Friday, August 20, 2010

Day 20. Biking through Xi’an

Luke has gone native! Since there are several ways in which this expression can be used I better explain. It first comes to my mind by the fearless way in which he plows across traffic in a bicycle, as if traffic laws were not even a recommendation but a downright annoyance.

I imagine I could also use the expression in the sense that he is beginning to think like a Chinese. Perhaps it is the fact that his physical features straddle a fine boundary so sometimes he is regarded as a foreigner (in which case he draws the stares and admiration of children), and sometimes he is regarded as a chinito (in which case he draws in rapid-fire Chinese conversation). Have you noticed how he squints his eyes when he looks at you? Well, Chinese young women find that squint adorable, so he gets a lot of smiles and batting eyelashes. No wonder he is thinking on moving to China after he finishes college.

OK, now that I have permanently embarrassed my travel companion it is time to get started with my narrative: Trying to be economical we decided to rent bikes and enjoy a Sunday in the city on the cheap. Our first stop was a very large city park just outside the old city walls. It is the equivalent of Chapultepec, in that lots and lots of people had come to walk, to do tai-chi, to practice the Chinese violin, to kick the hacky sack, to paddle in the lake, to visit the zoo, to play in the mini-fair, and even to practice ballroom dancing.

After a thoroughly enjoyable hour of people-watching we got back on the bikes and headed for the North and South Lakes, a few kilometers out from city center. We were having a good time, even though I had to cringe at Luke’s lackadaisical disregard for city traffic. (I have to revise my former statement that Chinese are terrible drivers. They are very good in the sense that they will come within millimeters of running you over, but once their bluff has been called they will actually stop and let you step in front of them. I am just to weak on the knees for playing the chicken game with a bus!)

There we were, a good 10 km from city center, when my back tire went “bang!”. What to do? Buses here don’t take bikes, and a bike is too large for the little taxis they have here. Luke offered to strap the bike to his back, but that was a bit too much to expect from the lad, so we parted company with the understanding that he was to continue the tour and be back at the hostel by 2 pm, while I would simply walk the shortest route back home.

It was a long but nice walk. I made a few stops to buy pop frozen bars, take pictures, or just stare at interesting shops. The bird pet store was particularly interesting, not only because all sorts of wild birds were flying around the cages, but also because they also sold these small straw cages (about the size of a tennis ball) where a giant, noisy cricket was to be had.

I made it home around 1:45 pm, and Luke was already waiting for me. The folks at the hostel were really mortified that the bike had failed on me, and they refunded me the whole rental fee. I need to praise the wonderful staff of all International Youth Hostels we had stayed at, and very particularly Ken and Wen from the Xi’an hostel, who have not only been fabulous hosts, but have also become close, caring friends. They are wonderful examples of the young Chinese, who appreciate the value of tourism and go out of their way to care for their charges!

We figured that lunch had to be traditional and cheap, so we asked our excellent hosts and were directed to a noodle shop just outside the old city wall. Great! Throughout our three weeks in China we had not had a straight bowl of noodles, so it seemed fitting to close our stay in this wonderful city with a treat. And what a treat it was! For 28 yuan (about US $4) we had two delicious bowls of noodles with chives and beef, a giant Coke, and a half liter of cooold beer. Best deal in town :)

As our last hoorah we climbed the old city wall (now beautifully restored), rented bikes anew, and did the 14 km circuit along the crown of the city wall. This wall is immense! It must be a good 30 m high, and at the crown 15 m wide, so when you ride along it you are high over the city, and facing a wide avenue ahead of you. Nice place to ride and think.

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