You know the feeling when you visit a city you’ve never seen before?
That dizzying anticipation, the unbridled excitement, the curiosity and wonder of what lies ahead?
Well, can I just say – for the record – arriving in a city you’ve never seen before to live, is nothing like that!
Ok, so maybe that’s a little over the top. The lead up to moving to Xi’an, China was like that, but actually arriving in one of the world’s oldest cities, home to eight and a half million people (the 12th largest city in China), I won’t lie – my heart was in my mouth.
It’s a short two and a half hour flight from Hong Kong, but it also feels a world away in north western China. As we disembarked and entered the airport, my stomach was in knots, as I tried desperately to keep an open mind, at the ready to embrace our new home!
I foolishly found myself comparing right off the bat. (Bad move!)
The airport was significantly smaller than I’d expected for such a massive city and ever so slightly primitive (of course this is compared to Hong Kong’s modern, state of the art, award-winning complex)! I later found out all entrants from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan (China’s SARS) come to their own individual terminal, so what I glimpsed was just a minuscule part of the largest airport in the north west!
I could feel myself ever so tentatively putting one foot in front of the other as I literally stepped into my new life, in one of China’s 656 cities, no less!
Driving from the airport was at best ‘underwhelming’ (apart from driving on the wrong side of the road) it was raining and grey as we sped through a maze of highways and concrete; a deluge of chinese characters beaming out at me in their neon, indecipherable glory! I’m not deeply religious but it was about now I silently had a word to God, hoping James wasn’t having a moment of serious delusion when he’d excitedly told me the city was really “quite nice.”
Meantime, our little blondie Ava was oblivious in all her three year old naivety; her primary concern on the journey, the delightful hotel gift of rainbow-coloured macaroons and how many she could eat in one go!
Oh to be so innocent.
Approaching the hotel, my spirits lifted… despite the incessant rain, leafy green streets splayed out in front of me and there was a distinct buzz of activity with restaurants, bright lights and traffic mayhem! (We may be in Central China, but it was a comforting sign, I wasn’t in the middle of no where, even if I was hanging on for dear life!)
The hotel was impressive – it’s four stories though, the ‘chalk’ to the W Hong Kong’s 76 story ‘cheese.’
My grand entry somewhat stifled as Ava’s prized macaroons promptly fell out of the car onto the wet hotel driveway and a toddler meltdown ensued. Welcome to Xi’an!
We quickly dropped our bags off in what would be our home for the next few weeks (until the hotel residences are finished). A suite that can only be described as embracing the typical minimalist Westin decor brushed with an enchanting oriental flair!
With James likely to be bunkered down in his new GM role the next
day year, we went for a quick scoot around the hotel to acclimatize ourselves with our new ‘home.’
We probably could’ve done with scooters because it’s ahem, bloody huge. Unlike Hong Kong, space is no issue here in Xi’an and it’s spread out, from a luxurious Lobby Bar, to an intriguing museum (yes, Xi’an being one of the four oldest civilizations in the world means, monuments, relics and artifacts are scattered everywhere, even below this hotel!) – to a grand sunken garden swathed in red cloth. (It’s lucky my favorite colour is red, because this hotel is literally bathed in a glow of deep red!)
To the beckoning cake shop, the three very different restaurants, Chinese, Japanese and Western….and the (wait for it) Rolls Royce show room! (Ahem just quietly the owner has sold 70 of these babies in just two years! Oh how the Chinese looove their luxury!)
So, let the week begin. I think I probably spent 24 hours in a ‘blur of speechlessness.’ It’s fair to say the first week is probably the hardest when you move to a new country.
I know I bandy about the term ‘culture shock’ on this blog on a pretty regular basis, but over four years in HK, even I had forgotten what it’s really like.
Really like to wake up and your husband is at work and you are staring out from your hotel window into the absolute unknown (rain not helping your imagination) it all seems quite surreal. This is your new life and you know not a single soul.
There’s no routine, no familiarity, you can’t order a comforting Mint Mocha or get a blow dry because you can’t find the relevant words and even when you do, they can’t understand you. You don’t even know what’s across the road. It’s a new beginning on almost every level. And I won’t lie, it’s bloody scary.
Forget being a big fish in a small pond – you’re a tadpole in a giant ocean!
For the first few days and beyond, tears sit just below the surface, threatening to spill over at a moment’s notice, but then you pull yourself together because you know it’s not the end of the world and there is a big adventure that you have been waiting for, wanting for!
All I can say, is thank God for technology, even if it is slow and more than slightly intermittent (and I may be on the verge of throwing laptop out the window), Facebook, What’s App, Twitter, Email all allow you to stay connected (loosely) with friends, family and familiar faces.
You’ll be amazed at how comforting it is to know online, nothing has changed. (Thanks to a VPN of course.)
What’s a VPN? In layman’s terms, it’s a service you pay for monthly that allows you to download an app which makes it look like you are in another country so you can bypass security blocks and access the likes of Google, Facebook, even my own blog (all banned in China).
So deep breaths all round, the key to being in a new city, is to get out!
So once the rain calmed, first stop – the shopping centre directly across the road; a very westernized Starbucks with all staff speaking reasonably good English (no Mint Mochas though), a peek at the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, you really can’t miss. This is what this area’s all about and it’s what tourists from around the globe flock to look at.
A roam around the streets, laced with green trees, striking monuments and waterfalls….it’s a little European infused with traditional Chinese architecture.
On the way back from another local shopping centre (thankfully sporting Zara and a kid’s playroom worth it’s weight in gold) I spy a street called ‘Bar Street’ that we eagerly try out a few nights later. A quirky cobblestoned street reminiscent of a Phuket or Bali or even Melbourne with cute, cottage like bars, side by side…live music, humming with people.
A day in the heart of the city, we explore the city centre with the world famous Bell Tower and the ancient city wall – a 14 square kilometre cobble-stoned wall that you can cycle along on tandem bikes or do it the lazy way we did (this time) and jump on a golf buggy and hurtle around the historic fortress looking out across a sprawling city.
**Quick Fact: It’s the most complete city wall that’s survived in China and the one of the largest ancient military defensive systems in the world!
We stumble across quaint markets down idyllic lane ways not unlike a slice of Europe with fascinating artwork and oriental trinkets on display.
So far, Xi’an is well and truly surprising us on every level….and slowly but surely it’s about putting the pieces together. Working out which way is up. (Map reading is not my strong point!)
You start to recognize the occasional landmark, hotel faces, and even more importantly remember a phrase or two of mandarin. Nevermind, that I told the housekeeper to come back to clean the room at 13 o’clock. Better luck next time eh?
So a week in, it’s been tough and more than likely to get tougher, but it’s also the beginning of a once in a lifetime adventure, we’ll certainly never forget.
She chants the mantra, ‘one foot in front of the other……’
Proud to share this post over on Seychelle Mama’s site for her series #MyExpatFamily