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Took this photo from my bullet train ride to Hangzhou. That’s not fog; it’s pollution.

SHANGHAI, China — Everybody uses WeChat, some Chinese taxi drivers are a bit crazy, and yes, the pollution is pretty bad.

These are some initial observations after my first 24 hours in China (head here for more details on why I’m in the country reporting about tech giants and University of Washington-related events, including a regular season basketball game in Shanghai).

After a two-hour delay, my flight from Seattle arrived in Shanghai late Monday evening. While the UW basketball players, coaches, cheerleaders, and team managers — we were randomly on the same flight — hopped on a two-hour bus ride 100 miles southwest of Shanghai to Hangzhou, I got some cash from an ATM and went looking for a taxi.

The UW players arrive at the Shanghai airport, with many interested Chinese looking on.
The UW players arrive at the Shanghai airport, with many interested Chinese looking on.

Walking out of the airport, I had my first “scam” experience. As I exited under the door that said “taxi,” a few guys immediately came up to me — I must not look like a native — and asked if I needed a ride. I said, how much? One man showed me “550” on his iPhone, which was more than double a normal taxi ride in Chinese currency.

Microsoft Translator app.
Microsoft Translator app.

Xiè xie, but no xiè xie (xiè xie is ‘thank you’ in Chinese).

Shortly thereafter I made it to the legitimate taxi line and that’s where my Microsoft Translator app came through in the clutch — the first of many instances where the technology saved my butt.

The app lets you speak or write phrases in one language and have it translated within seconds, which is pretty awesome. However, this function only works with an Internet connection.

Knowing that I probably wouldn’t have immediate mobile data when I arrived, I pre-loaded a bunch of words and sentences that I could access without Internet. Among those was my hotel name, which I showed to my taxi driver, who immediately understood.

Xiè xie, Microsoft.

Shanghai International Airport, from my taxi.
Shanghai International Airport, from my taxi.
Inside the taxi, which had a tablet for passengers to interact with.
Inside the taxi, which had a tablet for passengers to interact with.

I was a bit nervous as the ride progressed, as it was nighttime and I had no idea where we were going. Slowly but surely, taller and taller buildings appeared, and 40 minutes later, we were in the heart of Shanghai and at my hotel.

Six hours later, I was up and at it. I had to catch an early bullet train to Hangzhou, the home of Alibaba’s campus where the Chinese tech giant was hosting players and dignitaries from the UW and the University of Texas.

I hopped in another taxi and showed the driver the name of the train station. Again, I used Microsoft Translator and it worked perfectly.

Shanghai Hongqiao train station.
Shanghai Hongqiao train station.

I arrived at the station, went through security, and needed to figure out how to buy the right ticket. I had “Hanghzhou train station” saved on the app, so I showed that to the ticket cashier and seconds later I was good to go. The one-hour bullet train ride only cost 77.5 RMB, which is about 12 American dollars.

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Inside Shanghai Hongqiao train station.

I snagged a quick bite at Starbucks — I know, I know, not very adventurous of me — and thought it was interesting how the cashier asked me for my Starbucks rewards card. The spread they had was actually pretty impressive, too.

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The train itself was super nice. It reminded me of the bullet trains I’ve been on in Japan — clean, spacious, and a smooth ride. As I peered outside my window, I could notice how polluted this city was.

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Once we arrived at Hangzhou, I found a taxi, and I showed the driver another translation I had on Microsoft’s app that read “I’m going to Alibaba’s headquarters.” He seemed to know where to go, but I showed him my backup — a written address of the exact location I had on paper — just in case, and that seemed to help.

It took about an hour to get to Alibaba, but on the way we drove through Hangzhou, a city of about 2.4 million people that seemed very scenic with a beautiful lake and walking paths near the downtown area.

On the way to Alibaba.
On the way to Alibaba.

My driver, who offered me a cigarette, seemed nice but was an insane driver. He was cutting people off left and right. I was a bit scared, but I was running a bit late, so getting to Alibaba faster was nice — as long as we didn’t crash.

Eventually we arrived at Alibaba, where I met a representative at the security hut — there was lots of security all over the campus — and made my way to the “VIP room” at Alibaba.

You can read about my experience and see photos of the Chinese tech giant’s campus here. In short, it was fascinating to see what life was like at Alibaba, one of the most powerful and successful technology companies in the world. It was an amazing experience hearing from Alibaba founder Jack Ma and seeing the chairman interact with university administrators, coaches, players, and others.

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UW men's basketball coach Lorenzo Romar teaches Alibaba founder Jack Ma how to properly do the "W" symbol on Tuesday at Alibaba's campus. Texas head coach Shaka Smart is on the left.
UW men’s basketball coach Lorenzo Romar teaches Alibaba founder Jack Ma how to properly do the “W” symbol on Tuesday at Alibaba’s campus. Texas head coach Shaka Smart is on the left.

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I left Alibaba in the late afternoon and found another taxi. This time, the driver saw my “Hangzhou train station” writing, but spoke loudly in Chinese to me. I didn’t understand. There was a group of other drivers hanging around who all came up to our car to see what was going on. Luckily, one nice man who spoke a little English asked me which specific train station I was going to — there are two in Hangzhou — and relayed the information to my driver.

Sometimes, when technology doesn’t work out, humans can do it best.

It took an hour to get to the station, and again, the driver was aggressive. However, I realized that most taxi drivers, and most drivers here in general, exhibit pretty crazy driving techniques, at least by American standards.

On the way there, I noticed an ad for McDonald’s that had a burger with two hot dogs inside. I wish I took a photo, but you can probably imagine. It made me chuckle.

Anyways, I made it to Hangzhou’s train station and showed the cashier “Shanghai Hongqiao train station,” which worked well again. The return train was equally as smooth and the jetlag hit me as I passed out before waking up right as we arrived in Shanghai.

I planned to grab another taxi back to the hotel, but the taxi line had at least 100 people in it. A woman approached me and told me it was a two-hour wait, and then proceeded to try to get me into her car — which, I’m sure was a tad expensive, and seemed a bit sketch.

Instead, I opted for the subway. While on the metro, I saw at least four or five people on their smartphones using WeChat, the messaging app developed by China tech giant Tencent. The app, which also lets you pay for items, is seriously used by EVERYONE in China. Anyone you meet here has WeChat. It’s like Facebook Messenger, but on another level.

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I wasn’t 100 percent sure of which stop to get off at, but I guessed correctly, and ended up walking through a really cool area of Shanghai that is near my hotel.

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The only big issue so far is my food game, which has been lackluster. But, that will change, and stay tuned for plenty of grub pics.

That’s all for now. Check out our special coverage page for our reports from China.

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