I had some regrets about leaving Ulan-Batar; Mongolia had been welcoming and
provided a constant stream of new experiences. However, getting back on the trans
Siberian train provided a bit of familiarity. I was now aware that bribing the lady at the
end of the car would make things work right away, but there were still new adventures to
be had. It was only a day from Mongolia to the Chinese border and time to change the
To prevent invading armies from reaching Moscow via rail, the Russian railway
was built using a different gauge than the rest of Europe or Asia. The plan worked and
continues working today. Because a train can not traverse from Russia to another country
without having the wheels changed, at the border the train was split into segments of
three cars, the wheels loosened, the cars lifted up, the wheels replaced with ones the
proper gauge, the cars lowered and the wheels tightened. This happened every time a
train crossed the border so the process was well in hand and took only slightly longer
than the checking of paper work by the officials who boarded the train.
I had intentions of leaving my car and photographing the process but that was not
going to happen. The crews with their bamboo hard hats did not need tourists in their
midst and I was told in no uncertain terms we would not be leaving the car, no matter
how much I wanted photos of the process.
Rocketing through the Chinese countryside it was not long before we stopped at a
place where the rails met the great wall. I was surprised at a statue honouring Canadian
Norman Bethune. I knew him as the namesake of a variety of flax that had been
developed by the Ag Canada Research Station in Saskatoon. His work in China did not
go unnoticed and he is still recognized as a hero long after his death.
The train pulled into the station in Beijing and it was then that it hit me, I had no
idea where I was going to meet Dave or Gayle Hanson—and the Beijing train station is
one huge busy place. I checked the clock as I left the platform and we had pulled in right
on time, a third of the earth’s circumference and we arrived within a minute of the
scheduled time. Dave was taller than most of the people at the station and I found him
without too much trouble. He had a car waiting and we headed to their home at the
largest Holiday Inn Complex in the world. On the way we passed Tiananmen Square,
impressive by its size and the traffic around it.
“You will have time for pictures tomorrow,” said Dave, “Gayle will take you on a
tour of the city.” She did and was an excellent guide, allowing enough time to photograph
the sites and suggesting I ‘buy the book’ if I really wanted the background information.
Gayle was fluent in the language after two years of living in the city; she had a great
understanding of what I needed to see and the additional things that would be interesting.
Beijing was everything I expected and more—more of everything beginning when
Gayle took me on a tour of the city and showed me Tiananmen Square, an area in the
centre of the city which could accommodate a million people.
When we went shopping in the market place I was overwhelmed by the crowds.
Is this Christmas?
“No,” said Gayle, “this is everyday, in fact it is slow. You should been here before
the holiday.” She laughed.
After a few days in the city Dave said he was going out of town to visit some of
his clients and I jumped at the chance to make some farm calls in rural China. I knew
Dave from 20 years on the trade show circuit in western Canada and he warned me that
things would be different. I assured him that I was ready for it. He smiled and nodded.
The one thing that is consistent with travel and especially in rural areas, is that
there is some kind of alcoholic beverage that is unique to the location and it is great fun
to give some to a visitor and watch his eyes roll back.
China did not disappoint and the colourless liquor appeared at one of the first
villages where we stopped. The name was Baijiu (most often pronounced as ‘bye Joe’),
but the drinks are much the same in any country. In this case the merchant had 10-gallon
crocks of the moonshine in the store and they were marketed in five-degree increments
from 80 to 95 depending on the percentage of alcohol.
Dave had been here before so he was exempt from tasting; I was the newbie and
had to undergo the initiation. The merchant, a large man with brightly coloured shirt
explained the process to me, and Dave translated. The merchant would take a dipper of
the clear substance from the container of my choice, pour it in a glass, I would shoot it
and then if still standing we could get on with the rest of the day.
Having done this dance before I knew that starting with a low octane juice would
just mean we would have to do it again with the high power stuff.
The merchant looked at me, waiting for my choice.
“I imagine the men drink that one,” I said, pointing to the 95% crock. He
laughed—not smiled. He laughed and ladled me a generous shot and handed me that
glass. I knew enough to fill my lungs with air, shot the offending liquid down and
exhaled. I have never tried it but I would imagine that if you filtered diesel fuel through a
bicycle inner tube that is what it would taste like.
By now Dave Hanson could hardly control himself.
“The best part is, no matter how often you brush your teeth, your mouth is going
to taste like that for the next three days.” That was something to look forward to. I
wanted to go to the van and wait for the angel of sleep to visit, but now we were ready to
begin our visit. Dave explained the store had the only phone in the village and when it
rang, the storekeeper would answer over the PA system (think M*A*S*H*), say the
individual’s name and he would come to the store for the phone call. Not efficient but it
was what they had.
We made our way to the edge of the village and Dave introduced me to a farmer, a
client who had purchased seed from him.
“How was the crop?”
“Good. Good. See for your self,” he said yawing his hand at a pile of raw cotton
in a corner of the house. His daughter (about two) was having lunch, rice from a single
bowl, on a low counter. The family dog sat in another corner.
We went outside and with great pride the farmer showed us his new tractor. He
was saving up to purchase some implements, hoping the increased cotton yield from the
better quality seed would speed him along the process of acquiring machinery, allowing
him to get into the custom business with farmers in the area.
I asked to take his picture and he struck a pose in front of the tractor. Foolishly, I
asked his wife to get up on the seat. The farmer’s expression changed but they posed for
the picture. Only later I realized, that woman was never going to get to drive that
tractor—just having her sit in the operator’s seat was on the edge of what was acceptable.
Back in the van Dave explained the farmer was one of the people he was targeting
in seed sales in order to break ground for their village. It was the same approach that
companies used in North American: have an innovator use your product and the
neighbours will soon follow. Dave had selected key farmers in most of the villages he
called on. With farms being about half an acre in size it was impossible for him to call on
all the farmers, so this approach allowed him to develop seed sales at a much faster rate.
As we drove to the next village I asked Dave about the make of the tractor we had
seen and he explained that one was manufactured in India. I was surprised that a
manufacturer in India was able to produce tractors cheaply enough to sell into China, but
that is exactly what was happening. Much later, I learned that this company in India is the
largest manufacturer of tractors in the world.
We went on to visit several more farms and to see the harvest of the cotton crop,
which was all being done by hand. I did not see a single mechanical harvester in my
travels. What I did see was a tractor that looked like a rather aged John Deere—my guess
would have been about 40 – 50 years old. Upon closer examination I saw that the only
indication of the name of the tractor was a single belt-buckle-type logo on the front of the
tractor. The logo was not the familiar deer I expected but rather a long horn steer similar
to the one used by the University of Texas.
This tractor had been manufactured in China. It was one of the best examples of
reverse engineering I have come across in my travels. A John Deere tractor had been
purchased by the company and after detailed examination had been reproduced. It was
now being manufactured and sold under the name of John Steer.
I spent a few days in the rural areas with Dave and then we headed back to
Beijing where Gayle took me on a shopping trip. Dave took me to a golf club shop where
I bought a set of clubs and the saleslady included all the toys, like a carrying case, hat,
and some things I did not recognize. It was time to go home.
I secured a ride to the airport and was glad to be heading home but the adventure
was far from over. In the Beijing airport I had my wallet pick-pocketed and now I had no
money, no cell phone—and no help from the Air Canada desk. Behind me in the lineup a
fellow from Edmonton offered the use of his cell phone so I could cancel my credit cards
and secure documentation for my flight home. It was a challenge.