I really debated admitting this, because I’m supposed to be Mr. Been There, Done That, or at least Mr. Worldly or at least someone who’s ventured beyond Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. But the truth is, despite trips to Sydney, Australia, and Sydney, Ohio; Provincetown, Massachusetts, and Cape Town, South Africa; Poland, Maine, and Moscow, Russia, . . . I have never been to Moscow, Idaho. No wait. That’s not the confession. This is: In addition to never having been to Moscow, Idaho, until last month I had also never been to Asia.

And now here I was, fresh from the Marco Polo Lounge at the Los Angeles International Airport, setting sail at 600 miles per hour and 39,500 feet for a five-day, in-depth tour of the inscrutable continent, beginning with Beijing.

“If I had jumped out of the plane two hours ago,” I told a friend excitedly, “I would have landed– splat — in Tiananman Square.”

Can you imagine? We had been flying over China. Over Beijing. (This was, unfortunately, all time permitted me to see of China.) And then over the mountains and suddenly into Hong Kong, where nice apartments, defying all predictions of collapse in the face of the Communist takeover July 1, routinely fetch millions of dollars, up sharply in the recent past.

Flying in on Cathay Pacific in business class, I had my own personal TV, watched my own personal Ellen and Seinfeld reruns, and had a bewildering choice of movies, languages and subtitles. You want to see a Korean film with Italian subtitles? Mel Gibson speaking Thai? The choice isn’t quite that all-inclusive, but one does get a sense of the potential babble.

Emerging from which are some standards. English. (We are so fortunate not to have to learn Chinese or Thai to catch up with the rest of the world.) Americana. (In Bangkok, there will be a shrine and a McDonald’s side-by-side — their shrine and ours.) Windows 95. (Bill Gates is featured just as prominently in the Bangkok Post as in the LA Times.)

With 100 days to go before the historic changeover, it was a particularly exciting time to visit Hong Kong. Being on a tight schedule — I had to be in Spokane five days later — I had only 75 minutes to size up this extraordinary place. And as I have the capacity to get lost in the shower, let alone Hong Kong’s Kai Tek Airport, I decided it would be best to go straight to Gate 17 and spend my historic 75 minutes there, drinking in the culture and waiting for the flight to Bangkok.

There, directly across from the gate, was a warren of pay phones — I’m in Hong Kong! I have to call somebody! — but they all required phone cards, and it was 6:45 in the morning, Hong Kong time, which is to say 5:45 the night before of the day before on the East Coast (which, combined with the prevailing winds, makes the flight to Asia two days long, and the flight back instantaneous).

In short, I am completely confused, but clinging to the certain knowledge that I am at Gate 17, as I am supposed to be — that’s the main thing I have focused on — and that I have no phone card. (Credit cards, sure; but Hong Kong phone cards?) Not to worry. Next to the several pay phones is a simple white wall phone with a choice of eight buttons. Hertz, Avis, I guess, as I move closer, but no! The first button is for AT&T Direct. Push that one button, and you’re back home. There’s the familiar . . . what is that sound? . . . the request for an area code and phone number . . . that sound again prompting you for your card number . . . and moments later it is as if your loved one is next door. Certainly clearer than if he or she is, say, downstairs or out by the car. (“What was that honey? I can’t hear you.”)

Peck a few keys on a phone by Gate 17 and, seconds later, a 12,000-mile gap is bridged, clear as a Bell. What a world, for those of us fortunate enough to be in the flying/computing/credit-granted part of it.

Tomorrow: The Saga Continues


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