My morning consisted of riding on a high-speed train, reaching speeds up to 300 km/h (187 mph), from Beijing to Xi’an. The ride mostly involved sleeping, eating, and staring at people, the train, and the rural and urban landscape. I also played an app game with Nilaani and Athena.
Six hours later, we emerged from the train and the station to meet Cindy, our guide to Xi’an. On the bus to the hotel, she taught us some more words and phrases in Mandarin, including “wonderful,” “so-so,” and “hello, pretty lady.” She enlightened us with information about the city, which was the capital for 13 of China’s 39 empirical dynasties. Xi’an covers a larger area than Beijing, but it has a noticeably smaller population and a lower population density.
A new beloved bus drove us to the hotel, which stunned me more than the hotel in Beijing. The hotel in Xi’an had a spacious lobby with tall ceilings, gold and marble-looking floors, walls, and fixtures, and a humongous sculpture of Emperor Qin Shihuang Di peering into the lobby from the opposite side of the outdoor courtyard. Our rooms sported what appeared to be dark wood, with some traditional Chinese art adorning the walls. Our hotel supposedly had a ban on the smuggling of watermelons into the establishment. None of us knows why, but a watermelon is an appreciably random item to ban without having a specific reason for it.
After dropping off our suitcases and bags, Cindy accompanied the group to Xi’an’s drum tower, the partner of the bell tower. The drum tower and the bell tower were used periodically throughout the day, one at night and one during the daytime, to update the people on the time of day and to signal when the city gates would close. The drum tower functioned as a historical site and as a museum to showcase drums used in China, furniture, and artifacts. Drum and instrumental shows are performed at the tower, but we seemed to have caught the tail end of a show when we arrived. So, we continued to meander through the tower, taking in the sights and sounds of Xi’an.
At a nearby restaurant, we feasted on assorted dumplings. Plate after plate of some type of dumpling kept spawning on our tables, until we were stuffed. Since I don’t eat pork, the restaurant served me my own personal kitchen sink of dumplings – chicken, vegetables, cheese, walnut, and more. I ate so many of these stuffed pockets of goodness that I swore that I’d be waddling down the street and that I’d have nightmares about dumplings.
As we digested the mass quantity of dumplings, we roamed the nearby Muslim Streets, staying together like sticky rice, as Cindy said, a simile that we would end up using for the rest of the trip. The Muslim Streets were a crowded, chaotic quarter of sights and sounds – vendors selling dragonfruit popsicles, cooks smacking noodle dough with enormous mallets, restaurant workers tending to whole roasted pigs hanging from racks. According to our Asia Institute program itinerary, all of the shop owners are Muslims, which makes sense but is still pretty interesting regardless, considering the general lack of religious affiliation in China.
People swarmed the streets. It wasn’t very hard at all to get lost in the crowds and to take a wrong turn. At one point, a small group of us – Maddie, Hanna, Dr. Li, Jordan, and myself, though I think I’m forgetting someone (I’m sorry if I did) – found ourselves separated from the main group, but WeChat made that an easy fix. We rejoined the rest of the group and commenced the trek back to the hotel.
Back at the hotel, Lauren and I settled into our new room. Several minutes later, I peeked out into the hallway to find a group of my classmates hanging out and chatting. Deciding to be social and get to know them better, I took a seat in the hallway with them. After a while of talking and goofing off, we explored the hotel, mostly looking for the pool so we could “splash.” We weren’t sure whether or not we could go in to dip our feet in the pool, and the man who was tending to the pool didn’t seem to understand our request. So, instead, I grabbed my psychedelic playing cards out of the 1960s, and the group of us – Chandler, Kieran, Jake, Brian, Shaymi, Justin, Sophie, Maddie, Chloe, and myself – convened in the hotel lobby to play cards.
Finishing up our card games and socializing in the lobby, and looking for something to do, the ten of us, minus Maddie plus Angeline, resolved to go out and wander around Xi’an. We stumbled into a couple of awkward and uncomfortable situations, and my laziness in changing shoes earned me a blister badge on my foot. However, on the bright side, the bell tower shone in beautiful, colored lights, the walk snuck in a good dose of exercise, and I had the chance to be a part of a newly forming friend group.
Today was our longest and latest day on the trip thus far, but I had my first taste of Xi’an and started to make new friends. Tomorrow, we’ll have our service learning experience and visit a temple!