Sunday, October 02, 2005

Re: Finding Home in Huanan

I apologize that this message will appear out of order. It should have appeared BEFORE the "Purgatory or Paradise" message. Blogging is a little more difficult in China. I also apologize if the text formatting is awkward, as I have absolutely no control over it from here. I tried to attach a photo, but the message bounced. Someday we'll get to those. For now, hopefully my writing will be sufficient entertainment.


Not far from where I was born in Elkins, West Virginia, the Western Maryland Railway tackled Blackwater Canyon, a steep, twisting climb to the summit of the Alleghany Range. In the days of steam in the U.S. (some 50+ years ago), six or seven locomotives pushed and pulled 70-car coal trains over the grade. I have only been able to see it in old photos and my dreams. Until today.

Imagine a place with broad, open valleys where the corn and beans grow tall, bordered by rolling hills clad in all the glories of autumn. Imagine it with ox carts, tiny tractors, perfect-purity blue skies and smiling farmers, hands worn and brown faces wrinkled too soon from the toil of the plow. Imagine it all with a diminutive railway running through it, its rails space barely half as wide as normal. And imagine those rails plied by smoking, shrieking little black fire wagons, the sweet acrid smell of coal smoke lingering in the air long after their passing.

That place exists in the farthest northeastern corner of China, east of the city of Huanan, along the little winding rails of the Huanan Coal Railway. In its middle the line climbs over a range of those rolling hills, dropping down to the coal mine that is its livelihood. The little engines that run over it can only manage four cars over that hill, and so two are used -- one fore and one aft, for the eight car trains climbing out of Lixin station.

On a perfect autumn morning with the chill of night still in the air, my hired motorbike dropped me off a couple kilometers down from the summit. The smudge of smoke on the horizon warned of a soon-departing train from Lixin. Up the hill I found my view (alongside a young female Chinese photographer with a medium format Rollei) and with my camera mounted securely on my tripod, I stepped back to enjoy the show. first one smudge of steam shot skyward in the valley below, then another as the pusher locomotive was added. Whistles shrieking into the crisp morning air they set off, staccato exhaust rising with my pulse. CHA-cha-ch-ch-CHA-cha-ch-ch-CHA-cha-ch-ch. 8000 miles from the place I was born and every rythmic beat of the cylinders spoke to me of the home that had passed 27 years before I entered the world.

The rest of the day passed with the kind of perfection that makes me slow to let it go. "At such times," wrote William Least Heat Moon, "sleep comes but as a thief in the night, who far too quickly steals what we've so justly earned during the day. Even after the last of the four trains we photographed under steam had passed, I kept on shooting the harvest and the valley and the fabulous evening light all along the hike back to our waiting bus.

After dinner, Tom, my new British friend, and I walked outside the hotel and were overtaken by the spectacle of dancing and music on the opposite corner. Two horns, four pairs of cymbals and a gigantic red drum beat continuously in shifts of ever-changing drummers, each one a little faster. The dancers circled and twirled their bright pink and green and orange fans, some clad in festive suits, others in business attire, all lost in the moment. The horns screamed into the neon glow of Huanan night and drum beat out an incantation whose cadence was nearly as captivating as the flat-out exhaust of narrow guage steam in the perfect morning of 3 hours before. The music rose to crescendo as the dancers' circle contracted and tightened, and then it all fell away and was over, the last of the fans fluttering to the ground as their waivers bowed in conclusion. And everyone just stopped and went about their way.

"I want to stand up and clap!" I said to Tom. "Yes, me too, but that would be missing the point, wouldn't it? This is folk dancing and it is expression. They do it only for themselves. For us to be here and to watch and enjoy it is alright, but some how clapping would spoil it. I know what you mean though, I want to jump up and applaud, too."

And indeed they must. We've been here two days and seen the incredible toil these people go through out in the fields from before sunrise until night descends. Only for themselves could they find the energy. I'm just glad they did express it in a place where I can share in its life.


Anonymous said...

Do you have a computer outside of China? Use GoToMyPC to connect to it and blog from there.

Anonymous said...

Not to be smart, but your subtitle is a bit confusing at first. Is it "Travel-Writing and Photography" or "Travel, Writing and Photography"?

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