2003.11.22 Beijing, China

Arrived here early yesterday morning. Since my last entry in Urumqi I've taken two marathon train trips and spent a day in Xi'an. The leg from Urumqi ("Oo-room-chee") to Xi'an ("She-On") alone was 36 hours. Xi'an to Beijing was a zippy 14.

There are four classes of train travel in China: hard-seat, soft-seat, hard-sleeper, and soft-sleeper. Hard-seat travel isn't too bad for a journey of a few hours. Seats are fairly close together, perhaps the width of those at a sports stadium, but with no armrest in between. Hard-sleeper offers individual berths with clean pillows and sheets. I've only travelled soft-seat once, but recall it being slightly more spacious and padded than hard-seat. I've never sprung for a soft-sleeper berth: the cost is nearly that of an air ticket. (Joyce is presently informing me that the hard and soft-seat classes have been merged since I last travelled by rail.)

Despite the length of the first train trip, we passed the time. Our compartment was shared with four Uighur women. Mike and I swapped them a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich for a fried-dough snack. We managed some fairly basic Uighur/English exchanges with the aid of a textbook. Stretched out in his top berth Mike ploughed through a novel while Joyce and I played various board games seated below. She's beaten me at every game of chess we've played, be they Chinese or the version with which the rest of the world is familiar. I taught her how to solve the Rubik's cube. (For some reason they're available at every other store in China.) By the time we got off the train she'd learnt the entire process.

We broke our journey in Xi'an, one of my favorite cities. It was the capital of ancient China for hundreds of years, so every corner simply oozes history. Colossal walls still surround Xi'an. Just to enter the city it's necessary to pass through one of the arches that defined the old city gates. I looked up the dimensions of the walls in a guidebook of Joyce's. It states that they're 12 meters (37 feet) high, 15 to 18 meters thick at the bottom, defining a ring of 14 km (about ten miles). They are still well-maintained.

Xi'an is best known for the nearby army of terracotta warriors buried alongside an emperor. There are dozens of equally historic attractions peppered about the area. But what grabs me is the energy of the city today: there's a sizable Muslim population; the azan can be heard five times a day in the old Muslim quarter. Dumplings are yummy and plentiful. Back in the 19th century the Germans set up a brewery, Hans, that still produces good beer. It's one of those cities, like New York or Hong Kong, that has a tangible energy at the street level.

Joyce and I left Michael in Xi'an and are now in Beijing. It's relieving to not have to check in and out of hotels and schlep around all my stuff. I'll leave all my textbooks and most of my clothes here when I return to Seattle, then retrieve them on my way back to Kashgar. It'll be convenient to take home the souvenirs I've picked up along the road, then return with those things I've missed but wasn't able to travel with (e.g. my hookah).

We went out to Korean food for dinner last night. That was quite a different experience from the watered-down versions available in Seattle. First, somebody would come to change the grill on which meat is barbecued every four minutes or so. Second, dishes which are in all likelihood illegal to serve in American restaurants were available. Along with the standard bi-bim-bap and bulgogi, we ate raw beef and diced apples marinated with garlic.

I drove Joyce's car back from the restaurant, which was quite an experience. I've driven in other countries and crazier situations, but it was the first time I've taken anything larger than a bicycle around China. Traffic is a bit scary by American standards, but nothing like the countries we were just in. Evidently everything is on offer these days in Beijing. We passed an Ikea, an A&W Drive-Through Burger restaurant and various other chains I associate with suburban America. Wal*Mart is due to open soon.

So we're now playing house at Joyce's apartment. We've fallen into the traditional roles of her cooking elaborate meals and ironing my shirts whilst I surf the Internet.

I'll try to pick up a ticket to return home for Christmas this Monday. Just being back in China has held a certain comfort for me, so I'm eager to return and begin my life in Xinjiang.