China Expat & Travel Blogger. ATTRACTIONS & THINGS TO DO IN CHINA. See My Fun TRAVEL Adventures in China!
It's only been two days, but I still can't believe that I caught my first ever space rocket launch--the Long March 5--in China, my home of the past six and a half years. And boy was it one hell of an experience!
First off, you should know that I'm a big fan of NASA and anything space related. Black holes, UFOs, sci-fi flicks, space tech--I've gravitated towards these subjects since I was old enough to read books and watch TV.
In fact, nothing would please me more than to catch a live NASA space shuttle launch in Cape Canaveral. There's just something about watching a shuttle or rocket blast off into space that not only embodies the incredible technological advancements made by mankind and the possibilities to come, but it also evokes a strong sense of achievement and pride in one's country that's unparalled. Would you agree?
So when I quit my teaching job and heard that China was hosting a live rocket launch from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island, of course I'd grab the chance to make at least one-half of my dream come true!
Day 1 kicked off with a mid-day, 3-hour solo adventure from Shanghai to Wenchang by plane. I landed at Haikou Meilan International Airport, hopped on a high-speed train at Meilan Railway Station, arrived at Wenchang Railway Station, waved down an illegal taxi, and checked into Moonbay Bedom Apartments by 11pm. Day 1's long trek to Wenchang was officially done. Booyah.
Day 2. It was 12:30pm and blazing hot, but fortunately had probably been the clearest day I had ever seen in China. Liftoff wasn't til' 7:30pm so I had plenty of time to walk around, bother people for information about the launch, snap a ton of pictures, scarf down some local cuisine, and hit the beach--a cardinal rule when visiting Hainan Island might I add!
And then came 4pm. Time to hit the satellite launch center? Sure. But there was just one problem: I actually had no idea how to get there! Zilch. It's location was miles away on Google Maps and unfortunately Wenchang was far more spread out and deserted than I had thought. And so here goes ...
The first order of business was asking the hotel manager to call a taxi, but she asserted that there were no taxis around. Well, ok. Next up I flagged down a security guard and inquired about buses in the area. He claimed that buses weren't running this day. C'mon man! It was the unluckiest I had ever been during my travels, but I didn't want to give up. Heck, I was willing to hitchhike if I had to!
And then it happened--out of the sky shone down a bright golden light that hovered over a group of 20-something-year-old Chinese guys waiting at a bus stop along the road. I approached, I asked. Was the bus running? Of course. Were they heading to see the Long March 5 launch? Yep. Could I tag along with them to see it? Heck yeah! Long March 5, here I come!
My luck had changed in an instant. The bus arrived within 10 minutes and just like that we were on our way, all for a measly 10RMB.
It's crazy, fifteen minutes into the ride we were stopped at a security checkpoint about 3km from the entrance of Wenchang's satellite launch tourist center. All passengers were kicked off the bus, escorted to metal detectors, and had our luggage screened, all the while being surrounded by the presence of 2 dozen members of police, army, and bomb sniffing dogs. It was awesome to see that the Chinese didn't play around when it came to security for the event.
And approximately 15 minutes later we'd arrived at the Wenchang satellite launch tourist center. "Finally!", I thought. But then, another problem... *sigh*
Security at the entrance told us that not only did we need tickets to enter, but all the tickets for the day had already been sold out. @$#!
After some "sweet talk" the security informed us that we could wait around until 6:30pm and he'd see about getting us in. And well, that's what we did. You can imagine how good it felt to know that I wasn't the only one determined to get inside.
By 6pm security informed us that it was okay to head inside and buy tickets. Awesome! But then, another problem! And the issue this time? "As a foreigner, [you] may not be able to go in". @$#! ...again.
Actually, before arriving in Wenchang I had known that China's space program was very secretive and that foreigners weren't allowed to explore most launch centers scattered around the country, including the Jiuquan and Xichang facilities. Yet, my Chinese friends helped with some research and found that the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center was open to all tourist. And with that, I was still determined to get in despite whatever 'estimate' security had said. So here goes ...
One of the guys from the group had gone in and bought our tickets at 30RMB a pop. And then, time to pass the security check.
"This is it", I thought. They'd probably say turn around and leave as soon as they saw me.
I went first. A guard eyeballed me with a picture-worthy look of surprise and asked for my ticket. He inspected it. I walked through a detector and ... within all but 5 seconds I was still alive and kicking on the other side. THAT was it. No need to show my passport, answer any questions--nada. We all made it in without a hitch. And well, I guess this was turning out to be my luckiest adventure ever!
I must admit, Wenchang's satellite launch-viewing center was definitely not what I had imagined.
There was this massive open space riddled with a thousand chairs, a stage, booths, and a large screen showcasing a live shot of the Long March 5.
In the far distance sat the command center and launch pad for the Long March 5 rocket.
Around the premises was a mini-museum that housed real artifacts from China's satellites and rocket ships, and a large replica of a rocket ship.
The best part? By 6:50pm the party began. They brought out hosts, professional dancers, and had a bunch of lasers ziz-zagging across the screen much like a premier EDM festival. I never, not in a million years, would have imagined a rocket launch in China to be so festive!
And then came 7:15pm. Liftoff--this was it. My first ever space rocket launch, and in China. Everyone's phones were out and eyes glued to the big screen as an announcer began a countdown initiation.
5...4...3...2...1 and boom! A huge fiery blast lit up the sky in the distance, accompanied by the strangest, yet, loudest noise I ever heard. The Long March 5 rocket--the size of a small building--was blasting off into the space, and it was one of the coolest things I had ever seen.
On top of that, I could feel the strong sense of pride and accomplishment spewing from the hundreds of locals around me, and having lived in China for the past 6 years, I felt right at home with them. I guess it's funny how things turned out.
Within minutes the Long March 5 had become a small burst of light miles above us, and just like that, my epic adventure watching my first ever space rocket launch in China had come to an end.
It was fun. It was memorable. And best of all, it was a fantastic cultural experience like nothing I had ever done before.
Someday, I'll make a journey over to NASA's Cape Canaveral launch site to watch some real American power blast off into the cosmos. And when I do, you better believe that I'll have another story to tell!
Safe and happy travels!