I’m back from three wonderful days in Xi’an, where I shopped, met lovely random people, was able to go out without being prodded or stared at (sort of!) and had my beloved Starbucks and Subway…..but it’s nice to be back in the country.  Xi’an has a population of eight million people, at times I felt as thought I saw every one of those people, but there’s also the added difficulty of finding places, or getting around.

Bus down was fine, I slept most of the way which was annoying as I’ve have to listen to two episodes of Desert Island Discs again that I’d downloaded for the journey!  However for only the second time in China I did this, without really realising….I got into an unlicensed taxi to take me to the hostel.  The bus station that I get into is waaaaay in the north of Xi’an and a lot of taxi drivers don’t like driving into the centre of the city – this guy started out fine, he seemed to know where he was going from my hostel-map directions, but then we hit the centre of Xi’an at about 4.30 and it was heaving – like central London.  The guy, who was only young and obviously didn’t come from Xi’an started to get really agitated and gesticulating for me to get out and get a bus.  So I had to call Frank, who is the sort of company main guy in Xi’an, to speak to the driver to tell him to take me to the hostel.

It was a little un-nerving, I knew that nothing bad was going to happen to me, but I had visions of me being tipped out onto the side of the road and being stuck forever.  I’ve not had any contact with Frank since the first time I went to Xi’an, although I know other teachers have used him quite a lot for issues they’ve had and I am eternally grateful to him as straight away he was able to talk to the driver.

So arrived at the hostel, check in then straight out to Walmart via Starbucks for a coffee and Subway for a sandwich.

Again I’d forgotten just how bad the humidity and smog is in Xi’an – walking back from Walmart which is about 2/3 kms from the hostel, I was dying, my eyes were red raw and all you could breathe were the fumes from the traffic.  But Walmart was a hit – I got pasta/Hunts pasta sauce which I think is from America/chocolate/tuna and digestive biscuits – real McVities ones – in English so imported in 🙂

I also got a bottle of white wine.  Rather worryingly as I went to walk to the wine section, an assistant came over and showed me to the bottle of white wine – either word has gone out throughout Walmart that I like white wine, or I’m not the only westerner who knows that Walmart sells white wine, which is literally impossible to find anywhere in China.  But it’s nicely chilling in my fridge for a night when I want to kill a student!

Socks/gloves and a massive thick scarf were also bought – costing £1 each, I did look at the clothes but they are really expensive in Walmart in China, not like in the UK where you can buy a tshirt for £3 – I guess everything is exported.

Friday was a frustrating day – there are so many things that I want to see, like the  Natural History Museum.  However only 2000 free tickets are issued each day, and the last time I went the queue was horrendous.  Apparently you can buy a ticket for 20 yuan – but it wasn’t clear from there website where you went to buy this golden ticket, and I was told by the girls in the hostel that it closed at lunchtime (wrongly as it turned out) so I gave up and tried to find the Stele Museum (which is a museum of caligraphy and Chinese writing).

I eventually found the building, but it was either closed or I couldn’t find the entrance!  I even took a picture of the entrance and when I checked when I got back to the hostel I definately had the right place, so another place I can tick off my list of things I want to do but cannot!

So I walked on the city wall for a couple of hours – which was actually really good, Xi’an city wall is very old and has been restored beautifully, and there were so many things to see as you were quite high up – unfortunately the tops of the tall buildings weren’t one of them because of the smog!

Lunch was Subway just along from the hostel, where I got talking to an Irish woman (Martina, I will love you forever!) as you do who was on a tour but had sneaked off from the regimented “it’s 2pm, now we do this”! and she took me to a shopping mall that had literally opened that morning……and which had the most amazing food hall which sold WESTERN FOOD 🙂  So we wandered around with me almost in tears at things like baked beans and hot chocolate and amost even better there was a Costa Coffee 🙂

Dinner tonight with was two Chinese people.  For years I’ve been doing work for TravelChinaGuide – basically they send me articles for their website and I correct them into proper grammatical English.  I love doing it, I get perhaps one a week and I’ve learnt so much about China from them – I email Nina the girl all the time but had missed her the last time I was in Xi’an.

I’d arranged to meet her at 5pm at her office.  Now rush hour in Xi’an is ten times worse than you can ever imagine……For half an hour I stood at a main intersection trying to get a taxi, swatting away the tuktuk drivers as I’m not going to go in one of those on my own.

However, I was getting desperate, so encouraged by the random female street sweeper, I got on a motorbike 🙂  So I went on a half hour journey from north to south Xi’an, on the back of a quite powerful motorbike, no helmet as they’re not obligatory in China, weaving in and out of buses clinging for dear life onto the driver, breathing in smog and fumes and giving the residents of Xi’an waiting for buses much amusement (I’m guessing only really desperate people do this!).  It was actually really cool, I think the guy was more scared of me as I was holding onto him and occasionally laughing like an idiot, but in fairness he got me to the building I needed to get to 🙂  All for 20 yuan – £2!

I’m not entirely sure I would do it again – on the plus side it was a good way to see Xi’an – and I’m not entirely sure my medical insurance would have paid out if anything had actually happened but it had to be done!

Dinner was fantastic – both girls’ English was perfect, the food was wonderful and it was so nice to meet people I’d been in email contact for so long.  A wander around a shopping mall afterwards was really good was as well, this being China it was about 9pm and everything was still open.

Saturday morning was quiet – a leisurely breakfast in the hostel.  I swear they change the menu every time I go there – last time I was able to get a sort of American breakfast, this time they’d changed it so I ordered bacon/eggs/hash brown and something that was supposed to be fried eggs but turned out to be a really runny fried egg on what purports to be toast in China – it is shown the grill for 5 seconds I think.  But it was so lovely, a real surprise.

On route to the Muslim Quarter as I wanted to see that when it wasn’t as packed as the National Holiday I picked up a Starbucks and got randomly talking, as you do, to a couple from Columbia – I thought it was just me who saw a western-sort of person and got talking to them, obviously not!  But they were so nice and showed me pictures of their trip to Sichuan, including the panda reserve and the Giant Budha which I’ve been so close to but never actually visited.

I found the Muslim Mosque 🙂  Again totally randomly, I wandered down what an alleyway that said antiques market – some stalls full of fake goods, some full of utter tat and some stalls of the most amazing artwork and calligraphy – I bought my name written in Chinese on a beautiful piece of paper (15 yuan!) from a stallholder called Helen who had perfect English – the artwork and painting were so pretty and I’m definately going to go back there.  And she also told me how to find the Mosque – keep heading down the antiques alleyway – no wonder everyone says they cannot find it!

I was so tranquil and so peaceful, you couldn’t hear any traffic or noise and the old buildings were amazing.

Back out to meet Ryan, at Starbucks a Buckland teacher who teaches in Xi’an – via an impromtu what I thought was bag snatching but turned out to be someone putting their arm around me so their partner/boyfriend could video us walking down the street……

It was really good to sit and just talk in english, albeit the fact we were sitting outside of Starbucks so were stared at/pictures taken of us/babies handed to us to hold for pictures…..Ryan says that never happens to him – it has got to be me – blonde/middle-aged and round draws the crowds wherever I go!  It was also good to just sit and talk about teaching in China, the good and the bad, as comparing stories and experiences means that you can improve or take back ideas to your own school.

Back to the hostel and in bed by 8pm – via a dodgy stall where I bought fake Ugg boots for 80 yuan!  They’re probably made of dog fur, but I had to get warm boots for the winter here and a quick stop at my new western supermarket to buy beans/pasta and hot chocolate with marshmallows 🙂  Bed in 8pm for two reasons – (a) I was tired and (b) the sheer pleasure of being able to lie in bed without 3 layers of furry blankets, just reading under a normal duvet in normal jammies is heaven.

So back to JIngbian today – via the train station, as the taxi driver seemed to have issues with the Chinese address the girl at the hostel had written down – cue much shouting on my part of “Bus to Jingbian” and frantically pointing out the English address in the vain hope he might suddenly have gained the powers of reading English…..but we got there…..

to be greeted by one of my students at the gate to get on the bus!  I think I’m becoming infamous in Jingbian, she wasn’t specifically one of my students, I teach Senior 1 and she is Senior 3 but for whatever reason she knew who I was – so I was introduced to her mother and grandmother and it was all really rather sweet.  Amazingly the bus wasn’t totally packed out so I was able to get two seats at the back, whereupon she decided to join me…..for the six hour bus journey!  In fairness it was actually really rather nice, her English was brilliant, she wants to be an engineer and study in London so I was able to show her things on my ipad to do with London.

Unfortunately she caught me having a cigarette when we stopped for a break during the journey…..I’m horrendously careful that no one should find out that I smoke – I don’t buy cigarettes anywhere near the school and never ever EVER smoke anywhere apart from the on the balcony – busted by a student for the first time in nearly 3 months……hopefully she will keep it a secret!

So it’s back to the cold – minus 2 tonight.  Its wonderful to be able to go outside and see the stars and moon – I got a picture of a vague bit of sunshine in Xi’an yesterday abut 4pm.  And it’s been great in the fact that this unexpected holiday means that I’ve been able to stock up on food, and chances are I’ll get another holiday at some point before Chinese New Year, given the past experience.  I love Xi’an, it’s full of history but it’s also so busy and so hard to get to see or do anything, that you get frustrated at times.  Here in Jingbian I know where things are, I go to school, I teach, I come home and read.  I try to keep as warm as I can, and I love the teaching.

If Jingbian could only be the same temperature as Xi’an, I’d give up the Starbucks and Subway and (almost!) the Western food.  But it’s so lovely and quiet here, I can jump in a cab and the driver knows where to go (the supermarket, even I can say that in Mandarin now!).  It’s quite a hard balance to find, city vs the countryside……however this week I have my food and my biscuits and I am now totally stocked up on winter clothing 🙂