Arriving in China was a first for me. Until that moment, apart from a fleeting day trip to Tangier while staying in southern Spain, this was the first time I had set foot on another continent other than Europe.
The trip was a long one – eighteen hours including changeovers from London Heathrow to Xi’an where my daughter Evelyn is studying Chinese at Jaiotong University.
They say first impressions are important, and I was amazed at the lack of vista as we came into land. Eve had warned us that the smog in the city was at record levels, and she was right. There was a limpid sea of grey in every direction, limiting vision wherever I looked.
I sensed an acrid smell of burning coal in the back of my throat, so reminiscent of my childhood in the South Wales mining valleys… I was at odds with this smell from a half century ago and this new environment. Everything was different.. well practically everything.
McDonald’s was ensconced in a prominent area of the food court in the Arrivals Hall, as was a Christmas tree along with a Santa, bedecked in a gold lurex suit.
Banners festooned the airport lounge wishing everyone a Merry Christmas in English, which I found surprising given the 9000 kms we had travelled to get here.
Commercialism certainly transcends all cultural divides it seemed!
The airport was a vast expanse of concrete and somehow the smog has managed to infiltrate the sliding doors and was hanging, uninvited in the air around the large carousels where our luggage was just arriving.
Chinese passengers started to don their masks as a precaution against the foul air, and we soon followed suit, just to be on the safe side.
Eve was waiting at the gate, looking thrilled to see us, and was dragging her oversized suitcase with her – she too was to enjoy a holiday as she was going to spend her time at the apartment we had rented, which would be luxurious change from the small room she shares with her French co-traveller Marine.
The taxi rank seemed to be controlled by some officials who enquired about our trip and then handed us what was to be one of many slips of paper, and pointed us in the direction of a bright green taxi.
I got in quickly to avoid the embarrassment of watching the taxi driver ram in the large cases into the boot, and was soon rewarded for my cowardice by having one of our smaller cases tossed on my lap for the journey ahead.
We set off, and my fears of the ride ahead as dutifully described by so many on Trip Advisor were soon realised: It resembled something between a stock car race and a scene from Wacky Races, for those readers old enough to remember the exploits of Dick Dastardly and his sidekick Mutley.
The driver overtook, undertook, tooted his horn repeatedly, shouted, sent text messages, drank tea that he poured from a flask while still driving, and weaved in and out of cars, bikes and of course pedestrians, all of whom seemed far more focussed on texting their friends than the basics of road safety. At one point, we met a car drving right at us, albeit at a low speed, and it was a terrifying experience.
The trip skirted some of the major sites of Xi’an, including the City Wall and the entrance to the Muslim Quarter, but everything was faintly outlined in the smog, so we failed to catch even one glimpse of them as Eve pointed them out.
We arrived around 40 minutes later at our apartment and duly filled in some forms, passed over our passports for copying and were finally presented with our keys. Reception staff wore badges, claiming their names to be Michael, John and Christine…names hastily adopted to make the tourist inteface an easier one.
Our apartment was ideal with large glass walls that looked out on to the Drum Tower and numerous rooftops across the city.
We anticipated the smog lifting at some point, and for that moment, imagined what we might see on a clearer day.
We attended to our luggage by unpacking and disgorging all our important items deemed necessary for this long trip, and as ever, Nick set about hooking up various devices to the Internet.
This seemed to be more difficult than it should as was the central heating, but we were quickly attended to by someone from the maintenance team who soon had us surfing the net and warming our toes in the welcoming blasts of warm air emanating from the blowers.
Deciding to stick close to home, we ate in the restaurant adjoining the apartment block early evening, and allowed Evelyn to guide us through the plethora of dishes laid on for such a small establishment.
As we suspected the food bore little or no resemblance to what we are given to believe is authentic Chinese food back home.
This was a true assault on the taste buds with in some cases, an aggressive use of chilli, garlic and salt.
However, everything was delicious, so the platters were very quickly emptied, and , as is the custom here, we were offered the remains in take out boxes for us to take back with us.
Feeling it rude to refuse we nodded our agreement, and took it away with us, with me inwardly knowing that Eve would fall out of bed in the morning and devour these tasty morsels.
By this time our trip, along with a lost nights sleep began to take its toll and we decided to turn in for the night.
After what seemed like a good night’s sleep, I awoke and wandered into the lounge where Eve was watching TV, which puzzled me a little.
To my horror, I realized that I had gone to bed at 6pm and had awoken at 10 pm local time.
I sat and chatted to Eve for 2 hours, by which time she was beginning to tire, and then read for another hour before falling back to sleep for another eight.
Jet lag had claimed its newest victim – me!