I managed to get Olympic soccer tickets for a preliminary match in Tianjin. Tianjin is a city an hour away from Beijing.
We took the bullet train from Beijing to Tianjin—it was only 30 minutes. It takes more than an hour to go some places in Beijing!
We cheered on our U.S. men’s soccer team and I felt the bond many feel when watching their country compete in the Olympics, only this time I was experiencing it firsthand.
Tianjin missed the memo about transportation and major worldwide sporting events. Not only were there not enough trains going back to the host city, none were leaving late enough for fans to make it and see the entire event they paid money for. We had to leave the Nigeria v. The Netherlands game we had tickets for early.
Our theory was Tianjin wanted to make money off the tourists by creating a situation where tourists would be obligated to stay in their hotels and not take the 30-minute bullet train back to Beijing.
As my friends and I talked, taxi after taxi passed, already carrying passengers. We enlisted a “bread box van,” as they are called in Chinese, to take us to find a taxi. The driver collects six-inch stools from private drivers who rent them for events like these so they can sit and listen to the event on their radios.
When we found a taxi and finally got to the stadium, we had missed our train and the last train after it.
We were not alone. Many other foreigners and locals found themselves trapped in Tianjin.
Our numbers grew, and before we knew it, we had a posse. A Chinese friend, American teacher and another student joined us, followed by the teacher’s brother and another English teacher and their new-found Ugandan friend.
The ticket sellers we could wait for the 3 a.m. train and purchase standing room only tickets. We decided against this. Ten minutes after this they sold out.
Two women wearing the official American soccer jersey and a father and son from New York joined the ranks.
I admired their jerseys and remarked how we had tried to find American jerseys in the markets in Beijing and were repeatedly shown David Beckham’s L.A. Galaxy jersey.
One of the ladies is the wife of one of the U.S. coaches and they opted to stay in Beijing instead of Tianjin with the team.
I tried to make small talk with a 10-year-old boy who was there with his father. He had caught a grasshopper in the stadium and was toting him around in a box with holes poked in the top.
What did you feed it? I asked.
Grass, he said.
Also included in our numbers was a middle-aged Indian couple who had tickets to events every day of the Olympics. They, along with the soccer wives, were sold tickets earlier that day for a train that never left, or left early.
While our Chinese friends tried to strike bargains, my friend and I made a deal with a Tianjin taxi driver to take a group to Beijing. We sent the soccer wives and father and son in that taxi.
Our Chinese friends told us that because of the restrictions for the Olympics, they might not make it to Beijing. In an effort to keep crowds down, Beijing set limits on cars coming into the capital that weren’t registered within the city.
“We are calling the government,” someone informed me.
The police called us an eight-passenger van for the 13 of us who remained.
Our head count now stood with, three American teachers from Ohio, a young, four- months-pregnant couple from Ohio, one Chicago native, one Ugandan soccer player, two Chinese students, an Indian couple, an Oklahoman, a third culture kid and our Chinese driver.
We wedged into the van, some sitting and squatting in the decade-old van. The driver told us to be careful of the middle seat, it is not secured, so the passengers in the backseat supported us.
We began to feel like illegal immigrants. The driver told us that what we were doing wasn’t legal. He wasn’t supposed to drive into Beijing because he has Tianjin license plates. We would have to stop and be searched he said, and may not make it in.
I found out that the three Ohio teachers were believers and have mutual friends in Beijing.
The Chicagoan works for an animation company and frequently travels to North Korea, and may get to attend their “opening ceremony,” that is supposedly going to copy China’s.
In the dark, the Ugandan man smiled and his teeth shone in the dark as he told us his wife is expecting a baby. They now live in Australia. With the windows open in the van, I missed the soccer connection in his life story. Throughout the entire ordeal, his face always wore a smile.
Soccer talk further united us during the van. We talked about that night’s game. We discussed our favorite football clubs and players. We swapped stories about playing soccer and injuries we sustained while playing.
When we stopped at the first checkpoint we decided to take a group picture to commemorate our one and only evening together. After applying for a traffic permit and being waved through a checkpoint, we made it to the outskirts of town.
The first taxi called to say they made it safely. We finally made it safely too.
Not only did we get to see Olympic soccer, we had the kind of adventure movies are made from.