Friday, October 02, 2009

Xi'an Part One

This trip began with a far different destination.

By virtue of the Chinese calendar, we were blessed with a six day holiday and holidays of that length mean only one thing for expats – get out of town. There are those of us who are new to the China Experience and still jazzed up about seeing as much of the country as they can. Long holidays like this one mean a trip far outside the province; places like Guilin and Hangzhou come to mind. Classic Chinese destinations for anyone desiring to see the China we grew up with in National Geographic. And then there are those that can’t wait to get out of the country with a trip home or to a different country like Thailand, Indonesia or even Europe. I’m now part of a third group, with 20 entrance stamps in my passport, I’ve about had it with travel in China but there are still a couple of regional stops I’d like to make knowing only too well that when I am done with this assignment, I’m never coming back to this side of the world on my dime. This is my last hurrah for China travel and so I wanted to make it count. Given that constraint, there was but one place to go – Tibet, or Xizang as it’s known over here.

I asked a colleague who had just been to Lhasa for pointers and he had a few. What he inexplicably failed to mention was the fact that I had to have a travel permit and to obtain one of those I had to book a tour. Ignorant of that tidbit of information I went ahead and booked tickets and hotels and set about making my plans. Not two hours after closing after hitting “Book Now” on the travel web site, I had a call from them asking if I had a permit or if I would be able to obtain one. Still unaware of what the fuss was I told the girl on the line (whose English was at best marginal) that I had a visa and a residence permit and in my opinion that should be adequate. Well it wasn’t and she told me so. I asked her to hold the reservations while I investigated.

My first stop was at the corporate travel desk where I was told that was nonsense. My second stop was the web which was confusing, varying between “no problem” and “completely closed to foreigners.” My third stop was with my reticent colleague who more or less said, “Gee whiz, I forget to mention that.” From there it was back to the web to see what I could dig up.

There were plenty of tour companies with prices varying wildly from $250 to over $1000. I inquired with a few and in some cases received answers immediately. “Yes”, they could book me a personal tour and get me the permit, all I needed to do was fill out some paperwork and give them a deposit. Once obtained, they would mail it to me. I thought about that for a while and realizing that I don’t really have an actual mailing address here, it might be better to find something locally. Recalling my January Haerbin debacle, I decided to call the girlfriend of yet another colleague who just happened to be a travel agent.

“No problem” was the answer, “All we need is a scan of your passport, your residence permit and a declaration that you’re not a journalist.” I set about sending the scans and I figured I was on my way. Well, as it often is in such matters I wasn’t on my way at all – I was on my way to the next round of paperwork.

“You need a letter from your company that states your job title. And it has to have the corporate chop mark.” Chop mark? I didn’t know that companies used such things but apparently do so over here. So down to the Human Relations department to make my request where I had to endure a good-natured lecture on what an incredibly bad idea going to Tibet was; I would almost certainly be maimed if not killed outright. I insisted and a few hours later the document appeared on my desk. I scanned it and sent it off, I was on my way again.

I was planning to travel to Beijing on 10/1 and Lhasa the next day so I figured that starting this process on the 26th of August was a good idea, given the glacial speed of most official proceedings on this side of the world. Before leaving I inquired about the processing time and was told that permits are not granted more than one month ahead of travel, “good enough” I thought so I filed that thought away and took a trip to the US and Ireland.

At the midpoint of September I inquired again – “Well, they changed the policy, permits are now granted 10 days before departure.” Not good news from my perspective, visions of me eating all kinds of hotel and airfare cancellation fees danced like animate invoices in my head but I had no choice but to wait. On the 22nd of September, the dam broke – there would be no permit for me, Tibet was closed to all foreigners for Shi Yi, the Chinese National Day. This year is the 60th anniversary and the government was extremely concerned about disturbances and even more so about having foreigners witness them. So while I would likely be receiving my traveling papers, they wouldn’t be coming until after the 8th of October a week past my holiday. Other plans were therefore in order so I cancelled my reservations, absorbed $50 in ticketing fees (the travel agent apologized profusely) and set the wheels in motion for a trip to Xi’an.

As it turned out, fate was certainly on my side. My stopover in Beijing would have been a nightmare given the scale and the security of the celebration; in fact it’s very likely that I would not have made it there at all with the airport being closed for most of the day on the 1st. Xi’an was looking like a far better bet.

Travel in China during any of the major holidays is always a mobbed affair with upwards of 200-300 million people on the road. Although most of this is by bus and train, the airports are very busy. It pays to get there early and just hunker down for the challenge. I had a chat with Jiang about this and his suggestion was 11AM for a 2PM flight. Being me, I added a half-hour and told him the pick me up at 10:30 figuring it’s better to hang around the gate than it is to miss the flight. A group of friends was on their way to Thailand, leaving an hour or so before I was scheduled to do so. I had them text me from the airport and the message was grim – expect to sit around doing nothing because the roads and the place is empty. I considered leaving a bit later, but decided that I had the time and so I left. They were right, aside from many wedding caravans there was no traffic at all. We arrived in record time, 3 hours before my departure.

Airlines don’t have personal gates in China; they share them and assign check-ins a couple of hours before the flight. I was here at least a full hour before my check-in but I decided to play the dumb foreigner card and get in line, at least picking the gate that would be checking me in if it was time to do so. The line moved fast and the agent sensing my bluff gave me a boarding pass and sent me on my way. I was through security in moments and even got to spend ten minutes with my departing pals before they went off of their vacation on the beach. I bought a Coke and treated myself to a Ritter candy bar and sat listening to the delay notices, pricking my ears up for one which mentioned Xi’an but as it turned out, was nothing to do with mine.

Xi’an is a city steeped in Chinese history. It is known to us mostly as the home of the Terracotta Warriors, discovered in 1974 by some farmers digging a well. Built to guard the necropolis on the plains around Xi’an in the 2nd century BC, they have stood for an eternity vigilant beneath this inauspicious earthen burial mound. As the terminus of the Silk Road it has figured mightily in China’s consciousness for more than a thousand years, reaching its zenith during the Tang and Ming dynasties. It has one of the few complete remaining systems of city walls in all of China along and several 1000 year old pagodas. Good museums, and intact Ming Drum and Bell Towers make it a great place to spend a long weekend. But the warriors are the chief attraction, and those were what I was aching to see.

We left on time, having to take the bus out to the plane an eventuality that I don’t prefer given that it always means a rugby scrum at the bottom of the stairs. Today was no different but I simply pushed my way to the front and got on the plane. A rather large young fellow sat in the center seat – I had the window – and I knew I was in for an uncomfortable trip. But just as I was getting used to that sad fact, a young woman whom I had seen a couple of rows back came over, said something to the lummox and he got up and left. She had offered to swap seats with him. She asked me if I was traveling alone to Xi’an in English and I replied in Chinese, throwing her for a brief loop. She gave me her name and told me that she was a student in Australia, studying English and Hairdressing. We spent a couple of hours talking about everything Xi’an and America and she offered her phone number as a life line, should I get myself into trouble. She also confided in me that she was secretly married, choosing to keep that little tidbit from her parents. She’d been in Dalian visiting her grandmother and was tired of being forced to go to bed at 8 o’clock with the old folks and didn’t like the fact that her parents didn’t want her to have a boyfriend. I have to admit that this was far better than being crushed under the garlic smelling beast. The plane landed and we parted ways.

Finding a cab was a bit confusing but I figured it out and gave my destination to a guy driving a beat up old Audi. We took off down a brand new and largely empty expressway towards the city. The driver had a sense that I might be able to speak a bit and so asked me something. I gave him the regular “I speak a little and understand even less” and he laughed, telling me that my Chinese was great. I told him my house was in Dalian and that my driver there told me that the people in Xi’an would never be able to understand me, their dialect being that different. He laughed and said that Xi'an and Tibet were the two best places to visit in China and when I relayed my sad tale of Tibetan travel woe, he agreed that it was unfortunate but promised that Xi'an would not disappoint me. He told me that my hotel was very nice and was located in the new development zone, known as Kai Fa Qu. Well there’s an irony for you, I live in the Kai Fa Qu of Dalian and I’m staying in the Kai Fa Qu of Xi’an. I relayed that to him and he laughed soundly. He handed me his card and told me that I should give him a call if I needed to be guided around.

We arrived at the hotel and I settled up, saying goodbye I was happy to not have to go through the bribery scene I'd recently had in Beijing. For some reason there was a metal detector in front of the entrance and of course I set if off being that I was carrying a metal suitcase. But the smiling girl just waved me through. The desk clerks got me through the process and the floor manager rode up to my room with me, opening the door and bidding me a good evening. Such is the treatment you get when you have even paltry status at the Shangri La.

Now I am sitting once again in the Horizon Club staring out over Xi’an and planning my evening. This lounge is full of westerners trying so hard to be special, when they’re very presence in this room dictates it automatically at least within the confines of this hotel. I had a nice snack of Chinese specialties, precluding the need to have a lonely dinner somewhere else. That is probably my favorite thing about hotel clubs, instant dinner and some human noise, two things that make traveling alone so much easier. The biggest bump so far was the noisy Aussie who came in and sat by me, deciding to smoke. Now I’m heading back to the buffet for a second round, thinking ahead to my big day tomorrow.

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