Sunday, November 27, 2005

What is Beauty?

The third person I saw in China reading a novel for pleasure was a young woman on the train from Haerbin to Jiamusi. She sat at the window across the aisle from me, facing backwards, intently digesting the pages of a paperback in between naps beneath her blue and orange plaid jacket. Black leather pants clung snugly to her shapely legs and her long, black hair fell over her pink turtleneck in a soft wave. Wire-frame glasses on her petite, blemish-free face completed the image.

We exchanged no words, nor even simultaneous glances, during the 4-1/2 non-stop ride.

Ron noticed me writing about her and made inquiry.

"I think she's cute!" I said, a little embarassed.

"Yes, she is kind of cute, isn't she?" Ron said musingly. "She has that librarian look going for her."

"I think she looks very academic."

Outside the windows that she never looked out, there flashed by a brown, snow-flecked landscape of fields and small towns, enclosed ever more tightly by rolling mountains of rock cliffs and bare trees, cut through by an ice-encrusted river of rocks and rapids. Change the faces on either side of the glass, and the train could just as easily have been Amtrak's Capital and the river the Potomac, with Harpers Ferry, West Virginia just around the next bend.

"This reminds me of home," I said aloud to no one in particular. "Can there be a stronger calling?"


The stomach aches that I had been having off and on for the past two days had increased to an almost crippling pain when we stepped onto the platform at Jiamusi. It was all I could do to help Ron wrest our mountains of bags up to the 2nd floor waiting room, where I collapsed in a heap into one of the plastic chairs.

"We've found the sitting down area," I said to Ron. "Do you suppose they have a lying down area?"

"I'll ask."

A uniformed station attendant led me back down the stairs, out the door, into an adjacent door and down many more stairs. At the bottom, four middle-aged women waited on me behind a long table. They giggled and exchanged excited, smiling glances with one another at the sight
of me. I explained that I had a stomach ache and just wanted a place to lie down for an hour before my train. The woman most directly waiting on me had already began filling out a piece of paper, but at the words "stomach ache" (mei teng), the woman beside her learned over and began gingerly rubbing the first woman's stomach and looking at her with a pitiful expression. The first woman shooed her away, but she started it again. I was feeling so bad that I wished they would just cut it out and get me to a bed, but when the first woman picked up the scissors to ward off her aggresser, I had to chuckle.

I dozed briefly during my hour's rest and returned to the waiting room feeling a little better. Our train was announced and, despite the station staff's efforts to get us on board early, we were joined by the usual hordes clambering, crowding and pushing their way down the stairs, out the doors, onto the platform and into the train.

When my grandfather was in the Navy during World War II, he came home on leave from Cincinnati one time on a slow, local passenger train. He likes to say that "it stopped at every house, and where there were two houses, it stopped twice." We found ourselves on just such a train.

It was an old, dirty, slow one, made up of ancient, decrepit, green YZ22 hard-seat coaches. Chinese hard-seat class has advertised space for 118 people per car with each row being five seats wide, three on one side of the aisle and two on the other. The YZ22s are some of the oldest cars in service, among the worst for the wear and most lacking in comfort. The seats are simple, straight-backed benches with opposite rows facing each other about a small table cantilevered out from the wall. The benches opposite each other share a common back and offer only modest padding.

Ron and I squeezed onto one of the 3-seat benches along with a woman already sitting in the aisle seat. A middle-aged man and an older man sat on the bench across from us. The space between them was filled by a young woman in a purple hat and purple coat just before the train
lurched out of the station.

She turned her round face of big features to Ron and me, and said, in perfect English, "Are you busy?"

"Not at all," Ron answered.

"Good!" she remarked, settling in. "This trip is boring and I want to practice my English." This said as if she had been rehearsing it all week. Her accent was distinctly British, and it sounded very strange coming from an Asian face.

Her name was Sylvia and she was also on her way to Huanan, where she taught English lessons to elementary and middle school students on the weekends. She used the money to help pay for her studies at Jiamusi University, where she was in her third year of an English Language

"May I ask you a question, Sylvia?" Ron entreated. "How much do you make?"

"Everyone asks me that!"

"Yes, and everyone asks me how much do I make at my job in the U.S., how much does my camera cost, how much do my flashes cost, how much does my wife make." Ron retorted.

"Yes, I know, I know. I understand. I make 15 yuan per hour, and I know what you are going to say next."

"It's too small!" Ron said.

"Yes, but it is enough for me. I am lucky to have this job. It is only my second one. They are hard to find for students."

"What was your first job?"

"I helped sell air conditioners at a big store in my hometown."

"How long did you work there?" Ron asked.

"Two days. It didn't go very well."

"When did you have this job?"

"During winter break, in January."

When she was little, Sylvia had dreamed of being a fashion model. She was taller than average for a Chinese woman and attractive with well-proportioned features.

"Do you think you might ever pursue that again?" I asked.

"No. I am only 167cm tall. In China, you must be 168 to be a model."

"That's just one centimeter!"

"I know, but they are very strict. Also, all my friends say I am too fat."

"I don't think you're fat at all!" Ron and I exclaimed in unison.

The conversation returned to her English language studies and I asked her if she had read very much English or American literature.

"No, I don't read very much," she replied. "It hurts my eyes."

"Maybe you should get glasses," Ron offered. "Have you had your eyes examined?"

"Glasses?!?! Absolutely not! They would make me look ugly."

"My fiance wears glasses and I think she's beautiful," I replied.

"You're just saying that because she's your fiance!"

"I thought she was beautiful long before she was my fiance."

Sylvia told us that she taught for 8 hours on both Saturday and Sunday, plus an extra 1-1/2 hours of evening tutoring, for which she was not paid. She had gotten the job two months ago through a friend who had also taught at Huanan and they used to go there together on the weekends, but her friend had since quit. She was making the journey alone for the first time and was more than a little nervous. She seemed grateful for our company and offered to give us a ride to the hotel in the taxi that was meeting her at the train station. We, in turn, offered to take her out to dinner.

"I'll check with my boss," she said, hopefully. "Shall we go Dutch?"

"We can, but we would be happy to treat you, if you don't mind."

"No, I don't mind," she said, gratefully.

"I remember how poor I was when I was a student," Ron said, "and try to make it a point to help out students now, when I can. I wish more people had offered me a meal when I was in school."

During our conversation, the middle-aged man sitting in the window seat beside Sylvia had taken an interest in us and occasionally chimed in. He was astounded that we were willingly going to Huanan.

"Huanan is very small! Why would you want to go there?"

"Because it is very beautiful there," Ron replied.

"Huanan?" he laughed gruffly. "Huanan is not beautiful!"

"Sylvia," Ron said, switching back to English, "are you familiar with the expression we have in America 'beauty is in the eyes of the beholder'?"

"No. What does it mean?"

"It means that what one person thinks is beautiful may not be what another person thinks is beautiful."

She smiled.

"Huanan has a small railway that we think is very beautiful. It is also very rare. There are only four small railways left in China, but the people who live in Huanan have gotten used to it, so they think nothing of it. Many foreigners, however, travel great distances to see this small railway."

After getting permission from her boss, Sylvia met us in the hotel restaurant for dinner. She seemed a different person, though, very nervous and unable to relax.

"What do you want to eat?" she asked.

"What do YOU want to eat?" Ron asked her. "We want to try some new foods."

"It doesn't matter to me. I don't care what I eat."

She forced us to make all the selections, then complained when all the food was too sweet.

"This food isn't very good. They don't have fresh fruits and vegetables in Heilongjiang this time of year, so they keep these in water. They aren't very good. You shouldn't eat them. You shouldn't eat chicken, either, with the bird flu."

"What about eggs?" Ron asked.

She thought. "No, eggs come from chickens. You probably shouldn't eat them, either. Or any kind of meat, really."

"Are we just to eat rice, then?" I wondered to myself.

"I miss the food from home," she mused.

She missed more than just the food from home.

"Sylvia, you have asked us a great deal about our travels. Where would you like to travel to, if you could go anywhere?"

"Home," she said, without thinking about it for even a second. "It is the only place I think about often, that I keep wanting to return to."

She left hastily without asking for our email addresses or without giving us hers.

In the morning we found a taxi to whisk us through the crowded, bustling streets of "very small" Huanan, a city of a few hundred thousand. We found the small railway and followed it out into the "not beautiful" countryside, stopping along the road to marvel at the passage of a tiny locomotive and eight diminutive coal gondolas, their total, combined capacity equal to about one hopper car in the United States. The taxi dropped us off where the railway diverged into the
mountains, and we set off on foot into the snow-dusted hills that remind me more of home than anyplace I have been in China, where the ghosts of West Virginia coal miners and Appalachian logging railroads whisper in the birch trees and walk alongside me on the tiny rails over the mountain.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

A Long Way

Zhalainuoer (ja-lie-nwooh-er) is one of those places that you have to really want to get to. It is in northeastern Inner Mongolia, just 15 miles from the Russian border. To come here from central Inner Mongolia, we traveled 32 hours on three different trains, leaving the province and re-entering it in the process.

It is flat, dry, desolate and cold here. Recent overnight lows have dipped to -22C, and winter is only just beginning. The nearby Russian border town of Manzhouli offers some interesting architecture and cultural mixing of Chinese and Russian, but Zhalainuoer itself is devoid of social attractions. Our reason for coming here lay beneath the earth's surface.

Smack in the middle of town, a gaping hole perhaps 1/2 mile wide and 3-4 miles long opens to a depth of several hundred feet. At the bottom, a black vein of coal runs 30 feet thick, which monstrous shovels chew into like the bracheosaurs of the Mesozoic that helped create it. The coal is loaded into railway gondolas, and the tracks climb out of the pit on a great zig-zag of switchbacks like something out of a Rube Goldberg drawing. All trains are hauled by steam locomotives, and from our vantage on the rim of the pit, we could see as many as 18 at a time in the crisp, golden light of a late November afternoon. We walked freely and without hassle all around the rim of the mine, exchanged greetings with several railway and mine workers, one of whom even told Ron that it was "no problem" to take photos anywhere in the mine, which confirmed the many trip reports we had read from other foreign photographers who have visited the mine in the last few years.

"After this, it's going to be quite a disappointment returning to the United States of Limited Access," I told Ron.

After the sun had set, we visited a bathhouse and had dinner at the restaurant adjacent our ludian. We were asleep by 8:30, then got up six hours later to go out for night photos and the sunrise. We're used to drawing a crowd when we begin unpacking the five electronic flashes from Ron's trolley, so even at 3:15am, we weren't shocked when four men with flashlights crowded around the taxi to watch us. We said our "ni haos," then set off into the pit. We hadn't made it 50 meters down the path when they began shouting all sorts of gibberish at us. We turned, inquired, they said nothing, so we turned back and continued. The gibberish resumed with marked increases in speed and volume. We turned again and this time they beckoned us back.

The one still wearing his motorbike helmet flashed a police badge. "It's not safe to take photographs here at night," he told Ron in Chinese, "but during the day is no problem."

"So we can come back tomorrow?" Ron asked.

"Meiwenti," came his reply (no problem).

We disassembled and re-packed the flash gear to return to our ludian, but they weren't finished with us just yet. As we loaded our bags into the empty passenger seat in the rear of the taxi, the biggest one became agitated and began recklessly tossing our bags of expensive camera equipment into the middle of the seat. It then became clear that he would be riding along with us. He directed our driver to the mine headquarters where we were interrogated for 1/2-hour.

"Why do you come here?"

Ron explained that China is one of the last places in the world to see steam locomotives in freight service.

"But why do you want to photograph them?"

"To preserve a record for history. What if your children want to see pictures of the railway their fathers worked for?"

"They can see it right now."

"Yes, but not in 2020."

That seemed to get our point across and they became more receptive. They suggested we return in the morning and obtain a permit, which we agreed to do, then they let us go. We were asleep again by 4:15, but a knock awakened us 40 minutes later. Ron opened the door to admit a uniformed police officer (the first one we'd seen in uniform) and another man in plain clothes. The officer showed us his badge, then asked for our passports. He recorded some information, repeated the basic interrogation we had just received, then returned our passports and let us go back to sleep.

We took the opportunity to sleep in and got up around 9:00. As we were getting dressed, four police officers paid us a visit. These took our passports and asked us to remain at the ludian. We took our time getting ready, then went next door for a leisurely breakfast. The owner joined us at our table and commiserated with our plight. When we asked for bread to go with our eggs and tomatoes, he sent out for Russian bread, then sent out again for jam when we asked for it to go with our bread.

A waitress walked out from the kitchen carrying two large, very alive fish, which she dropped into an empty glass tank. They landed flopping on the bottom, causing quite a start for another waitress who hadn't been paying attention. A bucket brigade of three waitresses then began filling the tank with yellow-brown water. One fish was swimming as soon as it was covered and the second came to and joined it a few minutes later. The service staff, all six of them, then lounged at the bar while we ate slowly.

At 11:30, two new, friendly officers arrived, exchanged hearty greetings and shook our hands. They sat at our table and asked a few questions. The older one, in particular, seemed very sympathetic to our plight and left telling us to wait here just a little while longer.

At noon, a friendly young policeman entered and said "hello" in English. Behind him walked a woman (his boss, we later learned) with a cold expression. She begrudgingly offered a limp hand when we offered ours. They took us and the owner into the ludian office where the woman took out a notebook and began taking a report. This interrogation lasted nearly two hours. It began with the basic questions about our itinerary and reasons for coming to China and Zhalainuoer. They asked us about our photography and Ron explained that we had taken about 40 photos the previous afternoon, went out again early in the morning, but been prevented from taking any photos. He hastened to point out that both the railway workers and police we had spoken with at the mine had said it was "no problem" to take photos during the day. He showed them prints of his night photos from the Ji-Tong railway and explained all the cooperation we had received from the railway personnel there, that we had been filmed by Neimenggu TV taking a night photo of a train, and offered the phone number of one of the railway leaders to act as a reference for us.

The woman looked at Ron and spewed into a three-minute Chinese monologue that left my head spinning and Ron shaking his.

"Can you translate, please?" Ron asked the young man.

"The mine is a closed area," he said. "It is a regulation here. You are not permitted to go there, nor to take photographs. Did you know it was a closed area?"

We looked at each other in disbelief. "No."

"You may not photograph in any part of the mine," then he added, enthusiastically, "but you are welcome to stay and photograph anywhere you like in Manzhouli or Zhalainuoer."

"So we can photograph the railway in town, just not in the mine" Ron asked hopefully.

"No! You may not photograph the railway anywhere. It is a closed area. Do you understand that?"

"No, we don't," Ron said. "We have seen photos from many foreigners who have visited here before and had no problems at all. Is it possible for us to buy a photo permit or hire a guide?" Ron asked this in Chinese for the leader's benefit.

She shook her head "no" vigorously.

"Mr. Ou Zhu Wang," the young man said cordially in English, "I think you have enough photos from here."

I wanted to tell him that I had taken 5000 photos along the Ji-Tong line in the past seven weeks and still didn't think I had enough, but I bit my tongue and nodded.

"Okay," Ron said. "We will leave tonight on the train to Haerbin."

"You don't have to leave!" the young man hastened to say. "You are welcome in Zhalainuoer and Manzhouli for as long as you wish to stay." ("Please stay here and spend your money on our local economy," I could see him entreating with his eyes.)

"If we cannot photograph the mine and the railway, there is no other reason for us to be here," Ron stated. "No other reason."

"We are very sorry," I began.

"Sorry?" the young man asked.

"Yes, sorry, dissappointed." He looked at me blankly.

"Sorry. S-O-R-R-Y. Sorry."

"Oh! Sore-ree."

"Yes, sorry. We are very sorry to have to leave here so soon," I said, slowly and with as much anunciation as my disappointed voice could muster. "There are many good people here," indicating the ludian owner, "and we were enjoying ourselves. We wish we could stay for several days."

"I think I understand you," he said. Ron and I looked at each other and chuckled a disgusted chuckle to ourselves.

The woman finished her report and offered it to us. The young man gave a translation in summary, which basically amounted to everything they had asked us and our responses, concluding with our understanding that the mine and railway were closed areas and that we would stop photographing them immediately. We were then asked to sign the reports and stamp our right index finger prints on them, which we did, in bright red ink.

"We understand your disappointment," the young officer said, "so we are letting you keep the photos you have already taken."

"Thank you," we replied, with as much grace as we had left. Once again, I had to dig deep for my polite smile.

They returned our passports after making photocopies and we returned to our room where we began packing. The owner walked in while Ron was in the bathroom, shaking his head and laughing the same disgusted laugh that Ron and I had just laughed. With the help of my Chinese-English dictionary, I told him we wished we could stay longer.

"You are a good man," I said. He smiled. "A very good man," Ron added upon entering.

He led us to the internet cafe next door, where we vented with the only tool left to us. Ron finished first and left to buy us tickets on the night train to Haerbin, which leaves in two hours.

Zhalainuoer was a long way to come for an hour of photography.

Sunday, November 20, 2005


That's Chinese for "old foreigner," and while it isn't exactly derogatory, it's far from flattering.

This afternoon I caught the last bus from Daban to Lindong as it was pulling out of the station. I twisted through the aisle of the nearly-full bus to the rear, where I contorted myself past an old man and into the two seats by the right window on the five-seat bench. I stowed my camera bag and tripod behind me, opened my book and hoped no one would bother me on the 1-1/2 hour to Lindong. I don't mean to sound like a crab, but I'm an introvert, and that's a tough hand to hold in around here. Every now and then (and lately more often, it seems) I want a little a more privacy than a country of 1.3 billion can afford.

I no sooner had my book opened than the young man sitting in front of me had whirled around to look over the back of the seat and see what I was reading. I patiently held up my copy of Denise Giardina's The Unquiet Earth for him to see, then returned to the pages. His curiosity was sparked. He spoke to the old man occupying the middle seat of the rear bench, who them moved over to the left window seat. The young man in front then nearly lept from his seat to the one just vacated beside me. He peered intensely at my book and then pointed, demanding to see it. I handed it over for his examination. He looked at the cover, flipped through a few pages, then returned it to me. I found my place and resumed reading.

He asked me something in Chinese that may or may not have been "What country are you from?" I've learned to listen for key words, and anytime I hear guo (land or country), I respond with meiguo (America). He looked at me, slid a few inches away, gestured and said something to the people sitting in the adjacent seats, and they all began chuckling and looking at me, and him the loudest.

There was a time not long ago when I would have ducked my head in shame and avoided their eyes, or perhaps laughed along with them. Maybe if he had just laughed, I still could have done that. But eight weeks have hardened me, and his sliding away was too much. I turned to face him and looked him in the eyes, looked deeply inside them to where the deep brown ran up against the black edges of his small pupils, and said without speaking, "Why are you laughing at me?"

He stopped laughing. He turned away, said not one further word to me for the rest of the trip, and though he continued to steal glances here and there, avoided my eyes altogether.

I loathed him for a moment, but then I wanted to tell him how hard it is for me here knowing so little of the language. The children here are my favorites. They're the most innocently curious and understanding, and indeed with my speaking abilities I often feel about like a two-year-old. Sometimes I'm also treated like one. Sometimes I imagine those condescending, laughing people asking me why on earth would I even try to come to their country without knowing more of their language? If I waited for that, though, I might never come.

I can't hate that man. I'd like to think I could tell him that he wouldn't be treated the way he's treating me if he was a visitor in my country, but that's about as big of a lie as anything I could dream up. He's as big a reason to my being here as any train, wall or painting. I came here to feel like a foreigner, a stranger, a minority. I came here to remind myself that traveling is a privilege, not a right, and that I must always find my polite smile, despite how deeply I may have to dig. And I came here so that when I see him looking lost in a Chicago cafe, I won't even have the first impulse to snicker.

Friday, November 18, 2005


Yesterday, November 17, a German tour group chartered a special train over Jingpeng Pass. Until last spring, when dieselization was completed, Jingpeng was the crown jewel of all steam railroading left in China. The pass is in the middle of the Ji-Tong Line, about 40 miles west of Daban where the line makes its only major mountain crossing. Grades there are two times steeper than they are any place else on the railway, but are still kept to a relatively modest 1.2% thanks to good engineering and modern construction technology (the line was completed only 10 years ago).

The line twists and turns through multiple horseshoe curves as it wraps itself around the mountains, up one side and down the other with track on three different levels, swinging out over towering concrete viaducts and punching through the only six tunnels on the entire 900-km route. All of this was steam-powered until less than two years ago, pairs of 2-10-2 QJs lifting 2300 ton trains, steam billowing high in the crystal clear, biting mountain air of winter, exhaust echoing up and down the valleys for nearly an hour at a time with every uphill train.

I never got to see it, though. Not like that.

What I got to see was a small train of six coaches pulled by a pair of steam locomotives. 7038 and 7119 put on as good of a show as they could with such a light load, but they looked rather silly coupled tender-to-tender, one always running backwards on account of no turning facilities at Jingpeng Station, the western end of the run from Daban. Zhang Zhi En graciously invited Ron and me to ride in his car with him and another Chinese photographer (though at some peril to our lives at some points), so we chased the special along with a few hundred other railfans who either wanted one last chance to see steam over The Pass or those like me who just missed seeing it in its glory.

We raced with the other taxis and buses from location to location, trying to get in as many views and photos as we could of what could be one of the last steam trains ever to make the run up the valley from Reshui, through the long tunnel near the summit, sidestepping down around Hadashan Mountain and into the station at Jingpeng. Neimenggu TV was once again on the scene, and even filmed Ron, Zhang Zhi En and me taking a photo of the train. Despite the crowds and the less-than-authentic-looking train, I did manage a few decent photos, which I suppose was the purpose of the event for everyone involved.

For Ron, it was all a bit anti-climatic. He discovered Jingpeng Pass and the Ji-Tong Line on his own in 1997, one of the first westerners to do so and long before it was publicized in the railfan press. He’s fired laboring engines up the entire grade, long before the crews ever thought to charge for that privilege. He’s hiked the hills and waited alone in the night, long after the tour groups went to bed, his flashes at the ready as the whistle from an uphill train leaving Jingpeng wafted up the valley to his lonely post at Simingyi.

I’ll never to get to climb high and alone in those craggy hills to find a wind-swept perch with a view down the valley where I could watch a little puff of white steam grow larger and larger for 45 minutes or more. I didn’t know of The Pass until a 2003 TRAINS magazine article. I could have put all my other photography projects on hold and made a week-long trip or two, but that’s not the way I work. I’m slow, and I need a much longer time, or many more visits, to wrap my arms around a place. And for me, if I can’t achieve that total immersion, I’d rather skip the token sprinklings altogether.

Still, I’m glad I got to see The Pass, if only for a day. I think I felt closest to it when I watched a pair of rumbling diesels grind upgrade with a heavy freight train. It’s not nearly as spectacular as the photos I've seen with steam, but moving that freight between western and northeastern China remains the railway’s reason for being there. It’s still a special place to watch that progression of cargo across a vast country, but it feels like something is missing -- something gone so long from the mountain crossing of the U.S. that's become difficult to remember exactly what. I’ve often criticized the American photographers of the 1950s who packed away their cameras with the end of steam. On this trip I’ve forgiven them a little, as I’ve struggled to find the urge to photograph the utilitarian diesels, knowing that the sublimity of steam was so recent in its passing here.

Ron and I will leave the Ji-Tong Line next week to spend the remainder of our time in China visiting a few railways in the northeast, including (for me) a second visit to Huanan. We may return to Daban for a day or two at the end of this trip, as the current word is that steam operations will conclude on December 10th. It would be nice to be here for the end, if the timing works. For me, my fondest memories of Ji-Tong won’t be of The Pass, nor will I spend too long dwelling on my one teasing taste of a thing I can no longer have. Instead, I’ll remember the evenings with those friendly crossing gatekeepers out on the line from Daban to Chabuga, drinking their tea and eating their food and marveling at the generosity they give so freely on their Y600 ($75US) a month. I’ll remember those mountains of Gulumanhan, Lindong and Tianshan where I stood alone in sunlight and in moonlight, filling the hours with a thousand thoughts, ears and eyes ever-straining for the first hint of the next uphill double-header, two steam locomotives running not for show but for duty, their spectacle just another link in a cross-country chain. And I’ll remember standing with Ron in the open doorway of the dining car with the conductor looking on, the night wind in our faces as 7081’s rods flashed in the moonlight, and me, just for a moment, so close to that boy of 12 with the big engineer’s hat, red bandana and goggles, perched in the vestibule of a West Virginia steam excursion while Grandma and Grandpa or Uncle Steve peered out the windows of their coach seats, and me content to forever watch the world go by beneath a salt and pepper plume of steam and coal smoke.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


“You’re moving up to ‘Senior Chinese Railfan’ status,” Ron told me as I gathered up what I would need for my day trip to Chifeng with Zhang Zhi En. “These ‘tourists’ who only come for a week or two at a time rarely have to deal with any bureaucratic problems, but if you stay for a month or more, you usually end up making an unwanted trip to Chifeng to take care of something. And if you end up having to go all the way to Beijing, then you’ve really become a veteran.”

My something needing attention was my wide-angle to normal zoom lens, which had suddenly developed a severe softness problem. My photos taken with it were only sharp in the center. Fortunately I noticed it very soon after it happened. It’s not the first equipment problem I’ve had here, but it is the first that’s required a special trip. I spent one day of shooting with only my telephoto zoom and quickly determined that was simply not a feasible option for the rest of this trip. Zhang Zhi En was going to Chifeng in two days to stock up on supplies for his restaurant and offered to take me with him.

I squeezed all of my 6-2 frame into the tiny front passenger seat of Zhang Zhi En’s tinier car for the three hour drive. In the back rode two women, making the trip to stock up on Amway supplies. I was quite relieved when, after we got out of Daban, Zhang Zhi En turned to me and motioned for me to put on my seatbelt, a dusty piece of faded fabric that probably hadn’t been used since his last trip to Chifeng. I gladly complied. He, on the other hand, simply pulled his belt across his chest and let it dangle loosely by his waist, having the lady sitting behind him hide the unused buckle from view. Strictly for appearances.

In Daban, along the open highway and through the small towns en route, Zhang Zhi En whipped his little car with confidence and bravado. Once in the crowded city, however, he became very cautious and timid. At one point we stopped in the middle of a wide street for apparently no reason whatsoever. It took me several seconds to realize that we were waiting for the traffic light to turn green. It was the first time a vehicle I had been riding in had actually waited at a red light in weeks.

Chifeng is a city of about half a million people along the southern border of Inner Mongolia and is the gateway for most people coming to the Ji-Tong line from Beijing. In Chifeng you can buy every spice of the Orient by the kilo out of wooden barrels. You can buy whole frozen eels from a market where the rotting fish guts pile up in buckets and lie 1/8” deep on the slippery floor. You can buy live chickens from wooden cages, real “Kentucky Fried Chicken” straight from the smiling Colonel next door, designer shoes that cost more than many Chinese make in a month or longer, and practically every point-n-shoot digicam on the market from one of the many photo finishing stores. But you can’t buy a single piece of glass with a Canon EF lens mount attached to it. Zhang Zhi En took me to one place advertising repair services, but their technician quickly decided that my autofocus zoom lens was beyond his capabilities, not in the least to my relief, for fear of voiding my warranty.

“Where did you buy your camera?” I managed to ask Zhang Zhi En in Chinese.

“Beijing!” came his quick reply.

I had a fleeting thought of asking him to take me to the train station and trying to find a ticket for the next train to Beijing, but decided against it. I tried calling Ron to ask his advice, but his cell phone wasn’t available. In the end, I returned to one of the photo stores where I bought several rolls of medium format color film to use in Ron’s Fuji rangefinder cameras, which he had brought for black & white night photography.

A day of carrying two camera bags proved cumbersome, and then we went back to the Chagganhada bridge with the film crew. The first quarter moon was hanging above it when a pair of light engines chugged across on their way back to Daban, their steam backlit in the moonlight. For all the clarity and resolution that Ron’s medium format rangefinders offered, I could never use them with their slow lenses and the slow film I found in Chifeng to take that shot, or any others like it. After the film crew packed up and went home, Ron and I had a starlit discussion about what I should do. The next afternoon, I boarded a bus in Daban to take me back to Chifeng, where I would catch an overnight train to Beijing.

At least, that was the plan. Before leaving, Ron told me, “The trains between Beijing and Chifeng are extremely popular and almost always sold-out, so buying tickets from the station is often impossible.”

Ron wasn’t coming with me on this trip, so I was completely on my own, without the crutch of his knowledge and Chinese to support me. I had grown very comfortable leaning on it.

“How then, does one buy a ticket to Beijing in Chifeng?” I asked.

“The same way you buy a steam locomotive builder’s plate in Daban,” he retorted. “Just stand around being a foreigner looking lost.”

Now that’s one thing I don’t even have to try to be good at here.

Given the circumstances, perhaps I should have been frustrated or at least considerably annoyed when I got on the bus to leave Daban, where I would lose at least two days of shooting on the Ji-Tong line, more if I wasn’t extremely lucky. I didn’t feel that way, though. After having a night to sleep on the idea (well, half a night, anyway), I was excited. This was another adventure, and I’d be completely on my own this time (save the notebook full of maps and directions Ron had meticulously prepared for me).

My trip got off to a false start when I wandered into the wrong waiting room, thinking it was the bus station and asking for a ticket. The lady inside had a good chuckle and pointed me down the street, where I found a much bigger waiting room and a ticket to Chifeng for Y35. (Upon returning, I happened to notice that the correct waiting room has a big sign out front with a picture of a bus and the English words, “Ticket buying and waiting room.”)

Chinese bus trips are a lot like Chinese meals. They start off very slowly, then, before you know it, they’re finished. The only thing more important to the Chinese than an on-time bus is a full bus. They crawl out of town, looking for any extra passengers they can pick up along the way. I was still quite tired from my big television debut, so I nodded off for most of this part. When I awoke, we were cruising through the barren mountains, golden in the late afternoon light, south of town.

What woke me was the in-flight entertainment, now in progress. On the TV monitor at the front of the bus, a woman in a long burgundy dress and a man in a sparkling red coat with the absolute highest facial features of any man I have ever seen were strutting around waiving green flags and doing something that in this country is probably considered singing. I equated the audio much more closely to pigs being slaughtered. Of course, this being China, it was being played just slightly louder than the absolute maximum volume that the speakers could handle, so the really high notes went screeching into high-pitched static before coming down again. This was followed by a movie about a cell phone that I found neither entertaining nor annoying, and for that last bit I was most grateful. However, the movie wasn’t quite long enough to get us all the way to Chifeng, so the last few dozen kilometers brought more operatic song and dance.

We arrived more than three hours before the departure of my train, so I went first to the ticket office, just in case there were any unsold berths remaining. Just before I got to the window, a man held out a ticket and said, “Beijing?”

I asked how much. “Yi bai ling yi,” Y101, which was the face value. Ron had told me some scalpers would start by asking as much as Y200, and if I could get a ticket for about Y130, I had done well. It would really depend on who was most desperate.

“Jin tian?” I queried (today?). He nodded, and I confirmed this on the ticket. I handed the man the money and took my ticket.

I still had three hours to kill, so I took a walk through town and eventually found an internet café across the street from the train station. I was feeling pretty good about myself until I realized that I hadn’t asked the man if the ticket was for sleeper class. I was exhausted and looking forward to 10 hours in a berth. The thought of spending that time in a straight-backed, non-reclining bench seat was brutal. I pulled out my Lonely Planet guidebook and looked up the Chinese character for sleeper. I began scanning the ticket and, much to my relief, found something that looked very similar.

My hopes were confirmed when the attendant for car number 8 took my ticket and handed me a plastic card for row 16, upper berth. There are two classes of Chinese sleeper trains, hard and soft. Soft class has four berths to a compartment with a locking door, plusher padding and more amenities such as reading lights. Hard class isn’t particularly hard, as the name implies, but isn’t as plush or as private as soft class. I was traveling hard class, which I had done before, but not on an overnight train.

Hard sleepers are quite the marvel of blending efficiency and comfort. I would like to think that Amtrak could make a killing with these cars (and favorable schedules for them), but they are probably a bit too communal to catch on in America. There are about 20 rows of beds per car, stacked three high. Every two rows are separated by a partition, with the two rows inside each partition facing each other. The partitions are open to the aisle and in the aisle, along the wall, two padded cushions fold down by the window to make seats for middle and upper berth passengers to sit on when they don’t feel like lying down. It is also customary for the lower berth passengers to share sitting space on their beds during the day. The lower berths have the most headroom of the three, but are also the least private. The upper berths, where I was sleeping on this trip, are a tad claustrophobic but by far the most private. They are also right next to lights, which are turned on and off by the car attendant at set times. None of that bothered me much. I fell asleep still fully dressed and without bothering to pull up the blanket before the train had even left the station.

I awoke several times during the night, stiff from the lumps in my clothes, pockets and money belt, and warm from the blanket, which, at some point, I had managed to pull around me. I was always too tired and cramped for space to get up and properly address the situation, so I arrived in Beijing feeling not quite as rested as I had hoped.

Ron had warned me that the Chifeng trains often used Beijing North Station, a small outpost in the northwest quadrant of the city several kilometers from downtown and the main station. I was feeling much more confident than I had on my first trip to the Chinese Capital, and I quickly found the subway, where Y3 and 20 minutes had me standing in front of the main railway station.

My first task was to buy a return ticket back to Chifeng, as round-trip tickets are not the order of the day in China. Like the Chifeng to Beijing tickets, these are often sold out and I might be stuck for a day unless I wanted to try an overnight bus. I found the Foreigner’s Ticket Window where the attendant spoke English. . . . and proceeded to have more trouble communicating with her than I had with all the other people on this trip who spoke only Chinese.

“Where you going?” she asked.




“Shenma?” (What?)


“Ditu!” she begged. Luckily I knew that meant ‘map.’

I showed her on the Lonely Planet Guidebook.

“Oh! Chifeng.”

“That’s what I’ve been saying all along, dammit!” is what I wanted to shout, but instead I put on my polite smile and said, “Dui” (correct).

She had another hard sleeper ticket for Y101 available for that same night. I bought it, and walked back outside.

Being a foreigner in China and stepping out of a big-city train station reminds of the outer space video games I used to play on my cousin Matt’s Atari. It’s like that part of the game where you come out of warp speed right into the middle of the enemy space station and have to divert every bit of your available power from your main reactor to your front defense shields. It seemed like every taxi driver in China was waiting for me, and that someone had hung a big, glowing dollar sign over top of my head.

“You want taxi!” (said as a command, not a question)
“Binguan! I take you Binguan!”

I pushed my way through the mob, head down, avoiding eye contact, and found my way back to the subway. I arrived at the camera stores an hour before they opened and set off to look for an internet café. I didn’t find one, but I did have a very pleasant walk through one of Beijing’s many hutong, narrow alleyways with small, brick huts and cottages, laundry drying in the breeze on clotheslines and rusty bicycles awaiting their next venture into the rushing streets. The hutong are part of the old way of life in Beijing, which is being phased out as quickly as possible in favor of presenting a more modern image for the 2008 Olympics, seemingly the driving force behind every construction project across the country (including the abolishment of steam). Many hutong are being lost to new developments and street-widening projects, but there are so many that not nearly all of them can be eliminated before the games. Perhaps after that, Beijing will lose some of its motivation.

I found street vendors selling fried dough/egg pancakes with a spicy sauce and baicai, China’s ubiquitous green, leafy cabbage. It was the best breakfast I have had here. I still didn’t find an internet café, even after asking a few shopkeepers, so I broke down and paid a taxi Y12 to take me to one. That’s only $1.50, but I’ve been here long enough that I’ve grown accustomed to the Chinese price structure and cringe at over-paying for anything. He even had to stop and ask for directions, but he dropped me off at the “Limitless Internet café of good luck.”

At the camera store I found a Tamron lens to fill-in for mine until I can have it repaired by Canon. I typically avoid third-party lenses, but I had heard many good reports about the new Tamron Di series for digital cameras. A quick test showed that it blew away my faulty Canon in terms of sharpness, while contrast and color didn’t look too bad, either. More importantly, it didn’t completely wreck my budget for getting to Japan next month, although I will need to get most of that money back at some point. Hopefully Canon will come through for me on the repairs. My next stop was the post office, where I boxed it up and sent it by air mail to their Irvine, CA service center.

It was noon and I was starved from all the walking. The post office was on a busy street filled with office buildings and no restaurants, but in Beijing I have discovered that a quick turn into almost any side street will at least find you something to eat.

The first sign I saw was in English, and it even looked English – The John Bull Pub. I kept walking. Then I stopped and turned around. After seven weeks of eating nothing but Chinese, I was due for a break. The lunch crowd was thin but the place had a warm, home-like feeling to it with well-decorate wood walls, wooden tables and floors. The waitress was Chinese but she spoke English fairly well and brought me a menu that had not one, single Chinese character anywhere on it. I turned to the entries and ordered spaghetti and meatballs.

With all my errands complete, I had the afternoon free for site-seeing. I opened my guidebook and began looking for nearby attractions. The China Art Gallery was only a couple of kilometers away. It was a nice day for November and I would have preferred something outside, but I kept coming back to the art gallery. The entrance fee of Y20 was five times more than the book had advertised, but I paid my money and walked inside.

The main exhibit was Chinese calligraphy. I know the Chinese consider it very beautiful and that I should be able to appreciate it even without knowing how to read it, but the black brush strokes on long white scrolls just couldn’t hold my attention. I wandered into a side hall where I saw some paintings. The first one was a beautiful portrait of some colorful old men in a mountainous landscape and -- yes, I believe that’s a railroad bridge in the background! The next featured a herdsman with his yaks and again, far in the distance, a railroad bridge. Then I found a painting of a young boy and his grandfather gazing out across dark mountains into a rainbow, where a railroad bridge with a train followed the colorful arc across the valley. The room was filled with similar paintings – fabulous landscapes and haunting portraits, all with a hint of a railway somewhere in the background. In one, a mother held her young son up in the air while their dog sat at her feet, their yaks roamed the grasslands behind them, and far beyond, on one side of them a railway bridge, and on the other side, construction equipment working on more of the line. On the floor below this painting, a young Chinese boy sat with his sketch book spread out on a folding stool and copied the scene with his pencil in impressive detail.

I lingered for some time in the room, spellbound by the faces in the portraits looking back at me and this railway being built beyond them. Some seemed to smile, but others were betrayed by eyes clearly questioning the coming of this new technology to their way of life. Finally I realized the exhibit was a feature on the construction of the new railway line to Tibet. I walked into the next room and was thrilled to find the exhibit continued through it and on into yet another room. Copies of “China Railway Construction News” were available at a table in the last room, with several of the paintings reproduced in newsprint. The exhibit must be sanctioned, or at least approved, by the railway, and indeed many of the paintings presented it in a very positive light, and yet there were those eyes in a few. One in particular stays with me. A mother with a baby on her back walks along the tracks where a flatcar sits carrying a cast concrete bridge span while construction crews work on the bridge in the distance. Beside the mother stands her half-grown son in a fur coat, looking back, looking straight into me with bigger-than-life brown eyes that seem to cry “my way of life is forever passing with the coming of this new thing.”

I can’t read the titles or the captions or even the artists’ names, but I can read that boy’s eyes. I’m glad for them. I’m glad for all the paintings, which seem to so richly express the mixed feelings I have about the impact of the trains I love on the land and the people around them. I’m glad the Chinese government didn’t censor that painting and the others that seem to call some questioning towards the new railway. And I’m so glad I found that exhibit. Seeing it alone was worth the trip to Beijing.

I found a quiet park behind the Forbidden City, then watched the lowering of the flag in Tiananmen Square. I found dinner, called Ron, took night photos with my new lens and eventually found my way back to Beijing North Train Station.

“Do you speak English?” asked the young Chinese woman in front of me with a hopeful smile as we boarded the train to Chifeng.

“Yes!” I replied, taken by surprise. It was the first time anyone in China had asked me if I spoke English. “Much better than I speak Chinese.”

“Good! I love meeting foreigners.”

“Probably so you can practice your English,” I was thinking, when she added, with a half-apologetic look, “I like to practice my English.”

I had been up since 4:30, so I explained that I was very tired and anxious to get to sleep as I climbed into my upper berth, which was in the compartment next to hers. She found me a few minutes later.

“Please come down.”

“I’m so tired.”

Still she waited hopefully in the aisle, so I turned around (a difficult process for a person of my size in the upper berth of a hard sleeper) to face her with the hopes that a few moments of chatting would appease her.

We exchanged names. Hers was Arabella.

“That’s a very pretty name!”

“Everybody likes my name! I don’t understand, though, because it is very hard to pronounce.”

“It isn’t hard for me, but for Chinese people it must be very difficult.”

“My neck is hurting from looking up at you,” she said.

I looked around. The lights were shining brightly, music was playing on the speakers, everyone was talking and there I was no way I could get to sleep right now. So I came down. She offered me a seat beside her on her lower berth.

“You’re easy to talk to,” she said. “You smiled and said ‘hello’ when I spoke to you. I say ‘hi’ to many foreigners, but most just turn away.”

“So many Chinese try to sell things to foreigners that we often just stop responding. It’s very frustrating when everyone is trying to get you to buy something.”

We passed the dark miles with the kind of small talk that I so often avoid at social gatherings. Yet here it was strangely refreshing. The train staff turned off the lights at 10:30 and I took my leave to my berth. Arabella only let me go when I promised to talk with her again in the morning before the train arrived.

I slept deeply, and when the lights came on at 6:00, considered just staying under the bedding with my eyes closed. Something drew me out, though, and I rubbed the sleep from my still-tired eyes and found the bathroom where I brushed my teeth beside a young Chinese man. His tight black shirt was clean and crisp and he laboriously combed, smoothed and re-combed his ebony-silk hair. I wondered how many days had passed since a comb had passed over my own head.

I found Arabella sitting up in her berth, looking like she had been expecting me all morning. She asked what I did and I told her I was a writer (so much simpler than explaining my complete situation) and that I was on my way to Japan where I would join my fiancé.

“Are you married?”

“No,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m single.” Then she added with a hint of embarassment, “To tell the truth, I am divorced. Do you think it’s bad to be divorved?”

I paused. “No, I don’t. My parents are divorced and remarried and are much happier now. Maureen’s parents are also divorced, and they are much happier, too. It’s made us cautious, though. We waited longer than many couples do to get engaged.”

“Do you mind talking about this with me?” she asked. “Many Chinese avoid such subjects, but I don’t mind.”

“I don’t mind, either.”

In Chifeng she walked me to the bus station and helped me find a ticket for the very next bus, which was leaving in 15 minutes. She found a taxi to take her to her job, which started in less than an hour.

“How do you say good-bye in America?” she asked.

“Well, many people shake hands and say good-bye, and sometimes good friends will hug each other.” Then I added, “If it’s okay with you, I’d like to give you a hug.”

“Yes. I could use a hug.”

“So could I.”

As I settled into my seat for the three hour ride back to Daban, I wondered how many weeks had passed since my last hug. Too many. I gazed out the windows over the factory smokestacks to the sun-parched hills on the horizon and counted the days until I would see Maureen again. I was feeling quite wistful and contemplative until the TV monitor came on. It was the exact same programming we’d had for the trip down.

Where are those earplugs?

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

My Career as a Chinese TV Star

“Ugh. Zhang Zhi En wants me to be at his restaurant at 9:00 tomorrow morning,” Ron said, closing up his cell phone.

“What does he want?” I asked.

“I dunno. Probably to tell someone what a great asset his restaurant is to the jiwuduan (locomotive shop) – I think his contract might be coming up for renewal. I told him I’d do it, but, ugh, the timing isn’t very good.”

Don’t take Ron’s sentiments the wrong way. Zhang Zhi En is his best friend in China and has already become my best friend here. “He’s like Corporal Klinger on M*A*S*H,” Ron told me. “If you need something done, he can either do it, or he has some skeleton buried in the closet that he can dig up on someone who can get it done. He’s helped me out more times than I can count.” He’s a short, pudgy, smiling man with a cute wife and pudgy baby boy who looks just like him. Several of Ron’s photographs are hanging on the walls of his restaurant, where he never accepts our money when we try to pay. He gives us rides around town in his tiny red car with Winnie the Pooh stickers beside the gas cap, and just this week let me ride to Chifeng with him so I could run some errands (or at least try to, more on that later) in the city. We’re both eager to do what we can for him in return, but a 9:00 appointment would seriously cut into our sleep the next day.

The next morning, following an all-night photo session, we showed up Zhang Zhi En’s restaurant shortly after 9:00. He joined us at our table and his wife brought out steaming bowls of noodles, a plate of beef and several of her hard, flaky pastries that are so tasty. At 9:30, three men and a woman arrived carrying one large and one gigantic video cameras, the latter with an equally gigantic tripod. They were an Inner Mongolia film crew shooting a documentary on the Ji-Tong Tielu, and they wanted to interview us and film us camping out along the line and taking a night photo of a train. My, but was the shoe ever on the other foot.

Not only that, but they wanted to leave at 2:00 that afternoon. By that point in the discussion, it was already 10:30, and the only sleep Ron and I had had in the past 24 hours was the four-hour nap we got from 9:30-1:30 that night. He managed to push them back to 3:00, but no more. They also wanted us to return to the Chagganhada bridge where we had already taken several photos, instead of accompanying us to a new spot where we hadn’t photographed yet, effectively killing a night of shooting. More discussion ensued, but eventually we acquiesced.

At 3:20 that afternoon, following a 2-1/2 nap, Ron and I had our equipment loaded into our taxi, which was joined by the silver van carrying Zhang Zhi En and the film, which had grown by a couple more people since the morning. We arrived at the Chagganhada bridge just as the sun set where the crew filmed Ron riding his bicycle and me waving to him. I think they began to get the sense that they might be getting more than had bargained for when we showed them that the photo location was all the way down the hill and across the river, accessible only by foot. This time it was their turn to acquiesce. As I set off down the hill to the river to make camp while Ron began assembling his lights, I was joined by no less than six people, all helping carry our gear.

The river was up and partially frozen along the banks, making crossing it even more treacherous. The American way to solve such problems is to throw enough money at them, but the Chinese way is to throw enough people at them. I got a lesson in that when we arrived at the main channel of the river. My escorts put down their loads and split off in several directions, each returning with a large rock. These we threw into the river until we had a set of stepping stones to the other side. Of course, the stones were slippery and the group ill-prepared, particularly the translator, who wore high-heeled, pointy-toed boots, which she got a little wet on the way across. She wasn’t the only one.

In all my life, I never thought anyone would ever shove a TV camera in my face while I was putting up my tent, but that is exactly what happened next. And then I realized how all those old brakemen and conductors on the remote branchline railroads back in the U.S. must feel the when they’ve been going about their jobs of coupling up cars and making air tests for 27 years, unperturbed, and then this kid from Ohio shows up and starts waving a camera around. So I tried to look natural and let the camera man have his way.

Once the tent was up and the lights and cameras in place, it was time to start the campfire and begin the interviews. Our fuel was local coal, and if the locomotives burn the same stuff, it’s a wonder the railway can move any freight at all. Constant attention and an entire jug of lighter fluid got us only a smoldering glow. Wood is in short supply on the arid plains of Inner Mongolia, so what do you use for kindling when you’re in China? If you said chopsticks, you’re absolutely right! They brought a whole sack of them.

With the fire crackling, the interviewers (a woman and a man) began posing questions to Ron through the translator. I sat by the fire along with him and Zhang Zhi En, and I knew this was his show and that he was the star, but still I thought it would be nice if they asked me at least one question. And while I was thinking these thoughts, I head the translator say, “and tell us something about your friend.”

“This is my good friend Scott Lothes,” Ron replied. “He is a very good photographer and has helped me in many ways on this trip. I am getting better photographs thanks to him.”

Then the camera swung around to me and interviews lobbed several volleys of questions my way through the translator. “Why did you want to travel with Ron? What do you like about steam trains? Are you getting good photographs here? Will you come back to China after the steam trains are gone?”

Then they asked us if we knew any American songs about steam trains. Yes. Can you sing one? We exchanged questioning glances at each other. Okay. Ron came up with the first verse of “Old Train” and I joined him for the chorus. Our audience applauded and asked to hear it again. I believe it was the first time either of us had been asked for an encore. We complied vociferously.

The train came and the shots were taken, both theirs and ours. They packed their gear, thanked us, then left us alone to the cold night.

Friday, November 04, 2005


There's another new post in addition to this one today. Photos have also been added (finally) to several previous posts. Please scroll down to find them. The posts with new photos are this one and the other from today, "Routine?," as well as the previous posts "Back to Business," "The Traveler's Reward," "A Day Late and a Cycle Short," "Across the Miles," and all the way back to "Home in Huanan." Sorry for taking so long on this update. Staying out all night for so many nights takes it toll.

The last couple of nights haven't been our most successful ones. We spent night before last waiting at Gulumanhan for a photo that never materialized. Ron was tired and still fighting his cold, so I offered to stay up and fire the flashes and both cameras while he slept. "I wasn't going to ask you to do that," he latered admitted, "but I was really glad to agree when you offered!"

I've had some fabulous experiences waiting out in the night for steam trains, but that night wasn't one of them. I waited beside a grade crossing shanty on a side road with a steady trickle of traffic all through the night. The gatekeeper was sick, as I often heard his coughing coming from inside, so it was his wife who raised and lowered the gates. She lowered them one last time around 10:00 and went to bed, but the good night's sleep that I'm certain she and her husband so badly needed was not to be had. Once or twice an hour, a car or farm truck turned onto the road, pulled up to the gates, and laid on its horn. Out trudged the woman into the cold night, raised the gates for them to pass, then lowered them again and trudged back inside. Sitting there by our tripod-mounted cameras and flashes, I often confused drivers who thought it was me who would raise the gates for them. They waved, flashed their lights, sometimes even got out and approached me, until finally the woman noticed the ruckus and trudged out to open the gates once more. I hated myself for being there, helpless by language to ask her if it was okay for me to open the gates if I didn't see a train coming, to tell the drivers that they needed to ask her to open the gates. In the U.S. I'm certain she would have called the police to get rid of me, but here she simply bore me without a word like the rest of her burdens in the night. I hated the drivers, loathed the headlights in the far off woods approaching down the dusty dirt road, loathed them as they pulled up to the gates, confused, impatient, honking and looking then taking far too long to get going again once the gates were up.

When a diesel freight passed at 4:00am and I still wasn't able to get the shot, I finally woke Ron and retired to a brief nap before dawn. He fired the flashes an hour and a half later on the morning passenger train, still in darkness, but the steam cloud was much smaller than we needed to fill the wide-angle composition. I was glad to pack up and leave when the taxi arrived.

Driving back, the signal was green at Baomutu and the sun was rising into a hazy morning sky. Ron was half asleep but I convinced him to have the taxi driver turn around and take us back to a crossing a few kilometers back. The photo I got there is not the best one I've taken in China, though it's far from the worst, but it made me very happy on that morning after the miserable night. What made me happy were the bare trees against the cold, winter-like sunrise, the shape of the train and its steam exhaust visible in silhouette between the branches. The leaveless trees and the morning reminded me of November mornings in West Virginia and Ohio, and it was that fleeting connection with home that lifted my spirits and put a smile on my face as I thought of a warm, hearty late-fall breakfast at Grandma's kitchen table with my loved ones near by as we drove back to Daban and the closest thing to a pancake breakfast we could find in China.

The baobing weren't exactly golden brown and drizzled in the Vermont maple syrup that Ron's been craving, but they were round and warm and relatively bland, served with a brown sauce and greens that we didn't touch. Instead, we sliced fresh bananas and poured honey that we brought in with us, while the waitstaff stared and ran to the back to whisper who knows what about the strange and terrible eating of the two foreigners, the only customers in the dining room on Wednesday mid-morning.

We rode back to our room in a taxi with two big, red-faced men up front (one the driver), and a diminutive woman in the middle row with orange boots, an orange jacket and orange hair. I asked Ron if he had told the driver where we were going and he had not, so I piped up with "Women qu huochezhan" (We go to the train station). The orange woman turned in her seat and said a mouthful of words that didn't all make sense to me. Ron replied tersely, pointing at me, then did so again, more strongly, when she continued her inquiry. She then said something else to me and turned back around.

"What was that all about?" I asked.

"She said 'Oh! You speak Chinese?', and I said you do," Ron replied.

That evening, after sleeping most of the day, we were walking to dinner at Ron's friend Zhang Zhi En's restaraunt within the jiwuduan (locomotive shop). While passing a line of hissing locomotives, one of Ron's friends, an engine driver, spotted him and came up to chat, sorely to the disappointment of the hawker who was trying to sell goodness knows what off the engines to us.

"It's really too bad for him," Ron said after the conversation, indicating his friend. "His wife recently left him and took the baby. He's such a nice guy, one of the nicest I've met here. . . . but, he drinks too much. Still, it's not that he means to neglect them. There's not a bit of malice in him."

"Maybe so, but neglecting a wife and child because you're out drinking all the time is grounds for divorce in my book," I replied.

"I know, but I still feel for him. He's so nice. I wish he would turn himself around. A lot of the old engine drivers here are pretty uptight. There's this fine, you know, 600 yuan if the management catches the crew with somebody in the cab who shouldn't be there. A lot of them worry about that, but not him. He doesn't care." Then Ron added, a bit wistfully, "I guess that's part of the problem, though. He doesn't care."

Back in the room, with my belly full and dressed warmly for the upcoming cold night, I thought to myself that the one thing I had to make sure I did in my life was take good care of my Maureen. My heart leaped when she called on Ron's cell phone as we were preparing to depart, but it fell just as quickly moments later when his phone dropped the call. We had discussed by email earlier in the week about her trying to call on Thursday, and here I had completely forgotten, and hadn't told Ron to make sure his phone's battery and minutes were fully charged. She did manage to get through again, but we agreed to cut the call short until we could more properly prepare Ron's phone. I could hear the disappointment in her voice as we hung up, the brief connection so much shorter than we had hoped.

So while I should probably be sleeping, I am instead writing, trying to catch up on all the life that continues ever onward, with or without me, just as mine rolls ever forward through the vast Inner Mongolian plains without all the people who have helped make my life what it is, and yet with all of you in spirit. I hope you'll keep me with you, too.


Here it is the 4th of November and I'm still wondering where the month of October went. I'm not really wondering. I know it went right here, to the Jitong Tielu (iron road), where I'm still staying and will be for another week or two. It's hard to believe that it has gone so fast, that I could be kept so occupied by the same 154 km of railway. I cringe at the thought, but my life here has almost become routine, at least as routine as any life can be that's lived on a different sleeping-waking schedule every day. As I write this, it's sunny mid-morning and I can see from my window, across backyards and through powerlines, over to the railway yard, where a diesel locomotive just cutoff from an arriving freight train and is being replaced by a pair of steam locomotives for the run to Chabuga. A month ago I would have dashed out to watch it (and there's a part of me that wants to right now), but I'm content to see it from here through the corner of my eye as I do some much needed catching up on my writing, which, I'm trying to remind myself, is as big a reason for my being here as my photography.

When I arrived here at the beginning of October, fall was in full swing. The leaves were turning bright yellow and the fields were golden-brown, ripe with the fruits of the season's labor. Farmers worked in droves to bring in their bounty with their hoes and rakes, horses, donkey carts and puttering old tractors. Today the trees are bare and field workers returned to their huts, cottages and simple homes, another season of labor behind them. Change is about the railway, too. There's the change of the seasonal business, as westbound oil traffic picks up and the silver tankers roll like a giant pipeline across the plains. There's also the change of modernization.

My first day along the railway was Sunday, October 2nd. I spent 12 hours trackside and saw 15 trains, every single one of them steam-powered. That's a day that has not been equaled, and while it brought false hopes at my arrival, I'll be forever glad that I got to see, if for one day and one day only, a 100% steam mainline railroad. On every day since (and I've been at trackside ever day, or sometimes night, since), there has been at least one diesel-powered train in the mix. For the first four weeks, there were usually only two or three diesel trains, and the steam movements still ranged in the low double digits. With the new month, that has changed. Ron and I spent all of the last three nights out along the line trying for night photos. On the first two nights, the steam and diesel movements were about equal, with steam holding a tenuous advantage.

Last night, we arrived at the Chagganhada bridge at 8:30pm, just as a westbound steam freight barreled across. We set up Ron's lights and waited. The next train was an eastbound steam freight drifting downhill and not making the big white plume that we wanted in our photograph. Then came the westbound steam passenger, and one shot was made. Three steam trains in three hours had the night off to a good start, even though we were only able to photograph one of them. We spread our sleeping bags on the soft sand of the river bank as Orion rose in the southern sky, we three hunters of the night together. The diesel streamliner passed, it's lighted windows shining brightly in the dark night and shimmering blue-white in the river's rippling surface.

With the passenger trains out of the way, we prepared for the parade of freights that was bound to follow. The drone of internal combustion rose slowly in the east and groaned on for several minutes as a westbound diesel freight made its way across the bridge. The sweet sound of a steam whistle drowned out the laboring long-haul trucks on the new trans-Mongolian highway, but the train was downhill. Then another uphill train with another diesel. Darkness faded to dawn and we had only our one photo of a working steam locomotive on the bridge. The morning passenger drifted downgrade in the growing light, and then came the labored exhaust of a steam train working upgrade. "Where was this train four hours ago?" we asked, even as we soaked up its morning run, while the steam, black against the dawn light sky, billowed from the stack and drifted back over several cars beforing vanishing into the chill air. The sun rose and brought the warmth we'd both been missing in our toes all night long. An air horn wailed in the distance as a diesel freight rolled downhill. Then a diesel freight uphill. Then another diesel freight downhill, and finally one more as we finished loading the taxi and began the hour ride back to Daban. There had been nine freight trains since midnight, and only two of them steam-hauled. Maybe the magic really is fading this time.

I know I've keyed the phrase "last steam-powered mainline railway" a few too many times in this blog. They're just machines, and the diesels do the same job of moving the goods from A to B with more speed and less labor. Ron and I met a couple from Holland a few days ago, also here to see this spectacle one last time. "Better to watch, yes!" said the man about the machines, "but very dirty. The diesels are cleaner, better working conditions." As I've said many times myself, it's the purpose of the railroad, not the technology, that makes railroading so interesting to me. I'll go onto Japan where the trains run on the wings of electricity and modernity, and eventually back to the U.S. where the diesels work in twos and threes and the cars stretch a mile or more long, and still I'll photograph them and write their stories. Maybe I'll even find my way back here someday, long after the last fires have been dropped, but this place will lack something to me then. Those others will, too, even though they also hold so much that isn't here.

"If you don't want to get dirty," Ron said to the Dutch, "then stay home in your air conditioning!"

What is here, what is in all of China, is the energy of life. It's the words and music to the song of this country, 1.3 billion strong. In no machine that I've ever seen set into motion is the melody sweeter or the lyrics more haunting or the life more brimming than in the steam locomotive. It's harnessed energy that begs release as it stews and simmers in the east end of the yard where a double-header just eased down, freshly serviced from the shop, and tied onto the front of a waiting freight train. It hisses away from the blower and check valves and minutes slide lazily by as the service men grease and wipe down the pistons and running gear, then throw rocks and old brakeshoes back and forth at each other while up in the cab the firemen enjoy a rest and the drivers check and double check the maze of guages on the backplates before them. It seems all the day could slip idly by until the car inspector pulls the red flag off the train and the shovels swing into motion from tender to firebox as the steam builds and the playing stops and the hiss grows as all the energy rolls up into that one poised, defining moment when the dancer raises up on her toes, the diver spreads his arms at the end of the board, the runners drop to their marks, the conductor raises his wand as the first note on the oboe brings the concert hall to a hush, and it's all there, seething, teeming, fit to burst, full of the life and energy and need for attention that is all of China, and even though the steam locomotive wasn't invented here, in here it found its true home, and then the first CHUFF and the steam rushes out, the over-eager driving wheels slip, then find their grip, and the train is moving off through the yard, past the switchman's wave and onto the mainline where the two living machines drop into rhythm, working as one in the song of their lives that will all too soon be over.