Spring break of 2004 was my first trip to China. Alan, Don and traveled there to see the last mainline steam railroad in the world. China is a place I have come to know and love. As of this moment I've been there 5 times for up to three weeks. I've seen more of China than most Chinese people. This first trip was epic and magical because it was my first experience in China. The steam trains operated in the far north, Inner Mongolia, near the Mongolian border. The whole trip was just a culture shock because our senses were overwhelmed with new sensations, new smells, sounds, tastes, and sights. Every waking moment was sensory overload.
We hit the ground in Beijing with no reservations and only a handful of things I printed off the internet. We found our way to the main train station and bought a ticket on an overnight train to Shenyang (pronounced Shen Ya). There we found a taxi to first location for steam trains, the town of Tieling which was the base for the Tiefa Coal Railway, Tiefa was named for Tieling and Faku which are along the railway. At Tiefa we experienced the steam era as it mush have been in the 1940s in the US. There were frequent trains and nearly every one was hauled by steam locomotive. The last two steam locomotives built for commercial freight service anywhere in the world were operating at Tiefa. They were built in 1999! We got rides in the locomotives cabs and toured the shop facilities and saw countless steam-powered trains come and go. It was heaven for train nuts like us.
After a few days there we went to a town called Tongliao which was the end point for the 600-mile-long JiTong Railway. The railway ran from Togliao to Jining, all in the province of Inner Mongolia. The in the very rural northern part of China. We attracted a crowd most everywhere we went because people didn't really see Westerners in these parts of China. We met some nice girls who worked in the station at Tongliao, I don't know what job they had but they wore very formal uniforms and they were excited and interested to have Western visitors to their station. My favorite was a 6-foot tall girl named Ya Ya. There were lots of jokes about taking Ya Ya home during the rest of the trip.
We had a funny episode that involved buying a ticket. Nobody on the staff knew any English and we knew about five words of Chinese. We point to a train ticket from a previous trip, then pointed to the map to Tongliao, and then pointed to the town of Reshui which was the town closest to Jing Peng Pass where we wanted to see mainline steam trains cross a mountain range. We were trying to determine which window to use to buy a train ticket. The girl seemed to understand our request and she took Don off for a walk and guided him to the bathroom. He stopped and shook his head no and they both laughed. So much for communication.
Another neat thing was each time we opened our map a crowd of people would gather around. They would peer over our shoulders and have entire conversations in Chinese while we were making our travel plans in English. Nobody knew what the other was saying.
We got on the train the next day and headed to Reshui. The entire trip was through agricultural areas and the fields went on as far as the eye could see. When you looked closely you would see there were people everywhere working the fields by hand. We passed houses of mud where these people lived. The trip was about 300 miles and we got to Reshui late at night. Getting off the train was a mind blowing experience because first we were immersed in near sensory overload culture shock of just being in China, second, the sky was the most amazing night sky any of us had ever seen. I don't know how to describe it other than take the number of stars you see here and multiply it by that number and that is how many stars there were. At the same moment there was a double-headed steam train getting ready to leave so there was also the smells and sounds of seeming living, breathing steam locomotives. The steam crew saw us and were shining their flashlights at us and calling for us to come ride with them. We couldn't because we were dead tired and it was last and we still needed to find a hotel.
That single experience is one of the ones that will always be with me. I've seen some nice starry nights, impressive ones in Africa, South America, in the Western US, and on the water, but no starry night has ever matched that night in Reshui, Inner Mongolia China.