It looks like a long silver dragon,” exclaimed Yang Hongling, a 20-year-old tour guide in the city of Xiamen, as she watched the shining caravan of trailers, their metal skins flashing like scales in the sun, roll through the lush hills of China’s Fujian province. As the motorized wagon train pulled into town escorted by police, the locals looked perplexed but soon waved a welcome to the guìbin (distinguished guests) in their American homes on wheels. What the citizens of Xiamen had seen was another milestone in the lengthening list of U.S.-China adventures—the first tour of the Chinese countryside by Americans in Airstream trailers.
“I tell you, I’ve been on a lot of caravans,” says Frank Sargent, 76. “This was far and away the best caravan I’d ever been on.” Sargent is the Marco Polo of the latter-day expedition from the West by 11 small passenger trucks, each towing a 21-foot Airstream. Shipped from Baltimore last summer, the trailers will eventually make eight trips through China carrying 320 people and then be donated to the Chinese. The nine couples and four women of the pioneer group were chosen by lot from among hundreds of applicants. They ranged in age from 91-year-old Oscar Payne to his 51-year-old daughter, Mary Berry, and their average age was 74. The caravanners, many of them retirees from Florida who belong to the Wally Byam Caravan Club International, laid down $12,000 each for the month-long, 1,800-mile odyssey. Says Berry: “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime to be on this maiden tour.”
Days on the road typically began with reveille at about 6 a.m., followed by breakfast, cleanup and laying in fresh water and supplies. Each trailer has two convertible lounges, wardrobes, pantry, bathtub with shower, toilet, refrigerator, water heater, furnace, water tank and two 105-hour batteries. Juanita MacKay, 71, and Eleanor Cadwallader, 66, both widows, added a collapsible oven and stocked cake mixes, enabling Cadwallader, a professional pastry chef from Michigan, to bake a cake for fellow traveler Grace Schmidt, who turned 65 during the trip. The caravan usually hit the road by 8 a.m., cruising at slow speed (one 156-mile stretch took more than 10 hours over rough and dusty roads) and stopping at historical sites, schools, temples, churches and open-air markets.
Everywhere they went, the Air-streams became the main attraction for the curious Chinese. One morning the weary travelers awoke to the sight of noses poking in the windows and pushing through the screens. “There were instances when you felt like a traveling zoo, or a goldfish in a bowl,” says Vivian Sargent, 73. The trailers’ various amenities rate as luxuries by Chinese standards, and after one young couple took a tour of inspection, the wife exclaimed to her husband, “This has everything. We’ve got to get one of these.” Dorothy Ondrey, 57, tried introducing a group of children to popcorn. “We showed them how to make it pop,” she recalls. “They tasted it and left it behind politely.”
But the most talked-about encounter was in the remote mountain town of Putian. “We came in and parked on a basketball court, and I suppose well over 1,000 people came around,” recounts Donald Putnam, 73, a retired farmer from Ohio. “They stayed at a distance and just watched every movement.” Wilford Chaney, 74, a family physician also from Ohio and the group’s medical adviser, steps in to finish the tale. “There was this girl who pointed to the sky, and what she was saying to us was she thought we had come from outer space.” Nope. Just from a place nearly as strange—the U.S.