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.


Olaf said...

You described the end of JiTong steam very clear, so I can imagine your feelings. I waved my farewell on that bridge in Daban back in October and I feeled the same way.

Good luck for the future, Scott!

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