The battered old Douglas C-47 Skytrain of the China National Aviation Corporation, its chocolate brown fuselage battle-scarred with bullet holes and dents, shuddered its way down through the rain clouds, the pilot following the slow bends of the Yangzi River until he had the sandspit landing field in sight in front of him and the cliffs of China's capital city to his left.
The pilot lost altitude fast in case any Japanese fighters were lurking behind the thunderheads, fixed his position by the batteries of antiaircraft guns guarding the runway approach, and lined up between the rows of red-and-white-painted oil drums that had been set down as markers. He trimmed his flaps, throttled back his two engines, grimaced as the plane lurched briefly in a sudden crosswind that was typical for this time of year, and then finally bumped heavily down onto the old riverbed that served as the nation's principal aerodrome. He braked; turned back and headed in past squadrons of parked American and Chinese fighter planes, toward the glitter of Quonset huts that served as terminal buildings; then slowed and taxied to a stop.
A lone British army sergeant was waiting beside the baggage trailer. As soon as the propellers stopped turning, and once the rear door of the aircraft was flung open and a pair of mechanics rolled the makeshift steps into place, he stepped forward to greet the aircraft's two passengers.
The first to emerge was a uniformed soldier much like himself, though an officer and very much older. The other, the more obviously important of the pair and immediately recognizable as the VIP for whom he had been dispatched, was an unusually tall, bespectacled man, scholarly-looking and rather owlish, with a head of straight, very thick dark brown hair. He emerged blinking into the harsh sun, evidently startled by the sudden heat that for the past two weeks had enfolded the city like a steaming blanket.
Once this visitor, who was wearing a khaki shirt and baggy army fatigue shorts and was carrying what looked like a well-worn leather briefcase, had stepped down onto the soil, the driver stood to attention and saluted smartly.
"A very good afternoon to you, Dr. Needham," he called out over the clatter as the plane's cargo was being unloaded. "Welcome to Chungking. Welcome to the center of China."
It was late in the afternoon of March 21, 1943, a Sunday, and Noël Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham, a daring young scientist who was known both in his homelandEnglandand in America as combining a donnish brilliance and great accomplishments as a biologist with a studied eccentricity, had arrived in this most perilous of outposts on a vital wartime mission.
He had been a long time coming. About three months earlier, he had set out on his journey, leaving first by steam train from Cambridge, 8,000 miles away. He had then sailed east in a freighter from Tilbury, dodging Axis raiders all the while, heading out to the Orient by way of Lisbon, Malta, the Suez Canal, and Bombay, and eventually around India to the port of Calcutta. Here, late in February, he boarded an American Army Air Corps plane that ferried him high across the glaciers and peaks of the Himalayas and into the heartland of China. Now he had arrived in its capitalor at least, the capital of the part of the country that was still free of the Japanese invadersand he was eager to begin his work. Joseph Needham's mission was of sufficient importance to the British government to warrant his having an armed escort: the passenger with him on the aircraft was a man named Pratt, a King's Messenger who had been charged by London with making absolutely certain that Needham reached his final destinationHis Britannic Majesty's embassy to the Republic of Chinasafe and sound. The pair began their climb up into the city. They first walked across a rickety pontoon bridge that floated on boats anchored in the fast-flowing Yangzi. They were followed by the embassy driver and a small squad of ban-ban men, the well-muscled porters who had slung Needham's innumerable pieces of baggage onto the thick bamboo poles they held yoked across their shoulders. The small group then began to clamber up the stepsnearly 500 of them, the lower few rows of massive foot-high granite setts muddy and slimy with the daily rise and fall of the river; the upper ones hot and dusty, and alive with hawkers and beggars and confidence men eager to trick any newcomers panting up from the riverside.
The foregoing is excerpted from The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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