Friday, November 04, 2005


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.

1 comment:

Robin Garn said...

Your words are absolutely worth reading. Chapeau! I strolled along the JiTong not as consequently as you both did (I was there in winter five times), but – if there was a time machine, I let you know, and you and Ron should have started at Benhong back in 2002. Steamy greetings from Hamburg, Germany
Robin Garn