Saturday, February 27, 2010

In the Meantime.. A Very Bitter Story

Well, obviously my grand goal of 30 entries in 30 days has not panned out exactly as planned. But, like Chairman Mao said of the Cultural Revolution, some of details didn't work out, but the overall aim was true. So, I won't let a few setbacks haunt me.

Today, I'm writing a simple, recent story that interrupts the current storyline of my cross country trip. We'll resume that storyline after this, but there is just something that I need to get off my chest. Basically, it's how even the simplest tasks in this country that require a bit of administrative work can be very, very difficult. It sucks.

The story begins with the fact that I have to wire my uncle some money. It's money I owed him for the plane trip here, because he fronted it and the university reimbursed me. It ended up being several hundred dollars more than it should of been because the school made me change the international flight after I already had it booked, but that's another issue entirely for me to be mad about, which, to be blunt, I still am.

Now, I had sent money back home once before, and it wasn't easy then. But that time I had a Chinese friend to help me, and although it took much longer than it seemingly should have, it got done in the end by sending it via her name. So this time, I decided to follow the same steps as last time. Naturally, I brought Brandon with me because his fluent Mandarin would no doubt be essential to get this darn thing done.

I first went and withdrew the money from my back, then took it to another bank to be exchanged into US Dollars, the very same steps I had taken before. Then, we went to a third bank, the Postal Savings Bank of China, where there was a Western Union which I knew worked from before. But getting a late start on the day as one is known to do without having any real structure in their life, as I currently do not, we didn't get to the bank till about 4:45pm, and after we waited for a teller, it was nearly 5:00. The teller said we could send the money, just come back tomorrow after the bank opens at 9:00am and bring a passport, because the system was about to shut down at 5:00pm. Fine, we thought, as long as we could come back tomorrow and it would work.

So the next day we did come back. This time we got there at about 12:30pm. However, I was afraid that, because places in China often resolutely shut down in the middle of the day for a long lunch break from 12:00-2:30pm and turn away anyone who wants their business, we would have to come back several hours later. Sadly, I was right, and they told us to come back at 3:00. Obviously, I was getting quite pissed at this point, but I had no choice. So Brandon and I parted ways and agreed to meet back at the bank at 3:00 later that day.

When we got back, wouldn't you know what they told us? To leave and come back again, of course. Because there was a big line of TWO people in front of us, we had to come back in an hour. By then, it would be 4:30, and because as we learned yesterday that this goddamn, mighty "system" shuts down at 5:00pm sharp, I was afraid I wasn't going to get the money sent this day either.

You see, the thing about living in China is that in the case where you don't know someone or aren't connected well with whatever simple service like this you'd like to receive, you have to kick and scream and shout just to get people to do their goddamn jobs. I wish I was kidding or exaggerating, but I assure you, I am not. You actually see people doing this from from time to time, patrons who are causing a big scene, yelling vehemently at employees as a small crowd gathers and looks on. It's all too common in this country because jobs that people are supposed to do simply don't get done.

Anyway, so we returned at 4:30 and had to continue to wait. From the start, Brandon and I found it strange that when we did walk in, a janitor lady in a blue jumpsuit had asked us what we needed and then barked the orders at the regular employees in fancy business clothes. This was a comical sight and we had a good laugh, but I guess the damn janitor lady has worked their a while and actually knew what the Hell she was doing, unlike most of the other staff.

So finally, after filling out the proper forms, we waited in line at the same teller we were always told to talk to. But nothing happened, and the minutes ticked by, and soon it was about 5:00. I said to Brandon, "We're not going to get it done today. These assholes will find a way to fuck it up again." Eventually, the teller, a young woman, began to help us. And, to her credit, she actually seemed to care about what she was doing and she genuinely seemed to be trying to get the transaction done quickly, even though it was well past 5:00 at this point. (Evidently the mighty "system" has more flexible hours than we were initially told. What a surprise.) And it did seem to be working; we were getting the details into the system, slowly but surely: "Yes, it's Hutchinson, Kansas we're sending the money to. H-U-T-C-H-I-N-S-O-N (Ah, Kansas: home of my father's ancestors and the place of my birth)." But I could tell: it had been too long since something went wrong there. We were due for another hold up, and, just as we were nearly finished with the transaction, and after we'd worked on the details for about an hour, it was only then that the staff realized that the passport would not work in, sigh, the mighty "system." Some bureaucratic, inflexible, minor detail was preventing us from sending the goddamn money after we'd been through all of that.

I started to throw a bit of fit, slamming my wallet down on the table and shouting lightly at the staff in English (they didn't understand my words of course, but I thought my demeanor would make sense). After a bit more conversing, Brandon said that we were being stubborn, and forcing them to try something else. I didn't have much hope for it, but it was a shot, and of course it failed. In the end, my passport just wasn't the proper ID to send the money. I evidently couldn't send the damn money as an American. We needed a Chinese form of ID and we asked the teller if we could use hers, but of course said she couldn't, company policy. Essentially, I needed to be a Chinese person to send money to America.

So I did as I was told, and the next day I came back with my Chinese grad student friend, and told her to bring her ID. We walked into the bank at the bright and early hour of 10:30 the next morning. But after a 10 second conversation with a staff member, I could tell something was wrong. Oh, wouldn't you know it? The "system" was down all of a sudden. We had to try back on March 2nd. MARCH FUCKING 2ND. Jesus fucking Christ.

At that instant, I threw another fit, making a scene, shouting "Yesterday the goddamn system was working fine! Now we have to come back?!" I promptly stormed out as my friend stayed behind an extra minute or so to receive the bank worker's apology.

Me and the Chinese friend tried a few other banks that morning, but found the processes at those to be even more confusing, and more importantly, a lot more expensive. I guess there was truly a reason I was going to this same Postal Savings Bank all along: even though it was some of the worst goddamn service I'd ever experienced, it was still the best option we had.

Because my uncle is not dying for the money, I have decided to just wait until March 2. And I assume things probably won't even get done on that day.

In closing, I'll just say fuck: perhaps I'm being too bitter and funneling a few different frustrations into this one incident, but Christ, sometimes I get very sick of this country. I guess it happens to anyone, in fact I know positively that it does. And not that America's administrative systems aren't horribly bureaucratic themselves, it is incidents like this, and many more, that do make me proud to be an American. Hopefully, when I come home again, I will appreciate things in the US a little bit more.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Day 2: Ancient Romanticism and the Whimsy of Tourism

I awoke in the morning with a slight hangover, and I assumed the headache would worsen throughout the day, which it did. We had to be downstairs for our tour pickup around 9am, and we each slowly rolled out of bed. I think I was first to shower, and then I headed downstairs in search of a light breakfast.

The hostel had a western kitchen with a menu that really wasn't too bad or overpriced, just fried eggs, ham, and toast for breakfast, and burgers and stuff in the evening. But, being the anti-touristy, necessarily explorative foodie that I am, I refused to acquiesce to such familiar restaurant cuisine. So I shot out the door in search of some fruit stand, knowing I only had a few minutes to spare before our van would arrive for the tour. I turned left, but found only a convenient store with no fruit, so I settled on a cup of instant noodles, which was way too acidic and chuck full of sodium for my hungover stomach to enjoy. And when our tour guide arrived tp pick us up, I wasn't finished, but she allowed me to bring the cup on board, making me the comic relief for all the travelers already on board. Had I turned right when I exited the hostel, I would have found two fruit stands easily which we observed as the bus drove away. Naturally I made careful note to patronize these later.

The bus was nearly full when Trevor and I got in. Let me start off by saying that if you haven't been on a budget, English guided tour in the East before, these things are as goofy, informal, and conducive to making friends as, well, hardly anything I've experienced before. The tour guide introduced herself: a cute, twentysomething Chinese girl whose English was pretty good, though naturally not impeccable (Chinese ESL speakers are very rarely impeccable). Her name was Jia Jia, and her and I quickly started off on a semi-flirtatious exchange where she said she was single, and I factitiously offered to buy her a drink. Jia Jia invited us all to introduce ourselves, and the van was full of the usual mixture of Australians, Canadians, families and friends. Come to think of it, I believe Trevor and I were the only two actually there from the US. I was sitting next to a man from Quebec, who though at first was quite quiet, turned out to be a real joker, taking jabs at me as the trip wore on. And we also immediately hit it off with, as he introduced himself, "the former executive chef at the Canadian embassy in Beijing." His name was a Nolan, a Canadian East Asian ex-pat for years, who currently resides in Shanghai with his Hong Konger wife.

Our first stop was nothing but a little, touristy shop where we would allegedly "get to see how they made the warriors," but also be able to wade through room after room of over-priced goods and life-size replicas of the statues. And they didn't just have Warrior statues, they had everything from jade coffee tables, Afghan rugs, and hand carved furniture. Were I a wealthy American businessmen, which I'll most likely never be, I'd maybe buy something small there, made of jade (at one point I blatted out "I love Jade!" to the Quebecqois, who couldn't stop laughing at my exclamation). Basically, bringing us budget tourists there didn't seem to make much sense to me, we just didn't have the money to spend on frivolous crap. I think the tour producers obviously get a cut from that place by making it a stop on the tour.

And then we were off to see the Terracotta Warriors, famous, bold and true. On our way there, having the advent of some practice with each other, conversation livened up in the van, and when we arrived, we were all one big, happy family. Like I said, such is the way with these small, budget tours for westerners in Asia. Try one, they're a blast.

Now, to finally see the Warriors, you must walk a few hundred meters up a hill and quite literally through a fuck storm of tourist culture and people hawking things to you forcefully. These are the cheap souvenir stands, much cheaper than the "official" ones you'd buy inside the Warrior complex. I made the mistake of acknowledging a boy who wanted me to exchange the Euros he had in his hands for yuan. Upon doing this he followed me quite persistently then latched on to someone else in the group. But I noticed that the buildings and stands looked quite nice and new, and Nolan confirmed that they were. He said he'd been there only 5 years prior, and then there was nothing between the parking lot and the Warriors except an empty dirt road. Dynamic China.

Jia Jia led the tour group as best she could, but many of us strayed out on our own. I went back and forth, amused that Jia Jia's symbol of authority to get our attention was a big flower she would hold up when she was going to inform of us something about the Warriors.

The first thing to see is the cast iron chariots found near the Warriors. They are utterly remarkable for their complexity considering their age. The ancient Chinese truly did live in an advanced society, technologically at least, and in great comfort compared to most of civilization at that time. Then, after the chariots is Pit 3, an expansive space the size of an aircraft hanger. But here, the dirt roof above the Warriors has collapsed, and one can merely observe their bits and pieces, though there are a lot of them.

One funny thing I recall about visiting Pit 3 is that as you walk through the lobby, you get to see the man who once owned the plot of land the Warriors were discovered on. The story goes that, upon their discovery, he promptly sold the land to the government for only 10 Yuan, which is less than $1.50. But the guy, who doesn't speak English, or Mandarin that well I assume (he probably knows only a regional dialect without much of an education) is there, just sitting there. I suppose I don't blame him for trying to live an easier life on the fame granted him with such a find, but it's really strange when you consider his purpose there. You also can't photograph him. Honestly, it feels like a human exhibit in a museum. Jia Jia pointed him out to us, and none of us knew what to do, so I awkwardly ventured out first to shake his hand, then everyone else did. Anyway, this is just my sentiment, but I got the distinct feeling something like that wouldn't fly in the US. Then again, perhaps it might.

Next is Pit 2, where you can see plenty of the real, life-sized Warriors who appear to be the important generals and what not, though there are only a few of them. Maybe around 100. And then, there is the real deal: Pit 1. Jia Jia led us in this order, 3-2-1, saying she was saving best for last. Pit 1 is what you've seen all the pictures of, the 1000s of life-size Warriors, facing east, each different than the next. Utterly amazing.

I stared at these Warriors for an extra long time, repeatedly going back to look after Jia Jia said she'd wait. Afterward, I told the other people in the tour group that I had had a "moment" looking at them. They all laughed, but I'm trying to articulate what was really going through my head. So I'm not sure really what to call it, whether I was truly captivated with a romantic idea of what the Warriors seemed to represent, or I was just tired, hungover, and in the mood to just space out and day-dream. I'd like to believe that I was thinking something deep, something along the lines of considering humankind's greatest accomplishments, and that maybe we weren't, or aren't, such vicious beasts and warmongers, but instead at heart we are capable of amazing works, deeds, and beauty. OK, so the Terracotta Warriors are just that: WARRIORS meant to fight and defend. But you could easily say there is virtue in this; they are loyal, defending their master emperor. But I prefer to focus on the achievement that is their construction. What dedication and craftsmanship. All for the afterlife. Maybe it's a testament to the great mystery that we all must face alone: death. Even this emperor was plagued by what he thought was up there in the sky, and he was damn well determined to be prepared, bringing a whole army with him.

After the tour we had lunch and then exchanged numbers with Nolan and a few others to meet up later. At lunch, I was advised by my compatriots to drink more beer to rid me of my hangover and that this was called "hair of the dog," something I'd never heard before. And naturally, I bid Jia Jia goodbye hoping to see her again.

In the hostel room I realized that "hair of the dog" was not working and that I should slam a bunch of water and then take a nap, which we did. In the evening, Trevor and I met up with our Aussie friends for dinner, which consisted of a Xi'an specialty: a bowl of the thick, Xi'an bread patties, torn up by your own hands, and soaked in mutton stock. It was pretty darn good, and so was the conversation. Then we walked around and found a nice, quiet Chinese bar where I could get a drink of whiskey, something I had been craving, and watch a Korean movie on the wall's flat screen TV.

Though at one point, in chatting with the Aussies, I briefly may have offended their religious convictions. I was blabbing about the amazing workmanship of the Warriors, wondering how the Chinese could have done that so long ago. The Aussie, Mike, said, "Well, it depends on how old you think the earth is." To which I quickly replied with, "Don't tell me you're a Creationist." Mike said, "Is there a problem with that?" To which I just chuckled, said no, and quaintly apologized if I had offended him. Funny. The only reflection I can make on that story is that there are limitless cultural misunderstanding that can happen when you're abroad, but that was probably the last one I thought I'd run into. I guess you never can tell.

Anyway, Trevor and I headed back, discussed what was on the agenda for the next day, and then chatted the night away till it was sleep time. I suppose I may have left Trevor out of this day's details, but I was really glad to have him there, and we were getting along great, which can be difficult when traveling.

And I feel it goes without saying that the day had also been another blast. That will go without saying a lot on this trip.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Day 1 Continues: The Joy of Novel Surroundings

The train ride was cold at first, as many places in this country are poorly insulated and people hang around all day inside but in their winter layers and down jackets. But things warmed up as we sped along. What helped the most was that I had a bed to lay down in and get cozy. In fact, I didn't really have a choice; I could lay down in bed, or hope to snag a spot in the lone folding chair next to the window, which was usually taken. (If you have ever traveled in a hard-sleeper train in China, you'll understand. If not, google it if you're curious to see pictures.) So I laid back, and in the middle cot, with a view of the window, I watched the countryside and tiny farming communities pass by.

Poor Trevor had the top bunk, which he had to wiggle and waggle his 6'4'', 250 pound frame into. I think once up there he didn't really want to trouble getting down, so he only changed positions a few times the whole 7 hours of train ride. He said he had privacy there, but he couldn't see out of the window, despite the fact that I repeatedly and excitedly pointed out interesting views, such as rocky slopes and foothills, to which even with his best effort of hanging his head down well below his bed, he couldn't really see. I also don't think he had any music player like I did. He just had a book of elementary Japanese to study in preparation for his trip to Japan that was to be a few weeks later. Seems like that'd be pretty boring to me.

I started getting hungry a few hours into the ride. I could've totally used a banana or some peanuts. "You know," I said, "I could really go for a banana right now to quench my hunger, you asshole." "Well," Trevor said, "You should have let me go back for them." "You shouldn't have forgotten them!" So we did all we could do: we bought cups of instant ramen noodles from the over priced train vendors like everyone else and made them with the hot water tap. Hot water in this country seems to be its own staple commodity. Even the peasants of China have a right to boiling hot, drinkable water to make instant noodles and tea whatever the circumstance. They seem to think drinking cold water or beverages in the winter is a truly dangerous act, and hot water will cure whatever may ail you in the winter months.

And so the train ride wore on. Trevor and I passed the time later as it grew dark by me reading passages out of my mediocre travel book to him aloud, inciting little known facts about China, such as that one can garner the death penalty for poaching a panda. I guess that may not surprise you if you're familiar with China's obsession with its great pandas. And of course, we had to get beers when we saw they were for sale by the vendors. The name of this brand of beer was new to me and delightfully playful: written on the bottle in English, the beer was evidently called "Let's." Naturally, Trevor and I realized the slogan possibilities with "Let's" were limitless: "Say, what should we do, Steve?" "I think you know the answer to that Jim..." Together: "Let's! (have a beer, or what have you)"

Outside the train it had grown completely dark, and with each stop I got more excited. I packed up my things and put my pack on a half hour early. Trevor, whose knowledge of Chinese is quite good, kept saying with each stop "no, this isn't Xi'an." But finally we were there. We had arrived. So with our 'Local Lions' over our shoulders we got off the train with the crowd and made our way through the train station's corridors over its many lines of track. We stepped out into the open plaza of Xi'an to large, waiting crowds and bright neon lights. I immediately saw finely the restored section of the famous Xi'an city wall, carrying neon lights and flags to welcome visitors fresh off the train. Yes, we had arrived, and I felt great.

Ask Trevor yourself, should you ever meet him. I was like a kid in a candy store. Elation is the word I've described it to most of my friends as. I just felt so great to be in a new big city, to be out of Jiaozuo, to be where people were mostly well educated with style, and definitely not so unused to foreigners. Hell, even the recurrent fast food chains, such as Subway and Dairy Queen made me happy, just to see them and have the chance to patronize their mediocre food. even though they usually instill me with scorn. We had made it, we had our hostel booked, and we were overflowing with that novel joy one feels at the sight of someplace new, full of possibility, and unspoiled by not a single disappointing moment or experience.

As I ranted on and on to Trevor, he realized he had clearly been made de facto navigator. He said we needed a certain bus, which we hopped on easily. The bus quickly filled up with fashionable young people, many of them well-dressed pretty girls who took notice of Trevor and I, the white people on board. Another perk of Xi'an, or any big metropolis for that matter: the girls are prettier.

We got off the bus where we thought the hostel would be a bit of walk away. Of course a walk through the Xi'an city lights sounded like heaven to me at that point, but after walking for about half an hour, we realized we were a bit lost, or at least couldn't find our destination. Eventually, we found it's small entrance, albeit boarded up and empty. A sign posted said it had been moved several blocks away to a new location which Trevor could not for the life of him seem to locate on a map. I said right it down and we'll just take a cab, which we did.

It turned out the new location of the hostel was tucked away, deep in a side street. We found it, and it was damn nice. It was called Han Tang Inn, and should you ever be in Xi'an, I highly recommend it. It has a cozy, well decorated interior with a small bar, and even a house kitten (it will probably be a cat by the time you visit, should you make it there yourself). Its small bar area was filled with a table of westerners, English, Aussies, and I think a few Dutch. Though as excited as we were to join in the constant mingling party that youth hostels always are, we took of down the street for some grub.

About 50 meters from Han Tang Inn sat a little place called "Glasses' BBQ" or something to that effect. Trevor told me the sign said "Glasses" and we didn't know why. What followed can only be called a shit show of delicious Xi'an barbecued meat, vegetables smothered in sauce, and a ridiculous banter between a table full of three drunk guys from Xi'an, and Trevor and I, slowly but surely catching up to their level of intoxication. I swear to god we toasted to "America. China. Friendship." a million goddamn times. And when toasting in China, one downs the small plastic cup of beer that comes customary with beer in restaurants, so it gets you drunk, but it's a sloppy beer-drunk. So the company was a bit unrefined, but hams like Trevor and I ate it right up. Our loud, obnoxious back and forth escalated steadily as the night wore on. But best of all, the food was also fantastic. We took several pictures with the guys and even hugged and acted out some Bruce Lee movies... at least I think we did. Of course, the small staff of the restaurant laughed as they continued to bring us rounds of beers, many of which were compliments of our new friends. And as we left, we found out why the place was called "Glasses'": the owner and BBQ master wore black framed glasses. "Glasses" was apparently his nickname. Trevor and I would return to "Glasses'" a few times in Xi'an. I was even told later by my hostel host that the place was famous in Xi'an. I doubt that's true, but with food like that, it very well could be.

After the shenanigans and getting our drunk friends' business cards and even cell phone numbers, we stumbled into the hostel and found the small party still going in the lobby. With plenty of liquid confidence in our bellies, we brashly joined conversation and met a couple Aussies who we agreed to have dinner with the next night, after our tour of the Warriors (within about half an hour of checking into the hostel, we decidedly we had to do the hostel tour of the Terracotta Warriors. We would not regret it).

Our room was well furnished, cozy, and beds were very comfortable. It caused one to pass out like a rock and sleep well. And, it was private: just for the two of us, a luxury that I would not have again the rest of my trip alone staying in dorms. We praised the hostel and our room's comfort a bit before bed, and as I lay in bed for the three minutes my buzzing head had before it drifted off, I think I said to Trevor that I didn't want to go back to Jiaozuo. Obviously, I'm back, but maybe it was that I didn't want to leave China. Who knows, anyone can have a good day and a bad day, and good days make it easy to say you want to be somewhere. Whatever the future holds, for certain, this had been a good day.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Day 1...

Fuck. I've already screwed up on the promise I made to myself. In the first 48 hours of planning to make an entry each day in this blog, I've already missed one. Forgive me. We'll chalk it up to not being used to the regularity of posting each day... yeah, that's it. I've just got to get into a routine, get into the swing of things. Anywho...
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Day 1 of the trip started with an early wake up. When I'm anticipating something I always wake well before more alarm. Or if I do wake up with the alarm, I have set it way too early and after hurriedly doing my morning activities I've well planned out the night before, I have at least half hour of free time.

In this case, I got up, having most of my things packed and ready to go. I blame the fact that I am still a novice backpacker for packing way too much. I had my pack stuffed full of a different clothing ensemble for each day of the week. That may not sound like much, but I assure you it is way too much for a three week trip of staying in shabby hostels and hanging with other nappy travelers. My backpack was new, recently purchased at the local flea market in Jiaozuo for 120 kuai (20 USD for a huge backpack while the good ones in the market cost several hundred). Trevor was so impressed with the find that he got one too. And though the packs were nice, made by "Local Lion", a brand I'd naturally never heard of, but had a likable name and comical appeal, we knew that for that price, they could not be extra sturdy or last forever. Nevertheless, I had mine chucked full of clothes, filled to the brim with little room for extra things to acquire along the way. Another mistake I made that I was bound to regret.

Trevor, my fellow English teacher and travel companion to Xi'an, and I were to meet for breakfast in the student cafeteria before our big set-sail. Though after calling him, he told me we'd meet half an hour later when we planned to catch the bus. He didn't have time for breakfast. Evidently, his nerves were not so jangled like mine and allowed him to take the time to sleep in a bit. I was jealous of this fact, but also determined to have a good breakfast with some protein, albeit alone.

So I swung my pack over my shoulder, double checked that all my appliances were turned off, including my gas and water cooler, and closed the door on my apartment for the next three weeks. My pack was large, cumbersome, and protruded nearly 2 feet out from my back, making my already spacious frame that much more bulky and awkward among the thin and shortened Chinese population. I thought that this would earn me even more starring than usual, but whatever? It's getting to be the traveling home season around here, classes are ending for the long winter break, and I'm clearly on my way out. I thought the students would more or less understand that, and I think they did.

After enjoying a quick meal of bijiemo and hardboiled eggs at the cafetorium, as we affectionately refer to it, I met up with Trevor and we headed for the campus gate, and three weeks of freedom. I had taken special care the previous day to buy some snacks for the train ride, such as bananas and peanuts. Because I was already weighed down well enough, I had given these to Trevor to carry. Though at first glance of him he did not seem to be carrying them.

"Where are the snacks for the train, dude?" I asked him.
"Goddamnit," he said, knowingly making a simple mistake. "Should I go back?"
"No," I said. "We'll live without them and I want to get on the road." I suppose it was my will to leave that place that pushed me onward, although going back to get the snacks would have been a simple matter and not taken long enough to delay us. But we pressed on.

Our original plan was to catch a bus, leaving from our smaller town, Jiaozuo, to the capital of the province, Zhengzhou, where the population was about ten million. Such buses passed by campus picking up students routinely, we had thought, and Trevor had even done specific research days before inquiring as to when the bus would arrive and how much it would cost.

But although our plan was carefully laid out and set to take this bus, that day we said to Hell with it. Instead, we found human couriers that are all too common in China. Outside campus, after crossing the main road that we were hoping to catch the bus on, we were solicited by some middle-aged men with beige minivans. Trevor and I with our backpacks were clearly traveling, and they said they'd take us to Zhengzhou, each for 25 kuai. Trevor and I each looked at the shady minivans in somewhat disarray then looked at each other. Trevor said, "This may very well be trap a to steal our organs and sell them for a premium. But I'm cool with it if you are." I said, "Let's do it." So we did, and hopped into the van with some other college students.

After waiting about ten minutes, the van took off. But it was clearly not heading in the direction of Zhengzhou. Instead, it headed back into Jiaozuo where on some side street we parked and waited for something. I had no idea what. For about ten minutes we stalled, not knowing what the hold up was, when another middle-aged man who obviously knew our driver arrived. He came walking out of an apartment building, got into the van, where there wasn't really room for him, and then proceeded to argue with the driver for five minutes, only to get back out of the van and walk way. Then we left and headed back to campus. WTF? you be thinking. Well, to typical American me with my American expectations, this would be considered strange. But the me that has lived in China long enough knew that this was just part of the great show that was living a lower middle-class life in China.

As our van pulled away, I hoped we would finally head straight to Zhengzhou. That is where we had paid our drive to take us, after all. And, at first, we seemingly did, but before so we made another stop on the HPU campus. There, we packed more and more people into our already cramped minivan. As more people came, we ran completely out of seats. Upon realizing this I thought "Good. Let's see them fit more people in now." But they could. They simply pulled some tiny, folding stools out from underneath the seats and easily converted a minivan, whose capacity was probably about 8, to 15. This did not please one of our passengers who had to sit on a stool, an older woman who was clearly university staff and not a student. She started pitching a fit with driver as we headed for Zhenzhou, to which he rebutted to by threatening to drop her off on the roadside. I suppose it was a good business tactic for him, but to her credit, it appeared that she got her fare dropped by 5 or 10 kuai. Not much in the grand scheme of things, but something, I suppose. The driver made the rest of us pay mid-trip. That way, had we refused to pay or didn't have the money, I guess he could just drop us off on the highway in the middle of nowhere. Also, that way we couldn't just bolt upon arriving in Zhengzhou.

The drive to Zhengzhou is about an hour and a half. Eventually, we arrived and pulled into the ugly, over crowded, industrial playground that is Zhengzhou. The train station is huge and crowded, but although my defenses were up extra high because I had been lectured about thieves and scammers before my trip by both Chinese and ex-pats alike, I really didn't meet or perceive any shady characters at all as we walked around and got our bearings.

With the advent of the private courier minivan, we were quite early, and waited in the local McDonald's. We each had a greasy meal, and it was there that I saw new white people, honest-to-God Americans, other than my fellow university teachers, for the first time in months. Some deep social instinct (made it's not instinct, but social conditioning? Anyway, call it what you will) pushed me to strike up a whimsy conversation, which I'm so good at. They were just a couple, living in Zhengzhou and heading to Beijing for the weekend then coming right back. Sigh. I met some new people. Good stuff for me. Not that I minded meeting Chinese college kids all the time, in fact I adored it, but it was a breath of fresh air to at least shoot the shit with some people who share my cultural background.

Finished with McDonald's we made our way into the train station. Of course there were a lot of people to sift through. There never isn't in China, but getting through security was simple; it seemed more of a pretense than anything, and we made it to our gate and waited. At first glance at the waiting area, I stood in awe of the shear number of folk just waiting for trains. Luckily I had the experience of Trevor to issue some perspective on the moment. "Welcome to a big city in China," he said. Crowds of this overwhelming size where to be the norm for the next few weeks.

We still had to wait an hour for our train, but boarding began well before departure. We started filing toward the train with everybody else heading for Xi'an, and at that point I felt no travel anxiety whatsoever. We had a couple of hard sleeper beds waiting for us, even though we were only traveling on the train for a day, and we found them pretty handily. The rush to the train was over. Only a peaceful ride awaited us.

I got settled in my middle bunk pretty awkwardly, it being my first time. I climbed the small ladder and crawled onto the small bed with my shoes on and my backpack stuffed next to my legs. I felt the strange need to hold onto my luggage in my bunk as the train traveled. This had also been recommended to me by other ex-pats experienced with China train travel. But after about 5 minutes of tossing and turning and trying to get comfortable with my huge pack on my bed with me, I simply stacked it with the other luggage where it was completely safe. And a few minutes later, a conductor passed by and told me to take my shoes off. That affirmed that there was really nothing to do but get comfortable, relax, and enjoy the train ride.

And then the train set off. We were heading to Xi'an and we'd be there in about 7 hours (it was 1:30 in the afternoon when the train left Zhengzhou). If things went according to plan, I wouldn't see Jiaozuo for weeks. Needless to say, I had that overwhelming anticipation of coming joy, like a child on Christmas Eve. But I didn't need to be greeted with fancy shops or a city full of western amenities. I was already overjoyed and in the best of spirits. I wanted an adventure and I was having one.

So I laid back, put my iPod earphones in, looked out the window, and waited for our arrival in Xi'an.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

30 Days Start Now

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." - F. Scott Fitzgerald's closing line to The Great Gatsby.

I begin this long awaited post with a salute to one of the all-time great authors of American literature by quoting the closing line to his classic work of fiction, "The Great Gatsby." If you're familiar with the work, you won't need me to tell you that one of its most central themes is the role our memories play in our lives. They push us, torture us, and delight us, yet as is the truth Gatsby must face, they are lost forever, and can never be relived or returned to.

Much of this blog is about reflection, I've noticed. I suppose most blogs often are. And so with the coming days (I have a lot of free time on my hands at the moment, and I'm aiming to fill it with productive activities, if not also cathartic ones such as writing in this blog) I intend to reflect on the experiences of the past month in my life. This month has been eventful for me; it has seen me travel around China, my current home, thousands of miles to different major hubs around this expansive nation. And for the most part, I did it alone, on my own. And not to boast, but considering I don't speak Chinese very well and have never been to these places before, I am most proud of my travel accomplishments. And, of course, it was an utter blast.

Thus, I have my goal set and I intend to reach it: for the next 30 days I intend to post a story, anecdote, and/or brief essay on this blog. This will no doubt be a challenge for me. Evidence of this fact can be discovered by merely scrolling down the page and observing the dates of each post and how infrequently they appear. To pass the buck around a bit, I do have censorship issues to deal with unique to this society, but I have now overcome them and nothing should stand in my way.

But there is another challenge concurrent with this goal. In documenting my trip and its magical Darian stories, I must use a new writing style that I'm certain I will not fully grasp to begin with: personal narrative. Of course I love stories, I like reading stories, I like being told stories, and I like watching stories in movies, but this will be first crack at writing them with regularity. You may realize the posts on this blog are always essays. So wish me luck.

Anyway, this dribble has been nothing but a prelude to the real meat. Without further ado, I shall begin the story telling. I imagine that's what everyone really wants.