Continuing my diary of my 1985 trip to China; here we get a hotel and meet a spotty oik.
7.30 am. Arrive in Xi’an. Outside the railway station there is a sort of quarry filled with people, that looks like something left over from a Cecil B De Mille epic. Everyone stares at us, and when we stop to look at a map, we are in the middle of a crowd six-deep. They’re all desperate to practise their English, but hello is the only word they know.
Everyone is adequately dressed for the cold, but its all utilitarian blue and green. Even Cheryl and Elspeth are wearing the standard padded coats. It makes them look like Victorian teenagers. I’m in my ski suit from C&A on Oxford Street, which the assistant assured me was loved by people in Finland. It’s in a reasonably unassuming greeny grey and mustard yellow, thank god. Neon pink here would stand out like a fan dancer in church. Not that we don’t, as westerners, already stand out.
Xian is the capital of Shaanxi province and was capital of the Chinese Empire for almost 1,000 years between the 11th century BC and 25 AD. Apparently it was bigger than Rome, Constantinople or Baghdad. The first emperor Qin Shi Huangdi had a million workers toiling to make wide boulevards and eight huge palaces. Nothing left now but a handful of monuments.
There are alleyways teeming with people, and filled with stalls selling everything from a bowl of noodles to a handful of fireworks. There are hardly any cars, but there are thousands of bikes. Some are tricycles pulling carts – there was a man pedalling along with his wife and child in the back. There were two men pushing a whacking great tree trunk down the road, one end balanced on their shoulders, the other on what looked like a pair of pram wheels.
We get to the first hotel in Cheryl’s guide book, but the lobby stinks of cats and they want to charge us £5 a night which is way too expensive. The cat smell is overpowering too, which is strange because cats and dogs are rare in Chinese cities. I think of the stalls that we have just passed; a lot were selling bracelets which looked like they were made of cat-tails.
Then we get to the Renmin Dasha, The People’s Edifice. It is certainly an edifice. The architect must have been having bad dreams about Versailles. Walk up the wide steps and into reception. We are all very, very tired.
The girls have got me a student card so I don’t need to pay tourist rates. I had to have a Chinese name for it, and there was a significant amount of arguing about what this should be. Names in China are tricksy things, you see, with many meanings. Elspeth’s name is Ai Bai Yang; Ai translates as Chinese mugwort or wormwood (used in Chinese medicine to alleviate feelings of unease and general malaise), Bai as white or snowy (or reactionary and anti-communist, which can be a bit dodgy considering where we are), and Yang as poplar. Cheryl is slightly hacked off with her name which is three random characters put together to sound like her name, Xie Li Ar – (pronounced sea-air lee ah) and which she thinks is very ugly.
On the safe side (this was all done before I arrived, so I had no say) they went for a flower name for me. My Chinese name, they have decided, is Chrysanthemum Wang. Or possibly Autumn Flower. Wang Jiu Wah. I’m slightly embarrassed by the idea of being called Chrysanthemum. But, secretly, I quite like it.
The desk clerk is a spotty oik who looks distastefully at us, and then at our ID cards.
‘Your names are very provincial,’ he says. ‘Nobody who is anybody is called Chrysanthemum or Poplar these days.’
He asks me when my visa began. ‘I’m sorry, I forgot to look,’ I said.
He looks at me in disgust. ‘Your English is very bad. It is not I forgot to look. It is, I forgot to looking.’ He tapped a small book by his side. ‘I read this in Chapter Seven of my grammar book. You are entirely wrong, I think. Yes?’
‘No!’ we shout, practically in chorus.
The desk clerk opens his mouth, looks at us again and then shuts up and writes our names down in the register.