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 (http://www.farrail.com/). 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,



Anonymous said...


It's called love, train man, and family like you is worth showing it to. No 8X10 is token, when it is given with the spirit like you are describing. Now, be safe, and prosper.


SpoonFighter said...

Wow. I thought they'd fazed out their steam engines. One of my happiest memories from childhood was the trip from Beijing to Nanchang. It was diesel up to a certain point, but then the train stopped, and a steam engine took over. It was magical. I also remember playing in the Nanchang switchyard, waiting for trains to chug through. Thanks for the memories, and for the happy news that they're still chuffing away.

Anonymous said...

hi scott,
loved reading about your trip and will be following you in your travel. would you be posting the pics of the those
train? take care and have a safe trip,

shakester said...

nice blog to discover. we are off to turkey in a while....enjoy your (considerable, enviable) time in china!

Chris said...

Interesting site. I just got back from taking the train from the UK to China, Coincidentally I left Beijing for Shanghai the day you arrived by plane, and also sadly recognise your issue with hawkers. They were the one downer on my otherwise fantastic trip.
I plan to fly back to Shanghai in the new year and carry on my journey, so I'll keep an eye on this blog for ideas.
Good luck with the rest of your trip

Sumeeta said...

As a fellow West Virginia, I'm from Huntington, I wish you well on your trip. I hope that you have as great of a time as my friend did during her 10 months in China.

BTW, my sister says the worst hawkers are in Kenya!

Anonymous said...

as a Chinese person who recently took an extended trip across China - mostly to see relatives, you should know that people tried to peddle to people who speak Chinese only in the exact same manner and they just take it as a normal part of doing business when people say "bu yual," or basically just ignore them :-)

Also of noted, in the hinterlands, there are lots of localized dialects, local words, etc ... so even if you could speak Mandarin fluently (aka: putonghua) - you may not have any idea what they're saying anyway so don't be too hard on yourself :-)

Enjoy the site - have fun on your travels - heal fast!

文波 said...

Hi Scott, You are welcome to Xiamen :-)

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