I always start a journey with a sense of anticipation, that excitement of not knowing what's going to happen next - being away from day to day routine.
And so it was on Tuesday evening, the holiday count down had finished, bag is packed, travelling sandals on and finally we are standing in the H line at Sydney airport waiting to board our Sichuan airlines flight.
Quite noticeably we are the only Australians amongst the line up. We get to the check out and a staff member turns to me. 'Are you going to Chongquin ?' She queries - evidently concerned. 'Yes yes..... I am'
'Oh' she says 'not many Europeans go on this flight . I thought you may of been looking for air New Zealand'
The anticipation turns into concern. What have I done?
The typical long night flight happens, airline food, cramped seats and restless dozing and we have arrived and successfully negotiated immigration and customs as you do in most airports when you are the only flight in at 4.45am and and one of only a few "aliens" arriving.
The tour starts quietly with a quick change of shirt in the (rather smelly) squat toilets and now a 3 hour wait for the tour guide to start the day. We meet the 6 others in our group and names and stories are exchanged - I can see that this group will be held together with our love of foreign destinations as everybody has tales of travel elsewhere. Chongquin airport is everything you could wish for in a democratic communist country. A large silver urn for exploding devices. Cleaners with large mops aimlessly washing he green tile floors . Hot drinking water on tap. Neon lights over vinyl rows of seating.
And so we wait. And wait. Until tour guide Ali turns up. We are pleased to see her and she us until she realises we are a group of 8. Not the expected 4.
Gentle chaos reigns as Ali sorts out a different van, a breakfast of sorts at the airport KFC and tries to get our day on track again. And in between moments of absolute confusion Ali does a marvellous job of shepherding us around the magnificent city of Chongquin. With a potent mix of statistics, (it takes 6 hrs to transverse the city) to theories, (Chongquin women are the most attractive in China ) Ali kept us informed and amused all day. At the zoo we gazed at pandas, tigers, camels and rhinos but the ones who really took my fancy were the beautiful Chinese girls, looking like butterflies in their sequinned summer dresses and high heels laughing together as they watched the animals.
Back into the bus to goose neck park - the highest place in the city with views stretching out over the river, the bridges, the apartments that house 32 million people. There is no horizon at all - the mist of pollution blends colours into the palest of silver grey with concrete high rises pinning earth to sky. The sound of the city comes up to us, under the trees and shady Chinese pergolas we stand in. It is almost incomprehensible the distance that this city spreads out in height as well as depth.
We spent a mad hour in Liberation Square, not so much absorbing Chinese history as challenging Australian - Chinese relations as we purchase SIM cards and change dollars to Yuen. We left behind us a trail of perplexed people and us too - what seems simple procedures have been complicated no end by language and more than one cross cultural faux pas.
Ali ensures we are truly looked after with magnificent restaurants and banquets with multiple courses washed down with the light Chinese beer and finished with watermelon.
We see markets and historical homes and admire workmanship in timber, jade, stone, iron, brass, fabric, paints. This is a place where sheer numbers of people have achieved so much through the centuries.
We have had a whirlwind tour of Chongquin - a huge city of dizzying proportions.
You can either be intrigued by the endless number of people going about their daily lives, old men sitting in tranquil gardens, teenagers playing cards perched on concrete footstools, children running, huddles of older ladies laughing and chatting noisily. Or you will be reduced to insignificance by the sheer volume and magnificence of the man made projects - freeways looking like tangles of spaghetti, going around, over and under a city that surrounds the joining of the Yangtze and Jialing.
Finally in the evening we are waved off by Ali at the domestic terminal - she has managed, despite having her tour increase by 100% to give us an outstanding day, shepherding 8 aliens around her city to see great and small. Her smile never wavering (after the initial shock) warm and friendly to the last.
Meanwhile we sat in the waiting lounge dismayed with the unrelenting loud Chinese announcements. More dismayed when the flight was delayed for an hour. then the gate was changed and we all chased after the other Chinese travellers to another gate to once again sit in bleary stupor. Finally we did board the hour long flight to xian, walk the 2 km from plane to parked bus, travel the 45 mins to the city and by 2 am collapsed on our rock hard Chinese beds.