Sunday, February 20, 2011

Big Girl Boots

Upon my return to Xi’an, I vowed I would not fall back into the apathetic/lethargic state that had plagued me since winter break started in January. I was getting strange messages from my body – racing heart at the least bit of exertion, painfully cramping leg muscles, hurting feet and legs, all topped off by a generous serving of depression. All of the sitting around I had been doing was ruining my health – physical and mental. Getting out every day while in Xi’an kick started things back up. I did not want that to go to waste and I certainly did not want to slide back down into that dark place where tendons don’t want to stretch and legs don’t want to move.

With little more than two weeks until school resumes, and with no desire whatsoever to occupy my cold apartment on the deserted campus, I decided to take off for another visit somewhere. I chose Yi Chang, a small town four hours away by bus, which holds the distinction of being the closest populated area to the Three Gorges Dam.

The very day after getting off the train from Xi’an, I marched into the bus ticketing office and bought my ticket for Yi Chang. The next day, there I was, light bag packed and ready to board. As the bus pulled out of the station and drove down roads I was not familiar with, my excitement bubbled over.

Think about it: I had negotiated the ticket purchase by myself. I was headed to a town I had never been to and where no one awaited me. I was going to see things I had never seen before and I was going to do it on my own. This is tantamount to Cool Beans! This is what I came to China to do: Explore! See new things! Just hop on buses, big as Billie Be Darned, see what there is to see and do what there is to do!

This really is huge: for the first time since coming to China, I have no one to pave the way for me. In Xi’an, Ken is always waiting for me; when I first came to Wuhan, Sam was there to show me around and since then students are available in abundance. When I went to Beijing in 2009, my friend Hui Yun took the day off from work to pick me up at the airport. This is the first time I’ve gone someplace on my own and made all of the arrangements by myself.

Do I have my Big Girl Boots on, or what?

Actually, I’m never really alone in any of my ventures in China. If I need anything, a simple text message to Sam, Ken or Jerry and they will be there to smooth things over or pave the way for me. If it is a language issue – say, I can’t explain to whomever I’m dealing with what I need, I could just call one of them and have them talk to whomever I’m dealing with. So it is not like I’m doing this entirely on my own. But, I am doing more than cowering in my apartment. I’m taking initiative, I’m getting out, I’m not hiding behind anyone.

And I did not have to invoke either Sam or Ken. Now I KNOW I have my big girl boots on.

Once the bus arrived in Yi Chang, I went to the ticketing counter and bought my return ticket. It seems Yi Chang does not see many foreigners. They do come through on tour buses because of the town’s proximity to the dam, but they don’t come to stay, and they certainly do not come by long distance bus! So, you can imagine the stares I got: it was like being on campus for the first time all over again! Some people, lingering by the ticketing window had apparently anticipated having to help me. They were already spraying WD-40 over their rusty English skills while closing in on my left side. I disappointed them… or maybe surprised them. The poor ticketing clerk nearly fell off her stool when I approached the window and, in Chinese, ordered my ticket back to Wuhan for 3 days hence, in the afternoon without needing any help at all.

Still feeling as though I am wearing Boots of Seven Leagues, I leave the bus station and endeavor to find my hotel. As usual I have to run the gauntlet of people wanting rich tourist’s money, but after I passed them I made it to the taxi stand and asked the first car’s driver to take me to my hotel. I showed him the address that the hotel had kindly sent in a text message. He said he would take me there for 20 Yuan.

Two notes, made as asides. Number 1: When a taxi driver offers you a flat fare to your destination, he/she intends to rip you off. I had read about that before on other China blog sites, but had never before experienced it firsthand. Had he engaged the meter, it would have only cost a few Yuan, because my hotel was actually within walking distance of the bus station. I did not know that. Because it was coming up on 9:00PM, I did not want to take the chance on losing my hotel reservation, so I accepted the flat fare offer. That one is for the experience of it; it is now safely tucked away in my ‘Bet I Don’t Do That Again’ file.

Number 2: You do not have to have a major credit card to reserve a hotel online in China. Simply send them your booking request and they will hold the room for you. Once you arrive at the hotel you pay for your room up front, as well as paying a cash deposit. As you check out of the room, you must turn your key in to the front desk, whereupon the clerk radios the floor supervisor, who does a check of your room and radios back down that everything is in order – nothing broken or missing. Only then do you get your deposit back. Great system! What do you think of it?

Back to Yi Chang now. I fell in love with my room as soon as I walked into it. It was on the 17th floor and commanded a great view of the city, with the Yangtze river off in the distance. The walls were an attractive salmon color, muted by indirect lighting. The drapes were a burnished bronze color and covered three of the four walls. My immediate thought, as I was checking it out, was that I could live in a space like this. Really, that room was much nicer than my apartment and felt much more like home than my own apartment back in Wuhan does.

That’s why I did not leave it on Valentine’s Day, except to eat. I just felt so at home there, so comfortable. The television had a movie channel that played movies in English, I had my trusty laptop and I just really wanted to hang out in an environment where I felt at home.

I did go on a tour of the Three Gorges Dam the next day, and it was rather disappointing. The weather was murky and the dam was not as impressive as I expected it to be. Actually, I was rather saddened by it, thinking about all of the relocated families whose homes got flooded out to create the dam basin. All of that history, all of the tradition, now underwater. Remember, from Burial Rites, how the living ‘holler’ the dead home? Where will the spirits return to now?

But on the other hand, I did meet a very nice young man named Jones who was on vacation. He spoke perfect English and we toured the dam together and took turns taking pictures of each other. He took the picture of me in front of this temple. We enjoyed nice conversation and quite a few laughs, and we exchanged contact information. I’m sure this will be a great friendship!

Checking out of the hotel and getting back to Wuhan were sad and dismal affairs. Sad, because I was leaving the hotel room that felt more like home than my apartment does, and dismal because this bus was nowhere near as comfortable as the bus I rode to Yi Chang was. But, I have to get back to Wuhan, whether I want to or not.

The students are coming back, and I’m supposed to help them learn English. I can’t do that from a hotel room in Yi Chang, can I?

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