Nomological Net

Stray thoughts from here and there. The occasional concern for construct validity. No more logic. Fish.


faults in the clouds of delusion

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Silk Road Chronicles: Day 1

The day that we left would in itself have been quite an eventful one even without the whole Silk Road business. There was excitement about our impending move out of Hong Kong, with multiple moving forms calling and emailing in at the last minute, with offers and counter-offers. I sent off a final acceptance email and closed down the laptop as the taxi waited downstairs, only to remember that I’d forgotten to send a final no to the other firm, and so I had to boot the machine up again. Then, in addition to all that, there was an unexpected inflow of welcome cash, and a Very Nice Person (you know who you are) piped up with some Very Nice News, which had to be forwarded to my kith and kin. All in all, a lot of action, and at the airport we treated ourselves to a couple of relaxed cocktails while waiting to board.

Our flight, China Eastern Airlines from HK to Xi’an, took off and arrived exactly on time. I was most impressed. We realized that there are over a dozen Chinese airlines hanging around the place, and to see this sort of efficiency from one we hadn’t heard of until the travel agent made the bookings was a pleasant surprise and a(nother) signal that the trip was off to an auspicious start.

Not so auspicious was the odor inside the plane. It may have come from the American undergraduate sitting in the row ahead (one of his female companions, boarding the plane, had said, “I don’t want to sit with Peter. Peter smells.”) or it may have been the weird old Chinese man with the lumpy cloth handbag and the stains on his trousers, who was supposed to get the window seat next to us but thankfully chose to sit across the aisle because all three seats were empty. We don’t know. We just know that I got a strong whiff whenever I leaned either forward or sideways, and while deplaning. TPB, luckily for her, didn’t.

The paper napkins thrown over the headrests all had advertising messages printed on them. It was the same message. Unfortunately for us, the only parts written in English were the company name, “Jiangsu Sunshine Group”, and the brand name – POMPEI – written in angular allcaps. Funny choice of name I thought – maybe in Italy they name their brands XIAN. We also got our first taste of the exotic Chinese English, in the duty-free catalog (the in-flight magazine was entirely in Chinese). I got really excited and wanted to rip the pages out. They were the last two pages, and had been added on to the catalog as inserts. TPB sternly didn’t allow me the liberty. So I’m left with a memory of a stuffed pink puppy that one is entreated to buy because it “looks naïve”.

We landed before sunset, so we got a look at Xi’an from above. It was definitely greener than I’d expected – I’d gone in with the idea that all major Chinese cities are smog-ridden concrete wastelands. This didn’t look that way. But then Xi’an is today merely a provincial capital – having relinquished its status as the nation’s capital several hundred years ago. The airport was reasonably large but not bustling with activity, and immigration was perfectly smooth. At the baggage carousel we noticed that no one was standing within fifteen feet of the gateway that the belt was coming through, instead everyone was crowded in towards the back part, so TPB and I smartly went and stood near the top of the line and picked our bags up as they appeared. On our way out we walked past a sign saying “First Class Baggage Collecting Area.” So that was faux pas #1.

Stepping through Customs I looked for and found a sign bearing my name. It wasn’t hard, right through the trip, to do that – my Indian-name sign standing out like a Goliath amongst the monosyllabic Chinese ones. The bearer of the sign was a small, smiling young man who introduced himself as “Louis”. He took us downstairs to the car park where a driver waited in a white Mitsubishi seven-seater.

The ride into town was about an hour long on the new six-lane highway opened in 2005 – very smooth and no traffic at all at 9 pm. All along the way, Louis chattered on in very good English, his sing-song accent and practiced diction reminding me of the girls who participated in declamation contests at my junior school, going “Hum paathshala isliye jaate hain…” In this individualistic style, Louis told us a little about Xi’an and a lot about himself. Born in a village near Xianyang, back where the airport is, his father is a schoolteacher and his mother a small farmer. They grow mainly wheat, corn, and some cotton. We were very interested to hear that he had spent two years in Botswana, from 2003 to 2005, working as a secretary for a road construction company. The job there wasn’t so exciting, though, evening entertainment for a small group of Chinese men in an African village consisted of playing each other at mah-jong, and that got old very quickly. A friend told him that with his English he should consider becoming a tour guide, so he came back to his home and took the provincial examination for guide-hood certification. He was very flattered when I complimented him on his English (“Ohh, you are just encouraging me!”)

Louis was very curious about Hong Kong. It started when I told him that we lived there, and we liked Sichuan food (and love dan-dan mian). That got him going – people sometimes say stuff but I’m guessing they don’t usually get that specific. So we talked a little about Hong Kong – the weather, the crowds, the pace of life. By mistake, TPB filled a little silence by saying, “It’s a great country.” I dug my finger into her arm and he noticed and looked away. Then, hesitantly, he turned back and said, “Can I ask you a personal question?” I was intrigued. I said “Sure!” – the American way. “In Hong Kong, do they want to stay by themselves or do they want to merge with the Mainland?”

Ah ha! I start answering, bringing all my academic and MBA waffling experience to play. We’ve only just arrived in China and I don’t really know how to pitch this one so it’s best to be as safe as possible. I went on for a bit about how opinion is divided, there are people who feel both ways, if you get something you have to give up something, and so on. He listened quietly and intently. When I finally ran out of steam, he said, “You see, here we only get to know what’s in the mass media.”

I realized, and part-remembered, that he meant the Chinese mass media.

As we neared Xi’an city and our hotel, Louis went over the next day’s program with us. We agreed with the gist of it, but told him about a couple of other requests. One, instead of the Sichuan lunch he proposed, I wanted to eat Yangrou Paoma, a local Xi’an specialty that had been recommended to me. And Two, we said that we also wanted to stop by the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. This was the building that had been built for Xuan Tsang (known in India as Huien Tsang) when he’d finally returned to China from all his travels (over the Silk Road), carrying several elephant-loads of Sanskrit Buddhist scripture which he then proceeded to spend several years translating to Chinese. Louis took note of the requests looking thoughtful, and said he’d confirm them both tomorrow.

We checked in at the Bell Tower Hotel plumb spang opposite the historic Bell Tower in central Xi’an. Two receptionists filled out our forms – one was called Rena Zhang and the other bore the more esoteric name Kinsey. Their English was decent, and funnily enough even the bellhop wanted to practice his English on us. The room he led us to was strangely shaped. Like a capital L, where you entered at the foot of the smaller bar. A small alcove ahead and tiny bathroom to the left, then a left turn into the linear expanse of the room – first a seating space with two chairs to the right facing a table and mirror, then a stand jutting out into the floorspace, on which was kept a television that could be swiveled 180 degrees, then finally the double bed at the far end. Windows facing the Bell Tower, all along the right side of the room. We staked out the area and put in an intrepid request for a wake-up call at 6 am. Louis was to meet us downstairs at 8, and TPB wanted to go for a quick walk to the Islamic Quarter, apparently very near our hotel, before that. A buffet breakfast would be served from 6:30 to 8.

TPB felt hungry but we couldn’t locate a room service menu. Neither of us had the strength to attempt a telephonic interaction at that hour. She pulled out a granola bar from our emergency store, and that was that. We turned in early – our first night in China, all the adventure lay ahead.


Blogger km said...

Yay! Much fun. Next time, post a pic of the naive puppy.

7/24/2007 11:53 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

that's a thought. as some consolation, the next post has one of a Dog with Attitude.

7/25/2007 9:54 AM  
Blogger Entropy said...

Came across your post on desipundit.
Am very jealous of you. Lovely pics.
Waiting to read more about your journey.

9/12/2007 12:43 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

thanks, and welcome, you all!

9/12/2007 8:41 PM  

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