Sunday, October 02, 2005

Onward (Qian Jin)

Thanks to all for the concern over my recent fall. The swelling in my left cheek has gone down quite a bit and I can almost eat a full meal without pain. My eye still looks pretty hideous, but thankfully my position is behind the camera, not in front of it. And life here is very, very good behind the camera.

Hegang was a world apart from Huanan, even though a drive of only two hours separated them. The day dawned wet and gray, and spirits were generally down among the group. Only Tom, the young Brit, had a really excitement to go out. We finally made it to the Hegang Coal Railway's depot in the city for the 8:15 steam-hauled passenger departure. We walked right into the yard like we owned the place -- no "No Trespassing" signs. No fences or gates or guards. Just a wide-open, multitrack railway yard with high voltage wires strung overhead for the electric locomotives scurrying back and forth in every direction. Locals used the dirt paths beside the tracks as pedestrian walkways, and indeed they are probably much safer than the streets. Someday I'll tell you about the driving here, but perhaps not until after I have left. My poor mother has enough to worry about as it is. :-)

The passenger train departed behind a "vintage" 1998 SY-class steam locomotive. "It's newer than my car!" quipped Bernd Seiler, our group's leader. SY (Shang You, "Aiming High") locomotives were the last steam engines built anywhere in the world, with the last one steaming out of the Datong locomotive works in 1999, just six years ago.

The dreary weather seemed fitting in the gritty industrial city of Hegang, but by afternoon, the morning mist and clouds had given way to perhaps the brightest sunshine this smoggy place ever receives. We found another passenger train about to return to town, but it was unfortunately powered by an electric locomotives. Bernd checked the timetable and found another imminent departure from Hegang.

"Chimney first!" cried the group as we passed the station on the bridge over the yard (regarding the position of the locomotive -- chimney first is much more photogenic than the alternative of tender first with the loco running backwards). Further in town we stopped at a level crossing, where three different tracks (including the Hegang railway and the Chinese National Railway) crossed a bustling city street at grade. The crossing gates are, of course, manually tended. They close over all lanes of traffic, preventing the incredibly dangerous "gate running" that is so common in the U.S. They also create quite the traffic jam with each passing train, and the trains are sometimes so frequent that one backup doesn't have time to clear before the gates drop gain.

To this scene descended 11 camera-wielding Westerners. Four of us walked up the street from the tracks to a spot outside a restaurant where large folding signs advertised the day's fare and a steaming fountain attracted patrons. The staff eagerly helped us rearrange their advertisements for better photography, then stood back to watch our antics. The late afternoon sun dipped low in the sky across the tracks, bathing the entire scene in yellow gold. A hundred voices on the street uttered ten thousand words that meant nothing to me while the motors of cars and trucks and bikes roared and horns blared and above it all the constant electronic ding-ding-ding-ding-ding of the crossing bell as the gates dropped again and a train horn sounded louder and louder on the approach. And then it all disappeared for me. All I could hear was the chuffchuffchuffchuffchuff of the steam locomotive that had suddenly entered the scene, its stack blowing yellow gold steam into the brisk autumn air. As the coaches rolled past, I slowly regained awareness of the scene around me, and noticed for the first time the crowd of Chinese that had gathered to watch us, the strange foreigners with big cameras and tripods. One offered me 100 yuan ($12.50) for my camera. I respectfully declined.

After dinner we went back to the station for the night departure of another steam passenger train. One of the crew briskly shook my hand, tried his best to carry on a conversation in Chinese with me and lit the headlight on the engine for one of my photos. His train departed in a cloud of white steam and we bid farewell to Hegang. I slept like a baby in soft sleeper class on the overnight train to Changchun, where we waited in the "Sumptuous Waiting Lounge" for the departure of our train to Tongliao. It was Saturday, October 1st, Chinese National Day, and every train in China was packed. Our three-week old reqest for reserved tickets had been denied two days earlier, so crammed into the dining car for the 4-1/2 hour ride. Getting on was the closest to being in a riot that I have ever come. A hundred waiting passengers packed against every door on the train, stepped back just enough to let the people getting off squeeze past, then surged through the doors. Pity the poor fellow who was late in getting off and got caught up in the boarding mob. Despite the mountains of baggage on our tables, the dining car staff insisted on serving lunch, and we made room between our camera bags and tripod cases for bowls of steaming rice and plates of breaded chicken and vegetables.

Tom sat with three Chinese students and entertained the entire car with an impromptu English lesson. "Prairie" said Tom. "Prar-ee" they repeated. "No. Air. Can you say air?" "Are" "No, air." "Air." "Good! Prairie" "Prar-ee." And that went much better than when they tried to
teach Chinese to Tom.

Tongliao brought us into Inner Mongolia, and the beginning of the Jitong Railway, whose Daban-Chabuga section is the very last portion of mainline steam-powered railroad in the world. We continued on by bus in the fabulous evening light of the dry desert air, first on a smooth, new highway, and then on a rough track that hadn't been repaved in years and was shared by the tractors and donkey carts of the harvest. It was already night when we arrived in Chabuga and met our other group, which included a rather ill Camron (he had a nasty reaction to some cold medication but is beginning to feel better). It had been an incredibly long day on the road, but even so, sleep took some time, as I lay awake in bed thinking that somewhere not far from our hotel, steam-powered freight trains rolled off into the night.


At 6:00 this morning, our group, now 20 strong with the addition of nine others the previous day, gathered at trackside a few miles west of Chabuga. The new sun was orange in the sky, the wind was low and the air crisp and cool. A plume of steam billowed on the horizon, and then a locomotive came into a view. Behind it followed a freight train. Not some photographers' special touristy freight train, but a real freight train of cars with loads and destinations, paid for by customers and powered by steam. It was the first of 15 trains we woud see in the next twelve hours, every single one of them powered by burning coal to boil water to make steam to turn rod-coupled driving wheels. True, they're just machines, and the diesels that will replace them in a month will do the exact same job and serve the exact same purpose, but as the rods flash, the red wheels turn, the whistle hoots and the steam hisses and seethes from every pore, I can still catch a fleeting glimpse into that childhood sense of wonder when these machines lived and breathed in my dreams.


Fraserwag said...

Sounds like a fantastic journey. I'm enjoying living vicariously through your posts. Not everyone gets to see the things you are seeing. Thanks for sharing the experience.

BTW, I understand that a popular breakfast food in China is Congee, a sort of savory rice porridge. If you haven't tried it, do so, it is wonderful, and probably much better in China than Texas :)

jeffysspot said...

great scott........

bazooka radio said...

You may have an easier time posting to blogspot if you get a photobucket account and hook it up to your blog and use it as a buffer or something. jsut a suggestion to help with the china-blocking.

Anonymous said...

K, maybe I am retarded, but where the hell are the photos on this site?

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