For those of you who know much about China, there are two weeks that it is most inadvisable to travel during. Those weeks are October 1st through 7th, National Week, and the dates of the Spring Festival, also called the Chinese New Year. This is because everybody in China wants to travel during these weeks, which tie up the train systems, the public transit, the roads…. you get the picture. Imagine the traffic you see when you’re trying to get home for Thanksgiving multiplied by about twenty because of how crowded the East Coast of China is and you will have some idea of the sort of traffic that you run into during this week.
So of course, being as intensively interested in experiencing Chinese culture as I am, I decided that National Week would be the perfect time for a trip to Xi’an! (You may believe that my decision to travel had something to do with the practical fact that we have a ten day break from classes from the 1st to the 10th, making it much more possible to travel than at any other point during the semester–but I shall maintain that I wanted a truly Chinese experience. It is absolutely imperative to me that I explore as many aspects of Chinese culture as I can while I am here, and that includes the shoving my way through hordes of people to get onto a train to Xi’an.) And such an experience it was!
The day started for me when my Russian friend and classmate Olga (or 奥格，Ao Ge, her Chinese name) came over to my house. My host mother, hearing of our plans to take the subway and then a taxi, was very kind and insisted on driving us to the train station to save us the trouble of dealing with the public transit system during the holidays. When we arrived at the train station, we immediately realized that the encounter were about to engage in was one that neither of us had ever quite experienced before–there were people everywhere.
When I say people everywhere, most Americans will imagine a scene like this:
I would like you to know that that is not at all what things look like when there are people all over the place. That is what things look like when there are lots of people in one central location. When I say that there are people everywhere, I meant that there were actually people EVERYWHERE. I did not take a picture because I was worried that I would drop things or hit people as I tried to turn around with the camera, which had already occurred many times as 奥格 and I navigated through the crowds. There were people and their suitcases on all of the seats, and people and their suitcases in front of all of the seats. People were squatting on the ground, sitting on portable seats, standing around in crowds. It made me think of when you look at a picture of the different states of matter: in most places in the world and at most times, trying to navigate through crowds is really not much more difficult than being a gas molecule zipping around all the other gas molecules with quite a bit of space in between.
Not so in China during National Week. This was much more like an atom trying to navigate through something between a liquid and a solid–there was enough room that you could push your way through, but not quite enough that you could do so without shoving somebody out of the way to do so. We navigated to the area where our line was forming, and within an hour we had made it through the crowds, shown our tickets to the counters, and were making our way onto the train!
Now in China, there are different types of trains and different classes on each of them–the train we were on was a daily train that runs from Beijing to Xi’an. Classified as a “T” train, that means that it is a fast train, going around 140 km/hour and only stopping a handful of times along the way. There are some trains that get above 300 km/hour and make few stops; there are other “K” trains that go more slowly and make more stops. Because this trip is so long, the train that we were on is filled entirely with hard sleeper compartments, which brings me to explaining the difference between classes on Chinese trains.
The highest class for a long trip is a Deluxe Soft Car–and as far as I know, only the very wealthy ever bother to use these. When you pay the extravagant prices for such a thing, you get a double bedroom and your own mini bathroom, which I will admit could be quite nice when you were on a long trip. However, much more affordable is the regular Soft Car, which costs around $60 and has four people per room, little televisions for each bed, and a locking sliding door to keep other people from entering the room. But even more affordable is the option that most Chinese take when they are traveling on longer trips, and that is the Hard Berth car. The beds themselves are not all that different from the soft sleeper cars–they are perhaps slightly less padded, which is the reason for the name, and there are three beds per bunk rather than two–but this is not the difference between the classes. These cars are very much a communal experience, because they don’t actually have doors to separate each little compartment–instead, they are simply open to the hallway, putting you at the mercy of any passers by who believe that they have something to talk to you about.
However, I absolutely LOVE traveling by hard berth! In the West, most people would probably find it unnerving to sleep out in the open where anybody could wander by–and I suppose that if I was taking valuables with me, I might be anxious about it as well. However, because I am a poor college student and not stupid enough to drag an unneeded laptop along just for the heck of it, I was not at all concerned about people taking my stuff because it consisted entirely of clothing which would not fit most Chinese, two English paperback books that I bought in Beijing for about two dollars each, and my toothbrush/hairbrush/etc. In addition, because I am a wary traveler, I slept with my stuff on the bunk with me–and, since I was on the top bunk, somebody would have had to climb all the way up there to take anything, which would have been noticed by 奥格 or myself. (This is perhaps the one instance in which I was thankful for being somewhat short–I could stick my stuff on the end of the bunk and still sleep there without feeling too cramped.)
And so we set off, with myself and 奥格 hanging out on the bottom bunk of our section and chatting with the other people in our compartment. Traveling in China is certainly a different experience than traveling in America. One of the big differences is that Americans tend to like quiet–trains are usually quit, excepting the noise of the movement. Not so in China–Chinese people like their places to be what they call 热闹热闹的， or noisy/lively. Thus, traveling on the train you will always hear something going on–people are chatting in nearly every compartment; children are running around and chasing each other in the corridors. Some people play music, others play card games. If you want to be left alone, you can be–but if you show any willingness to try and converse with those around you, they’ll take it. The bottom bunks tend to be considered rather communal because the upper bunks simply aren’t convenient for sitting around or talking to others–for example, the gentleman on the opposite middle bunk was hanging out on the bottom for a few hours as he chatted to 奥格 and myself. His wife had spotted us as they came on, poked him in the shoulder, and then waved shyly at us as he very cheerfully and clearly said “Hello!” From this brief exchange started a conversation which must have lasted nearly an hour and a half–this man was very keen on chatting with us, and once he found out that we knew some Chinese, he ecstatically set off. The topic of conversation ranged from our study plans and experiences so far in China, which we were able to understand and respond to, to China’s growth, economics, foreign politics, and the situations faced by minorities, in which we were only able to catch a word or sentence here and there. I am ashamed to say that I “听不懂” (tingbudong, listened but didn’t understand) a whole bunch, and thus spent a great deal of time saying “Yes!” or “I see” when he paused to see what we thought.
Overall, the hard berths on Chinese trains are definitely deserving of a thumbs up–I will definitely consider taking this travel option in the future, both because it was a lot of fun and is also super-cheap!
But enough about Chinese trains–while I find them fascinating, and I hope that you all do to, I’m sure that you’re far more interested in hearing about what we did our first day in Xi’an, and so I shall move on to that.
Honestly, I think that what we did most of in Xi’an was waiting. The day started with a blinding flash of light which woke me from my slumber–and after a moment of confusion and irritation, I realized that this was because we were arriving in Xi’an very shortly. I was slightly miffed that we were so early, as it was about 4 in the morning, but such was the train schedule. My first sight of Xi’an came with three quick realizations: 1) It was still pitch dark out; b) that we didn’t really know where exactly to go, and 3) that few of the other people around us spoke much English, and so any questions we wanted to ask would be asked and answered in Chinese. After figuring out that the stairs down marked “Subway Out” were in fact the regular exit from the train station, Olga and I were pleased. After all, how many tou groups with yellow flags could there be this early in the morning? Well, the answer was at least five, none of which were ours. After waving away screaming old women trying to sell me maps of Xi’an, darting our way through the hordes of people flocking towards friends, family members, and tour groups, and pulling my cell phone out of my purse without flashing my wallet, we managed to touch base with our group.
Unfortunately, this was when we realized that perhaps the person who had sold us the tour group had not been entirely honest with us, because the person who called my phone did not speak any English at all. Normally this would not have been such a problem, but we were in the middle of a very loud crowd and thus it was difficult to hear his voice–however, we managed to figure out where he was and made our way over to the group. They were, by the way, NOT waving a yellow flag, but rather a red flag. (Well, you know…. red and yellow. 红色 and 黄色… I will admit my mistake in this; it is entirely possible that I heard “Huangse” when the woman had told me “Hongse.”) They sent us inside to wait for half an hour. An hour later, the woman came in and told us that our tour guide would be calling in twenty minutes, because the woman who had greeted us was not our tour guide. Thirty five minutes later, we got another phone call in Chinese from our tour guide, who then led us over to a group of Chinese travelers to a large bus for (you guessed it!) MORE waiting as travelers arrived.
At this point, 奥格 and I were starting to worry–you see, we had paid so much money out to this tour group because they had informed us we would have an English speaking guide–and while this woman was in fact the right tour guide, she spoke no English at all, and our tour was with only Chinese nationals, most of whom also spoke no English. We also found out that we did not get all of our meals provided, which had also been promised, and that some of our tickets were not paid for. This seemed to be no surprise to the Chinese nationals, and so I can only surmise that the problem was not with the company in Xi’an but with the office in Beijing. This was when I decided I would no more shell money out to other people to buy tickets for me–in the future, when I travel, I will do so on my own initiative and with a great deal of research in advance so that I can locate an English speaking guide whence I arrive.
The reasons for this are more than simply the bad experience with overpaying for the tour of Xi’an–the major reason for this is that I want to see China, and it is difficult to do so when you have only a very specific amount of time to see things in. When our tour finally got going, we went to a very beautiful area called 骊山，or “Lishan.” [For those of you that didn’t know, 山 is the Chinese word for Mountain. So when I talk about places like Lishan, I am talking about Li Mountain. It is simply easier to say Lishan.] 骊山 is what remains of one of the larger imperial gardens in China–and the scenery is absolutely beautiful. But the problem is that we hardly got to see any of it, because we spent three hours waiting in line to take a cablecar up the mountain.
Here is a panoramic shot that I took at the top of the mountain–looking out to the right, you can see the city of Xi’an spreading out. (I have just recently found the way to turn multiple photographs of the same thing into a very nice large panorama. Expect to see a lot of panoramic shots in the future.) However, one of the more interesting aspects of this picture is the fact that you can also see the smog in the air–because Lishan is just outside the city limits and is located higher up, you can escape some of the smog and actually breathe relatively clean air. But if you look at the air over the city, you can actually see the difference in the air…. Yum. However, bad air quality is one thing that you “get used to” when you’ve been in China for a while, and so while I am not at all fond of the air quality, it has ceased to bother me as much as it did when I first arrived here.
As we hiked down the mountain, we ran into a handful of other interesting things–because the tour guide spoke Chinese, I often couldn’t understand what they were. However, there is one area which stood out to me, and it is the location of the Xi’an Incident.
For those of you who are not familiar with Chinese history, the first half of the twentieth century was a time of great change for China. In 1911, the last dynasty of China, the Qing, fell, and a new system of government was set up under Sun Yat-sen. However, by the 1920’s, there was already a great deal of contention between political groups, the two most famous of which were the Chinese Communist Party led by Mao Zedong and the Nationalist party led by Chiang Kai-shek (also called Jiang Jieshi).
By the mid 1930’s, Japan’s invasion of China was already underway, and China was split into a civil war environment. In the north was the Communist Party; in the South, Chiang Kaishek was fighting with many warlords to try and unite China before going to war with Japan. Because of the great difference in their policies and mistrust of one another, Chiang Kaishek tried to purge the Communists and refused to consider working with them against the Japanese. In 1936, two of Chiang Kaishek’s generals decided that it was necessary for them to work together if they had any chance of defeating the Japanese and taking back control of China–and so they staged a coup, kidnapping Chiang Kaishek and forcing him to negotiate with the Communist Party of China (CPC).
Of all the places we saw that morning, I think that this one struck me the most because it reminded me that it was in this city that one of the momentous, history changing decisions was reached. Had things gone different, who knows what would have happened? While the ancient palaces are beautiful in their own way, they didn’t capture my interest as this did. (Part of this was probably because I could understand what was being talked about here in this section; I’ve studied modern Chinese history more than ancient. The rest of the tour might have blown my mind, but I don’t know because I couldn’t understand anything the tour guide was saying…. Which distinctly lowered my interest in the other locations.)
We stopped off at a few other minor sites, but to be honest, I think the best part of the day was getting to see the terracotta warriors (In Chinese, 兵马俑，the Bingmayong.) This was both because, again, I knew about the topic–but also because we found out that there were also some Korean girls on our tour who were other international students from Beijing. They kindly took us under their wing, since their Chinese level was higher than ours, and we spent a great deal of the afternoon exploring the 兵马俑 museum and chatting with them. Some of the ancient art in the museum was really neat, but the Terracotta Warriors themselves are, of course, the highlight.
Unfortunately, we weren’t able to spend too much time there because we were only given an hour and a half to get there, see everything, eat, and get back to the bus…. So we explored one of the lesser museums and then ran in to see the lines of warriors before navigating our way back to the bus. Luckily, we ran into a kind gentleman from our tour group who knew exactly where we were going. It was quite gratifying to hear his surprise and approval when I talked to him in Chinese for a bit–although we can’t understand the tour guide, at least we’re doing alright when we converse with other Chinese!
And that was pretty much the end of the first day–the remainder of the evening was, no joke, spent trying to get to our hotel. It’s usually a 35 or 40 minute ride from the center of Xi’an to the Terracotta Warriors–unfortunately for us, this time it took five hours! XD And so, as I said…. much waiting.
Thus marks the end of our first day in Xi’an.