Tripped up during a cheap waltz through China

Special to The Times

It seemed like a great idea: Take a budget winter tour of China by flying to England and joining a British group. London would be a bonus.

It was the mid-'80s. A cheerful tour representative, whom I'll call Harry, met us at London's Heathrow Airport, guided us to a hotel, then disappeared. Three days later, Harry popped up again and saw the group off to China. He handed one woman a large manila envelope for the guide in Beijing, smiled and waved goodbye.

At 30,000 feet above the brown hills of central Asia, the plane's public address system blared something in Chinese. Mandarin speakers around us murmured to one another. Finally, a passenger explained to us in halting English that "winter weather" in Beijing was forcing the plane to land in Urumqi.

Urumqi? Where was Urumqi? None in the tour group had heard of this city in China's northwest corner.

Our plane roared to a stop. From the windows we could see a terminal, a runway and nothing else.

We sat on the plane for an hour before the cabin door swung open to a frigid wind. Uniformed Chinese soldiers with large fur hats and even larger guns were on the tarmac.

Outside the terminal a grim official scrutinized each passport. As he thumbed through mine, I realized none of us had individual Chinese visas. The tour company had arranged for a group visa, no doubt among the paperwork in the envelope Harry had given us.

Unfortunately that envelope was still in the overhead compartment of the plane, and the soldiers made it clear that no one could go back to retrieve it.

The slow-moving line ground to a halt while about 30 British and American tourists tried to explain the situation. None of us spoke Chinese, and the official spoke no English. Fed up, he waved us into the terminal minus our passports. Those he kept.

Fortunately lunch -- and I use the word loosely -- awaited inside: tepid beer, rice, pickled something and gelatinous green 100-year-old eggs. Call me a wimp, but I draw the line at eating anything reminiscent of Dr. Seuss.

I ate my rice slowly, strolled the terminal and looked at a dusty counter selling local handicrafts. That whiled away an hour. Then airport attendants shooed us into a secured area and returned our passports. I thought it must be time to board the plane.

Or be corralled into a smaller, colder waiting room. A large brass urn in the corner dispensed hot tea into two communal tin cups.

Hours passed. Night fell. A few hardy souls stretched flat on the concrete floor to sleep among duffel bags. Parents hushed whimpering children and bundled them in so many layers of clothing that they looked like pincushions. I huddled deeper into my jacket, pushing my hands up into the sleeves. Every so often a door at the end of the room banged open, sending in a freezing blast of outside air.

A loudspeaker crackled to life. Departure? No, entertainment! The improbable strains of a 19th century waltz drifted over the cigarette haze. One gallant Englishman from our group stood, bowed to his wife and pulled her into his arms. They began to dance, twirling to a familiar Strauss waltz.

When flight attendants finally let us scurry past the soldiers and back onto the plane, a cramped airline seat never looked so good. We landed in Beijing after midnight -- nine hours behind schedule -- and at last learned the cause of the delay. The season's first snowfall, a mere 4 inches, had shut down the airport and diverted all flights.

That winter trip to China turned out to be one of the best vacations of my life. But I may be the only person on Earth who thinks of Mao jackets and Urumqi when she hears "The Blue Danube."

Sierra Madre-based freelance writer Susan Lendroth still hears a waltz, even if none is playing.

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