Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Guests in Zhangye, More Camels

I'm now back home in Binghamton, New York, for a month during the extensive break we receive for the Chinese New Year/Spring Festival. But before I go into that, allow me to recap my last two weeks in China, which were spent with Stefanie and Nissa, my American friends I met up with in Xi'an in October. Around the time I finished my final exams, they came up to hang out for a week or so in Zhangye (or the "desert" as they've been fond of calling it), partly to see me, but mostly to ride the camels in nearby Jiayuguan. The two-humpers do have their charms, I'll admit. They also wanted to see what my school is like, and meet my friends, especially Andrew. People from Britain seem to grossly underestimate how many American girls like their accents.

I was mildly worried about entertaining friends for an entire week in Zhangye, which has exactly one tourist draw (and the Buddha was not even taking visitors, as it turned out). They braved a soft sleeper train compartment with chain-smoking middle-aged men in purple underwear for 30 hours to get there, so I figured it had damn well better be a good time.

Much of the time was spent as a foursome with Andrew, who was gracious enough to allow Stefanie to stay at his place, and was often in a state of bewilderment at our American slang, pop culture references, and peculiarities. Stefanie is a master of humorous accents, and at one point Andrew had to admit "I'm ashamed that you can do a better Scottish accent than I can." Somewhere in the midst of his mastery of Chinese language, his renditions of "Scotland the Brave" on harmonica and accordion, and his quaint use of words like "bloomin'" and "good job!", he won a place in their hearts.

Most of the items on our to-do list involved food, from Big Plate of Chicken to Spring Rolls, and there was involved discussion at the end of the week about which meal was the best. Some of my students, namely Art, Roger, Hope, and Ann cooked for us one evening, which was old habit for me and Andrew but a novelty for Stef and Nissa, who live in hotel rooms and aren't allowed guests. They excitedly told us English jokes and stories about elephants in freezers and the like, and we ended by treating them to rousing sing-alongs of 90's classics. I don't know if this sounds very exciting to everyone back in America, but don't underestimate the entertainment of a sing-along after a year away from home. At other points they met a few other students we teach or are friends with, including Joy, who was of course elated to meet them. I wish I had pictures of the way she walked down the street with my friends, holding hands and smiling away. At one point she stopped and looked very closely at Nissa's face, and proclaimed "your eyebrows... they're yellow!"

We also visited China Fire no less than four times and otherwise showed the girls what life in Zhangye is about, but certainly the highlight for my two friends was the day trip to Jiayuguan, a tourist draw 3 hours from me I wrote about when I visited back in May. It was their first visit to the Great Wall of China, but more importantly, their first camel experience. During our hour-and-a-half tour of the fort (7 hours round trip on the train; didn't arrive till 4pm), we clambered over stairs and the reconstructed Great walls, the two of them barely controlling their excitement as we searched the horizon for two-humpers. They were ready for the day, not only researching the diets and life expectancies of camels on the internet but preparing a "while on the Great Wall" to-do list that included "play nose flutes" and "do the sexy dance". When at last I spotted the camels, unrestrained joy poured from their hearts, and we quickly descended the stairs so they could, at long last, mount their camels. After the 10 or 15 minutes riding around the area on camels and taking photos, we eventually made our ways back to Zhangye having accomplished what was, from the sound of it, one of the highlights of my friends' entire lives. A couple of days later we said goodbye to Zhangye, and continued our planned journey to the east of China.

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