Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Yinchuan Train Station

In the past two months, I have passed through many, many Chinese train stations. In most cases, there is very little variation from station to station. They are functional, straightforward affairs, and I have nothing particularly negative to say against any of them. Once in a while, though, a train station separates itself from its brethren and stands out as exceptional in one way or another. Last week I had the pleasure to pass through one of these exceptional train stations, and it didn't take long to decide that it was my favorite of all the train stations I have seen thus far. The station is in Yinchuan, the capital of Ningxia Province--an area infrequently visited by Western tourists. According to a friend in Yinchuan, they have only recently finished redesigning the station. In order to avoid disrupting train traffic, they simply built a new terminal onto the opposite side of the tracks, so now they have the old station and the new station back to back with all of the platforms in the middle. The old station was fairly unattractive. I only saw it for a moment, but in that glimpse I saw an outdated structure that looked like it was designed in a Soviet space-age motif. Here's a picture I stole from the Internet so you can see for yourself:

The new station, in contrast, was designed with a gorgeous Islamic motif, which is appropriate as Ningxia is designated as the Hui Autonomous Region in China. (The Hui people--one of China's 56 ethnic minorities--are Muslim Chinese descended from Arabic traders many centuries ago.) Here's the new station:

Pretty nice, eh? In addition to to those great cathedral arches, the windows there contain some beautiful green and white stained glass.  Here's a magnification of the same picture:

This stained glass is also on the sides of the building, which you can see from the inside of the station.

So we've established that the new station is much more attractive than the old station, and it incorporates some traditional Muslim architecture and decoration. Is that alone enough to make it my favorite of all of the Chinese train stations? No--there's more. Remember when I said that Yinchuan is infrequently visited by Western tourists? If I had to take a totally out-of-thin-air guess, I would say that this station handles fewer than 500 Westerners per year. In comparison to the hundreds of thousands of Chinese folks that pass through (again, just a ballpark estimate), Westerners are a rare breed 'round these parts. And yet every single sign in the station had an English translation underneath the Chinese. This is not too common in some of the smaller cities in China, even provincial capitals. But Yinchuan didn't stop there. They took it one step further and added good English translations to all of the spoken announcements that came over the station's loudspeakers. This is really rare in China. Even some of the big coastal cities don't offer this courtesy to English speakers.

Now, of course I realize that I'm in China, a country where they speak (believe it or not) Chinese, so I make it a rule to never expect English anywhere. That would be mighty arrogant. That being said, if a restaurant, hotel, or train station does offer English translation (especially when it's not a ploy to drum up some extra tourist money), it really makes you feel welcome. It shows that they've gone out of their way to cater to a very small portion of their clients. They don't have to--they just do.

So there you have it. Congratulations, Yinchuan Train Station. You're my new favorite station in China.


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