My seat-back display reads 2 hours 41 minutes remaining flight time. Gently prodding its yellowed plastic remote – having long given up on the seemingly catatonic touchscreen – I bring up the flight map. Zoomed-out greyscale Mercator projection, bright swath of pixels marking the arc of daylight across the globe. The little Hainan icon is just to right of center, where it has remained for 8 hours and 34 minutes as our Airbus A330 keeps pace with the sun across the Pacific rim. Were I to open my window shade, a shaft of blinding light (and, just maybe, a peek of dun-colored Russian countryside below) would pierce the artificial night that has enveloped the cabin for most of the ride.
At just over 1000 miles from Beijing, we are nearing Manchuria, cradle of the nomadic Jurchen people who founded China’s last great dynasty (the Qing). The topo map on the screen swaps its browns and greens for red political borders and bold white city names, battlefields of the (tragically oft-forgotten) Russo-Japanese war. At the turn of the century, Japan stunned the Western world with its extraordinarily bloody and protracted victory here over Ivan; meanwhile the Qing dynasty seethed with too-little-too-late reforms, chaos, and ruin. On my map, the area’s mass of Korean and Mongolian text beckons hungrily from the Southwest, but for now the little airplane icon has only one neighbor – Khabarovsk, one hundred and twenty-six miles behind us in the East. I imagine that the actual terrain looks the same at four feet as it does up here at forty thousand – smudged, featureless, like someone spilled water on a palette of earth tones. Tiny clouds cower under the might of our steel coffin, hauling itself across the sky at six hundred miles per hour.
For the first six hours, I was continually cursing my inability to stop reading a Wikipedia article once engrossed…specifically the entry on previous air disasters. Though the jump to SEA/TAC was one of the smoothest rides I’ve had in a small aircraft, I spent most of it wondering why we still lean on such propulsion devices as the (terrifyingly blunt and frankly medieval) propeller. Maybe, then, it’s the huge turbofan engines on the Airbus that have allowed me to finally breathe during spots of turbulence. Other sources of calm include Dustin O’Halloran’s solo piano, Sherlock, and a sweet movie I enjoyed called Like Crazy (to which Dustin coincidentally did the soundtrack). One thing’s for sure – I may not be death-gripping the armrests anymore, but gone are the days when I laughed off the turbulence over Narita while slugging Pepsi and listening to Nelly on repeat with Phil. So long, eighth grade.