X is for Xi’an, China.
I’d been on holiday, in Mongolia (see photographs of Mongolia), then travelled by train back into China, to Hohhot, to Beijing. And then, my first time in China, onwards to Xi’an as the schoolboy archaeologist in me wanted to see the Terracotta Army.
On arrival at Xi’an airport I’d booked a bus tour of the city’s sights. “Would you like to be on a Chinese tour, or a tour for Foreigners with English speaking interpreter?” the travel agent had asked me. “Chinese one please”. It seemed like a good idea at the time, a jolly wheez, but then on the day of the tour I did feel like I’d made a bit of a mistake. After all it would have been good to discover the history of the burial grounds we saw, to understand the history of the Terracotta Army, to be able to read the menu at the free-for-all riotous roadside restaurant we stopped at for lunch. But hey, I like experiences.
Xi’an was fun, a few days of walking, up on the ramparts, photographing flags blowing in the breeze at dusk, bartering for Mao’s wee red book and calligraphy brushes, pointing at noodles that I wished to eat.
Then, time up, time to fly back to Beijing. I’m out at the airport, and the plane seemed to be delayed. I sit, not quite knowing what is going on. The time on the board keeps changing, more sitting, more waiting. To alleviate the boredom I turn on my UK mobile, and to my astonishment, a minute or two later, it rings. “Jeremy?, this is Claire at American Express in Hope Street”. Ah Claire. For a few years Claire was my go to girl for flights to corners of the globe, Claire at American Express travel agency in Hope Street, Glasgow. Claire and I were pals, we’d discuss her decorating of her flat, of holidays, of the travel business. And now, here I was in Xi’an, and here she was on my phone. “My computer tells me you haven’t reconfirmed your return flight from Beijing to UK” she told me, and indeed she was correct, I hadn’t, “You have to do it as soon as possible or you may not get a seat”. Such service, so great.
Eventually the Xi’an to Beijing flight is called, and onto the plane we go. And we sit down. And we wait. And wait. Nothing happens, no doors to manual and cross check. Then an announcement, everyone back off the plane. Back into the terminal. More waiting. Then a couple of hours later it’s called again, back onto the plane.
On the plane and we take off, up, up and away from Xi’an, high over Communist China. Then just as all was going well, “bing bong, this is your captain speaking”. Well, I’m guessing that’s what he said, it was in Chinese.
More words of Chinese, Chinese this, Chinese that. Then all of a sudden, a Chinese dragon roared. All around me Chinese men, women and their single child policy children erupt in an outpouring of Chinese frustration, shouting, cursing, anger, confusion, and the venom of a 1000 dragons. Me? I’m sitting in my aisle seat looking around, slightly worried. Where’s Claire when you need her ?
A stewardess approaches and I try to ask her what’s happening. She looks flustered and says to me “Dalian, Dalian”, “Dalian?” I ask. “Dalian, Dalian, no go Beijing” she says in her best English. Great, now where the f*ck is Dalian I wonder. Suddenly feeling very lonely I grab my Lonely Planet book from my bag, flicking through- ahhh Dalian, that city just to the right of Bejing on a different peninsula, just beside North Korea. Great, how convenient that will be I think, as I need to reconfirm my UK flight.
So on we fly, and then land in Dalian. Off the plane and into coaches, general mass Chinese Confucious confusion everywhere. We drive through Dalian- looks nice, and I send text messages to home in Scotland, and incredibly get replies. At least someone speaks English I think.
The coach arrives at an anonymous looking building which turns out to be some sort of naval academy, and out we all pour, 3 billion Chinese and me. All into reception, running, straight to the desk, 3 billion and one people looking for a room for the night. The poor receptionist is lost, hidden behind a swarm of locusts. She hands over slips of paper and keys, and they’re grabbed, people taking them, elbowing back through the crowds, gone into the night. I’m at the side of the crowd, elbowing my way in best photographer fashion, “excuse me, excuse me…”, my manners lost in a tumultuous heaving mass of humanity. The crowd is lessening, people have rooms numbers and keys, only a few people left. My lone English voice is getting louder, and finally, the angel of mercy that she is, the receptionist scrawls a number on a piece of paper and shoves it at me. I look at it, a room number. A young Chinese guy sees me and tells me “breakfast, 7 morning”. “She-she” I say.
With trepidation I knock on the room door, and it opens, a Chinese man stands in his white Y-front underpants. A cigarette in his hand. Behind him the television roars football. “Good evening” I venture. He looks at me, lets the door go and sullenly retreats to his bed at the far end of the room. There are three beds in the room, I take the one nearest the door, leaving a courteous one bed between us. With no attempt at conversation we watch football- the great common denominator of male humanity. He smokes. Somehow finally the lights go off, and we try to sleep.
In the middle of the night three things keep me awake, – a mosquito, Mr. Y-Front’s snoring, and the beep of my mobile as a text message arrives from an ex-girlfriend in England. All disrupt the night, all are equally annoying.
Next morning comes quickly and I’m up, wanting out of the nicotine fog of my room, leaving Y-Fronts to his morning cigarette. Downstairs breakfast is up for grabs, and I nod to the young guy who alerted me to the morning plan. And then, tea, egg and rice devoured, onto the coach, back to the airport.
A few hours later I arrive in Beijing, to find there’d been a massive electrical storm the previous night with hundreds of planes diverted. I make my way straight to the airline desk for my onward flight to UK in a day or two’s time. And Claire in Hope Street is right, I needed to re-confirm my ticket. The desk try, and then tell me there are no seats left at my ticket price, I need to pay another 80 pounds. I argue. But no, no eighty pounds, no seats.
I think of Xi’an, of Claire, of confusion, of the mid-air dragons, of Dalian and Y-Fronts. Tiredly, I pay the eighty pounds.