, China, which is famous for its center dedicated to the breeding of giant pandas. My mom was in need of a rest so I parked her at the Take a Nap, which is a maze of cubicles with recliners in them at the airport where you can… I forget what you’re supposed to do there. OH! Take a nap, right.

And then I was off in a taxi for the 45-minute ride across Chengdu to the Center. Once we arrived in the general area, my taxi driver suddenly whipped a U-turn and pulled over to let me out at a random spot on a random road. Huh? He didn’t speak any English, but we eventually came to the understanding that the road was closed and this was the closest he could get me to the Panda Center. I wasn’t sure if he was messing with me or what but I couldn’t exactly force him to drive further, so I paid him and resolved to make the rest of my way there on foot.

Sure enough, the road was blocked off with multiple large planters and police officers. Bizarre. Is the Panda Center even open? How could it be open if the road to get there is totally closed? Well, might as well walk the last mile to find out.

Contrary to what it looked like every single step of the way along that mile of sidewalkless road, the Panda Center was indeed open. How did everyone get there? Beats the shit out of me.

The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is like Disneyland for pandas. I mean, it wasn’t a bunch of pandas going on rides or anything, though that would have been awesome and even better than what was actually there. So maybe it was the Disneyland OF pandas? I don’t know. It’s sort of like a zoo, I guess, though instead of capturing them in the wild they’re pumping out pandas to meet the world’s giant panda needs.

You pass through beautiful tunnels of bamboo on your way to the many panda habitats within.

At first you begin to wonder if you might not get to see any non-cartoon pandas today when suddenly, off in the distance, up in that tree!

So cool! While I was making my way quietly to another habitat, this beautiful panda ambled out with that idiosyncratic, hunkering panda walk, for a little drink.

I passed down another narrow pathway and spied this guy taking it sleazy up in the trees.

A young woman walked by at this moment, loudly watching a video on her phone. She stopped when she noticed the small crowd of us admiring the panda up in the tree. Then seemingly in a daze, she raised her phone, snapped a photo of the panda, and continued walking with her face glued to the phone, never pausing the video she was watching. Hmmm. I may have some concerns about this generation.

There was a very strange dichotomy in being here, in that I was among these beautiful, peaceful animals, and so happy to see them, and yet I was surrounded by people who were acting like, frankly, giant assholes. It’s something I had struggled with all trip in that I try not to judge other cultures by our standards or biases and try to put myself into the shoes of whoever I’m interacting with. But the mainland Chinese are the people I’ve struggled with the most in my efforts to travel nonjudgmentally.

By and large they behave in ways that, pretty much anywhere in the Western world, would result in you being seen as a total asshole. Talking loudly and nonstop in all situations. Pushing your way to the front of lines, in or out of an automobile. Spitting, everywhere at all times. Snorting and making loud, maximally gross noises at every opportunity. Prioritizing a good selfie over every other possible concern or social contract. Flaunting your wealth in the gaudiest ways possible.

Most of these of course are just cultural differences that aren’t necessarily right or wrong, as unpleasant as I might find them at times. But I couldn’t be so philosophical about the way absolutely everyone there was treating the pandas like objects that had been placed there for their entertainment. A frankly sad/funny/sad number of signs had been put up imploring the locals to be quiet and not disturb the pandas with loud talking, which everyone ignored. Virtually everyone there was yelling at the pandas, clapping and banging the railing to get the bears’ attention so they’d turn to face the camera, allowing that person to get the photo they wanted.

This pissed me off and I had a hard time just tuning it out. But the longer I was there, the longer I spent just watching the pandas and tuning into them, I began to get a very clear and distinct image of what was going on here. I saw that on a higher level, the pandas had agreed to be here in this reality as teachers for these people. I saw the Chinese as largely a group of young, inexperienced souls who had the opportunity to learn from these very present and zen animals. They didn’t seem to be learning anything today, but one day perhaps they would.

I reflected on the totalitarian nature of the Chinese government, something I struggled with across the entire trip. It seemed like a relic from another era, something that needed to pass on into history and leave people free to explore who they truly are. But as I meditated on it, I realized that young souls may need a system like this, a set of guardrails in a sense. Freedom takes a certain amount of maturity to handle without destroying yourself. Maybe these souls weren’t ready for that, and this repressive, propaganda-drunk regime that I found so dismaying was exactly what they needed at this stage in their development.

From that moment forward I was able to enjoy my time with the pandas and feel gratitude toward them, rather than getting caught up in how they weren’t being treated by the people there with the respect I felt they deserved. And gradually I began to feel empathy and love for the people as well. They were just expressing where they were in their consciousness, and their lack of awareness of their oneness with the animals and each other was its own form of suffering. They were at the start of a long journey along which I wished them well.

"Jesus. You people are wearing me out."

Part of what was driving the tourists to thoughtless extremes is that most of the time, pandas just lay around, waiting for someone to invent eye masks.

Pile 'o Pandas.

I was really pleased with this panda who resolutely turned his back on the crowd, bamboo sticking out of his mouth like a cigar, refusing to give anyone the photo they wanted.

These two happy guys were a bit more entertaining. One had found a tree to lean against like a barcalounger as he munched on his bamboo, while his buddy had to make do with sprawling across the leaves in an exquisitely lazy pose.

The cubs were more eager to interact with the crowd, putting on a show of chasing each other and butt-biting.

This one panda went to great lengths to get comfortable, to the giggling glee of the little girl standing next to me.

This shy dude sat with his head stuck in a doorway for a long time until he finally peeked out at me.

I think this guy may have memorized his feeding schedule. That, or he’s waiting to scare the holy shit out of the next person who comes through that door.

Mixed in with the pandas for no reason at all were these beautiful peacocks.

Likewise, these ornate, winding bridges.

*DING DONG* "Hee hee hee."

The most entertaining thing was watching the panda cubs figuring out how to use their bodies.

"Okay, UP works. How do I go down? Maybe if I just go limp I'll end up on the ground. Yeah, that seems like it should-"

The star of the day was this panda cub, who put on a hilarious performance up on the parallel bars.

"All right, I got this shit."
"Jesus take me now!"
"Man, that was crazy. Uh-oh, now I'm stuck like Winnie the Pooh."
"I meant to do that!"
"Oh God don't tell me you were filming that."

Finally on the ground, he emulated his dad, munching on bamboo and watching the lack of TV.

(Note that these could all be female pandas for all I know, I failed panda gender identification in college.)

At the end of the day, touring through one of the buildings in the center led me to the nursery for the baby pandas. Hard to top that!

Stopping at a restroom on my way back to the airport, China threw in one last WTF parting gift for me.

Wouldn’t you just use the toilet if… Ah, China.

. . .



Hungary The biggest hitch in this plan were those pains in my ass at Wizz, whose official personal item bag dimensions were about the size of a loaf of bread. Wizz was really determined to charge you that bag fee, as their revenue model was dependent on it. Challenge accepted, ridiculously-named airline!

Jamaica I drove back across the island, dipping through the valleys between the mountains. On the way there’s a huge rest stop area called the Ultimate Jerk Centre. This is obviously a place to get some local chicken but it still made me laugh to think I’d pull in there, roll down my window and a dude would say “Ya mon, ya hair look stupid.” Oh man, that guy really was the ultimate jerk. He doesn’t even know me.

Yemen As I was walking away up the chaotic street, I glanced down and noticed that the picture on the bottle was of honey being spread onto toast. Oh shit. Did I just buy a bottle of honey? But why would you use honey to wipe off scurf? And what the fuck is scurf? Is wiping it off even good? Maybe I need my scurf! I don't know, I never had that conversation with my parents growing up.