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Mindy Ratner's China Chronicles

Mindy Ratner
Mindy Ratner

A troupe of 70 young musicians from the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies travelled through China for a concert tour. The tour took the students through Beijing, Xian, and Shanghai to perform in some of China's most prestigious concert halls. The musicians also toured some of China's historical sites, including the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, the Terra-cotta Warriors, the Grand Canal, and the old and new Shanghai.

MPR classical music host Mindy Ratner sent diary entries back to us during the GTCYS tour. Read her diary here, and listen to the phone interviews she and some GTCYS students had from China with MPR hosts on June 25, 26, and 28. (How to listen)

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Thursday, June 21, 2001

Dear Friends—
Mindy here, back in Beijing after too long!

Getting here was a real adventure, to put it politely—one which sent me to San Francisco and Seoul, South Korea (can you believe it?), before finally arriving in China. The good news is that those dozen of us who were stranded, most of whom are Chinese, became very good friends in spite of any limitations in our ability to make conversation in each other's language. Anyway, you can be sure that I'll have stories to tell on that subject for some time.

Unfortunately, the long delay in my arrival made it impossible for me to get to Inner Mongolia to see my Chinese family. More on that later.

In any event, my first few days in Beijing have been spent visiting with friends and former colleagues, both Chinese and foreign. The international community at the Friendship Hotel keeps changing, but there are still quite a few Foreign Experts I know from my time at China Radio International. It really means a lot to me to have been so warmly welcomed by them all!

spacer gif GTCYS in Tiananmen Square
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The GTCYS students paused in their travels for a moment to get a group shot in Tiananmen Square, Beijing.

Yesterday evening the young musicians from the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies arrived in Beijing, safe and sound. They were fortunate enough to have gotten in pretty much on time ... or on the appointed day, at least!

No sooner did the orchestra arrive than a couple of the kids and conductor Paul Zdunek had their first taste of getting around the big city. I took them on the subway out to China Radio International, where they were interviewed by one of my colleagues for one of CRI's most popular programs. You see, cultural exchanges are a big deal here, and the radio folks were really keen to help publicize GTCYS's official Beijing concert at the Beijing Concert Hall this coming Saturday night.

Today was spent sightseeing, mostly. Our first stop was Tiananmen Square, and then we spent loads of time making our way through the Forbidden City. We have a terrific guide who's a wonderful storyteller. After lunch we headed over to the famous Silk Alley for shopping. I was delighted to discover that when it comes to bargaining (in Chinese, naturally), I haven't lost my touch.

Guess it's time to call it a night.

More before too long from Mindy

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Monday morning, June 25, 2001

Mindy here again, on our last morning in Beijing. Sorry I haven't written sooner, but our days have been really full! Just to catch up where I left off...

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This impromptu basketball game helped the Chinese and American kids mingle.
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On Friday morning the GTCYS kids et al. got a tour of the hutong neighborhood near Beihai Park (hutongs are those wonderful old single-story houses built around courtyards. We had a chance to visit with a lovely woman whose family lives in a 150-year-old home. Her courtyard has grapevines and a pomegranate tree ... lots of green in a very small space.

The afternoon was spent at the Beijing Experimental High School, where the GTCYS orchestra gave a concert. Before there was any music-making, though, a couple of pickup basketball games got started between some of the kids at the school and their American visitors. It was fast and fun, and a real ice-breaker. The students at the school mixed easily with us, and everyone came away from the experience feeling great!

spacer gif Going up the Great Wall
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The Great Wall, snaking up and down steep inclines, is no simple day trip.

On Saturday we went to the (new) Summer Palace, where the Dowager Empress Cixi lived for part of the year. The orogonal Summer Palace—now known as Yuan Ming Yuan—was destroyed by the British and French in the 19th century, and what was built to replace it is quite extravagant. The big event on Saturday, of course, was the official debut of the GTCYS orchestra, which took palce at 7:30 p.m. at the Beijing Concert Hall. The orchestra had a bit of competition from the Three Tenors at the Forbidden City (!) but we had a hall filled with very appreciative music lovers!

Yesterday's hike on the Great Wall was almost too much for me. Looks like I'm going to have to get in shape! Still, the kids had a great time climbing around ("doing" the Wall can hardly be described as a stroll!), and many made it pretty far up. The day wrapped up with a visit to the Qian Men Fan Dian (Qianmen Hotel) which is home to a theatre which offers nightly performances of Peking Opera. We saw one tragic opera, and the second was a story involving the Monkey King, arguably the most famous Peking Opera character. The Master of Mischief really stole the show!

Well, we're off to Xi'an in a little while, so I'll close for now. More later from Mindy.

Click for audio. Listen: June 25 interview Part 1 | Part 2

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Xi'an, Shaanxi Province
Tuesday, June 26, 2001

Mindy here, this time from Xi'an, the provincial capital of Shaanxi Province (which also happens to be the sister province to Minnesota!) We arrived here by air yesterday, then got a tour of the fabulous Shaanxi Provincial Museum.

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In these rows of terra-cotta warriors, some have been damaged through time.
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This morning was spent at the Museum of the Terra-cotta Warriors, which were made for the tomb of the first Qin Emperor, the one who unified China in 221 B.C. They are nothing short of extraordinary! Ditto for the high temperatures in this area. I have to make this quick, because the orchestra is about to leave for the Xi'an Conservatory where they'll have a rehearsal with musicians from the school, then KFC for dinner (!) and a concert.

Just wanted to let you know that I took a bit of time this afternoon to go to the Muslim Quarter for a visit to the Great Mosque of Xi'an, which is actually in the Chinese temple style. Gorgeous! Must go.

Will write again from Shanghai.

Cheers! Mindy

Click for audio. Listen: June 26 interview Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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Saturday morning (barely!), June 30, 2001

Okay, so I got behind again with my writing. It's just that there's been so much to do!

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This is a view of the Oriental Pearl TV tower in the modern Pudong area of Shanghai.

Thursday was just a great day, which started out with a visit to the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. We were treated to a concert by students who play traditional Chinese instruments. It was fantastic to hear them, and to see how appreciative the GTCYS kids were, even though the instruments they were hearing might have sounded new or unusual. Also on the grounds of the Conservatory is a hands-on museum of traditional instruments, which was lots of fun for all of us.

In the afternoon, a visit to the Nan Yang Model School, whose young student orchestra just about knocked everyone's socks off! Their players are a couple of years younger than the GTCYS members, but their level of performance is quite impressive.

Last night the kids went to the Hard Rock Cafe (I skipped that one).

Friday morning began especially early for me. I headed out at about 6:30 a.m. with one chaperone and a couple of kids in tow. Our destination? The Hong Kou section of Shanghai, where some 30,000-or-so European Jewish refugees were kept in a ghetto during the Second World War. I have loads to say about that but not enough time. We got to see Huoshan Park, with its memorial to the so-called "Stateless Refugees" and made a stop at Ohel Moshe, a synagogue established by Russian Jews in 1927. It was eerie and wonderful.

While kids rehearsed at the Shanghai Concert Hall, I took some time and went to the Shanghai Art Museum. Fabulous! Also air conditioned, which counted for a lot on a day that was almost unbearably steamy.

The concert in the evening was a huge hit, and the night ended with a cruise on the Huangpu River. Pretty swell, all things considered. Now it's time for me to get to the task of packing, and our journey home starts very early in the morning. Wait a minute—it's already early in the morning! Must go. See you all soon.

Cheers! Mindy

Click for audio. Listen: June 28 interview | June 29 interview

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Mindy Ratner is host of Evening Classics weeknights on MPR.

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