Jan/Feb 2008 Travel

Two Steamy Nights in Xian

by Larry Jer

Photo by Steve Wing

I knew straight away it was dodgy visiting a city whose name defied any pronunciation rules I recognized. And it's not because the city is so steeped in tradition that I felt compelled to go (though it is). It really was just the second leg of my winter vacation, a stopover on my way to warmer climes.

After three months teaching English in Shenyang, China, I was looking at a six-week holiday. So, as the warmth and color drained out of the Northeast leaving frigid temperatures (-20C/-4F) and sooty cityscapes, I took out a rail map of the Middle Kingdom and eyeballed a beeline south, seeking a spot where I could shed my army coat and bask in sun-baked sand. Hainan Island or bust—the farthest point south and rumored to have numerous days where the temperature was 25C/77F balmy degrees above zero!

I divided my trip into manageable sections—no more than twelve hours on any one train—and from there chose major cities closest to those points, allowing a few token days to see each city's sights. Simplicity itself.

I crammed for the trip, learning as much survival Chinese as I could. I knew it wasn't nearly enough, but by traveling solo, I hoped to surf the learning curve and speed up the process.

Xian (pronounced she-ahn with equal emphasis on both syllables in the upper pitch of your speaking voice) at least gives the illusion of safety. It has the distinction of being one of few remaining walled cities, its urban limits protected by brick and mortar. And we all know Chinese have a way with walls.

There are rows of Terra Cotta Soldiers standing at attention on the city's outskirts—so lifelike in their detail as to give the impression they might spring into action to save one in distress. Where were they when I needed them?

My arrival in Xian was typical. I got off the train and massaged life back into my legs after hours of "hard seat" travel (aptly named as the category not only describes the condition of the seating but also the calluses it leaves on one's backside).

Once pegged as a "foreigner," touts surrounded me and promised lodging, "cheap, close, clean." If all were to be believed, I would surely be spending my night swaddled in a downy quilt, accompanied into dreamland by harp music and sweet lullabies.

I chose one tidy hawker who seemed young for this type of career but had an open, honest face. After crossing town on a bus as full as one imagines in a city of nearly four million people (and half again that many potholes), the guide and I ducked through a residential area and, with dusk advancing, in this dreary city amid a dimly lit country, we entered a dark doorway. I followed the sound of the lad's voice, reverberating in the stairwell, trying to squeeze out meaning from his well-rehearsed sales pitch. Was it my imagination, or did his patter now seem tinged with urgency?

And just as the alarm bells in my head reached a crescendo, a door flung open, light filled the shadowy landing, and a smiling man said, "Welcome, welcome, Foreign Guest," one arm outstretched to shake my hand, the other around my shoulders, ushering me into the rooming house. As tension drained from my body, some fast words were exchanged between the host and his charge. The young fellow said his good-byes and backed out of the flophouse with a fistful of cash.

The "hotel" was a converted flat, large enough for four sleeper rooms (three doors), a common squat toilet, a TV with its volume set permanently on STUN so that all guests could at least hear it if not actually be able to see it, and a chipped, ceramic-tiled basin positioned under a cold-water tap. Home.

And thankfully so. Compared to the nervous thoughts running through my head just moments before, I was happy to reach a safe haven, even if it was not quite the Trump Towers as originally described.

After twenty hours over a couple days riding the rails through the gritty, industrial Northeast, the funky clothes on my back reminded me they could use a rinse. I emptied two thermoses of water into the basin and roughed my clothes over the washboard, hanging them on a pentagram-shaped metal clothes rack standing loyally beside the sink.

Too late to sightsee, I boned up on words necessary to purchase a train ticket for my next destination, Wuhan. Though I planned to stay three days in Xian before moving on, I figured it was best to get my next ticket purchase settled as soon as possible since seats are limited. The entire country, it seemed, was on the move during this winter holiday. I set off for the train station.

Travel gods smiled upon me, and after the usual wait and slight cajoling it often takes to get a ticket, I had my pass to Wuhan. I carefully put that and my travel documents in a zippered pocket on the inside of my coat, patting the bulge confidently.

Returning by bus to my cool digs and in a fine mood, I don't know what made me look down. I stood in the swaying crowd, like dozens of others, holding onto straps above my head. Perhaps I felt a draft, for my coat and travel pouch zippers were gaping wide open. The bus was so packed, light fingers were obviously working without my knowing. I almost respected the person for being so skillful... almost. I quickly checked my pouch and saw nothing was missing; all I carried there, anyway, was an Army knife, some change, and a pad where I recorded bus numbers and key phrases. Whew, that was close, I deluded myself.

When I got back to my room, the real crime became clear. Though the pickpocket never took anything from my pouch, Artful Dodger left nothing in my inside coat pocket but lint. The thief made off with the entire rainbow of my essentials: my Canadian passport (always a hot item); yellow card (for foreigners working there); red card (identifying my work unit); and green card (for residence). The ticket to Wuhan was a bonus black market item.

Distressed, I told the hotel owner what had happened, and though he had greeted me so warmly mere hours before, there were no more smiles to spare.

"You must go," he said, over and over, growing more adamant with each utterance.

"Tomorrow I go to the Public Security Bureau," I said.

"Police cannot come here. This is a Chinese-only hotel," he finally admitted (or I finally understood).

Well, I sighed, that explains why I only paid 25 yuan for the night (a solid $3 US). I was still pleading my case while the owner quickly pulled clothes off the pentagram rack and stuffed them into grungy grocery bags. He'd heard enough.

I found myself on the street at well past midnight, in a strange city on foreign soil, without travel documents, holding three bags of wet laundry, all my language skills sandwiched in a half-inch thick Lonely Planet Chinese Phrasebook.

At least taxis are plentiful in Xian, and though the city looks aslumber, once a forlorn foreigner steps from the shadows, sitting curbside on giant bags, cabs whip into action, honking horns and flashing lights.

Indeed, the thief did strike a huge blow, getting a mother lode of important stuff, but I had under my belt an emergency stash of money, ID, and a credit card. This would have to suffice with a little over five weeks vacation time still ahead of me.

"To a hotel that accepts foreigners," I told the cabby, too tired to bargain over the cost of the ride.

He dropped me off at a Guesthouse near the Drum Tower, where the young lady minding the desk set out the obligatory paperwork. My luck held form: the only English-speaking employee finished at midnight, and here the clock was punishing two bells. When it came time to fill in my passport number, I pretended to look in my bag below the counter, out of the clerk's line of sight, bobbing my head every few moments, giving the impression I was reading it. Didn't fool her. She insisted on seeing the passport.

I couldn't, could I? So I poured out my sorrowful tale and threw myself upon the mercy of the clerk, who likely thought she'd merrily be passing the wee hours watching TV and drinking tea this night. She called her manager, who came and stood at the office entry measuring me in silence—silence I imagined that only existed in deep space. Three beats... four...

He relented, took payment, and told me there were no more rooms but to follow him and he'd see I had a place to sleep for the night. He walked briskly, as though not to be detected, pushing a cot down a hall and finally through a doorway that seemingly opened into a tropical rainforest, the humidity was that spectacular.

Well, it was the boiler room or nothing. My reservoir of energy had long run dry, and I was grateful to have a place to lay my head.

For two nights, I called that boiler room home while I ironed out my passport woes at the Police Station. If it's a happy ending you're after, I left Xian with my laundry wrinkle-free, and my skin never looked better.


Previous Piece Next Piece