Today is Tuesday or Wednesday, I don’t know which. This is day 2 of our holiday to Xi’an. Yesterday morning we arrived at the train station around 8:30. We were met by our guide who will stay with our group of 20 for our visit.
I’m getting ahead of myself. I should tell you about our train trip.
There are four ways to travel by train in China, ranging from quite comfortable to truly torturous. The four classes are soft sleeper, hard sleeper, soft seat and hard seat. As you can imagine, the sleeping classes are best for overnight trips, although many travelers choose to snooze while sitting. So far, we haven’t experienced either hard or soft seats; our train trips all have been overnighters. I’m becoming adept at climbing small ladders to the top bunk. A soft sleeper is what I wanted, but a hard sleeper is what we got. Soft sleeper accommodation is actually a compartment in a car (semi-private, I think) supposed to be very comfortable for travelling. On the other hand, hard sleeper is one step above cattle-car class, but at least the cattle passengers are a courteous lot, for the most part.
The train cars sleep 66 souls each, with two triple bunks per open compartment. Privacy is non-existent. If you need to change clothes, you do it under the comforter, on your bed (or not, as you choose). There are no seats except for two fold-down shelf seats in the aisle across from each compartment…so that’s 22 small seats for 66 people. You sit or lie on your bunk bed. It’s just not convenient or comfortable travel while you’re awake. But, it’s only a one-day trip.
We boarded at 4pm. Supper was dry noodles like everybody knows (and college kids survive on) with hot water supplied by the train, plus a side dish of sesame seed crackers and grapes for dessert. When it was time for sleep, I only hit my head once on the ceiling above my bunk. There isn’t enough room to sit up straight, as I learned. Although the bunk was narrow, there was a strong railing at the side, so I stayed put where I belonged throughout the night. Sleep was fitful; we met the dawn as we rode through the outskirts of Xi’an, passing alongside some small but very steep hills. Very picturesque. (Are these karsts? Dictionary time.)
The train pulled into Xi’an at around 9:00, roughly 17 hours after departing Shanghai. Once the train came to a stop we joined the exodus into the unknown.
Understand, travel with a wheelchair adds a degree of uncertainty to the adventure.
We like adventure. Sometimes adventure brings good surprises.
For example, (Don’t worry, we’ll get back to the story in a paragraph or two.) when we visited the Shanghai Expo 2010 (the world’s fair) last year, the Maori warriors at the New Zealand pavilion made us especially welcome. Now, if you’ve seen these guys and gals, you know they are performers at heart. Sometime in history the Maori men discovered the concept of offensive defense and thereby took to meeting any supposed enemy visitors to their land with a show of fierce, if not force. By showing up half-naked, in threatening body postures –with spears and knives in hand– making the most grotesque facial expressions they could imagine, coupled with what looks to me to be strangely inviting smiles (“You want some of this?”) they strategized to frighten away any newcomers. The ceremonial troupe put on a show that was entirely entertaining and every so often a little scary to the folks in the front row of the audience.
Guess where we were.
This particular afternoon at Expo, Marianne didn’t have to work at the Sunshine Pavilion, so we went for a stroll and, as you know now, came upon the New Zealand pavilion. She had seen the place as it was being constructed, but hadn’t been there since it opened. As we approached, we found the outdoor show about to begin so we hustled over and positioned ourselves right up front against the guard rail. Soon, we were part of a crowd. To their credit, most of the other visitors noticed that Marianne was in a wheelchair and allowed her to have a good view of the show. Only occasionally did we have to tap on a shoulder to invite someone to give way. In every case, they did so graciously.
OK, got the picture? A crowd of Chinese five-foot fours gathered around and behind one American five-foot nine guy and a woman in a wheelchair.
We don’t blend in well.
After their tongue-sticking, spear wiggling, eye-popping, grunting, jumping, if-I-was-the-enemy-I’d-give-up-right-then-and-there show, they agreed to pose for pictures with the crowd and, having seen her obvious enjoyment (remember, she’s the one in the front row…in the wheelchair..with the tall white guy) they invited Marianne to come up to the stage for a group picture. (It’s gratifying to see her treated well in cases like this, especially considering the blatant discrimination she received growing up in the PRC during the Cultural Revolution. (Back to the story interruption; the story will resume presently.) The NZ actors invited her to join them in a group picture, but the rather well-built crowd barrier blocked her way. So, being warriors and all, they simply dismantled it–then and there–using pen knives, fingertips and brute strength. As they were tearing apart their own barricades to allow Marianne-on-wheels to approach, they kept answering her protests (not wanting to be a bother) with the phrase, “No worries, Mate!” At last the gates were down and she rolled in to the stage area for several photographs with the nastiest warriors in town. She was absolutely overjoyed. I think it was a combination of having her picture taken with these handsome men and beautiful women plus the amazing over-the-top personal attention she received from them. It was touching to see her tears of joy. I think I had as much fun watching as she did participating.
Since that time we have adopted the catch phrase, “No worries, Mate!” as our own. It signals our shared confidence in the future under God’s protection, come what may, as well as our happiness at meeting some challenges in our daily lives, often having to do with accessibility. Which brings us back to Xi’an and the train station.