Quiet City

August, 1981

I was surprised as the plane began to descend. I saw no cues that we were anywhere near a city: no street lights in sight, no ribbon highways of white headlights and red tail lights, no neon signs. Shouldn’t we be in the city of Xi’an? What was going on? Only when we got within feet of the ground could I see a string of lights casting a weak glow on the runway. It was 9:00 p.m.

After landing, we walked out into cool, misty air and then into a building that made me think of a small-town armory, bare and lit with naked fluorescent tubes. Like other “nice” places we’d seen during our first week in China, the airport looked like a worn out version of a pretty place, with high ceilings, fancy moldings and unused decorative light fixtures. It was furnished with crinkly brown vinyl sofas. Papers, apple cores and other refuse littered the floor. Chairman Mao smiled down from a prominent place. We had finally arrived in the city that would be our home for the next year.

A posse consisting of the university president, a driver, and two handlers from the Foreign Affairs office had driven out in a single car to greet us. Counting Gauss and me—and the handler dispatched to Guangzhou to fetch us—we now totaled seven. Incredibly, since we were going to one of China’s leading technical universities, nobody had considered the logistics. There was not enough room in the vehicle to take us back to the campus. At this time of night, and this far from town, there were no taxis. We would have to make the trip in installments.

Gauss and I waited for another hour in the shabby terminal with half our luggage until the car returned with only a driver and one handler. We had left Minnesota weeks ago, driven across the United States, flown across the Pacific, and spent several days in Hong Kong and Guangzhou. The day’s flight from southern China had been delayed several hours, and by now we were dead tired and ready to finally be getting to our new “home.”

Crammed in the thickly upholstered back seat of a tubby little car reminiscent of a relic from my childhood, we bumped down the pitch-black streets with the headlights off. The driver periodically flashed them on for a second or two as if to get a quick mental picture of what was ahead, and then shut them off again. We were too tired to ask why, and in any event, we had seen much that puzzled us. There were more questions to ask than there was time to answer them. We seemed to be driving through a ghost town: the roads were devoid of pedestrians and any other vehicles, and we were unable to see beyond the ten-foot walls that lined the boulevard. I was too puzzled to find this alarming or worrisome. Instead, I gulped in snatches of visual information when I could.

Occasionally in the distance, I saw a single bulb casting a circle of light in the middle of an intersection, the adjacent streets swallowed by the darkness. Our car took several turns, the last one through an opening in one of the high walls. Finally I could see low brick apartment buildings, a few windows glowing dimly. The car slowed to a crawl and pulled up onto the dirt behind one of them.

White Rabbit

August, 1981

On our last morning in Guangzhou, the car took us to the airport for a noon flight that the CTS personnel had booked for us. The Jiaotong University representative would be accompanying Gauss and me to Xi’an; Yang was to make sure all three of us got on the right plane.

The terminal, a single open room with a barrel ceiling and full-length windows that looked out onto the tarmac, was a tropical-latitude version of the World War II-era airport that served my home town of Minneapolis until the early 1960s. It was not air-conditioned. Fans turning lazily overhead stirred up the sticky air; benches were cool woven rattan.

At the ticket counter, we learned that our flight had been delayed for at least four hours. Most passengers seemed well-prepared for the lengthy wait: surrounded by a hodgepodge of parcels and luggage, they would periodically root through to extract an orange or some cookies for a snack, alternately snoozing, visiting, and smoking. Men and women alike were comfortably dressed in light cotton shirts and dark cotton pants, nearly indistinguishable from the peasants we’d seen tending the rice paddies. Chinese society was so homogeneous that even those rare individuals in a position to fly on airplanes dared not stand out by dressing ostentatiously. A few flight attendants who worked the international routes looked startlingly chic by comparison, slim young women in narrow, knee-length gray skirts and fitted blouses.

There was no restaurant in the terminal. Our stomachs growled, and Yang, knowing he had time to spare, left the building to find some food. He returned half an hour later with lychees, oranges, and crackers.

Finally, at 4:30 in the afternoon, we were directed out onto the blistering runway and up the stairs into an ancient Russian Ilyushin 18 propeller plane. The aisle was flanked by two rows of sagging seats covered in white sheeting that refused to assume the full-upright position. Some had seat belts made of army-green webbing and leather, but most people didn’t use them.

The cabin looked like someone’s messy living room, stuff piled every which way in the aisles and on the unused seats: big cardboard boxes, net bags filled with pineapples, grapefruits, and stinky durians; rattan cages of chickens; mysterious bundles covered in white sheeting. The percentage of the Chinese population in a position to fly was small indeed—high-ranking civil servants and academicians, perhaps. There was little economic stratification, and few goods were transported from one part of the country to another. Anyone lucky enough to be traveling from the wealthy south to the isolated north used the flight as an opportunity to stock up on hard-to-find items.

Three-fourths of the plane’s fifty or so occupants smoked cigarettes, which they did not extinguish for takeoff. The air was blue with smoke. On this domestic flight, our cabin attendants were young ruddy-faced women wearing baggy white shirts and even baggier navy trousers. One of them, a sturdy, pigtailed girl, sealed the door with a little grunt trapping in the stifling air and picked her way around the parcels in the aisle to her seat the back of the cabin. The plane taxied to the end of the runway and then the pilot started to rev up the engines, causing the aircraft to shudder until I thought the wings might shake loose. Then the brake was released, but instead of shooting down the runway as I’d expected, the plane slowly started to amble down the tarmac: putt…putt…putt. I wondered if we’d really get airborne. After what seemed like too long to have any runway remaining, we finally left the ground, ascending at a painfully shallow angle.

Ilyushin II-18. Original image at http://www.vectorsite.net/avil18.html

The plane had little round windows with free-hanging aqua blue curtains that swayed as we banked. Occasionally a precariously placed parcel would fall, eliciting a screech from one of the chickens and further blocking the aisle.

There were no in-flight facilities for serving food; instead, we made an unscheduled meal stop in Changsha, the birthplace of Chairman Mao, where everybody deplaned and walked across the runway and a street to a dining room to eat. This was the most basic place we’d eaten in yet: battered vinyl cloths on the tables, a stack of badly chipped bowls and well-worn chopsticks, rice with pebbles in it, some kind of stir-fried mystery food with chunks of fat and bones, and people spitting those pebbles and bones on the floor everywhere.

After about 45 minutes, we were herded back aboard to resume our flight to Xi’an. Once airborne again, the cabin attendants elbowed their way through the junk in the aisles, passing out sticky White Rabbit brand taffy and damp wash cloths. Unlike commercial flights back home, we never flew higher than about 8,000 feet. We watched the landscape beneath us until the light faded altogether.