It seemed like I was preparing for this trip for an age. There were so many emails back and forth for about a year with my hosts Chun-lin Chen (a psychiatrist in Taiwan) and Amanda Garland (a psychotherapist in New Zealand). Before that, I had agonised at length about whether it was right to fly all that way, to spend so much carbon beyond my footprint. This was a very difficult decision (more about this in Letter 6) When I eventually decided to say ‘YES’ I donated £150 to Trees for Life and hoped that my visits helped something or somebody somewhere.
I couldn’t believe it was finally time for take-off into a clear blue late afternoon. The lights of London were beginning to twinkle as we crept into dusk and I got my bearings enough to see the M25 and the straight line of Edgware Road. Suddenly Alexandra Palace came into view and then I could spot Queenswood in the distance, the large area of ancient forest beside our home in North London. I felt tearful as I thought of my beloved partner Adrian preparing supper on his own. I waved good-bye for 8 weeks and soon we were heading out over the Suffolk coast and across the sea towards Moscow. Sitting back in my seat I was filled with anticipation and awe about what lay ahead, appreciating the miracle of the age we live in and what journeys are possible.
It was a short night as we headed east and I had little sleep snatched in between films. Eventually I sneaked the window cover open and suddenly light is flooding in. It’s dawn over the Tibetan Plateau. WOW. WOW. WOW. Flying is so spectacular. Down below are snow covered mountain ranges slowly changing into desert, dotted with the occasional turquoise lake. A memory from 2003 is stirred when I travelled to the salt lakes of Ladakh near the Chinese border on my way down to northern India. It was sensitive country, and we joined a band of nomads who were making their way to tents in the desert where the local rinpoche was holding a ritual and giving blessings. As I scanned the desert below I wondered who might be stirring on this December dawn in this similar land.
The map told me that Darjeeling is nestled in those high mountains over there. As we continued a set of mountains came into view head and shoulders above the rest. Everest? I think so. I thought of the people climbing that mountain in that very moment. There are so many different lives being passed over when up in that metal box in the sky.
The desert below gave way to more mountains, and then desert again. In the middle of the desert appeared strange large green/turquoise rectangles with tiny turquoise canals around them. What on earth are these? Later I discovered from Adrian that it’s a Lithium plant. Ugh. A whole lake has disappeared and turned into this, for our benefit?
The air hostess appeared and told me very politely to put my window cover down as people are still sleeping. It is 1am UK time. I obey, but as she wandered off I sneaked it open again. How can I NOT watch this spectacle going on below me? Signs of human habitation appeared in the Himalayan foothills of western China. There are tiny villages in the valleys with winding roads over the mountains. I imagined what it must have been like for the Tibetan refugees to walk for weeks over this terrain. More villages appeared, followed by terraced hillsides.
A quick glance at the map and it told me that Guilin was in the distance. A few minutes later and YES, there it is, those mysterious mountains were rising out of the morning mists, the subject of so many Chinese paintings. I can’t believe this very mythical landscape is before my eyes. (Below is my own pic, as well as pics of what I knew was under those clouds but couldn’t see.)
I want to stand up in the plane and shout “Hey WAKE UP everyone, LOOK. Here we are flying in this iron bird at 30,000 ft travelling at 500mph, it’s -60deg outside, and Guilin is over there…..It’s a MIRACLE”. For a minute I am present to the darkness inside the plane, to the ongoing snoring, to the screens showing a multitude of films – before I return to this most glorious dawning land as it changes each moment. A good metaphor for our times perhaps?
The mountain villages gave way to agricultural land and soon we were passing over industrialised China. The mountains are mined, and there is much industry by the river. Then it was time to make our descent to Hong Kong. This is such a cleverly designed airport with rest areas overlooking the great Buddha mountain. I felt relaxed enough to take a snooze before catching a plane for Taipei.
NB: Several people have commented on how great these pics are, and how did I do that? I’m sorry to tell you that 3 of 4 are not mine – to get this clarity would mean standing on the wings at much lower altitude…..!