26 May-13 June 2016
Greetings from Xi'an China
If it is fungus for breakfast and noodles for lunch with adversarial Internet access, I know I must be in China again. Of course the fungus is not the kind we find between our toes and the noodles are not always white, long and squishy, and any red speckles seen on the mass certainly will mean the diner is in for a hot time. The feeling of Chinese in China is not the same as it is in other parts of the world. Surprised? That reality surprised me for a while until I realized human nature demands that we pretty much ignore the commonplace and focus attention on that which is different. Unless the ordinary is obviously dangerous, that which is unfamiliar is more likely to pose a threat to our survival and evolution has made sure that always gets priority attention.
I still remember vividly my first visit to Hong Kong back in March 1979. Everything felt exotic... until I deliberately focused on similarities... and then it became obvious that almost everything only superficially differed from that with which I had intimate daily familiarity. Mother Nature in her wisdom wants life to survive. Why, I don't know, except that it seems to be one of those inevitable emergent properties of reality in this eon. But, that is an issue for another time.
Internet access barriers are another matter entirely; that is man made by Chinese authorities who deem it the best way to protect the Chinese political system from outside corrupting influences... and they might be right. But, for foreign visitors who have always enjoyed free access to the world's information it is an intolerable interference with our right to learn anything and everything we choose whenever we choose, even stuff which might pose a threat to the status quo... perhaps especially because of that.
Every ruling power needs to continually justify its actions to anyone who disagrees with them in my opinion... for whatever reason. My present sensitivity is no doubt a result of not being able to connect to the Aurum Hotel's WiFi networks (aurum & WXaurum) and the frequent "network unavailable" messages preventing normal use in both my room #2112 and in the dining room during breakfast. With attempted sign-on unfamiliar messages appear: "Checking network requirements" and "Server not found" and "No Internet, Secured." One spot in the hotel lobby seems to provide the most reliable connectivity, so I retreat to that location in desperation when access is absolutely essential: like when updating the online version of postcard pages from the off line working copy.
My afternoon flight from Bangkok arrived in the fading light of dusk. Customs and immigration could not have been simpler; it actually felt like arriving in the US... complete with jovial English quipping agents! China has perfected the art of walkway direction graphics for foreign visitors and finding the transportation area quickly became obvious. Selecting the best airport shuttle bus proved more challenging as there are many routes offered. My repeated pleas in English for a bus to the Bell Tower area soon produced multiple finger pointing at a bus bound for the West Gate area.
My fading memory of the city failed to reveal just how far I might need to walk from the West Gate bus stop. Fortunately, Jack, my seat companion on the airport bus offered to walk me part way toward the Bell Tower Hotel. Jack speaks perfect English. Only twenty years old, he already has traveled internationally and manages one of the Xianyang International Airport security offices; a very impressive young man.
We walked together chatting about the city for a half hour before reaching his apartment building. There, he noted I'd find my hotel by continuing on down the street for "only a few more blocks." That few blocks took me an hour to walk as dusk turned to dark! Fortunately, being so close to the city's principle landmark and at the intersection of the city's two main boulevards, everyone knows the Bell Tower Hotel well and it is easy to find. Once inside however, the distracted reception staff spoke little English and appeared anxious to be rid of my interruptions.
Groups of Chinese guests milling around the lobby made such a racket I had trouble understanding what disjointed information the reception staff did try to provide during the frequently interrupted check-in process. To be honest, there were a few people conversing in a normal tone of voice, but the boisterous majority obviously needed to demonstrate they should be considered dominant individuals and in control by shouting! Although now in China, my questions about international Chinese travelers exhibiting such obnoxious noisy behavior still needed to be examined with ordinary people in other circumstances.
All rooms in the Bell Tower Hotel have a slippery tub and shower combination, something I learned only after returning to the reception desk to complain that in my advanced age wobbly condition I'd prefer a room with a non-existent walk-in shower. The receptionist's abrupt and unfriendly response shouted: "Stop bothering me; I'm busy!" Having pre-paid my two night Deluxe Room booking through the Agoda online agent, I resigned myself to fate's reality and retreated to my room looking for Saint Serendipity. There, she pointed to the magnificent view of the city's Bell Tower with its freshly planted necklace of colorful flowers illuminated by bright lights for nighttime enjoyment. This prominent landmark structure occupies the area in the center of the city's major traffic circle. The hotel's location really is the best in the city.
Always an important consideration in any hotel, Internet access is intermittent and unreliable. As there are no staff in the reception area capable of communicating in English, getting any help there is next to impossible. After two nights in the disappointing Bell Tower Hotel (which I found so pleasant last time here in 2008) I couldn't wait to move elsewhere this time. The place has gone to the dogs. It has not aged well giving the impression of deliberate neglect. I could no longer find anything to appreciate except the location and view of the grand Bell Tower from my "deluxe" room window. The room itself is not much better than a YMCA and at $75 is overpriced even for this tourist town. Only the view justifies the "Deluxe" label. With no advertised room safe and casual security, the noisy Chinese guests prowling the halls late at night made me nervous.
My room #523 is badly in need of major routine maintenance: the bathroom fan is very noisy and the room air conditioner is failing. Mosquitoes had a feast on Bellomy blood both in my room and at breakfast where I found the coffee machine broken... after convincing the inept dining room hostess the first morning her records failing to show my prepaid breakfast had to be wrong. The hotel has eliminated all but the standard Chinese dishes from the breakfast selections, making most items Western a thing of the past. When I discovered the fruit juices all to be sweetened flavored water I resolved to avoid the Bell Tower Hotel in any future visit to the city. Staff I encountered throughout the hotel badly need guest relations training and the few who spoke a smattering of English never used it to make me feel very welcome.
The first morning in the lobby as I pondered the day's activities, I discovered the hotel now allows taxi touts to unceremoniously accost guests inside the hotel itself! Naturally, I immediately went hotel shopping the minute I could and found several better options. I chose the 4 star $65 Aurum International Hotel a few blocks north-east of the centrally located Bell Tower and right next to the New City Plaza Park where local folks socialize in the most imaginative ways day and night.
The hotel is new and I'm glorying in the deluxe double room luxury complete with two bathrooms, one of which has the best walk-in shower I have ever discovered in any hotel. I managed to negotiate a long term $75 rate including a big buffet breakfast, the same as I had paid for the Bell Tower disaster the previous two nights! A day earlier while hotel shopping, I had discovered the buffet lunch at the Aurum with many of my favorite dishes including sashimi and for a budget price of around $10. Unfortunately, it is only available on the occasional days when the hotel is hosting large groups.
Everything in my room looks brand new and housekeeping has been consistently perfect. The tea making service includes two fresh packets of "3in1" Nescafe coffee each day in addition to usual four packets of tea. The television must be a dream for anyone who understands Chinese as the program options are endless, but for non-Chinese guests they are impossible. Exploring, I finally found the English language CCTV news channel and stumbled on several Hollywood movies with Chinese subtitles. The Internet WiFi is another matter; always terrible in the first room #1212, but occasionally great in the #2112 room they gave me after the first night. During my two weeks in the hotel the Internet access has alternately been acceptable and horrible. I waste a lot of time messing with the WiFi.
Just before leaving Bangkok I noticed the first stages of another dental infection. After four days of waiting for my own immune system to kick in, I reluctantly started a ten day course of Amoxicillin antibiotic. Thirty-six hours later the pain subsided substantially, though minor flare-ups and sensitivity to sweets continue to be worrisome... finally leading me to defer the planned next stop in Kunming and hurry back to Bangkok where my dentist can check out the problem.
All the lodging and health problems have been a distraction from my main objective of investigating independent travel possibilities for a visit to Lhasa, Tibet. When asked, the receptionists in the Aurum connected me to a travel agent who insisted the only way to get into Tibet is by joining a group tour, which he could arrange. "No thanks;" I replied. "I just want the government's Tibet Travel Permit. I'd like to make my own travel arrangements."
"Not possible." he responded and that ended the call. Back in my room I resumed the Internet search and found the government bureau issuing the permits has offices in many Chinese cities, including Xian! Finally locating an address for the Xian office, I walked down to the hotel address given only to find the hotel no longer exists! Returning to the Internet, everything I found repeated the admonition that ALL tourists must book their trips through a travel agent! So that ends my quest to see Tibet in this lifetime.
No one in the Aurum Hotel actually speaks good English though several people try very hard to understand my questions and make understandable replies. Everyone is friendly and attentive, especially Maggie, the Front Office Manager. Anyone who sits down in the lobby for more than five minutes will find a cup of tea magically appearing on the table in front of them. Most of the Chinese guests in the hotel I've observed have been polite and considerate. But, several groups of mostly men have disturbed the lobby and dining room with their noisy shouting, behavior characteristic of the traveling Chinese previously encountered.
As earlier mentioned, the disagreements between Google and Chinese authorities have resulted in most Google services becoming unavailable in the country... including Google maps needed for navigation on my Galaxy Note smart phone. Savvy Gmail users quickly found workable solutions to the problem. To my relief, one of the two Virtual Private Network services I'd installed on my Asus Transformer netbook is working occasionally so I can continue using my Gmail accounts as well. The VPN service that works for me is the free version of ProXPN which unfortunately doesn't have enough bandwidth for Netflix service over here. Internet connectivity itself continues to be a problem in most hotels however, so when things are working well I try to get as much done as possible before it stops working again.
There is a clock tower not far from the hotel and the carillon rings out every hour to the accompaniment of pidgins cooing right outside the window. Saturday morning at 06:30 I awoke to a loud barrage of military style music intermixed with exhortations in Chinese. Despite the fact there is a mosque only a few blocks away and a popular Muslim shopping district with all its colorful frenetic activity not far from the hotel, I hear no calls to prayer any time at all.
The popular New City Plaza Park is just down the street from the hotel and a variety of activities always are in progress there... an enjoyable place to stroll or just to pause and sit a while watching grandparents entertain the wee ones as custom has dictated for generations. On one walk through the park I heard what sounded like the popping of firecrackers, which turned out to be a bunch of fellows playing crack-the-whip or using the whips to keep their singing tops spinning. Another day I watched as an old fellow struggled to get his enormous butterfly kite airborne. Groups of ladies use the park for their morning exercise dancing. That small park is a very busy social center.
Xian is a walker's paradise. Even the downtown city sidewalks during busy periods of congestion allow mostly carefree strolling. The area around the outside perimeter of the city's massive wall has been converted into a beautiful park complete with wide artistically paved meandering walkways. Amateur musicians and professionals alike use the relative isolation to practice their art. The effect for foreign tourists is magical, creating an atmosphere reminding one of how things must have been in ancient times. A dozen major parks scattered throughout the city, all beautifully landscaped, also offer places to stroll and reflect.
As it appears the Tibet adventure is no longer practicable, I'll head down to Kunming for the remainder of my time in China before going back to Thailand for the return flight home on 27 July.
Fred L Bellomy
PS: A flare-up of the dental problems demanded the Kunming segment be deferred until after a new Bangkok dental appointment! To catch a 0745 flight down to Kunming I stayed in the Traveler Star Hotel (in the T3 departure lobby of the Xi'an Xianyang International Airport) where a bedbug feasted on my leg and non-English speaking night staff slept through my wake-up call at 0500. With only double rooms left that evening, I paid the full double rate of 438RMB (about $67 for 7 hours of being flat.) The hotel is on a balcony above the China Eastern Airline check-in counters, very convenient for early morning departures.
Feeling the dental problems needed urgent attention I searched for and found a connecting flight to Bangkok leaving a couple hours after arriving in Kunming and booked it. Ah, the joys of traveling to exotic places dragging along an aging body! FB