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How many of you have read "The Good Earth?" To be completely honest, I don't remember too much of the Pearl S. Buck classic. I've been thinking about rereading the book for three years now, but I've been unable to get my hands on a copy. What I do remember is a mother giving birth and then just returning to the fields to work. What a harsh, difficult place China must be, eh? Er... not exactly.

Of course, there is extreme poverty here and there are plenty of farmers who work their fields everyday and earn ridiculously low incomes in exchange, but there is also a growing middle class and quite a few millionaires, too. Did you know that China has the fastest growing commercial aviation industry in the world? Flight schools in America, Canada, Australia & European countries are overflowing with Chinese student pilots. China needs ten thousand just to keep up with demand. Chinese airlines pay foreign airline captains between 12,000-15,000 US dollars per month since there is such a shortfall of captains. Why the demand? Because Chinese people are traveling, for business and pleasure, more than ever before and there is no better way to travel than by airplane. China is comparable in size to the US. Would you rather spend 32 hours on a train or a couple of hours on a jet?

In the past, people left their home towns for education or work purposes, returning home to visit their families once per year during the annual Spring Festival, aka Chinese New Year. The rest of the year they worked. Holidays around China and vacations abroad were virtually unheard of. No one had the money or credentials for such travel. If you wanted to leave your assigned home, or work unit, you needed permission and a good reason. Weekend trip to Shanghai for some shopping and sightseeing? Too much frivolity! Where would you get the money? And why do you want to go? Do you have capitalist tendencies?

That's all over with these days. The inability to travel within China is entirely an economic issue. International travel is still a bit more difficult since a passport can be tricky to acquire for some. Everywhere I go in China I see large groups of Chinese tourists (they love group travel), finally discovering their own country. Not everyone can travel, however, most of the young Chinese I work with have never visited Shanghai, Beijing or even Qingdao, which is the biggest city in our province (like traveling from Victoria to Houston). Most have traveled only to attend university, and there is no such thing as Spring Break trips to the beach in universities here! Yesterday I asked a few students where they would travel if they had time and opportunity. Almost all of them told me "Qingdao!" Qingdao is a prime vacation spot because it has several beaches, a nearby mountain for climbing and lots of good restaurants.

There are three main forms of transportation, bus, train and airplane. For us, taking the bus is never an option. While express buses that travel on highways might be safe, we are way too weary of crazy traffic to risk it. Trains are by far the most common way to travel. China has a pretty extensive rail network and you can get everywhere using the train, although it might take a long time. There are generally four classes on the train, soft sleeper, hard sleeper, soft seat and hard seat. They are what they sound like. The two sleeper classes have beds, either a four bed compartment with a plusher mattress or a six bed compartment with a thinner mattress. The seat classes are regular seats, but contrary to what you might think, a hard seat is not made of plastic or wood, it just has a little less cushion than the soft one. I once spent 12 hours overnight on a hard seat from Linyi to Beijing and it was easily one of the worst experiences of my life.

Then there is air travel, which is the most convenient, comfortable and expensive. Here is a cost estimation: To Beijing from Linyi via train: Hard seat: 125RMB ($18) Soft seat: 198RMB ($29) Hard sleeper: 231RMB ($34) Soft sleeper: 352RMB ($52) To Beijing from Linyi via airplane: 760RMB ($111)

To Beijing I sometimes take the train, if I can get a sleeper ticket. To Shanghai, I always take the airplane, because there is no direct train. When we visited Tibet in 2007, we took the train from the southwestern city of Chengdu to Lhasa. It took 48 hours. It is the highest altitude train ride in the world. At one point, we passed over a 16,400 ft pass. We are seriously considering taking the Trans-Mongolian railway from Beijing to Moscow through Mongolia and Siberia. It only takes 7 days!

Whoa, I feel like I've written a book already. I'll have to continue this post tomorrow, discussing the details of airplane flight. While it is pretty much the same as in the US, there are a few interesting differences I'd love to share with you.