Sunday, October 09, 2005

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.


Kim said...

How exciting it must be to trvel and do what you really love to do! Have fun!

Evil Smile said...

On an unrelated note, please visit Otherwise nothing will happen (Though note, giraffes have long necks)

M.J. said...

"Cha ch ch ch Cha ch ch ch..."

The night flash photo here is amazing. I can picture it in my mind, hear the sounds and feel the air vibrate with the approach of these trains.

Thank you for taking time out of your trip to share.

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