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.

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