Tomorrow we head to the ancient city of Xi’an, famous for its terracotta warriors. This has been one of my dream destinations since I first heard of the army of soldier statues buried by the first Qin emperor over 2200 years ago. When I visited China for the first time in 1991, I really wanted to go but couldn’t manage it. And it never seemed to fit in the schedule for the adoption trips, either.
Every time we fly inside China, I think of that first trip to China 16 years ago. (I came to China then as a consequence of bad geography – I was visiting a college friend living in Singapore, and figured since I was going to be there, I ought to see something of “that part of the world.” I was such a dolt that I didn’t realize just how far China was from Singapore – it would have been closer to visit Australia! I always was really bad at the blue questions on Trivial Pursuit!). China was definitely a different place then; our flight to Shanghai was diverted to Japan because we were running late, and the Shanghai airport closed at 10 p.m.! Imagine, a city 3 times the size of New York City, and the airport actually closes!
The domestic flights in China back then were absolutely terrifying. And that was on major routes – Shanghai to Beijing, Beijing to Guangzhou (I was so thankful to take the train from Guangzhou to Hong Kong, just to miss out on one death-defying flying leg of the trip!).
Getting on the plane was the first adventure. I had to listen intently to the announcements so I would know when they called my flight – there were announcements in English, but it was read phonetically by someone who did not speak English so it was really hard to understand. And when the flight left bore absolutely no relation to the actual scheduled time, so that wasn’t a hint for what flight was being called. (It wasn’t that the flights left late – they all left early!) When they finally would call my flight, the stampede was worse than any Southwest Airlines cattle call. There was no jetway for any of the flights; you took a bus to the plane (there’s still a lot of that in China). People packed onto that bus so tightly I kept thinking I might end up pregnant before the ride was over!
The planes were Russian made and at least 40 years old. When we got on the plane, the seat backs were all folded forward, flat to the seat. You had to fold your seat back into shape – and then you lifted the seat cushion to store your luggage UNDERNEATH your seat. So you rode sitting on your carry-on luggage! Maybe that’s why no one seemed to have actual luggage for their carry-ons. I distinctly remember one man’s carry-on being 12 shoe boxes tied together (traveling shoe salesman? shoe fetishist?). My small tote made my seat awfully lumpy.
The pilots must have thought they were flying helicopters – we seemed to taxi for a nanosecond before taking off at a million miles an hour, and then we reversed it on landing, seeming to drop out of the sky. While in the air, the planes all made this horrible groaning sound as parts of the airplane body shifted. The planes must have been much better made than they looked, though, since they survived a dozen bounces before the wheels finally stuck on the ground.
You know that announcement they make telling you to stay in your seat with your seatbelt fastened until the plane stops? Apparently they said it only in English – the Chinese version must have been something like, “Please get up right this minute and wrestle your carry-on luggage out from under your seat. If you have anything in the overhead compartment, get it out right now and whack a foreigner in the head with it. Fold down the seat back in front of you. Don’t worry about crushing that stupid foreigner who insists on staying in the seat for no apparent reason.”
And despite that description of air travel, I LOVED that trip to China! It was a large part of the reason I chose China when I decided on international adoption as the way to make my family. So I’ve been back three times now since that first amazing trip.
It’s astonishing to me how modern and mundane air travel is in China now. The airports, airplanes, etc., are basically indistinguishable from American domestic ones. The service is distinguishable, though – it is far superior. I love it that the flight attendants here will actually help you store your carry-on bag, something that never happens on an American carrier. And you still get actual meals on Chinese flights. They’re not wonderful, but our last several flights have had basic rice, chicken, veggie dishes that were pretty tasty for airline food.
That announcement at the end, though – the Chinese version apparently still says to get up and move around the cabin as soon as the wheels hit tarmac!
Next you hear from us, we'll be in Xi'an (assuming internet connectivity!).