Thursday, October 26, 2006

Take Me To Your Heart

Today I had my second English Corner, the after-class English extravaganza that gets held sporadically at schools throughout China. My own students organized it, so I had too many invitations to get out of it had I wanted to. Actually, I'm always game for the things they throw at me here; I like the mystery of not knowing what I'm getting myself into. They had insisted that I play and sing a song, so I prepared the easy "Wishlist" by Pearl Jam, but managed to get out of it when they didn't give me a microphone for my voice, and I instead did a quick instrumental. They of course put the foreign teachers up on a platform, filming us and taking our pictures, and handing us microphones with no warning whatsoever to make speeches with instructions like "talk about life". I fielded questions from the crowd about how to learn English (you get to be a pro after answering similar questions 200 times) and why Americans are "crazy", helped Phillip through a questionable version of "Wonderwall", and was taken to dinner by students afterwards.

I forgot to mention an incident that happened a couple of weeks ago. I was waiting at the school gates on Tracy who was visiting, when a boy came out of nowhere and announced "I want to sing an English song for you". He promptly launched into "Take Me To Your Heart", one of the two or three most popular English songs in all of China, and also one of the worst songs you might ever have the displeasure of hearing. It's actually a translation of a Chinese song, and the band Michael Learns to Rock (who I'm told are a "rock" band, hah) are making completely unfair amounts of money in Asia. I had to physically bite my lip not to laugh at the silliness of it, and then thanked him very politely for his song. The moral of the story is: if you are a foreigner in China, try not to stand in one place for a long time.

I was coerced into dancing again by Danielle, but this time with four mutual students of ours. To my amusement this included Hank and Sunshine, two students in different classes who are dating. Hank is very tall, wears a shirt that says "Caution You Are Leaving the Security Semir [no, I don't know what a 'semir' is either]", and looks like a mechanic. Sunshine is fully deserving of her English name, and has one of the most unceasingly bright smiles I've ever seen. She's hard to look at straight in the eye. I think they make a funny couple, and it's a little unusual to see dating students present themselves in front of me, rather than immediately dropping hands and walking in different directions in the hope that I didn't notice. Once a student actually gasped at seeing me, dropped her boyfriend's hand like so much dead fish, and hid behind him as he walked (I was sure to give a friendly hello).

Because we didn't realize the place didn't open until 9:30, we had a lot of time to kill. I thought I'd take them to Xiao Ma's guitar shop (I'll now refer to him as Little Ma because that is what "xiao" means and it's more amusing) because I hadn't been in a while, but this turned out to be incredibly awkward, with none of them saying a word to us and a drum lesson going on in the background. We then went to our bar with our students, which proudly proclaims itself the "Drear Bar" in English (misspelling of "dream") and features swings instead of seats. When we finally arrived at the dance club (English name: Hot Ball Place), it was in full swing, and I was positively shocked to see the two poles being occupied by very scantily clad dancers from the club. Not in Our Zhangye, surely.

Within four minutes of being on the dance floor, a middle-aged man in a suit grabbed my hand, and held it tightly as he danced along with me. Sadly, this is more likely than my hand being grabbed by any young females in Zhangye, where close same-sex physical contact by males or females doesn't raise an eyebrow but public kissing is scandalous. He then passed me onto his "friend", who I would've assume to be his wife, who seemed to be casting too many glances in my direction during the night after our awkward 40-second dance. At 11:00 sharp, Dance Time was over, and Sing-Song Time/Male Dancer in Amazing Puffy Pink Outfit Time/Weird Skits Involving Angry Kitchen Staffs Time commenced. This was our cue to leave, not to mention that the student dorms are locked and the lights turned off at 11:30 (I should mention this was Saturday night).

I'll end with a selection from the English Menu extravaganza that graces the food markets in a certain spot in Zhangye, which I enjoyed the other day: Braising in soy sauce the meat rubs the fish. That it does.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Friendliest Man in the World

There are a few characters on the school campus and around town that me and Andrew and a few of the other teachers know. We tend not to learn their Chinese names, and instead they are referred to by titles such as the Friendly Man, the Friendly Man's Daughter, the Apricot Tea Lady, Mr. My-Head's-Going-to-Explode, the Honest Widow, Fruit Man, The Man Who Pretends He Doesn't Speak English, or the Cool Girl in the Photocopy Shop. Mostly I've befriended a few of these people through Andrew, who talks to absolutely everybody in Chinese and on most days will have hours of random conversations. In quite a number of my Chinese conversations, maybe most of them, I am asked "where is Tian Ming [his Chinese name]?", "why didn't you call your Scottish friend?", or simply reminded "Andrew's Chinese is really good!" in case I had forgotten or not noticed. However, this works out well for me, as I am so poor at starting conversation with strangers in any language, and being friends with Andrew is definitely good for my Chinese.

Two days ago I was walking across campus to get some lunch, when I ran into the Friendly Man going in the other direction. The Friendly Man owns a convenience store near our apartments and is just as excited to see you the 42nd time you enter his store as he is on the first visit. I can't go in there if I actually intend to buy something and leave within 5 minutes, because he insists I have a seat and attempt to chat for at least 20 minutes. He is a good source of conversation practice because, as Andrew once said, "he doesn't mind having a boring conversation".

He was in a particularly friendly mood that day, so friendly that he actually invited me to his home to have lunch with him. This was the first time I had seen his home, and one of a fairly small number of invites to homes. His apartment wasn't half bad at all, and as is common was decorated with a few odd bits of Western culture, including a calendar with sports cars and a large framed picture next to the television of two Western children kissing. Chinese hospitality to a foreigner is often excessive by foreign standards - of the three dishes he made one was an entire fish, which he refused to touch and encouraged me to eat to the point of annoyance. I would have really rather he didn't, since I don't even like fish in China (usually too spicy and dealing with a thousand deadly bones with chopsticks is not my idea of a good time). The fish was probably for the family dinner, and though the generosity is appreciated I wish more Chinese people realized that most foreigners would prefer to have less of a fuss made out of us.

Last weekend an English speech competition was held in Lanzhou, with competitors from all over Gansu province. Three students were sent from Hexi University - two third-year students and a second-year student of mine named Catherine. To my surprise and delight, of the 53 competitors 2nd and 3rd place were taken by two of the Hexi students, with Catherine coming in 3rd with her speech about the Olympics. Me, Gary, and Danielle had all helped them with their speeches and pronounciation, and it was a nice "teaching is rewarding" moment to hear of their success.

In last week's attempt to have the students think creatively (and with any luck amuse me at the same time), I followed up a reading about a digital project to contact life in space by asking them to discuss what they would send into space to represent their lives, and then write their lists on the blackboard. Many of the ideas involved photos of friends, family, babies, and the ever-popular "delicious food", and a few that me and the class got a kick out of included "a love letter to a dashing man of outer space", "beef noodles [popular local dish]", "to send Nancy and her Mr. Right to outer space", "Zhangye's mosquitoes", and "Dan's big head photo [as in the miniature photobooth photos that are popular here]". I also had them write poems in the style of a poem written by an 8-year old called "What I Would Take Out of the World". Most of the things the students would take out of the world were idealistic and serious, such as poverty and war, but there was one that made me smile written by four girls:

We would take men
Out of the world
So we don't have sad
and tears
and no marriage

Monday, October 16, 2006

To the Countryside

There are certain things I've prolonged doing in China as long as I could, and dancing is one of them. Given my awkwardness on the dance floor, it's not something I'm quick to do in a country where all eyes are on me pretty much every time I'm in public. But I'm easily talked into embarrassing myself, and the new Peace Corps teachers Danielle and Stephen convinced me and a fair number of foreign teachers to go out clubbing in Zhangye. When we arrived there were exactly four people on the dance floor, but Danielle and Stephen were having none of that and pulled people from the crowd until the dance floor was packed in all its smoke-machine drenched glory. Secretly I was sort of enjoying myself, and even Gary (pictured feeding a donkey) got out and tore up the dance floor, though the three Brits didn't muster up quite as much enthusiasm. Andrew and Phillip were in attendance, and Tracy who taught at the Middle School last term was visiting for the weekend. She stayed at my apartment, my first hosting of a friend in my own place, making me feel vaguely like an adult.

After late-night food and "bubble tea" I went to bed around 2am, and was feeling a little unmotivated for the morning trip the next day to the countryside. But with Miss Mao in charge I knew it would be worth going, wherever it was we were going this time. This time some of the Chinese English teachers were invited along with the foreign teachers, so I even had the rare chance of making slightly awkward conversation with the Chinese teachers. Whether through lack of self-confidence or uncertainty about our foreign ways, they tend to shy away from us and few Chinese-Western friendships have struck up in the English Department. There was only one random, unexplained stop during the two-hour journey, in which we were surrounded by mostly auto shops and I saw Miss Mao disappear with a stranger on a motorcycle for 25 minutes, to return later with apples from his home ("he was a very nice man").

It ended up being a very, very pleasant day in the remote hills of Gansu province. Intense climbs were rewarded with wonderful views and a hill-top picnic, and there were no living things but some shepherds flocking sheep and a few donkeys to disturb us. Miss Mao was in top form, dashing up steep hills with two shopping bags, a fur coat and high heels, and swiftly dismissing any second-guessing of the paths she chose. Happily, the day ended with two rounds of the colossal danpanji: Big Plate of Chicken. It's tempting to open a danpanji restaurant when I return to America. I'm certain it would be a hit with the late-night college crowd.

And reaching back over the last few weeks to things I had wanted to mention, there were a few shining moments in my most ambitious class activity thus far: a trial. I wanted to teach about the American jury system, so I gave students the roles of judge, prosecution, defense, defendants, jurists, witnesses, and journalists with instructions, and watched with amusement for 30 minutes (or in some cases, strained patience). The back-and-forth arguing was heated and often clever in the likeable Class 6 (the classes are all numbered since they stay with the same classmates in every class for all 4 years). After a primary witness gave her emotional testimony of the bank robbery, the defense team began questioning her state of mind at the time. The prosecution suddenly provided medical evidence of her sound mind, to which the defense shot back "but we know the doctor who provided that evidence happens to be her husband!" The lawyers were more motivated to win than I expected, piling on more and more last-minute evidence, and I was amazed at the English level that came out when it was time to argue.

And in the realm of getting things repaired the Chinese Way, a computer repairman very nearly erased every computer file I've created in the last 7 months. My internet wasn't working, and his problem-solving "method" was thus: hit the "refresh" button on the desktop around 50 times and empty the Recycle Bin (shockingly, still no internet), check to see if the wire is plugged in (I know at least that much about computers), and reset the computer. Still not having succeeded, he promptly just re-installed Windows, erasing the old one and all its programs, without the slightest hint to me of what he was doing. The internet did work after that, but I had to re-install every program I had. I'm assuming that if I didn't have all my photos, lessons plans, music, etc. on a different drive because it had more room, he would have erased absolutely everything I had. I had a previous adventure that involved fixing my computer's sound, which also involved erasing Windows; I then went without an anti-virus program for weeks, and when I finally installed one after having some problems, it found a record 1,432 viruses on my computer. I still recall a comment Miss Mao made to me at the very beginning: "in China.... many people are not very careful about their jobs".

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Xi'an: Warriors, Temples, and a Monk on a Mountain

In China, October 1st is National Day, and schools tend to rearrange the weekends so that the three days of vacation become seven days off in a row. Feeling ambitious, I decided to visit the city of Xi’an [pronounced “shee-ahn”], a capital of China under the name Chang’an in former times of glory. It is full of history, and is now most famous for the Terracotta Warriors, one of China’s most-visited tourist attractions and one of the biggest moments in archaeology in the last century. This is the army of thousands of life-size, realistic soldiers made of clay that were buried with the Qin emperor who united China and began the Great Wall (and appears in the awesome Zhang Yimou movie Hero). It was completely unknown until the 1970’s, when peasants digging a well happened upon it, and excavation is still going on.

But as I’ve discovered already, China makes you earn your right to travel through her during holidays, and I endured periods of inconvenience, annoyance, and misery just to get from Zhangye to Xi’an. This is largely the school’s fault, because for reasons left unexplained no one would decide exactly what seven days we would have off until roughly three days before the holiday. I knew getting sleeper tickets on the train for a holiday would mean buying them within 5 minutes of them going on sale, and of course there no were train tickets to Xi’an when I finally had the chance to try. To make a long story short, I took a bus to Lanzhou, couldn’t get a bus to Xi’an that night and slept in a hotel in Lanzhou, failed to get a bus ticket after fighting through a thick crowd for an hour the next morning, mistakenly bought a hard seat train ticket for 2am instead of 2pm and paid for another night at the hotel, returned to the bus station and managed to get an 8pm sleeper bus to Xi’an, returned my train ticket but got no refund at the hotel, and arrived in Xi’an a full day later than the friends I was meeting. The one uplifting moment was the buying of that sleeper bus ticket; a man with a walkie-talkie and a random English speaker in tow asked where I was going, took me out of the line, and came out of the back office immediately with the ticket to Xi’an I needed. I had heard of these “rescue the helpless foreigner” operations at ticket offices before, and I would hear that my friends had a similar experience. It was certainly welcome at the time. They claimed a 6am arrival in Xi’an, and on the bus they claimed 7:30am, but I figured 11am by my guidebook’s time estimate was the best case scenario; we in fact arrived at 1:45pm. And luckily the friends I was meeting in Xi’an have cell phones, because when I finally arrived, exhausted and aggravated, the hostel we booked was nowhere to be found, and through a phone call they explained the mix-up and I finally ended up in the right place. What should have been one 19-hour train journey was a 48-hour fiasco that cost a lot of wasted time and money, and it wouldn’t have been worth going had I been going to Xi’an alone.

But as it happened I was going to Xi’an for the unexpected chance of meeting up with a friend from America. My friend Stefanie, who I met at the five-week archaeology field school in Denmark in the summer of 2004, now teaches English in Yangzhou in eastern China, and Xi’an happened to be halfway between us. Her college friend Nissa is also with her in China, and the three of us had an excellent time that justified the headache of traveling (in the picture, Stefanie is on the right, and Nissa is on the left). After returning from a failed attempt to get train tickets back to Zhangye, I finally met the two of them back in our hostel bar, which was as good a place as any after being irritated for 2 days straight. They had also met a random Canadian named Don, and we spent the night eating chicken and squid on sticks and drinking Hans, apparently the choice budget beer of that region. There was a street of bars near our hostel, every one of which called to us desperately in basic English (“the atmosphere is really great!”) as we walked the street and finally settled on the poorly named Touch Bar.

It was good to be among my kind again, by which I mean fun-loving American dorks. There was much silliness throughout the trip, such as Nissa reading The Fellowship of the Ring aloud on the train, frequent quoting of Lost in Translation and an amazing English-learning video on the buses featuring chickens, and finding their souvenir statues of the Terracotta Warriors under my sheets every time I left the room for two minutes. They also had built up a number of amusing misadventures in China in the short time they’ve spent in China. They’ve only been in Yangzhou a month, so I enjoyed my role of China “expert” while it lasted. They have a mild obsession with Peter Hessler, author of River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, so I had a few “Pete” moments when I did something particularly competent. After seven months in China, it was a little difficult to keep up with talkative Americans, but I fully took advantage of the chance to make references and inside jokes only pop-culture obsessed Americans of my generation would appreciate.

Xi’an is so far my favorite large Chinese city. Of course, China has 40 cities with over a million people, so I haven’t seen much. But Xi’an still has a number of buildings that include “dynasty” in the date of construction, and a healthy amount of pagodas and temples. I was very fond of sitting in the top row of the double-decker buses, though less fond of dodging five lanes of busy traffic with nothing but a zebra crossing to protect us. And of course, with so many Western tourists about we were a target for every street seller and taxi driver within sight. Despite the huge number of foreigners in Xi’an, we were still an oddity, with the familiar shouts of “waiguoren! (foreigner)” and “helloooo!”. Andrew is considering studying Chinese at an institution in the near future, and mentioned going to Taiwan partly because “I hear that they think of foreigners as normal people, not aliens”.

On Tuesday, the first full day we had together, we decided to go right for the Terracotta Warriors. As amazing as they are, we would later be glad to have gotten it “out of the way” on the first day, because seeing them on a holiday was an exercise in patience. First we took the 20+ minute bus to the train station, and discovered a massive line waiting just to get on the buses to the site, which was 90 minutes away. We spend an hour shuffling through the outdoor line, not quite what we had in mind after a night of drinking, which was highlighted only by our spotting of our “stunt doubles”, a group of three foreigners who were eerily like us (but goofier and less attractive), a la the scene from Spaceballs. When we entered the first pit of warriors at the site, there were so many people that we had to fight for spaces somewhere along the sides to get a decent look. Like so many of the world-famous sites I’ve been to, it was interesting and well worth seeing, but underwhelming due to the number of tourists murmuring around us and the number of pictures I’ve already seen of it, and not the highlight of the trip.

When we got back it was too late to see any other tourist sites, so we spent the evening wandering the Muslim quarter, a series of narrow back-streets brimming with people and street-food stalls. My friends were enthusiastic about trying a vaguely noodle-esque dish that would translate literally as “cold skin”, which even I didn’t finish. There were a number of meat and sweet dishes that I haven’t seen anywhere else, and we sidled along into a chaotic kebab restaurant while trying to ignore the threatening shouts of “beef! beef! beef!” going on around us. Back at the hostel bar we were excited to spy the Stunt Doubles over at the next table, but in the end we were too shy to do anything but talk about them while stealing glances in their direction, and attempt to the end the night in a more quiet and dignified fashion than on our first excitable night.

For Wednesday we plotted what would soon become known as the Temple Extravaganza, a pleasant day that didn’t involve leaving the city limits or visiting buildings less than 500 years old. We started off with the Temple of the Eight Immortals, an important Taoist temple in honor of eight important figures in Taoist mythology who were supposedly seen dining on the spot. As it turned out our timing was spectacularly good, and we were the only foreigners of the few tourists at the temple. Birds sang, Taoist priests went about their business (whatever exactly that is), and all was right with the world. There was a notable bridge in the first courtyard, with two bells suspended that would bring good fortune to anyone who could hit one with a coin. We tried a few times in vain, and Nissa eventually succeeded. As we were finishing our walk of the grounds, a group of priests in the main building began a musical performance that seemed to double as a ceremony, and though I tend not to use words like “magical” or “spellbinding”, that’s exactly what it was. The dozen or so tourists were looking on, but there was nothing about it that seemed for show as “cultural” things sometimes are in China. None of us spoke for perhaps the longest stretch of the trip, taking in the incense and hypnotic notes floating through the temple and leaving the place in the most satisfied mood of the week to that point.

After passing through the market of fake antiques outside the temple, we headed back into the depths of the Muslim Quarter to visit the Great Mosque. Our cab driver was refreshingly honest, asking immediately if I could help because he didn’t know where it was. I showed him the inadequate guidebook map I had, but he still stopped to ask about three people where it was when we got close. In the alley before the entrance to the mosque, there was a gauntlet of souvenir stalls to pass through, which I didn’t take much notice of until I saw the Little Red Book. The Little Red Book is the infamous collection of Mao Zedong’s sayings that served as the Bible of China’s youth during the Cultural Revolution, and I’ve always been curious about what it actually says. I knocked down the inflated asking price and we each picked up a copy. Amusingly, the first page of each shiny plastic book proclaims “First Edition, 1966”. I went through it in the hostel room later that night, looking for inflammatory statements about “capitalist roaders” and the “running dogs” of capitalism, but its defining characteristic soon proved to be that it’s absolutely, staggeringly boring. To amuse ourselves we had a face-off between the Little Red Book and The Brothers Karamazov, which I for some reason brought for “light” reading on the bus. Nissa read from Mao and I read from Dostoevsky on the same page of each book to see which was more interesting, and I have to say me and the Brothers K won a fairly handy victory.

The Great Mosque of Xi’an is so Chinese in character that except for the scattered Arabic, we might never have known it was Islamic had we randomly stumbled upon it. The buildings are all in the sloped-roof style of ancient Chinese architecture, and it was unlike any of the few mosques I’ve yet seen. Our timing was not as good this time, and we were surrounded by a French tour group and a number of other tourists. It was still a very peaceful and enjoyable spot, but in the end it didn’t leave as deep an impression as the Temple of Eight Immortals.

Next on the agenda was the Forest of Steles Museum, the heaviest book collection in the world. It’s a collection of numerous ancient Chinese classics preserved in their entirety on massive stone slabs, which are a sight to see even when you have no idea what the characters mean. On the way we passed a man proudly standing behind his incredibly long calligraphy scroll, who shouted to us in English “look at my work! I’m the best in China!”, which was refreshingly cocky for a Chinese person. Because they were the farthest away, we had saved the Small Wild Goose Pagoda and Big Wild Goose Pagoda for last, and were a little disappointed when we showed up at the Small Pagoda only to find the entrance closed, and made our exit through a shady back alley after getting just a peek of it over a distant fence.

The Big Wild Goose Pagoda, however, greeted us in grand fashion. There was a fancy water fountain show with accompanying music, and four elaborately dressed woman on horseback strolled the grounds for no apparent reason. We finished the walk to the pagoda entrance itself around 6:30pm – the exact time the gates closed. However, we were happy enough to relax amongst the crowd of tourists and ponder the goings-on in the still-lit pagoda. As I mentioned even in a city with as many foreigners as Xi’an we are a constant curiosity, and one of the few things that will attract more attention than a foreigner in China is three of them sitting down together, tired and defenseless. Several groups of students asked Nissa, and only Nissa, to pose for pictures with them, while me and Stefanie stayed on the sidelines like high school losers. They gushed things like “you are very beautiful, can you take pictures with us??” but I’ll chalk it up to the novelty of her red hair rather than me and Stefanie being physically repulsive.

At this point, I ought to mention the pollution. Large Chinese cities are notoriously polluted, but at first I didn’t take much notice other than the eternally gray sky. However, as evening set on our Temple Extravaganza, an apocalyptic cloud of death descended over the city. Visibility dropped, our eyes stung a little, and we felt like we had been sniffing glue and began to question what was going on around us. The moon sometimes disappeared altogether, and we were wondering if there was a massive volcanic eruption we were unaware of. It felt like the end of the age of the dinosaurs, and was quite eerie at the time. I don’t know if it was a weird mutated reaction between the fog and pollution or what, but for the sake of the lungs of the citizens of Xi’an I hope it doesn’t happen too often.

We did little that night, besides eat our only proper restaurant meal in Xi’an, catch sight of one of the better English t-shirts I’ve seen (“Friend with Privileges”, made all the funnier because of the certainty the Chinese girl didn’t properly understand it), and question our resolve in going to Hua Shan the next day. Hua Shan is one of the five sacred Taoist mountains in China, and is around two and a half hours outside of Xi’an. It is also described in guidebooks with words like “treacherous”, “dangerous”, “exhausting”, and causing “a few deaths each year”. China had tired us out that week, so in the back of our minds we were all debating whether a day of nothing at all might be nicer. However, in addition to the two paths to the first peak of 2-6 hours climbing that involved scaling vertical cliff faces while grasping a metal chain, there was an Austrian-built cable car that takes approximately ten minutes, so we were feeling fairly confident we could handle that and set our alarms for the early morning. When we were still planning the trip the week before, there was talk of doing the night climb to catch the sunrise, but no one brought that up again.

Getting to the mountain was fairly straightforward, involving a train ride followed by a taxi ride to the site of the mountain itself. We were bemused to find on arrival that the fog was so thick we could not actually see the rather large mountain from the ticket center. As we waited on the long cable car line, I began to wonder if we were totally chickening out, and whether visiting a mountain without doing any climbing was a little silly. But when we boarded our car and began the swift climb over the deep valley, I was definitely on edge, and amused my companions with my epiphany that “actually, I forgot I’m a little afraid of heights”. However, Nissa was definitely more nervous, and the Chinese girl in the car with us was definitely more nervous than her, and making the least attempt to hide it. I quickly relaxed, and the ride was pretty amazing (though not even 10 minutes).

When we reached the top, it became obvious we had made the right decision about the cable car. That was only the first peak, still mobbed with tourists, and it would have been really disappointing to struggle for hours only to reach that point and not have the strength to get to higher and more secluded spots. Emboldened by the rare circumstance of being in the best shape of a group of people, I went on ahead of them towards the next peak. It was hard to tell when the path was going to end, and after about 45 or 50 minutes I paused to rest and see if the other two would show up. After a little while Nissa came along, but we had no idea where Stefanie was, so after a short wait we decided to see what was up ahead. It wasn’t much further, but the path unexpectedly went in two directions, so we followed the one that the most competent-looking Chinese people were choosing. We then had another choice of the “Ladder of Clouds” or the “Central Peak”, so we went for the one that said “peak” and sounded like it actually ended.

The Central Peak was apparently not one of the highest and the one least liked by Chinese people; in other words, it was wonderfully, wonderfully lacking in people. We were even alone for around 10 minutes, which was totally unexpected after herding through hundreds of tourists and escaping the aggressive kiosk stands every 100 feet on the way up. We didn’t know if Stefanie would know where we went, and I envisioned meeting her on the way down exhausted, sweaty, and pissed off, but luckily a Chinese man had seen us and pointed her towards our direction as she pondered which way to go down below (gee, I wonder how he knew she was with us). We shared some moon cakes and some relaxing times, as well as an immense relief we hadn’t skipped Hua Shan. The view was magnificent, and was relatively peaceful, at least between the frequent shouts from idiotic males who had reached the tops of distant peaks. I’ve complained elsewhere about Chinese “appreciation” of nature, so I’ll contain myself here and just say the mountain is no longer the mystical refuge of Taoist hermits it once was.

The most conspicuous part of the peak itself was the modest Taoist temple behind us. The girls had a fear the cable cars closed at 4pm and wanted me to double-check, so I figured who better to ask than a lonely Taoist priest at the top of a mountain. He seemed pretty confident they closed at 7pm, and invited me into the temple to have a look and a drink of water. I was more than happy to look around, but declined on the water – I’ll assume he didn’t realize the cup on offer had a used cigarette floating in the bottom. The focus of the temple was a statue of Guanyin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy that appears often in China (Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism have intermingled in Chinese history, and he said the temple could also be considered Buddhist). He asked me to light some sticks of incense and place them on the altar, and demonstrated a short bowing routine he wanted me to perform. I burned myself while planting the incense, which earned a smile of amusement from the priest. This is not the first time I’ve been asked to bow in a temple, and though it seems inappropriate for me to be doing it, I’ve decided it should be taken mostly as just a sign of respect, as none of the Chinese people who do it believe in the religion either. I’ve also since been told you are supposed to make a wish when you do this, which might have been among the many comments from the priest that went right over my head.

I returned to my friends, and asked the silly question “would you like to look inside the Taoist temple?” As the three of us looked around, the priest gave me an explanation of our surroundings for several minutes, pretty much the only part of which was intelligible to me was at the end when he said “okay, now translate for them”. So I turned to my friends and said “well, I didn’t understand any of that but I’m supposed to translate for you, so I’m going to keep talking now and pretend like I’m giving a really intelligent explanation of Taoism. So what do you think he would be called in English, a priest? What about scribe? I like that word, I think I’ll call him a scribe…”, and so on.

Next, the priest offered my friends large candles wrapped in plastic, which they accepted with some confusion. I had a suspicion this would end with him asking for money but I figured I’d stay out of it. He had them perform a similar but slightly more involved set of bowing while facing in each direction before motioning for them to place their oversized incense sticks, trying to explain a few things to me with which I got as far as “good meaning”. He then motioned towards the donation box, and decided to leave out the guesswork – “they should each give 200 yuan”. 200 yuan was an absolutely outrageous amount of money. You can buy a new bicycle for 200 yuan. “Excuse me, how much did you say?” I asked. “200 yuan” he confirmed. “Why so much?” I said, a little irritated, and he said something about “good meaning”. So I turned to the girls and told them “well he says you should each give 200 yuan, but that’s totally ridiculous, so give whatever you want and cover your hand so he can’t see when you put it in the box”. To my list of unexpected accomplishments in China, I can now add “deceiving a Taoist priest”. Of course, I suspect the donation amount goes up in relation to the whiteness of one’s skin and the poorness of one’s Chinese.

He was so pleased after their “donation” of what would have been probably more than he lives on in a month that he went further into his bag of Taoist tricks and decided to tell our fortunes. This involved shaking a topless, cylindrical container of sticks until one fell onto the floor. The sticks all had writing on them, and corresponded to pieces of paper that told one’s fortune. Stefanie went first, and apparently has a baby boy in her future. The fortunes were actually fairly lengthy, but I couldn’t catch much and wished dearly that there was a proper translator among us. Nissa was second, and can expect two children and a husband with money who sells jewelry. I went last, and all I understood was that I will get sick and I should be careful, possibly in 2008, though surely the rest of it was good. I had to wonder if my anti-climactic fortune was in any way related to my anti-climactic donation to the temple earlier.

Despite the communication barrier the priest seemed to more or less enjoy our company, and after the fortune-telling he asked us to sit and brought us hard-boiled eggs and moon cakes. Moon cakes are delicious Chinese sweets associated with the Mid-Autumn Festival, which was on October 6th this year and is when the moon is supposedly at its brightest. The eggs were simply random, and he only gave them to the girls. The few Chinese who ascended the Central Peak seemed less than enthralled with the temple, and he might not get many visitors as curious and bumbling as us. We made our exit as he performed a small ceremony while lighting candles and bowing in each direction.

The path down the mountain was considerably quicker and easier than the way up, though we must have waited an hour in the line for the cable car. Me and Nissa were put in a separate car, and enjoyed our last spectacular mountain views while pretending to be totally unconcerned with the height. The day had been a resounding success. However… we still had to get back to Xi’an, and China would not be content to let us off so easily. First, we got off too early on the bus back to the ticket office, and took an overpriced taxi back to the spot. Possibly in the evening the bus goes to a different spot with actual buses to Xi’an, but in any case there were neither people nor buses at the main entrance no matter how much we wanted them to be there. I found two employees inside the ticket office who said we better take the train, so I bargained with an unscrupulous taxi driver and off we went to the train station through a back way so shady we had to exchange worried glances.

At the train station, I bought tickets for the next train to Xi’an, which was not until 10:15pm. Then we let that sink in for a few minutes; it was then 7:30pm, we were in the middle of nowhere, and it would take two hours by train and twenty minutes by local bus to get to our hostel. It was our last night together, and we had planned a grand finale at the hostel bar involving champagne and cheesecake. Arriving after midnight was unacceptable. We desperately explored other options; the woman at the train ticket office assured me there were no buses now, but in China that doesn’t necessarily mean there are no buses. I asked a handy policeman in the parking lot, and he told me the same. Things were looking grim. However, the crowd of bored taxi drivers edged towards me when they heard me speak some Chinese, and started making offers to take us to Xi’an. Taking a private taxi all the way to Xi’an sounded totally ridiculous, especially for 400 yuan. But as I began walking back to my friends, I began weighing whether saving money or eating cheesecake and not spending three hours in a dark parking lot was more important to me, and remembered we had just spent 100 yuan each for a total of about 16 minutes in a cable car. We had a short conference and decided we would go for the taxi if they would go down to 200 yuan. As it turned out they refused to go below 300 for the car, and during our second short huddle we quickly gave in to that. So it was 100 each to get to Xi’an, or 5 times the cost of the train (plus the fee for returning the train tickets). The woman at the train station ticket counter was the only good-natured train ticket seller I’ve seen in all China, and she was curious if he had found a bus after all when I returned the tickets. When I explained the spoiled foreigners were taking a taxi, I sheepishly added “it’s expensive… but we don’t want to wait”, to which she gave a friendly head-shake that said “oh, you crazy foreigners”.

It was now a question not of if the taxi driver would try to pull a little bit of nonsense, but just how much of it. He didn’t wait long – two minutes and thirty seconds into the grand journey, he pulled into a car repair shop and explained he needed to get his tire fixed. It took the promised five minutes, and we were back on our merry way – in the other direction, where he then stopped in front of a restaurant mere feet from where we started. He stopped and promptly went into the restaurant, while we envisioned him sitting down for a nice two-course dinner before we got going. He merely bought a beverage, and when he returned he cheerily explained it was his little brother’s restaurant. That’s wonderful – now get your ass to the highway. But I was certain he needed something else, and sure enough to pulled into a gas station about four minutes later, which I suppose we couldn’t protest too loudly if we planned on actually making it to Xi’an. He then pulled onto the highway, and thankfully made no more stops during the journey until we got to Xi’an.

The problem was, he literally stopped when we got to Xi’an. As in, he pulled over to the side of the road as soon as we hit the city limits and declared “we’re here!”. To which I replied “well, yes, but we want to go to our hostel”. “Oh, I know, but you need to get another taxi. I’m just taking you to Xi’an. So that will be 300 yuan”. To avoid or at least minimize the dishonest tactics of taxi drivers I had been very specific about the deal being 300 yuan total for the three of us to go to Xi’an by taxi, but I never specifically said “our hostel in Xi’an” and he scored a victory in the end. There wasn’t much we could do, so we paid, got out, and began to wonder exactly where we were. However, as Laozi teaches the best results are achieved by yielding and adapting to the circumstances dealt you, and the Tao was with us at that moment. We were at a bus stop, and as a bus pulled up I checked its route and realized it was going straight to the stop outside our hostel. So we all paid our 1 yuan, boarded the bus, and spent a full 30 minutes on the roads of Xi’an before reaching our stop, quite satisfied we didn’t pay for another taxi for that distance. It was then straight to our beds, the shower, and the bar, in that order.

To our great disappointment the kitchen was closed and our cheesecake dreams were crushed, so we settled down at a table with our new friend Hans the beer. Feeling the need for a celebratory drink I suggested a round of shots of Jack Daniels, which each happened to cost approximately what I make in an hour, but were delicious. We didn’t begin the night until perhaps after 11pm, and before we knew it they were closing the hostel bar. A good 40 minutes before the closing time of 2am, the girl behind the counter came over to us and innocently but suggestively joked to me “wo zai zher shuijiao, hao ma? (I’m going to sleep right here, is that ok?)”, and we were too kind to deprive a sweet Chinese girl of sleep for the sake of alcohol consumption.

Knowing I had nothing scheduled for the next day besides lying down on a bus for 16 hours, and knowing it was the end of my time with two quite likeable friends who spoke really good English, I was up for keeping the night going. Nissa was of the same mind but Stefanie counted herself out, so the two of us went out in search of Xi’an nightlife. We headed for the street of bars right near our hostel, and wondered for a good many minutes why it now consisted of closed stores until we realized it was the next street over. Apparently even Binghamton parties later than Xi’an, and we took our seats in one of the only open bars, which was deserted. One of the employees was sleeping on a couch, and the black-and-white Communist war movie on the television made for a weird ambiance.

The next morning, we perused the hostel breakfast menu and spied a grand American Breakfast, with eggs, sausage, toast, and the works. After finishing these off I jokingly suggested we also get the cheesecake we missed out on the previous night, but before I finished my sentence they were out of their seats and ordering three pieces. That was probably the best decision of the day. It was genuine cheesecake, impossible to find in China (the closest cheese of any kind is eight hours from me in Lanzhou), and so good I was left speechless. However, we never did have champagne.

Stefanie and Nissa’s bus left a few hours before mine, so the fun ended at that point and we had to say our goodbyes in the hostel. I had accomplished everything I set out to do in Xi’an, but one or two more days would have been really nice. Or, not wasting an entire day on the way from Zhangye, either way. With a few hours to kill by myself, I ascended the impressive city walls and took a leisurely walk for an hour or so while looking out over the city, and then gathered my things and headed for my sleeper bus back home to Zhangye.

On the bus, I was quickly driven to a practically homicidal irritation by a mix of the aftermath of a funny lunch, a slight hangover, cramped conditions, and in particular the awful music blasting from my personal speaker on the ceiling, which was almost but not quite a foot above my head. However, I somehow fell asleep eventually and the return journey went considerably more smoothly than my trip to Xi’an. I waited for a bus in Lanzhou perhaps only an hour, rather than nearly twenty-four, and there was only one near-catastrophe. I awoke around 7 in the morning to see that we were pulled over on the side of a road, and a man on the bus was repeating “Lanzhou, Lanzhou!” However, we were obviously not at the bus station and I was also a little out of it still, so I assumed they were driving around looking to fill empty seats by calling out their destination to passers-by, a common situation. But a few minutes after we took off it dawned on me that we were definitely leaving a large city, and I said to the woman nearest me “I’m going to Lanzhou. We still haven’t arrived there, right?” to which she said in surprise “You’re going to Lanzhou?? We just passed there! Hey, the foreigner is going to Lanzhou!” Now the whole bus was able to get a good laugh at the incompetent foreigner who missed his stop, with the usual remarks of “ah, he doesn’t understand Chinese language!” So they pulled over with no small amount of amusement and retrieved my bag, while I added “sorry… I was sleeping”. So luckily I had to walk merely a half-hour back into Lanzhou with all of my luggage before catching a taxi to the bus station, and didn’t end up in Qinghai Province.

I would later hear the tale of Nissa and Stefanie’s travel difficulties on the way home, which involved being tossed into a moving bus they almost missed and later being woken up and dumped on the side of the road at 1am near, but not that near, the bus station that was their destination. It’s difficult not to have a love-hate relationship with China, and she’s a particularly tempestuous lover during long-distance travel. But truly there is more love than hate, and I’m coming back for more; I plan to stay at Hexi University at least one more semester, and likely one more year.