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...
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.