Today we’ll be doing a marathon of traveling, from Tokyo to Shanghai and then Beijing, with an overnight layover and a flight the next morning to Ulan-Ude in Siberia, Russia. It’s going to be a rough trip. But on the bright side, this flight itinerary wouldn’t even be possible fifty years ago.
We board a China Eastern Airlines plane at Narita Airport and make our first stop in Shanghai. Technically, we’re still on the same ‘flight’ on to Beijing, but we’re all forced off the plane to go through customs because we’re coming from another country. The airline slaps bright blue stickers on us as we leave. The stickers have a string of numbers and letters codifying our flight written on them, followed by “Beijing” in both Chinese and English. I turn around and whisper to Stoytcho: “This is so we don’t get lost.” We weave through long lines at immigrations, then pick up our luggage and head to a customs that fifty years ago would not have been, with China just emerging from the throes of the Cultural Revolution.
After customs and immigration, we’re shepherded to our next gate and onto our flight by way of buses around the airport and across the tarmac. They’re crowded affairs, crammed Chinese and foreigners of all ages. A few are older Chinese ladies, who fifty years ago probably never guessed they would board a plane.
One flight later we’re in Beijing for our overnight stay, where we try to find food and a place to sleep for the night. After deeming the airport hotel too expensive, we hunt around for a quiet stretch to lie down. We want to get as much sleep as we can to be prepared for tomorrow’s flight to Ulan-Ude. We’re not sure how Russia is going to be, so we want to be awake and have our wits about us. But it can’t be that bad. Fifty years ago, with Leonid Brezhnev leading the Soviet Union, we almost certainly wouldn’t be welcome.
We bed down on a line of chairs with no armrests, curling up and preparing for sleep. In the row of chairs on the other side, two guys are doing the same. One offers us a cookie and we whittle the time away with talk. The two are brothers from Iran, doing something with oil technology. They’re returning home. Because it’s my dream to one day visit Iran, I ask what the country is like and where we should go. They tell me about the ancient cities and rugged mountains and thick jungle. They ask about the United States, and what it’s like there, and I tell them about the gleaming cities and rugged mountain and towering redwood forests. We swap emails. “You should come visit us!” one of the guys tells us, and I shrug and reply, “Maybe one day. It’s almost impossible for us to visit Iran.” Without thinking I add “You should come visit us, though!” The guys laugh, “It’s impossible for to visit the U.S.” Oh right, of course.
Today, I can’t visit the country of these two guys that I’m conversing with at an airport. But fifty years ago, the Shah ruled Iran and U.S. citizens could visit Iran mostly unfettered. Fifty years ago, the Cold War was at its height and both Russia and China were off-limits. Fifty years ago, no one had ever landed on the moon. Now, we’re suddenly in possession of unimaginable technologies and we’re bedding down at an airport in China and tomorrow we fly to Russia. And as I stare down at their email address written on my phone, I think about how we now send emails from devices containing more computing power than even the most powerful computers fifty years ago. Who knows what changes another fifty years will bring?