Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Well, I'm Back

I got back from my big trip to Beijing, Mongolia (including trips to Qara-Qorum and the western Uws Province), and Russia's Buriat regions in southern Siberia on Sunday evening. Overall the trip was very productive, but I'm still jet-lagged and I've still got lots of things to take care of. I have not had time to mentally "unpack" the whole trip, just the flight back, which was slightly eventful.

On the way home, I had to give up two glass bottles of currant juice, which I had been given by Bolormaa, pupil of a colleague and friend of mine in Uws Province. I got them through security in Ulaanbaatar, but flying from Beijing to Chicago, the check-in agents for United told me it wouldn't be allowed at security, so I took it out and told them to enjoy. If I'd known what was going on before hand, I would have repacked them in plastic bottles and put them in my checked luggage. That was a real disappointment to have to give them up -- Uws in Mongolia is the center of currant (ükhriin nüd) and buckthorn (chatsargana) production, and berry juice was different from the usual Mongolian souvenirs of dried curds or Chinggis Khan vodka.

The whole international transfer in Beijing was a mess -- I got wrong advice and stood for 20 minutes in the wrong line before getting redirected. But in the end it was alright -- because I was so late, the last person to check in, as the agents said, they decided that even though my luggage was overweight -- chao guo le -- they didn't have time to charge me for it! Mei shijian! Things like this kept on happening to me, giving me a quite extraordinary feeling I had of being kept and upheld by prayer, despite my own foolishness and inadequacy.

Highlight of the flight home? Seeing the polar pack ice northwest of Queen Elizabeth Island from 30,000 feet. It may be melting but there's still a lot there! Flights "over the Pacific" now often don't cross an inch of the Pacific: this one went from Beijing up through Manchuria, then Siberia, before skirting the edge of the Arctic, and crossing Canada down to Chicago.

Lowlight of the flight home? Having a screw on my glasses finally do what it had been threatening to do all trip -- come off and get lost. There I am sitting in the window seat, scrunched up, and knowing the screw must be somewhere on my lap, but with me and the two passngers all having our trays down and dinner on it, so I couldn't get up and look for it. (Why was in the window seat? Because I was the last person to check in! -- isn't that obvious?). But no biggie -- I managed to save the loose lens and the frame, and had another pair in my carry on.

Main observation: every aspect of air travel is getting worse and worse, except the inflight music programming.

The picture is of an azure winged magpie, which I first saw on the campus of Peking/Beijing University. I'd often visited friends there in the 1980s as a student -- it has the most lovely campus of any university in eastern Asia. There's a nice photo (which I couldn't copy) of an azure-winged magpie in China here.