Sometimes you just have to write…
Accommodations: We pre-booked all of the transportation, transfers and hotels before we left. I just didn’t want the stress of having to figure out train or bus schedules or go from hotel to hotel looking for a room, like we did in our younger days. Especially not with two teenagers in tow. The hotels have all been 3 or 4-stars, mostly huge and soulless, but a welcome respite from the noise and dirt of a day’s sightseeing. And the toilets are always spotless and not at all smelly. The breakfasts are generally a mixed bag of Western (or an attempt at Western) and Chinese. Not surprisingly, the Chinese version is always better.
Health: So far, so good. I had a bit of an accident last week. We were walking home from the old town of Hancheng in the dark, in a section where work was being done on the road just a block from our hotel. There were no street lights, and we were passing a construction site, I think, so we could see very little, but we knew we were walking on the soon-to-be bicycle path by the road, a mostly dirt and gravel surface at this point. What we didn’t see was that a manhole cover had been left open, and I stepped right in it. Fortunately only one leg went in, while the other leg and one hand stopped my fall.
So my left leg has an impressive scrape perhaps 5 by 10 centimeters in size, which is healing quickly to reveal several bruises on and below my knee. The other leg, which broke my fall, must have hit quite hard on a stone or something, because I have a truly phenomenal bruise on my right inner thigh. At the time I didn’t notice this until later, and it never hurt much at all, despite its appearance. It doubled in size over the next two days and now we’ve been regularly admiring the array of new colours each day.
Meanwhile Albert did something to his back one day, so he could barely straighten up, never mind walk. That led to a scene straight from a sitcom: we had hired a guide for a day, and at the moment that we were supposed to be meeting him in the lobby, Albert had just taken a muscle relaxant and I was in the shower. So we got a call from Mr. Wang, the guide, from the lobby, and I explained that we’d be late because Albert was having back trouble. Next thing we knew, there was a knock on the hotel room door. I opened it wrapped in a towel, thinking it was Anne and Krislyn coming to pick us up to go downstairs. Instead, there was Mr. Wang, very concerned and wanting very badly, it seemed, to see Albert. I let him in, and he immediately got started on giving Albert a massage, with me standing there in a towel and the two girls, who arrived right after him, looking on. I don’t know if it was the massage or the diclophenac, but Albert was right as rain within a day.
Crime: I’ve been impressed at how trusting people are here. In particular, when we were in Pingyao, on the morning we left, we walked into a tiny corner store and saw through the door behind the counter that someone was asleep on a table in the room behind. We had a whole conversation there about whether to wake him up to buy what we wanted, and he didn’t wake up until we knocked quite hard on the counter. All of his merchandise was available for anyone to take, presumably all night long. How trusting is that!
Our first sense of not being quite safe ourselves came yesterday, when Anne was pickpocketed. It probably started when she was coming up an escalator here in front of our hotel. She felt a tug on her backpack as she stepped off at the top. She turned around quckly to see what was going on and a middle-aged man was standing there with her two glasses cases in his hands. She just grabbed them back. She says he just shrugged and walked (not ran) away! So now we’re all being a bit over-paranoid, I think, about our things.
Racism: When our bellhop heard us say that we were going to the Muslim quarter as we checked in, he warned us of pickpockets. We shrugged that off, of course, as just a bit of racism. But then today, a tour guide gave us some unsolicited advice: be especially careful with Muslims, she said. You can tell who they are because they look a bit different from us, she said, but they do a lot of pickpocketing. She said this completely straightfaced, without any hint of apology or awareness of how racist she sounds.
Krislyn: People keep assuming that Krislyn is our tour guide, and even refuse to believe her when she says she’s our foster daughter. This sometimes works to our advantage, though. For example, last night we took a taxi and the driver quoted us 30 yuan for the trip. Krislyn had the usual conversation with the driver, and when he found out she wasn’t our tour guide, he told her if he’d known that he would have quoted a higher price. Apparently the norm is for the driver to quote a reasonable price to the tour guide and the guide quotes a higher one to the tourists, pocketing the difference. This has happened several times.
The other thing that keeps happening is that people either a) compliment Krislyn on how good her Chinese is (It’s her native language, but a different dialect.) or b) criticize her for how bad her Chinese is. Even when they hear that she’s from Singapore and lives in Holland, she gets: ‘Why can’t you speak Chinese?’
Reactions to us: Here in Xian (home of the terra cotta warriors) is the first place we haven’t been stared at everywhere we go. That includes Beijing. And people aren’t subtle about it: they’ll actually stop right near us and simply stare. Children, as you’d expect, but also adults. Sometimes people take pictures of us, never asking permission first (which has led us to stop asking permission to take pictures). They’re looking at our size, I think, and Albert’s beard. They stare at Krislyn as well; we think it’s because she’s not acting as a tour guide should act. The fact, for example, that she sits with us for meals is weird, if you think she’s a tour guide. They never sit with their clients for meals.
English: Here in Xian is the first place where we’ve experienced hotel staff, shopkeepers, and so on who speak a modicum of English. And thank goodness for that, because the further south we go the less Krislyn understands of what anyone says. It’s clearly a far more touristed place than anywhere else we’ve been. Even in Beijing we couldn’t get more than ‘hello’ out of anyone, which surprised us. It’s clear from several children who have approached us that education in English is improving, however: a little boy today asked me in a clear accent: ‘May I take a picture with you?’ Most adults, if they do try a sentence in English, have such poor accents we can’t figure out what they mean to say, and sometimes it isn’t even clear if they’re speaking English or Chinese. One day in a park a man tried to ask us something in English and a Chinese teenager we were talking to had to interpret his English for us before we could understand him. And all he was trying to ask was ‘Where do you come from?’
Food: In a word: delicious! We’ve mostly been eating at very cheap local places, spending from about one to about six euros a person for a whole meal with soft drinks and a beer for Albert. It’s usually quite random what we get; the menus often have names for each dish without descriptions so Krislyn doesn’t know what they are — could you guess what Welsh Rarebit is just from its name? Some restaurants have pictures, though that doesn’t always help either. So we just pick three or four dishes and share what we get, and it’s almost always interesting and delicious.
Tomorrow we fly to Lijiang, which we’re hoping is a prettier place in general with cleaner air. I’ll let you know.