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Published: April 11th 2006
A new land awaited.
It was April 1999 that I found myself alone at the ripe age of 20 years old on a plane bound for the orient . Beijing to be precise. What had I gotten myself into? Here I was, flying high above the vast Siberian wasteland headed toward the most populous country on Earth, not to mention the fact that it was also the largest communist nation and second only to my home country of the United States in terms of power and influence. Did I mention that I did not speak a word of Chinese apart from the ubiquitous Ni Hao, the Chinese hello. I am not even that fond of Chinese food so why was I going there?
I think it all started with an article that I read in National Geographic’s Traveler magazine sometime during my freshmen of college. There was an article that dealt with the amazing rebirth of Beijing and China’s emergence as the next superpower, possibly the most important superpower of the 21st Century. This really caught my imagination. I could only imagine how great it would be to go to China and witness firsthand all the changes that were taking place. Not to mention
The exotic sights that I dreamed of seeing.
watch the next global force take shape. But alas I felt I was too young, age 18, and at that point I had never traveled with out my parents.
However, I had fastened on the idea of travel and as a result, the spring after my freshmen year, my friend and I traveled around the British Isles by ourselves for five weeks. It was a real eye opener for me. I was immediately hooked on travel.
This led me to search out new travel experiences. So in my junior year of college I found myself back in Ireland on a year long study abroad program. I was at University College Cork and they had a five-week spring break. The length was unprecedented for a university back home. I had to find a way to make good use of it.
One day my flatmate and I were on our way back from the student union when I noticed a sign in a travel agent’s window that said return flight to Beijing for 396 Irish pounds. We remarked how cool it was that for only 396 quid we could be in Beijing. But at that point it still didn’t
Not quite like the dogs back home.
seem like something people actually did.
However, after throwing out many other travel options such as an Eastern Europe tour or five weeks in Tunisia I came back to this idea of Beijing. I bought a Lonely Planet guidebook to Beijing and suddenly it did not seem so remote a possibility. The more I read through the book the more my desire to go to Beijing grew. And after I talked about it with my family I decided to make the leap. A short time later I had a plane ticket on KLM and a hotel reservation in Beijing. I was on my way. . . . . . . . . .
As I sat in the airport in Amsterdam it suddenly hit me I was actually going to China. I was sitting at the gate and I started looking around at the other passengers. I noticed that I was one of only a handful of Caucasians. The ratio of Asians to Caucasians must have been about 12:1. I noticed a group of Chinese men to my right. They were sitting amidst a cloud of smoke and playing some sort of game that I
I made it!!!!
Watching Chinese Opera on TV. Notice the size 14 feet.
couldn’t quite make out. The strange language that they were speaking utterly intrigued me. The whole scene was instantly very foreign to me and I hadn’t even gotten on the plane yet.
I was feeling quite apprehensive and excited all at once. It seemed like forever before the flight was finally called for boarding in three languages, Chinese, English, and Dutch. I stepped onto the plane and into what seemed like a world of limitless possibilities.
Throughout the ten-hour flight I kept going over in my head what I was going to do upon my arrival in Beijing. I didn’t want to make any mistakes. “Remember,” I said to myself, “look confident and in control. Act as if you have done this a thousand times. And whatever you do don’t accept rides from people who approach you in the terminal.” I was nervous plain and simple, but the attractive Dutch stewardesses were a calming influence and I soon found myself drifting off to the soothing tunes of the Chinese traditional music CD that I had brought with me.
The cabin was silent. I was feeling relaxed as I was presented with a cup of special Chinese herbal tea. It was then I noticed that I was flying over Mongolia, which the on-board display told me. The spirit of adventure gripped me as I looked down upon the mighty Gobi desert. It was around this time that the sun began to rise as we passed into Chinese airspace. Never before had I seen such a sun. It was an eerie, yet reassuring, bright red and it filled the entire cabin with this supernatural kind of blood red light. It was if Red China itself had sent out an awe-inspiring welcome proclaiming the might of the rising Asian superpower. It was deeply moving and I was now ready to see what China had to offer.
Finally we touched down. As we taxied down the runway I noticed the Chinese characters everywhere. That is characters as in writing, not funny little people saying clever things. I also noticed Chinese men in uniforms that I was unable to identify as army or police. But they were an immediate sign of the presence of the Chinese government.
The plane came to a stop. Now my heart was really pounding. I soon realized that to disembark the plane we were going to have to walk down a flight of stairs onto the ground of the runway. I must say that I have always preferred this way to arrive in a new country. To me it is thrilling to get out and feel the foreign air blow through your hair instead of being whisked immediately into a sealed terminal. I stepped down the gangplank. I was in Asia!!
The first thing I noticed was the sky. It was almost pea green in color. I then became aware of a faint smell. I couldn’t quite place just what it was but it was a completely alien scent to me. I then looked down to my right and saw a welcoming party of about twenty Chinese girls standing in maybe four rows. They were all wearing bright yellow shirts and delicately holding pink flowers. Dust swirled across the concrete. What I had imagined had come true. It was the perfect introduction to Asia. Note: This is a short essay that I wrote in October 1999, the fall after my trip to China. I've posted it on here to enlarge my travel blog, but re-reading it really reminds me of the small, but significant, steps I took in my progression as a traveller.
added september 1, 2005
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