2016 May 25
My morning starts later than I had hoped, I am still kicking myself for not being in the lobby when the bus left at 5 am. Breakfast. Pack. Load up. We are on the way to Huangshi. Rain and gloom welcome us as we hit the road. There isn’t much to see out the windows and the bus is significantly quieter than it has been. We are currently a shuttle service for the referees and their wives. The guys half-jokingly mumble about not getting calls last night for the price of shuttle service. We pull into a huge railroad station a little more than 4 hours later.
Our train is scheduled for 2:15 pm. There is plenty of time to get something at McDonald’s (America’s favorite restaurant, lol) and hit the head. All luggage is carried on. Our seats are together, unlike an airplane, and off we go on China’s bullet train. It looks fast parked. Sleek and long, with a pointed nose. My first thought was the movie, Snow Piercer. There is plenty of legroom and I get a window seat. That is good for me because I do not like moving every time someone wants to gets up. The train goes from zero to wow quickly. There is a digital display of the current time and date and temperature and speed. 304 kg/h. That is Indy 500 fast. I take some vids looking out the window, but the weather isn’t cooperating. Things close to the train are just a blur, things far are obstructed by fog. Occasionally, a train passes us going the opposite direction. I can feel the woosh. It’s like a wind crossing a bridge or passing a semi-truck. There are two stops and we cover over 500 kg in less than an hour and a half. We arrive at our destination station, Wuhan. We meander through the station and find our bus and drive to the hotel. Ninety minutes later we arrive.
The town is sprawling, clearly a working town, and my expectations for this hotel dwindle with each passing block. On our travels, we have seen houses of all types: huge, homey, humble, and hovel. There are clearly delineated sections, with little occasion of exception. Nice is nice. Bad is really bad. Visually speaking. It’s possible that people who live the simplest lifestyle are the happiest. All I know is, traveling makes me appreciate my status as an American and all the privileges it provides. By 6 pm, we are all booked into the rooms and on our way to the dining hall. The hotel is nice. Nicer than the drive up would imply. It is brand new, the elevator buttons shine like they just peeled off the thin protective plastic cover.
We are greeted at the restaurant by employees wearing cowboy hats and brown vests with fringe. They look like Woody from Toy Story costumes. I walk in and say, “Howdy.” To which, I get zero reply. I quickly drop the Chinese version of what’s up, it sounds like KNEE-HOW, and they smile and wave me toward the buffet. And what a buffet it is. They are going all out to impress us. There is quite an assortment from fish to octopus, to breads and steamers full of entrees. A guy in a tall chef’s hat is hand preparing pan seared steak, chicken, and fish. Plenty of desserts and soda. Even hand dipped ice cream. The guys are chowing down and saying how the next team we play has no chance now that we are eating like kings. I didn’t bring up that we were undefeated on less than diverse foods for fear of creating an agitated attitude. I really don’t care why they feel invincible, I like it.
In the cooler with the soda is beer. Just one kind, but it is cold and included with the meal. This is both good and bad. Good, that while we have the night off everyone can relax. Bad, that not everyone drinks beer with dinner like I do. One meal, one beer. I catch a lot of flak from my family for that, but it works for me. Mr. Gao is quite concerned that players and beer is a bad mix. Initially he tries to prohibit it, but ultimately allows it. I do not take a beer. I tell the players to act professionally. This is not the first time I have told them, and not the last time they need to hear it. Everything here is a job interview.
Because of the rain, I don’t think anyone is going to walk around tonight. I go to my room to read and blog and watch soccer. Yes, soccer. One channel on each hotel cable system plays sports. I recently kinda watched a few hours of badminton as I worked through my afternoon pregame routine. (Don’t judge. Badminton is more compelling than you may imagine.) It wasn’t long before I was nodding off, so I laid down and tried to sleep. A phone call, a text message in a group, replies to that group message: every time I got close to asleep something brought me back to reality. The bed feels like something the Flintstones would have. Every hotel has had very firm beds. When I say very firm, I mean a sheet on just a box spring at home would be about the same. Tossing, turning, interruptions made REM impossible. Somewhere in the night, I found an oasis of comfort and drifted to sleep.