About ten years ago I visited my daughter in Beijing, where she and her husband were teaching. While they were at work I took in the sights; the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and a somewhat shabby reproduction of the family compound in the classic ‘The Dream of the Red Chamber.” In the Summer Palace I was the only westerner among packed crowds of Chinese celebrating a national holiday. Chinese grannies pushed me into toilet cubicles making sure I got my turn, or perhaps afraid I didn’t know what to do.
The highlight of my visit was the trip I took out of Beijing to Xian. Like every other tourist I wanted to see the famous terracotta soldiers made for the tomb of the Chin Emperor in the third century BC.
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My daughter arranges the whole trip for me, to ensure that I don’t try to do the two-day trip ‘on the cheap’ (by local bus, with a backpack) and that I don’t get into trouble. That done, she drops me off at the door to the internal flights concourse at Beijing airport then dashes off, a little late, to her teaching job.
Once through the door, I find myself on a raised walkway looking down on a sea of heads carpeting an enormous airplane-hanger of a building. In front of the booths and kiosks trails a line of heads, black and glossy, like the tail of a tadpole. All the signs seem to be in Chinese. All the faces are, naturally, Chinese. Later it turns out that about one in a thousand of the heads is topped by what I realize too late is an airline uniform cap–an information person there to help foreigners?
I make my way down a flight of steps, finally spot a sign in English, and line up at a window labeled ‘Passport Control’. After standing in three more separate lines, I’m told that I’ve had the various documents stamped in the wrong order and will have to repeat two of the queues. Unsurprisingly, when I get to the ticket window, I’m told that I’m too late to board my plane.
“But don’t worry, I’ll get you on another plane!” the woman at the window cheerfully exclaims. This plane will arrive in Xian a couple of hours later than the jumbo jet I should have been on, but there doesn’t seem to be any other choice.
It turns out to be a 15-passenger Dornier, as in WWII movies (French pilot: “Messerschmitt at 3 o-clock, over”) with two rows of single seats filled by men in business suits. The man across the aisle from me balances a great pile of what look like sample cases on the seat next to his.
The stewardess looks about 13 and struggles valiantly with English. She is more fluent in English than I am in Chinese but about as comprehensible. After a couple of hours she delivers a long speech (of which I understand not a word) and all the passengers deplane. The flight I should have been on was non-stop and scheduled to take a couple of hours, so I figure this must be Xian.
The airport is rather small, but then Beijing airport, though large, wasn’t exactly Heathrow or O’Hare. The youngest and most active of the waiting taxi drivers manoevers me into his cab. I stumble through my few words of Chinese— painstakingly acquired from two months of language tapes—and the driver says yes, he can certainly take me to the Bell Tower Hotel. The Bell Tower Hotel, in central Xian, is where I have a reservation, so we are on the right track. We set off.
But this is odd. Xian is supposed to be a large industrial city on a flat plain and this looks rather rural (although many airports are in rural areas outside the cities they serve). There are hills along the side of the road, and the driver keeps pointing out the caves where Mao and his followers hid out before the Long March. He seems to think this is what I have come to see, but I hadn’t even known they were near Xian. Puzzled, I ask a few questions.
The driver suddenly stops and gets out. Two bored looking men lounging in the ditch smoking watch us, and I wonder if this deserted intersection is where I lose my passport and money.
I suppress the thought and exit the car. The driver unfolds a map on the hood of the taxi. Looking over his shoulder, I can make out nothing. Light dawns, at least for him, and he quickly pushes me back into the cab, jumps in and hares off at top speed back to the airport, chattering rapidly. I think he is explaining that this is not Xian.
At the airport, he hustles me inside where uniformed officials switch from worried frowns to relieved smiles. There, lined up on the tarmac beside the toy plane, the pilot, the stewardess and all the passengers are waiting for me. No-one is ostentatiously consulting a wristwatch or frowning angrily. Instead they are all grinning at me, enjoying the comedy; the dumb Western woman who got off the plane at the wrong stop. They had held the plane for me!
When I do get to Xian, I am met at the airport by a very worried guide who has phoned Beijing to say that the expected passenger was not on the jumbo jet. I am now about four hours late, and hadn’t realized that someone was meeting me at the airport. My daughter has been contacting police and hospitals in Beijing, fearing I had left the airport and ended up unconscious and bereft of all identification after one of Beijing’s frequent traffic accidents. All day people have been asking, “Have you heard anything about your mother yet?” But that’s a whole other story.
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I learned that there is a ‘Bell Tower Hotel’ in just about every Chinese city.
When I got back to Beijing, we pored over maps, but could never find the city where my plane touched down.
The Terra Cotta soldiers were wonderful.
Born and raised in London, Anne Campbell worked as a fashion sketcher before immigrating to the States in her early twenties. She lived in California and New York before settling in Minnesota, where she has worked as a university lecturer and psychotherapist.
Ms. Campbell is the published author of four novels and a memoir.