Sunday, September 11, 2016

Back in Xi'an.

The Drum Tower.

This morning I woke up in Seoul, Korea and by afternoon, I was strolling the streets of Xi'an, China. I said goodbye to George in our room at the airport hotel in Seoul.  He would be departing later in the day.  I took the hotel's shuttle to the airport.

At Incheon Airport, I got in the economy check in queue for Asiana Airlines. 17 counters and at least 100 people in line but thanks to Korean efficiency, I checked in in less than 30 minutes!

 
In Xi'an, I was greeted at the airport by a very enthusiastic and energetic, young Chinese man holding up a paper bag from Starbucks and a piece of paper with my name on it.  He introduced himself to me as *Woldener*.  Huh?  Woldener?  I needed an explanation.  As with many Chinese, this young man had decided to christen himself with a Western name.  Most Chinese men choose relatively common and recognizable names like David or Robert or William but he chose Woldener which he then continued to tell me that he took the name after a very famous Swedish table tennis player.  Of course, Chinese are obsessed about table tennis so I guess it made sense.  In any case, I just Googled and learned that the player's name is Jan-Ove Waldner, former Swedish table tennis player who is widely regarded as being the greatest table tennis player of all time.  So there you go.  It's Waldner not Woldener.  Sadly for Waldner, I could not get his name straight so I kept calling him Wolander....the Swedish version of Zoolander??

In any case, Waldner was here to take me to the hotel.  Enroute, he decided to take a slight detour giving me a sight of the suburbs of Xi'an.  The last time I was in Xi'an was in 2009 and on that trip, I arrived via train so I never saw the outskirts of the city.  I was so surprised at just how urban the place is - skyscrapers fill the air and they are mainly apartment buildings. 



There were construction cranes everywhere!  Waldner told me that China has embarked on a plan to construct enough housing for 3 billion people!  That's the growth they are expecting now that they have lifted the one child per family policy!  Holy cow!

Another change from 2009 is there are definitely nicer and larger cars on the road.  It's remarkable how wealthy the Chinese have grown in just a few short years!


But in the heart of the city, especially within the old walls, little had changed.  It was crowded as ever.  Cars jostling for road space with bicycles, motorcycles and tuk-tuks and the sidewalks were filled with people walking.  I love it!


Our tour has us booked into the Mercure Hotel, which is located in the same complex as the Sofitel.  If not for the fact that my cousin Y and her friends booked this tour, I would not be staying in such a luxurious accommodation but hey, as I always say.....anyone who can stay in a -5 star hotel can easily stay in a +5 star hotel!

Before I said goodbye to Waldner, I asked him to take me to an ATM that would accept foreign debit cards as I needed to pull cash. Considering I needed to do this in order to tip him, he was more than willing to find a working ATM for me.  The one at the Sofitel did not work so we made our way out of the hotel complex and across the main road.  There, we found a bank with ATMs that accepted my card.

We would be touring Xi'an on our own so I knew I would be saying goodbye to Waldner today.  He got his tip before driving off.

After settling into my room, I decided I wanted to go out and see a bit of the city on my own.  I had plenty of time to kill as Yim and her friend Malamo would not be arriving until later tonight - they are traveling from Beijing to Xi'an on the highspeed train and the ride is 6 hours long.

With Google Maps in hand, I navigated my way towards the Drum Tower.   Why the Drum Tower?  Because it's just right around the corner from the Muslim Quarter and on my last visit, I really enjoyed walking through that part of town.  So I am heading back!


Bicycles and motorcycles are literally EVERYWHERE in Xi'an!

It was nice to be back in China.  Even though I was not born in China, my heritage is Chinese and so for me, being in China is like being at home - everything is comfortably familiar to me.  I don't even stand out as a tourist....for once, I blend in!

Enroute to the Drum Tower, my path took me past several restaurants.  Given that I had not had breakfast this morning and it was not well past lunch time, I was hungry. I decided to pop into a place after spotting the menu with pictures of bowls of noodle soup.


I checked out the menu and took a photo so I could show the server which bowl I wanted - the one on the lower left.  It was the only bowl that didn't look like the noodles were drowned in chili.  After 10 days of spicy food in Korea, I needed a break from the chili.  Mind you food in Xi'an is spicy in general so I'll be back to eating bowls of red soup in no time :-(


I then took a seat at a table.  In less than 5 minutes, a piping hot bowl of noodle soup was delivered to my table.


I had opted for noodles with mixed mushrooms and that's exactly what I got - they were generous with the mushrooms.  The noodles, which were freshly made, had a nice bit of chew to them.  It was a very satisfying bowl of food and for ¥9 ($1.30 USD) was less than a cup of coffee at Starbucks!


My next stop, on my walk to the Drum Tower, was at this pastry shop.  It's the Mid-Autumn Festival in China and that means mooncake season!  I had to check out the store and was immediately overwhelmed with all the different varieties of mooncakes.  Sadly, I can't read Chinese so I had no idea what each kind was filled with. 


As you might expect, I left with 3 mooncakes and one Chinese pastry. If they're good, I'm coming back for more!


From the pastry shop, it was at least another 10 minutes of walking before I reached the underpass that one takes to get to the famed Bell Tower which is situated at the center of a vehicular roundabout.  Continuing on, you get to the side of the street that takes you in the direction of the Drum Tower.....my destination.


The Bell Tower.

It's amazing that it's been 7 years since I've been here but I can still remember this place as if I had just been here yesterday.  I took the escalator down to the lower plaza.  I don't remember an escalator being here before so that might be new but the plaza was there in 2009.  In the far distance, you can see the pitched roof line of the Drum Tower.


Starbucks was definitely not here in 2009!


But the Häagen-Dazs was.  I know because I actually enjoyed a cup of ice cream here.  It was my treat after doing the bike ride around the old city walls. :-)


Back in 2009, this area was always crowded with locals and tourists.  Today was no different.  It's nice to see everyone out and about and I was really enjoying my stroll.


From the Drum Tower, I rounded the corner and voila!  Beiyuanmen Street, the heart of Xi'an's Muslim Quarter.  It's all about food here and I took a lot of photos both this afternoon and tomorrow morning when I brought both Yim and Malamo back here so I am combining all the food photos into one posting, which follows this one. 


After the Muslim Quarter, I decided to head back to the hotel but I took the long way back.  It was almost dark by the time I entered the lobby. I skipped dinner and just relaxed in my room.  I needed to get some laundry done so I also spent time sorting out my clean clothes from my dirty ones.  Otherwise, it was quiet time.

It was around 7:30p when Yim and Malamo arrived at the hotel. Yim messaged me when they were enroute from the train station so I was getting very excited at their impending arrive.

When I checked in, Waldner had arranged for my room to be right next to theirs.  In fact, our doors faced each other so I told her to knock on my door when they arrived. Apparently, they rang the doorbell instead and it wasn't working so I heard no ringing.  Instead, I got a WhatsApp message from Yim asking if I was in room 2433.   Of course I was, so I immediately went over and knocked on her door.  I was so excited to see her!!  She hasn't changed one day in the 20 years since I've seen her!!  We gave each other a big hug and then smiles.  She introduced me to Malamo who seems very quiet. In  her intro email she said she's good for bringing laughs to the group.  So far, I've not seen a smile or heard even a chuckle so I'm wondering about her laughing side.  I hope she does indeed have a good sense of humor and I hope she'll be okay with me.

In any case, Yim and I chatted for a bit and then it was time to say goodnight. We were all a bit tired.  Then....as I turned around to enter my room, I for some reason, pulled the door shut and well......locked myself out!!  There I am, standing in my pajamas, and I can't get into my room.  I was shaking my head and Yim was chuckling at me.  We are off to an *auspicious* start to this trip!!  We flagged down a cleaning lady and Yim, in her, as she describes it *Grade 1 level Mandarin*, tried to explain to the woman what the situation was and asked she could unlock the door for us.  The woman replied that she would have to get someone else to come and help us out.  We waited for a few minutes before Yim decided to just go down to the front desk and ask for another key card.  She returned with a card and (yay!) I got in.

Tomorrow, I'm meeting up with the gals for breakfast at 8a.  I am so very happy to be back in China and to be able to do a trip with my cousin is a dream come true.  If this is a dream, I don't want to wake up!

Goodnight from Xi'an!