Friday, October 21, 2005

The Travelers' Reward

There comes a time in many trips where a decision must be made -- press on despite the odds, or pack it in and turn back. That time came for Ron and me on Wednesday morning at a little place called Diaojiaduan. We were down to one bike, I had just hiked 13 miles across the most barren stretch of the railroad in the wind and sun the previous day and was nursing new blisters on my feet, and overnight the weather had turned from September late summer to November late fall.

Outside the huochezhuan (hwooh chuh john -- train station), the gray clouds rolled and the wind swirled, whipped and buffeted the two-story building. The temperature stayed low, probably in the 40s F, and the first three freight trains of the day were diesel-powered, leading me to ponder aloud, "I wonder if this place is losing its magic?"

Ron and I sat in the ground floor conference room in red swivel chairs eating steaming noodles and watching CCTV9, the only English channel over here. Chinese railway workers drifted in and out, stopping to gawk at these curious laowai (old foreigners) who blew in with the foul weather. While we dosed in our chairs, they'd change the channel to their favorite soaps, but always switch it back to the English station as soon as we woke up and showed even the slightest interest in the TV.

The break in the weather we were awaiting never came, and by early afternoon, Ron announced that, "Regardless of what the weather does, we need to leave at some point." Then he added, "Unless we just pack it in and catch a train back."

I could tell from his tone that wasn't what he wanted it. It wasn't what I wanted, either.

"We came here to do this," I said. "Let's finish it."

He gave me the bike first and began walking down the tracks. I finished packing and set off into the headwind, which had shifted to come from the east over night. Even on the smooth pavement of Rt 303 and with Ron's fabulous bike, I could barely manage 5-6 mph. I passed but a few hearty farmers in their fields, leading me to think that most of the locals here were a lot smarter than us. The bikes and motorcycles were few, but the trucks surged ever onward. At one point, I was approaching a curve where a small truck had stopped at the edge of the oncoming lane. I was greeted by the sight of a larger truck passing it in the middle of the road, and a still larger truck passing it in my lane, horns blaring and heavy loads swaying and all this
happening not more than a couple hundred yards in front me.

I finally found the dirt road where I would intersect the tracks, leave the bike for Ron and continue on foot. Turning onto a dirt road, you would think there would be less traffic, especially on such a foul day, but this is China, and you'd be wrong. Barreling straight at me were not one but two burgandy minibus taxis, basically a shrunken version of a US minivan. They laid on their horns and the dust rolled up staright for me and all I could do was get as far right as possible, put a deathgrip on the handlebars, hold my breath, close my eyes until I felt the dust stop hitting my face, open them and hope I was still on the road, then get ready to do it all again for the second one.

It was nearing dusk when Ron and I brought our severly chapped lips and aching feet into our campsite, a windbreak created by a highway overpass on the tracks. We had come 15 kilometers and had only 8 more to go the next morning. We were down to a couple of water bottles and two packages of food, but had no hot water to prepare them and nowhere nearby to ask. In the tent we spread the remainder of our cache: 5 Power Bars.

"Dinner is served!"
"We should split each of them and make it a five-course meal," Ron suggested.

In the end we saved the two Cookie Dough bars for breakfast.

As we hunkered down into our sleeping bags for an early night, the unmistakable chugging of steam locomotive exhaust caught the breeze to our tent. "Double-header!" I unzipped the tent flaps. The sound nearly disappeared as the train rounded a big horseshoe curve around the hill in front of us, but then it was on top of us, each CHUFF a sharp, distinct blast into the night sky, gigantic steam plumes billowing in the cold air and the sparks shooting volcanic-like from the stack. We watched the spectacle until it disappeared around the curve and was swallowed by the night. "Just for us," Ron said, and we rolled over and went to sleep.

When my bladder woke me at 10:00, the moon was trying to shine through the clouds. When I awoke again an hour and a half later, the night sky was clear and the wind had calmed to a breeze. I gathered my camera bag, tripod and sleeping bag, stepped into my cold boots, woke Ron to tell him of my intentions, and set out up the hillside.

The shot I wanted was of the moonlit landscape with the steam exhaust from an uphill train laying over the tracks. I was 2/3s up the hill when I heard the train. I quickly setup my tripod, mounted my camera, made the settings and took the shot. The exposure and composition were perfect, but. . . . even from the small LCD screen on my camera, I could tell it was fuzzy. I checked my focus. The ring was perhaps 1/16" off from the infinity setting, where it should be. Not much, but with the aperture wide open at f1.4, that's like setting off on a 1000 mile journey and being 1 degree off course. I kept climbing the hill.

At the top, I found my spot, spread my sleeping bag on the ground, burrowed in, and waited. The next train was downhill -- no steam exhaust. Then the diesel streamliner. Then there were two uphill trains -- both diesel powered. The night was growing old and I wondered how much time I had remaining. I traced the path of a downhill train all the way into the yard, where I fixed my sleepy gaze on three distant, stationary lights. It was 3:30 when a small, purplish-white glow began moving through them, almost imperceptable at first. Then it was through the lights and out on the mainline and I could see the steam billow up in the moonlight and hear the exhaust bouncing off the hills. Another double-header. Just for me.

I didn't return to the (slightly) warmer tent. I continued my vigil on the mountaintop, jumping up every 30 minutes to run halfway down and back up, arms flailing to keep the blood flowing, a spectre in the night in a ritual dance to conjour up the last breaths of mainline steam the world over. I time-lapsed the sunrise and still I waited. Down at the yard, several white plumes drifted into the chill morning air. Surely they could send one more up to me? And then one moved, faster than the others, and bigger and whiter and past the water tower and onto the mainline where no doubt remained and the black boiler glistening in the day's first light and the billowing white cloud bigger even than the train it pulled and I'm alone on the mountaintop, higher than high until the chugging is a whisper and the last puff of white fades into the clear western horizon. The magic is still there.

I found Ron back at the tent and we walked side-by-side, him pushing the bike all the way so we could stay together. We arrived into Chabuga station at 10:30, took a quick photo by the sign, and went for breakfast, our journey complete.


Anonymous said...


glad to hear you made it the whole way! what an adventure. I can't wait to see more of your photos, I'm always amazed and how wonderful they are.
it makes me sad to be stuck in michigan...
Have tons more fun!

sexy said...



A片,色情,成人,做愛,情色文學,A片下載,色情遊戲,色情影片,色情聊天室,情色電影,免費視訊,免費視訊聊天,免費視訊聊天室,一葉情貼圖片區,情色,情色視訊,免費成人影片,視訊交友,視訊聊天,視訊聊天室,言情小說,愛情小說,AIO,AV片,A漫,av dvd,聊天室,自拍,情色論壇,視訊美女,AV成人網,色情A片,SEX,成人圖片區