Ramadan: Arrival

Welcome to part two of this Ramadan series, and welcome to China, once more, to my husband Rora.

After the first week of Ramadan was over I got on a bus to Xi’an to meet Rora at the airport. After checking in at the hostel I hastened to the Muslim Quarter, because I wanted to pray and break my fast at the Great Mosque of Xi’an, the biggest, and probably most famous mosque in all of China. Once I reached the mosque I was already hearing the prayer through some loudspeakers, but I was not sure where the prayer hall was, as this Ming Dynasty (14th-17th century) building has various gates and courtyards. People all pointed me in one direction, and I eventually reached the prayer hall. I was a bit confused when I only saw men and no women, but as the prayer was already halfway over I decided to just pray behind the men.

After the prayer was finished, I was once more welcomed by very friendly people to sit down and have some food, and once more I noticed the absence of women. Actually I was not sitting with the other diners, I was sitting in a room adjoining the kitchen, with two other women, who were kitchen workers.

I was soon on my way again, and walked around the Muslim Quarter for some time, live streaming to my Facebook friends what I saw and heard. At 10 pm I went to the hostel to meet the driver who would take me to the airport and pick up Rora. Once I was in his car I checked Rora’s flight status – it should have left Beijing by then, but was labelled as “delayed”. This meant I had to wait for two hours at the airport, but what’s two hours after having waited for a month and a half?

Around 1 am Rora eventually arrived, and we got to the hostel around 2 am. We ate some simple food, and drank enough water before sleep to get us through the fast the next day. I think we slept until 2 pm, as we were both quite exhausted from traveling. The previous days had been rather hot, so I was relieved that the temperatures had cooled down, but we were not too happy about the constant rain that weekend. The first day we still tried to brave the weather without umbrellas, but at some point we gave in and bought a couple, before becoming completely drenched.

Rora was quite surprised by the big number of Muslims in China – there are about 20-40 millions spread throughout the country, and in Xi’an , a city with a population of 8.5 million, there are around 50000 Hui people, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority. Even our much smaller Hanzhong has around 4000 Muslims in total.

On Sunday afternoon we spontaneously visited a mosque we were passing, and by chance we found some people with whom Rora could speak in Arabic. This mosque, believe it or not, had a beautiful prayer room for women! In the evening we went to the Great Mosque for prayer and iftar once more, and there, too, Rora was able to communicate with some people. We even met a Jordanian Muslim, who has been living in China for many years. This time we were at the mosque early enough to do a bit of sightseeing in this historical place – which usually requires some entry fee from tourists, but which is free to visit for Muslims. It’s certainly worth visiting!

This time I did not have to sit in the kitchen and instead was sitting with two other women and Rora next to all the other men. When it was time for prayer I was shown the designated prayer area for women – a small raised platform surrounded by curtains next to the entrance of the prayer hall: OUTSIDE the prayer hall! This was seriously disappointing, even more disappointing than the sauna-like prayer room for women in Hanzhong.

Once we were back in Hanzhong the rest of Ramadan, and the rest of the school term, passed rather quickly. We went to the local mosque for iftar once more, and Rora had a long conversation with the imam, who speaks Arabic fluently, and I chimed in with a mix of Arabic and Chinese. That night we were treated a bit like special guests, which I’m already used to, but which for Rora was a new, and slightly embarrassing experience. All eyes were on us, and many people wanted to welcome and talk to us.

In the upcoming third and last part of this Ramadan series I will talk about Eid el-Fitr, the big festival at the end of the holy month.

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Ice Cream and Zombies

Do you remember the first time that you ate ice-cream as a child? Or the first time you jumped into the sea?

First time experiences are very nice, but also become rarer and rarer as we grow up.This is why traveling is loved by so many people: All these new first times!

First time to fly to China, first time to eat something new, first time to do, see, hear or breathe all these new things!

Oh, and the first ever flight delay in China!

Imagine this: you have been traveling for countless hours and as a result you are pretty much a zombie, you have reached an airport that you visit for the first time, only to discover that your mobile line – which was supposed to work internationally and had previously worked internationally – is not working, the free wifi of the airport needs – of course – a working mobile line to give you an access code to the wifi network, you have tried to make a call from an airport land line and failed miserably, and your connecting flight to Xi’an is delayed over and over again.

I need to contact Cairene to let her know about the delay. You see: I will reach Xi’an airport late, buses might not be available anymore, so Cairene arranged a driver to wait for me. But since I got delayed so many times, I have no idea if the driver will be waiting or not, no idea of anything else, really, because – basically – I am off grid.

So, I wait, and wait, and wait, take videos, make funny faces at some Chinese toddler, take a video of myself and the situation – just in case they found it later with my belongings and my skeleton in abandoned corner in the airport many years from now – and then wait some more, until eventually – right before my feet get stuck forever to the floor of the airport – the line starts to move, and I find myself sitting in another airplane full of Chinese people flying to Xi’an.

2 hours and 2 coffees later, I find myself in Xi’an airport, with Carine at the exit door with a big smile on her face.(I secretly cried tears of happiness on the inside. Shhh, no one tell her that! I will not become a broke, homeless foreigner, living in front of the exit door of Xi’an airport! Yay!)

And this is how I reached Xi’an city, where Carine and I were to spend the next few days walking around the city, fighting the endless rain and finishing the health check papers.

written by Rora


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Surprise

Walking towards the exit, I saw a big sign with my name on it, and the Chinese woman who held the sign, Rita, was smiling and waving at me. Approaching, I noticed that there was an older foreign lady standing next to Rita, doing the same thing. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I noticed who the lady was! J. from Australia, who has been living in China with her husband A. since 2012. We used to be living close to each other in Yangshuo, Guilin, Guangxi for several months when I was still in China, and often met each other. We had stayed in contact for some years, but as I am somewhat lazy when it comes to responding to e-mails, I hadn’t heard from them in some time, and wasn’t sure whether they were still in China, had moved elsewhere, or gone back home to retire. They moved to Shaanxi province some eight months ago, and by chance J. had heard on Friday afternoon that Rita was picking up some German teacher from the airport the next day.

After check-in, I spent the afternoon at See Tang Hostel near the Southern Gate, getting to know some Buckland employees, and catching up with J. and A. over some tea and Muslim noodle soup. On leaving the small Muslim restaurant, I noticed that I had been in that street before – six years prior, on my first trip to China, I had visited a tea shop there.

Later that day, after the two Aussies had left, I was joined by university student Heather, who has been a friend since my teaching days in Yongzhou, Hunan, and one of her classmates, Ava. In the evening we went to one of my favorite places in all of China: Xi’an’s Hui Muslim Snack Street! We shared many delicious, local specialties, such as 羊肉泡馍 (yang rou pao mo), a mutton stew with pieces of bread, also known as my favorite dish in China, 肉夹馍 (rou jia mo), aka. Chinese hamburger, 菠萝 (bo luo), aka. half a pineapple on a stick, some rice cake, and some other snacks. While talking to some friends in Egypt later that night, I commented that I had eaten a bigger variety of flavors in one night in China than I had in four years in Cairo!

On Sunday morning I had some sheep intestine soup for breakfast – it tasted much better that it sounds!

J., A., and Heather were not the only friends from bygone days I met so soon after my return to China. Sunday noon I met my Hawaiian friend B., who has been living in Shaanxi for five years, and he introduced me to R. from the US and J. from Scotland. Our plan was to have biang biang noodles (aka. belt noodles) for lunch, and I’m pretty sure we told the waitress the correct thing in Chinese, but we were served some bowls of 羊肉泡馍 instead. We then headed to one of the countless shopping malls, ate donuts, and the others bought some imported goods they can’t live without. B. and J. soon headed back to Weinan, while R. and I explored some more shopping malls and haggling markets. After a short stopover at a cake shop we decided a foot massage would be the thing to do.

Oh, what a pleasure!

In Egypt massage parlors are hard to find and treatments only for the wealthy. Not so in China: most neighborhoods have at least one massage parlor, and they are often very affordable – but some can charge a fortune, too. R. and I opted for a foot massage, which cost 30 RMB (a bit over 4 US$) each, and lasted about one hour. The perfect thing to do after flying halfway around the globe!

R. proved to be a good resource for information about my new school and home in Hanzhong, Shaanxi, as she previously lived and taught there for two years. As there are not many foreign residents or travelers in Hanzhong, online information about the city in English is rather scarce – a circumstance that will change with this blog. I had many questions that R. was able to answer, and I became more and more excited about finally reaching my new home.

Sunday evening I went to the Hui Muslim Snack Street for another round of food, and on Monday morning I packed my bags once more. Before departing to Hanzhong, however, it was time for the mandatory health check. Five years prior I had to take the health check in a grubby, cold hospital in Guilin, Guangxi, where people were smoking inside the doctors’ offices. Not so in the hospital in Xi’an: clean, organized, people waiting in lines, nobody was smoking, the rooms were heated, and the doctors spoke English!

After that was out of the way I had lunch with Rita and Joanna from Buckland, and then was on my way to the bus that would take me to Hanzhong.

Departure: 40 minutes delay.

The bus ride was quite comfortable, and I was very much surprised that the bus not only had seatbelts, but that use of them was mandatory!

Four hours, fifty two tunnels, and some stunning mountain vistas later I was home: Hanzhong, Shaanxi, People’s Republic of China.


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Breakthrough

أُولَـٰئِكَ عَلَىٰ هُدًى مِّن رَّبِّهِمْ ۖ وَأُولَـٰئِكَ هُمُ الْمُفْلِحُونَ

THOSE ARE UPON [RIGHT] GUIDANCE FROM THEIR LORD, AND IT IS THOSE WHO ARE THE SUCCESSFUL. [Al-Baqarah 2:5]

On March 17, 2017, I, Cairene, finally got on a plane from Cairo to Guangzhou. The days before I received my visa, I had been busy with checking flight schedules and prices. After some digging, I eventually found the perfect connection: a direct, red eye flight from Egypt to China on Friday, a hotel for the night near Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport, and an onward flight to Xi’an on Saturday morning. I could have found cheaper options, but they would have been less convenient, as not only would they have been very exhausting due to several long transits, but also would not have allowed as much luggage as Egyptair does – 46 kg plus carry-on.

As I had reserved an emergency aisle window seat, I had all the legroom I could wish for, and was able to get about 5 hours of sleep above the clouds. This amount was enough to get me through Friday afternoon and evening, and ensured that I could go to bed in a timely manner in the evening. I spent the remaining flight time eating and watching the Academy Award winning musical “La La Land”. Despite the high praise from critics and success with the audience, I found the movie a little boring, and the music average; I think there are much better musicals out there, “Dancer in the Dark” is one example.

Once I reached Guangzhou, it was time for immigration, baggage claim, and customs. As Guangzhou is quite a busy airport with many flights arriving simultaneously, the waiting time to go through immigration was about an hour; reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies helped pass the time. The immigration officer was friendly and quick, something you don’t find at every border, and there was no further wait for luggage or customs. Make sure to have a pen ready to fill out the arrival form.

I then proceeded to the hotel information desk in order to find out about where to board the free hotel shuttle. The nice lady behind the counter told me where to find it and I followed her directions, only to find out that her directions didn’t make any sense. The next person I asked was from the bus ticket office, and her directions – different ones – weren’t helpful either. Fed up with being misdirected, I figured I could just as well take a taxi for the short distance. The nice driver helped me with my luggage and asked me whereto I was headed. In response I showed him the address on my phone and asked him to call the hotel for directions. They connected us to an English speaking lady who told me to get out of the car and wait for a few minutes where I was, a driver from the hotel would come and pick me up. The taxi driver unloaded my bags, we said goodbye, and a very short time later I was picked up by the shuttle. I would like to note that the taxi driver did not ask for any money for his help – in Egypt the same situation would have required some baksheesh.

Another thing I would like to mention is that the hotel I originally booked for the night is one that only accepts Chinese guests, not foreigners; a fact I wasn’t aware of at the time of booking. Nonetheless, they arranged a room at another hotel for me that would accept foreign nationals, albeit at a somewhat higher price, but with great service. (I’m speaking of a price difference of roughly 15 Euros, so no big deal.) The hotel provided the airport shuttle both ways, a wakeup call, and a private ensuite room; all in all it cost around 25 Euros and proved to be more convenient and only slightly more expensive than spending the night at the airport on a bench, eating expensive food, and paying for a shower and luggage storage over night. After a long, hot shower I was quite refreshed, and got a good night’s sleep. The time difference between China and Egypt is six hours, and I was easily able to adapt to the difference.

On Saturday morning the hotel staff woke me up, I packed my bags once more, and was taken to the airport. All went well and I boarded the plane, a Hainan Airways flight to Xi’an. Rarely have I been on such a turbulent flight! There must have been strong winds above the clouds, as we were shaken about half the time. Regardless, the plane was comfortable with enough legroom, and the staff professional and courteous. The pre-departure flight safety video was more interesting than that of many other airlines, as it showed the beautiful Hainan beaches, and emphasized protecting the environment. On arrival there was no wait for the luggage, and I proceeded to the exit, where I was to be picked up by Rita from Buckland.

I was in for a surprise!