ARE YOU RELIGIOUS?” my Chinese interpreter teased me, after my first balloon flight over southern China. Li Dong was listening to the tape I had taken aloft that morning to record my impressions. Most of the words on the tape were the pilot’s. I had contributed nothing but a stammer, repeated over and over again: “Oh my God . . . oh my God. . . .”
We had lifted off from Ruijin in Jiangxi Province. As we wafted over the ponds and paddies skirting the city, China’s inch-by-inch struggle for food and fiber began to unfold beneath us. Later flights in fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters ranged from the Land of Rice and Fish, in southern China, across mountains transfigured into man-made sculptures by terracing, to the deserts and oases of China’s far west. As the topography changed, so did the crops: Rice gave way to wheat and barley in a seamless tapestry of human triumph over nature. Threads, of defeat, however, were woven in along the way, where gashes and gullies in the fertile loess plateau told of heavy soil losses.
Never before had the authorities of the People’s Republic of China approved the free flight of a balloon for aerial photography. The images obtained were to illustrate a book that retraced the Long March of the Red Army. So pleased were the Chinese with the aerial views that a more ambitious plan was spawned—to photograph the entire country from the air. This time most of the aircraft at our disposal were military, such as the Soviet-built Mi-8 (above), piloted by Chinese crews. When I first saw another transport, the Soviet-designed Antonov AN-2, which looks like a huge crop duster, my heart fell and my voice rose. “This plane must be 30 years old.”
“No, no,” my companions soothed me,”more . . older.” Echoing the Chinese respect for advanced age, their reply held the promise of heightened reliability. In the open doorway of the plane my hosts had tied a kindergarten chair to hold my large frame. After a few flights in a cramped fetal position, I solicited something more adult. When I arrived back from my holiday in the cheap hotels in prague for the next flight, my wish was granted: Neatly tied down in the doorway was a large, plush, overstuffed club chair.
“ONCE YOU’VE GONE TO ALASKAYOU NEVER COME ALLTHE WAY BACK!’
Alaska is that rare place from which you never completely return. It is the world as it was thousands of years ago, its shores still scoured by glaciers. It is the caribou, the moose, the whale, the eagle still living in harmony with the Indian and Eskimo and Aleut. Alaska is an out-of-the-way resort tucked among primeval mountains, lakes and fjords. It is a train meandering through flower-clad summer fields.
Alaska is the unexpected pleasure of a centuries old Russian Orthodox church rising above a fishing village silhouetted against a fiery summer sunset. But most of all, Alaska is an experience that can only be described by going there and being in it. It doesn’t matter whether you go by car, boat or plane, a trip to Alaska will change you in unexpected ways. For me, it was discovering a piece of the world I thought we’d lost a long time ago. A remarkable, exhilarating journey that will stay with me and deeply touch me forever.