November 7, 2010

Hello, Hi, Excuse Me... Umm, Ladies and Gentlemen.

There’s something about the distinction of a “world wonder” that inevitably leads to disappointment. I mean, the Terracotta Warriors were cool and I’m glad we saw them, but wandering the Muslim Quarter and finding our way onto a party bus was much more interesting.

Our tour guide, JiaJia (my Chinese name) was insane.
“Hello, hi, excuse me, umm ladies and gentlemen,” was her go-to phrase. She could be mid-conversation and suddenly an alarm clock would go off in her head and she would be back into tour guide mode.

We went on a hostel-sponsored tour of the warriors, and there were only six of us so it was a lot of fun. We had a graphic designer from Germany named Dirk, a Mexican named Adrian, who has lived in China for four years (he met his French wife while in China), two British girls, Jo and Charlotte, traveling Asia for a few months, and Alex and I.

The tour was scheduled to leave at 8:45 a.m., so we went to the café for breakfast at around 8:15. We told the waitress we were going on the tour so we needed something quick, to which she replied our only option was toast.

We asked for yogurt and granola. “Too long,” she replied.

Fruit salad maybe? “Mmm.. only if you get it without sauce.” Sure, we’ll take it sauce-free.

We waited and waited for our toast and fruit salad. At 8:30, the waitress told us that there was no way for us to have our fruit salad because it could not be taken to go from the hostel.

Umm.. Alright. We got our money back and continued waiting for toast. JiaJia kept pacing between our table and Adrian’s, he had ordered the “Mexican Breakfast,” a Chinese take on huevos rancheros with tortilla, eggs and beans in a pseudo-traditional arrangement. He was shoveling the food into his mouth, and JiaJia looked like she wanted to murder us all.

At last our two pizza boxes of toast came out. Six pieces of bread with one jam and butter per box. We asked for extra and were bluntly informed that we would have to choose between extra jam or extra butter. Good grief.

In all fairness, the hostel’s restaurant had fantastic coffee. Their cappuccino was the best I’ve had since Italy (or maybe it’s just been a really long time since I’ve had a proper cappuccino).

Also, one of the baristas named Linda loved Alex and I and asked us all sorts of questions about the Midwest while we drew our posters advertising North Dakota and Kansas.

The warriors were cool, but it was the biggest tourist trap I had ever seen. The Chinese totally eat that scene up though. For lunch, we were driven to a humungous building that required us to walk through stall after stall of souvenirs until we entered a giant ballroom where we were fed along with other herds of foreign tour groups. The only Chinese people in the whole building were trying to sell us things.

After seeing a number of markets in very different parts of the world, I’m convinced that there are three or four factories that supply the entire planet with dust-collecting knick-knacks.

Thus far, China by far has the most interesting ones (porcelain naked baby? Done. What about a t-shirt of Obama as Mao? Unfortunately I can think of too many people all too willing to showoff our President looking like a communist..). It’s all here.

Want knockoff Northface, Abercrombie or Lacoste? Check out Xian’s Muslim Quarter. Alex proudly bartered for a very cool knockoff CK watch there. I bought some porcelain chopsticks, mostly because we don’t have any in our apartment and I suppose it’s a cool thing to bring home.

However, that’s the only souvenir I’ve managed to buy. Sorry, friends. It’s all junk. I need to find a legit market (maybe Silk Street in Hangzhou?) before I buy presents.

The Muslim Quarter was the most interesting neighborhood I’ve been in. Street vendors were selling all sorts of morsels like deep-friend pumpkin patties with sweet sesame seeds on the inside (hit).

We also had cold rice cake that deceivingly looked like grilled pineapple (miss). Cold noodles in peanut sauce, that we argued to have cooked for five minutes before remembering it’s a local delicacy (hit, sort of).  

Then we sought out a kebab and ended up with a deep-fried quesadilla-type thing filled with vegetables (unhealthy hit). Finally we ended the night in a cafeteria where we taught two girls how to say “bullfrog” in English as we ordered sweet and sour pork from them (hit).

Trust me, the portions were small and Alex and I like to split things, so we’re not that big of fatties.

Our last day in Xi’an was spent on a bus and in bars. It was a marathon day in the city, and the editor of the English magazine had scored a free post-marathon party bus. Our friend we visited was a good friend of his, so Alex and I got to go along.

We snacked on Papa John’s pizza (with garlic sauce!) and drank an endless supply of beer with American and European runners while getting a tour of the city.

It was a beautiful thing. We didn’t think about work or our annoying university or all of the crap waiting for us in Hangzhou. We just basked in the random awesomeness of the moment.

A quick 24 hours later, we were back in Hangzhou having lived through a very bumpy flight. I sincerely hope this week is less bumpy than our flight was.

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