My first stop on my ramble was Xuzhou. Not to be confused with Suzhou with its historical lakes and droves of Shanghai weekenders who have colonized it.
I mean Xuzhou, the last major city in northwest Jiangsu. If you have a decent head on your shoulders and looked up the train number and price online beforehand it is hard to get it confused. No, the ticket lady is not giving you a 90% discount on your ticket, your Chinese just sucks.
The city serves as a convenient crossroads between the north-south and east-west lines of the gao1tie3 (high speed train). The geographical location led me to select it rather than anything I found online.
When I arrived in Xuzhou by train from Shanghai, I hired a taxi and headed to my hostel. From prior net research, I had the address of the hostel, a picture of the map on my phone… basically everything you needed to not end up wandering around an off the beat Chinese city. Yet, I still managed to wander around for an hour on the correct street looking for my humble abode. Sure, I found the address and everything. It just wasn’t a hostel, but rather an empty shell of a business with no clear distinguishing qualities except a large fluffy dog and two Chinese men all of whom were friendly. They pointed me in the direction of a hotel down the road, which turned out to be the type of 3 hour rent a room with a mirror on the ceiling. I politely passed. Shame, I guess this is why you call ahead. Lesson learned.
I guessed maybe the address online was wrong or the hostel had changed location. So I stopped at close by coffee shop and asked for help. The people there were really amazing. And not in a “holy shit, it is foreigner” way. They spent an hour with me trying to find the hostel. I guess it closed.
The barista walked me down the street to a classic Chinese hotel, which means a cross between fancy and oh my god I am going to be murdered in the middle of the night; between a beautifully tiled bathroom and crumbling drywall held up by 1980’s porn wallpaper. It cost 120 kuai for the night, a little more than I wanted but I was exhausted already and all and all it did not seem bad in comparison to the first hotel that was recommended to me. The barista had also invited me to dinner with her family.
After a short nap and shower, I met them at the coffee shop and we headed to downtown Xuzhou. They told me they were taking me to the most famous barbecue joint in the city. When we arrived it did not look like it. It was on a small lane and dirty as hell. Oh well, that is pretty normal for rural China and I was just excited to experience some culture with a local family. Plus, in China filth is associated with excessive use, and it is commonly held notion that the clean restaurants are the ones to be weary of.
We walked through a narrow hallway and up some twisting concrete stairs to an open roof patio. Everyone was squatting around shanty little tables on these foldable wood and leather stools.
The husband took care of the ordering and we started off with some light appetizers such as sautéed green peppers, sliced sugar coated tomatoes, and salt water soaked peanuts. After a brief snacking, they brought us our barbecue grill. It is not what you think. The grill is a small rectangle box about a foot and half long and 5 inches wide. The pit is filled with burning coal. They bring you a huge plate of skewers of all types of random meats, vegetables, mushrooms, and fish. Once you are in this deep, there is no going back and the entire pallet opens up. Sure, let me get a bite of that mystery part of the sheep.
Having a local is really the key to these restaurant experiences. Not only will they take you to an authentic place, but they will guarantee that you will get a taste of the local cuisine and culture. The fact is I probably wouldn’t have gone to this restaurant if I had not been led there.
We stuffed our faces and the husband and I drank two or three beers a piece. On the return trip to the hotel I heard a song on the radio that would become a constant throughout my summer travels: Xiao3 ping2guo3. They dropped me off. I went and bought a couple more beers at a local shop then returned to my room and watched an English movie channel. I ended the night skyping with my brother. Excellent first day.
For day two, I headed out to the sites. Nice quiet mountain parks not overcrowded with people. I found some off the track paths and spent some quality alone time that had been sorely missing during my day-to-day in Shanghai.
I even went swimming which is a very questionable decision given the widely publicized toxicity of water in China. Many other people were swimming in the central Xuzhou lake, which is surrounded by the park on one side and the city on the other. That was enough of a reassurance for me. A little boy came up and talked to me while I was sitting on the concrete edge of the water drying off. We discussed something I think, my Chinese is not particularly good. He showed me a place to change my clothes behind a bush between the lake and the street, not exactly private. He reassured me no one would look. I brashly told him that would have to include him and he disappeared.
After some trouble and a lot of patience on behalf of the train ticket depot secretary, I secured passage to the nearby city of Shangqiu, which is a couple stops (two hours) short of the capital and transportation hub of Henan, Zhengzhou. Once there, I would board a sleeper train for a ride an hour west to my final destination of Luoyang (check in on my next installment for my adventures in this ancient Chinese capital).
Travel tip: if you cannot secure a train ticket to your desired station, see if you can buy a ticket for a stop earlier on in the route. Once you pass the station that you have a ticket for, you can buy a replacement ticket which means you have no seat. So you kind of stand between the trains till you reach your destination.
That night I headed out to the most famous seafood restaurant (according to the barista). It took me awhile to find, but I found it nonetheless. Entering, I was informed that they were closed. I pleaded and they sat me. A young man at another table approached and started talking to me. Soon I had joined his table and was downing gan1bei[s]1 as quickly as they could be poured. Luckily, Chinese beer is of a minimal proof. The young man’s brother was heading off to the army that night, and they were getting drunk to see him off. They even had a DD to drive the young man to the train station. The time arrived for their departure and so I departed too. I went scouting for bars. I found a couple, one even had outdoor seating and a live music venue. I had a beer but the night life was dead. It was, however, a Monday. The barista told me that there were many popular bars downtown. I believe her, it was just not the right night.
Note: Xuzhou also has its own collection of Terracotta warriors, which are distinct, and not to be confused with the ones outside Xi’An, Shaanxi. Many of the reviews on Trip Advisor are people mistaking the two. The area is called Chuwangling (楚王陵). The seafood restaurant was called Xuzhoulao. I found it by telling people the name and that I wanted to eat seafood. It is supposedly in the same area as the barbecue joint. The bars I found are not too far from the seafood restaurant and are located in an outdoor shopping center with a Haagen-Daz out front.