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.


Anonymous said...

A long way to go for an hour of photography, but not a long way for a very interesting story. If you had been able to take the photos, the experience would have been much less memorable, I imagine. As it stands now, the story paints a rather scary picture of a semi-closed society, and I found it a little chilling.... As I'm sure you did as well.

Keep the stories coming. I check for your updates daily....:) Safe travels.

Anonymous said...

Strangle parallels, only there I bet the ACLU would do you no good if they did take away the cameras....

Glad it turned out as well as it did, and a lucky thing they didn't take the pictures you did have.

Anonymous said...



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