30 September 2007

Hitting a wall...

I know. We shouldn't be complaining. We're out, in the middle of China, feasting on mutton head floating in cold intestine soup (actually, we're not; we've avoided that particular dish so far), while all of you are working. But, every once in a while, one hits a wall. This is that time.

Not particularly sure why, really. Xi'an was one of the most spectacular cities we've seen so far (granted, it was raining, so we weren't forced to contend with what is supposed to be an insane amount of pollution). It's a beautiful city, one of the few with its city walls still intact. You can walk around on top of them—it takes about four hours, which we didn't do given the aforementioned rain.

It has served as the capital of eleven Chinese dynasties, most importantly of the Qin dynasty, the first one that unified what we now know as China. The lone Qin emperor was also responsible for such minor advancements as the standardization of the Chinese writing system, the completion of the Great Wall, the standardization of weights and measures, and the construction of those infamous Terracotta Warriors (more on that later). Small stuff. Because of this, the town is steeped in culture.

It centers around the Bell Tower, which looks nothing like our western minds expect a bell tower to look. But, true to its name, it's fringed with bells. Just to its northwest is the Drum Tower (fringed with, well, drums). The emperor would ring the bells in the morning and beat the drums in the evening. And now, though not in use the way they used to be, the towers are dramatically lit at night and house an amazing museum of furniture and shadow puppets (yes, I just described a museum of shadow puppets as amazing. But when you think about the fact that these puppets are cut from translucent leather with an intricacy that belies the material they're made from, you'll agree. Of course, if we could show you pictures, that would be better, but certain censors persist in their dislike of Flickr).

To the north of the Drum Tower lies the city's Muslim quarter, home to the small Uighur population in Xi'an (there's a bigger one where we are now in Urumqi). Mostly a Chinese-run tourist trap at this point—myriad copies of Mao's little red book, in whatever language you want, as well fake watches, purses, "100% real cashmere" scarves, and the like—this quarter centers around a still-functioning mosque. Again, this looks nothing like you'd expect a mosque to look, but in the middle of the bustle of Xi'an, it's a haven of quiet, peace, and the occasional Russian tourist.

Despite its bustle, though, Xi'an has a very chill, laid-back vibe—at least, as chill as a city of 3.5 million people can be. (Of course, in China, that's a veritable hamlet, but no worries. The Greater Xi'an area boasts 11 million.) After the haranguing of Beijing, this was a haven.

The Terracotta Warriors, by the way, live up to their reputation, and are therefore justly thronged by people. They were also the only place where the touts—ubiquitous in Beijing—exsted in any number. Even in the bathroom: I followed a local Chinese guy into one of the public toilets. He waltzed in, made a left for the men's room, and did his business, unobstructed. I, on the other hand, was accosted with the most original pick-up line I've ever heard.

"Hallo! Sir! Money!"

That's it. No subtlety about it. The guy wanted to charge me the equivalent of $3 (US) for the privilege of using a urinal, just because of my big nose. And this wasn't even one of the three-star toilets you see around China (yes...as part of its preparations for the Beijing Olympics, China has even started giving its toilets stars.)

Not that you wanted to know about our lavatorial woes.

On the other hand, riding trains in China is, no question, an experience. We timed this portion of our trip to China poorly. October 1 is a national holiday, and the two weeks surrounding it see the heaviest travel of the year. This is China's Wednesday-before-Thanksgiving (the one in November, for you Canadians).

On any given, regular day, 1% of China's population is found on trains. This doesn't sound like much, until you think about the fact that that amounts to ten million people. And this number is likely doubled or tripled around the October 1 holiday. We found out.

I apologize for the stereotyping that's about to happen, but we can only write from experience, and this is what we've found: In one-on-one interactions, many of the people we've met (outside of the tourist industry) have been some of the most kind, hospitable, and helpful people we've met so far. But get these people into a group, pushing for entry through one small gate, onto a train with limited luggage space, and things change. Sharpen your elbows, because you're going nowhere otherwise (well, that's not exactly true. Boarding the 34-hour train from Xi'an to Urumqi, you didn't have to walk. You could have lifted your feet off the ground and been carried onto the train by the mass of humanity with one unified goal: make sure I get the prime spot in the train).

This is because, this time, it was we who were priced out of anything but worst-class. Open, cattle-car type trains, three bunks to a side, with only a small luggage rack with space for two backpacks and little else. It was an uncomfortable ride, but we were, quite likely, the only English speakers on the entire train, and definitely the only ones in our class.

And the attention we got! It was crazy. The train's provodnitsas (sorry...we're in China...fuwuyuanmen) would think nothing of sitting outside our berths and staring at us, blatantly. Our foreignness did, though, make for some great conversations. We met people willing to discuss Taiwan's politics at great length (and, simultaneously, attempt to pick Peggy up—he failed). We met students who wanted to teach us Uighur. We met Wang Yi and his girlfriend Mong Yen, two law students from Xi'an. Wang Yi has picked "Nick" as his English name because, he told us, "All the handsome actors in America are named Nick." And with his rock-star good looks, he chose wisely. Mong Yen—and her anime good looks—wanted us to pick her a name. We failed.

And we met the train's announcer. Every announcement on the train (and there were many; most of them smacked of propaganda—how to coexist on a train in harmony, what sort of food is appropriate to bring on a train, how to use the bathroom...that one needed instruction. Using a squat toilet on a train hurtling at 120 km/h takes some dexterity) was made in Chinese, English, and Uighur. The announcer must have heard that there were English speakers on the train, because, our second night, she came up to us and asked us to pronounce the announcements for her in English. She spent a good twenty minutes practicing (and, to her credit, improved amazingly).

Kindness, genuine interest, and a culture that thinks nothing of pushing old ladies aside to get a better spot on a train...it's contrast at its best.

Next stop
So, we're in Urumqi now, having arrived this morning. We'll be here, sampling Uighur food, until tomorrow, when we board yet another train for the thirty-six hour journey to Almaty. Currently we have no place to stay there. Evidently, some major exhibition has coincided with our Kazakh experience. Every hotel is booked. Wish us luck!

And maybe those are the walls. Maybe it's the trains and the lack of accommodation. Or maybe it's just that we've been on the road for a month. Oh, for a platter of sushi...

PS...once out of China, we'll post all the pictures.

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