Xi’an Wheeli… er… Strolling
Xi’an had a feel to it. I thought to myself as we flowed in the giant crowd towards the exit of the train station, “ok, now this is China.” The streets were still wet from recent rain, and the sun shown mildly. We climbed into a taxi and started the twenty minute drive from the historical cultural district, where the station is, to the new high tech district where Jie lives. It seems Xi’an may be the in the throws of a milk craze. Everywhere we went, I saw milk commercials, and instead of beer slogans emblazoned on the umbrellas of local shops and cafes… Puzzling.
The stone walls, and tiled, sloping roofs of the old section were quickly replaced by skyscrapers. And the skyscrapers simply didn’t end for the entire 20 minutes of driving. Xi’an simply has miles and miles of skyscrapers. And more are being built everywhere. Jie’s apartment building was no exception. She came down to meet us, and we rode up 40 floors to her apartment, which was large and new looking.
We showered the Dunhuang off and the three of us strolled to a local Si Chuan restaurant. We had some ragingly spicy fish, and a delightful assortment of cold vegetables. Then we took off towards bicycles.
The only place we could find which rented cycles, had just two. The name of the place is the Xiangzimen Youth Hostel. Please reader, take note. They were large, and of the robust, heavy Indian type. So with only a cursory inspection, we felt great about them. And it was only with some minor, 45 minute negotiations that we were able to secure for Jie a cycle which belonged to an employee of the hostel which did the renting. All seemed well. We all had bikes.
We haggled about deposits for some time. The staff claimed inability to adjust the prices, but after what became a rather heated argument, much gesticulating at the business cards and the stickers, and redundant assurances that were were not going to steal these ever so precious bicycles, we payed still the highest deposit of the entire trip before we heaved the metal slugs out the door and onto the streets of Xi’an.
I instantly discovered mine had “the Agra problem,” as it had come to be known in the AsiaWheeling lexicon. This means that one pedal had an amount of wiggle room in it, so that when you pass it over the highest point on its revolution, it must traverse this empty space before it is once again pulling the chain. The end result of such an affliction is an awkward, jerky pedaling, which is none too kind to the knee-piece after a day on the steed. This bike had it bad. And I instantly began to consider whether strolling might not be more enjoyable. Then, heralded by a sickening metallic crunch, Scott exclaimed, “Ok, we have to return the bikes, my brake fell off.” We stopped to investigate, and indeed, his bike’s read brake had come disassembled from the frame and the wheel, now dangling from a frayed end of wire.
So, not 100 meters from the Xiangzimen Youth Hostel, we pulled an Uber-Lichtenschtein, and promptly returned the cycles. There was, at first, some difficulty doing this too, but Jie entered Voltron-mode and simply dealt with it, while Scott and I were still wrestling the hulking iron beasts back into the courtyard of the hostel. We show here an image of the terrible door to this terrible place to set here a warning: All those who love wheeling and freedom, turneth back if you see this sign!
We spent the rest of the day walking through Xi’an. Our first observation was, Xi’an is simply dripping with money. It is also the location of the much fabled terra-cotta warriors. So it’s quite a tourist destination. It would seem that in tourist destinations, there are no decent bikes to rent– see Agra and Dunhuang. Perhaps the average tourist wants only to grow fat in a sweaty bus seat, and leave the wheeling to the peasants. But, dear reader, now I am speculating, and have grown angry and of skewed perspective, so with your permission, dear reader, I will get up and refill my tea cup with hot water.
Ok, thank you for waiting. So Xi’an, is a tourist destination, a prosperous city, and in light of the impending Olympics, is done up real nice. The streets are clean, and all the store-fronts which were once leather repair shops and oxy-acediline torch refilling stations are now Prada and Ferrigamo stores. It’s also crawling with white people. Mostly Europeans, but we even ran into some (I must admit somewhat repulsive) Americans. Everywhere, knick-nacks were for sale, not the least strange of which were little bamboo cages filled with chirping crickets
On our stroll we visited the largest fountain in all of asia. And as we approached, it began to erupt, playing the greatest hits of western classical music. Rows upon rows of jets, fired in time with the 1812 overture and Beethoven’s 9th. Jets swing from side to side, dancing to hits from the nutcracker, and a central jet fired 30 stories in the air to Brahms. Ok, nice one Xi’an.
We continued to stroll in the sun until exhaustion overcame us. It was decided, then, that we needed to lean to play Mahjong. So Jie got on the horn and rustled up some friends of hers. In no time, we were sitting around an automatically shuffling mahjong table. At the press of a button, trap doors in the table would open to collect stones on the table and begin to shuffle. Then, other trap doors would open, revealing a second set of already shuffled and stacked pieces, which rose like zombies from the grave, ready for action.
Majong proved not as complicated as I had imagined. It is essentially, a trickle down game, like gin-rummy with fat, polished stone pieces. Pieces are being drawn from a central repository, and are also being discarded to the player to your right. The goal is to make a hand of only runs and three of a kinds (and one two of a kind if you want to be particular). Then you’ve won. There are a few jazzy bits where you can, if you are fast jump the order, steal some pieces, and get an opportunity to yell “pun!” (quite a satisfying one). But the basic idea for the two games is the same.
We then started to amble towards more food. We stopped and got a sandwich (my first in some time) which consisted of a Chinese English muffin type bread, with something much akin to a soy saucy pulled pork inside. It was great, and came in greasy was paper bags, and was accompanied by a slightly alcoholic, sweat rice drink. I felt like I was at an interesting Chinese variation on burger king. We ate them while we strolled through the comfortably warm evening air.
Then we had some Uighur Kabobs and spicy shrimps, to compliment our meat with some more meat (this time from the Muslim neighborhood). It seems Uighur food is all the craze in eastern China too, with Uighur restaurants appearing often and often full of people. Who could blame them? Uighur food is maybe the tastiest on this planet. So with meat out of the way, it was time to sleep. Scott was almost completely healed, but the man needed rest, as did I. Bidding our new friends farewell, we climbed in a cab for the 20 minute drive back through the concrete jungle, now alight with giant screens, neon lights, and blinking signs.
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