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.


Anonymous said...

I Just spent the last couple of hours catching up on your blog. I love the photos of the trains! Your writing is very good also.

Have you, or will you try to take any night photos of the trains similar to O.W. Link's photos of the Norfolk & Western?

remmaps said...

Natalee "Natalee Holloway" Holloway

Beth "Beth Twitty" Twitty

BobE said...

Tell Camron hi and get well soon for me.

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