XI’AN: SCAVENGER HUNT TO THE SILK ROAD

This weekend calls once more for adventure as I am travelling to Xi’an for two full days. This time, I rejected the option of commuting on a night train given my far-fetched experience from two weeks ago. Although, this well-thought-out change of strategy made me learn at my own expense that Chinese flights are rarely on time. Indeed, it is not uncommon to have flights delayed several hours. In fact, delays carry over flight after flight while increasing the chances of having the last take-off of the day to be completely cancelled. My flight was indeed the last one that day with a scheduled departure at 10:25pm. Luckily enough, it was not cancelled. But, it was still delayed two hours to a revised departure time at 00:25am. That meant I would land in Xi’an at 2:30am if all goes well. From there, I had to make it to my hostel and get the minimum amount of sleep my body requires to be proficient the next day. As mentioned, I am only in Xi’an for two full days. So, there is no time to get lazy and extend unproductive time in bed while adventure awaits me. But, all of this is too much forward-thinking for now as I am yet to figure out the best way to get to my hostel. And so began the scavenger hunt.

[02:30AM] Getting to Xi’an

The Xi’an Xianyang International Airport is located about 60 minutes away (by car) from the city. So, it might get pricy to get to civilization by hiring a cab (for around 150 Yuan). Nevertheless, let's keep that option in our back pocket and try to find a more optimal mean of transport (in the middle of the night). When I exited the airport's post-security zone, my attention got caught by a counter which seemed to be providing some sort of transportation service. Is it a taxi desk, a travel agency or a car hire company? Who knows? Everything is written in Chinese anyway, so why not go and ask to find out what these signs are all about? I hope they can speak English (fingers crossed!) - a luxury I don't often benefit from in the Jiangxi province (where I am currently based for work). My usual routine while approaching a stranger for help is to use the Google Translate app and engage in an English-Mandarin dialogue with my phone as my official translator. If you haven't used this app's voice feature yet, it works like a charm and is a true life saver! Luckily, the lady at the booth did speak a little English, so I placed my phone on the counter with my passport over it as I purchased a shuttle bus ticket to the Ibis Hotel (Shuttle Bus #7). It only cost 25 Yuan, so it was definitely the optimal option. My room for the weekend was not booked at the Ibis Hotel, but I knew that from there I could get a cab to my hostel for less than 25 Yuan. Both the smile on my face and my relieved sentiment quickly disappeared as I beheld the white Apple logo on an all-black background and a progress bar right under it... My phone initiated a Factory Reset mode! How could have this happen? I probably typed in the wrong password into my phone without noticing as I was walking to the shuttle bus. The only plausible explanation I could think of is that it must have been my passport tapping on my phone screen. Now that my phone is completely wiped out, it shows nothing but a white screen displaying sequentially some greetings in different languages ("Hello! Bonjour! Hola!"). I am now on a bus with no access to any information, including Google Maps (to track my location) and most importantly, the name and address of the hostel to which I intend to spend the night at. At this point, I might as well use my phone as a bookstand and it wouldn't make any difference. This happened to me in the past. So, I know that my phone is now completely useless until I find a Wi-Fi connection to restore my latest iCloud backup. This could potentially take a few hours to my already complex enough race to a bed.

[03:45AM] Finding a Wi-Fi connection

I am now sitting on the shuttle bus ambitiously trying to make sense out of the Chinese roadsigns on the highway. The man sitting next to me had a smartphone in his hand and was looking at a navigation app. So, when we got to the first stop, I asked him if he could show me our current location - a request to which he responded positively. I was indeed at the right stop. So let's hop off and get to the Ibis Hotel that I can see from where I'm standing. Now, I'd like to see one of you try and explain to a young Chinese lady with a poor level of English that you would like to use their Wi-Fi connection, but don't have a reservation at their hotel and don't want to check-in either. Also try to explain that the reason why you need to use their internet and squat their lobby area for (at least) half an hour is for you to restore your phone and find the address of another accommodation where you have placed your reservation. You might as well go: "Excuse me! Could I also come back every morning and get a free breakfast since it's not included in the room rate at my hostel?" My phone was taking too much time to restore and I didn't want to abuse of the receptionist's hospitality. Luckily, the hotel had an Internet station in the lobby that guests could use at their convenience. All I had to do is to access the Hostelworld website and log into my account to fetch the hostel's name and address. I then pushed my luck a little bit further and asked the lady if she could write down the address in Chinese (just in case) as my phone completed its backup restore. Thank you, young lady at the reception of a hotel at which I did not stay!

[04:15AM] Finding the hostel

On my way out of the Ibis Hotel, I started walking toward the nearest main road as it would be my best bet to catch a cab on the fly. I managed to find one within minutes. The driver did not speak any English. Good thing I had the address written in Chinese! I usually take place on the co-pilot seat and fire up Google Maps in front of the driver so he understands that he won't be able to pull the good old taxi scam of taking some unnecessary detours to foam the bill (not my first rodeo!). Driving around the City Wall, getting into the Old Town through the Yongning Gate (South Gate), taking the Bell Tower roundabout, turning left on a tiny street where workers from the Fish Market are already unloading their fresh merchandise for the day, and finally finding the So Young Hostel. Although the driver did take a few wrong turns, I believe those were honest mistakes. The run bill went up to 25 Yuan, but he would only accept 20 to make up for his mistakes. But, what's 5 Yuan for a foreigner if not a little less than 0.70€ (in today's currency exchange rate)? "Keep the change, sir! And, have a good... night?"

[04:30AM] Checking-in at the hostel

It's now 4:30am and I just made it to the hostel for check-in.The receptionist was sleeping on a folding camp bed behind the desk when I entered the hostel lobby. I did wake her up, which I thought at the time was the reason for her cluelessness. I will learn later during my stay that this was her default mode. So, she proceeded to the regular check-in process. Interestingly enough, she also used a voice mode of whatever is the Chinese version of Google Translate. Of course, checking-in at 4:30am on a Saturday morning was enough to mix her up with dates as she was just about to charge me two nights instead of three. But, hey! I'm an honest traveller, especially when the room rate is 40 Yuan/night! Nevertheless, the attempt to explain the concept of counting nights and not dates was quite the gymnastics! "Ok, ok! Go back to sleep, young clueless receptionist! Night night!" I have four to get some rest. This is just enough time for a long nap before I finally discover this historical city. As I finally got into my room and slipped under my bedsheets, today's scavenger hunt from the airport to my hostel got me thinking: Back in the years circa 200 BC - before devices facilitated our commutes, before our dependance to technology, before we stopped using the cleverness human brains are capable of - how did the people from all corners of Eurasia manage to successfully travel along with their caravan and find their way to the fortified city of "Western Peace" - ancient capital of the Han dynasty - at the extremity of the Silk Road? I only had 40km to figure out and it was already challenging enough! The most extensive segment of the Silk Road was as long as 7000km with nothing more than stars in the sky for travellers to find their path to the gated city then know as Chang'an.

Five (5) Principles to manage a 'scavenger Hunt' situation

If you are ever caught up it a similar situation where you don't know how to get from Point A to Point B, make sure you remember these five (5) principles:

  1. Stay calm! The generations before ours have for a long time travelled without any electronic devices and millions of people still travel this way today. You will be fine! You just need to use your ingenuity a little more this time.
  2. Look around you. Chances are you will probably find a clue or two that will lead you to the information you are looking for. Stay away from anyone coming to you to offer their help. These people could have good intentions. But, they could also be trying to take advantage of your vulnerability and scam you. It's always better to look for an official employee of the airport.
  3. Focus on the next step rather than the ultimate goal. If I was trying to find my hostel from the beginning, I would have probably failed and would still be outside looking for it right now. The fact that I sliced my ultimate goal into smaller - more manageable - goals allowed me to find useful help.
  4. Prepare for the "worst". Now, this is a strong word and that's why I placed it between quote marks. All I'm saying is to prepare yourself to accept an alternative solution. So, try to constantly think of other possibilities and keep them in your bsck pocket. If there is no shuttle, I'll take a taxi. If I can't find the hostel, I'll just come back to the previous hotel and book my first night there. After all, it's better to spend a little more money than to put yourself in a dangerous situation. 
  5. Keep smiling. People will be much more encline to provide their assistance if you are sympathetic. Besides, it's better to laugh at the situation than cry about it. Worse comes to worse it will give you an idea for your next blog post (wink-wink!).