China Trip by Bill Griffiths


Although this trip occurred in 1990, it's as fresh in my mind today as if it had occurred only yesterday. I guess memorable events, one might even say once-in-a-lifetime events, have that lasting quality.

I was working for Hughes Space and Communications Company as a Project Manager on the Asiasat1 program, which had the distinction of being the first U.S. spacecraft launched from China. Because of my previous experience at various launch sites around the world, I was asked to provide senior guidance for some of the spacecraft integration tasks at the launch site in Xichang, Sichuan Province, which is located in the Southwestern part of China.

For my two weeks tour of duty, I stayed at the Satellite Hotel in Xichang City, a busy little farming village with a population of 106,000 people (1990 census). The hotel was actually 35 miles from the Launch Facility, and about three-fourths of the U.S. Launch Team stayed here. We were not allowed to drive in this part of China, so every morning at 6:30 we hopped on an old school bus that drove us to the launch site. The journey typically took about an hour, but could take longer on market days, when the road was intermittently clogged with pedestrian and animal traffic. The road quality was good to poor - in some spots, recent flooding had washed out the road, and makeshift detours were used. On one trip, our bus driver stopped to argue with a woman on a bike, who apparently had been forced off the road by the bus. On the return trip, we would purchase snacks and beer, and enjoy watching the scenery as night fell over this wondrous countryside.

Bike Trip

Mark and I understood that we could rent bikes from the hotel. On Sunday, we approached the "guard shack" at the front entrance with some trepidation, for we had been forewarned that venturing from the compound by Americans was frowned upon. However, after showing our passports and surrendering our California driver's licenses, we successfully commandeered two bikes, assuming those monstrosities qualified as bikes. In this part of China, there is no distinction between road bike and mountain bike - these were utility bikes. Some of you may be old enough, or have heard tales about the old 3-speed bike, circa 1955. Well, I'm convinced that these bikes have all been recycled and sent to Asia. Our bikes came equipped with those ultimate speed enhancers - chain guard, mud flaps, and Shimano rear basket (no doubt for the geese we would bring home from the market).

In spite of our less-than-perfect mode of transportation, we set off in an easterly direction out of town amidst the tumult of cars, trucks, tractors, wagons, and other bicycles that constantly jockeyed for position on the unmarked pavement. After a few miles, we crossed the river and came upon a stretch of road lined with evenly spaced poplar trees just beginning to show green. This was in stark contrast to the barren fields on either side of the road, which were now being furrowed for the summer crops. I could only imagine how beautiful this scenery would be in a few months.

Mark and I continued to ride through village after village, until we came to the old MIG Air Base. We rode right out onto the tarmac. It was the weekend, and no flights were scheduled into this remote airport. Families took advantage of the wide expanse to enjoy a Sunday picnic. I've never seen anything quite like this before - a squadron of old 1950's-era MIG jets juxtaposed with families camped on the runway. We just couldn't resist "taxiing" down the runway on our Chinese Schwinns, pretending to gather enough speed to become airborne.

After a half hour of frolicking on the runway, it was time to head back to Xichang. The roads in this part of the country come in maybe three distinct categories - paved, dirt, and washed out. There is no flood control in these parts, and every so often, transportation of any flavor becomes hazardous. We were fortunate on this stretch to have paved roads that had not been washed out recently, which made the ride very comfortable (if you discount riding a stiff bike with an unpadded seat). The road back to Xichang was full of more wonders. We stopped in a walled village with approximately 50 closely spaced concrete block homes. The major industry in this village appeared to be raising geese. The children were very friendly, and each one seemed to have a goose as a pet. Of course, in this part of the world it is common to raise animals as a future food supply.

Within a mile of this village we observed a factory off in the distance. I didn't know at the time, but found out later that this was a steel factory. All I can say is that the smoke from this plant was heavy, and I wouldn't be surprised at all to find that it contributed significantly to the pollution in a valley that didn't have many sources of pollution.

When we returned to Xichang, Mark and I both agreed that we should take advantage of the day off to see more of the sites. So we pedaled through the main street and out towards the northwest. As we passed Lake Xichang, we detoured through an area that reminded me of any lakeside community in the U.S. - log cabins or A-frame houses with small boats parked in the driveways.

As we got further away from the city, we saw the last vestiges of mini-marts and used car dealerships, and began to climb. We hadn't gone far when we were confronted with a common site in this part of China - a yak. This particular beast of burden was accompanied by his owner/farmer, for which we were very grateful. I would never have ventured close to one of these "bulls of the Far East" without some backup. The yak works the plow in Asia. Although it looks fearsome, it can be as docile as a cow if not hassled. Otherwise, it gets bullish.

Within another mile, we came to a battery factory. We were not adventurous enough to ask for a tour, but did notice a trellised courtyard in the back of the facility where it appeared that grapes were being grown. Juice for the batteries? The elevation at this point was about 6500 feet, and I was feeling the effects of both the altitude and the mileage, so I asked to turn back. The downhill portion of the ride was welcomed. We got back to the Satellite Hotel without further incident, only to learn that our comrades had signed us up to play a basketball game with a local team.

The Basketball Game

I was exhausted from the bike ride, but there were only ten of us that were in any sort of athletic condition to play basketball. You have to know that I once "played" the game in the 8th grade, although I was the premier rider of the pine (bench warmer). In fact, I scored no points that whole season. We obviously had a strong starting team and a deep bench. Anyway, I was one of those skilled players who had to watch the ball as he dribbled. But just the fact that I had once played competitively qualified me for this team.

In our U.S. contingent, three others had played in high school, with varying degrees of success. We had all of a half hour to warm up and practice some plays before being bussed to courtside. Those who came along as cheerleaders, plus our designated coach and ballboy accompanied us on the bus. As we rode through downtown Xichang, we felt pretty proud of being the first U.S. team at any skill level to play basketball in this part of China. We acted like school kids on that bus, yelling and waving to the townspeople as we passed.

We arrived at an outdoor court on the north side of town. I can scarcely describe what happened next. We walked through a wrought iron arch that opened onto an asphalt court where throngs of people had gathered to watch this game. I estimated the crowd at 3000, which is larger than some of the crowds that the Montreal Expos get towards the end of baseball season. Besides the stands on both sides of the court, people were standing three and four deep along the sidelines and at the ends of the court. In addition, there was an L-shaped motel adjacent to the court, and several hundred people were standing on the second and third floor walkways. I knew that basketball was one of the most popular sports in China, but I never expected this much interest in an amateur game.

I've never felt so under-the-microscope in my life. Even though I am not a showboat, the moment was so overwhelming that I had to do something or I would burst. So I asked the coach for a ball, and proceeded to dribble half the length of the court and shoot a layup. Fortunately, I made the basket, and a small cheer went up at that end of the court. Soon the rest of the team had joined me.

After about five minutes of practicing, our opponents took the court. Of course they had uniforms and a professional warm up routine, as opposed to our mismatched shorts, funky T-shirts, and shoot-around style of warming up.

I was somehow selected to be starting forward. We had one thing going for us - his name was Ray, a 6 foot-8 inch security guard who was a head taller than their center. We fed the ball to Ray at every opportunity. We managed to keep the game close for the first quarter using this strategy. But our opponents started double-teaming Ray, and they soon built up a large lead. The events of the day finally caught up to me. After only three or four minutes of play, I asked the coach to take me out. I just couldn't catch my breath, and I could see that I wasn't contributing. I went back into the game several more times, but it was 8th grade all over again - although I had a couple of rebounds and several assists, I scored no points (I only remember taking one or two shots).

We almost had an international incident in the game. One of our starting guards took exception to the defensive style of his counterpart. After repeated contact, the two players got into a shoving and shouting match, and had to be separated. I really thought they would come to blows, and we would be responsible for undoing all that Richard Nixon had accomplished between the two countries.

Despite a second half comeback, we lost the game by about 10 points. Not a bad showing for a ragtag team of mostly nerdy engineers. I also have a hunch that the Chinese team went easy on us. I hope the fans found the game amusing.

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