Summer Steam and Sunflowers
September 1-8 FarRail tour to Northeastern China.
The following is a series of sporadic email updates to friends back home sent via blackberry ...and now somewhat spell-checked.
The Manchurian Candidate, or: Oh No, Not Again
I have finally decided to put figurative pen to paper here in the village (rounded up) of Lixin (le sheen) on northeastern China's steam powered Huanan railway system because it is raining, there are no trains at the moment, and I am more awake than I have been in the entire trip.
I guess this email will go through tonight when we return to Huanan because there is no cellphone service in Lixin, but that shouldn't come as a surprise, because there are no roads here either. If you want to come to this place, comprised of a handful of brick and mud houses and a railway station, you take the railcar or walk/cycle/motorbike along a foot wide path beside the railway for 11 kms from the next town down the valley. As the railcar is exorbitantly priced for foreigners, we hired four old putt-bikes and their owners for a few days to pillion us in and move from one photospot to the next. My not inconsiderable bulk was topped with a bag containing four flashes and transmitters, a backpack bursting with all the bare essentials: camera, three and a half lenses, laptop, a bottle of Australian Riesling; and with tripod and three masking-taped-together light stands hanging off it, and must have looked quite absurd challenging the bike's springing as we bumped along a rutted track so narrow that you had to abandon it quickly if you rounded a corner and came across people coming the other way, a steam train, or a man with a scythe that might impede the bike's progress.
In the mornings, the growth along the track whips you with mother nature's mountain dew, soaking your right knee and elbow heading out and the other side on the way back. When it rains and the track gets muddy it is even more fun. A favourite scene from the movie "The Station Agent" has the stars videotaping a train as they bump along beside it in their hot dog van. As we bounded after each train, my chauffeur surely got tired of me proclaiming "We're train chasing baby!". He probably thought I was swearing at him. Exhilarating few days, and not nearly as scary as some trip reports I have read.
Its a bit of a slog in and out on the bikes, so we joined a dozen railway workers and bedded down for a night in Lixin's staff accommodation building beside the tracks, which is four or five rooms long, each about 15x15 grubby feet in size and rated by our tour leader at "three black holes" (a zero star rating would be far too kind). A single outside long-drop loo is provided, however none of our team's olfactory sensors can get within 20 feet of its fragrant center and make use of the woods instead. The only water available is a bucket filled from the boiler of stopped locomotives and poured into tubs for cooking or washing hands, bodies and dishes. Back in the living quarters, one third of the concrete, cigarette butt and dropped-food floored rooms is taken up by a kang, which is effectively the concrete floor raised up 2 feet with a fire under it to keep things warm. Upon this grubbyness goes a thin layer of bedding material and a thin pillow with the consistency of a bag of frozen peas which, together with the room's resident insect population, guarantee you'll sleep like a baby. I.e. waking up every two minutes. And this is before the snorchestra (three bass snortenfarters, one lead snufflepuffer, our Chinese guide on alto mucusbubbler and a local snortleist to make up numbers) begins playing in our room.
In the morning around 4am, its time for the group snorechestral maneuvers to end and we go outside to watch the virtuoso performances begin as one by one, or more rarely in pairs, the workers from the other room make their offerings to the Phlegm Gods. We sit on the edge of our seats, mesmerised by the doorway. And wait, I think the next performer is on his way... yes I can hear him limbering up backstage... HOOOOOIIICK-K-K-K (sound effect of a blown-up balloon half filled with mucus being released to fly across the room). And here he is! Looking a little disheveled but immaculately attired in grubby long johns, he staggers into the doorway, targets an empty spot of ground, takes aim, head cocks back, beautiful forward snap: THWIIP. The delivery is superb, with a light application of tongue-tip to induce backspin. Colour and consistency: magnificent. The judges follow the mucal nugget's arc through the air as if in slow motion: SPLAT. The crowd goes wild!! Our man nods to the four appreciative foreigners sitting on the rail speeder/jigger/grandstand and heads back inside. Before long, the area in front of the doorway is alive with lung glob, the entertainment is over and there is nothing to do but get back to watching trains.
We had two sunny days for good piccies, but as I write this, I have taken leave from the Lixin Hilton and moved next door into the doorway of the adjoining coal shed, where I can sit on a stool out of this morning's rain and away from the cloud of cigarette smoke yet still be immersed in the cool and peaceful atmosphere of the forest. Across the wee four track station yard, a tiny narrow-gauge loco covered in coal dust and rust simmers away in front of the colourful station house, perched on a perfect backdrop of lush bush, leaking steam from every orifice.
This is my first trip here, but already I am in love with the Huanan line. Built around the 50s, it spread 200km of track up the valleys to bring out logs, but now the logs are gone and only a coal mine keeps the last 46 Ks alive, winding around horseshoe curves through fields of bean, rice, corn, sunflower and native bush. The grades are steep enough that the eight motley loaded bogie wagons that make up each train require banking the few Ks from Lixin to the summit with one wee C2 loco on each end. At the summit, the banker is cut off the rear and returns to Lixin, while the manually applied brakes are pinned on each wagon before the descent begins.
Out in the bush photographing this involves doing battle with the thirsty mosquitoes, but for sheer insect density, you can't beat the resident fly population of our room at the Lixin Hilton. Not that that is a problem mind you. NZ flies are freeloaders that come into your house uninvited, drink your beer and eat your sandwiches. American flies are fat and stupid. Even when you try to show them freedom, they just fly back to your window insect screens and crawl around for days until they die from a lack of McDonalds. The irritatingly social flies of Australia all want to be your best mate by flying into your nose, mouth, ears and eyes and they invite all their buddies over to join in as well. At the other end of the social spectrum, Chinese flies don't really seem to do... anything. Maybe they are lazy. Maybe they are all smoking and playing cards. They don't move much but they seem to enjoy sitting on stuff: 7 on my tripod, 10 on a bottle of water, 25 on a resident's jacket and pants hanging up, a dozen crossing a tightrope strung across our room, sitting on the walls, sitting on the ceiling. I would swear there were 200 flies in our room, but unlike most flies, they mind their own business and don't bother you. I think they just enjoyed hanging out with us. And who wouldn't.
Ciao for now,
Life on the Red Planet
In our last episode, dear listeners, we were having a damp last day at Lixen. Overnight, there had been a steam loco failure so some trains were cancelled, the railcar was acting up and we were out of wine - a common setting for railfan suicides.
During a slight easing of the rain, Harald and I summoned our motorcycle slaves for a run up to the summit to meet an incoming train - since we had come all this way, we might as well take some pictures. The guys grudgingly left their card games, found some coats and we set off on our muddy way. We met the train, which was stationary, in a place it shouldn't have been: a brake fitting had broken off in the cab which effectively locks the brakes on. This is what I surmised upon finding the crew hammering a recently acquired tree branch into the hole with the back end of a hatchet. Try doing that with yer fancypants diesel.
Back at Lixen, it had stopped raining so the whole team decided to follow this one further, but it looked to me that rain was threatening and as I was the clever guy who hadn't bought a coat, I decided to just walk out and get a grab shot of it returning into Lixen. About four minutes later it began hosing down. After hiding under a tree for half an hour, I popped up onto the roof of an old boxcar to get the train slogging through the downpour followed by one of our team on a motorbike. I know it is one of our bikes because the pillion passenger is carrying a nice big yellow umbrella. He apologizes profusely for getting in my shot, but I think its all the better for it. We extended our stay in Huanan an extra day, which pleased me greatly, netting another sunny morning of motorized trainstalking. I may need to grow a beard down to my belt and buy a leather Hells Angels waistcoat before I come back here.
We're on our way from Jeeshee to Moodanjang by minivan at the moment after a so-so time at Jeeshee. That's patented phonetic spelling. Our van looked a little different this morning and when quizzed, the driver pointed to a freshly applied, and slightly fake-looking license plate and then proceeded to expose a stash of other 'spare' plates from a secret compartment behind the front passenger seat. Was that a wee Sean Connery wink? The white plates we are wearing today look suspiciously like the ones the police cars have. Ahhhh, maybe that's why we're flying through without paying tolls anymore. Ahhh, probably just a similar style from another province. Probably official. Probably not an offence that carries the death penalty. I'm not going to think about that anymore. In the meantime, while approaching toll plazas we are making the most of it by throwing little quips at the attendants as we pass through - "official business, secret mission, let us through", "bit slow opening the gate there for us sonny, might have to mention that in my report", "I'd like a word re your last tax return" - that we hope they don't understand.
On the outskirts of Mudanjiang, I'm amusing myself and becoming increasingly irritating by reading the uplifting english slogans on the company buildings - "strive to be number one" (better than number twos), "great company, great management, great workers" etc when something catches my eye... hey its a railway carriage! And an old steamer! We do an emergency U-ey and find two of the wee narrow gauge C2 locos - one is clearly recognizable as being from the formerly cute, but now closed, Dahuichang line in Beijing (a rusty #1 with #3 tender) and Bernd pronounces #30 a Weihe loco. If you're passing by, look up the BSMY company. It's the one with no slogan.
Just beyond the final toll plaza's field of view, the driver stops and switches license plates. There's that wink again...
Time passes. Commercial break. Go grab a coffee during the ads or talk amongst yourselves until I get back.
On the train south to Huludao we pass hundreds, maybe thousands of square miles of cropland. Corn, rice, beans, sunflowers, peanuts; each laid out in adjoining strips 50 feet wide, perpendicular to the tracks, and heading out to the horizon like multicoloured yellow and green ribbons flowing over the hills. The scale of the arable landscape is impressive. Moreso when you consider that most of it is planted, tended and harvested by hand.
Railway photographers often have to do a little gardening themselves to remove impediments to a great photo. This normally manifests itself in some trackside weeding to prevent stray grasses obscuring the rails, wheels or cowcatcher. More rarely, subtle flower arranging, pruning or clear-felling may be required. On the Huanan line I wanted to repeat a shot with a field of pumpkins and sunflowers. Some of the flowers were nice but some well past their photograph-by date, so I performed an experiment on a nearly dead sunflower... Huh? I had expected it to snap off at the base, but the roots and all came up with it, leaving a hole that could house a more attractive specimen! Before long I had a couple of nice sunflowers transplanted into my picture, just in time for the clouds to come over and ruin the whole thing. Bah. They were doing very nicely the next day too... For a few glorious moments I was the evil dude from the (insert any title) James Bond movie creating my perfect army of invincible supersunflowers.
Continuing the Nature Explorer theme, I've been up two trees, and bushwhacked up a hill (hey, I didn't see that path till I got up the top) and an impassible jungle bank for some very rewarding shots. The bank was particularly satisfying as it looked to be a difficult climb with a very slim chance of being able to see out through the foliage, which I think was why the team and the bikeslaves were all making those tapping-at-the-head crazy signs as the train sounded its slow approach in the distance. Within a few minutes though, I had found and crossed a wee stream, lifted myself up through the small trees and vines, bashed out a great position and was rewarded with a really nice shot at the expense of some grass stains, minor abrasions, another half dozen mozzie bites and breaking yet another part of my jinxed tripod - this time one of the leg section locking bolts disappeared (so I now have the choice of using a full size bipod or a midget tripod that our cat could comfortably use). "It's had a few new handles and a few new heads, but it's still grandpa's old axe" as the saying goes. As well as having photographic uses, tripods are invaluable subscending aids and when swung Excalibur style, are an effective weapon against unwanted foliage.
Back in the fancy train, the sun is setting, and we streak through the countryside, with icons of rural china silhouetted against the darkening pink sky: the small brick house with its smoking fireplace, one of the ubiquitous 3 wheeled trucks, a man out for a walk, a horse and cart. We savor the sights in our soft sleeper compartment over a nice bottle of red Bernd has been saving and then turn in.
To a pumpkin.
A few days before I left the US, a good friend from work said "you'll have great adventure, you always do".
This trip became an adventure surprisingly quickly, even for a seat-of-the-pants traveler like myself. When I arrived in Beijing, I couldn't for the life of me remember why I had arrived on Thursday when the tour starts on Saturday. Had I been thrown by the early morning departure of the new direct flight from DC that only takes 13 hours? Had there not been freebie flights available the next day? Whatever. That just means a bonus day to play with. I had a nice Indian meal and a bottle of wine over a book at my usual haunt. I did some leisurely shopping at the Silk Market. I intended to meet up with a former CA regional manager for dinner and have a nice lunch at a fancy new place a colleague had shown me in January but it has been swept aside by progress. I first came to Beijing maybe 5 years ago and since then, the center of town has been flattened and completely renewed, maybe more than once, by workers hammering and welding together glass and steel skyscrapers 24 hours a day. The rate of "progress" is amazing, but at what human and cultural cost as the traditional ramshackle hutongs are leveled or hidden from Olympic view behind new walls that line major roads... As the afternoon trundles on, it's trip prep time: charge batteries, clean lenses, repack, put the tour maps and itinerary into a clear leaf binder. Being a creature of habit, at this stage I like to write the days next to the dates on the itinerary: s,s,m,t,w,t,f,s,s,m. That's not right... miscounted. We get back into Beijing on Sunday the 9th, see, that's what it says on my flight schedule. So let's go backwards. S,s,f,t,w... That's weird, miscounted again. On the third go around, it became obvious that either tour leader Bernd had made a mistake with the dates; weeks have only 6 days in China; or my flight to Harbin that leaves in 24 hours actually leaves in 10 minutes time. Arrrrgh!! I whip down to the lobby, confirm that weeks do indeed have 7 days here, and book the next flight to Harbin. That gives me 5 minutes to pack, 30 minutes to get to the airport (yeah right, in a helicopter maybe) and about 45 mins to check in. If the plane is on time, I can just meet the group at Harbin station figuring a 10-20 min taxi ride at that end. I throw everything in the bag and checkout in 5, realize I have no money left and change some USD in 3. It takes forever to get to the airport, but luckily the plane is late. Unfortunately, at the other end the plane is still late and the railway station is 30-40 mins away. No worries, I'll get a train or car or... something. Luckily, Tour Leader Bernd and I get in touch and like magic he gets me sorted with train tickets to Jiamusi and a car from there on. Whew.
On the way to Beijing airport I am reminded that if you are in a hurry to get anywhere, there is no better place to be than in a Chinese taxi. I wrote ad-nauseum during the last trip about the driving here, but here are a few more scenarios from this one to add to the list: cars (many, not just one) going both directions (clockwise and anti) on a roundabout, someone completely stopped in the middle of the fast-lane looking lost and on a cellphone, a donkey cart doing 3mph in the middle lane of a 6 lane divided road, on the same road, a car coming toward you to take a sideroad they missed, and my favourite, which occurred while in the taxi to meet the group at Huanan: picture a normal 2 lane road with the right road shoulder dug up past a school where parents are waiting for their kids on foot, bicycle, motorbike and car. There is serious congestion ahead, but as there is more traffic going this way, our direction has somehow assumed three lanes, while the people coming towards us have (sometimes) one lane. On a two lane road. Everyone is also dodging the stopped cars of parents, a big smelly coal truck is stuck changing lanes and there is a crane coming towards us. The occasional slow animal-led cart also needs to be overtaken, and motorbikes are jostling for position everywhere in the stop and go traffic. Occasionally a brave car (going the wrong way) will hop into the dug-up shoulder to our right and bump along on the rocks (they drive on the right in China). The high point in the vehicular melee comes when traffic heading our way up ahead has had enough (drivers here have even less patience than NooYawkers), so looking to the left, you see a steady stream of cars flowing past, but one in three is going backwards!
So on my way to the airport in record setting time, much of it spent in several lanes at once and undertaking cars on the shoulder, I reach two additional conclusions about driving in China: 1) they needn't bother about road lane markings, as only a third of the drivers stay in-lane between them, one third uses them to aim their vehicle down, thus taking up two lanes, and the last third are completely unaware they exist at all. The latter third includes all taxi drivers and a few others that one can only assume are legally blind. 2) Luckily, Chinese taxis have an invisible force-field surrounding them which repels other cars when a collision or sideswipe is imminent. Based on the tension in my bowel-movement-prevention muscle, I would say the forcefield is somewhere between 1 and 2 millimetres deep.
As I've mentioned, Huanan's wee railway was awesome. Jixi now has 4 diesels on the most interesting and often banked Hengshan system ("Lord Vader, move the fleet to the planet Nebulon in the Hengshan System"), with only 2 SY locos left, but we didn't catch them running. We got a nice shot at the Penggang pink mine (and had a great lunch there), and some nice sunrise stuff, but to me, although there is plenty of steam to be had, much of Jixi is just glorified shunting of a few wagons from here to there. I'm more of a trains in the scenery type. Each to their own. In 10 years time I'll probably be kicking myself for not getting a picture of SY12345 at the EggFuYong mine running funnel-first.
Huludao is a great line with some nice curves and hills, but our travel schedule and the way the line runs meant that we only saw a few trains. Hindsight being the perfect 20:20 that it is, we probably should have stayed there another day, as Zoucheng was a bit of a fizzer. But we weren't to know. Alas, the first spot at that locale had just been dieselized. We could see a freshly withdrawn QJ through the gate, but our driver thought we would get arrested if we went inside. So we asked for permission at the gate. The guard, who looked about twelve years old, called the boss and then promptly locked the gate in our faces. Our driver asked again, the fresh faced youth held up an index finger as if to say "one minute please" and then scampered back into his hut with a terrified look on his face and shut the door. The second mine railway was much more friendly, but had recently got diesels as well, so rather than the expected 5 locos, they only had one steamer still operating sporadically on lines that had pretty average road access for the most part. Still, it was awesome to see, hear and touch a big QJ loco in its element hauling long trains again, albeit perhaps for the last time. Of course there are quite a few QJs still around, but most of them are cooped up on short mine or industrial lines. In summary: the Chinese summer gives you nice flowers in nice weather, but it can't compete with the spectacle of steam in the wintertime. So with that, I decided to head home a day early, vowing to come back again.
We held a ceremonial offering of tripod leg remains at a trash can alter before I headed out. They have been to China 5 times now and endured all sorts of adventures, so it's only fitting they remain here and get recycled into some dangerous children's toys or pajamas for export. The head will grow new legs soon and grandpa's old axe will live on.
So that's it! Steam in China is fading fast, but as long as Huanan stays open, I'll be back!
Almost safely back home.
The January trip diary is here