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.

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