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We saw:  Airplanes, our first look at Beijing


We saw:  Airplanes, our first look at Beijing


We saw:  Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Peking Duck


We saw:  Great Wall, rickshaw ride, Beijing hutong


We saw:  Great Wall, rickshaw ride, Beijing hutong


We saw:  Beijing school, Big Wild Goose Pagoda


We saw:  Terracotta Warriors, Shaanxi Museum


We saw:  Terracotta Warriors, Shaanxi Museum


We saw:  World Financial Center, downtown Shanghai


We saw:  Jade Buddha Temple, the Bund, Chinatown


We saw:  Jade Buddha Temple, the Bund, Chinatown


We saw:  Airports ... and too much of the Shanghai tarmac

Traveling in China is half the adventure

It's not that I'm not afraid of flying. It's that I'm afraid of flying in a Chinese airplane.

You have to remember, these people make drywall, toothpaste, baby formula and children's toys that can kill you. So do you really expect them to properly maintain a piece of complex machinery that flies around in 40-grit air. Heck, sand is difficult enough to keep out of your swim trunks, let alone a jet-engine valve.

So I wasn't sure if I should be relieved or terrified when the pilot informed us we had a mechanical problem and would be returning to the tarmac before departing Shanghai for San Francisco. I verged toward the latter when he got back on the intercom about an hour into what turned into a three-hour ordeal and explained an electrical short was causing two chief problems: The galley ovens couldn't keep our rubbery chicken warm and — oh, yeah — the fuel pumps might not work.

I cannot fathom how those two things were related, although I once installed a car stereo that shimmied when I turned on the windshield wipers and that caused smoke to pour through the dashboard the first time I turned on the headlights. So perhaps the explanation was not that implausible.

Recalling how that JVC was jury-rigged into that Volkswagen Beetle didn't make me feel better about our plane, however.

I tried to nap my way through the delay, but I have difficulty sleeping on an airplane, even when it's standing still. But we eventually got airborne and made it across the Pacific without taking a dip, although the delay ate up every last second of our layover in San Francisco and necessitated a mad dash through customs and security to catch our connection to Washington, D.C.

A silver lining though: Nothing titillates quite like a thorough TSA pat-down at breakneck speed.


Thinking back, air travel was actually less comfortable and less convenient on Western airliners and in Western airports than it was in China. We took two domestic flights during our nine-day trip, and I was surprised to find that the airplane we took on the first of those — from Beijing to Xi'an — was spacious, particularly considering the Chinese are physically small, demographically large and reputed to cram as many sardines into whatever can is providing mass transit.

Closer scrutiny of the frayed seat covers and filthy carpeting — as well as the four-across middle row that would be a seat shy of an American airliner of the same size — suggested the reason. We concluded that the plane was neither new nor retrofitted like older planes in U.S. fleets. That meant the accommodations were not quite as plush, and some of the arm rests still had ashtrays. But it also meant we weren't robbed of legroom, which seems to be the case in reconfigured Western airplanes. Heck, my leg falls asleep just looking at a picture of a US Airways 767.

The air, however, is about the only place you don't feel cramped in China.

True, we had fairly nice tour buses — and upgraded the package to ensure this — but looking out the window would make you absolutely claustrophobic. Not to mention faint of heart.

Urban streets in China are nothing short of blood-curdling. I'm not the most traveled man, but I've seen traffic jams in Athens, observed cut-throat lane changes in Naples and looked over the edge of sheer cliffs with no guard rail for protection as my Costa Rican bus negotiated a mountain switchback. It's all old hat.

So to say driving in China scared the hell out of me is indeed saying something. Traffic is to be observed only through the cracks between your fingers.

China doesn't have traffic laws so much as it has traffic suggestions. Cars travel six abreast on four-lane highways. Honking is incessant. Our bus driver in Shanghai — where traffic was considerably more orderly than in Beijing or Xi'an — literally never halted for a red light unless the alterntive was plowing into a vehicle stopped in front of him. He just eased into the traffic — left turn or right — and seemed to melt right in, even if the other motorists laid on their horns.

None of this distinguishes Chinese traffic from the European streets I've traveled, though. No, what sets China apart are all the bicycles, pedestrians, street vendors and beggars with which automobiles share the road. Teeming masses roam from curb to curb, following signals, signs or common sense only when the mood strikes them. People do get run over — killed, even — according to our tour guide, Robert, but apparently China has so many people, folks just don't get too worked up when one or two get mowed over.

Particularly interesting to watch are the three-wheeled cycles, with what looks like the bed of a John Deere Gator on the back. But these folks aren't just hauling a few pine cones or lawn clippings to the brush pile. You couldn't stuff a U-Haul as full of cardboard boxes as a Chinese street vendor. I saw one guy lugging around enough two-by-fours to start his own lumber yard.

These peddlers just pedal about into traffic at their own damn pace, and they steer as aggressively as any SUV-driving soccer mom you ever saw in the States. One night in Xi'an, for example, I noticed in the inside lane of a four-lane roundabout this guy loaded down with what must have been a metric ton of milk crates and flattened cardboard boxes. When he had to turn right, he just cut across four lanes of traffic — without a hand signal or a care in the world.

Somehow, he lived to tell about it.

"In China, the motorists are afraid of the bicyclists and the bicyclists are afraid of the pedestrians," Robert said.

That explains the man on the scooter in the middle of the crosswalk — his eyes straight ahead and his kid on the handlebars. He's crossing against the light, and he's not looking either way, let alone both ways. He, too, lives to tell about it.

I imagine most of these bicycle riders are like American senior citizens who refuse to use a DVR or a smartphone.

They just cannot keep up with this new technology and are comfortable with their Betamax tapes and vinyl records. The automobile, after all, was a late arrival in China. That probably explains why there are so few beaters on Chinese roads, although you occasionally see late models with bumpers held on with baling wire and fenders affixed with duct tape.

As recently as the 1990s, bicycles were the main mode of transportation in Chinese cities. Middle-class affluence changed that, and now cyclists share the road with cars and buses. The bike riders haven't been entirely displaced, however — Shanghai reportedly still has 10 million bicycles even though they are banned from many streets there. According to a 2008 New York Times article, subways and buses in Shanghai, which has a population of 20 million if you include its suburbs, can handle only about one-quarter of the city's commuting volume. A modest family car costs about $6,000 and licensing it another $5,000 — adding up to more than most Shanghai workers make in a year, the Times reported. A scooter sells for about $300 and a bike for less than that.

Besides, there is a fine tradition of man-powered transportation in China. Rickshaws and the sedan seat were primary modes of travel in 19th-century urban areas, for example. This is a relaxing way to ride, though it's got to be hell on the driver's calves. We know first hand after taking a rickshaw tour from our drop-off point in Beijing through the narrow hutong alleyways on our way to dinner on our final night there.

The last leg of our journey brought a chance to experience the other end of the transportation spectrum. A few of us gave up an hour or so at the knock-off market, stole down to the subway and hitched a ride to the bullet train station. The magnetic-levitation train hovers over the rails and can make the 19-mile run between Longyang Road station in Pudong to the Pudong International Airport in less than 7 1/2 minutes. It can travel as fast as 268 mph, making it the world's fastest train in regular commercial service since its opening in 2004, when it robbed a French train of that distinction, according to Wikipedia. In fact, the train is so fast, it has special windows that keep passengers from getting motion sickness.

The roundtrip fare is the equivalent of $8, which is cheap when you consider the high price of showing off your technological hipness in China: The line cost $1.3 billion to build; it frequently runs at about 20 percent capacity.

Not exactly a smashing success, but fun to ride just once.

Travel is half the fun of traveling. Airport delays, security checks, bus air conditioning that doesn't work and traffic jams can be frustrating. But when you're essentially on vacation and the worst result of running late is one less dumpling from the buffet line, looking out the window offers a lot of opportunity to see how other people live. What kind of stores do they frequent? How do they get from point A to point B? Are they in a hurry, or do they stop to talk to their neighbors? Do they keep the sidewalks clean or treat them like rubbish piles? What great surprise lies around the bend?

From the knots of electrical lines draped across utility poles in Xi'an that curled like nose hairs overdue for a trim, you can tell technological advances are happening faster than the Chinese can plan for it. From the gaggle of parents on the sidewalk waiting for the school bell to ring, you can tell how precious children are to couples allowed to have just one. From the number of bicycles clogging Beijing streets, you can tell middle-class affluence has not reached everyone.

Even the sleepless plane ride home was a chance to reflect, to organize thoughts, to do the final editing on memories of a lifetime. On the way to San Francisco, I hunkered into my seat and thought of our little tour guide, Robert, with his Playboy sunglasses that were entirely incongruent with his personality and lilting voice. I thought of the lady who cooked for 26 strangers and wondered what was going on in her hutong today. I wondered if the guy who hauled Debi and me around in a rickshaw, or the elevator operator in Asia's tallest skyscraper, or the street vendor fricasseeing flattened rodents would scrimp and save and become titans of Chinese industry one day. Or at least open their own Woo Mart. I wondered if Jessica, our Xi'an day guide, would ever save enough to have that second child and, if she did, what kind of China it would inherit.

Hours later, I settled into my own bed for the first time in nearly two weeks. It was good to be surrounded by the familiar again.

But I drifted off to sleep trying to dream up ways I can return to China.

Left: How's that for a traffic jam?

Below: Tommy stretches out during a flight from Beijing to Xi'an.

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