It’s strange how we form our impressions of places. There are millions of towns, villages, cities, forests, rivers, oceans, and mountains for us to visit, yet with the exception of those few places we live, we rarely give any of them more than a few days to wow or disgust us. Poor Xi’an. While I’m sure she must be lovely on certain days and that many of her people are friendly, we left her disappointed and disenchanted. The thick smog/smoke layer was taxing on our lungs and despite the abundance of historical sites, we tired of the touts that plague them. This, we felt, was a place where people wanted to rip us off and charm was in short supply.
The nail in the coffin for Xi’an was sealed by the men who are often the barometer of a city’s mood and honesty, its cab drivers. Our exit from Beijing had been smooth and we expected our departure from Xi’an to be the same. I spoke to the girl at the front desk of our hostel the day before and asked her what time we should leave for the train station and how we should get there. We agreed that taxis were our best option since negotiating crowded local busses with the little ones and our bulky packs would be next to impossible. The normal rate for a cab within the inner city does not exceed $1.25, so we were happy to spring for two. She said she couldn’t arrange to have them at the hostel at the appointed hour, but that we should flag them from the street when the time came. When it did, I asked her for help since we were loaded down. After ten minutes of trying she informed us none would stop on this side of the street and that we we would need to cross and flag our own. This made no sense since it was a busy road we were on and all the cars seemed to be mysteriously traveling on our side of the street. With no other options, we undertook the difficult crossing. The sidewalks that for the past few days had been quiet, were packed with noisy Chinese shoppers who gawked at the nomadic Americans. Apparently our decision to leave on Saturday had complicated things immensely. After 15 minutes of walking and trying to flag down the two cabs that passed on this side of the street, we approached a group of four cabs parked on the sidewalk. With sinister grins, they quoted us a price of 40 yuan for each cab, 8 times the legitimate price. Disgusted we moved on, passing through the town’s busiest intersection, a rotary around the famous Bell Tower. After traversing a pair of crowded underground passages (think Times Square on New Year’s Eve), we came to a taxi stand where at least 10 cabs were lined up. Most flatly refused our request to go the station. We couldn’t understand this since it was only a few kilometers away and we had money in our pockets.
Now we were running out of time and sweaty to boot. One driver agreed to take us for 30 yuan and found another who agreed to do the same. By now the little kids had tired of carrying their small packs and we allocated the ever-juggling bags between the two cabs. Within three minutes we had stopped at a sidewalk a few blocks outside the station. The drivers insisted we exit, but we were confused. Why couldn’t they take us all the way to the station where we could clearly see lines of waiting taxis? When it became obvious they would take us no further, we jumped out and began removing bags from the trunks. Always worried about someone driving off with the big stuff, we focused on the computers, cameras, and the kids. Two minutes later we were surrounded by a group of pushy porters and the dodgy cabbies were gone. As I scanned the pile of bags I realized so was our tiny green day pack which masquerades as Asher’s backpack. I panicked. What was in it? Passports? Train tickets? Wallet? I opened the razor-proof, steel mesh lined day pack that I use for the really important stuff and realized that the passports, train tickets and other critical items were in fact inside. My wallet was in my pants pocket and contained all my cash and the train tickets. I knew the missing pack had my valuable and irreplaceable Rough Guide (technically many guidebooks are illegal in China since they present a non-party version of Chinese history and politics), our only hairbrush, one set of keys to all our locks, earplugs, business cards of people we met in Beijing, bandaids, nail clippers, maps, and possibly my allergy pills (ugh!). The one thing I had placed in the missing pack that didn’t belong was my….oh, it’s painful to write…60GB video iPod.
One of the pushy porters suggested I call the police and give them the number of the cabbie, which of course, would be found on the meter receipt he had given me. Right. The meter, that handy little device that none of the drivers seemed to be using today, either for us or their Chinese clients. I was crushed. I had thanked the guy profusely in my pathetic Manadarin for agreeing to take us and made small talk with my 100-word vocabulary. I had told him where we were from, where we had been, where we were going, and how much we loved his country. He had complimented me on my Mandarin. In our five-minute encounter, we had transcended the simple driver/drivee relationship and connected on a human level. And even so he had sped off with my bag.
With 20 minutes left before our train departed, we had no choice but to trudge the remaining distance to the station and leave the green bag behind, sacrificing our high-tech gadget and up-to-date information to the ancient city. Xi’an now joins Egypt as one place we’re unlikely to return.