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.

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