Monday, June 29, 2009

Hello Xi'an!


W
e pulled into the train station in Xi’an around 7:30 in the morning. It had been a long 17 hour overnight train ride and I was happy to be able to really stretch my legs. We all got off and followed Jenny out of the station and piled into taxis for the ride to the hotel. Bernd, Jan and I shared a ride. Along the way, we rode with the windows down - the weather in Xi'an was much more bearable....a wee bit cooler and less humid than what I had spent the last week enduring. (Later on I would find out that was just because it was early morning....it would be hot, humid and hazy the rest of the day....ugh.)

The driver drove down a large main street and then turned off onto a very narrow side street that was under construction. Navigating the street was a challenge for the taxi driver but he persisted and deposited us right at the front steps of the hotel.

We went inside and waited for the others to arrive. Quite some time later, Jenny, Trevor and Madeline showed up on foot....apparently, their driver was not so determined as ours was to navigate the difficult side streets. Then, Robbie and Jackie showed up, on foot as well. Their driver let them off at the wrong hotel but then showed them how to walk the short distance to the correct hotel. Last to show up were Dean and Mairead on foot as well. Not sure what the deal was with their driver. What an ordeal to just get from the train station to the hotel.

Once we all arrived, Jenny got our rooms. I would be sharing one with Jan. Little did I know how much fun that would turn out to be. We really enjoyed each other’s company - giggling and laughing all the time and it started the moment we tried to get into our room. The card reader on our door did not work well and so it always took inserting and removing the card several times before the light on the door lock would turn green and allow us to turn the handle. It would take no fewer than 20 tries before we could get in. We laughed at the thought of how ridiculous this all was.

Our rooms weren’t quite ready when we arrived so we dropped our backpacks off in the lobby and headed up to the restaurant for breakfast. For 15 RMB, we got a buffet of both Western and Chinese style breakfast dishes. The rest of the gang was elated to finally get toast, eggs and coffee and I was happy that I could still get rice porridge and tea.

After breakfast, we got settled in to our rooms. Today was also laundry day and so I got all my dirty clothes crammed into a bag before heading down. The laundress was already in the lobby. I turned over my bag and got my receipt. The clean laundry would be ready for pickup later on in the day.

We all met back up with Jenny for a quick orientation tour of the city. It’s a pretty straight forward layout. Our hotel is located about a 5 minute walk from the Bell Tower. The city is laid out in grid format with the Bell Tower in the middle. From there, the four main streets which are simply named North, South, East and West radiate. Underground passes are used to cross the main streets.

We followed Jenny down South Street, continuing our orientation tour, where along the way she pointed out the post office, the bank and the all important supermarket where we could go to stock up on basic supplies.

Our first destination of the day was the South Gate of the city wall. Xi’an is a walled city though today only the *old* city is inside the wall….modern Xi’an with its tall buildings and shopping malls exist outside the wall.

Jenny got our tickets and we passed through the entryway of the gate. Once inside, we walked up to the top of the wall where Jenny gave us a brief history lesson on the construction of the wall – pretty much the same reason as why all wall cities were constructed in ancient times. We walked around for a few photo ops and then got on to our next activity.

Before we got to Xi’an, Jenny told us that we would have an option to bike around the city wall – basically on top of the wall. I could not resist the opportunity to cycle around the wall as I figured that would be the easiest way to see the city so when she asked who was interested, I immediately stuck my hand up.

As it turned out, all of us except for Jackie and Mairead opted for the bike ride. They decided to walk instead and later on found out that they had walked about half the distance……not bad.

Jenny walked us over to the bike rental place to pick up our bikes. I noticed they had tandem bikes so I cajoled Jan into sharing one with me. It has been years since I’ve been on a bike but the adage is true....once you’ve ridden one before, you never forget how to do it. But, neither Jan or I had ever been on a tandem bike before so this was going to be a new experience for both of us. We got on our seats – Jan was in front so she had the job of navigating while I was in the back so I would have the job of pedaling.

With the pedals in position, we pushed off. A few minutes of giggling while we got our selves balanced on the bike and we were off!! What fun!

We stopped at various points along the 14km ride to take in views, catch our breath and sip water. It was another hot, hazy, humid day and gray. Where's the sun????
































At one point, we were pedaling so fast that we sailed past Robbie, Bernd, Dean and Jenny. I was even able to snap a photo as they rode past us as we took a short break.

For the most part the path we rode on was flat but every now and again, we would encounter some sort of an incline that we would either have to ride up or down. The first time it happened, it was a down slope and Jan I were so busy chatting that we didn’t even notice it. The moment we hit the down slope, we started to scream……the boys were at the bottom laughing at us as we passed them. Oh yeah….they had their moment of entertainment at our expense. :-)

What was truly amazing and I say this in true admiration is that Trevor who is 71 and Madeline who is 70 biked around the entire city wall as well. Setting aside her age, I later found out that Madeline had triple bypass heart surgery last year! In the blazing sun and sweltering heat, I found it challenging at times and I’ve got 20 years of age on them!! They really are a remarkable pair!

The contrast between the sights inside and outside the city wall was very striking. Inside the wall were old, crumbling buildings....you could see the poor living conditions that the people living there have to endure. Outside the city wall was a landscape dotted with modern high rise buildings, shopping complexes and other commercial establishments. From the looks of it, Xi’an is thriving as a modern day city in China.

It took Jan nearly 2 hours to make it all the way around the city wall – passing the East Gate, the North Gate and then the West Gate and then back to the South Gate. By the time I got off the bike, the muscles just above my knees were sore. I think it was because the seat was too low for me so I was pedaling using my knees – luckily, they’re in good shape!

Jan and I were the last to pull into South Gate so after we arrived, we followed Jenny out to the street. Before we arrived into Xi’an, Bernd and Robbie had told Jenny that they wanted to get haircuts and I had told her that wanted to get a traditional Chinese foot massage. Since we had the rest of the day free, this was a good time to get these activities out of the way. Jan was a bit reluctant to go have a foot massage because she was very self conscious about the way her feet look because she suffers from rheumatoid arthritis but I knew that the massage would likely make her feet feel better so I tried everything I could to get her to come along. According to Jan, I *bullied* her into going even telling her to just come along and if she really didn’t want to do it herself, to be by my side for moral support. She eventually caved into my pleas. :-)

The story of my day continues with the next blog posting.