Sunday, February 6, 2011

XI’an v. Wuhan

After a short nap at Ken’s hotel, he woke me up with my favorite breakfast – a crepe, wrapped around egg and lettuce with sesame sauce and a crispy layer of onions and hot tea. While eating he explained the situation.

Rather than paying for a hotel the whole time I am in Xi’an, he had arranged for me to stay at one of his friends’ apartment. The apartment would be vacant anyway because that friend would be out of town for the holiday. If I choose to stay beyond the time that friend would be gone, he will put me up at his house for a day or two. If the visit extends beyond that… we’ll just have to see. I cannot believe the caliber of friend he is.

He and I are half asleep as we negotiate the bus through town to the apartment. There, the friend’s roommate meets us at the door and gives us the grand tour: my room, the bathroom, kitchen, living area with cable television, and, most importantly: heat!

After a short visit Ken goes home. He had worked all night and was pretty tired. I was tired from my train journey. Without so much as actually unpacking, I grabbed a washcloth and toothbrush, did my bedtime routine and crashed for a solid 6 hours. Upon waking, Archer, one of the apartment’s roommates, took me around the neighborhood and then to a food vendor for an excellent bowl of noodles.

There is just something about the people of Xi’an. They are all so very nice and friendly and open and warm-hearted and welcoming. Try finding that in Wuhan.

Matter of fact, as this entry is about the difference between Xi’an and Wuhan, let’s start our comparison right now, shall we?

Usually, when I wake up I have trouble breathing. Actually, sometimes I have such problems breathing that I wake up from a dead sleep with my nose stuffed up and gasping for breath. I don’t know if the air in Wuhan is that bad, or if my mattress is somehow contaminated, or if it is the mold growing on my apartment walls… but waking up in Wuhan requires a kickstart to my breathing apparatus. Waking up in Xi’an, my nose and sinus passages are clear, my lungs do not wheeze and my throat does not hurt. Even at the hotel, after napping in a room warmed by a coal stove, I had no trouble breathing. Wow. What a difference.

Let’s not stop there!

Before going out for that bowl of noodles with Archer I took a shower. I could immediately feel the difference in the quality of the water. My hair was silky smooth and my skin did not feel like it required any lotion. As though proving the point, when I blow-dried my hair, it did not look brittle and dry; it lay glossy and sleek on my head in an approved and attractive style. And this is not just a one-time occurrence: I have washed my hair no less than 4 times since I’ve been in Xi’an, and each time, my hair acts like it would like to thank me for not subjecting it to a chemical bath. I’m really impressed! I thought I was going to have to live with ugly hair for the rest of my time in China. Now I know it is just the water quality in Wuhan that is killing my hair and making it fall out.

From the apartment there are two main bus lines that will take me to City Center, where I can either meet with Ken or transfer to other buses. And Xi’an has a lot of buses, let me tell you! And guess what? They are all natural gas powered, not diesel powered like the buses in Wuhan. To be perfectly fair, Wuhan has 8 bus lines whose buses are electrical powered, but they are more like trolleys and only cover the main downtown area. Unfortunately the diesel-powered buses also cover the downtown area and everywhere is soot and grime and fumes from the diesel exhaust. I have to add that the buses in Wuhan are not necessarily well maintained, either. I can tell by their grinding gears and their engine hiccups while they go down the road. By contrast, some Xi’an buses appear virtually new. But even the old ones are better maintained than those in Wuhan.

Ah, the soot and the grime! Wuhan is undergoing major construction projects. I’ve written about that extensively. Therefore there is dust and mud everywhere you go. Plants, shrubs and trees are dispirited, limp and gray under their mantle of dirt, and flowers all bear a uniform dirt color, no matter the species of flower. However, Xi’an is also undergoing major construction projects: they are committed to opening no less than 3 subway lines by next year. In Xi’an as in Wuhan, they work around the clock to meet their target. Yet Xi’an’s trees are easily recognized as trees and not some agonized, stunted creature begging for oxygen and Xi’an’s flowers and plants are vibrant, multicolored (flowers) and green (plants). And, they are certainly more spirited than Wuhan foliage. Why is Wuhan so dirty and Xi’an so clean? Really: the dirt and grime of Wuhan’s construction projects is somehow not replicated in Xi’an’s construction projects. Yet both cities are tunneling under ground and working around the clock. How does that happen?

The list goes on and on. The food in Xi’an is ultimately palatable; the Wuhan culinary specialties mostly taste like dirt. The drivers on Xi’an’s roads mind their lanes and road signals; the drivers in Wuhan act like their mission is to thwart everyone else on the road from getting to their destination. Getting on a bus in Xi’an is a civilized undertaking in which people queue up; getting on a bus in Wuhan is an Olympic event in which everyone wishing to board crams toward the doorway and tries to pass through it at once. Xi’an has a lot of iconic architecture and traditional Chinese buildings; Wuhan looks like a generic city and they are tearing a lot of their buildings down. Xi’an has a lot of historical sites and cultural relics, Wuhan has one: the Yellow Crane Tower. Xi’an has temples and mosques (they have a strong Muslim population); Wuhan’s four temples are closed for repairs or renovations. Xi’an preserves its cultural heritage; Wuhan builds shopping malls. Xi’an is a treat for the eyes; Wuhan is an eyesore.

Is it any wonder I prefer Xi’an to Wuhan?

Final note: Ken’s shuffling of accommodations on my behalf pulls so at my heartstrings. I really do not want to be any trouble to him or for him, so I told him that I should buy my return train ticket for the 6th of February. He looked rather crestfallen, but really: I do not want to overstay my welcome.

And then, I got to thinking: what is waiting for me in Wuhan? A deserted campus, a lonely apartment, a grimy city that depresses me and makes me feel physically run down, no friends to visit with and nothing in particular to do. Why am I in such a hurry to get back, when clearly I am happy and comfortable here and Ken does not mind the challenge of finding accommodations?

You should have seen the joy on his face when I said I would go back to Wuhan on the 9th – the day he had run out of accommodations for me on. He even went to the train station and changed my ticket after working all night last night. What a great friend he is! And…

What a home I have in Xi’an.

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