July 10th 1984

posted in: The way back | 0
Xining people

One of the wonders of Xining – brace yourself, it’s food again – is that it has good bread.  Which is to say, excellent bread, being both non-sweet + crusty.  It is, admittedly, white, But I’ve never been one who’s gone in in such a big way for brown bread.  Good bread is good bread, brown or white… like people really.  So we bought some (bread, not people) for the journey ahead.  To our chagrin, mine especially, we had not got around to buying any baked beans, + now it was too late.

We met Jude in the stn.  She had already bought her ticket, but offered to help us buy ours.  This was a great comfort.  Buying tickets is always stressful; palming off fake student cards makes it doubly so.  And Jude speaks passable Chinese (or some Chinese, or excellent Chinese, I can’t say) so that would make things a lot easier.  And there was no real trouble – a degree of doubt + some bureaucratic officiousness, but 2 tickets to Turfan, so no more ticket hassles for quite a while to come.  It was only when we came to get on the train that we discovered we had reserved seats for Lanchow.  This was foolish of is, of course, as the train began there.  It did mean we couldn’t sit with Jude, but ungratefully, I regarded this as rather a boon than otherwise, for I felt that conversation might pall over the 6 hours or so of the journey.  6 hrs!  The merest commuter run compared with some of the ones we’ve tackled recently, + have in near prospect.  The time passed very quickly, + of course we read.  We are both reading the book on China, taking alternate chapters, its current relevance meaning we are both reluctant to surrender it to each other.  At Lanchow, Jude got straight on to a connecting train to Turfan, but that was something like a 40 hour trip, + we had decided to take a break.  So we had our tickets re-validated for the evening train, checked our  bags in, + caught the bus down the main road to the hotel.

We still had an unused ticket for a plate of dumplings in the dumpling shop, so the first thing was to use that.  I shall really miss the dumplings when we leave, I know.  I’ll have to get Val to have a go at making them when we get home.  When we emerged the rain had arrived, + not seeing fun in wandering the streets in it, we took refuge in the reception lobby of the hotel, where we read + wrote until it went away.  It did, about an hour later, so we went shopping.  I needed a new pair of shoes, + tho’ it wasn’t easy to find them in my size, I eventually settled for a pair of cheap white plimsolls.  We then wandered back to the restaurant near the hotel, the one we’d been too late to get anything at before.  One of the major reasons for getting off the train had been to have a good meal there to strengthen us, mentally at least, for the journey ahead.  It was, however, an unmitigated disaster.  It was the worst meal we’d had in China, + perhaps the most expensive too.  The dish we’d had most hopes of was a sort of soufflé in a cast iron pot, but it was no more interesting than not particularly nice scrambled eggs – we left feeling disappointed + fairly nauseous.  And the dumpling house was far too crowded for us to drown our sorrows in a bowl of beer (+ maybe a plate of dumplings to crush them.)

On the walk back to the stn, we passed by a street shoe-mender, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to have my shoes mended – for about the 4th time, the stitching holding the upper to the sole is in the process of dissolving.  The youngish man seized my proffered boot with alacrity + set to work immediately. Naturally, with a couple if foreign friends there, we soon attracted a large crowd, so much so that a lady, presumably with some sort of official responsibility for public order, told us all to go around the corner.  I suppose we were causing a public nuisance, or blocking the King’s highway or something.  The shoemaker worker very fast, tho’ not, I would say, particularly skilfully or carefully.  But the job took quite a while.  He sewed most of the way round both shoes – unnecessarily, I think, tho’ I grant he has a greater expertise.

When the job was finally finished, + my boots handed back + approved, there came the tricky part.  It seemed to me this was the part the crowd had been waiting for, the payment.  I had no idea what would be considered a fair price, + the shoemaker seemed embarrassed by the whole business, + reluctant to quote a figure.  I thought he was saying something like 2 yuan, so I handed that over – it seemed to me a reasonable remuneration – but clearly he didn’t think it enough.  It was all very confused.  Clearly the negotiation was provoking strong reacti0onsin the crowd, with some taunts + some anger, but I couldn’t at first tell who it was directed against, until somebody grabbed hold of him + shook him by the hair, + a young man who spoke English came round to lead me away, telling me I had already paid above what was reasonable.  It was a pity the incident had ended in acrimony, but I was grateful for the intervention of others on my behalf.  Could one imagine such a thing in Indonesia?

At the stn we got into conversation with a Chinese man, just a little younger than me, I’d say, who spoke good English.  He was an atmospheric physicist, + was going out n the same train as us, tho’ not so far, on a meteorological project.  He proved to be a huge help, first of all trying to get us a hard sleeper berth from the chief conductor aboard, then, when that proved unsuccessful, bullying a conductress in one of the less crowded carriages into bullying a couple of the passengers who were taking up more room than they should into moving up + let us sit down.  Relative comfort, but only relative.  I had a very bad night, for I have not been able to master the art of sleeping sitting up.

Simply standing still in one place was often enough to provoke a crowd into forming, so obviously it was doubly interesting when we were forced to stand and wait for my shoes; suddenly there was a story as well, and it seemed everyone wanted to see how it turned out. I think that foreigners are far more common now, so I imagine the novelty factor has decreased a little. But on the other hand, maybe not…

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