Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Back to Business

"I'm glad we did this bike trip," Ron said, "and I'm really glad you
got the chance to do some ambient light night photography during the
full moon, but I'm really looking forward to getting back to my night
flash photography."

I could understand that. Over the past couple years, Ron has made
synchronized electronic flash photography his signature work. As the
moon rose ever later and smaller and stars shone a little brighter
each night, I could almost feel the pull it had on him.

For 25Y each ($3.30), we let a bus do in three hours what we had taken
six days to complete. With some fast talking and much gesturing, Ron
even managed to arrange pickup of his flash kit (a 100-pound trolley)
during our 20-minute stop in Lindong. "What did I tell you? The most
important things you can have for traveling here are time and

Since returning to Daban, our lives feel a little more settled, even
though we operate on a different schedule each day that has little to
do with the earth's 24-hour cycles. Near the train station we found a
spartan room in a binguan in a quiet corner (necessary for day
sleeping) with two twin beds, enough wall outlets to charge the
batteries that power the lights that could illuminate all of Ghengis
Khan's invaders, and, best of all, 24-hour hot water (never a
guarantee in any hotel in these parts). The place is relatively clean,
although there are still gaping cracks in the ceiling and the bathroom
lacks a separate shower stall or bathtub. Everything is covered in
tile and the shower does an equally good job of soaking toilet, sink
and bather alike. Keep your toilet paper on your nightstand. There is
a drain in the middle of the floor but construction is far from
perfect and lingering pools form in the low spots. But the caretaker
is friendly and helpful and her husband drives a taxi with reasonable
rates, so we have transportation at the ready for our night photo

While running errands in town today, Ron was handed the card of
another taxi driver. He set it on our nightstand when he returned.
Later, the caretaker came into sweep our floor and change the bedding.
Noticing the card, she examined it, then quickly thrust it into one of
her apron pockets.

"Hey Ron, she just stole your other driver's card. Guess she doesn't
want competition for her husband!"

Ron shouted after her that we weren't planning on using that other guy
anyway. With an embarassed laugh she returned the card and even
admitted that she was friends with the driver.

"But this is China," Ron said. "Business comes first."

Some time ago, my friend Marc asked about the food here. Now seems
like a good time to address that. Ron has become a regular at a
fandian (restaurant) a few blocks down the street, and we often go
there for an early dinner before going out for night photos. It's a
simple one-story affair that would struggle to pass FDA inspection in
the states but is comparatively just fine in China. The basic tables
and chairs are spaced far apart on the wide tile floor, a curiosity to
me for such a crowded country, until Ron told me of the night he
witnessed a live sheep led into the center of the room and killed on
the spot. I haven't had a chance to see that yet, but I did see the
blood-stained skin of one freshly-slaughtered lying by the front
door. The mutton dumplings were particularly good that night, even
though the electricity went out half way through their cooking, as it
often does here. Still the sounds of sizzling meat came popping from
the kitchen door. Power outages are little more than inconveniences
when the stoves burn coal, just like the panting locomotives whose
horns can be heard through the sunset light a few blocks away.

This wide open floor is the domain of a young female waitress with
long black hair, a red ornamented jacket and a ready smile that
reveals a mouthful of crooked teeth. Her energy is endless as she
walks, runs and skids across the tile in her blue-and-white sneakers,
taking orders and deliverying meals and likely as not took a hard fall
on her mouth one night and never had it properly repaired. When he has
the time, the cook wanders out from the kitchen in his white apron and
floral-print scrubs to inspect Ron's latest night photos or peruse one
of our Chinese-English dictionaries, both events that quickly draw a
crowd of half a dozen customers, jockeying for position as they peer
over Ron's shoulders. The best advertising in China is one curious

Even as I write this, there's somebody standing in the aisle a few
feet back from my left shoulder, just watching me type, even though I
doubt he can read a word I'm writing. It's nearly impossible to do
anything in complete privacy here.

The food comes out in piping hot, one dish at a time on family-sized
plates. Each dish is ordered separately and we usually get two to
share, plus individual bowls of white rice, which are always delivered
last. The food isn't as different from American Chinese as I might
have imagined, although I have yet to encounter fried rice. Kung piao
chicken is a favorite, as is a tasty plate full of sauteed potato
slices with a few green peppers and pork pieces mixed in. Scrambled
eggs with cooked tomato pieces are another staple of many meals, as
are the delicious dumplings, steamed pockets of dough about the size
of a golf ball with mutton or pork or vegetables inside. Of course
there is tea, a pot with two small mugs, but finding the cream and
sugar I've come to like so much is quite rare. The beer is light and
weak and only available chilled if it's been stored outside on a cold
night, but it's cheap (2Y) and the bottles are big (630mL). Even so,
my English friend Tom discovered in Lixin that it's hard to get drunk
on 2.8.

Pouring the beer is the owner's 15-year old daughter, who handles the
big bottles and small glasses like she's been doing it for years.
She's barely 4 feet tall and doesn't look a day over 12 and she comes
around 5:00 every night, straight from school, to help and talk and
run skipping across the floor, arms flapping in the dance of life that
is everywhere in China. Her English is good and her face lights up
like Chinese New Year at the sight of Ron's and my appearances. She's
eager to practice her English and just as happy to help Ron (and hence
me) improve in Chinese. We could stay all night, but we have work to

When the last bit of dusk is fading to night, we're piled into our
minibus taix, a tiny version of a US minivan that still (officially)
has seating for seven, eight if the jump seat is folded down beside
the sliding side door, but only two plus a driver, flash kit, camera
bags, sleeping bags and food to last us through the night. Ron rides
in the front and carries on two conversations at once, one in Chinese
with the driver about where we're going, and one in English with me
about ideas for our shots. I'm in the back, struggling to hear over
the hum of the tires, drone of the engine, rush of wind through the
leaky window and door seals, and trying not to bite off my tongue when
we hit yet another bump and my head bounces up and slams against the
low ceiling.

And then we're on location, the center of attention to any who might
be around as we pile out with our mountains of gear and set up five
light stands with 230,000 lumens of output. "Did you check your
watch?" Ron asks. He's not worried about a train just yet. It's only a
matter of minutes until the inevitable calls of "Dou shou? Dou shou?"
of nearly every one who sees us. "How much does all this stuff cost?"

But eventually they drift away to their warm beds and finally we're
alone with the night, where the hum of day life is quieted by the
great blackness of the Mongolian sky, where the air is colder and
crisper, where the steam plumes rise higher and the exhaust beats a
sharp rhythm long into blackness, and every train is a thing to be
treasured as it passes. Oh, we'll come back tomorrow night and they'll
still be here. And the next night and the next. But one night, not
long from now, their labored cries will be forever silenced and the
nights will grow a little colder. And the flashes fire and we drink it
up as the firebox doors swing open and the red glow glints through the
cab and lights the white steam in eerie orange and the conductor waves
from his passing caboose and once again the silence returns.

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Travelers' Reward

There comes a time in many trips where a decision must be made -- press on despite the odds, or pack it in and turn back. That time came for Ron and me on Wednesday morning at a little place called Diaojiaduan. We were down to one bike, I had just hiked 13 miles across the most barren stretch of the railroad in the wind and sun the previous day and was nursing new blisters on my feet, and overnight the weather had turned from September late summer to November late fall.

Outside the huochezhuan (hwooh chuh john -- train station), the gray clouds rolled and the wind swirled, whipped and buffeted the two-story building. The temperature stayed low, probably in the 40s F, and the first three freight trains of the day were diesel-powered, leading me to ponder aloud, "I wonder if this place is losing its magic?"

Ron and I sat in the ground floor conference room in red swivel chairs eating steaming noodles and watching CCTV9, the only English channel over here. Chinese railway workers drifted in and out, stopping to gawk at these curious laowai (old foreigners) who blew in with the foul weather. While we dosed in our chairs, they'd change the channel to their favorite soaps, but always switch it back to the English station as soon as we woke up and showed even the slightest interest in the TV.

The break in the weather we were awaiting never came, and by early afternoon, Ron announced that, "Regardless of what the weather does, we need to leave at some point." Then he added, "Unless we just pack it in and catch a train back."

I could tell from his tone that wasn't what he wanted it. It wasn't what I wanted, either.

"We came here to do this," I said. "Let's finish it."

He gave me the bike first and began walking down the tracks. I finished packing and set off into the headwind, which had shifted to come from the east over night. Even on the smooth pavement of Rt 303 and with Ron's fabulous bike, I could barely manage 5-6 mph. I passed but a few hearty farmers in their fields, leading me to think that most of the locals here were a lot smarter than us. The bikes and motorcycles were few, but the trucks surged ever onward. At one point, I was approaching a curve where a small truck had stopped at the edge of the oncoming lane. I was greeted by the sight of a larger truck passing it in the middle of the road, and a still larger truck passing it in my lane, horns blaring and heavy loads swaying and all this
happening not more than a couple hundred yards in front me.

I finally found the dirt road where I would intersect the tracks, leave the bike for Ron and continue on foot. Turning onto a dirt road, you would think there would be less traffic, especially on such a foul day, but this is China, and you'd be wrong. Barreling straight at me were not one but two burgandy minibus taxis, basically a shrunken version of a US minivan. They laid on their horns and the dust rolled up staright for me and all I could do was get as far right as possible, put a deathgrip on the handlebars, hold my breath, close my eyes until I felt the dust stop hitting my face, open them and hope I was still on the road, then get ready to do it all again for the second one.

It was nearing dusk when Ron and I brought our severly chapped lips and aching feet into our campsite, a windbreak created by a highway overpass on the tracks. We had come 15 kilometers and had only 8 more to go the next morning. We were down to a couple of water bottles and two packages of food, but had no hot water to prepare them and nowhere nearby to ask. In the tent we spread the remainder of our cache: 5 Power Bars.

"Dinner is served!"
"We should split each of them and make it a five-course meal," Ron suggested.

In the end we saved the two Cookie Dough bars for breakfast.

As we hunkered down into our sleeping bags for an early night, the unmistakable chugging of steam locomotive exhaust caught the breeze to our tent. "Double-header!" I unzipped the tent flaps. The sound nearly disappeared as the train rounded a big horseshoe curve around the hill in front of us, but then it was on top of us, each CHUFF a sharp, distinct blast into the night sky, gigantic steam plumes billowing in the cold air and the sparks shooting volcanic-like from the stack. We watched the spectacle until it disappeared around the curve and was swallowed by the night. "Just for us," Ron said, and we rolled over and went to sleep.

When my bladder woke me at 10:00, the moon was trying to shine through the clouds. When I awoke again an hour and a half later, the night sky was clear and the wind had calmed to a breeze. I gathered my camera bag, tripod and sleeping bag, stepped into my cold boots, woke Ron to tell him of my intentions, and set out up the hillside.

The shot I wanted was of the moonlit landscape with the steam exhaust from an uphill train laying over the tracks. I was 2/3s up the hill when I heard the train. I quickly setup my tripod, mounted my camera, made the settings and took the shot. The exposure and composition were perfect, but. . . . even from the small LCD screen on my camera, I could tell it was fuzzy. I checked my focus. The ring was perhaps 1/16" off from the infinity setting, where it should be. Not much, but with the aperture wide open at f1.4, that's like setting off on a 1000 mile journey and being 1 degree off course. I kept climbing the hill.

At the top, I found my spot, spread my sleeping bag on the ground, burrowed in, and waited. The next train was downhill -- no steam exhaust. Then the diesel streamliner. Then there were two uphill trains -- both diesel powered. The night was growing old and I wondered how much time I had remaining. I traced the path of a downhill train all the way into the yard, where I fixed my sleepy gaze on three distant, stationary lights. It was 3:30 when a small, purplish-white glow began moving through them, almost imperceptable at first. Then it was through the lights and out on the mainline and I could see the steam billow up in the moonlight and hear the exhaust bouncing off the hills. Another double-header. Just for me.

I didn't return to the (slightly) warmer tent. I continued my vigil on the mountaintop, jumping up every 30 minutes to run halfway down and back up, arms flailing to keep the blood flowing, a spectre in the night in a ritual dance to conjour up the last breaths of mainline steam the world over. I time-lapsed the sunrise and still I waited. Down at the yard, several white plumes drifted into the chill morning air. Surely they could send one more up to me? And then one moved, faster than the others, and bigger and whiter and past the water tower and onto the mainline where no doubt remained and the black boiler glistening in the day's first light and the billowing white cloud bigger even than the train it pulled and I'm alone on the mountaintop, higher than high until the chugging is a whisper and the last puff of white fades into the clear western horizon. The magic is still there.

I found Ron back at the tent and we walked side-by-side, him pushing the bike all the way so we could stay together. We arrived into Chabuga station at 10:30, took a quick photo by the sign, and went for breakfast, our journey complete.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

A Day Late and a Cycle Short

Ron and I have made it to Lindong with about 60% of our bike trip behind us. Well, part of it has been a bike trip, anyway. We're here a day later than we'd planned and with only one bike instead of two, but we're here, and we're happy, and I suppose that's what really matters.

At one of the many bike shops in Lindong, we found a 12-speed mountain bike with front and rear suppension (useful for bouncing down railroad ballast) for only 350 Y. Another 68 added two rear baskets for carrying our camping gear, a pump, inner tube, wrenches and lots of tire patches. That's a grand total of $52. I'm on a pretty tight budget here, but I could afford that for a five or six day sojourn, even if I never used it again.

We hadn't even made it from our hotel in Daban to the railway (only a few kilometers) before my butt was aching and my legs were sore and I was beginning to wonder if I had bitten off a bit more than I could chew. Ron was cruising along on his American bike, but then he's ridden across several countries. My biggest cycling claim was a couple of round trips on Ocracoke Island in North Carolina, about 27 miles on flat pavement in a day. And that was 10 years ago.

The problems really started near Baomutu, the first station east of Daban. Struggling to keep my balance on the one-foot wide, not quite level "path" along the ballast, one of my pedals struck a railroad sign, bending it and loosening the crank. We limped into the last couple km into the station and made camp. We spend the evening with a friendly crossing gate keeper, a 53 year old man who gets 600 Y / month ($75) plus a two-room shack for lodging to live beside the tracks and manually raise and lower the crossing gates for each passing train. He gave us all the hot water and tea we could use, obligingly posed for our photos, and in the morning, led us to a bike shop in town. He rode a one-speed with only thin rods for pedals and I struggled to keep up. The shop was deserted (and looked unused to begin with) and it was Sunday morning, but within 10 minutes, he had summoned the proprietor, a stocky Chinese man on a motorbike, built like a fire plug and nearly as red in the face as one. He straightened my pedal, tightened my crank and greased everything. We were back on the ballast by 9:00, much to our minds' relief and my already aching butt's dismay.

Then a pedal fell off. And my gears all but ceased working. With Ron's help and a detour on the paved road, I made Gulumanhan by mid-afternoon on one pedal and with gears that reqired a two-handed TUUUUGGG and a five minute delay to shift about three places. We passed a wonderful but cold night of trains camped out in some trees by the water tower, then, with the help of yet another friendly road crossing gate keeper, found a man who repaired my pedal.

We hit a solid stretch of ballast east of the route 303 level crossing and I was riding along thinking that these are the kinds of places that can lull you into thinking that 30 km/day is quite an easy pace (we made about 20 on each of our first two days, with considerable effort). Then I had to stop for a sandy patch, and that's when I heard the hiss from the rear tire.

The next morning in Chaganhada (after another great night, the too-short sleeping portion of this one spent in railway worker bunks), Ron and one of his Chinese friends on the railway had put a total of five patches into my two tires (which were both almost completely flat when we limped into the station under a rising full moon the previous evening). As we prepared to set off, I noticed the sound of leaking air from my rear tire. This time, it was the valve, which we had no way of replacing. And our spare innertube used a different kind of valve that didn't mate with the pump we had been sold. We cannabolized the useful parts off the bike and left the carcass with one of the railway workers, deciding to trade off walking and riding Ron's bike.

30 minutes on that fine machine restored my faith in bicycle travel. Without my Chinese rattletrap slowing us down, we made more km today with one bike than we did on the previous three with two bikes. That's our plan for the rest of the trip, another 60 km, which we hope to finish in three more days. Despite the problems, I love traveling this way, especially with Ron's Chinese speaking abilities. There's so much to say about the trains and the people and the land and the light, but that will have to wait. I just had my first really full meal in three days, and now I'm off for a much-needed wash and rest.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Daban Friday Morning

I'm in Daban this morning, a city of 100,000 in Inner Mongolia and the western end of steam operations on the Jitong line. Camron is in Beijing awaiting his flight home, which he rescheduled for today after getting another panic attack night before last. Our goodbye was swift. After deciding he needed to go home, all the pieces came together very quickly. Within an hour's time, he was able to change his flight and book a taxi to Beijing, albeit at a considerable price. We're so far from anywhere, yet 48 hours from making the decision to leave, he'll be home.

From here and for the next several days or weeks, I will be traveling with Ron Olsen. Ron is anxious to make more night flash photos and will be better able to do so with an assistant. I'll be helping him carry his flash kit and set up for some of the more complicated photos. Ron has made 13 prior trips to China and speaks very good Chinese. He works as a nurse in the northeastern U.S., so he's a very good person to have around. I'm looking forward to traveling with him.

Before making any more night flash photos, however, Ron wants to bicycle the length of the Jitong line that is still steam powered, 95 miles from Daban to Chabuga, most of it downhill (well planned). We leave tomorrow morning and today I need to go bike shopping. Wish us luck! I may not be able to make another update until after our trip.

Ron was out late last night and I went to bed early, so our paths didn't cross until mid-morning. Before running into him at our binguan (hotel), I decided to take a walk. Normally, I step out of front door and take a few moments to get my bearings. However, stepping out the front door here I was greeted by the sight of about a dozen taxi drivers parked on the sidewalk in front of the binguan, no doubt eager for business. If I've learned one thing in China, it's that standing around with a blank look on our face is a really good way to get solicited. So I marched right past them just I like I knew where I was going.

Of course I hadn't a clue. I was looking for an internet cafe and a post office. I found neither. What I did find was that I just lost unsaved paragraph due to a power failure. Those seem to be common here.

Anyway, what I did find were the three female employees of the local Avon shop standing on the sidewalk in front of their door, prim and proper in their white smocks, music blaring on the speakers behind them, doing their morning exercises. I found countless tiny, puttering, three-wheeled taxis in every color of the rainbow, the oldest very literally held together by bailing wire and duct tape. I found street merchants spreading their wares on blankets in the wide sidewalks, everything from fresh fruits to electronics to some white-green leafy spinach-looking vegetables drying in the sun. I found in the open bed of a three-wheeled truck newly slaughtered pink pig pieces, the intact heads staring up at me with blank, curiously happy-looking eyes. I found, at least I think I found -- I can't be sure in the corner of my eye, a naked women shaking out here bathrobe in her sun-drenched 4th story apartment window. And I found the faint hint of coal smoke wafting over from the railway yard, a sweet smell that will soon be gone.

Back at the binguan, I found Ron and Hans, and they quickly led me to an internet cafe, one of many I'm certain I passed without noticed, too taken in by the sights and smells of Friday morning in Daban. Now it's time for breakfast, then bike shopping.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

From the Inside

Camron came all this way so he could be here, experience China and mainline steam locomotives for himself and make a video about it. And then he gets sick just before leaving the U.S. and hasn't managed to recover yet. Lately, he's been spending most, if not all, of his days in the hotel, trying to rest up in hopes of a recovery. He managed some good footage in the first few days, but was still lacking a few key shots for his film. Crucial to its production was some footage from inside the locomotive cab.

This afternoon, I set out from the hotel carrying a single camera bag. It contained a couple bottles of water and Nikki, one of the two high definition digital video cameras Camron brought with him. I left my still camera and tripods in the room. This afternoon I was on assignment, with a single purpose to fulfill.

My arrival in Lindong station was as if I'd been planning this for months. Not one, but two steam trains were in the station, one facing each direction. I walked down to the double-headed westbound, it's locomotives and crew busy picking up some cars filled with stone. The fireman of the lead engine saw me and waved me down to where they would be stopping.

"Gulumanhan?" I asked.

"Gulumanhan, Gulumanhan!" he responded from his seat on high.

I grasped the oily handrails and climbed into the cab. The other fireman (there are two, neither a day over 30 -- a man can only shovel coal for so long) produced a cell phone and helped me instruct my taxi driver to the meeting point. He then slammed down a metal frame in front of the door, slapped a cushion on top of it, and motioned for me to sit. The other one offered me a cigarette.

"Bu xi yan, xie xie," I replied (I don't smoke, thank you).

"Your Chinese, very good!" he said in Engish.

In front of me sat one of the fireman, cap tilted to one side. Across the cab, on the left side, the engineer sat in a baseball hat, polo shirt, coal-smudged Guess jeans and loafers. The other fireman stood behind him, shovel at the ready. Between us was the backplate of the boiler, a maze of piping, valves and gauges. On the other side, through the butterfly doors just above the cab floor, a fire raged at several hundred degrees. In pipes above it, water became the steam that would set us into motion as soon as the engineer got the signal and opened the throttle.
The signal came and throttle moved back a few notches. The beast leaned forward. CHUFF! The valves wrapped in old blackened rags dripped water and leaked steam while an old metal tea kettle rode a shelf above the firebox doors. The firemen sat smoking, their smoke mixing with the engine's and the ever-present coal dust into a smog inside the cab. CHUFF! We were moving steadily now and the cab was an oven with each press of the foot pedal when the metal jaws swung open and another shovel of coal was devoured by the red-orange roar. Chuff-chuff-chuff-chuff. With a full body motion, the fireman in front of me threw a mighty lever and jets of steam shot from the righthand cylinder in a cleaning blowdown, repeated a few seconds later across the cab. Chug-a-chugga, chug-a-chugga and the beast lumbered forward, the whole thing shaking and the cab doors rattling and the gauges dripping and the valves leaking and the BLAST of heat with another scoop of black food into the raging belly.

At a stop, the fireman handed me his shovel and urged me to try my hand at firing. I awkwardly threw a few scoops into the firebox to rounds of "Hen hao!" and "Good job!" When we were moving again and I offered to give the fireman a short break, but "later" was his only reply. I didn't mention it again and neither did he.

I produced Nikki from her case and asked if I could take some photos. After their gawking and the inevitable "how much?" they agreed and I began filming. It was at this point that the fireman mentioned paying for my ride ("marnie") and I sensed that first magical moment was over. He wanted 700 yuan and I was only to talk him down to 600 ($75 US). It's the going rate on the Jitong line these days, and is the same for one person or three. It's just enough to cover the crew's risk, as they could each be fined 200 if management caught me on board. I didn't mind paying. They didn't try to sell me anything else and seemed to go about their jobs naturally. Camron was reimbursing me for shooting video. But more than that, we were taking something of them and hoping to sell it. It only seemed right to pay for that privilege. I'll always wonder whether I'd have been asked to pay if I hadn't taken out the camera. Probably so, but I'd like to think not.

On the long straight stretch a few kilometers from Gulumanhan, we topped the grade and got a chance to run on the downhill. The fireman kept the steam up and the engineer kept the throttle open and we were devouring Inner Mongolia at 80 km/h as I stole a glance at the speedometer and gave the engineer a big thumbs up, which he returned as the beast was shaking as if to break and the smoke was rolling and the fields were flashing by out the window and I was sorry when he took in the reigns and we began slowing for the station stop and a meet with an oncoming train.

I paid my money and thanked them and with the help of my dictionary managed to ask if they'd miss these locomotives. "Yes!" said the fireman, a little too quickly, I thought. The engineer just laughed. "You like these?" the fireman asked. "Yes. Yes, I do."

I'll miss them.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Across the Miles

Today is a special day.

For me, it started at 4:45. An hour later, following a 45-minute taxi ride to Gulumanhan, I was climbing a hillside and watching the sun creep into a hazy morning sky over the endless plains and distant hills. As it rose, a whistle sounded in the distance. The morning passenger train steamed into the station, stopped, and departed with the full orange sun just above the horizon, white steam billowing back over the white coaches.

But that's not why this is a special day.

Today is a special day because it's the day, 26 years ago, that a very special person came into the world. Maureen and I have been sharing our lives with each other for almost four years now and got engaged in July. We haven't set a date yet. I think we'll at least wait until we're in the same country to worry about such details.

My coming to China wasn't a part of our original plan. Our original plan was to go to Japan together to teach English and share the experiences, side-by-side, of adapting to new lives in a new country. Until early April, it looked like that was exactly what would happen, but then, at the last minute, she was accepted into the teaching program and I was not, and we were both left looking for answers.

What we decided was that she would go to Japan and I would join her, but we're both much too independent for one to blindly follow the other across an ocean. That's part of what makes our relationship work so well. We both understand the other's need to make our experiences our own. Coming to China to look for steam trains before going to Japan was the way I found to make a year (or two) in Asia my own.

It's been nearly two and a half months since we've seen each other, and some three weeks since we've spoken on the phone. That's a long time. I tried calling twice last week on Bernd's international cell phone but only got her voice mail (a recording in Japanese) and didn't leave a message, not knowing if I had the right number. Bernd has since left, and I have yet to find a way of making the connection. This morning Ron helped me ask at the hotel, but they told us it is not possible, and suggested the post office. "When does it close?" we asked. 6:00. We arrived to 5:15 to find it had closed at 5:00. I then tried Ron's new cell phone, but his international service has not been activated. I then came to the internet cafe to send an email, but the electricity was out.

At dinner, Ron, Camron and I sat with three Australian railfans, also here to see the end of mainline steam operations. We drank a toast to Maureen's 26th and all hoped she was having a good day. I tried the internet cafe once more after dinner, and much to my relief, found the electric service restored. So here I am.

Even though our lives are right now physically connected only by the wires and cables of the world wide web, the connection we share runs much deeper, even as our lives run on separate paths, hundreds of miles apart. She's with me on every hill I climb, when I rest my head on my padded camera bag, gaze up into the big Mongolia sky and listen on the wind for the hint of a whistle or the chanting chug of an approaching train. She's with me in the towns at night when the flag dancers march and twirl and the drummers pound out the rhthym. She's with me as I struggle to order a meal in a foreign language and sit awkwardly at the table, hoping that what is brought before me will be something edible. And she's with me every evening, as I lay my exhausted head on a grainy (rice filled?) pillow and pull the comforter (no top sheets in this country) up to my chin and roll over for another too short night.

This summer I thought many times about whether I should ask her to marry me, a subject we discussed together many times, as well. The day I decided was the day I thought about this trip and considered making it if I knew she wouldn't be waiting for me at the end. I couldn't think of doing it, couldn't think of being here, without knowing that she was waiting for me on the other side.

With the next post we'll be back to steam trains, terrible driving, goat herders, flag dancers and tasty food that could be anything from chicken to kitten for all I know. But today is for my reason, my inspiration, my love, with all my heart.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Good and Comfortable

After a full night at Gulumanhan, Ron and I came back to Lindong on the morning passenger train. For 5.50 yuan (about $0.70), we rode 45 km behind the last regularly scheduled steam-hauled mainline passenger train in the world. The train was a little crowded but not packed, and we found aisle seats across from each other. I should have slept for the entire trip back to Lindong, but I always have difficulty sleeping on trains. It's not that the gentle rocking of the coaches isn't conducive to sleep, but rather that I can always find something within the coach or out the window to captivate me. Shortly after departing, the sun crept over the mountains. Lazy clouds of white steam drifted slowly back from the locomotive, catching the first rays of daylight in a wash of golden pink.

We slept for the rest of the morning and into the afternoon, as did Camron, who is still not fully recovered from a cold and bad reaction to his antibiotic that occurred just before he left for China. We had a late lunch then spent a couple hours at Yamenmiao around sunset where we watched a pair of eastbound double-headed steam freights blast through town at track speed, chatting with our taxi driver the signalman in between.

China is such a land of contrasts. The Jitong Railway was completed in December of 1995 with fabulous engineering, big, new concrete bridges, low grades and broad curves, even on its mountain pass. The crossties are cast concrete, the newest construction available. The railway was built to move freight and passengers quickly on a bypass of Beijing, and to do so for a long time. Yet in the still very much labor-based economy of China, many other technologies were passed by in favor of cheap, labor-intensive jobs. The most obvious example is the steam locomotion. All 900 km were in steam when the line opened. At every grade crossing there is a small brick shack with a yard bordered by earthen walls where a family lives, along with a couple of donkeys, some chickens, maybe a pig and a dog. The gates guarding the crossing are wooden and raised and lowered by pulleys and ropes. On many rural roads, they are kept down, and motorists, tractors and donkey carts are granted passage by the gatekeeper manually raising the gates. At each end of every siding where trains pass, there is a shanty where a signalman is stationed to throw the manual levers that line up the switches and semaphore signals for each train.

As the orange sun dipped behind the hills, Ron announced that he felt like spending the evening in a warm pool at a Chinese bathhouse. That sounded quite good to me, but Camron was a bit skeptical.

"I'm afraid it might make my cold worse."
"No, it'll probably make you feel a lot better," Ron retorted. "Just be careful not to swallow any of the water."
"The nurse knows best," I agreed.

With Camron finally persuaded, the three of us of let our taxi driver show us to a bathhouse just a few blocks down from our hotel. At the front desk, we traded our shoes for locker keys, then were led through hanging strips of plastic to the locker room, where we stripped down to only the plastic sandals that were provided. The supplied towels were much too small to cover anything, and I stepped into the bathing room naked to all of China, or at least to the three or four Chinese customers and staff (all male, as the bathhouses are gender-segregated). After a quick shower, we settled into the main pool of steamy water, soaking up the warm cleanness in every pore of tired skin.

One of thing I have noticed and puzzled about China is the absence of wash clothes in the hotel showers. Typically there is only a packet of bathfoam. Rubbing that around with my hands is hardly adequate to scrub off the dirt of a day or two alongside a steam railway. I soon found out the Chinese solution to that. After our soaks, laid down on padded tables, washed and warmed by the water from the bath. I lay there face up, completely naked, while a young, smiling Chinese man with brown teeth, wearing only thin mesh briefs, plastic sandals, and a bath mit on one hand, stood over me. He smoothed back my hair and went to work on my face. The mitt was abrasive and he rubbed hard and fast, sometimes too hard, but often it was just right. "It's like being licked by a giant cat," Ron said as he lay face down on a table next to mine. The dead skin came off in dark little rolls, leaving me feeling cleaner than I had ever felt since arriving in China.
As my attendant was scrubbing off my backside, a great, slapping, rhythmic beat arose from the next table. The slaps were hard and fast, like a drummer beating out a tune, and reverberated loudly through the tile-covered room. I stole a glance up from my hot water bottle pillow to see an older Chinese man laying placidly on the table while his attendant beat out a fast march on his back. That was coming up next for me.

Every slap was swift and well-placed, with a wet towel on my back to take the initial shock. I rose feeling refreshed, then joined Ron and Camron to dry off and go upstairs for our massages.
"I'll teach you a few words for the massages," Ron said. "Tang means pain. Say that if anything is uncomfortable. Bu tang means it's not painful. If she's doing a really good job, you can say hao shufu. That means good and comfortable."

We dried in the locker room, got our own pairs of thin mesh undies (which came in little tiny rolls -- I required instructions for putting on mine, given by two very animated, amused Chinese men). Then we got shorts and robes in black and burgandy silk, lacking only pipes to complete the Hugh Hefner look. Camron and I followed Ron upstairs where three Chinese women led us to big recliners. There were TVs mounted on the wall near the ceiling, closed-captioned so we could not understand both what were hearing and reading. There was also background music playing, a little too loudly, I thought, until it stopped briefly between songs and the sounds of honking horns from the street below wafted up.

We were served drinks while the women sat in front of us, wrapped one foot in a towel, placed the other on top of a towel, and began massaging it with oil. Ron, who's 6 feet 6 inches with correspondingly large feet, told Camron and I that one time he and a friend were getting a foot massage and asked the price. "20 yuan," came the reply, "but for you," she said, pointing to Ron's long feet, "30." He translated that to Chinese for the benefit of our masseuses, who all began giggling. They then began comparing the sizes of their customers' feet. The one in the middle, working on Camron (who's a bit shorter), pointed to Ron's and my feet, looked at her co-workers and gave a thumbs down with a shake of her head. Then she looked at Camron's smaller feet, and gave a smiling thumbs up.

The lady in front of me started giggling and pointed at my chest, and I realized my robe had slipped partly open below my neck. With a blush, I wrapped it tighter while the women giggled more.

"Showing a little too much skin, Scott?" Camron asked."She says you're good-looking," Ron translated."Tell her she's too kind!"

"Hao shufu," I said as the skilled fingers rubbed between my toes, across the balls of my feet and up and down my arches. The next thing I knew, I was waking up from a short doze and the foot and leg massage was nearly over.

The women with Ron said something in Chinese which he translated for Camron and me. "She wants to know if we want to stay for back and shoulders."

"Yes!" Camron said, before either of us could even take a breath.

In back rooms we laid on beds while the aches and pains of the roads and rails were rubbed out of tired chests, backs and shoulders. "Hao shufu."

We left some two hours after arriving, paying 155 yuan each, or about $20, for the treatment. We ate grilled lamb on skewers from street vendors, and I said goodnight to Ron and Camron at the hotel then came to the internet cafe to write yesterday's post. It was midnight when I stepped out into the dark street to return to the hotel. Two weeks ago that would have bothered me, but now I feel relatively safe walking the streets here after dark, even alone. Three years ago in Chabuga, the next major town to the east, men on deathrow were paraded through the streets and then excuted. Their crime: armed robbery.

Morning came much too soon, but I was still feeling good after my bath, massage and taking some time to write. Camron, still trying to recover from his cold, stayed in while Ron and I took our taxi to the train station. A short steam freight arrived not long after we did, and as it was the last train for several hours and the weather was turning cloudy, Ron talked us onto the caboose. I sent our driving home and settled into a metal seat near one end of the simple conductor's car. The conductor sat at one bay window wearing his dark railway uniform with red shoulder bands and a matching hat that he donned only when signalling other railway workers. Beneath his trousers were white sneakers. Nothing but steel-toed boots would pass for train service in the U.S. Across from him in the opposite bay window sat an older man catching a ride. Cabooses are the defacto passenger service on the Chinese lines that still use them, which are few these days. He sat facing the rear and smoking a cigarette, looking out the window with hauntingly sad, brown eyes.

The passenger train was running three hours late and we could catch it back to Lindong at Gulumanhan, giving us 90 km of steam haulage for 5.5 yuan. Our freight train began rolling forward as we steamed west for Daban. Here and there I stole glances out the front window of our engine on a curve, a thin line of smoke drifting from the stack and red driving wheels flashing. Behind, the tracks rolled out into the vast, barren farmlands, mountains and deserts of Inner Mongolia. Ka-chunk-ka-chunk, ka-chunk-ka-chunk, the wheels beat out a soft rhythm on the jointed rails. I put down the camera, settled back in my seat, and just watched and listened. Hao shufu.

Light up the Night

On a lonely four-lane in Inner Mongolia, my taxi sped off into the last glow of daylight fading in the western sky. The needle danced around 100 km/h and the cars passing in the opposite set of lanes were few. I had left the warm comfort of my binguan (hotel) in Lindong and the company of Camron for an uncertain hope in the middle of the night.

I met Ron Olsen only briefly at a photography conference in Chicago last March. We began emailing when began thinking about chasing steam in China and realized he'd been there some dozen times. He speaks Chinese, knows many of the railroaders here, and after exchanging several emails, asked if I would like to travel with him while we were both in China.

Ron is the first to admit that he isn't the best photographer shooting Chinese steam trains (but he's a very good one). He's also the first to admit that there are people who speak better Chinese than him, have more knowledge of the railroads, are better travelers and are better at using electronic flash lighting for night photos. But he will admit that he's one of only perhaps a couple of people who can combine all of those abilities.

Bernd, my tour group's leader, knows Ron and arranged for about half of our group to meet him for night photos on Wednesday evening. I had never tried night flash photography before, but I enjoyed it so much that I joined him again the following night, then made another attempt with three others on Friday night.

Unfortunately that attempt didn't go so well. After some miscommunications during the day, we eventually agreed that the four of us from the tour group would take a taxi from Daban to the station at Gulumanhan, where we had been just a few hours earlier for some dusk photos. Ron would take the caboose of a freight train and arrive around 9:30. Our taxi was late and the driver slow, so it was nearing 10:00 when we finally stepped onto the platform at Gulumanhan. Ron was nowhere in sight, but the signals were lined up for a westbound train, presumeably the one Ron was riding.

Our first indication that all might not go as planned came when a double-headed steam freight nearly shook the walls off the station as it stormed past at speed, with no indication of slowing down whatsoever. A few minutes later, Olaf's (one of my companions) phone rang. It was Bernd. That had been Ron's train and he was now nearly to Daban. We got his phone number and eventually managed to connect, then decided to take our taxi back to Daban and try some night photos in town.

We found Ron at the station, looking a little dazed. He had missed the train he was supposed to catch because he also took an accidental tumble into an inspection pit in Lindong. His injuries weren't as bad as mine, but the experience did shake him up. He was feeling better by then and a train was leaving soon, so he and I set off to retrieve his flash lighting kit from the freight station, where he had stored it. It wasn't there. Ron's kit contains five electronic strobe flashes, batteries, infrared transmitters and receivers for firing the units, light stands, his tripod and several accessories. He carries it in a rolling plastic case that tips the scales around 100 pounds. It contains nearly all of the equipment for what has become his primary photographic aim in China. He naturally didn't take this very well.

We began a frantic search through the dark freight yard, stepping over rails, dodging rail cars and avoiding inspection pits at all costs. Finally the crew on a caboose flagged us. "A friend of yours picked it up," they told him in Chinese. "What friend?" he asked. They didn't know.
Ron called Olaf and told him and the others to take a taxi home and apologized for all that had gone wrong on their last night in Inner Mongolia. As his frustrations mounted, I ever so briefly detached myself and stepped back to take in the scene before me. It was night in a railroad freight yard. A steam-powered railroad freight yard. Two active cabooses (removed from mainline service in the U.S. 20 years ago) sat on the track beside us. Two tracks over on the opposite side, a pair of steam locomotives simmered on the headend of a soon-departing freight train. The yard switching shoved a cut of cars into the track in front of them. The railroad was alive, and all around, railroaders were going about their jobs, and not one of them was making any attempt to sell me anything. This was how I had imagined it. Except for Ron's missing flash kit.

The yard switcher stopped in front of us and a brakeman motioned for us to get on the caboose. On the floor inside was a big plastic box contained Ron's intact flash kit. We lugged it through the yard and back to the taxi, stopped briefly back into the station, then drove into town for Ron to join his friend Hans at a hotel near my own. Hans didn't answer Ron's knock. Then the phone rang. It was Olaf. They were still at the passenger station and wondering how to get home. Back through town to the train station we went, where Ron got the very last available bed at a simple hotel near the tracks. The owner's son was forced out of his own bed for this late-arriving guest.
Ron accompanied me to the train station where we found the others. He apologized again, then walked back to his room while we returned to town. It was 1:30 in the morning, our departure was at 5:00, and we were tired, disappointed, but also somewhat relieved.

A few hours later after a much too-short nap, were back in Gulumanhan where we climbed a mountain for a fabulous morning view of two double-headed steam trains passing at the station. Back in Daban I said goodbye to my new friends from the tour group, thanked Bernd profusely, then climbed into a taxi with Camron for the ride to Lindong, our home for the next few days and the beginning of our adventure on our own.

One afternoon of finding zero steam trains helped us further realize the worth of Bernd's constant efforts during the tour. Even getting something to eat was a challenge. In the restaurant adjoining our hotel, I tried every word I could think of in my Chinese dictionary to order us some food. I was only successful when I pointed to the dish on an adjacent table. We shortly received soimething that only vaguely resembled it, but proved quite tasty in its own right.

Ron had told me that he was going back to Gulumanhan that night to try again for night photos. I was so taken by the wash of stars in the black night sky on the previous evening that I decided to try again to join him. It had been over 18 hours since we had spoken and I knew from experience that plans can change. It took some help from a bilingual Chinese tour guide at my hotel, but I eventually explained my wishes to my confused driver. A few minutes later, we were racing west on that darkening highway.

Arriving in Gulumanhan after night had fallen, Ron was nowhere to be seen. Not that I could see very far in the pitch-black night. I borrowed my driver's cell phone and attempted the number I had written down on the previous night. To my great relief, Ron answered.

"Ron! Where are you?"
"Gulumanhan. Where are you?"
"Boy, I'm glad to hear that. I'm in Gulumanhan!"
"Well, welcome to Gulumanhan!"
"Exactly where are you?"
"See that train coming?"
"Just keep watching it."

The night diesel steamliner rushed through town. A few hundred meters to my life, its locomotive was illuminated briefly in a white flash of light.

"That wasn't a bad shot!" Ron said into his phone. He had somehow mananged to take the photo and fire one of his flashes while talking to me on his cell phone. I got my stuff, sent my driver home, and joined him for a night of steam and stars.

The lights were set up, powered on, and our cameras secured to our carefully position tripods. The gatekeeper stepped out of the crossing shanty and lowered the crossing gates on the road. Over the dark tree tops on the horizon, a green-white glowed appeared and moved slowly toward us, a headlight cutting then thin layer of low-hanging mist. With it came the chant, the beckoning that had brought us both thousands of miles from home, away from our loved ones and out of our warm hotel rooms on a dark, moonless night. cha-ch-ch-ch-cha-ch-ch-ch.

"I'm going to miss this," said Ron. Cha-ch-ch-ch-Cha-ch-ch-ch.

"I'll keep coming back, even when it's diesel," CHA-ch-ch-ch-CHA-ch-ch-ch, "but it won't be the same."

CHA-CH-CH-CH-CHA-CH-CH-CH. Whoooooo. FLASH! And the train rolled off into the night.

More on Photos

Sorry to have been quiet for the last few days -- absolutely no time to visit an internet cafe (nor nearly enough time to sleep, either, but that's not why I'm here).

Anyway, I have gone back and added photos to some previous posts (thanks again to Marc Entze, for preparing them for me). I will continue adding photos to old posts and new ones, but the photos will lag the new posts by a day or two, since I will need to send them to Marc and get them before posting them here. I think that's the best arrangement for the time being.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Photo Test

It's an overcast day in Inner Mongolia and I have a little downtime at the internet cafe, so here's another attempt at posting a photo, this one showing an eastbound double-headed steam train departing Gulumanhan on the Jitong Line this past Sunday. Thanks to Marc Entze for his help in resizing and formatting, and thanks to Eric Case at Blogger for helping me find the English text version of my control panel. Hope this works! Let me knowif does and I'll post more.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

A Little Money

"For only 20 yuan, you too can tour the cab of an operating steam locomotive!" Camron quipped. That's only $2.50 U.S., and it's something we'd both pay a great deal more to do at a museum in the states. At the last mainline steam locomotive engine shop in the world, it seems everything is available for a relatively modest price, at least by western standards. Turn on a headlight for night shots? 10 yuan. Ride the yard switcher? 50 yuan. Ride the cab of a mainline freight train to Gulumanhan? 300 yuan. Want some authentic souvenior pieces from some of the last operating steam locomotives on the planet? Name your price.

The first time the hawkers show up, it's kind of funny -- two Chinese guys in a hopelessly tiny minivan spreading out builders' plates, number boards and whistles (complete with an animated demonstration -- "WHOO WHOO"). The first time the find you trackside at some incredibly remote location, you marvel at their dedication. The tenth time someone tries to sell you something at the Daban loco shed (after you've already paid your 200 yuan entrance fee, mind you), you start to shake your head in disgust.

"It's all so cheap!" some say in wonder at the possibility to fulfill so many childhood dreams with just a little money. And yet the price is so much greater than money.

I can't speak nearly enough Chinese to carry on a conversation with a railway employee, but I'd still enjoy just sitting back and watching them do their jobs, without somebody trying to sell me something every five minutes. There I was at the last mainline steam locomotive shop in the world, and instead of soaking up the atmosphere, I'm on constant guard for hawkers, trying to stay out of sight and shooting "Bu yao, bu yao!" (not want, not want) to everyone who nonchantly ambles up beside me, holding some other relic behind their backs.

For their part, I don't blame any of them. They make a decent wage for the place they live, but who of us wouldn't try to pocket a little more if such an opportunity presented itself? I blame only myself. Not myself personally, since I've never been here before, but rather my collective self, that part of me that was in the first person who offered a Jitong train crew a few yuan for a ride down the line. Sure, it's cheap in a monetary sense, but those innocent bribes have gone on to taint one of the last best places. And the thing is, I'd gladly trade items from the states of even greater value for the privilege to ride a working steam locomotive, but to have someone try and sell it to me like I've just walked into a car dealership (sorry, Dad, it was the best anology I could think of), I just walk away shaking my head. To make a trade seems so much more equal, each party showing equal interest in the other, so much higher than the buyer-seller relationship.

Not to put myself on some pedestal and say I'm above all this. I have several more days here, and the chance to ride working steam locomotive in regular freight service might outweigh all my moral objections to the system that makes it possible. But it will be less of an experience than if I'd just been invited on board.

Contrast the atmosphere in the locomotive shed to that out along the line (well, at least when the hawkers don't find us). The farmers, station operators and grade crossing gate keepers are some of the kindest people I've encountered (the train crews are too, except they've already been offered the almighty dollar). They gladly pose for our cameras, let us take photos of them working as the trains steam past in the backgrounds, even move their tools and animals to make better pictures. Sometimes we give them photos, postcards and coins from our home countries. Sometimes their reward is just a handshake or a simple thank you. Their wages are just a raction of what the train crews make, yet they give of themselves freely for these foreigners whom they may never see again.

To me, they help make real the old adage that "those who have the least give the most." The first person who made that real to me, really made it real, was a West Virginian who just happened to live alongside one of my favorite railroads in my homestate. Brad's never had much, but all that he's had has always been available to me. His is one of the few houses beyond my families' where I know I can show up at all hours of the night and still be offered a place to rest and whatever food is in the cupboard. I ocassionally send him the token 8x10 photo, but it can never begin to repay his kindness. Just as I can never begin to repay the Chinese who gladly go about their toils in front of my lens under the Inner Mongolian sun.

I only wish I could say more to them. I wish I could hear their stories and understand them, and perhaps share my own if they wanted to hear it. I wish I could take down their addresses and send them my photos. But I can only spout little bit of Chinese that I know, then nod and smile and laugh and say over and over and over again, "Bu dong, bu dong, bu dong" (not understand).

And those are the good times, the times when I'm not rushed and can at least attempt to make conversation, frustrating as it may be. Just as numerous are the times when our group spots some farmers in the field, piles out of the bus, snaps away, then piles back in just as quickly. We're just curious and fascinated by this way of life that is so long gone in our own countries, yet it always seems disrepectful to me to just snap and go without any attempts to get to know our subjects. The American photographer David Plowden (and no doubt others) has said that taking someone's photograph is taking a bit of their soul. If I'm able to give them something of myself in return, something of my own soul, even something simple, it feels like an equal trade. But to just stop, shoot, and go away without asking any questions leaves me with the empty feeling that I've just taken something that doesn't belong to me, something which I have no right.

There are some good people on this tour, and our leader is absolutely first-rate. If you have any desire to track down some of the last working steam locomotives in the world, I cannot more highly recommend a visit to Far Rail ( Yet the dynamics of a large tour group are wearing on me, and I'm beginning to feel like it's getting in the way of my experiencing this land and its people as they really are. So while I'll be sad to see them go on Saturday, I look forward to it as well. Perhaps on my own, and with the help of a fellow traveler who's a bit more adept at Chinese than I am, I'll be able to get beyond the sales pitches and rushed photo stops, and perhaps see deeper into this country.

I hope the steam lasts for at least part of that time. Rumor has it that 10 new diesels are assembled and awaiting delivery. Even today, some 25-30% of the trains were diesel-hauled.

Best regards from the crystal-clear and (for now) steamy skies over Lindong, Inner Mongolia, China,


Sunday, October 02, 2005

Onward (Qian Jin)

Thanks to all for the concern over my recent fall. The swelling in my left cheek has gone down quite a bit and I can almost eat a full meal without pain. My eye still looks pretty hideous, but thankfully my position is behind the camera, not in front of it. And life here is very, very good behind the camera.

Hegang was a world apart from Huanan, even though a drive of only two hours separated them. The day dawned wet and gray, and spirits were generally down among the group. Only Tom, the young Brit, had a really excitement to go out. We finally made it to the Hegang Coal Railway's depot in the city for the 8:15 steam-hauled passenger departure. We walked right into the yard like we owned the place -- no "No Trespassing" signs. No fences or gates or guards. Just a wide-open, multitrack railway yard with high voltage wires strung overhead for the electric locomotives scurrying back and forth in every direction. Locals used the dirt paths beside the tracks as pedestrian walkways, and indeed they are probably much safer than the streets. Someday I'll tell you about the driving here, but perhaps not until after I have left. My poor mother has enough to worry about as it is. :-)

The passenger train departed behind a "vintage" 1998 SY-class steam locomotive. "It's newer than my car!" quipped Bernd Seiler, our group's leader. SY (Shang You, "Aiming High") locomotives were the last steam engines built anywhere in the world, with the last one steaming out of the Datong locomotive works in 1999, just six years ago.

The dreary weather seemed fitting in the gritty industrial city of Hegang, but by afternoon, the morning mist and clouds had given way to perhaps the brightest sunshine this smoggy place ever receives. We found another passenger train about to return to town, but it was unfortunately powered by an electric locomotives. Bernd checked the timetable and found another imminent departure from Hegang.

"Chimney first!" cried the group as we passed the station on the bridge over the yard (regarding the position of the locomotive -- chimney first is much more photogenic than the alternative of tender first with the loco running backwards). Further in town we stopped at a level crossing, where three different tracks (including the Hegang railway and the Chinese National Railway) crossed a bustling city street at grade. The crossing gates are, of course, manually tended. They close over all lanes of traffic, preventing the incredibly dangerous "gate running" that is so common in the U.S. They also create quite the traffic jam with each passing train, and the trains are sometimes so frequent that one backup doesn't have time to clear before the gates drop gain.

To this scene descended 11 camera-wielding Westerners. Four of us walked up the street from the tracks to a spot outside a restaurant where large folding signs advertised the day's fare and a steaming fountain attracted patrons. The staff eagerly helped us rearrange their advertisements for better photography, then stood back to watch our antics. The late afternoon sun dipped low in the sky across the tracks, bathing the entire scene in yellow gold. A hundred voices on the street uttered ten thousand words that meant nothing to me while the motors of cars and trucks and bikes roared and horns blared and above it all the constant electronic ding-ding-ding-ding-ding of the crossing bell as the gates dropped again and a train horn sounded louder and louder on the approach. And then it all disappeared for me. All I could hear was the chuffchuffchuffchuffchuff of the steam locomotive that had suddenly entered the scene, its stack blowing yellow gold steam into the brisk autumn air. As the coaches rolled past, I slowly regained awareness of the scene around me, and noticed for the first time the crowd of Chinese that had gathered to watch us, the strange foreigners with big cameras and tripods. One offered me 100 yuan ($12.50) for my camera. I respectfully declined.

After dinner we went back to the station for the night departure of another steam passenger train. One of the crew briskly shook my hand, tried his best to carry on a conversation in Chinese with me and lit the headlight on the engine for one of my photos. His train departed in a cloud of white steam and we bid farewell to Hegang. I slept like a baby in soft sleeper class on the overnight train to Changchun, where we waited in the "Sumptuous Waiting Lounge" for the departure of our train to Tongliao. It was Saturday, October 1st, Chinese National Day, and every train in China was packed. Our three-week old reqest for reserved tickets had been denied two days earlier, so crammed into the dining car for the 4-1/2 hour ride. Getting on was the closest to being in a riot that I have ever come. A hundred waiting passengers packed against every door on the train, stepped back just enough to let the people getting off squeeze past, then surged through the doors. Pity the poor fellow who was late in getting off and got caught up in the boarding mob. Despite the mountains of baggage on our tables, the dining car staff insisted on serving lunch, and we made room between our camera bags and tripod cases for bowls of steaming rice and plates of breaded chicken and vegetables.

Tom sat with three Chinese students and entertained the entire car with an impromptu English lesson. "Prairie" said Tom. "Prar-ee" they repeated. "No. Air. Can you say air?" "Are" "No, air." "Air." "Good! Prairie" "Prar-ee." And that went much better than when they tried to
teach Chinese to Tom.

Tongliao brought us into Inner Mongolia, and the beginning of the Jitong Railway, whose Daban-Chabuga section is the very last portion of mainline steam-powered railroad in the world. We continued on by bus in the fabulous evening light of the dry desert air, first on a smooth, new highway, and then on a rough track that hadn't been repaved in years and was shared by the tractors and donkey carts of the harvest. It was already night when we arrived in Chabuga and met our other group, which included a rather ill Camron (he had a nasty reaction to some cold medication but is beginning to feel better). It had been an incredibly long day on the road, but even so, sleep took some time, as I lay awake in bed thinking that somewhere not far from our hotel, steam-powered freight trains rolled off into the night.


At 6:00 this morning, our group, now 20 strong with the addition of nine others the previous day, gathered at trackside a few miles west of Chabuga. The new sun was orange in the sky, the wind was low and the air crisp and cool. A plume of steam billowed on the horizon, and then a locomotive came into a view. Behind it followed a freight train. Not some photographers' special touristy freight train, but a real freight train of cars with loads and destinations, paid for by customers and powered by steam. It was the first of 15 trains we woud see in the next twelve hours, every single one of them powered by burning coal to boil water to make steam to turn rod-coupled driving wheels. True, they're just machines, and the diesels that will replace them in a month will do the exact same job and serve the exact same purpose, but as the rods flash, the red wheels turn, the whistle hoots and the steam hisses and seethes from every pore, I can still catch a fleeting glimpse into that childhood sense of wonder when these machines lived and breathed in my dreams.

Re: Finding Home in Huanan

I apologize that this message will appear out of order. It should have appeared BEFORE the "Purgatory or Paradise" message. Blogging is a little more difficult in China. I also apologize if the text formatting is awkward, as I have absolutely no control over it from here. I tried to attach a photo, but the message bounced. Someday we'll get to those. For now, hopefully my writing will be sufficient entertainment.


Not far from where I was born in Elkins, West Virginia, the Western Maryland Railway tackled Blackwater Canyon, a steep, twisting climb to the summit of the Alleghany Range. In the days of steam in the U.S. (some 50+ years ago), six or seven locomotives pushed and pulled 70-car coal trains over the grade. I have only been able to see it in old photos and my dreams. Until today.

Imagine a place with broad, open valleys where the corn and beans grow tall, bordered by rolling hills clad in all the glories of autumn. Imagine it with ox carts, tiny tractors, perfect-purity blue skies and smiling farmers, hands worn and brown faces wrinkled too soon from the toil of the plow. Imagine it all with a diminutive railway running through it, its rails space barely half as wide as normal. And imagine those rails plied by smoking, shrieking little black fire wagons, the sweet acrid smell of coal smoke lingering in the air long after their passing.

That place exists in the farthest northeastern corner of China, east of the city of Huanan, along the little winding rails of the Huanan Coal Railway. In its middle the line climbs over a range of those rolling hills, dropping down to the coal mine that is its livelihood. The little engines that run over it can only manage four cars over that hill, and so two are used -- one fore and one aft, for the eight car trains climbing out of Lixin station.

On a perfect autumn morning with the chill of night still in the air, my hired motorbike dropped me off a couple kilometers down from the summit. The smudge of smoke on the horizon warned of a soon-departing train from Lixin. Up the hill I found my view (alongside a young female Chinese photographer with a medium format Rollei) and with my camera mounted securely on my tripod, I stepped back to enjoy the show. first one smudge of steam shot skyward in the valley below, then another as the pusher locomotive was added. Whistles shrieking into the crisp morning air they set off, staccato exhaust rising with my pulse. CHA-cha-ch-ch-CHA-cha-ch-ch-CHA-cha-ch-ch. 8000 miles from the place I was born and every rythmic beat of the cylinders spoke to me of the home that had passed 27 years before I entered the world.

The rest of the day passed with the kind of perfection that makes me slow to let it go. "At such times," wrote William Least Heat Moon, "sleep comes but as a thief in the night, who far too quickly steals what we've so justly earned during the day. Even after the last of the four trains we photographed under steam had passed, I kept on shooting the harvest and the valley and the fabulous evening light all along the hike back to our waiting bus.

After dinner, Tom, my new British friend, and I walked outside the hotel and were overtaken by the spectacle of dancing and music on the opposite corner. Two horns, four pairs of cymbals and a gigantic red drum beat continuously in shifts of ever-changing drummers, each one a little faster. The dancers circled and twirled their bright pink and green and orange fans, some clad in festive suits, others in business attire, all lost in the moment. The horns screamed into the neon glow of Huanan night and drum beat out an incantation whose cadence was nearly as captivating as the flat-out exhaust of narrow guage steam in the perfect morning of 3 hours before. The music rose to crescendo as the dancers' circle contracted and tightened, and then it all fell away and was over, the last of the fans fluttering to the ground as their waivers bowed in conclusion. And everyone just stopped and went about their way.

"I want to stand up and clap!" I said to Tom. "Yes, me too, but that would be missing the point, wouldn't it? This is folk dancing and it is expression. They do it only for themselves. For us to be here and to watch and enjoy it is alright, but some how clapping would spoil it. I know what you mean though, I want to jump up and applaud, too."

And indeed they must. We've been here two days and seen the incredible toil these people go through out in the fields from before sunrise until night descends. Only for themselves could they find the energy. I'm just glad they did express it in a place where I can share in its life.