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Monday, March 9, 2009

Cloudsurfing China, and Sailing Over Seoul

One crisp winter afternoon in January last year I was cruising the skies of north-east Asia as is sometimes my wont, on my way home from an outbreak of hot tropical love in Vietnam. I was nursing one monster hangover accrued from my antics at the Window's Cafe and Bar in Ho Chi Minh City nearly 24 hours earlier, a condition sorely compounded by those couple of extra beers I downed at Tân Sơn Nhất Airport waiting for my ride. I thought that if I just kept on drinking, I could drink the hangover away. Or at least keep it at bay, until I lost myself in sleep. But I hadn't factored in the infuriatingly stop-start nature of travelling in (or through) China, which makes sleep, or indeed any form of relaxation, exceedingly precarious. To give you an example, my bird (Air China) was leaving Ho Chi Minh at a ridiculous time -- 1.45am or something, but I suppose that's what you pay for when you always opt for the cheapest airliner! It was literally the last flight out, and I was the last guy drinking at the bar, downing Tigers with ice, as our Beijingbound Air China glided in. I watched it all behind the dirty panes in the brandnew airport concourse. Presently I shuffled on-board with all the blearyeyed zombies, quite a few Germans all speaking German, and took my superdownsized seat. I was in the mood for sleep. And who knows, I might have found it, if it were not the fact that this was a Chinese flight. An hour or so into the flight, just as I had probably begun to doze off, the plane shifted into descent mode, and the stewardesses came around, waking everyone up. I wasn't surprised, since I had encountered this anomaly a few weeks earlier, on my way to Vietnam. It is not listed on your ticket or travel itinerary, but when you fly from Beijing to Ho Chi Minh City you stop en-route at Nanning, capital of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region (广西壮族自治区). There to shuffle off the plane, get confused, and wait in line for needless visa checks and passport inspections. We spent more than an hour waiting for our transit visas, and this was at 4am or something, at the end of a long session of heavy drinking (for me at least). For some strange Chinese reason only one guy (or girl) was processing passports in passport control, even though there were five or six guys/girls sitting at their desks, resplendent in their official attire. This meagerness was not lost on the Germans in the line. "Eins, zwei, drei, vier, fünf," they said, counting them one by one, "fünf nicht arbeiten!" All of the just sitting there, in other words, doing nothing. What waste, the Germans were doubtless thinking... what Communist inefficiency! By this stage, 12 hours after I started drinking, I was feeling decidedly green, and in desperate need for some sleep. My passport was stamped, eventually. We were herded back aboard our plane as sunrise revealed a rather pleasant series of yellow apartment blocks near the airport, kids going off to school, and adults to work. Yellow was actually the color of the day, yellow and pale blue, yellow and sulphurous brown. Skysurfing southern China was a smudge of sulphuric smog, the ground barely visible, that vast agricultural heartland conspicuous in its absence. I took occasional peeks out of the window, between drifts into light sleep. Peaks of cloud drifted by. Everyone on the opposite side of the cabin gawked out the window as we approached Beijing, seeing something I couldn't see... maybe it was the Great Wall (but isn't that to the north?) At Beijing airport we spent more time waiting in futile lines. On the bright side, I didn't get as badly lost as I did on my first visit, that foggy carbon-heavy night just before Christmas, at the very start of my adventure. I boarded my plane to Tokyo, Japan, and we took off in pale sunshine -- the temperature was about 0 degrees C. We hit the clouds again, heading east. I think I did actually get some sleep, like an hour or so. But I was continually being distracted by the interesting scenes which opened up below, like a panorama: Dalian (大连) on its peninsula looking like a neat place to live, and finally, a little later, a dramatic metropolis emerging from the mountains, spread out like a circuit-board, or a subway map: Seoul (서울), capital of the Republic of Korea, and Jewel of the Yellow Sea.

One of the many yellow hills of Seoul (South Korea, 2003) 
If I recall correctly, there was a commercial airliner flying by at much the same altitude, but in the opposite direction to us. I looked down to see, much lower, a smaller craft possibly coming into land in the city. Something about the sight of these two planes flying at different altitudes, the sense of three dimensional perspective they engendered, had a magical effect on me. It was like discovering a whole world and an entire way of life miniaturized into one of those bauble things they used to sell which snow inside whenever you shake them. There was a civilization there compressed between the mountains, and as I looked ever more intently, I could make out landmarks I had encountered on my previous forays here, back in 2002 and 2003. The city was laid out like a circuit-board, like a subway map bereft of the subway stations (since they were underground), but nonetheless prominently hewn by the Han River, and peppered with yellow peaks. We were flying like 30,000 feet, but if I could have strapped on a parachute and bolted out the emergency door and tumbled down there, I would have done so in a heartbeat. Or probably not, that would have been foolish, and you need superhero strength to open those doors at cruising altitude. Anyway, you get my drift... it was sad to pass by without a night in a hof, drinking beer and chowing on the complementary peanuts. I had to fly on, back to dreary old Tokyo, where the wicked North Wind was waiting to knife me. But next month, if all goes to plan, I will be back in Seoul, this time on the ground. And if all goes to plan, plenty of fresh adventures await! Even a few fresh hofs, and all the peanuts I can eat. Thanks to the relative strength of the Japanese Yen, I think I will be able to down drinks for a third of the price that they cost in Tokyo. And that's always a bonus.
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