The next day I was meeting up with Stephanie and Jaques who are at a school a bus ride out of Xi-An so I took a brief breakfast (Dunkin' Donuts, since you ask) and headed back to the hotel to meet them. They arrived bang on time and we strolled down to the corner to get a cab, a walk briefly enlivened by a large group of chefs, in uniform, standing outside the big hotel letting off firecrackers. It really is a ubiquitous pastime.
A cab ride and a bus ride later and we were at their school in the Lintong District. The town was small and would, I imagine, be rather dull to live in but it had a supermarket and a few restaurants so it wouldn't be impossible.
Instead of concentrating on the town though, I was looking at the school. It was a very different affair to mine. To begin with it's a boarding school with all of the students and staff living on campus. Well, it is usually, with most of the staff and students away for the holidays it had a ghost town feel about it. There were a few hardy students playing basketball in the snow but otherwise it seemed more or less deserted. The school is spread out in a large number of buildings on the side of the hill and navigating between them in the snowy, icy conditions was tricky. In several places water had run down and frozen on the steps turning them into dangerous and difficult feats of mountaineering.
When we reached the apartment I was surprised to find it quite a lot smaller than mine and more spartanly furnished. I sat down drinking beer with Jaques and chatting and Stephanie set about providing lunch. She had told me weeks ago that they had bought an oven and that she would do something special for me and she did – she whipped a steak and kidney pie treat wit mashed potatoes and broccoli. And she followed it with an apple crumble.
And she put extra portions into paper bowls and covered them so that I could take them on my long train journey tomorrow and have them for lunch.
We had a long day just chatting and walking around the school site – which may be out of the way, but has much cleaner air than Baiyin and some spectacular views. All the same I prefer where I teach simply because the facilities are so much better.
When I returned to the city it was already dark, but that was to my advantage, as it gave me a chance to wander around and take some night photographs. At night Xi-An is something of a fairy land with the city walls and ancient buildings lit up dramatically and even mundane structures like the post office bathed in multi-coloured lights. For new year, with lanterns strung between the lampposts and all the trees covered in meshes of blue lights it was spectacular. Up on the city walls I could see more lights – the lights of the lantern festival – but it was late and I couldn't work out how to get up to it so I resolved that I would visit it tomorrow, albeit in the less ideal conditions of daylight.
And so I did. I was leaving the city that day but my train wasn't until early evening so I had plenty of time for another walk. This time I started with the park that runs in a narrow strip along the outside of the south wall. Pinned between the wall and a busy main road it ought to be an unpleasant place but it isn't. The path may be straight but it leads through pleasant rows of trees and parkland, stark but still beautiful at this time of year. There are frequent sections filled with all manner of exercise equipment – ping-pong tables, treadmills, climbing bars, rowing machines, badminton courts, mysterious devices probably copied from the Spanish Inquisition – and all of them were being used by people of every age.
AT the other end of the park I found an entrance that would get me up onto the wall and strolled back through the now unlit lantern festival. Even unlit it was about a mile of incredibly elaborate displays of lights on a "round the world" theme. I kicked myself for not trying harder last night to find an entrance.
Having done it once already, finding my train was much easier the second time. The station was probably the most crowded building I have ever seen. An enormous hall with locked gates at the far end was rammed solid with people. The signage was clear and I gradually wormed my way to the section I needed and waited. Every now and then one gate would be unlocked and the people who wanted that train would fight their way through. Eventually it was my turn.
I quickly found my berth and was disappointed to find it a top bunk. It was just a little too short and a little too narrow for me but the clearance was only two feet making it almost impossible to sleep in comfortably. I stowed my bag and tried. It was a twenty eight hour journey and I wasn't looking forward to it.