Varyag's admirers get up close and personal
Military enthusiasts from across the mainland flocked to Dalian, in Liaoning province, yesterday in the hope of seeing the Varyag prepared for its first sea trial.
Drawn by speculation that China's first aircraft carrier would make its maiden voyage today to celebrate the founding of the People's Liberation Army, the crowds took over a pier that afforded them the closest view of the Varyag at anchor.
Su Zhiqiang said he and his classmate Gao Bohan had each spent 87 yuan (HK$105) on train tickets for the four-hour journey from Shenyang that morning.
Su, who was armed with a telescope, wasted no time in rushing to join the crush of strangers, including fellow military fans and reporters from home and abroad, who had gathered to watch the aircraft carrier, anchored roughly one kilometre away.
However, there were no signs of the Varyag being made ready for its debut. From time to time workers appeared on deck, dwarfed by the huge red barrels of water meant for firefighting.
Asked if he was disappointed with the lack of action, Su said: 'No, not at all. I feel happy just to be seeing our country's first aircraft carrier with my own eyes. This has been one of my dearest wishes for a couple of years.'
While others came and left, about 10 enthusiasts and reporters stayed at the pier from dawn till dusk, sharing a wealth of information and discussing everything from the name of the warship to its potential captains. Gu Ting, a young man from Suzhou, Jiangsu, said he had read that a new name for the carrier would undoubtedly be chosen from one of the cities or provinces.
But he was corrected by someone from Shandong, who said no warship would be given a geographical name unless it was at the forefront of the navy, adding: 'The new name of the carrier would be chosen from renowned admirals or historians.' He suggested Liu Huaqing, known as the father of aircraft carriers, a modernising former PLA naval commander who died in January.
They all agreed that it would not be named after Shi Lang. Admiral Shi (1621-1696) conquered Taiwan Island on behalf of the Qing dynasty and would be too politically sensitive for the Taiwanese.
On the choice of captain, a Beijing-based reporter quoted a 'highly reliable' source in the PLA Navy as saying Li Xiaoyan would land the post. 'Li, 50, was a graduate of the PLA's carrier captain course in 1984. Li had outperformed his classmate, Bai Yaoping, and managed to grab the top post having waited for some 27 years for the chance to be the captain of the country's first carrier.'
The crowd was all fired up when some 200 navy troops in deep-blue suits and white helmets emerged on the deck at about 5pm. Some observers with binoculars said the soldiers were carrying guns and listening to a lecture.
They kept up the earnest, lively reporting of even the tiniest details happening on the deck - even as everyone sweltered under the summer sun.
The number of new J-15 aircraft the Varyag is thought to be able to transport