Thursday, March 4, 2010

Day 4: Xi'an Swan Song

In the morning I was hungover again. I don't mean to beleaguer this detail or invoke pity, but such (slightly) altered state has an effect on achieving your tourist goals; when you're tired and hungover, it makes appreciating a thousand year old piece of sacred stone all the more difficult.

Anyway, sadly this was to be my last day with Trevor before we had to part ways. We were taking separate trains out of Xi'an, him back to Jiaozuo and myself on to Beijing. We had booked our tickets through the service available at the hostel. They make all the arrangements and you pay a small extra fee. For those of you who wonder, this is one clear example of how it's possible to comfortably travel across the Far East without a word of the local language. Behold, the preeminence of the English language.

With our last few hours (Trevor's train back to Jiaozuo left about 3 in the afternoon, mine left that night at 8) we decided to see the Great Mosque in the Muslim quarter. We had wandered through the Muslim quarter with the Aussie couple two days before. There must be a neighborhood like it in every tourist destination on the globe. I don't mean to detract from it's character, however, because it does have plenty of that, distinctly different from the rest of busy and bustling downtown Xi'an. Its streets are small and narrow, and a main central walk way extends straight through for about a kilometer, all the way lit with lanterns and bright lights. Every centimeter on the walkway is also chuck full of vendors selling all kinds of foods, candies, trinkets, and any other little doodad you can think of. On our way there, Trevor and I stopped at an army surplus shop and I bought a nice new black beanie, discarding my previous "Team Germany" one later to a German tourist at the hostel in Beijing who took it off my hands. This is a mundane detail, but you may notice if you've seen the pictures.

We hit the walkway as good little tourists do, casually observing all the things for sale, and telling ourselves to make only smart purchases; no frivolous tourist crap that just gathers dust on your mantel. Trevor and I went in together on some dried fruit, and bought some spicy peanuts and a deck of Communist China propaganda playing cards. But to get them at the price I wanted I had to haggle a bit, something I got pretty good at doing by the end of my trip. The asking price was 40 or 50 Kuai I believe, and I walked away with them for 10. You see, that is precisely the trick: to get them to go lower you simply just drop the item and walk away. This will cause them to panic and do something drastic, as they don't want to blow a sale with someone who actually may be interested. It will either cause them to physically grab you and pull you back, offering you less, which has happen to me, or chase after you down the street, at a dead sprint if necessary (this I observed happening to someone else in Hong Kong). It's just the little game you have to play, and usually it's actually quite fun, though it's purpose is obvious: to get a fat, uninformed tourist with cash to blow to pay too much.

We split from the main walkway and ventured down one of the side streets. The Muslim quarter is really not that big and can be pretty easily navigated. Trevor pointed out a tiny street, about 8 feet in width, which had been closed the night earlier. It had signs that said it would lead us to the Great Mosque. But along the sides of it were, of course, more shops, packed in tight with one another, as an overhanging fawning completely shielded the street from the elements. These were the real deal, high brow tourist shops with plenty of trendy counterfeit goods, such as Ralph Lauren sweaters, North Face wind breakers, and European club soccer jerseys.

Perhaps it was the nature of the cramped space, but these vendors were more bold and forceful; upon seeing that you're a Westerner, they bombard you with exclamations like "Hello. Shopping!" and "Very good... come and have a try!" This gets very tiring quickly, especially if you do see something you may actually want to buy, and are trying to think about it to yourself as someone solicits you loudly. Trevor and I only toyed with buying a book of Mao quotations, a ubiquitous tourist item is this country, but decided against it, although the shop's owner was a nice guy. By the time we hit the Mosque, I was awkwardly carrying a few different things, juggling them while scarfing spicy peanuts.

The Mosque itself was small and completely Chinese in style. It bears little resemblance to a Mosque with domes and minarets, and is really more a series of small temple shrines and arches in a large courtyard, not unlike the pagoda's shrines. The courtyard is quite beautiful, and very quiet. I enjoyed strolling through it and trying to fathom its age, which is somewhere in the vicinity of 1400 years, so yes, it's damn old. Trevor and I took separate paths around it, periodically meeting to discuss our separate findings and eventually hit the Mosques' end, a large prayer hall, where only Muslims could enter. I took joy in observing some teenage Chinese Muslims running late to prayer and throwing off their basketball high-tops before they entered the hall. A truly Xi'an scene.

After the Mosque we had a quiet lunch together in a small restaurant. Conversation was a bit light between us, as we were both thinking of our pending train rides alone and new travel objectives. But we were certainly sad to part: we had had an utter blast in Xi'an, seen it all and done it all together. Trevor said he toyed with the idea of buying a train ticket with me to Beijing, but simply couldn't due to his previous arrangements, arrangements that would eventually take him to Japan to meet his family. I would certainly miss his companionship, his sense of humor to appreciate the goofiness of foreign differences, and his conversation. And I would also miss his talent in Mandarin, as he often served as my translator. Therefore, I was a bit nervous to venture out on my own without him, though I quickly got used to things and made due with the little Chinese that I knew.

Back at the hostel, our things were packed and ready for us, as we had done our packing before and checked out in the morning. We sat around the lobby a few minutes, and then a hug saw Trevor off as he caught the bus to the train station without me. Again, I was sad to say goodbye, but I do love traveling on my own, not that he was in any way a hindrance. He was a delight.

I was tired and understandably so. I thought to myself that I'd seen all there is to see in Xi'an, and I'd just use the rest of the afternoon (my train was an overnight) to relax, which I did by watching half of the movie Avatar on DVD with the hostel staff. At one point, it gathered a small crowd of backpackers, but I never did finish it. I intend to in the near future.

I had dinner one last time from Glasses'. Glasses himself remembered my name, which was very charming because my name is pretty tough for the Chinese. I had a light piece of oil bread and a few chicken wings, and smoked a cigarette he gave me with him, no doubt a symbol of our mutual good will.

The bus to the train station was absolutely packed. I squeezed into the front, the very last passenger to get in, nearly pressed against the glass with my enormous backpack on my shoulders. I couldn't have been any more obvious.

The train station was crowded, too, as they always are. I waited in line standing up, all the seats being taken, and passed the time by befriending a group of Chinese college boys who spoke a bit of English. Only one of them was heading to Beijing like me and as they parted ways I was touched to see them send one another off for the long holiday break with hugs, smiles, and pats on the back. I noticed from his ticket that the kid on my train didn't have a sleeper like me, but a seat. Rough to do that overnight, I thought to myself, but in a week's time I would know exactly what it was like myself.

Once on board the train after pushing through the masses filing onto it, I found my bed and took my shoes off. It was on the bottom of the hard sleeper, which is by far the most convenient. Everyone around me seemed like happy middle class folk, but I didn't see anyone really worth attempting to make conversation with. So I put my trusty iPod on, wrapped myself up in the given blanket, and drifted off into an early sleep. I made sure to listen to Phish's "Train Song" as I faded out. What anticipation: I would wake up the next morning in Beijing.

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