Blessed to be a witness

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Wednesday, March 2nd

Wu's on first

And so to Xi'an, via the brand new Beijing West railway station which, I can safely say, is the most impressive railway station I have ever seen. Absolutely magnificent modern Chinese architecture, with dozens of platforms, and very well organised. As we pulled out of the station in the dark, the lights above the platforms stretched way into the distance as far as I could see, and looked like a firmament of extra-big stars, that eventually dissolved into the streetlit Beijing sky.

Our soft sleeper compartment (or is it cabin? M claims it is, but I can't remember. My brain is going soft), when we arrived at it, contained a Mr Wu, who was an ideal travelling companion - spoke a bit of English but kept himself to himself. Didn't smoke horrible cigarettes or drown himself in disgusting Chinese spirits into the wee hours, didn't spit, and didn't snore.

The train wasn't as plush as the one from Shanghai, but it was still pretty nice, with a very comfortable dining car that we stayed in until it closed - to give Mr Wu some privacy. The cabins/compartments/whatevers had been retrofitted with TV screens at the end of each bed, showing about ten channels, one of which was in English. Unfortunately it was looping Jurassic Park III. But this time we slept pretty well, and arrived in Xi'an not feeling too blasted.

As M napped to make up for lost sleep, I went exploring. This is a very Muslim area, with a Muslim quarter in the city, and several prefectures around the city are almost completely Muslim. There is a huge number of Muslims in China, something few people think of when they picture the country; there's even an autonomous Muslim province adjacent to Beijing. Though there has been some seperatist violence from the Uighur people in the far west province of Xinjiang, here in Xi'an they seem pretty well integrated.

I walked to the Great Mosque, which was closed to visitors due to the unlikely presence of someone Malaysian and very important (probably the Prime Minister, from what I could gather from the street vendors) saying their prayers, and the streets were thronged with hundreds of PSB, but there was no tension - they seemed very relaxed and jokey. (We visited the Mosque a couple of days later. It appeared just like a Chinese temple in everything but the Arabic that appeared occasionally on the architecture. I was interested to note that the usual Muslim ban on portrayal of objects or animals was not in evidence at all: dragons, turtles and birds abounded.)

In the little alley that runs alongside the mosque there is a great little market, and it was here that I managed my best bargaining yet. The day before, in Beijing, I finally made the decision to dump my very expensive and quite rubbish backpack. I should have known it would be bad from the pretentious brand name - TravStore - but the Sunday Times gave it a good review and I'm a mug. I bargained with a guy from Y580 down to Y180, and was feeling very pleased with myself. Even more chuffed because my rucksack is a "North Face Extreme 80", and, as I told M, hers isn't Extreme, so therefore she must be jealous.

It was Extreme too. As in falling-apart-on-the-first-day kind of Extreme. A non-Extreme rucksack might have wimped out and only self-destructed after a week, but this thing had spirit: the top of it ripped, and the stitching on the day pack straps fell apart on our way to the train. One bargaining tool I had employed was "this is a copy", and the guy selling it actually admitted such. But as I looked around the stalls in Xi'an I realised that my Extreme 80 was actually a copy of a copy, and the original copies were much better made. So I managed to get another one, and a lovely piece of jade, for only Y100 - that's ten yoyos, or seven quid in your sterling of the realm. So the original red Extreme 80 is now sitting in the corner of the room sulking, while my shiny new blue one is doing Extreme things to my clothes.

I was in my element wandering the sidestreets of the Muslim quarter. Not too many starers, friendly people, wonderfully exotic, endlessly fascinating. This is what I travel for. A little old man came up to me, saying "Hello hello where you come from?" I said "Ying gwo, I er lun" (England, Ireland). He thanked me profusely and walked off. A few minutes later he came running back and shouted "I er lun. Duboolin! Duboolin!" with a huge smile, bowed, and disappeared into the crowd again. And later on, leaving the hostel, who did we bump into but Mr Wu?!

Booked a ticket to Chengdu, but there were none available until Saturday night, so we'll be here a while longer. Going to see the Teracotta Warriors tomorrow on a hostel-organised tour.

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To comment on this, or just to say hello, mail me at jim@crowaptok.com.