Even with a block of uninterrupted "think time" in the relative comfort of a familiar environment (Fokker F-27 or Boeing 777, a passenger aircraft looks and feels like... a passenger aircraft) I was having some difficulty sorting out my thoughts. Any doubts about the adoption had been eliminated years earlier, but any attempt at looking forward to how different life might be, and what I might be able to do back home now that the need to maintain something of a status quo to not endanger or interfere with the adoption process was past, just led into a quiet, empty room in my mind. Somehow it was still all too big to wrap my head around, so after a couple of hours I decided to "go zen" and just go along with the experience of the trip and plan for the future once I had met my niece & we were all safely back home. (I had taken my journal notebook with me as I always do on trips, and my friend Susie had kind of challenged me to record my thoughts & feelings during the experience, but it sat open to a blank page on my tray table for hours without my touching pen to paper even once, and I barely wrote anything in it at all until weeks after returning home.)
So there I was, strapped into a middle seat on a flight almost twice as long as the next-longest period of time I'd ever spent in an aircraft, wondering what to do. It was fun to play with the little TV monitor in the back of the next seat, and I got to see a couple of escapist movies I'd been interested in renting. (Since the video system tended to shut down any time there was an announcement being made, and occasionally "stutter" for no apparent reason at all, I still have to rent Ratatouille and Clash of the Titans to be able to see all of each film despite both being repeated endlessly during the flight.) I had a good time bopping along to some Europop on one of the music channels, the likes of which I hadn't heard since we lived in Belgium, until I noticed a teenager on the other side of the plane staring at my head-bobbing seat dance... then I suddenly decided he could go wing-walking for all I cared & went back to enjoying myself. Hey, this was kind of fun! An old life being left behind, a couple of weeks' worth of adventure on the other side of the world, and a different life after returning home... let 'im stare, what else could I do? I sought out silly things on the entertainment channel (thus Ratatouille), argued with a tougher crossword puzzle than I'd normally try, bopped along to more 80's music, dozed periodically just because I could... heck, I even enjoyed the airline food!
Okay, I can hear you all now: that's what he calls "letting go"?!? Look, I was stuck in a tin can several miles up in the air for over half a day; how go can a guy let in that situation, huh? I'd already spent the previous week kicking myself for not pushing harder on the Mandarin lessons and worrying I was packing everything but the one critical item I was sure I'd completely forgotten about, it just felt so good to let those stresses drain away that just sitting was like "letting go!"
In any case, I found the flight turning more & more into the beginning of a fun adventure and less & less into the introspective analysis time I thought it might be. It was pretty cool to periodically bring up the map display and watch the little digital airplane sloooowly traverse the arctic ice cap (its wingtip just brushing the North Pole as it passed by), and the flight info display was a little like old-fashioned flash cards as it switched from English to Chinese (I learned the symbols for wind and speed and altitude and a few other useless but fun words by the time we landed). Because of the difference in time zones between DC and Beijing, it was becoming "tomorrow" at an accelerated rate and the the plane's "night" was short; by the time we were southbound from the arctic toward Siberia, it was daylight again and A was able to get a few "way cool" photos out the window:
It wasn't too much later that the digital map displays showed we were finally in Chinese airspace, and we both kept looking out the window for a first glimpse of the PRC. It didn't take too long (the plane had been slowly descending incrementally since passing over the Siberian coast), and a break in the clouds gave us our first view of a still-untamed China:
|Our first view was of a broad river...|
|...followed by craggy peaks with long streaks of snow...|
|...descending into deep river valleys.|
|Eventually it became flatter & more arid, and the first roads came into view.|
We were still admiring the landscape below when A asked, "What's that?" and we both noticed something up in the sky that grew larger as we watched. Then we realized it wasn't getting larger so much as it was getting closer -- there was another big aircraft off our starboard side, at the same altitude... and it was coming steadily closer to us! As I said earlier, we had over 99,000 air miles between us before the flight even began, and we both knew that aircraft (especially large 4-engine jets carrying a couple of hundred people each over the frozen wastes of Siberia) are NOT supposed to meet in mid-flight! It finally occurred to me to tell A to take a couple of photos (my camera was in my carry-on in the overhead bin 40 feet farther back & on the other side of the plane). Just as she pointed the lens out the window, the pilot of the other plane finally decided that a closer approach was probably A Bad Idea and began to gently bank away, eventually disappearing to starboard behind us. Here's one of the better shots; this was not done with a telephoto lens!
Apparently our attention had been focused on our erstwhile traveling companion longer than we realized, because when we looked back down the landscape had changed completely:
|Approaching the Beijing region.|
It was hillier and greener, but more importantly we could see whole towns -- we were coming into populated regions and were getting closer to landing! Eventually (and time really did seem to be slowing down now), all the entertainment & info channels on the seatback monitors were replaced with the display we'd been waiting to see for years:
All of a sudden, the world outside disappeared; we had dropped into a solid cloud deck, and we didn't seem to be coming out of it anytime soon. It got a lot darker, rain began streaking the glass... and still we could barely see the nearest part of the wing through the pea soup outside the window. Finally we broke free of the bottom of the cloud deck into a gray, rainy day... but we could actually see the rooftops of Beijing!
|The corrugated plastic roofs of Beijing.|
By this point, the plane's crew was frantically trying to convince the last few holdouts to return their seats to the upright position, fold up & latch their tray tables, fasten their seat belts, all the usual things one has to do "just in case" during the most unsafe part of a flight. (Yep, that's the secret: you're in the most danger at landing, just when you think you're about to become safest!) A cheated and kept her camera at the ready, and she captured the moment of touchdown. She also took a series of photos as we taxied in to the massive international terminal (built for the 2008 Olympics), but it was so foggy, dark and rainy that you can't see anything more than halfway down the wing!
We waited for the usual crazed rush to disembark to die down so we could go the opposite direction & retrieve our carry-on bags from our original row, then made our way forward to disembark. That was when I had my first "We're not in Kansas any more" moment; the young woman who had to step out of our way amidships, who'd boarded with the cleanup crew now hard at work, was wearing combat fatigues and had a submachine gun slung over her shoulder. I hesitated, gave a quick smile and quiet "Xie xie" and got a polite half-smile and nod in return. Okay, I thought, armed and dangerous and very much controlling the situation, but polite and still human; our welcome could be a lot worse. There were a couple of other (male) soldiers supervising the cleanup crew but they pretty much ignored us. We got the familiar smiling, "Thank you, have a pleasant stay!" from the crew at the door, wrestled our rolling bags up the jetway...
...and all of a sudden we weren't going to China any more. WE WERE THERE.