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.

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