Christmas was perfect. The week before I spent nearly every day shopping for gifts. I am a horrible shopper, and most days I was rather unsuccessful. I am just a bad bargainer too. I don't like to bargain, and I never know what is an appropriate price to counter with. But, like a true Sides, I was able to procure all the gifts I needed the day before Christmas.
Since Christmas Eve was on a Sunday, the entire family met at a hotel where, after meeting, we had a large dinner and then played Dirty Santa. I must say that I have never played Dirty Santa well. In fact, I'm always the one who ends up with a can of possum roadkill (or spam disguised as such) or something far worse. But there was one gift that I really wanted: a can of root beer brought by Laura and Thomas from Shanghai who were visiting for a few days and staying with me. There was chocolate added to the mix, but what I really wanted was the root beer. Here they only have Pepsi, Coke, Sprite and Mountain Dew. I'm not exactly a soda fan, but I really wanted that root beer. So I played (through the awesome strategic help of Courtny) quite wisely and secured my ownership of the root beer which I shared with about forty people. It was like the loaves and fish: the soda stretched so that everyone could try a taste!
Christmas Eve night was typical. I stayed up till two wrapping presents. Laura, who used to be a teacher at the technical school and is now teaching in Shanghai, crashed early, but Orange, who was also spending the night, stayed up "studying". My place has become a fairly popular late night study location, and since exams are running rampant around here, there was hardly a night I didn't have company.
I arose early Christmas morning to bake some cinnamon rolls per the boys request. I'd never made cinnamon rolls before, but they were actually rather easy - just time consuming. Laura was up early too, and since Yve had my cinnamon, I woke her up too, and both girls joined the me in the kitchen where we had quite a nice talk. Yve's mom had come the week before to spend the holidays with her. She is one of the coolest and most fun people I have ever met. We had such a good time with her around.
Since my room was the most decorated and cleanest, the boys and Yve had brought all there presents to put under my small tree. Around 11 we began opening the presents. Dacy and Janice were here too, and even Cindy joined us for a bit. It was just like opening presents with the family.
Most of the afternoon we just spent hanging out and playing games. Then around six, we went to the Lewis' to have our foreigner Christmas party. The crew consisted of all of us from our program (13 in all minus Cindy who didn't come), Laura and Thomas, Yve and her mom - named Vera, by the way - Beth from Yichang who was staying with the Lewis', Christence from Wuhan who was staying with the Hill's, and a British couple we met awhile back who are teaching at a primary or middle school. We played a lot of games and ate fantastic western dishes and desserts. It was such a warm way to spend the holiday!
Wednesday night I began to feel ill. I went to bed around midnight while Orange and Alice continued to study in my apartment. I kept waking up during the night not feeling well at all. On Thursday I couldn't get out of bed. I literally slept until 5 pm that evening. And I only got up at that time because I had to go to class. After class I returned to my bed immediately. I only woke up when Derek called me to check out his apartment. He was at the Lewis' when he got a call from our waiban saying his apartment had water in it. I drug myself out of bed and stumbled into the hallway where there was so much steam rising from below that it looked as if smoke from a fire was climbing its way up. When I entered Derek's apartment, there was water gushing out of a pipe in his bathroom and half an inch or more of water pouring into his living room and both his bedrooms. I picked all his electrical cords off the ground while a group of repair men tried to stop the flowing water. They finally turned it off shortly before Derek arrived. It was really hot water that was pouring out so even his couches were wet from all the steam. That night he had to sleep in Brian's apartment and is now in the process of moving into the apartment right below me (though I'm afraid he might experience the same problem in that one considering the facet or something is constantly running water). Anyway, after that huge catastrophe, I went back to bed and didn't get out of it again until 3 pm the next afternoon. I just had no strength!
NEW YEAR'S EVE
But after that I began to regain my physical stamina while losing my desire to socialize. I stayed home all day that Sunday until the New Year's Bash at the medical school. I didn't actually care to party, but I went long enough to say hello to everyone. Then I slipped away to the Lewis' house where they were having a very quiet and lovely family New Year's Eve. I spent the evening watching a movie and enjoying not being a host and not being at a large social gathering.
Monday (New Year's Day) was Antasia's 17th birthday. I spent nearly that entire day reading, and by 6 pm - which was when Antasia's party was to begin - I still was feeling very anti-social. In fact, I spent nearly the whole party hiding out in one of the rooms on the computer avoiding the thirty or so people who had come to celebrate Antasia's birthday. Since I wasn't quite back to my normal self, I decided the best medicine would be to spend yet another night at the Lewis'. I was so right, too, about this because the next day I felt rested and relaxed and back to myself - for the most part. I went home that afternoon, took down my Christmas decorations, and finished my book.
On Thursday Derek, Darla, Mollie, Gun and I left Shiyan for Xi'an at seven in the morning. To get to Xi'an from here, you must take a train to An Kang and then another train to Xi'an. We were only able to get standing tickets, and when we boarded the train in Shiyan, it was so crowded that we couldn't even ride in one of the cars. We had to stand in the pathway that connects two cars together. I don't know how it happened, but somehow I ended up with two guys to my right and a lady and her grown son to my left. At first, it was uncomfortable because I was wearing five layers of clothes up top PLUS a coat and my travel backpack, three layers of pants, and two pairs of socks (it was a cooold day). But then things just went downhill from there. First, the guy to my right who was sitting on his bundle of something was falling asleep on me. Then, one by one, each person around me began falling asleep, again, ON ME. During the entire ride, there wasn't one time that my feet, legs, upper body and head were aligned. They were always in weird, contorted positions, and I wasn't able to move because these people were using my legs as pillows! And the first guy who kept falling asleep on me? Well, let's just say, that after that two hour ride, I'm pretty sure we should have gotten married (or at least exchanged phone numbers!).
But our four hour trip from An Kang to Xi'an was so much better. Again, we had standing tickets, but all of us were able to find a place to sit down. When we arrived in Xi'an, we found our way to the Muslim Quarter (through no help of the Lonely Guide map!) and had the first real food we'd had all day. We were all pretty tired so instead of looking around, we made our way to our new friend Nancy's house. Nancy is a sister who has been working in China for about nine years, and she always opens her house to anyone who is passing through. She's really nice, and we won't hold the fact that her bunny Qing Qing ate Mollie's textbook against her...
On Friday we left for the one thing we really came to see - the famed Terra-Cotta Soldiers of Xi'an. We had the full intention of going straight to the soldiers, but through some kind of miscommunication, we got off the bus earlier and bought tickets to the mausoleum of the famous Emperor who had the soldiers built. In fact, we had talked about avoiding this place because we had heard it wasn't worth seeing, but the grounds were rather extensive, and we ended up spending a pleasant two hours walking around it exploring. There were practically no other tourists there which was only because the timing was off-season for this tourist attraction. After buying a few souvenirs, we continued our journey to the Terra-Cotta Soldiers. There are three different pits we could view, and having been warned aforetime, we saved the first one for last. It was a good call because the first pit is certainly the most entact and incredible collection of the soldiers. It was so cool to finally see this awesome site!
That evening we met back at Nancy's house for their weekly meeting. It was cool to meet some of her friends and just spend time with people from another city.
On Saturday we slept late and then the Americans went to Metro, which is this huge, almost Sam's like shopping center where one can actually buy cheese and other western items. Metros can be found in many of the larger cities like Wuhan, etc., but in our small little Shiyan we make due with what Chinese items we can tamper with to resemble western foods. Since we were all running out of money, however, we didn't actually buy much.
After Metro we engaged in yet another American activity - eating pizza. Although the pizza was really more Chinese tasting, it was still nice to order pizza. It was also fun to watch Mollie use a knife and fork!
We had planned on paying to go onto the city walls, rent bikes and ride around it, but we went to the Muslim Quarter instead and shopped for cheap souvenirs. Again, I hate to bargain and this is like the Mecca (forgive the pun) of the bargaining world. I was looking at a knife carved out of the bone, and a woman came down to "help" me. I asked how much it was (my first mistake), and she said 300 kuai!! I think I audibly gasped as I put the knife back down. She said, "How much? You tell me." I said, "I don't have enough money." But she didn't let it go. She kept giving me her final friend offer: first 100, then 60, then 50, and finally 50 for the knife AND the little red book of Chairman Mao's quotations. I'm sure that I still got gyped, but at least I was able to get away from her!
Sunday morning we met with Nancy's group, and after a quick bite to eat, headed for the train station. Our train left at 1 pm, and this time we were actually able to procure seats. Seeing the country by train is such an awesome way to get to know the landscape. China is indescribably beautiful.
In An Kang (aka, Purgatory), we had to wait four hours before our train left. Yet again, we could only muster standing tickets. There is no door entering into the train station, just a massive whole in the wall so as the sun went down, the place became unbearably cold. I'm pretty sure if I had to stay much longer than we did, my toes would of had to have been amputated when we pulled into Shiyan! But we made do - we complained and laughed hysterically (or was it dementedly) a lot - but we made do.
When we boarded the train, we walked through a ton of cars searching for a possible seat. We entered one car where there would have been plenty of seats, but people were stretched out sleeping on two or three of them. At one point, a woman told us we had to go back two or three cars because we were in a sleeping section, but then another man, who seemingly had more authority, began waking people up and making them move for us. So we had seats for the four hour ride back! (If you're doing the math, the train from Shiyan to An Kang three days earlier only took two hours while the train back from An Kang to Shiyan was going to take four!)
Excitement on the train: I was just beginning to fall asleep when I realized that everyone was handing this police officer something. After much confusion and another officer later, we discovered that the two cops were searching for a "bad man" (that's Derek's translation so we aren't sure exactly what they were looking for) and were taking all the men's IDs and checking them against a Palm Pilot list of some sort. The cops were really nice, actually. One even took the time to sit down across from me and kindly explain to the woman next to him the differences between Americans and Englishmen (since she thought we were British). After the cops left, the whole car seemed to awaken and we enjoyed a rather lively ride the rest of the way.
About twenty minutes before our train was to arrive at the Shiyan train stop, the train stopped. Gun got up and started gathering all his things so we did likewise assuming we had arrived. But the doors didn't open so Mollie thought we were just stopping aways outside the train stop. We waited for a good bit, and when it was about 30 seconds before our train was supposed to arrive, Gun or Mollie or both realized we had, in fact, arrived at our stop and that if we didn't get off immediately, we would be on our way to the next stop several hours away! They were able to get someone to open the doors, and we tore out of them like our life depended on it. A few seconds after we stepped onto the platform, the train's engines started up and began pulling out. We were saved from what could have been one of the most disheartening train rides ever!!
We then stole across two sets of train tracks, jumped onto the other side of the short platform, and ran to the gates which were locked up. Darla said, "If you want something done right, do it yourself," and began pounding on the office door where a tired and rather unhappy woman emerged and opened the gates for us so that we might be devoured by the vultures known by their other name as taxi drivers. We did make it home safely, quite exhausted yet content after a more or less relaxing weekend.