Saturday, November 20, 2010


After flying through some rain and a bit of turbulence, we finally break out of the cloud cover and see Beijing sprawled below us. We don't get to see the Great Wall, it was below the cloud cover as we passed over it. That's okay, we'll see it up close and personal later.

After a smooth landing, we make our way through the bustling airport with relative ease. Dr. Ron is a good leader. All the guys, as always, are very helpful to the women, as we struggle with what now seems to be unnecessarily big and heavy luggage. Funny, it didn't seem that way coming over here. It all seemed so necessary then! I brought less this year than I did last year, and still I had too much stuff. Maybe next year I'll just bring a backpack, if I can find one in my hand-painted periwinkles design! We make good use of the luggage carts supplied by the airport, and with the guys always handy to load and unload them, we find we can drive them very well.

We pass through all the requisite check points, and all sign little papers attesting to the fact that we're in the very best of health. Those who are suffering from Genghis Khan's revenge (we have a few of those) make no mention of that fact, but just smile bravely and sign the papers.

Near the exit, we are very happy to see our guide, David Wang, waiting for us. He looks happy to see us, too. I'm sure the idea of losing 20+ Americans for whom he is at least marginally responsible is not an idea he entertains with any comfort. Those of us who were here last year remember David, and Eloise and I know it's usually a good idea to stick close to him, because he is constantly dropping little bits of information that are helpful and interesting. He tells some of us that he really enjoys working with our group, that we're one of his favorites. Awww, I'll bet he says that to all the tourists! Still, he seems sincere.

He leads us outside, and we stay close, like sheep bunched up near a shepherd, as he challenges the traffic that is constantly circling the airport exits. There is no one directing this traffic, there are no lights or signs, it's just survival of the fittest and victory goes to the brave. David steps out in front of several cars, brakes screech as they come to a halt, drivers cast thundercloud glances our way, and we all pour across the street in David's wake.
There is no other way. I'm sure the Chinese drivers are muttering something unpleasant about American tourists. The street is wide and wet, slippery with the recent rain. I clutch the handle of the luggage cart I'm pushing, grateful for its steadying presence, as my knee wobbles and threatens to give way.

Finally we reach the enormous bus which David has waiting for us. The driver loads our luggage underneath, with some help from our men, and we get on board. The bus is roomy, comfortable, good a/c, and the driver has a cooler with bottled water placed just inside the door. It's a welcome sight. We are all thirsty, and in spite of the attentions of the cabin staff on the flight, we are also a bit hungry.

We are taken directly to a restaurant for a late lunch, no stopping at the hotel yet. We are all tired, and it's late, but David wants to get as much into the day as possible, and our late arrival has made it a challenge for him. The food is decent, but from experience we know that we're going to have much better meals while we're here. I think he chose this place for speed.

We leave the restaurant and get back on the bus, not really sure what's coming next. David announces that we're going to the Great Wall. At this hour? It's late afternoon, and the shadows are growing long. It seems to us that it will be dark soon. I guess we're forgetting that in this part of the world, it looks like evening long before it really is. The bus makes the long drive out to the Wall with ease - traffic is lighter than usual, perhaps due to the hour. I remember the landmarks, and know that we're going to the same place we went last year. The place of smelly restrooms and hundreds of unbelievably determined vendors. Oh, mercy. Maybe my knee and I will just stay on the bus.

However, a pleasant surprise awaits us when we arrive. Instead of the congestion and stupefying heat and humidity I remember from last year, I see that there are very few vehicles here, very few people, and most of the vendors are closing up shop and pay little attention to us. It's also much cooler. Not cool, but not the smothering, oppressive heat from last year. I decide I can handle this, if my knee will let me. I can only imagine what the Wall looks like in this slanting, golden light, and I really want to find out.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


NOTE: Remember that the "post" dates do not relate to the date of the occurences. This trip to Mongolia actually took place in 2005.


It's 9:15, and we're still on the ground. No book, no pillow. Both are in my luggage. I had reasoned that I wouldn't need them on such a "short" flight. Somewhere in the Beijing airport, David Wang is waiting for us. David is the Chinese tour guide who shepherded us through Beijing last year, and who will do so again this year, if we ever get there.

At 9:50, the cabin staff passes out customs forms for us to fill out. Also, a set of rolling stairs has been put in place next to the plane, and a uniformed young woman has boarded. Naturally, this makes us wonder if we'll be deplaning after all. The rumor mill works very well in a confined space like an airplane, and the rumors are flying now. The most popular one is that we will be taken to Beijing by bus, and our luggage will just get there the best way it can.

It's 10:35, and nothing has been said or done about deplaning. The young woman left a few minutes ago, but the stairs are still next to the plane door. We are still the only plane "rerouted" here. The weather is beautiful, and the story of the storm over Beijing is beginning to smell like old bait.

At 10:45, I dig into my camera bag and produce the box containing my medications. I rob an aspirin tablet from tomorrow's supply, and swallow it. With all this prolonged sitting, the prospect of deep vein clots comes to mind, and I want to keep my blood thinned down. I give one to Eloise, too. It can't hurt.

Finally, at 10:55, I can stay in my seat no longer, and get up to walk around a bit and visit the lavatory. On the way back, I get into a conversation with a cabin attendant, who says we will probably be departing in about fifteen minutes. So much for the buses. I'm grateful for that. However, another plane, a small one, has landed farther down the way and people are deplaning, so who knows? Their luggage is being unloaded as well, though, so it's probably a local flight.

At 11:00, cabin staff serves a round of cold drinks and coffee, and an announcement is made that we'll be departing in about twenty minutes. Hmmm. We've heard the "twenty minute" speech before, back in San Francisco. We shall see.

It's 11:15. The plane's doors are closed, the stairs are moved away from the plane, and the pilot cranks up the engines. It looks like we just might leave this mysterious little place after all. You can bet we're going to be looking for wet tarmac and puddles in Beijing. There had better be some. Bright sunshine and dry ground are going to put some very big holes in the story we have been told.

The big old aircraft lumbers down to a crossover, makes a left turn and rolls to the runway, making another left to line up for takeoff. There it sits with engines revving up, wings dipping a bit like a huge bird flexing its flight muscles. It begins to roll down the runway, but isn't gaining much speed. It veers off the main runway and makes a hard left turn onto a crossover, then another left, which takes us back almost to where we started. The plane rolls past our original position, turns left at the crossover again but this time it makes a hard right on the runway, headed opposite to the direction we were headed the first time. We roll all the way to the end of the runway. I know this is so, because when the pilot puts the big jet into a slow pirouette and turns it back around, I can see that we're within a few feet of the grass. We are now facing the same direction as we were the first time, only we're back at the very beginning of the runway. We have a lot more pavement ahead of us this time.

We sit here, engines revved, passengers thinking light thoughts, pilot no doubt begging the big craft for every ounce of power and thrust it can produce. Finally he releases the restraints and the big jet surges forward, going faster and faster. A final run for the money, and we're in the air. Praise God. As the "lightening" sensation is felt, I'm looking out the window and see nothing but the end of the runway and a lot of grass below us. Obviously, this little airport wasn't designed to play host to a guest as large as our airplane.

The announcement is made that we'll be in Beijing in 46 minutes. After about twenty minutes, we enter a lot of cloud cover and encounter some fairly rough air. As we get closer to Beijing, there is rain. I guess the story was true, but it really did seem strange to us, sitting out there in perfectly clear weather.