[Note: I bought my first digital camera especially for this trip. This is the first trip journal using my own digital photos, rather than having to scan them from slides or printed pictures. Storage capacity was still very limited at this time. I had to cull the day's photos every evening and managed to bring home about 360 pictures of medium quality.]
Introduction. Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) offers a tour called IMPERIAL CHINA, TIBET & THE YANGTZE that really appealed to us. It seemed to include all the main things we wanted to see in China, and nothing that we didn't care to see. Tibet, especially, was something most other tours didn't include. We booked the trip to China in early August 1999, eight months in advance. As things developed, though, we didn't know until a couple of days before departure whether we would be able to go. Jane started having health problems in late January that finally led to a diagnosis of a kidney infection (pyelonephritis) less than two weeks before the scheduled departure date. Although the doctor finally cleared her to go, she was very weak and often ill or in pain for the first two-thirds of the trip.
We also had problems with OAT's flight scheduling people. They wouldn't verify exactly when we were supposed to leave until two days before we left home. We didn't receive our plane tickets until the day before we left.
Thursday, 6 April. We spent Wednesday night at our son Randall's house in Culpeper, and his wife Julia drove us to Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., on Thursday morning. All went smoothly until they closed the plane after boarding. Instead of pulling away from the gate at 12:45 as scheduled, the pilot announced that we would be held on the ground for an hour because of a backup at Chicago O'Hare. It turned out to be 90 minutes. That caused us to miss our connection in Chicago by ten minutes, and we had to wait four hours for the next flight. We didn't get to Vancouver, BC, until 9:30 p.m. PDT. That's 12:30 a.m. EDT, so it had been more than 12 hours since we boarded the flight at D.C. That's longer than it took us to get to Beijing the next day. We caught the motel shuttle to the Executive Inn Express and went right to bed.
Friday, April 7. We took the 10:00 a.m. shuttle back to the airport, in plenty of time for our 12:30 p.m. flight. The 10 ½ hour flight took us over Alaska, where we had an excellent view of snow-covered Mt. McKinley (Denali) towering above low clouds. We crossed the International Date Line, jumping from Friday afternoon to Saturday afternoon.
Saturday, April 8. The plane arrived in Beijing at 2:30 p.m. By the time we cleared immigration and took the hour bus ride into the city, it was after 4:15 when we got to the hotel. The Beijing Hotel undoubtedly was elegant in its day but, built in1954, it's showing its age. Li Wei, out Tour Director, and Brenda, the local guide, met us at the airport and were with us on the bus. Both turned out to be outstanding.
The first thing that impressed us about the city was the pervasive thick, yellow smog. Visibility was limited to two blocks. Beyond that, everything just disappeared into the haze. That made it difficult to get an overall impression of the city. We were told that the smog was seasonal, caused by sand storms blowing down from Mongolia. However, the haze, though still noticeable, was significantly less outside the city.
There was a modern expressway most of the way from the airport to the city. Inside the city, the main streets were wide, but traffic was heavy and slow, even though most people used bicycles. There were separate15-foot wide lanes for bicycles on each side of the main streets, and often it was clearly faster to travel by bike than by car.
We unpacked for our 3-night stay in Beijing. We had a very good "Western-style" dinner in the hotel at 6:00 p.m. ("Western-style" has nothing to do with the kind of food. Rather, it means that you are served individually at your table, as opposed to sharing food from dishes on a lazy-susan.) We retired soon after dinner, trying to adjust to the 12-hour time change from Virginia.