Saturday, December 31, 2005

Christmas Abroad

A few days before Christmas, Maureen received an email from one of our friends back in Cleveland, who wrote “honestly, I’ll be a little glad when the holidays are over.” I wonder for how many folks those sentiments ring truer than any jingling, silver bells.

It’s been a few years since I really got excited for Christmas. Of course it lost something for me in my later childhood, as it does for most of us, but it also lost something for me when I started working. There were never enough vacation days, the ones I did have always seemed to go toward photography, and so ended the lifelong tradition of long Christmas breaks with plenty of time to spend with all the people who had continued to make the holidays such a special time.

With three sets of family to visit, all four or more hours away from Cleveland, Christmas became a whirlwind of always going, going, going, and never just sitting. . . or just being. And I know that’s what the holidays have come to be for a lot of people. I had three Christmases like that, and I didn’t particularly enjoy any of them.

I was never with Maureen for any of those Christmases, either. Her family is far more scattered than mine, and we agreed early in our dating to continue spending the holidays in our separate ways. I didn’t particularly enjoy that, either.

It took coming to the other side of the world, but Maureen and I finally spent a Christmas together. I think it will be the first of many for us. Christmas in Japan is very much a couples holiday, much like Valentine’s Day in the U.S. Japanese couples exchange lavish gifts, eat specially-made strawberry Christmas cakes, go on intimate dates and do whatever else couples do together. So, naturally, Maureen and I joined a bunch of her English-teaching friends for a traditional western Christmas gathering at the home of Lindsay and Jamie, a Canadian couple living in Sapporo (Hokkaido’s capital and largest city) and in their third and final year of the JET program. Lindsay is due with their first child in May, and they will return to Winnipeg in August. They plan on giving the baby a Japanese middle name.

Prior to meeting them, Maureen and I visited downtown Sapporo, where I did every bit of this year’s Christmas shopping (a few small gifts for her while she was getting a haircut) in two hours. We sipped lattes at Starbucks, wandered through the “White Illumination” light display in Oduri Park and watched the fourth Harry Potter movie (English, with Japanese subtitles). We spent the night of the 23rd with Ben and Allison, a just-graduated, just-married Midwestern couple in their first year of the JET program.

On Christmas Eve, we rode across town through the blowing snow with them in their car (on loan from another JET who went home for the holidays) to Jamie and Lindsay’s apartment. Lindsay made two turkeys (7 and 4-1/2 pounds – everything is smaller here), stuffing, Russian potato dumplings, mashed potatoes and plates of Christmas cookies. The guests (10 of us in total) brought appetizers, vegetables and desserts. It was the only day I have been in Japan and felt genuinely stuffed. When we could move again, instead of going out Christmas caroling, we went out for karaoke (when in Rome…).

Long after St. Nick should have stopped by (maybe we were all on the “naughty” list this year), we drifted off to sleep on futons spread on the tatami floors. Five of us joined the slumber party: Maureen and myself, Ben and Allison, and Amy, another first year JET who would have much rather stayed with a bunch of other couples than woken up alone on Christmas morning. I certainly couldn’t blame her for that.

Maureen and I arrived back in Muroran late in the evening on Christmas day. She made me hide in her room while she wrapped my presents, then had me come out to open them. We also had a few gifts sent from the States (not to mention some far-too-large money orders from some members of my family who shall remain nameless), but our pile of presents was scaled well to the size of our Christmas “tree,” a gift of the Gotos, a very well-traveled and welcoming Japanese family who live an hour away in Tomakomai. They brought Maureen to meet my ferry and already have had us over for dinner and a night at their home. Fuyuki, a high school biology teacher, bestowed upon us a potted plant from his collection on which we strung lights and hung origami stars and cranes. So our pile of gifts was rather small. And we didn’t mind one bit. We had each other, plus the love of our families, sent across wires and in Christmas cards over a continent and over an ocean.

Our families. They were the only things missing from our Christmas. As we lay down to bed on Christmas night, Maureen turned to me and said, “It’s Christmas morning in the U.S. Everyone is just waking up.” And as we drifted off to sleep, we both would have gladly endured a full season of holiday stress to be there at her dad’s house in Carbondale, at my grandma’s house in St. Albans, and share that morning with them.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Season's Greetings

Among my fellow railroad enthusiasts in Cleveland, Ohio, and indeed across much of the U.S., there exists a holiday tradition of sending out photo Christmas cards of a wintry railroad scene. While my traveling this year has prevented me from making physical Christmas cards, with this post I can continue in that tradition, at least electronically.

The scene is from Inner Mongolia’s Jingpeng Pass, near a place called Erdai. QJ #7119 leads the "End of Steam" passenger special back to Daban on the afternoon of December 9th, 2005. For the 10 years following its opening on December 1st, 1995, the Ji-Tong Railway used steam locomotives to move its passenger and freight across 900+ km of deserts, mountains and grasslands, making it the last steam-powered mainline railway in the world. Today, it is 100% diesel. I count myself lucky to have seen the end.

I'm luckier still to be with the one I love for the holidays, the first Christmas that Maureen and I will spend together in over four years of dating. This afternoon I will visit a high school with her, then we will travel to Tomokomai to spend the night with a Japanese family. From there, we go to Sapporo for the weekend, where we will have an American Christmas Eve dinner (complete with turkey, yum!) with about 10 of her fellow English teachers. Look for a post about those adventures next week. In the meantime, there are no less than three new posts (in addition to this one) on my blog this week, some with photos, and I also went back and added photos to a previous post, "The Way to Go." I hope you enjoy them and I thank you all for following my travels across China. I hope you will stay with me through Japan, for whatever adventures I might find here.

Maureen and I both wish you and yours all that your hearts desire for the holiday season, most importantly the company of loved ones and some quiet moments of both outer and inner peace. May peace prevail throughout each of our lives and the world over.


There’s a strange face staring back at me when I look in the mirror. In fact, just having a mirror to look in on a regular basis is something of a novelty in itself. Looking back at me is a face that I should know well, but after so many weeks with a beard, that clean chin and those bare cheeks look strangely unfamiliar. Tomorrow I’m getting a haircut, and when the dark hairs are piled up on the floor and swept away, the last vestige of my travel worn visage will be gone.


It was nearly an hour after the Yanjing got on the berth in Kobe before we were allowed off and into the immigration office. I sat with Barry and our bags on the steps of the middle staircase, the rest of the passengers waiting on the deck below us.

“It’s usually about half an hour,” he told me, “but with so many Chinese and all their baggage, could be much longer. They bring all their own rice from China – is much cheaper for them – and all those bags must be inspected.”

“Does Japan still grow most of its own rice?” I asked.

“Yes! All over the country.”

“I thought since Japan is so developed, they might import…”

“No need! The farmers here grow more than enough to feed the entire country. They have a 2-3 years’ supply in storage right now. It’s enough to export, but is too expensive on the global market. Other countries get their rice from China or countries in southeast Asia, where labor is much cheaper.”

He continued, “The younger generation in Japan doesn’t want to farm. They look down on it. Is problem! And a young man who becomes a farmer here has no chance of getting a wife. Young Japanese women won’t even consider marrying farmers. Of course, the younger generation isn’t so interested in eating rice, either. They want to eat bread, or corn, or pasta, like the western culture. The young generation doesn’t know how to grow rice. They know computer, and email. Is problem!”

“It seems to me,” I replied, “that educated people every where tend to look down on farmers. I find that very unfortunate. Everyone needs to eat, and that food has to come from somewhere. I think farmers should be respected.”

“Yes, yes!” he agreed. “Another problem here is that Japanese farmers cannot use big combines and tractors like you have in the U.S. They are very big, yes?”

“Yes, quite large.”

“Farms here are so small. Maybe only one or two acres. Farms in the U.S. are a hundred? A thousand acres?”

“That would be a small farm in the U.S.! Our farms are thousands, or tens of thousands, of acres!”

“Yes, Texas-sized! Japanese farms cannot use such big combines and tractors. Farmers here must work with hands. The younger generation could not handle such hard work. Maybe they do it for a week, but then, AH AH AH!”

“Perhaps Japan could develop small tractors that they could drive by remote control, like toy cars, while they sit in their living rooms,” I offered.

Ahead of us, a Japanese customs officer has removed the barrier on the gangway and the Chinese immigrants are filing off the ship. Barry and I fall in behind them. We step off the gangway and onto the solid concrete of the Kobe ferry terminal.

“Your first steps in Japan!”

After just a few rounds of questions with a kind lady who speaks very good English at immigration, I am given a 90-day tourist stamp in my passport. Getting through customs takes a bit longer, as I have to completely unpack and repack both my camera bag and backpack, no small task given the efficiency of my packing. But the customs agent is very polite and I try to match his courtesies. It’s my first taste of Japanese manners, and I feel like we’re the two chipmunks from the cartoons: “After you!” “No, no, no! After YOU!”

Inspection complete, I am waived up the escalator and into the ferry terminal. Barry had offered me a ride downtown with the friend who was meeting him, and all through my customs check I was worried that he would be waiting for me. I notice he’s still engaged with his own inspection, though, having received a couple of large bags out of the ship’s hold. He’s taking a bus back to his hometown, and after his reports of rough waters on the Sea of Japan, I’m thinking of doing the same.

I call Mo from one of the card phones. “They let me in!” I tell her.

“Good! So I’ll see you tomorrow night?”

“Well, I’m not sure. I got a little queasy on this trip and I’ve been told the Sea of Japan is pretty rough right now. I might look into a bus.”

“A bus? All the way up here? That would be so uncomfortable!”

“But better than throwing up! I’ll let you know as soon as I find out.”

Yu walks by and asks if he can help me.

“No, thanks. I’m getting a ride with Barry.”

“Okay, I go home now,” he says with a big smile. “It was nice meeting you. Good luck in Japan!”

45 minutes later, I’m still waiting for Barry and wishing I had gone with Yu. It’s 4:30, and if the banks should happen to close at 5:00, I have little time remaining to change money. I’m getting bored of waiting in the ferry terminal, despite my amusement at watching Japanese passengers arriving from Tokyo, bowing and back and forth to the people meeting them. But the ferry terminal is comfortable and familiar. Outside waits an entire country that is completely foreign to me. It is exciting and overwhelming. I take one more look back towards the immigration office, and, still not seeing Barry, shoulder my pack and walk out the door.

I pass taxi drivers with my front defense shields at full power, but unlike China, they simple watch me go. None come clamoring for my business. I am nearly stopped dead by the automatic ticket machine for the monorail to downtown, but after three rounds of heavy fighting, I gain the victory of a Y240 (about 115 Japanese yen to the U.S. dollar) ticket to the city center.

I’m able to relax for the next few minutes, but stepping off that station downtown, I finally realize just how overwhelmed and unprepared I am. People rush by from every side in every direction. Businessmen in suits with briefcases. Women with overflowing shopping bags. Teenagers with ears buried in cellphones and iPods. All of them singular and intent on getting to their next destination. None seemingly even phased by the site of a bearded, 6-2 gaijin carrying a backpack. I don’t even know the word in Japanese to get their attention. I find a busy street corner and stand there looking lost, hoping an English speaker will find me and take pity. In China, that act would have at least produced several “Hah-Lows” in but a few minutes. Here, nothing.

I start walking. It’s almost 5:00 and I need a bank. I have but a couple thousand yen, and that get me far. I cross the street and find nothing promising. I’m on my way back to the train station, why, I do not know, when I pass a police station. I’ve never been so glad to see one in all my life. The sign on the front includes an English welcome: “Please come and let us assist you.”

Inside, I find four uniformed officers. I smile. They smile back.

“English?” I ask, hopefully.

One smiles again. “A little,” he replies.

“I need to change money. Can you tell me where?” I annunciate slowly and carefully.

“Change money?” I nod vigorously. “Across the street to that tall building there,” he says pointing to a corner department store with lots of people walking in and out. “There is a bank on the second floor.”

“Thank you very much!” I smile again and give a nod of my head. He returns both. It’s more help than I received from the police in all my 82 days in China.

The bank is opened until 7:00. It’s a small, triangular room with two tellers and their manager sitting close together at desks behind the glass. There is also a man in a suit on this side of the glass whose only job it seems is to help me make the transaction. With much bowing, nodding of heads and a mix of English and lyrical Japanese, I convert my remaining traveler’s cheques into yen. Now I’m ready to face this country.

I find the bus station and manage to buy a ticket to Tokyo, from where I can buy an onward ticket to Aomori, and then a short ferry ride to Muroran. I’m feeling pretty good about myself until I start to consider the reality of the situation. The bus for Tokyo doesn’t leave until 11:00. That’s nearly six hours away. It doesn’t arrive in Tokyo until 6:00 the next morning. The bus ride to Aomori will be at least that long, if not longer, and then I still have a few hours on the ferry to Muroran, plus time spent waiting for connections. It seems very unlikely that I will see Mo on the following evening. And the bus ticket just to Tokyo cost Y8,600.

I’m looking for a phone to call Mo when a familiar voice hails me.

“Hello, Scott! I am sooo sorry!”

It’s Barry.

“That’s okay!” I assure him. “I am sorry for leaving before you. I was anxious about changing money.”

“Well, I am glad I found you. This way I can say a proper goodbye.”

“Yes, I am glad you found me, too.”

He asks about my transportation and seems pleased that I am taking the bus. He’s encouraging me to spend a day site-seeing in Tokyo and I try to explain that all I really want to do right now is get to Muroran. His bus is called and he leaves with his card and an open invitation to visit. Once again, I’m on my own.

The train and bus stations are all part of a sprawling shopping complex in the middle of town, and there are people moving everywhere. I fight my way through the crowds looking for a phone. Finding none, I eventually wind up back at the bus station, where I do find a phone and call Mo.

I explain the situation with the bus. She isn’t pleased.

“I wish you’d stuck to the original plan!”

“Do you want me puking the whole way there?”

“No! Of course I don’t. I just want you here.”

“That’s all I want, too. Maybe I could still get a flight from Tokyo tomorrow morning.”

She hangs up to save my phone card minutes while she checks online. I call back in ten minutes, after gobbling some dumplings from a street vendor and finding a phone in the center of the shopping plaza.

“The best I could find is $261US. I don’t want you to spend all your money just getting here!”

“I know, I know. But I’m so overwhelmed and don’t know what to do and JUST WANT TO BE WITH YOU!”

“And I want you here! Can’t you still try the ferry?”

“But I already paid for this bus ticket! Besides, it’s getting late. I wonder if I can still catch a train to Tsugura (the ferry terminal across the island).”

“Why don’t you find out and call me back?’


One thing I had managed to already find was the ticket window for Japan Rail (JR) trains. Inside there’s an agent who speaks a little English. I ask if I can still buy a ticket to Tsugura.





“I’m sorry, there is no Tsugura,” he says, holding up his hands in the shape of an “X,” the Japanese sign for “have not.”

I return to the phone.

“Oh, I just found out,” Mo tells me, “it’s Tsu-RU-GA.”

“I’ll be right back.”

“Tsu-RU-GA?” I implore back at the ticket counter.

“Oh, Tsuruga!” the agent exclaims.

“And there is a ferry to Tomokomai there, yes?”


“Ferry. A ship, boat?”

“Oh, fah-REE. We only sell train tickets here.”

“Yes, I know, I just want to make sure there is a ferry,” I reply, trying not to get excited.

He takes out his map. “Yes, there is a ferry to Tomokomai from Tsuruga.”

“Good! Can I get a train ticket there?”



He sells me a connection through Osaka that leaves in 30 minutes and arrives at 10:40. The ferry is at 1:30, so I’ll have plenty of time. I run back to the bus station.

“I am very sorry,” I say, very slowly and clearly, “but I just purchased this ticket and cannot use it. Is it possible to get a refund?”

The two girls behind the counter exchange excited glances and fetch their manager, the older gentleman who sold me the ticket. I repeat my spiel. He smiles, takes my ticket and returns me the full face value. I thank him profusely and run back to the phone.

“Hi,” I say breathlessly when Mo answers. “We’re back on Plan A. I’m sorry for causing all that consternation.”

“It’s okay! I hope you don’t get sick. I’ll see you TOMORROW! YAY!”

“I can’t wait.”

The station is a level above on the elevated tracks through town. They spread six wide through the platforms and trains rush through every few minutes, precisely coinciding with their advertised times on the big LCD displays hanging from the platform roof every few dozen meters. Short locals, longer through trains, expresses that blow by without stopping, freight trains with heavy electric locomotives and long strings of containers on flatcars. My train for Osaka arrives and I step on board. It’s a short ride of less than half an hour, and it seems as though we never pass from city to another, but simply continue on through one continuous metropolis.

Stepping off the platform, I am amused to see two Japanese businessman walk down to the train’s power car and snap photos of it with their cellphone cameras. I take out my Canon and join them. The conductor gives me a friendly wave and explains that my train for Tsuruga will leave from this same track in half an hour. It passes through Kyoto, another half hour away, and still it seems we have yet to leave the city in which I arrived. Only just before Tsuruga do we pass through anything resembling fields or woodlands.

Outside the station I find a taxi waiting, but it appears to already be carrying a passenger and have no driver. Then I realize the person I thought was the passenger is in fact the driver. Laughing to myself, I walk up. From his seat, the driver presses a button that automatically opens the rear door on my side.

“English?” I ask. Nothing. “Eigo?” He shakes his head. I had prepared for this. I take my notebook out of my pack and show him my rough sketch of Japan with a boat sailing along an arrow pointing from Tsuruga to Tomokomai. He gives a nod, beckons me inside and switches on the meter. I gulp. The flag drop is Y640.

It costs Y2160, nearly $20, or more than the price of an overnight sleeper ticket from Beijing to Chifeng, for the ride across town. The driver even switched off the meter while we waited for a front-end loader to put a couple scoops of snow into a dump truck. He drops me at the ferry terminal where a gleaming white ship waits on the dock.

Inside, I am relieved to book passage in a second class dorm room (mats on the floor) for Y8,800, only slightly more than the price of the bus ticket to Tokyo I returned. Boarding starts at 11:30. The ship is immaculate, gleaming brass banisters on the stairs between decks and floors so clean you really could eat off them. There are just a handful of passengers and I’m easily able to make a bed out of two mats. I’m asleep before we shove off.

I wake a couple times through the night to considerable rocking, but am always able to go back to sleep. I finally wake for good to somewhat calmer seas around 9:30, and after an hour of lounging, decide to see what this boat has to offer. Down the hall I find the bathroom, but not in the American sense of the word. The ship has a full Japanese-style bathhouse with communal showers and big, hot pool. And I have it all to myself. I strip, wash in the shower, then settle into the pool for a long soak, watching the deep blue Sea of Japan roll by through the big windows, wondering why I ever even considered taking the bus.

After lunch, I settle down for my afternoon nap, not waking until 4:30. I pass the afternoon and early evening by reading, peering out the windows, and journaling until a chubby, cross-eyed Japanese toddler took an interest in my notebook. Her parents watched in amusement as I helped her scribble on several blank pages.

By 8:00, the anticipation was too much. I gathered my bags, put on my shoes (one always removes them when entering the sleeping room in Japan, even aboard ship), and went to the door to wait. As we pulled up to the terminal, I found three silhouetted figures waiting in the windows. I lifted a hand to wave. One of them waved back. We finally came to a stop, and after a few minutes that seemed an eternity, the gangway extended onto the deck and the gates opened. I was the first one off, bowing and nodding to the crew and running down the escalator and into the open arms that waited for me at the bottom.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005


In my armchair I peruse the information packet that John pointed out. I’m thinking that I’ll need to find him to translate it for me, but I open it to find descriptions of the ship’s amenities in Chinese, Japanese and – heavens – English! A pleasant female voice comes over the loudspeaker. I’m expecting to hear two different languages without understanding either one, when, joy of joys, she rattles off the spiel a third time in a very familiar sound. Lunch will be served at noon. I return to the info packet where I learn that I can buy a phone card to call Japan and update Mo on my progress, take as many showers as I want at any time of the day or night, and – wonders of the seven seas – do laundry!

The second of two loud, grating noises stirs me from the armchair. Perhaps they are pulling back the gangway. I look out and am shocked to see churning brown water between the ship and the dock. We are shoving off.

Through the salt-stained window I gaze in wonder at the harbor. The harbor, is there anything like it in all of man’s made world? The docks are criss-crossed with shining railroad tracks and on them I steal a last glance at China Rail C62 gondolas, those jack-of-all-trades freight cars I saw hauling coal, logs piled high, sacks of grain and rice, heads of Chinese cabbage, slabs of steel, coils of wire and even a Chinaman or two. Out on the docks in the piles of cargo in various states of loading, unloading and storage, businessmen walk freely among stevedores, each deep in conversations and dealings of their own desires. Black and white Volkswagon Santanas with roof-mounted lights careen around it all with more of the unblinking police presence, who seem to find great sport in keeping watch of it all.

Down the docks on either side of the harbor, the ships stand in two great, single file lines like ancient mastodons frozen in the middle of a modern circus parade. Above them rise the looming cranes like a vast plague of prehistoric insects, descended from the heavens to feast on the commerce of the world.

A smaller ship, the Chang Jiang no. 5 passes us on starboard. A small boy pulls his mother to the window and presses his face close to the glass to watch it. The lines of ships and cranes go on for literally miles as we glide out of the harbor and into the brown, brackish water of Bohai Bay, colored by silt brought all the way from the Gobi Desert by the Yellow River.

I’m anxious to take in the view to port, but two Japanese men, one old and one young, sit chatting by the only windows on the left side of this deck. I ascend the stairs to the top deck where a Japanese man is the only person about, engaged with the view at one of the port side windows. I join him. He greets me with a cheery, “Hi!”

“Hello,” I answer.

He introduces himself as “Barry,” and he’s curious about my travel plans in Japan. I tell him that I will be in the country for at least a couple of months, visiting a “friend” in Hokkaido.

“Hokkaido! Brrrr! So cold. And so much snow. Well, at least you should have a white Christmas,” he told me. “Do you eat turkey?”

“My family usually has ham at Christmas in the United States. I have no idea what I will have this year.”

“It will be interesting for you, being in Japan for Christmas. There aren’t very many Christians in Japan, but in December, everyone becomes Christian. And by New Year’s, they’re all Buddhists again.”

“Well, that’s okay. Nearly everyone in the U.S. becomes pagan at Halloween,” I reply.

“How long will you stay in Kobe before going to Hokkaido?”

“Not long. I will take another ferry that same night.”

He looks appalled. “But this is such a long journey! You should take some time for sight-seeing. And another ferry? Ah, ah, ah!” he half laughs, half shudders. “The Sea of Japan is often very rough this time of year.”

I feel my stomach turn a slow somersault.

He motions me over to a map of China and Japan on the wall and points out the highlights of the voyage. Tonmorrow, we will pass between mainland South Korea and a large Korean island, both visible from our ship. On the following day, we will come into Japan between the islands of Honshu and Shikuko, passing under four big bridges along the way. There is also a world map on the wall. I show him Cleveland.

“Lake Erie is not very deep, only 70, 80 meters, yes?”

“Yes,” I reply, quite impressed. “It is very shallow and gets very rough.”

“What kinds of people are in Cleveland?”

“Well, besides Caucasians, there are lots of eastern Europeans.”

“Really? What do they do?”

“Many of them immigrated to work in the steel mills. Cleveland was built on the steel industry.”

“And blacks, are there many blacks?”

“Yes, quite a few.”

“Many criminals?” he asks immediately.

I cringe at the stereotypical question. I’d say that most Asians are quick to associate blacks with crime, but then I’d be stereotyping, too. I try to answer democratically. “Well, there is certainly crime in Cleveland, but not just by blacks. The steel industry has been declining for 20 years now, leaving many people out of work and living in poverty.”

He moves the discussion back to Japan. “There are many hot springs in Hokkaido. You should visit some of them. Although, it might be awkward for you. Japanese baths are very. . . public. Is difficult for Americans.”

“Yes, we Americans do like our privacy. But I visited several public baths in China and enjoyed them.”

“Good! What I recommend you do, is go to an hot door hot spring on day when it is snowing. Is very nice! And you should drink some sake while you sit in the hot water with the snowflakes falling. But just a little! Not like a fish!


Both Maureen and my former roommate Zach can tell you that I am not a person who enjoys doing laundry. When I was living in the U.S., I would customarily fill a big tub to overflowing with about two weeks’ worth of dirty clothes, then when I was running out of clean things to wear, spend an evening doing about four loads of wash and loathing every minute of it. However, when I found out that the Yanjing had free laundry facilities – as in electric washer and dryer, I was overjoyed.

I took only my camera bag and a small backpack to China. My clothes, including the ones that I wore, were two pairs of pants, a pair of long underwear, a button shirt, two long sleeved t-shirts, two short-sleeved t-shirts, four pairs of socks, four pairs of underwear and my two-piece jacket. In China, I had added a pair of heavy long underwear and a sweatshirt for the cold winter weather. I found no washing machines in the parts of China I visited. Washing clothes meant doing so by hand in the hotel sink and hanging them to dry, or giving them to a laundry person, who would also wash them by hand (much better than I ever could) and then hang them to dry. Either way, the clothes being washed would be out of service for at least a day.

When the weather was warm, my strategy of washing one set of clothes and wearing the other worked fairly well. As October wore on and the nighttime lows dropped into the -10s, then -20s, I often found myself wearing every article of clothing I had. Then the question of whether to do laundry became a question of whether to be clean, or warm. I chose warmth. When I boarded the Yanjing, it was going on two weeks since I had washed any outer layer of clothing, and many days even for my socks and underwear. I stripped down to one layer, bought a bag of soap from the information desk, took everything else to the ship’s lowest deck and threw it into a washing machine. When that load was dry, I did the same for the clothes I was still wearing. I was thrilled to take my clean clothes out of the dryer and carefully fold each article. When everything was clean, I longed for more chores to help me pass the 2-day voyage.

Outside, the sun was setting on my first day at sea. I had yet to venture out on deck, but earlier I had noticed a door on either side of the uppermost lounge. I tried one, found it unlocked, and stepped outside. The wind was low and it wasn’t as cold as I had imagined. I walked to the railing and reveled at the sight of the sun-gilded water passing beneath me. Why I had even considered flying? From Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road:”

The earth, that is sufficient,
I do not want the constellations any nearer,
I know they are very well where they are,
I know they suffice for those who belong to them.

John found me in the lobby while I was waiting for dinner service to begin and asked if he could talk with me and practice his English.

“Of course! I am delighted to find someone who speaks English as well as you.”

He was a sailor by trade and had previously worked on cargo ships, which he vastly preferred.

“On them, I got to see the world. We usually had 2-3 days of shore leave when we were in port, and I got to visit many cities in the U.S., Europe and Asia. This is boring,” he said, sweeping his arm around the ferry’s lounge.

He was 35 and married, with a 9 year old daughter (“very beautiful”). “Do you get to see them very often?” I asked.

“Every two weeks, but only for one night.”

“That’s not very long!”

“No, it is hard sometimes. But after each year at sea, I have 4-6 months of vacation. I spend that with them. And I enjoy traveling to different places in China. I think travel is very important for people.”

“Yes!” I heartily agree. “I find people who travel to be much more understanding and accepting of different kinds of peoples and cultures. Just as I find people who have studied English, or another foreign language, to be much more patient when I try to speak Chinese. Some people talkveryfastandIcan’tunderstandawordtheyaresaying, and that is very frustrating for me. But I find people who have studied another language will speak slowly and clearly, and try to use simple words so I can understand them. I think traveling and studying foreign languages gives us new perspectives. Do you know this word, perspectives?”

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “But I like to learn new words!”

“Perspective means a way of thinking or looking at something. Traveling helps us find new ways of viewing the world. Those are new perspectives. Will you encourage your daughter to travel to different countries when she gets older?”

“Yes, of course! Even now, I often bring her with me when I travel in China.”

“How do you travel in China?”

“By train. I don’t like flying. All you see is sky and clouds. On the train, you can see the land.”

John found me again after dinner, but we had only a few minutes to chat before several of the ship’s female attendants waived us into the bar, where the evening’s karaoke session was well under way. They all clap when I walk in. I respectfully decline singing.

“Do you sing?” I asked John.

“No, I just listen, but some of our girls are very talented,” he said proudly. “That one,” he pointed to the one holding the microphone, “was on CCTV.”

The crowd was thin, but none of them seemed to mind. They gleefully passed the two microphones among each other and poured their hearts into the words flashing up on the screen. All day they sweep the halls of the decks, serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, run the snack bar and wait on each passenger’s every beck and call. And then for three hours on the two evenings they are underway, they stand at the front of the bar and nurse their dreams of stardom. Even the two sitting outside at the still-opened snack bar joined into the lyrics of familiar tunes, swaying to the music with ship’s gentle rocking.

The next day began with flecks of snow falling into a blue-gray sea from a gunmetal sky. Barry joined me at breakfast.

“And what will we do today,” he wondered aloud, looking out the window.

“Enjoy the scenery?” I suggested with a laugh.

“Those people over there,” he said, indicating a table of young to middle-aged Chinese women, “go to Japan looking for work. Much like Mexicans going to the U.S., I imagine. They don’t get good jobs in Japan and don’t make very much money, but is more than they make in China, and they can send some home to their families. People in the west have an ‘American dream.’ Many people in the east have a ‘Japanese dream.’”

“What do you think of Sino-Japanese relations?” I asked.

“Economically, they are good. But politically, they are very poor. Because of Koizumi,” he added. “Crazy Koizumi.”

“Well, I disagree with much of what the leaders of my country are doing.”

“Yes, yes! If I was Mr. Bush,” Barry continued, “I would stop worrying so much about Iraq and attack North Korea. They are the real threat. I wish Japan and the U.S. would use force there. Mr. Bush thinks he can control all the world’s oil. And maybe he can in the Middle East, but then Katrina hits New Orleans. . . he can’t control nature.”

Laying in my bunk back in my room, the only semblance of motion is the low drone of the marine diesel engines and the slow, back and forth movement of the sun on the floor through the window. The sun! I look outside to where it has broken through the clouds and shines down on white-capped waves of deepest blue ocean dreams.

Is there anything more singular and constant in its purpose than a ship on course in open water? Cars and buses twists all about on winding roads, trains start and stop at every station, even airplanes climb and dive and sweep through the sky. But a ship, a ship surges ever onward, seemingly unchanging, through the vast sea.

I return to the window where the view has not changed. It is a wonder to me that not all long sea-goers either lose their minds or write Nobel Prize-winning novels. But the view does change, with the weather, with the sweet sight of passing ships, with the 10-fold sweeter sight of land, any land. And the sea is but a wrapping. Let the mind dive deep into all the known and unknown, imagined and unimagined wonders of that watery world.

But man’s home is not the sea, nor is it the sky, or outer space, or anywhere that man must rely on technology to survive. Give me the land.

We’re in sight of it by early afternoon, slipping past South Korea and sailing past island after island for the rest of the day and into the night. I go out on deck again for sunset and notice my roommate also come outside and disappear around a corner. I follow him and find more decks, stairs leading up and down. I ascend to the highest level where the lifeboats hang at the ready and the SONAR beacon sweeps endless arcs on top of the navigation tower. It is invigorating to be outside at the edge of day and night, at the edge of sea, land and sky, islands and boats passing on both sides.

In the sunset light I meet Yu, a Japanese politics student in Tokyo returning home after 10 months of traveling through Europe and Asia.

“What was your favorite place?”

“In Europe, I liked France, Germany and Norway, but my favorite country is China. It’s so big!”

He’s anxious to get home, though, after so long on the road. Me too.

Both John and Barry tell me we will pass under the first bridge in Japan between midnight and 2:00am. “It’s very beautiful by night, so many lights!” John says. I want to see it, determine to see it, but during karaoke the sea grows rough and the cigarette smoke drifts through the bar and I return to my room feeling a bit nauseous. I lay down to rest but am too hot in the well-heated cabin. I strip down to my underwear, put the sheet over me and lay down again as the boat sways back and forth. The next thing I know, the water is calm, the sky is clear, Japan is floating by on either side and dawn is breaking. I dress quickly and rush out to the deck, where Yu joins me. His eyes look wet, and I don’t think it is from the wind.

He runs back in after a few minutes, shouting “very cold” over his shoulder as he passes through the doorway. I agree with him, but inside am thinking this is balmy compared to the mountains above Reshui. We pass under the second of the four big bridges, ships and fishing villages drifting by on either side, the sun hiding behind a sky of gray cotton clouds, then darting out to bathe sea and land together in golden morning brilliance. I stay out until breakfast is called at 8:00.

A trilingual announcement over the P.A. system in early afternoon announces that we are about to pass under the world’s longest bridge, linking the Japanese islands of Honshu and Shikoku over several smaller islands. The sky has gone temporarily overcast and is missing the magic of the morning light, but everyone rushes onto the decks with their cameras. Except for Yu, I was alone at sunrise.

I leave my camera inside but join the throng on the top deck. Barry comes up with his video camera and is very anxious to tell me that the morning’s weather report indicated very rough conditions on the Sea of Japan. My stomach turns over again.

The bridge stretches for 12km and Barry tells me it took 10 years to built. There are two decks. The lower one is for trains, of which two pass while we are in site of the bridge. The upper level carries a highway with a steady, but by no means busy, flow of traffic.

“Such a big bridge and so little traffic!” Barry exclaims. “There are three bridges connecting Honshu and Shikuko. Is too many. I think, one would be enough. The toll here is very high, about 5000 yen to cross. In America, you use the term ‘freeway.’ We have no such thing here, only ‘pay-way.’ And of course, all Japanese people were taxed heavily for the construction.”

“My tax dollars supported the war in Iraq,” I retorted. “It could always be worse.”

He didn’t seem to share my opinion. “At least in Iraq you have some hope. All we have is. . . idol,” he said disgustedly with a sweep of his hand from end of the bridge to another.

Sunday, December 18, 2005


On my last day in Beijing I visited two bookstores with English sections to pick up some reading material for my upcoming boat trip. I had nearly forgotten the simple pleasure of browsing the aisles in a bookstore with titles in my own language. How long had it been? And what better book for a boat ride than Herman Melville's MOBY DICK, which I sadly haven't read yet. I picked up a new paperback copy for $2.75US. Outside the first bookstore was a PIZZA HUT, so I indulged myself with an entire small pepperoni pizza for lunch. Curiously, the menu options were quite limited compared to American Pizza Huts. There were no "make your own" pizzas where you could select your own ingredients and crusts. Everything was canned and pre-planned, no doubt tailored to meet the tastes of the discerning Chinese pizza connoisseurs.

The waitresses were all decked out in Santa hats and vests, and Christmas carols were playing on the speakers. It was the first time I'd seen Christmas decorations all year. In rural Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang, the seasons have a way of simply passing without the fanfare of pumpkins, turkeys and jolly ol' Saint Nicks. After some more errands, I kicked back at an English-style pub for an evening beer, then made my way to the Theater of Heaven and Earth for a Chinese Acrobatics show. I had to leave before the final act, but still came away duelly impressed. Two female contortionists balanced stacks of crystal glasses on their heads, hands and feet while twisting their bodies in such unimaginable ways that I often grimaced at the sight of it. Male tumblers stacked hoops on top of each other and leaped and somersaulted through with amazing precision and rapidity. In the last act I saw, girls came out on bikes, pedaling swiftly around the stage in tight circles, then jumping off the pedals, balancing themselves on the frame, handle bars and pegs at each axle, then jumping back to the pedals before slowing down too much. Sometimes they pedaled with one leg sticking through the middle of the frame. Then they started piling more and more of them onto one bike. Ron had told me they could get as many as 12, but I so impressed with eight that I thought surely he was exaggerating. But the curtain didn't fall. No less than 11 girls ran back onto the stage as another came out on a single bike. Within a few spins around the stage, all of them were hanging off it.

The reason I had to leave early was to catch my train, the last one of the day to Tanggu, the port on the coast from which my ferry would leave. It was a 2-1/2 hour ride in a packed coach, half of it occupied by new recruits for the Chinese Army. I had a window seat and the window was drafty but the floor heater was running full blast, so my head was too cold and my feet were too warm and I could do little to move either with other passengers packed tightly beside and across from me. The soldiers were engaged in noisy card games, save one sitting across the aisle with a thin mustache who kept to himself and tried to doze. I was so tired from the long day that I managed some sleep in spite of it all. A young man sitting across from me was also getting off at Tanggu, and I was grateful to follow his lead of when to get up, gather my things and head for the vestibule.

Before I could even get through the station gates I was swarmed by taxi drivers smelling the rich green blood of a foreigner. I picked one and told him to take me to the cheap hotel near the ferry terminal that the Lonely Planet guide recommended. He turned out to be a friendly fellow and an honest driver that actually used his meter. I endeared myself to him when he sneezed and I replied with "Yi bai sui" ("100 years old," the proper Chinese response to a sneeze -- subsequent sneezes are answered with increments of 100 years). That was fortunate, because the hotel was no longer in business and I had to trust him to find me another one. The Santai Binguan was more expensive than I wanted, but quite nice (relatively speaking, at least), including 24-hour hot water which led to a much-needed shower.

It seemed they also have other 24-hour services. When I walked into my room, the phone was ringing. I picked it up and said "Wei" (hello).

"You like massage?" a breathy female voice inquired.

"No thank you," I replied and hung up without asking whether it was a regular massage or a "special" massage. The hour being slightly passed midnight, I could have made a reasonably good guess, though.

The phone rang again after I got out of the shower. Again I politely declined, then unplugged the receiver. When my nerves finally settled enough for sleep, it was very soundly until my alarm woke me at 7:00.

I checked out and caught a taxi to the ferry terminal, arriving at 8:00 and finding the place almost deserted. After wandering around the entrance in the cold morning wind for 20 minutes, I asked the guard when the place opened.

"It doesn't open today," he told me.

"Then where can I buy a ticket for Japan?" I pleaded.

"Right there," he said, indicating the building behind me.

I walked into the adjacent building to find six windows, five of them empty and the other with four uniformed attendants milling around behind a "pause" sign, indicating the window wasn't opened yet. The hours were 8:30-4:00, and it being only 8:20, I leaned against the wall and dodged the lady mopping the floor for 20 minutes, after which time there was no noticeable change at the windows.

I approached and asked what time they opened, or at least tried to ask that, as no one seemed to understand. Confusion abounded until one of them suggested that maybe I wanted to go to Japan. I nodded vigorously and tried to tell them that I wanted to buy a ticket.

"Mintian, mintian," they excitedly replied. That means tomorrow. Did it mean that the ferry would leave tomorrow, in contradiction to both my Lonely Planet guide and the phone call Ron had made a month earlier for me, or did it mean that I could buy a ticket tomorrow for the following week's ferry? When I tried to find out, one of them wrote down a phone number, handed it to me, moved the "pause" sign back in front of the window and gave me a dismissing look. That wouldn't do. There was absolutely nothing resembling a public phone anywhere in the vicinity, save the card operated phone in the lobby, and I didn't have a card.

I didn't move from my place in front of the window, and asked where I could find a phone. After more confused discussion behind the glass, the woman picked up one of the three phones on her desk, dialed, and slipped the receiver under the glass and out to me. The man on the other end spoke enough English to tell me the ship was leaving tomorrow, not today, and that I could buy a ticket there. When could I buy a ticket? He didn't speak that much English. He said goodbye and I handed the phone back through the glass. The woman placed it back in its cradle.

"I want to buy a ticket," I pleaded. "Here?"

Yet more confusion. I was getting very frustrated and excitable, when I realized that probably wasn't doing anything to help. I took a deep breath and gave them my best smile. She picked up the phone again, called the same number, and after some discussion, indicated that I should return the next morning at 9:00 and buy a ticket not from their office, but from the currently-closed terminal building next door. I thanked them and left.

Three taxis were waiting near the otherwise deserted entrance. A guard waved me over to one of them, where an attractive female driver was waiting. In Daban, Ron and I always sought out the female drivers, as they were generally a little less aggressive than the men, both in their driving and their prices. We were half way back to the binguan when I noticed she hadn't activated her meter. She dropped me at the entrance and asked for Y30 with an innocent smile. My earlier ride had cost 11.

"Tai gui le!" I protested. "15."


"My ride this morning cost 11."

She nodded and kept smiling. I handed 15 through the window and went inside.

The hotel staff gave me a look as if to say, "back so soon?" They gave me the room exactly one floor below my previous one. I crawled onto the bed, wrapped the covers around me and slept deeply, not waking until after noon.

During my time with Ron, I had an occasionally recurring dream. I either got sick or something came up that required me to leave China early and return to the U.S. Regardless of the reason, in the dream I always found myself emailing Ron and hearing about all the fun he was still having. I would sit there at a computer somewhere in America, wondering why I had left so soon, wondering how I was going to get to Japan now, and wishing more than anything that I could be right back in China. It was always a great relief to wake up from those dreams and find myself still in China. As I slept away the morning, I had another dream. Its details are lost to me, but I know it didn't take place in China. When I woke up alone in my hotel bed, I couldn't have been more disappointed to still be there.

I slipped back into my clothes and stepped outside into a brisk December afternoon. Down the street I found a restaurant that served Kung Piao Chicken, one of my favorite dishes in China. As I was unwrapping my chopsticks, a waitress brought out a fork. I waived her off and, much to the entire staff's delight, devoured the plate using nothing but my kuaizi. If only my language skills had improved as much as my chopstick ability in the last three months!

Further down the street I spied the "Wang Ba" characters and parked myself at a computer to check my options. There were flights available, although the costs were significant. I had a long email conversation with Mo about what to do. I nearly bought a plane ticket, but eventually we decided I should try once more for the ferry. Despite the frustrations, having that electronic connection with her did more to lift my spirits than anything else I could have imagined.

It was long-dark when I returned to the streets. Back at the same restaurant, I had a plate of jiaozi for dinner, then returned to my hotel room and immediately unplugged the phone. I laid on the bed with MOBY DICK opened before me, very much feeling a damp, drizzily November in my own soul and, like Ishmael, hoping to get to sea as soon as possible. Before retiring for the night, I switched on CCTV9, the national English channel. The program was about Chinese shipbuilding. I hoped that was a good omen.

"Laowai!" the parking lot attendant shouted as I walked out of the hotel the next morning. A taxi driver ran out of the attendant's shack, jumped into his car and began frantically waiving me toward him. I gave him a big smile and wave as I walked by on my way down the street to breakfast. Later, when I actually wanted a taxi, I nearly had to pound on the glass to get anyone's attention. A driver finally came out and motioned me over to his car. I put my bags in the back, sat down in the front and pointed at the meter as we pulled onto the main boulevard. He turned it on with an embarassed chuckle.

Left for dead the previous day, this morning the ferry terminal was brimming with life. A heavily-laden bus was waiting outside and baggage clerks were scrambling back and forth between it and the terminal building, hauling over-stuffed duffle bags and canvas sacks on wheeled trolleys. Passengers milled about inside, shifting their bags from one side to the other as they anxiously waited the call for boarding. I walked up to the counter and had booked passage within 15 minutes, Y1870 or about $225US for a berth in a 6-person room.

A line formed next to the "International Passenger Entry/Exit Room" and I joined it. The passengers were largely young to middle-aged Chinese and more women than men. There were at least a couple young families with small children and a few Japanese university students.

The customs agents seemed more than happy to help us leave their country.

"Have you been in contact with SARS?"


"Bird flu?"


"Do you have any of these illnesses?" indicating those listed on my "statement of health" card.

"No," I replied again, surpressing a cough.

"Very good!" I was waived on to the immigration counter, where a big red stamped ended my 82 days in China.

After a short wait in an inner waiting room, another officer motioned us outside where a shuttle bus was waiting. There was a ferry parked directly in front of the terminal building, but apparently we would not be taking it. When the bus was full, a dozen more passengers squeezed on with their bags, and then the driver shut the doors and pulled out. He turned around and drove along the dock, past the boat in front of the terminal and stopping at the very next boat. We couldn't have traveled more than 300 meters. He was careful to pull right up to the gangway, where two police officers waited to direct us onto the boat. This was one place where the Chinese were taking no chances.

I walked up the gangway of the "Yanjing," a 200-meter vessel that carried automobiles and freight containers in her lower decks and passengers on top. Several smiling "Marine Girls" in light blue suits waited on the deck to show us to our cabins. I was led to the "1st class rooms" on the second floor. Surely there was some mistake! My ticket indicated room 333, but I was directed past it and into room 324, a 4-person room with a window. There was a sink, TV, lockers, two arm chairs and, by the window, four bunk beds, two on each side. I hesitated to get comfortable, afraid someone would appear at any moment to tell me I was in the wrong room. Only one other passenger joined me, a middle-aged Chinese man, who went immediately to the shower room and left me, again, alone.

Finally there was a knock at the door. I opened it to admit a neat, trim, uniformed Chinese man.

"Hello!" he said cheerily, in English.

"Hello," I replied, a little tentatively.

"Just you in here?" he asked.

"One other person, a Chinese gentleman."

"Very good," he replied with a big smile. "Take a look at the information packet," he said, indicating a big folder, "and let me know if you have any questions. I'm here to help you. Life jackets are in the cabinet under the television."

"I hope I won't be needing one of those!"

He grinned. "Dinner is at 6:00. Breakfast is at 8:00 tomorrow morning. Don't forget to set your watch ahead to Japanese time tonight. You don't want to miss breakfast. It's free!"

"Even better! What's your name, by the way?"

"You can call me John."

"Very nice to meet you, John. My name is Scott."

"Scott?" I spelled it as he wrote it in his notebook. He left with another smile. I sat down feeling happier than I had since leaving the Ji-Tong line. I was going to Japan.

Monday, December 12, 2005

The Other Side of Endings

One of the things about life is that, as long as you're alive, it doesn't stop. Life moves ever onward, passing those rare moments of utter perfection in the twinkling of an eye and leaving us to sort out the details on the far side of happily-ever-after. Life doesn't even slow down, not even when you're standing on a mountaintop on a perfect winter morning and just photographed the last mainline steam-powered freight train you'll ever see.

The steam hadn't even cleared from the sky and already I had to think about getting down. Ron was nowhere in sight, so I decided the best route down the mountain would be the one with the least exposure to wind. My choice proved a lucky one, for when I reached the middle level of track, I found not only Ron, but also a Toyota Land Cruiser and four Chinese photographers who offered us a ride back to Reshui. We squeezed four wide into the backseat for the bumpy ride down the hill, where they dropped us off and continued west in pursuit of the train.

Ron and I had other concerns as it was already noon, we were facing a long drive back to Daban, and the last bus to Chifeng left at 2:40. We dozed in the back of Li Meng's taxi as he sped us along the snowy roads as fast as his minivan could safely traverse them. Li Meng is the only taxi driver in China with whom I feel at ease enough to sleep while he drives. I couldn't pay him a higher compliment.

We arrived back at his ludian at 1:50, fifty minutes before our bus and with all our belongings scattered to the far corners of our room. On top of that, Ron had to pick up two signs that he had purchased from Zhang Zhi En at the Jiwuduan. By the time he returned from that errand, it was 2:10. Worse still, he discovered the signs were too big to fit in his bag. Here, the relationship we developed with Li Meng and his wife proved key.

"I'll be back here in February," Ron told them. "Can I leave these in your closet?"

"Of course, of course!"

We hurriedly stuffed dirty, sweaty clothes into our backpacks, left what wouldn't fit scattered about the room, and began loading everything into the minivan.

When it was 2:35 and most of our bags were still in the room, I told Ron to forget it, we'd just have to pay for a taxi.

"We can still make this bus," he retorted, confidantly. "If it's like every other bus I've ever ridden in China, we can still make it."

At 2:40, I shook hands with Li Meng's wife, thanked her profusely and piled into the minivan with Ron, Li Meng and (nearly) everything I had brought to China, along with a few additions I had picked up along the way.

It was 2:48 when we were approaching the bus station. A bus was pulling out.

"Wonder if that's ours?" I exclaimed.

Li Meng hailed it from the his driver's seat window and Ron jumped out. I was already gathering the bags when he ran back up and told me to start throwing them in the bus. We stashed his flash kit and our backpacks in the lower storage compartment, I gave Li Meng a big hug and then climbed aboard with my camera bag.

"I think this is the emptiest bus I've ever ridden in China," I told Ron as we settled into the rear of the 35-passenger bus. Eight seats were unoccupied.

Ron quickly secured us two hard-sleeper tickets from the Chifeng black market. They were five cars apart, which would make it difficult for me to help him off the train in the morning. He was getting off one stop before me at Huairou to go to the airport. Walking down the platform, we noticed that my ticket was for the much closer car, and its berth was closer to the exit than his. We traded. I helped him load his bags, then made my way to my own car. After the train was moving, I fought the crowds through five hard sleepers to find Ron engaged in conversation with a young Chinese man.

"This is why you learn the language," Ron told me. "This guy is also getting off at Huairou and going to the airport. He's going to help me with my bags and let me share his taxi."

We had planned on sharing a final Chinese beer in the restaurant car, but there wasn't one. The fuwuyuan passed with her push-cart of snacks, so we picked up two fruit milks and sipped them together over the small table beside the window on the aisle side. The car attendant passed at 9:55 to tells the lights went off at 10:00.

"I guess this is where we part ways," I said, a little wistfully.

"I'm really glad I made that trip to Chicago back in March and met you. I couldn't imagine doing this trip without you," Ron told me.

"And I couldn't imagine doing it without you! I can't begin to count all the ways you helped me."

"We helped each other."

"I'm not sure what the future holds for me right now," I began.

"I'll see you again," Ron said confidantly. We shook hands, he climbed into his berth and I made my way back to mine.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

The Way to Go

Getting from Jixi back to Daban took 33 hours on two trains, a bus and another train, including an 8-hour layover in Changchun. The second train from Mudanjiang in southeastern Heilongjiang province and was going all the way to Beijing. Stepping off it and onto the platform in Changchun at midnight, I wondered whether I shouldn't have just stayed on that train all the way to Beijing.

We would only have two days back in Daban, where an "end of steam" celebration was planned. I had my doubts about the celebration. It was being sponsored by the same German group who brought the "circus" to Jingpeng Pass a month earlier, complete with an unauthentic train of only six cars and two locomotives running back to back. I had already said my goodbyes in Daban, walking through the ready tracks on a cold November evening through the lines of steaming engines after hanging out the bay window of a caboose on a double-headed steam freight earlier that day. I like to end things on my own terms, and those seemed much better than what the festivities in Daban promised.

Even though it was midnight and we were the last passengers to get off the train, we stepped out of the station in Changchun and into a swarm of taxi drivers, all clambering for our business. Ron ducked back into the station to get advice from the railway attendant, the only person there without a direct business interest in us. She picked a man out of the crowd and told us to follow him to his ludian, where we could catch a few hours of sleep before our bus to Tongliao in the morning.

The little man led us down the street, past several more taxi drivers all anxious to give us a ride, then turned into a dark, deserted alley and kept walking. "How much farther?" Ron inquired, quickly tiring under the weight of his backpack and flash trolley. "Not far, not far," he said as he turned into another alley and led us up a flight of concrete stairs. From the corner of my eye, I spied the shadows two young men running down the alley. My heart lept into my throat until I realized they were running out of the alley, not toward us.

The stairs turned another corner and led to more stairs. Ron grimmaced as he dragged his heavy trolley up each step.

"How much farther?!?!"

"Not far, not far."

The man stooped to help Ron with his gear, but Ron waived him away. "I've had too many 'helpful' Chinese drop my bags before."

We emerged from the stairs and turned down another dark alley on the backside of some sinister, dark concrete apartment buildings. In the corner, the man led us up more stairs, through a door, and down yet more stairs. At the bottom, he turned a corner and show us into our room.

It was a spartan affair with a single, hard double bed and two sets of blankets. There was a toilet down the hall, but no showers. There was a single, small window near the top of one wall, a TV that didn't look like it had worked in 10 years, a night stand, and, on the wall facing the bed, a gigantic, bright pink poster with the English word "Love" written in curly letters above a naked man and naked woman, both blonde westerns, sitting, facing each other, embraced at both the arms and legs.

Ron could see the disgust in my eyes. "We'll only be here a few hours," he said.

We dropped our bags and he disappeared with the owner to pay. A couple minutes later, loud voices rang in from the next room. Ron stormed in and looked at me.

"How much are you willing to pay for this dump?"

"It's not worth more than 20 kuai."

"This guy wants 120!"

The owner popped in behind him. I looked at him, laughed loudly in his face and started repacking my bag. He immediately dropped his price to 50.

"30," Ron said. "And only if you help us catch our bus tomorrow."

"Okay, okay," he agreed, took the money and disappeared.

Our room was right beside the "front" door (and I use that term very loosely), and there was a nearly constant stream of voices, footsteps and slamming doors. It took me at least an hour to convince myself that none of those footsteps were going to kick down our room's flimsy door and the voices demand all of our possessions. Then the only thing keeping me awake was that poster, glowing eerily orange in the light from a streetlamp, streaming in through our only window.

The alarm woke me, which means I must have fallen asleep at some point. It was still dark out. Ron, who hadn't even bothered to take off his shoes, wandered out into the hallway to look for the owner. He was nowhere to be found. We decided to go back to sleep.

When we woke again, pale gray dawn was slowly burning into the haze-stained sky. We gathered our bags and set off for the bus station. The owner and his wife heard us and stuck their heads out of the own door, a steel one much sturdier than our own.

"Where we you two hours ago?" Ron asked.

The owner just shrugged.

"Are you going to help us to the bus station?" Ron continued.

"It's that way," he said, pointing at a wall.

"I guess that's our help."

We wrested Ron's trolley back down all those stairs, along with our bags, then set off in the indicated direction. Ron stopped several people on the crowded sidewalks and inquired about the bus station. They all just pointed in the same direction and indicated nothing about distance. Finally I suggested we get a taxi.

I hailed a cab and Ron asked him to take us to the bus station. "There's no need," he replied, "it's right there," and pointed to a building just down the street.

"I think he's the most honest man we've met in this town."

Ron got us two tickets to Tongliao on a bus leaving at 8:00. The trip took four hours, which would give us time to eat lunch before catching the 2:30 train to Daban.

Our bus was announced and we followed the crowd outside into a maze of waiting buses. We showed our tickets to a man who pointed us to a posh, new-looking bus. We stowed our bags in the lower storage compartments and found two comfortable seats together with a table in front where we could eat our breakfast.

As the bus began to fill up, the attendant asked me for our tickets. I showed them to her. "You have the wrong bus!" she exclaimed. "This bus is going to Haerbin."

"Wrong bus!" I shouted to Ron. We trudged out through the crowd of people streaming on, lugged our bags out of storage and inquired of the right bus. We directed two spaces over to a very old, very tired-looking and VERY full bus. Ron opened a luggage compartment. It was jam-packed. The two attendants ran out and began pulling out bags and boxes. They indicated for Ron to load his trolley.

"It won't fit," he told them.

Undetered, they grabbed it and started shoving. It didn't fit. They slammed it back to the ground and recommenced pulling out bags and boxes. Ron shoved his trolley into place when they finished. Then they somehow managed to stuff all the bags and boxes back around. There was clearly no room for our backpacks, though.

We stepped into the bus, which was freezing cold, and found an open space in the middle to cram our bags. One man offered me the window seat beside him, which I in turn offered to Ron. Ron convinced the man to take the window and sat down in the aisle seat, so he could stretch his legs out into the aisle. I was just getting comfortable in the floor on top of two sacks of goodness-knows-what when an attendant waived me up to the front, where some bags had been cleared from a window seat right behind the driver.

"I could be in Beijing right now," I thought as we pulled out with standing-room only.
The heat wasn't working and every breath steamed into the chill air. I zipped my coat, pulled on my hat and gloves and wrapped my scarf around my neck. I could already feel my toes getting cold as the circulation slowed to my cramped feet. As we crawled through the city streets, looking for yet more passengers to pack onto the bus, a passenger train whizzed by the parallel tracks. I longed to be on board, but there were no connections that would get us to Tongliao in time for the 2:30 streamliner to Daban.

We stopped at a gas station and put in Y600 of diesel fuel. The driver disappeared into the store and returned with two small, glass bottles. "If he takes a drink out of one of those, I'm getting off this thing right now," I thought to myself.

He passed the bottles to one of the attendants, who immediately opened. "Oh great, it's just the service staff who's getting loaded for this trip." But the man didn't take a swig. Instead, he splashed some of the contents onto the icy windshield and started wiping. It was then that I realized our defroster wasn't working, either.

We pulled out of the gas station and lunged back into the raging morning traffic. The attendant splashed more liquid on the windshield and kept wiping, leaning far out over the driver and sometimes right in front of him. What he didn't wipe off froze almost instantly and made visibility even more difficult. He had exhausted the contents of the first bottle in five minutes and moved on to the second one. "We're going to need two cases to make Tongliao at this rate," I thought.

When the second bottle was empty, we pulled off the road and the attendant ran into another store. This time he returned with regular water bottles. Those would freeze even faster on the windshield. Fortunately, the driver seemed to recognize this problem and found a garage a few buildings down. We sat for an hour, without heat, mostly with the door opened, while he, the attendants and a couple of mechanics worked on the bus's heater. When they were finished, air began blowing out of the vents. It wasn't exactly warm, but it wasn't cold either. A small, clear spot began to appear on the windshield. We pulled back onto the road.

At a quarter after 1:00, with absolutely no feeling left in my toes and with a few more passengers sitting in the aisle, we stopped at a lonely outpost on the outskirts of Tongliao. I hailed a cab while Ron retreived his flash kit from storage. The cab took us to the train station where Ron got us two sleeper tickets on the streamliner to Daban.

We settled into our big, clean, warm berths and let the clickity-clack of the Ji-Tong Line's jointed rail lull us into a contented daze.

"That bus was going on to Lindong," Ron said. "For a little while, I thought about just staying on it. I can't believe I even considered that, now."

We broke out the rest of the camping food from his backpack and had lunch. He was asleep minutes later. I was tired, but too captivated by the sunset light out the windows and the rhythm of the rails to sleep. I took out my notebook and worked on my journal, stealing glances out the window here and there along the line.

When we made the station stop at Chabuga, I glued my eyes to the lefthand window, hoping for a glimpse of the engine shed that would tell me whether or not steam was still in regular service on the Daban-Chabuga segment of the railway. All I could see under the sodium vapor lights were the shapes of two diesels.

Li Meng, our favorite taxi driver and part owner (with his wife) of our favorite ludian in Daban was waiting for us at the station. We dropped our bags and let him whisk us downtown for a very non-Chinese meal at our favorite Muslim restaurant. Even without steam, it was good to be back.

We slept late in the morning and made our way down the station to join the circus for the departure of the 10:00 passenger special. It was going over the pass to Jingpeng and back, a short, five-car train with a steam engine at each end, on account of no turning facilities in Jingpeng. I wasn't too excited. Until I saw it.

QJ #7119 pulled the train out of the engine shop and into the station. It emerged under the deep blue sky from a tremendous cloud of white steam, looking absolutely resplindent. Gone were the rust spots and grime from the boiler jacketing. Gone was the bent, beaten red number plate from the front. Gone was the worn look of too many miles and not enough care from so many months of service with minimum maintenance until the diesels arrived. She gleamed in fresh black paint with brass boiler banding, a new blue number plate on the front with brass characters and numbers, brass lettering on the tender, banners and flags down both sides of the boiler and red bunting hanging on the smokebox. Sister engine 7038 looked every bit as good on the other end of the train.

Unfortunately, Ji-Tong management still has something to learn about how to run a photography special. With two engines and only five cars, the train flew over the line, making few stops and giving little time for chasing. After stopping for only one photo as it left town, Ron and I barely made it to the pass ahead of the train, and didn't have time to get into position. We gave up making multiple shots of the return trip, and instead hiked up into the hills for one good photo, which was a much better strategy. We rolled back into Daban just behind the train as the sun was setting.

"Ting che, ting che!" I shouted to Li Meng (stop vehicle) as we crossed the overpass at the east end of the yard. The passenger special was simmering away in the station and the steam plumes from several more engines drifted up from the distant shop, glowing orange in the end-of-day light. We joined several Chinese photographers on the bridge for one last sunset shot.

There was a party-like atmosphere back at the station, where several groups of photographers, tourists and other visitors gathered to celebrate the end of mainline steam. Ron got a leaping embrace from an old friend he hadn't yet seen on this trip, and we both enjoyed chatting with several other visitors. Neimenggu TV was back on the scene and we joined them for dinner, then went out for night photos in the shop. Ron offered the use of his flashes to anyone who wanted to come, but only a few of our Chinese friends joined us. We flashed on the 7119 and 7038 sitting together in the darkness, and wrapped up the shoot with self-portraits in front of 7119 with all of Ron's flash gear. In the middle of all this, Zhang Zhi En's phone rang.

There were rumors that the two specially decorated engines would take a train west in the morning, but what kind of train and how far it would go remained unknown. An earlier call had indicated the trip would only run to Linxi, before the good scenery and steep grades of the pass began.

"Jingpeng, Jingpeng!" Zhang Zhi En said excitedly when he hung up.

The next morning, Ron and I said shivering in Li Meng's minivan on the road going west from Daban. Across the field to our left, golden in the light of the rising sun, two clouds of steam rose beside the station. The train was a freight, an honest-to-goodness revenue freight train, and both engines were facing west, running forward. When the clouds grew in the sky and the engines began inching forward, we set off.

Our first spot was at a crossing where the road and railway ran parallel. Around the distant bend, a white-gold column of steam rose in the morning air, and 7038 burst onto the straight-away with 7119, 30 freight cars and two brake vans trailing. With the needles pegged at 80km/h, they stormed by, crews waiving from the cabs as they surged around the next curve under a white cloud even longer than their train.

We gave chase and easily caught up as a slight grade slowed the train's progress. Leap frogging from station to station across the plains of the broad river valley, spying the steam rising behind the treetops, my head out the window in the cold morning air as we overtook the engines, then looking back out the rear at the puff of white over the brown, snow-dusted landscape, I was a child again and it was Grandpa driving as we paced the New River Train on a perfect West Virginia fall morning.

They did stop at Linxi, but it was to meet a diesel coming the other way and add tonnage for the climb over the pass. Why take only 30 cars when two QJs can handle 40? So with 2300 tonnes and 175 years of history riding on their drawbars, 7038 and 7119 stormed out of the station and into the climb.

We raced ahead for a climb of our own, high up into the hills on the loops above Reshui. After 20 minutes of trudging and sliding up the snow-covered hillside, I joined half a dozen Chinese photographers at the top of the hill in the middle of the upper horseshoe curve, where the line wrap back on itself through two tunnels for the last stretch of the climb to the summit. The white cloud was already steaming up the valley when I unpacked my camera, huffing and puffing from the long climb. "Ni hao! Ni hao!" the Chinese greeted me cheerfully. Down below, and with their labored voices above even the rush of wind down the valley, two engines marched across Reshui bridge and into the first loop. I climbed higher for a shot up the valley on the second level of track, and wind on the open mountain top nearly took my breath away. My right eye was watering so badly that I had to take the shots with my left eye. I couldn't feel my eyes, despite burying them under a scarf, hat and the hood of my coat. And none of that mattered.

Still higher I climbed, then dropped down until I was just barely sheltered from the bitter wind, looking down on the top horseshoe between the two tunnels where the tracks curved back on themselves. Across the hill, steam rose in the morning air, then disappeared as they entered the first bore. And then they emerged from the cut in front of me. Sheltered from the wind by the very mountain I was standing on, the exhaust was vertical, two gray-white columns that could have held up all the sky until they disappeared into the second tunnel.

Shine the boilers, raise the banners and hang the bunting, fly the flags high and open the throttles wide. Let the exhaust echo up the valley for the ages and the whistles forever haunt my dreams.

Monday, December 05, 2005


It was in November that the novelty of being here wore off. One day I stepped outside and hoped only to make it to where ever it was I was going without anyone trying to speak to me. I longed to walk down the street in all the anonimity of Cleveland at rush hour. Ron and I wanted to wear sweatshirts with all our vitals printed on them in Chinese so we wouldn't have to answer the same old questions one more time.

"Three months"
"To see steam locomotives"
"Yes, my friend really _is_ two meters tall."
"No, I don't want to buy that, that or that. And especially not that."

Just before leaving Daban, we were sitting in recliners at a bathhouse getting foot massages. A middle-aged man walked down the aisle, head looking back over shoulder to gawk at us. Until he stubbed his toe hard on one of the chairs and nearly fell over. It took all the self-control I could muster to not fall out of my own seat laughing.

Our setback in Zhalainuoer made me walk with just a little more caution when we arrived in Huanan, even though I had already had one very good experience there in the fall. Zhalainuoer reminded me that even though so many people look at us as if we are walking treasure chests just waiting to be exploited, we still aren't free to do _everything_ we please. It also reminded me that it is sometimes because of that very perception that we are able to get away with so much.

The kindness we received in Huanan, Touyaozi and Lixin transcended the monetary boundaries of buyer-seller relationships. We came as customers and left as friends. I can be hardheaded, though. I still didn't quite get it.

Riding back from our two-night stay in Lixin, we arrived in Touyaozi on the back of our horsecart on a cold, snowy, dark afternoon in the village. The first train since dawn was steaming through town, and we tried to position our horse and driver as props for our photos. Then a friend of the driver's, coming over to talk to him, stepped in front of me just as the train passed and ruined my shot. So even though the bells jingled on horse's harness and the fires burned warm inside the cozy homes, I rode with a scowl on my face down the main street of town.

Two tall foreigners on the back of a horse cart with several bags of gear are more than enough to attract the attention of every passer-by on a wintry Saturday afternoon in Touyaozi. I watched the road disappear behind us and met every staring face. One young man kept looking back, even as his female companion encouraged him onward. I wouldn't look away from him. I had to make sure that my eyes were always there to meet his. And as he looked back once again, I realized the expression my eyes carried was loathing.

It was like a great hand had reached down from the snow clouds and slapped me.

"WHY am I looking this way?" I asked myself. "I don't hate that man. He's just curious. I'm only one of a handful of foreigners he's ever seen. Whenever I walk down the street here, I'm one of the few foreigners many of these people will ever see. Do I want them to remember the scorn in my eyes?"

How many people will already remember that scornful look? I'm only here for another week, and for a moment I thought it was already too late. And it is too late for me to go back and change my expression for that young man in Touyaozi, but it isn't too late for the hundreds or thousands I will still pass on the streets in my last six days here. So as I walk the streets of Jixi (doesn't rhyme with dixie! -- jee-shee), I hold my head high and try to remember to turn up the corners of my mouth when someone looks my way. The Hairroahs, Hulloahs and Hel-LOs that I once tried to ignore I now meet with a cheery "Ni hao." And if someone tries to start a conversation, I try my best to continue it, and don't get too hard on myself when I can't.

Sunday, December 04, 2005


Parts of China's far northeastern Heilongjiang province are north of the southern tips of Siberia. It is so cold here in the mornings just before the sun creeps over the hills that drawing in just a few breaths of unfiltered air freezes every hair in my nose. The air is unfiltered because I gave up wearing my scarf over my nose and mouth after just a day of trying. My hot breath condensed on the fabric and froze each whisker of my beard and mustache into little icicles. Wearing a beard has proven itchy at times, but wearing a beard of icicles proved downright painful. More so than letting the biting air have its way with the bare skin on my face. So now when I go out in the mornings I leave the area from the bottom of my chin up to my eyebrows exposed to the elements. Every other inch is covered, most in multiple layers.

But what I'll remember from here isn't the cold. It's the warmth.

Ron and I arrived in the village of Touyaozi by taxi. Touyaozi (toe-yow-zuh) is the last place you can travel by road on the 47-km long Huanan narrow gauge railway. Two roads run to Touyaozi from the west, both of them dirt. At 10,000 people, it's big enough to be a county seat in much of Ohio and West Virginia, where I grew up, but in China, it ranks as a pretty small town. The houses and cottages (some of them earthern) are packed tightly along the narrow streets, and none are more than two stories high.

We went first to the railway workers' house, where previous trip reports indicated food and lodging were available. They were, but the price was Y75 each for a room that could be called "rustic" at best (our spotless double room in the brand-new Huanan Binguan was only Y100/night). Also included was the promise of being tailed by a pushy motorbike driver that Ron had hired once on a previous day. One day of swerving along the snowy paths up the mountains was more than enough. Ron decided to walk after that, much to this driver's disappointment.

Undeterred, Ron wandered into the center of town, where a wedding was taking place in the big turquoise reception hall on the main road. In a store across the street, a young woman said that her parents had a spare room in their house that they often rented to visiting foreigners. It was clean, warm and meals were included for Y50/each per night. We accepted.
In some ways, Sylvia (the English teacher/college student we met on the train from Jiamusi) was right to complain about the food in Huanan. Our meals at the binguan were over-priced and under-tasty. We paid Y84 for the three-dish meal we shared with her, and had much better versions of the same for less than Y20 in Daban. Our expectations weren't very high when we ventured into the country.

After dropping our bags in our room, Ron and I ventured out onto the railway, where a work train was steaming up the hill. We were wondering why the railway was running a work train until it stopped neary the summit. Two loaded coal cars were stranded there, the first one with its first wheel off the tracks. Early that morning, one of its bearings had siezed, snapping the axle. With only hand tools, a cutting torch and two hydraulic jacks, the 30 workers who road up in the caboose had the axle replaced and the car back on the tracks within two hours. The work train brought the two cars down the hill and left most of the workers on the mountain to finish repairing the damaged track. Trains would be running again by night, but in the meantime, Ron and I had a few hours to kill.

We returned to our hosts' home in the early afternoon and asked for a small bit of lunch. The woman smiled and disappeared into the kitchen, joined by her husband, a quiet, balding man in his mid-50s. A few minutes later, she appeared at our door amid popping and sizzling from the kitchen.

"Chi fan?"

"Yes, yes!"

The folding table in the foyer/living room/dining room was spread with two different dishes of pork and greens, a big bowl of tofu, rice, and two bowls of steaming noodles, wooden chopsticks alongside. She joined us at the table with a bowl and chopsticks of her own, her bright eyes sparkling inside the weathered lines of her well-worn face. Her smile was quick and her questions nearly constant and I was glad Ron was there to answer most of them. She was impressed with our Chinese, particularly his, of course, and commented that most of her previous foreigner visitors spoke hardly any. She has this way of looking at you when she talks that makes you think you are the most important person in the world, even when I couldn't understand a word she was saying. So grateful and honest was her look that I felt ashamed when I couldn't understand her.

Her husband also joined us at the table, but not before drawing a bottle full of clear liquid from a large jar on a table in the corner. Several seeds and roots lay coiled at the bottle. He poured a small amount into a small glass and immediately offered it to us.

"He bijou?"

Bijou is Chinese for alcohol, and it typically means the strong stuff, brewed locally. Ron relunctantly took a glass. I fell back on the stomach virus from which I was still recovering. The man offered a toast and both he and Ron took a swig. The man smiled. Ron grimmaced.

The food, on the other hand, was fabulous. Even the tofu, not a favorite of either Ron or myself. The green shoots were from locally grown garlic and the pork was also raised in town. I ate the most I had eaten since arriving in Huanan.

We laid down for a nap in our room. When we woke up, it was time for dinner.

"Chi fan?" the woman entreated again. We were expected some leftovers or a small snack after the big lunch, but our hosts had other plans. One of their three daughters had joined them and also brought food. Our table was completed by the couples' five-year old granddaughter, a rozy-cheeked cutie who smiled rarely but lit the entire room when she did. We once again ate our fill.
Not only is it cold in Heilongjiang in the winter, but it is also quite dark. Less than a month from the winter solstice, the sun shines but 8-1/2 hours per day. It was behind the hills by 3:30 and pitch black dark long before dinner. With trains still not running, we both took advantage of the chance to catch up on sleep.

"What time do you want breakfast?" our hosts had asked before we went to sleep.

"Is 6:00 too early?" Ron asked.

"No problem!"

When my alarm went off at 5:30, the fire was already burning in the kitchen stove. At 6:00, we sat down to bowls of warm milk and a big bag full of mahua, braided sweet bread that we struggled to hold with chopsticks and dipped in the milk.

They bagged the leftovers and gave them to us for the day, then asked when we would be back and when we wanted dinner. Ron asked if they had pototoes. Yes! Then he asked if they could make jiaozi (Chinese dumplings). Of course!

"We're going to show you how to make pierogies at dinner," Ron told them.

"Have you ever made pierogies before?" I asked Ron as we walked up the tracks into the rising sun.

"No, but I've eaten lots of them."

After a full day of photography on the mountain, we returned to a warm kitchen where the fire was hot in preparation for cooking lesson. We chopped potatoes and boiled them in a big pot on the coal stove, then mashed them as best as we could with a big spoon. We added finely chopped garlic, several other spices that our host reccommend, and began wrapping the mixture in little circles of dough rolled out perfectly by the husband's skilled hands. One hand rolled a small stick back and forth over a little ball of dough while the other kept turning it. We filled several dozen, then let them take over the cooking.

"Meiguo jiaozi," the husband kept saying, chuckling to himself.

"No, no, it's polish," Ron explained. "These come from Poland."

"Meiguo jiaozi."

The table was set with big plates of our "piergoes." Plenty of Chinese jiaozi was also included, along with more green shoots and pork, and another big bowl of rice. Our experiment wasn't a total failure. Ron gobbled up the meiguo jiaozi by the plateful, but I prefered the traditional Chinese version. Our hosts each tried a few, still chuckling, then heaped their own pork jiaozi into their bowls.

Ron had made arrangements for a night photo, but I was still feeling a bit down, so I retired to my room while we went out. It was 7:00, had been dark for over two hours, the only novel I had brought with me had been finished a week ago. There was little to do but sleep. I worried that I might wake up wide awake at 3:00, so I was a little surprised when my alarm once again woke me at 5:30.

Today we were moving on up the line, over the mountain to Lixin, where I fell into a locomotive inspection pit back in September. There are no roads to Lixin, save the dirt path that follows (and sometimes shares) the railway over the mountain. The way to get to Lixin is to take the daily railcar. That is, if you're a local. If you're a foreigner, be prepared to pay exhorberant prices. You can also hire a motorbike to Lixin, but we had already ruled that out in the interest of safety. The other way to get to Lixin is to walk, which would gladly do, except we had Ron's 100 lb trolley of flash equipment to take with us. So we went to see a man about a horse.
After photographing the morning train through Touyaozi, Ron and I returned to our hosts' to find a beautiful mare of reddish-brown waiting by the gate with a two-wheeled cart and a young man for a driver. We loaded Ron's flashkit and our backpacks, tied it on with a big rope, then sat down on the railings and set off through town. We attracted several stares.

The 10-km trip over the summit took just over two hours behind our four-legged friends' steady clip-clopping and jingling harness bells. We photographed two trains in the bright winter sunshine along the way and rolled into Lixin (lee-sheen) in the early afternoon.

"We want the building on the right side of the tracks," I told Ron.

"Which one?

"The only one."

When I visited Lixin before this fall, I was struck by its remoteness and one of the lowest standards of living I had ever encountered. What I missed, being part of a group with a guide to make all our arrangements, was the face of the man where we stayed. Ron and I stayed there again, on the same hard brick bed, heated by the cook stove from the adjacent kitchen, on the same old blankets and same dirty linoleum covering. Joining us on the bed at night was the man who ran the place, a middle-aged, mustached, slightly pudgie, bespectacled fellow. While we sat on the bed waiting between trains, he often popped in from the kitchen, as if looking for something that he couldn't quite find. I thought we were making him nervous until it finally dawned on me that we were staying in his room, it was freezing outside, and he had no place else to go except the kitchen next door, half of which was occupied by the pile of coal, fuel for both cooking and warmth.

"Do you suppose this town has a store?" Ron asked as we sat warming ourselves on the heated bed.

Just then, a man walked in, took a pack of cigarettes off the desk in the corner, gave the owner a couple kuai, and walked out. Stacked on the desk were cans of salmon, peaches and oranges. Packaged toothbrushes hung from a hook on the wall along with something that looked like packaged pickled pigs noses. I didn't investigate those any further. Scattered on the floor under the desk were dusty 12-packs of bottled water and juice.

"I think we're sleeping in it."

The price was the same as the railway workers' house in Touyaozi, Y50 to sleep, Y25 for meals. Here, so far from everything, it seemed a little more reasonable, though still a bit steep for the bed, I thought. The meals, on the other hand, were a bargain by any count.

"When do you want dinner?" our host asked.

"Anytime is fine as long as there isn't a train here," Ron told him. "If there's a train here, we're going to photograph it."

"No problem."

He placed a short table on top of the bed and brought out bowls of rice, eggs and tomatoes and boiled potatoes with pork in a yellow broth. A simple meal, filling and hearty and straight from the earth of this little valley, planted, raised, harvested and prepared by hands that had spent their entires lives here.

We made photos by both day and night, where the labored exhausts of two little engines echoed long up the valley with each loaded coal train's departure. Engine 04 arrived one night from Huanan, its deep whistle hooting and haunting in the darkness, and I imagined myself on some remote coal branchline of the Norfolk & Western in southern West Virginia where the deep chords of a Y-class sung in the night. Back in our present reality of Lixin, the only other mechanical sounds during the day came from the occasional motorbikes and the one tractor in town.

"The farther we go up this line," Ron said, "I expect to find mastodons, then pterodactyls. It's like time has forgotten this place. I'm so glad roads haven't found it."

When our host asked us when we wanted dinner the second night, he said, "the first night you spend here, you're a customer. The second night you spend here, you're a friend. Welcome!"

We left by horse on a cold, snowy Saturday after two nights in Lixin, both wishing we could stay longer. But our hosts welcomed us back to Touyaozi with more heaping mounds of food and warm smiles. They showed us to the shower room next door (perhaps after smelling us) where we eagerly washed away several days' worth of sweat and grime. All three daughters joined us for dinner, and the granddaughter performed several dances and flashed a more ready smile.
Lying on the warm bed while the dinner skillets popped and sizzled in the kitchen, I could close my eyes and nearly imagine I was in the den at my grandparents' house in West Virginia, where Grandma and Grandpa were almost finished cooking dinner. I smiled. I smiled again when I opened my eyes and walked out to dinner with our Chinese hosts, everyone gathered around the table and all talking to us, the beer flowing freely into our bowls and the husband lifting his time and again and heartily toasting "meiguo pengyou!" (American friend). "Zhongguo pengyou!" we answered and drained our bowls.