Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Working In A Coal Mine

Desi had the idea to go to this coal mine museum just down the road from Li Gong Da Xue (Taiyuan University of Technology). This was a great idea, given the historic and contemporary importance of coal in the Shanxi region. As it turned out, we got way more than we bargained for, a real treat for the four of us and Li Ling, who was accompanying us that morning.

It all started at the ticket window. The listed price was sixty kuai for what looked to be a pretty decrepit museum from the outside. That price, for some reason, was quickly cut in half...And then I inquired if there were student tickets. When the answer came "you," the price for Li Ling and the kids was cut in half yet again.

The next question that came was whether we needed a guide. My answer to this question is always "bu yao." "No, we don't want a guide." The ticket seller's response? "You have to have a guide. It is for your safety." Two questions came to my mind at that point. If we must have a guide, then why did you ask? And, more importantly, what's so dangerous about this museum?

The tour itself started out pretty innocuously. Our guide spoke in fairly simple Chinese, and Li Ling expertly translated, as we made our way through a series of exhibits about different types of coal and things like that.

Then we came to a small theater, where we were to watch a short 4-D movie. The seats in the theater were equipped to vibrate, so when there was a volcano or some other earthshaking event on the screen, we were all jostled about ourselves. The chairs also, we found out much to our surprise, were able to fire jets of air toward our eyes (kind of like that test they sometimes do at the optometrist). The creme-de-la-creme came when it not only rained on the screen, but when water also came pouring down on us from above. Smithsonian IMAX movies were looking lamer and lamer by the moment!

At one point in the tour, I thought we were done, as we emerged into a gift shop. Pretty cool stuff, all carved out of coal, but we took a pass. (Many of the items were priced at several hundred kuai.)

Much to our surprise, though, our next move was not to the exit, but into an elevator designed to simulate the transportation miners use to get down way under the earth. Upon arriving in the "mine," we all put on tou deng (head lamps) and started the underground portion of our tour.

Much of the equipment down there was real. Machines that are used to bore holes in rock. Mechanized columns that hold up the ceilings of mine tunnels. We even got to ride in mine carts. (The ride was not quite as exciting as the one in Journey to the Center of the Earth. I didn't even get the chance to save a very attractive Norwegian girl from certain death...)

All of this equipment required people to operate the simulated mine, and sure enough there was quite a crew down there, just waiting for us to arrive and then jumping into action. I should say these are unusual jobs to have, but it goes without saying they are certainly better than working in actual mines themselves.

Once again, we thought we were done, when our guide unexpectedly led us into yet another part of the museum. This time, we learned nothing about coal and coal mines, but rather about some of the most famous historic artwork that has been produced in Shanxi province. All of the pictures hanging on the walls were replicas, but there were nevertheless some pretty cool images, like this one horse that keeps its eyes on you no matter which way you walk. (An equine Mona Lisa...Probably painted like a thousand years before Da Vinci lived...)

Yes, we did eventually get the chance to leave, when our guide deposited us out a side entrance next to what appeared to be a lot where cars are sold. Back out in the sunlight, we resumed our stroll through the streets of Taiyuan...



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