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.

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