We arrived in Xian early in the morning, and got off the train to what seemed like a city with not too many people. We followed the map in the guidebook Abbie lent us, looking for the city’s central Bell Tower, where we were due to rendezvous in 14 hours with a guy we met on couchsurfing.org. We didn’t have a plan for the day (which is pretty much how we start most days), and with all of our luggage we didn’t really want to do a lot. We walked past mobile breakfast stands with flat fry pans that the cook uses to make a round of bread so thin it’s nearly translucent, followed by an egg that gets broken up with a spackling knife, green onions and some mysterious, delicious spicy sauce, all deftly folded into an easily transportable meal that gets inserted into a thin plastic bag. There was an old man practicing Tai Chi in a deserted mall plaza, lots of fluffy little stray dogs pooping on the sidewalk, and street cleaning trucks that played Jingle Bells, ice cream truck style. Past the Bell Tower we found a sweet little plaza, a grid of manicured gardens filled with petunias enclosed by little white fences. Middle aged men in grey sweat suits stretching, jogging (both forwards and backwards, curiously), and massaging their muscles, occasionally shot us bemused glances, while a grown businessman nearby flew a long string of mini kites.
Xian turned out to be a much more populous city than it seemed at our early morning arrival, and in fact was more overwhelming in the density of people than Beijing was. It wasn’t exactly a surprise to us that there are a lot of people in China, but it was still shocking to deal with the people everywhere–masses on the sidewalks and in the streets, dodging cars in intersections and motorbikes on the sidewalk, maneuvering around stalls selling belts, pantyhose, pineapples, puppies, bunnies in tiny cages, turtles in cups, fried breads, dumplings, kebabs, wind-up toys, cigarettes and lottery tickets, stepping over amputee beggars sprawled out (intentionally) face down on the filthy sidewalk, sneaking behind musicians who had brought out guitars and portable amps. Shopkeepers scream out until their voices go hoarse, waving you in, or if it’s a larger company they have hired young women with headset mics and a speaker on their belt to advertise their wares. Cars honk loudly and incessantly, buses blast their stop announcements outside of the bus, and people yell and play music from their phones.
One of the more interesting, albeit equally chaotic, places in Xian was the Muslim quarter – west of the train station inside of the city’s ancient walls. The narrow streets bustle with shoppers (as well as rickshaws and motorbikes with quiet electric motors that sneak up on you with startling horn blasts), vendors in headscarves sell dried fruits and candied ginger, red, green and yellow spices in burlap bags, tables on the curb are piled high with giant, wooden-looking purple livers, wheelbarrows sit full of livestock’s stripped ribcages, open flames shoot out of oil barrels cooking snacks. While there were some delicious looking street foods here, it was actually relatively difficult to order them if there were any choices to be made about the ingredients– we could say hello and thank you, count to ten and ask how much something cost, but if there were any followup questions we couldn’t understand them and couldn’t answer. At a restaurant in Xian one evening, we managed to order ourselves a plate of peanuts for dinner (and that was even with the help of an English menu), which we sat and dejectedly ate with chopsticks.
We took a day in Xian to do something more officially touristy, since we didn’t make it to the Great Wall, and saw the Terra Cotta Warriors. While an interesting find from an archaeological perspective, we weren’t really impressed and felt like the sight was too expensive (it cost 90 yuan per person entry fee, and we were working on a 200 yuan per day budget shared between the both of us), overhyped, and more interesting to read about than to see in person, in addition to having so, so many other tourists that it was sometimes difficult to stay standing up due to the people crushing in from all directions. Without elbowing some kid in the head, it was almost impossible to get to the front of the crowd to see any of the exhibits. The warriors themselves are separated into 3 pits, with pit 3 the smallest, 1 the largest, and 2 in the middle. Pit 3 is small enough that you find yourself mostly underwhelmed, and pit 2 is still mostly unexcavated, so we found little to interest us until reaching pit 1 – also the most crowded of the three. We didn’t stay for very long.
We stayed with Lars, our couchsurfing host from the UK, who is living and teaching English in Xian, and had a good time with him even though we didn’t get to spend too much time together due to his work schedule. Lars lives in a fairly nice apartment in Xian, on the 7th floor of a mid-rise building. The entrance wound past a half-size basketball court, which was usually busy at night; basketball is quite popular in China, and many Chinese are fans of the NBA. Like many buildings here, the style was Soviet influenced and mostly concrete, with unbelievably heavy metal doors to each apartment; they seemed more appropriate for a bomb shelter than a residence. We spent our days wandering Xian, and then came back to the apartment when Lars was finished with work and talked, mainly about the differences between American, British, and Chinese culture (especially fast food restaurants). Although we would have liked to spend some more time talking with him, we were ready to leave Xian when the time came.
We had gotten our train tickets in advance, after writing out all of the information in Chinese characters copied from Lonely Planet and praying that they were legible, even if appearing to have been written by a child. When we got to the Xian train station, we couldn’t locate a platform with our train’s number on it. We approached a uniformed attendant and awkwardly gestured around the station, trying to ask where to go. A young Chinese guy happened to come up to her at the same time, presumably asking the same question, and she indicated for us to follow him. We walked up the stairs to a waiting room and sat down, and he tried to tell us something, maybe about the train which was still not showing on the departure display (we also by this point had learned the phrase “I don’t understand”). We sat in silence for a while; he got up and came back with 3 bottles of water to share, and he and Daniel proceeded to have a short and extremely slow conversation translating from pinyin (Chinese words written in Roman characters) to English and back again, using a Chinese dictionary on Daniel’s phone, one word at a time. He sat with us the whole time we waited for the train, which was reassuring since our train didn’t show up on the departure board until 5 minutes before departure and the crowd surged the platform, and he even walked us to our car. We tried to thank him as much as possible with our limited vocabulary, and got on the train.
We had purchased “hard seat” tickets to Lanzhou, rows of two and three soft seats (go figure) facing little tables, and even got to sit next to each other despite not having the proper tickets for that, thanks to the kindness of a young woman who took pity on us and managed rearranging all the other passengers. We sat near a group of youngish Chinese men playing an intense card game that involved slapping the table and yelling, as well as sneaking cigarettes in their seats when the conductor wasn’t looking. On this train, as well as everywhere else in China, we tried to get used to people flat-out staring at us wherever we went for much longer than we would expect (which is incredibly unnerving), or walking by us shouting out “hellloo!”
Abbie picked us up at the train station, and generously gave us a copy of the keys to her apartment, which worked despite apparently being made by a drunken key maker. We spent most of our time in Lanzhou relaxing: sleeping in on the foldy bed, eating, and going for walks in the city which was approachably small and nestled in a valley between mountains, but not too small. We walked along the Yellow River, Huang He, taking photos of the dusty, broken down houses, piles of dust, debris from old buildings, and honeycomb shaped charcoal briquettes. We walked East along the street that Abbie and her husband Afton live on, by masses of schoolchildren wearing matching tracksuit uniforms, toting noodles and soup in little plastic bags. We took the bus to a park North of the river which snaked up the side of the mountain. The park was deserted (which was surreal since everywhere else we had been in the entire country was full of people)–there was a little amusement park with bumpercars and rides, but no one riding them. Closer to the top of the mountain the view of the city was fantastic and the day we went was clear for Lanzhou–it was pretty dusty most of the time, and on the last day we experienced a dust storm, cold and dry and we couldn’t see the mountain from Abbie’s window anymore. We spent a lot of time with Abbie and Afton in the evenings, making dinner or going out, Daniel helping out with some computer issues. It was so good to be with friends.
It was fun eating with Abbie and Afton, since we benefited from their language skills as well as their gastronomic trial-and-error. It was better to have them order what they knew was good than point-and-hope at the menu, or to try and decipher the English-language menus, offering such goodies as “speeid fried rice yahoo,” or my favorite in Beijing, “pork with nausea sauce.” We ate niouroumian, Lanzhou’s specialty spicy beef noodle soup made with fresh noodles, spicy paste, oil, pink turnip and green onion floating on top, which we have been craving since we left. It was fascinating to watch the chef make noodles, skillfully scooping up a pale blob of dough, pulling and combing it with his fingers until he had a handful of homogeneous noodles (with unreal speed, this all took maybe ten seconds) and tossing them into the soup pot to his side, barely looking. We had Muslim ka rou, meat on a stick with a gritty, flavorful paste on it and a carefully placed piece of fat on each skewer, and hot fresh cumin bread and sweet black tea. Breaded and fried eggplant in a thick sweet sauce, spicy chicken with peanuts, mushrooms with bok choy, and hot water or mild green tea with every meal. We had hotpot (a little like fondue) in hot spicy oil with heavy and delicious lamb ribs, sweet potato and tofu, fresh noodles and bunches of long, thin mushrooms. The takeaway streetfood stands, dangerously close to the apartment, served folded bread: thin like a pancake and slightly eggy with spicy sauce painted on and green onions or peppers hidden inside. Skewered fruit kebabs, with sour apples, kiwis and oranges, encrusted to the stick with glasslike caramelized sugar. Seven treasure tea with green tea leaves, goji berries, sour apples and maybe a nut, and big chunks of crystalline sugar.