Monday, April 09, 2007

A Day Away

I've found myself in a rather obsure place in north central China. I'm sitting in an internet cafe right now and there is a guy standing behind watching intently as I type. All day I've been feeling a bit self-conscious. I'm away from my comfort zone, away from Beijing. I'm in a place that doesn't see a lot of foreigners. Their not afraid to point, laugh, or yell "hello" when I walk by.

So how did I get here? I decided with my current wealth of free time, I owe it to myself to get away and see something new. On Wednesday I purchased my $15 train ticket to Pingyao. It sounded like a fairly interesting place from its description in the LP (Lonely Planet Guidebook). "The only place in China with its ancient city walls still intact" and, as a special bonus, it is not far from Beijing. That was enough; I was sold.

I arrived at the train station late yesterday afternoon. Maybe I've said this before, but you can't truly appreciate how many people are in the world until you find yourself in a Chinese train station. Or a Chinese subway. Or a Chinese bus. Or on any average street in China. At Beijing West Station, there are at least 8 waiting rooms. Each is the size of a high school auditorium. Each is packed with people. There are people sitting in the chairs, people sitting on the ground, people laying on the ground, people standing. There is barely room to move. I made the tragic mistake of arriving an hour and a half early.

I got on the train around 6:30. As I walked through the carriage, all eyes were on me. "Let our beautiful foreign friend through," one older lady said in Chinese as I tried to squeeze by. I'm pretty sure her husband made a derogatory comment. It's moments like those that I pray for fluency so that I can one day take them by surprise with a sassy comeback. But that day has definitely not come. Defeated, I climbed up to my upper bunk and settled in for the 10 hour ride. The train was off by 7:00 and I passed out soon after.

I was woken by one of the train attendents. It was nearly 5am, almost time for my stop. I got out of bed and realized I was the only person she had woken up. I was the only person in the carriage getting off at this particular stop. Where was I? What the hell did I think I was doing? My stomach dropped and a little panic set in. It was pitch black outside still. The train was beginning to slow. I was hoping to see the lights of a nearby city, but nothing. I quickly scanned my LP-how big was this place? Pingyao: population 40,000. Forty-thousand people! In China, that's barely worth a dot on the map.

I got off the train and looked around. From the entire train, only a hand full of other people got off. I exited the station and was immediately approached by a sea of touts.

"Hello!" "Hello!" "Hello!" "Come! Come to my hotel!"

"I already have a hotel booked," I explained in Chinese.

"You come with me. Five yuan (60 cents). I give you ride."

I didn't have the strength to argue. So I settle for a ride to my hotel. The sun is beginning to rise. I can do this afterall! I checked into the cute courtyard hotel. Only $3.75 for a bed. Granted, the place smells a bit like pee, but what it lacks in smell it makes up in charm. After a quick (ok, 5 hour) nap, I hit the streets and walked around. The streets are cobbled and lined with little shops selling tea, "antiques," shoe insoles, and lots of other fabulous crap. This is what I call vacation.

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