It’s early on a warm and humid September morning when I walk out of the train station in Xi’an. It’s the first major Chinese train station I need to navigate my way through to find the two Chinese girls who are waiting for me at the exit. There are Chinese people everywhere. On the night train from Beijing to Xi’an I was already a bit of a curiosity. That doesn’t change here: despite the tourists that come to Xi’an for the terra cotta army, a tall white single woman inevitably stands out among the throng of short black haired Chinese.
An online friend has arranged for two of her English students to meet me. Of course, I’m much easier to spot than they are and the two Chinese girls find me quickly. First stop: breakfast. I surrender myself to their menu choice and soon our table is full of steaming hot food. I have no idea what I’m about to eat and for a European stomach it is anything but a normal breakfast. After the long train trip I can’t wait to dig in. There’s guan tang bao (steamed buns), the local specialty rou jia mo (bread filled with meat), hun dun (noodle soup with won tons) and qi shan shao zi mian (spicy noodles). I love trying out so many new flavours.
During my stay in Xi’an I soon discover that food is a big part of the city, also because the city has a large Muslim population. Walking around the Muslim quarter the scent of grilled lamb kebabs fills the streets. Stalls selling steamed buns are on every street corner.
This is only a glimpse of my first trip to China: late summer 2006. After spending over 2,5 years in Japan in the years before, visiting China before the Olympic Games of 2008 was one of the things at the top of my list to do. The three weeks there were a journey towards the West: from big-city Beijing my destinations became ever more remote to small towns such as Xiahe (home to an important Tibetan monastery in the Gansu mountains) or the Western end of the Chinese wall in Jiayuguan. It became a discovery trip filled with sensations, flavours, scents (both the good – amazing food – and the bad – I can write a book on Chinese toilets), stunning scenery, challenging negotiations with taxi drivers or hotel managers and much much more.
Little did I know that that trip was only the first of many, as I started a job working on China only two years later. Every trip since that time has its own share of stories and experiences.
And yet, those three weeks of travelling on Chinese night trains, sharing a cup of tea with a Tibetan monk, walking on sand dunes at the Gobi desert have helped me to get to know China in such a different way than I could ever expect to on my work trips all of which have been unique in their own way. Without that trip, and without having the experience of seeing what life outside of first tier cities in China is like, my view of China would be much more one-sided.
This was written for #blogawaynl
Curious about the full 2006 trip? Have a look at the Flickr slideshow