From the outside, it looks like it could quite easily be a quaint British pub.
Of course, finding said venue in the middle of China is debatable, but for a few split seconds we kid ourselves, this cute and cosy taverna is just a hop, skip and a jump up the road. It’s definitely the flowers, draping prettily from the wooden cottage-like exterior that has us in denial. Cute little chairs and tables perch on the balcony, and you can imagine sitting there on a balmy summer’s evening (perhaps a little cooler than the current 35).
Called Harbour City, about now, dripping with the effects of humidity, we are desperately wishing Xi’an was….in fact a harbour city.
Let me not digress though with talk of the incessant heat that’s plagued the city for weeks.
Back to the ‘pub’ up the road – clearly, the flowery theme was just a pre-cursor of what was to come!
Stepping inside, it’s like stepping into another world!
At first glance, it looks like a wedding reception in complete over drive. My eyes boggle in awe. Gigantic, fresh floral arrangements hang from the ceiling, decorating candelabras and chandeliers in extraordinary fashion.
Scenes from the Great Gatsby swirl through my head, as we’re ushered through the crowds. All eyes on us. The only white people in the venue (and potentially the oldest)! I half expect someone to come swinging down from the roof, aka Nicole Kidman style in Moulin Rouge!
Whatever Harbour City is doing, after a month in business it seems they’ve got something right. Looking ever so sophisticated, this “bar” in the middle of Xi’an…a place where you can be forgiven for thinking most locals are more interested in snacking on over-sized bowls of cold noodles in the street on a Friday night…is heaving with people.
The waiters hastily kick a staff member from a high bench table, tucked in beside the bar, for us to take our places in this outlandish scene. (Never mind the stools are actually chained to the table, as long as it’s not us, I think.)
Three (yes three) waiters bring a menu to us… of course the entire thing is in Chinese characters, which isn’t going to do us mere foreigners any favours. It’s soon clear no English is spoken, so after looking blankly at the menu, in my best Chinese, I ask if they have ‘bai pu tao jiu’…white wine, to which they nod enthusiastically. Pointing to three options (again in Chinese) it’s a case of ‘eny meeny miny moe!’ Turns out ordering a ‘glass’ of wine is simply not an option, so a bottle it is!
Regular wine is still a bit of an enigma in much of China’s bars….especially white wine. So it comes as no surprise when the bottle that arrives, is indeed red.
Poured ever so carefully into a sleek glass decanter, we are dispatched with large wine glasses, two shot glasses of warm water and two cans of Sprite?! Ice is poured into our wine glasses and swished around for a good thirty seconds in what looks to be a rather high tech procedure. (Who doesn’t like a good red wine on ice!! 😯 )
Next minute, an old school, silver bell is put in front of us. We assume this is to call someone when we are in need of attention (should they hear us over the loud rumbling of music).
I look around at other tables…most are furnished with buckets of beer. There are VIP ‘minimum spend ‘tables boasting glowing buckets of beer stashed under the table and about a dozen Coronas lined up on the table. In China this is seen as a show of great prestige!
There are also artistically carved fruit platters decorating many a table! Forget about the cheese platter or peanuts and chips. Another sign of distinction in China appears to be fruit or ‘fruits’ as they’re more commonly known!
A lady comes around selling cigarettes and cigars. Even though China authorities have banned indoor smoking, the rules are having little impact on China’s 350-million smokers.
The band is singing a mix of western and Chinese songs. The first song we hear is a Natalie Imbruglia tune. To hear an Aussie singer’s hit being belted out in the middle of China, is at the very least, freakishly fantastic! I wonder what most of the people in the bar think when they can’t understand the words. Does the song resonate at all? I seem to be the only one having a sly boogie…that is… until one of the many cleaning ladies, quietly pottering around, spies me and gives me a little shimmy with a cheeky laugh.
A Lady Gaga song reigns out….no one is dancing though, then two of the band members are up on podiums in the middle of the club cranking out a local Asian song. Everyone gets up, mimicking the dance moves with all the energy they can muster!
Some are playing a popular Chinese drinking game at their tables called ‘Liar’s dice!’
About now, a waiter pops over and grabs a shot glass, proceeds to pour himself a glass of OUR red wine toasting us, knocking it back like a shot!! Cheers or “Gan bei!” he smiles. And just like that, he swaggers off, while we watch after him, highly amused.
There’s a table of guys with balloons. Naturally, at first, we assume they’re blowing up balloons for their celebration… just quietly, I think it’s bit late for the party, but anyway…
The thing is they keep sucking the air out of the balloons, so we start to wonder what the point in that might be! There’s also something on the table that looks remarkably like a whipped cream canister. They appear to be endlessly unscrewing and screwing a capsule that resembles a silver bullet and then attaching the balloon to the canister in earnest. Amused and perplexed we watch on as another table of girls, who’ve spent all night taking selfies, barely speaking to each other, start up on the balloons. By now I’ll admit we’re completely bamboozled.
I realise it’s potentially been awhile since I’ve been to a club, as such, and this is definitely no English country pub, flowers or not.. I try not to stare…….well maybe just a little.
A quick Google tells us, this is indeed a craze involving inhaling nitrous oxide, otherwise known as ‘laughing gas’!! Ah ha!! Apparently it makes you feel euphoric and relaxed, for about ten seconds! Mystery solved.
A little reluctantly, we emerge at around 1130…early birds I know…and who knows what happens in there as the night goes on, but I spy the champagne starting to flow. It’s 32 degrees….hot and humid…. we walk the five minutes home to the hotel.
A three wheeler bike cruises past in the dark, three people are half dressed, bouncing a naked baby in the air, as they scoot past. We giggle…and they giggle back, no doubt finding us an equally odd spectacle!
This is China.