We arrived in Shanghai, in the People’s Republic of China, on a Saturday afternoon. Less than 24 hours later we were sitting on a Grandstand at the Shanghai International Circuit, wet and freezing but grinning happily – our first live Grand Prix in over a dozen years!
Even though we came to Shanghai straight from Hong Kong, moving as it were from one huge Chinese city to another, for a Westerner there is no comparison in comfort levels between these two. After Hong Kong’s effortless bi-linguality, it was a disconcerting experience to emerge in an entirely alien environment. I don’t think, I’ve ever been in a country where I could neither read nor understand even a single word, let alone make myself understood.
Our fortnight in Shanghai was our first ever “hosted home-exchange” during which the hosts remain at their home and the exchangers become house guests rather than live on their own in the exchange residence. The hosts may offer to share some meals and activities with their guests, depending on mutual agreement.
We were extremely fortunate to have been invited by a Belgian family, who had lived in China for twenty odd years so that they and their children were fluent in Mandarin. However, their Ayi [literally “Auntie”] who ran their busy household didn’t speak any Western languages. How to communicate? I was introduced to an app that is most popular in China. It’s called WeChat. Using a smartphone, you type or speak your message in your own language and the app in recipients’ phones translates the message into their languages.
Our arrival in Shanghai coincided with the Chinese Grand Prix weekend. In the good old days, when we had the opportunity to attend Formula One races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, we would spend the whole race weekend in town. On Saturdays, after qualifying, we would roam Indianapolis, never missing a visit at my favorite museum, the Eiteljorg. On race day, we usually arrived at the Speedway pretty much at the crack of dawn to get a reasonably close parking space, spending the morning checking out all sorts of exhibits and activities, have hot dogs, get autographs, be fans, and inhale the incredible Indi atmosphere. Remembering these fun days at the races, we were keen to attend the Grand Prix of China, but we had a number of disappointments regarding the race before we ever arrived in Shanghai.
Against our expectations, all legally available tickets were sold out and the weather forecast was absolutely atrocious, temperatures barely reaching 50ºF/10ºC with rain, rain, rain. Not being able to purchase tickets offered on eBay or F1 boards owing to the foreign location and our travel situation, we had pretty much given up on the idea of attending the race.
On Saturday, our arrival day, it was beautiful in Shanghai and so warm that we sat outside on the terrace enjoying a glass of wine with our hostess Kristien. But true to the predictions, Sunday indeed dawned wet and blustery. I went downstairs to make myself a cup of coffee when I encountered Kristien texting busily. She announced that she had reached a scalper who said he had tickets. She had dealt with him once before and thought he might be trustworthy. Buying from these black-marketeers is an iffy proposition because it is not only illegal but there are many fake tickets in circulation, yet I was ready to take that chance.
Kristien then initiated a three-way WeChat between the scalper, whom she called Mr. Black, my phone and hers before she had to leave and the remaining negotiations were left in my inept hands. When I received my first Chinese message from Mr. Black, I couldn’t recall how to do the translation function, having done it the evening before only once for practice. I was tapping this and that button in vain when it suddenly came back to me. Success! I continued to chat with our dealer, settling on a price for two Grandstand-A-high tickets. In the next sequence of chats, we tried to work out where to meet. At this point, Kristien chimed in from the road suggesting we exchange pictures to recognize each other. Certainly, a great idea, except I had no pics of us on my phone. As quickly as possible I found and sized two pictures on my laptop and photographed them with my phone off the laptop screen. Those I forwarded to Mr. Black, after finally figuring out how the hell to do that. It ain’t easy being old, forgetful and technology-challenged.
Meanwhile, Mr. Black had sent his own picture. He inquired if we could meet at a metro station, rather than the circuit itself. He had been arrested for scalping on Friday, he said, and it was too risky for him to deal at the circuit or at the metro station nearest the venue. I agreed to meet him at the Jiading Xincheng metro station.
He wanted to meet us at 10 AM, but it was already almost nine and my husband was still sleeping, so I said 11 AM. From our house, it was a 10 min walk to the neighborhood bus stop to connect to the nearest Metro station, a 15-minute bus ride away. The trip in the subway from East Xuijing terminal, our station on Line 2, to Jiading Xincheng station on Line 11 would be quite a distance and we’d have to switch lines along the way.
Plus, we had never used public transportation in Shanghai, which would add even more time simply to figure out how to purchase tickets. Thus it was getting tight to meet Mr. Black in time. Kristien felt the same and send a message for me to ask their regular driver if he could take us to the Metro station for our illegal rendez-vous.
I chatted with the driver while my husband got hurriedly dressed. On top of all that hustle and bustle, we also had to stop at an ATM to get cash for our transaction since scalpers rarely take credit cards, do they? That necessitated more chatting with the Chinese-only driver before we left the house. Why before we left the house? Well, to use WeChat or any other app for that matter one needs internet connectivity. We had just arrived in the PRC, where my Hong Kong chip no longer provided service and I had not had an opportunity to find a telecommunications store and buy a new SIM card for my phone, as we usually do when country cruising. At home, you have connectivity through the domestic WiFi network.
With all that overwhelmingly hectic activity, I had completely forgotten that first thing in the morning I put on yesterday’s t-shirt under a sweatshirt, no shower, bed hair, just a quick toothbrushing, as I had only intended to come downstairs to make a cup of coffee, which I actually never did! In that exact disheveled state, I threw on a borrowed rain jacket and my “Rancho Leon” ball cap, grabbed a borrowed umbrella and my backpack with one camera and two phones and off we went in search of GP tickets. You got to be quick in China.
And why two phones? Well, Kristien had lent us her daughter’s non-smart phone to talk with Mr. Black if needed. My own no-service-phone was our lifeline to make it back home. I had taken pictures of the characters for our address, the metro map, the metro stations needed in Mandarin, and a bunch of other information I thought might be useful to communicate with bus or cab drivers.
After stopping at an ATM, our driver dropped us off at the Jiading Xincheng metro station and for the next 45 minutes, a veritable comedy of errors ensued. Mr. Black’s English was better than my Mandarin, granted, but not necessarily comprehensible. He kept calling to ask where we were. We described our location in great detail over and over again which only resulted in a series of OKs without resulting in an actual meeting. In light of the fact that he designated this meeting place himself, we were puzzled and decidedly doubtful to ever make it to the Grand Prix. Finally, someone else called from Mr. Black’s phone, someone with a clearer enunciation and new instructions. To our amazement, we were now told to proceed to the Shanghai Circuit metro station just outside of the Grand Prix venue.
Miraculously we managed to purchase a couple of tickets from a vending machine that had an English menu but switched back to Chinese every few seconds. An added difficulty was the fact that we only had larger denomination bills when it turned out that the ticket machine only took coins. The machine sent us, somehow, to a customer service window with an actual non-English speaking person who made change for us. Thus we took our first subway trip in China, if only for one stop.
At the Shanghai Circuit station, we paced the platform, watching groups of soldiers practicing Foot drills out of the corner of our eyes, feeling rather conspicuous while all the other people emerging from successive subway trains rushed past us toward the circuit. Again we communicated via brief phone calls with the other Mr. Black. “We’re at exit 8”. “Come to exit 6”. “That’s across the tracks, we can’t get there”. What a bore! Finally, we had enough and joined the crowd taking the escalators to the subway exit.
Now we were loitering immediately outside the race track. Not for long, though. A tall lanky kind of a guy approached and greeted us heartily like long lost friends, I suppose he acted in a comedic effort to divert the suspicion of the military personnel and police who were thick on the ground. Tall Mr. Black was accompanied by short Mr. Black, neither of whom looked in the least like the picture we had been sent. Discussing the tickets with these two Misters Black and their associate Ms. Black, who was actually holding the tickets, they proceeded to tell us that they didn’t have any Grandstand-A-high tickets, only Grandstand-A+. Much better seats, naturally, for more money, naturally. Negotiations ensued.
Since we were still worried about being sold fake tickets, Ms. Black gave me one ticket to take inside the circuit area to test it. Unfortunately, that was impossible to do since the security checkpoints were jammed with endless lines. We had no choice but to buy and hope for the best. Fingers crossed!
In previous Grand Prix, we had always entered the circuits early in the morning, long before the main body of spectators began clogging up the entrances. Here we were right smack in the middle of thousands and thousands of tightly packed fans being processed through a bottleneck of 5 x-ray machines to check backpacks, as well as the ticket checks. At least it was warm amongst all those bodies, while all our umbrellas formed a water repellent shield above our heads. Despite the seemingly endless wait, everyone was looking forward to the race and there was much joking and chuckling. Eventually, we made it inside, free to buy merchandise or food or beer or cappuccinos. There was one heart-stopping moment, though, when the security person had to scan my ticket three times before it registered!
We had left home rather hastily and as it turned out we were not well outfitted for attending a Formula 1 race. We didn’t bring earplugs, nor binoculars, nor towels, nor wee winter woolens, and my husband had forgotten his cap which was not very pleasant in the rainy atmosphere. While we were in the process of buying a race program, his glasses broke. Instead of wearing his regular glasses, he was still wearing his ancient, crooked home-use-only glasses. We jerry-rigged the glasses and bought a ridiculously expensive but pretty Ferrari cap and some oversized hot dogs, before climbing 17 sets of stairs to our seats in the nosebleed section of A+. Did I mention that the toilets were all on the ground level?
Our seats were just inside the edge of the solid awning covering most of the grandstands. That roof is so high above the seats, however, that the wind carries the moisture freely to all the seats. In the pictures, you can see the darker red and yellow puddles in each seat. Do you know how many paper napkins it takes to dry a seat? More than you carried up with your hot dogs for 17 flights of stairs, that’s how many!
On the plus side, we were opposite Charlie Whiting’s race control center and had a direct view of pit lane with the Mercedes boxes first to our left. The tail end of the starting grid was also beneath us, affording us a nice view of the hectic activity prior to the formation lap and start. Since our seats were so high up, we could also see quite a bit of the track with several curves in the distance, as well as the start and finish straight in front of us. Great seats, especially considering that only a couple of hours earlier we had no tickets at all!!!
After the grid girls took their positions, the marshalls paraded for the audience and the first tire stacks were maneuvered into place.
After a quick test lap, one by one the cars began to populate the grid.
The McLarens were among the first to assume their grid positions.
I enjoyed seeing the Haas livery close up. It’s only their second season in F1, but these newbies have one of the best looking cars this year. I was taken aback how gaudy and shrill some liveries appeared, even from a distance.
Finally, the Ferraris arrived. First Kimi Räikkönen,
then ‘uns Vettele’. As each car approached the grid area in the start-finish straight a marshall with a yellow flag signaled to the driver to turn off the engine, while crew members swarmed around the vehicle performing secret adjustments. Crews would then push the cars to their position markers on the grid.
Some Red Bull crew members loitered quite obviously, greedily observing the Ferrari.
What the heck is going on there?
A beehive of activity across the grid. But within the next few minutes, all extraneous personnel will leave the starting grid, while the cars complete their formation lap.
We left the circuit before the end of the race because we were a little afraid of the huge crowd that would vie for a spot in the subway. As we walked back toward the metro station, we encountered the bizarre sight of x-ray checks being conducted at an exit. Everyone had to queue again and it was very slow going when suddenly an official who looked like higher ranking military appeared on a workers platform above us overlooking the exits. He started screaming something in the direction of the poor guys at the x-ray machine that sounded very much like you imbeciles will be executed before sundown. By now blue in the face, he kept yelling and gesturing toward other exits which were opening and the crowd dispersed quickly in direction of the metro. As we walked, we noticed a very large parking lot type space which had been subdivided into lanes fashioned like a gigantic zigzagging holding area for the crowds soon to appear from the circuit. We were pretty happy to be on our way ahead of the multitudes!
In the evening, back home, I read through a thread of WeChat messages between Kristien and Mr. Black from around the time we loitered outside the stadium. She was asking: “Did you find them?” and he had answered: “found elder sister”. I thought it sounded charming. What an adventure!
I dedicate this post to our friends T. Michael Jackson and the late Adelbert “Bert” Miller who traveled together for many miles across the world to catch Formula One in action. True fans!