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.


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J. Star said...

Wow. Your writing is amazing, as are the stories you tell...I giggled at the mesh undies bit and smiled at your descriptions of the trains. Very nice.

...~*~... said...

Oh boy, how I envy you. I dream of great trips like that, traveling around a country for months. :)

diE to SELF LiVE foR ChRisT said...

hi! just blog surfing!!

gardenbug said...

I love trains! Love to read of your excursions. You are a very good writer...kept me glued to the computer screen. gardenbug

cinnabuster said...

Nice writing! Fascinating to know that steam trains are still in use somewhere.

Chip Potts said...

Scott, I just happened onto your blog, and WOW! Have not had a chance to read all of it, but I will soon. In just a few months I will be leaving Washington, DC for a life changing two years. Your words have only filled me with more resolution that I am doing the right thing. I just returned from a weekend in Wheeling and New Martinsville, WV (my mom and dad's hometowns) and spoke with family about my journey—a journey that will take me across the country for 5 months and then on to Spain for a year. I even had a similar experience with my cousin as you did with your stepfather's stepmother. Her words, “Have your prayed about this?”

During my cross country sojourn, I will be looking at MFA programs. I have spent my adult life in accounting, never pursuing my passion for photography. I plan on expanding my portfolio while I am away. I hope that you will tune into my blog later when I have it "up and running."

Oh, and if I ever come across my old photographs of the old steam locomotive that use to make a yearly trip from Pittsburgh to Moundsville, I be sure to post it somewhere.

Best of luck, and thank you!

skiphunt said...

Hey, great writing and photography. I think I found a blog I can link to. ;-)

I'm new to the blogging thing but have always documented my travels via forums. Have you figured out a way to make money doing this? If so, where do you start?

I started a blog to collect all the forum posts I made during a motorcycle tour of Mexico and Baja with photos:

and, another one with little snippets from previous trips:

If you can offer any advice on how to move from an obsession.. to actually getting paid! It'd be much appreciated.

M.J. said...

Your description of requiring instruction to put on the little mesh undies...this brought me back to my own time living overseas, and the first time I had to pantomime pantyhose to a Japanese woman in a Japanese department store.

At least food is a non-issue in Japan. Most of the restaurants have plastic food in display cases in an outside display depicting the dishes they serve. You can just point. Then again, I had one of the best meals of my life in a Korean restuarant in Rome (the proprietor spoke Korean, Italian, and French, but not English). We basically told him "just bring us food". I still don't know what it was, but he sat with us and showed us how to eat it(yes, it required instructions!)and it was amazing.

You are starting on a life of travel that will lead you to discover many things, and to understand more of the societies of the world than you can ever learn in a book. You have to experience it to truly understand, and not just as a tourist. You'll end up with insight into societial differences and geo-political conditions that few people in the U.S. can comprehend. Your life will be richer for it.

And you're going to have great fun doing it. You are going to love Japan!

skiphunt said...

Is Japan just insanely expensive for Westerner to travel in? I'd heard that about Paris and various other locales... but I've always found you can "shoe-string" it just about anywhere. However, I've heard that's not the case with Tokyo. Anyone know?

Bill Lively said...

I am so relaxed just from reading this post! I miss the days of inexpensive massages. I look forward to your next post.

Olaf said...

I found your stories in Google and I'm very happy to read it. It was a great pleasure to travel with you, Ron and the other guys. Get the maximum in photography each day and night in China! Best regards to you and Ron!

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