The ride is bumpy today. Temperature is -65°C. I am speeding over the Gobi desert, going west towards Urumqi. I’ll probably reach there in a few minutes. And in a few minutes more it will be far behind me. We are taking the same Silk Route as I drove 4 months ago, though now I’m at a height of nearly 10 km and I’m heading back to Holland, not to Kashgar.
Time flies and so do I. Here in the plane a young mother is constantly chasing after her little boy while father watches his third movie with the compliments of KLM. And that is about as good as it gets with KLM: they didn’t have enough bread for all, let alone a second round; no leg space; no service and the movie system got stuck have 10 minutes into the flight. KLM is truly outstanding: its prices beyond British Airways, its quality below Air Asia. And thus my direct neighbors are sleeping away their frustration but I’ve made sure I got the arm rest. An old Chinese two rows down is coughing up his phlegm from a storage that by the sound of it must be far larger than any Chinese illegal coal mine at the point of collapse, spitting full his second disposal bag with so much noise that alarmed stewardesses are storming our aisle now for the third time. Most passengers are now awake while others are still snoring away in this small world so highly elevated above the reality far below. So detached. Yet, somehow, up in these high realms, this is a community at peace and time is standing still -at least for the next 9 hours. You can’t really go anywhere; neither call the secretary to make sure you’ll be ready for the next appointment; nor check your emails. That blessing, by the way, is a curse in disguise: by the time the plane touches down on the other side, I am likely to find that my unread emails have accumulated to a 3 or 4 digits number.
But beneath us the landscape is constantly changing. Sichuan Tibetan mountains make way for the wide Qinghai grasslands that are replaced by different forms of Xinjiang deserts. Change. Over the years of living in the dusty yet thriving city of Chengdu, we have grown accustomed to the reality that yesterday’s farm fields are today’s shopping malls and that today’s mud roads will be 5 lane highways tomorrow. No use buying a map or washing your car. What you wipe clean in the morning is black and dust covered in the afternoon. The few signs of God-given seasons are always covered under layers of dust. If the air is not filled with desert sand, it will be full of smog particles from factories and construction sites.
And so, Holland became our heaven. Fresh air and four seasons. The place that never changes. Each time we return, my kids find grandpa buried under books in his study or in the bushes of his garden; grandma juggling with word puzzles or painting her chair – again; the daffodils under the chestnut tree -53 cm to the left; the cats and birds flying freely through my sister’s home and the queen as ever missing neighbor. Eating vegetarian by my aunt around their old wooden round table or enjoying a good French wine with my uncle under one of his treasured trees by his self-made arch in their garden, listening to his many tales or discussing the latest news. Over the last many years all this never seemed to change. I can still use my maps bought in the previous century. Our anchor of stability. A community at peace.
But today is different. My uncle is no more. His unexpected departing shocked us all. A world is gone, and not just his. The world as I know it no longer exists. No more wine under the tree. No more talks and tales. Only memories and an empty turning chair. His sudden death has kicked me awake. The reality of the fairytale I so much wanted to believe has taken an ugly turn. Awakened from this self-imposed deception I now see that even in Holland, between the 200-year old trees, the medieval castles and Roman roads, time moves on. The Holland I knew when we left -the Holland of 8 years ago- does not exist; the Holland that exists I do not know. And where China can never really be our home, then where now is home?
The mother is still chasing her boy now that we’re in Kazakhstan airspace – come to think of it: she chased her boy all the way from Chengdu to Kazakhstan and still didn’t get him. Why does this feel so familiar?