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Map of China



Coming in to land at Beijing, I always find myself thinking of the first time I came here. The journey was interminable then. Commercial flights to Beijing hopped across the inter-land, bumping along in the old Chinese planes that resembles a run-down truck on a pebbly road to no-way. Beijing was still, in those days, an exotic destination. As we approached, we peered into the darkness, trying to make out the shape of the city. It was like landing on a deserted planet, with scarcely a light showing.

When the plane came to a halt, two PLA soldiers appeared at the door of the aircraft and looked over the arriving passengers. We disembarked into a small, deserted, dimly lit terminal, unadorned except for some slogans in English and Chinese that proclaimed such unlikely propositions as CHINA HAS FRIENDS ALL OVER THE WORLD. Almost all that is left of those sensations is the smell that greets you as you disembark, in the autumn and winter at any rate. It is smell of burning charcoal, still an important cooking and heating fuel. Everything else has changed beyond recognition. The slogans have gone, the PLA guards have different uniforms, the old airport is a terminal that overflows with passengers who do, these days, come from all over the world. The road into town, once a tree-lined country route more traveled by mule carts than by anything with an engine, is now a motorway. The city itself is a choking megalopolis, a maze of ill-planned and oversized high-rise developments, giant shopping plazas and hotels, cut through by urban freeways. The people who once inhabited the center have been banished to distant suburbs. The intimacy of the city has been erased. It's enough to induce nostalgia, even for those grim distant days of the Cultural Revolution.