I arrived at the enormous aircraft hanger that is Beijing Airport at 6am, after the obligatory kamikazee taxi ride from the centre of town. I was off on a new adventure, flying into the mountains of Tibet. I was accompanying my son to meet his future Tibetan wife, and we were looking forward to the trip for possibly quite different reasons.
Before we could board our flight, we had to go through the Chinese authorities, whose role was to protect Tibet from the influx of dangerous types.
We had, we thought, everything in order. Our passports with valid Chinese visas, and extremely "official" papers that carried our authority to enter Tibet.
Because we were going to Tibet, we had our own very special line, and at the end of that line we were scrutinised intensely by a stern looking offical and very prim woman who clearly thought that she was guarding the gates to heaven. Above her, a camera panned our visages, and unseen further offiers scrutinised our every movement and facial twitch.
After due consideration she proceeded to stamp our tickets, twice, with her "approved" red stamp, but simultaneously noting with a flourish of her pen, that another number and code had been written onto the ticket. Pointing to this, she imperiously commanded that we needed to attend "over there" for further approvals. I was later to realize that this is a symptom of beauracratic controls - that there is always "someone else" who needs to impart authority, and if you are not careful, this hand passing can create circular currents from which you cannot escape.
However, we wandered in the direction indicated, and eventually came across another set of official desks, to whom we presented all our papers again. After an appropriate time perusing these, she selected an even larger stamp, and pressed this against our tickets - initialising them with a large flourish of a pen, and annotating yet another worrying number next to the flourish.
Our tickets, now resplendent with multiple red stamps, incantations, signatures and annotations, were looking like the the very best and most official document I had ever seen, and we both perused them with some satisfaction. I remarked that these must be the best tickets that I had ever possessed.
We then proceeded to the gate, where we waited patiently for our flight amongst an assorted throng of Tibetans, Chinese and tourists. After a short while we were visited by a much more pleasant woman, who asked to see our tickets and papers. Persuing them ever so carefully, she added another flourish to each ticket. I felt reassured, that now that the handiwork of everyone had been surveyed, that we were 'through' to the other sider, although I wasn't quite sure what that other side would entail. At this point I could just surmise that I must be travelling to somewhere very valuable, or very dangerous, or both.
Finally our aircraft arrived, whereupon we dutifully lined up and finally presented our tickets for the penultimate check - she notes with satisfaction the last entry, and waves us through.
Upon settling into our seats we waited expectantly for the familiar roar of the engines, symbolising that finally, at last, we were on our way.
However I note with increasing alarm that the engines are being cycled up and down. As a long time traveller I know that this is not a good sign, and sure enough, we hear the whining shut down as power is removed from the turbines.
The intercom crackles into life, and we are informed by the captain in at least three languages that there are technical difficulties and that we will be sitting on the tarmac for a short time. Looking out my window I see a significant group of very technical looking people milling around one of the engines. I know this may not end well, so I try and relax and not think of having to resubmit my papers for yet another clearance on another day ... after all, I am on the other side.
Finally, half an hour later, the intercom crackles to life again and informs us that everything is now hunky dory, and we are about to get on our way. I relax at last, stretch my legs, breathe deeply and prepare for the buzz of the take off.
It is then that I look out the window.
The maintenance crew are all assembled in a line, and they are WAVING goodbye to us.
A flood of emotions and questions assault me.
Why are they waving? Is it a sign of confidence, or a gesture of "good luck, hope to see you again soon?" ....
Somehow it doesn't inspire confidence in me that my maintenance crew are waving goodbye - mostly I prefer my maintenance crews to walk away confidently without even looking over their shoulder.
Waving goodbye seems to carry with it some element of either possible finality or luck. Neither is good in my book.
I try and suppress all this, telling myself that there is nothing I can do anway. I am a creature subject to fate. I feebly return the wave.
The engines roar assuringly, and we thunder along the tarmac and surge into the sky, and I imagine the whisky I am about to grasp as Beijing disappears beneath me in a haze.
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