Blessed to be a witness

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Sunday, March 6th

Dirt dumplings

I really liked Xi'an. The city centre is still surrounded by the original Qing dynasty (18th century) walls, which are massive and imposing, with watchtowers at regular intervals, and all traffic must enter and exit via the original gates. The people were for the most part friendly, and the Muslim quarter was great.

What made it even nicer was that the Shuyuan Hostel in which we stayed, right by the South Gate of the walls (and round the corner from the Prada and Louis Vuitton shops - I kid you not - into which nobody ever seemed to walk), was a great little place. A bit grimy, but then most places in China are, but the staff, mainly students working part-time, were exceptionally friendly, and the restaurant with its coal-fired oven in the middle of the floor, resident cats, good chef, and genial ambience, was a place we really enjoyed hanging around in when we weren't being ripped off or exploring the city.

We serendipitously arrived in the hostel's restaurant just before their Friday night 'dumpling party', at which guests are taught to make the regional speciality, which are not really western-style dumplings at all - more like ravioli or wonton. 'Johnny', the resident chef, brought out a load of pasta dough, which was chopped up into lots of little bits, which we rolled out then stuffed with a teaspoon of vegetable or meat-and-cabbage filling. Not particuarly hard to do, and we didn't learn much about making them really, but it was good fun to try, with dozens of hostel residents participating. The whole lot was then cooked for us and given to us to eat later on, and all for free.

And so another train ride - this one being the last we will endure/enjoy while in China - to the south-west city of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. I predicted that the further west we went the dodgier the trains would become, and so this one was. Proper Stalinist decor, presumably built in the 1950s or 1960s. Xi'an station was absolute pandemonium, with hundreds of people pushing and shoving in the queue.

An old friend of mine from Hong Kong days, who speaks fluent Mandarin, told me that Beijingers refer disparagingly to their less sophisticated country cousins as "dirt dumplings", and certainly there is a type of peasant for whom this description is rather apt. We have taken to referring to the spitting, staring kind of person as a dumpling for short, which is rather rude, especially since we're visitors to their country, but you'd understand if you had to put up with them staring slackjawed at you as well. When I get a gawper, I stare right back which, unlike in India where people just keep on looking, embarrasses our dumpling mates and they look away. Especially if I stick out my tongue or wink at them. These dumpling types are also the people who were barging, elbowing, headbutting to be the first on or off any kind of transport. We were very nearly squashed, and fights were starting to break out, so we squeezed ourselves out of the crowd and stood in the lobby of the toilets. I really truly wish I knew what was going on in people's heads when they do this sort of thing, since their behaviour is entirely counterproductive, but I suspect I never shall.

Our cabin/compartment companion was a Chinese woman who didn't communicate with us much (I reckon her heart might have sunk to have to share with two barbarian types), but she gave us a banana each, and spent the evening sending text messages and singing quietly to herself a lot of the time with a very beautiful voice.

The dining car was dingy and painted in a lovely faded hospital green, with incredibly uncomfortable chairs, and it truly felt like we were in commie-land. We, and some Scots and German fellow-travellers we'd met in the hostel, drank a couple of somewhat unpleasant and warm beers there, of the 'Hans' brand, and had a very nice chat into the evening, made the more appealing by the good nature of the people working on the train. While the staff were eating I went down to get another round of beers, and one cheeky chap grabbed me and stuffed a railway workers' hat on me, made me salute, and took a picture. A right laugh we had. Or perhaps more accurately they had, at my expense. Another railway worker grabbed the Scots bloke's arm hair, and called him a monkey - but in jest. I slept only fitfully, but it was a relatively pleasant journey despite the train stopping every few minutes, as it wasn't an express.

I awoke at 3am from a very weird and vivid dream, the details of which have escaped my memory now as dreams so often do, and lay in my bunk, eventually wondering why the train was stopped for more than ten minutes. I peered out of the window to see a line of about three or four hundred dumpling passengers milling slowly off the train in some country town, carrying huge bags of rice or whatever else they buy in the cities. There were so many of them that the train had no choice but just to sit while they all got off.

I woke again as dawn broke, to see greenery for the first time since we arrived in China. The weather was warmer, and the villages we passed were much more spruce and attractive, with old stone temples sometimes visible, and above the redbrick houses, the small plots no longer submerged rice paddies, but fertile with lush dry-land crops, including little yellow diversions of oil seed rape.

We arrived on time, as ever, and eventually guided our taxi driver to the new hostel (nobody in developing countries appears able to read a map - indeed one mate when travelling always hands people maps upside down, and if they don't turn it the right way up again, he ignores their directions), Sim's Cozy Guesthouse, from where we're going to get our tickets to Tibet. We're currenty waiting for our room to be prepared, and will later go exploring Chengdu, and hopefully get some of that hot hot spicy hot hot hot Sichuan food later.

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