We’ve now entered the end game of Terry’s Grand Adventure – the actual long term living in China with an end in sight. Aside from the spell back before the end of last year, when I really did move there for a month, this next leg is not quite as defined – there is no Christmas coming up to carry me away from the realities of living in Asia. This time, life truly shifts across the sea and my base of operations moves to my home away from home.

It’s been an interesting road that has brought me here, starting with me joining this program away back in late 2005. At the time we thought we’d be in and out by the end of 2007 and I’d be on to whatever the next phase of my professional life might bring. But between business and the economy and several slips, we’re starting now instead of ending. And as it turns out the timing is not so bad given the things that are coming to an end and starting from the beginning in the rest of our lives.

And so it was with not so much a heavy but definitely contemplative heart that I boarded today’s early morning Barbie Jet to San Francisco on the first leg of the haul across the sea.

My time off was great – I actually allowed myself to relax on my vacation, something I had never truly done before. The Holidays were warm, fun and peaceful, all at the same time and we had time to do the things we wanted to do, even managing to develop a relationship with the kids at Satellite Coffee, ordering a just about daily iced Brew of the Moment and 135 degree Chai, the latter being the result of multiple experimental iterations between 120 and 160. It’s nice to see your home and your environs through the lens of relaxation without demands, and I’m grateful for the time even though it was paid for by living on the road throughout 2008 with nary a break. High prices sometimes bring high returns.

I’ve described this trip so many times that I doubt there is anything more to say of interest. But even the most routine things are often worth noting. Like the newly completed skywalk between the domestic and international terminals in San Francisco. For the past 3 years the choice has been either of two – wait for the shuttle, drive 20 yards and ride the freight elevator or exit the secure zone and re-enter through security on the international end. Now, you simply walk down a shiny new corridor, ride up an escalator and emerge right at the Coach store. It would have been so nice to have that the last 20 times I was here.

The Lounge was the way the Lounge always was, people pounding beers at 8 AM and talking too loud on their cell phones. A Japanese fellow sat across from me watching “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” on his laptop – headphones plugged in but with speakers engaged. I guessed the movie when the tinkling of the Colonel’s pocket watch in the hands of Indio came across the aisle through the din of the other travelers.

I spent my layover time clearing up a missing electronic upgrade with the agents at United. As I suspected, they charged me for a flight that I did not take. You have to watch their accounting – a dropped credit means a long trip in steerage. Once that was cleared up I moved on to trying to find somewhere to go over Chinese New Year’s. As it turns out, I’m returning to a 5 day weekend during which rumor has it that the world comes to a halt aside from lots of fireworks. I’ve been told that the expats evacuate and it might have been wise to just change my return until after that was over, but two months home would have been stretching my tolerance for going back. So instead I spent an hour or two trying to figure out where I could go for $1000 roundtrip and 4 nights. I didn’t finalize it, but Amsterdam, Dubai and Milan are the chief candidates at the moment.

We boarded on time and the plane filled up. I ended up with a window in Business, a mixed blessing when the person in the row in front decides to put their chair into full recline thus blocking my escape and as luck would have it, it turned out just so. But you really can’t complain because it is so much better in every other way.

As we pulled away I watched a baggage train snaking away from an unloading jumbo jet. The driver was doing some tight S curves and in doing so managed to dislodge one of the baggage containers from his trailer and onto the ground in the middle of the departing runway. He kept right on going, never missing a beat. I had a vested interest in the resolution of this little problem since that was the way we were headed, so I watched with amazement as all the other workers went about their business, blithely ignoring the 6x6x6 steel cube sitting on its side in the middle of this big, asphalt expanse. A couple of trucks drove right by it, not even stopping to block it with their vehicles and in doing so perhaps making it more obvious. The landing guys all took one look and headed in a different direction more or less sending the message if it’s behind me, it’s not my problem. Finally a guy on a little tractor came roaring out of nowhere and ran into it head first, using his momentum to push it out of the way. As he did this, another baggage train came along and retrieved it.

We had a great view of the city as we pulled up and away, flying over Nob Hill and parallel to the south side of Golden Gate Park – San Francisco is even more beautiful from the air than it is from the ground. We crossed the coast with Point Reyes off in the distance and I was lucky enough to fly right over the top of the Farallons which passed between the edge of my window and the engine. Seeing them from up here was so, so different than from the deck of a fishing boat heaving in high seas on a birding expedition back in 1984.

As on all trips, we settled into the routine – the food came, disappointing this time, I ended up with a dried chicken breast and something called “warm horseradish potato salad” which was absolutely foul. The Tiramisu and a cup of decent coffee made up for it though. The restrooms went from 1st to 3rd world and people became more and more restless. Simply the things you expect on a 12 hour flight.

Arriving in Dalian is always a bit of a crap shoot, you either get to walk from the plane to the terminal or you have to go down the stairs, across the tarmac and into a bus. Of course, last night was the latter, and whoever designed the process ought to be fired.

First of all, it’s cold here in January. Secondly, it can be windy. Last night it was both. Between the dark, the temperature, the stairs and the shoving people, it made me want to just stay on the plane. The bus drivers wait until there is no more room before moving, which is funny because it doesn’t take two full buses to unload the plane. But Bus #2 keeps its doors shut until Bus #1 is 30% beyond capacity and then allows the remaining 5 or 6 passengers to board. If the assault on your sensibilities from that segment isn’t bad enough wait until you get to the terminal where you jump down a couple of feet from the bus, traverse three narrow marble stairs and then try to squeeze in through a single door with the other 120 people you’ve just spent the last hour with. Gladly immigration and baggage claim are easy enough, doubly so because we chose to help some fellow expats on their initial relocation with 2 children, associated car seats and 17 large pieces of luggage. Driving two of those luggage carts – one forward and one back – throw the serpentine exit path was memorable, especially when my trailing cart decided to unload itself.

But I made it out, met my new driver who speaks little or no English and was pretty quickly on my way back to the Kerren Hotel. It’s a dark drive, but last night it was livened up a bit by the dozens of illuminated red Chinese lanterns hanging from each street light and the trees along the main boulevard, freshly wrapped in white, blue and green lights in celebration of the upcoming New Year’s Festival.

I had one last little glitch on my floor when I couldn’t remember my actual room number, followed by a Bell Cap who mysteriously would not leave without a tip (a 1st for China) and I was home again. Well not home, let’s say instead I was “in residence” and my first official returning action was turning the heat down from 85 to 68. They like it warm here in Siberia.