I haven’t posted anything lately because I’ve been busy playing host to a group of 23 college students (and their teachers) from Minnesota. They are on a 6-nation, 2-month swing through the Pacific Rim, learning about the different cultures. We of course did the obligatory tourist stuff (Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Great Wall, Acrobats, etc), and ate the obligatory food (kungpao chicken, Beijing Duck, Beijing style noodles), and did the obligatory shopping. In addition, they had the chance to visit 3 university campuses and meet some Chinese students.
The other obligatory activity was a trip down to Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, to see the Terra-cotta Warriors. We took the overnight train both ways, which was a treat for the students, because most had never been on a train. Minnesota’s only passenger rail line runs a whopping 10 miles between downtown Minneapolis and the Mall of America—previous rides on that simply don’t count! We took the train into Xi’an, but decided to depart from the much smaller city of Weinan, which is closer to the Warriors. Besides, I have a friend who lives there who could get the 24 tickets needed.
The train station at a city like Weinan should really be a must-see for visitors who want to experience the "real" China. (Actually I hate that expression, since for those who live in the modern cities like Beijing or Shanghai, that’s the real China for them—just as New York is the "real" America for those who live there…..but I digress). I think what I really mean is that Weinan is fairly representative of a small Chinese city, both in economic development, social development, and in the mindset.
Ok, back to the train station. First of all, we had to get there, which meant commandeering 6 taxis to take us the 2 miles to the station, where the sudden arrival of 24 "big noses" created quite the stir. There are less than 10 foreigners who live in the entire city, so our presence more than doubled the population. I’m sure that most people at the station that night had never even seen one foreigner in person, and now suddenly there were 24 of us!!! We quickly spotted the "sign" that identified the door through which Beijing-bound passengers would go onto the platform. The train we were to board originated in Xi’an, which means Weinan was just a quick stop. 2 minutes to be exact. That’s how much time we’d have to get on the train.
As we stood in the "line" behind the door, along with about 100 other people (mostly peasants) I passed the word back through our group that when the door opened, they must abandon all notions of "Minnesota Nice" and fight. I warned them that they’d need to get physical if necessary. Of course they thought I was exagerating. They quickly learned I wasn’t kidding. As soon as the door open, the crowd became a 100-person scrum. Elbows were thrown. Shins were kicked. Luggage was tripped over. But we all threw ourselves into it and managed to battle our way onto the platform. Like combat-weary grunts who had just captured a ridge, we stopped for a moment to savor our victory. But only for a moment, because once on the platform, we had to figure out where to position ourselves to jump onto car #12. I asked a few platform attendants, and they mindlessly waved their hands and said "here." I was certainly wishing they spoke with a bit more certainty. About 5 minutes after we got onto the platform, the train came rolling in, and our reading of the train car numbers as they flew by made it plain to us that we were not standing in the right place to board #12—it was going to whiz right on by us. At that, we broke into a run—24 of us—running alongside the train as it slowed down. But then, in our haste we overshot #12, and the train stopped, so we had to turn around and run back from whence we came. The sight of 24 Americans running frantically up and down the platform must have been a great source of entertainment for the locals. We finally got to the door of car #12 and threw ourselves and stuff onto the train. The last person made it on just before the doors were closed and the train pulled out, headed into the darkness of a Shaanxi night!
Ah….train travel in China. Gotta love it.