Sunday, February 6, 2011

Arrival: Xi’an

With all of this time off and nothing but a deserted campus and a cold apartment to call home, it would only be natural to travel about and see things, right? My next destination, after visiting with Sam and his parents is Xi Shui is Xi’an, where I am to spend Chinese New Year. How exciting!

Ever since the first time I came to Xi’an in 2008 I have had a strange affinity for this city. Ultimately it is where I hope to live and work – Wuhan is just a way station to my final destination. I couldn’t explain to you the siren song that keeps calling me back there: the good friends I made instantly in past visits? The general atmosphere? The beauty and timelessness of the place? All of the above?

I have to tell you though: I did not feel a great affinity for it after sitting on the train for thirteen hours! That’s how long it takes to get there by slow train from Wuhan. Or from Beijing, for that matter.

This being Chinese New Year, everyone is headed home – wherever that may be. The trains are packed to capacity and tickets sell out within minutes of being available. Usually one can buy a train ticket up to 10 days in advance; during this peak traveling season only a three to five day window is available. That means that, while visiting with Sam in his hometown, I had to buy my ticket to Xi’an or risk not being able to go when planned.

All’s well that ends well and I am Xi’an bound on the 28th, to arrive on the morning of the 29th of January. Only one small problem: Xi’an lies north of Wuhan, and it is already cold enough in Wuhan for my bones. What will Xi’an be like?

But first, the train ride.

What a shock! It was civilized, as opposed to all of the other train rides I’ve taken. No one standing in the aisles, no one trying to beat anyone up, people talking quietly amongst themselves. I almost couldn’t believe I was on a Chinese train… and then I learned that, because of this peak travel season, the government put more cars in service and changed the schedules to accommodate more passengers.

Still, their efforts were not sufficient. A few days after my arrival here I read in the news that, when a migrant worker who stood in line all night to buy tickets for himself and his pregnant wife got to the head of the line, he was told that all of the tickets to his destination had been sold. How could that be? He was there all night, and the fourth person in line! In anger and despair, he found the railway station manager’s office and stripped off all of his clothes while shouting about the unfairness of it all. To the railway official’s credit, he did not call security and have the nude man removed; instead he got on the phone and worked to find passage to that family’s hometown. This is Chinese New Year: a season of goodwill and going that extra mile to get everyone home prevails.

And that’s how intense an experience traveling in China can be.

My train ride here was nowhere near that eventful. No problems buying a ticket, no problems finding my seat, no problems with my seat mates who were very accommodating of my size and my need to get up every so often and stretch. I had prepared some food and snacks in advance so that I did not need to buy anything from the vendors on the trains and I even managed to get a little sleep!

The two women sitting next to me got off the train at 2:00AM. Usually, once a passenger debarks another passenger fills the empty seat, almost like a vacuum effect. This time, no one claimed those other two seats on my bench, so I was able to lay down and curl up and take an actual nap! What a rarity on a train, unless you’ve booked a bunk passage.

Another rarity: the train arrived in Xi’an thirty minutes early. If the trains are not exactly on time, they arrive late but seldom to never early. How strange! Things must be cooperating to get me here quicker. Not complaining! The young man sitting across the way from me woke me up at 5:00AM, just as we pulled into the station. Groggily I got the message that we had arrived! My usual excitement at being here took over and I could not move fast enough to get my bag off the overhead rack and hustle off the train.

AAAHHHHH!!!! Let me back on the train!! It is COLD in Xi’an, let me tell you! I thought I was suffering in Wuhan; that wind in Xi’an is cold enough to simultaneously freeze your eyeballs, take your breath away and turn you into a statue, all while leaving your nose running like an open tap.

And, because the train was early, my friend Ken was not going to be at the station to meet me. I will have to wait for him outside. Well, not if I could help it. There are all-night restaurants just across the street from the station; all I have to do is run the gauntlet of people wanting me to hire them to take me somewhere. Roughly half the size of a football field, that gauntlet is. Not too bad, especially now that I can tell them in Chinese that I have a friend waiting on me and don’t need their services.

If I had known that Ken was at work I would have simply taken but 603 to him. But he, being the good friend that he is, texted me to sit tight; he was on his way to meet me. Which was a good thing because buses don’t start running until 6:00AM. He met me at the all night McDonald’s I had parked myself at to wait for him and soon enough, we were in a taxi to City Center, where he works.

What a feast for the eyes! Every single tree along the boulevard is draped in lights and red lanterns, all lit up! While the cab scurried along the predawn streets I couldn’t get enough of all of the lights and decorations and… just the wonder of it all! And, the closer we got to city center, the more lavish and elaborate the decorations are! I was fairly bouncing with excitement at the spectacle, and kept exclaiming my joy from the back seat of the cab (which was mercifully heated).

Ken’s response: “It is all for you. Welcome home!”

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