Thursday, March 17, 2011

Day 4 – From Good to Hell and Back Again

We wake up early (me too early, about 5am) and head to the breakfast buffet, where they even set out French fries to accommodate their American guests. We decide we’ll do some sight-seeing before we have to board a sleeper train for Xian. We head to the Temple of Heaven , which is a delightful place.

There are elderly people in large groups dancing, doing some ball dancing, exercising outside and just generally being endearing.The temple is gorgeous and has lots to explore. We take a few hundred pictures then head to lunch – a great corporate looking restaurant that lacks the characteristic Chinese mystery taste that is prevalent in the more local cuisine.

After lunch we head to the Lama temple, which is the only one of its kind outside of Tibet.

The temple is amazing, without an English speaking guide, it’s hard to tell what each building is for, but looking at all the Buddhas, which culminates in a 5 story high Buddha carved from a single tree is such a unique and beautiful experience. Everywhere people burn incense in large pots, and kneel to honor Buddha.

Last we head to Bei Hai park, which is a park surrounding a large lake. There is a large temple, and a nice hike up to it that precedes it. There is a cave, but it apparently closed before we got there!

We catch a shady rickshaw ride to snack alley (where Ingrid and I are briefly separated and I am sure I am being kidnapped) where we grab some street food for our train ride.

We arrive at the train station after an hour long cab ride. The train station is like a GIANT airport filled with a million people. While waiting in line we meet an American, Matt – who has been backpacking around Asia for a few months or weeks and is really excited about everything. We make plans to meet up with him once on the sleeper. As we enter our train car- it becomes apparent that we are fish out of water. We enterthe car with some very interesting characters, carrying rucksacks, food and pots for tea. The car is smelly, has wet floors, and a single hole in the back of the train for men and women to use for a toilet. I am beyond horrified, and wonder what happened for my life to take such a turn in the wrong direction. Ingrid apologizes profusely, saying she had no idea it would be this bad. We are in a room with 6 people, and we have the middle bunks. There are a father and daughter above us, and apparently grandma and grandma below us. Regardless, we put our stuff in and sit out in the hall to think of how we will survive this. We are both distraught, and words cannot really describe the wretched condition of the train car. It is if we are human cargo, perhaps being shipped off to a concentration camp – only with more tea (in fact, the only commodity on this car is a hot water tap for making tea).

Ingrid decides that the only thing we can do is upgrade. Her faith in God is renewed as we find that the young girl in our bunk speaks English, and can ask the conductor if we can upgrade to a 4 person car. After much trouble and too much time, he tells us that for the equivalent of $100, we can upgrade to a room with just two of us. We agree (of course), nearly sobbing with joy. As we leave, the other passengers begin cat-calling, asking us where we are going in Chinese. Even one car up conditions improve, the crowding lessens, and toilets appear. As the train cars go up (we were on car 5, and are moving to 14) the train becomes nice, even pleasant. The 4 person rooms don’t even really have people in them, and have doors, and access to sinks. When we reach car 12, we know we have arrived, as the attendant has to unlock this corridor with a special badge. Our room is a two person room, complete with a private bathroom, 2 tv’s, a closet, a table, and a nice little chair…. And even bedskirts. I’m not sure what people picture heaven as – but that day, at that time and place, that room was heaven to me.

We stay awake talking of the horror we felt earlier and how there would be no possible way to sleep in a room with 4 other people, the lights on, no window, no door, and two Chinese people climibing up and down our bunks all night. A cart comes by and we order some beer in celebration, and soon retire to enjoy our private room and the 14 hour ride to Xian.

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