I was spending the last four years comfortably traveling, writing and editing when I received an unexpected invitation. I was invited to attend and speak at the 5th International Conference on Growth Factors organized by Wenzhou Medical University (WMU) in Wenzhou, China. It took a while for this to sink in. Should I go…
A few thoughts raced through my mind. First, I had a previously scheduled trip to India just before the conference which I could not postpone. Second, how would I stand up to two international trips back to back? I love traveling and had always wanted to visit China. Here was a wonderful opportunity. But, what would be the subject of my talk? The other speakers were professors from academia with active research programs. I was the odd man out, the only person from the pharmaceutical industry. Maybe that would be my strong suit. I would talk on “My experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry”, and I could bring a unique perspective to the meeting. In addition, I would be teaching the graduate students of Wenzhou University and WMU the “Basics of Scientific Writing”. I love interacting with students, so this would in essence be a labor of love. I accepted.
Several emails and phone conversations followed. I was even more convinced that this would be a great conference. In addition, there was a Feasibility Discussion Meeting on a proposed, brand new world class Research Institute in Hangzhou. That, and a proposed visit to West Lake, a beautiful spot much loved by Marco Polo, was the icing on the cake. Things were getting interesting.
I worked on getting a visa which necessitated a visit to the Chinese consulate in New York and an overnight stay in the city. I rose early and was first in the queue at the counter in the consulate. My visa application was accepted. Next, I had to decide on an airline. WMU gave me a few options and I chose China Eastern that flies non-stop from John F. Kennedy (JFK) airport, New York to Pudong International airport, Shanghai. It would be a long, fourteen-hour flight.
I took a limo from my home to JFK, a two hour drive on a good day. The Beltway around the airport is notorious for delays, but I arrived on time. I checked in, went through security and settled into the lounge with a drink and a good book. Soon it was time to board the plane. Take off was at 1.45 AM and I was tired and ready for bed.
The huge Boeing 777-300ER took off smoothly into the night sky. As soon as the seat belt sign was turned off I stretched out and went to sleep. I woke to the tinkling of cutlery and clink of glasses, a snack was being served.
The food was good and the wines reasonable but I wish the English language skills of the crew were a little better. Some had difficulty describing the food items. Being a ‘foodie’, I like to know what I am eating especially if I like it. The final meal was breakfast. I chose the Western option from the menu. That required no explanation and I ate most of it fortifying myself for the full day ahead. Between eating, drinking, sleeping and reading the long hours sped by. Soon it was time to land.
We landed at Pudong on time; 4.40 AM. I went through immigration and customs and was greeted at the exit by Chen Wen, a bright, young graduate student from Wenzhou University. The conference organizers had had the foresight to realize that invitees like us who did not speak Mandarin may have some difficulty in interacting with the locals and getting to their destinations. So they had arranged for an interpreter. Chen and I had already corresponded via email and WeChat. She had thoughtfully sent me a picture of herself in the garb she would be wearing that day. That was a brilliant idea. I spotted her in seconds among the many others in the waiting crowd. She was a great help throughout the trip and had come from Wenzhou to Shanghai, a distance of 460 km, for the explicit purpose of receiving me and taking me to my hotel. The organizers and Chen deserve a big thanks for this thoughtful gesture.
With her help I bought a SIM card for my iphone which enabled me to use it in China. I called my wife and told her I had arrived safely and was in Chen’s good hands. We then took a taxi to the high speed train station in Shanghai. The station was large, busy but orderly. The first set of conferences would be held in Hangzhou, a distance of 176 km from Shanghai. We bought two tickets for Hangzhou and boarded the train. I kept my eyes on the changing scenery outside the window as the train sped smoothly on. This was my first trip to China so I was eager to take in as much as I could. I had my camera at the ready and took many pictures. Chen sat beside me during the 50 minute ride and we had a pleasant conversation. She was a delightful companion and a good guide trying her best to answer my many questions.
China is the second largest economy today and steadily expanding. Growth is visible everywhere. During my ride I saw stretches of cultivated fields next to the tracks and further on, newly constructed high rise apartment blocks filling the horizon. I could not ascertain if they were all occupied. It was clear to me how and why China consumes nearly 50% of the world’s concrete. It was being used to build new towns, cities and roads. Soon it was time to get off at Hangzhou. We got off the train, into a taxi and were soon en route to our hotel.