Too anxious to do anything else, I spent the flight from Beijing to Chengdu with my headphones on, half-heartedly listening to music while staring intently at the television screen above me in an attempt to follow the unfolding drama. All of the passengers on the half-empty plane disembarked at Chengdu, and a handful of us waited at the gate to board once again. When I returned to my seat in the aisle, I found the entire plane was suddenly full of passengers traveling to Lhasa. The two seats that had been empty beside me were now occupied with a Tibetan man and his young daughter. When he had walked up, the man was toting a girl’s suitcase—a black and white polka-dotted roller bag with pink ruffles and a cartoon character embossed on the bottom corner—with a matching lunchbox, darting his head back and forth to try to match the number on his ticket with the seat number. When they settled in next to me, I turned to him and asked where he was from, ཁྱེད་རང་ག་ནེ་ཡིན་པ། He explained that he was from Ngari, a region in Western Tibet, speaking with a thick accent. We spoke a little more in Tibetan, occasionally drifting into silence every few minutes as we waited for the plane to leave–in China, flights never seem to leave on time. His daughter remained silent, simply staring up at me whenever I spoke with her father. She asked him what time it was, and he urged her to ask me. I stumbled over my reply, my Tibetan felt rusty after two months with no practice, words slipped my mind and the pronunciations felt foreign as the words crept through my tongue and teeth and out of my mouth.
An hour passed before we began creeping towards the runway. The plane had a camera attached to the belly of the fuselage, and the girl and her father watched, enraptured, as the white lines painted below us slipped past faster and faster until the heavy beast jerked upwards and soared into the sky. A few minutes later, he offered me a kumquat, a small orange citrus fruit that I had only ever tried once. ལ་མེད། ལ་མེད། I refused, as politely as I could. He offered and offered until I took one, at which point he told me to take a few more. They were not sour like I had remembered, as I bit halfway into the fruit I was surprised by its sweetness and the crisp aftertaste. Upon finishing, he offered me more, and we repeated the dance of polite refusal and acceptance once more, although I actually did want more. Long after I had finished them, I could still feel the taste of orange on my lips as if I had just bit into one.
I began writing in a spiral notebook, made from the pages of an old novel that I had found in Oregon, my new friend watched as I scratched words across the page in a curly cursive script. I asked if he knew English, he shook his head no. He picked up the notebook, opened to the first page and stared at the printed English words as though he could read. He kept staring, as if he could decipher their meaning with time, before flipping through the pages of handwriting to the blank pages in the back. He asked if I had written any Tibetan in it, I replied that I hadn’t, and he returned the book to me with both hands, delicately, as if it were a sacred offering.
The end of the flight was terrifying. The plane began descending between mountain ranges into a valley, while the clouds hung above us, obstructing the sun. We began dropping violently every so often, throwing passengers slightly up, out of their seats momentarily. I felt sick to my stomach and vigorously fanned my face with the airplane’s safety pamphlet from the seat pocket, hoping I wouldn’t have to make use of the white airsick bags. I looked to the man next to me to see that he had sunken down in his chair and was gripping the arm rests, knuckles turned pale, eyes clasped tightly shut. His daughter had also sunk down into her seat, and leaned into her father, eyes also shut. The plane’s camera had been turned back on, and one could watch as we descended over a river towards the strip of tarmac looming ahead, finally landing safely.
He turned to me and asked who was meeting me at the airport. I explained I was taking the bus, to which he replied that they would bring me to Lhasa. His friend had a car, he said, so we could go together. I refused politely, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. At the baggage claim we stood together for a few moments until the rickety belt began moving. People began crowding around the belt, elbowing and pushing their way in to find their bags, and I quickly recalled the line-cutting culture of China. When I finally pulled my heavy backpack from the loud, rotating surface through the crowd of people to where we had been standing, my friend and his daughter were gone. Dizzy and disoriented from the altitude, I slowly made my way away from the baggage claim to the street outside, looking for them as I walked. Defeated, I boarded the bus to return to Lhasa, having lost them in the crowd.