The International Steam Pages

Getting Steamed up in China

A few words of caution about what the Lonely Planet Guide calls 'Dangers and Annoyances'......

Compared to say, parts of South America, travelling in China is pretty safe. However, over the years travellers have suffered petty (opportunist) theft at crowded places like large railway stations and there have been rare instances of robbery with violence. 2002/3 seem to have brought a rash of less pleasant experiences and it is now my considered opinion that independent travellers should think very hard about travelling on their own and should probably attempt trips with another friend or two. No one should get paranoid about this, it just makes sense to be aware of potential problems and formulate plans to deal with the kind of situations described below. In October 2003,(added 11th November 2003) an experienced international traveller lost a camera from a bag on a crowded train near Beijing - take care!

A visitor to Shanghai No5 Steelworks in February 2004 was given a very unpleasant time despite having organised an official visit with a guide. Take care if you attempt to visit here...

I have added this personal commentary on 2nd April 2003. I would welcome some feedback....

'Neanderthal' is the kind of word which best applies not only to we steam enthusiasts but also to an increasing number of Chinese in uniforms who see it as part of their jobs to get in the way of visitors. There is (to me at least) a clear dividing line between watching and photographing steam locomotives from public areas and intruding into what is best described as 'a security area' at industrial locations. I certainly experienced this at Shanhetun last year, others have reported similarly from various places in the Shenyang area and the authorities at Tiefa seem to believe that you should pay for the privilege of watching the steam trains go by. Now a tour group has had an unpleasant incident at Gongchangling. There is a real culture problem here as illustrated by the following report of that incident which appeared in a Shenyang newspaper (the translation is courtesy of Robin Gibbons):

"Laowai" stopped from taking photographs

A British tour group was stopped from taking photographs at the mining area of the GongKuang Company, when the GongKuang Company's "protecting secrets department" was alerted of the tour group's presence by staff.

At 09:30 on 25 February, the GongKuang Company's "protecting secrets department" received a telephone call from the GongKuang Railway Transportation Company to say that there were 13 foreigners near the west maintenance workshop, taking photographs and videos of the operations. The protecting secrets department immediately sent staff to look into the matter. The 13 "laowai" from Britain, were a tour group organised by the Heilongjiang International Travel Agency, visiting "AnGang" to take photographs. They had not received approval from AnGang's "protecting secrets department" nor the foreign affairs department, and were there without permission. The "protecting secrets department" explained the protecting secrets system and regulations to the tour group and asked them to leave the mining area.

AnGang is a long established enterprise, which in the last few years has made great progress through investment in technology and new products, which has attracted attention from all over the world, and attracted the attention of eager spies. Since 2002, there have been more than 10 incidents of foreign and domestic persons entering AnGang to take photographs without permission but with the staff's consciousness of the importance of protecting secrets, these incidents have been discovered and reported, thus protecting AnGang's secrets.


"laowai" literally means "old foreign" and is the universal slang term for foreigners esp. Caucasians. It is not rude as such although can be considered impolite depending on the circumstances.
GongKuang is an abbreviation, which are very common in Chinese. "Gong" is the first character of the name of the place, presumably Gongchangling, and "Kuang" means mine.
"protecting secrets department" is a literal translation. This is not a common department within a company.
Angang is another abbreviation, for Anshan Gangtie Jituan - Anshan Iron and Steel Group.

I have had it put to me by another experienced tour leader that this incident has resulted in a general tightening of attitudes in terms of granting access to industrial sites in the area and I would like to receive evidence from other tour leaders and individuals on whether this is indeed so. I am highlighting this because it is an issue which will not go away, not least because the last rites for steam in China are likely to be observed in locations like this. I find it quite difficult personally because I travel independently in China and elsewhere and generally visit such sites on what is best described as 'an informal basis'. Usually I have no problems and like many of my readers have plenty of experience in resolving any difficulties that arise. In my favourite island of Java, this is not an issue as the entry charges are purely nominal (if enforced at all) and no-one in 2003 could seriously complain about paying U$5/6 for complete access to a sugar mill and its steam locomotives. In China not only are the sums more significant but there is the threat of a "protecting secrets department" in the background. What concerns me most is that we could end up with a situation whereby the last working steam locomotives in the world are only accessible at a cost which disqualifies all but those who are willing and able to pay 'silly money'.

Despite running an annual tour to Java, my personal preference for independent as opposed to group travel where it is practical does not need restating. The jury is still out on whether tour groups have 'ruined' Cuba - for what it is worth my last visits were spoiled by the activities of irresponsible individuals and tour groups (I have no interest whatsoever in plastic Zafra steam) but I do not think that the amount of money flowing made any difference ultimately to the extermination of real steam. It would be a shame if the end of steam in China were to happen behind closed doors. Both tour organisers and independent travellers (with or without guides) should be aware of the situation and act sensibly in the interests of the enthusiast fraternity as a whole as opposed to their own short-term interests.

The following paragraphs were written in early 2002. Writing in mid-2003, since then the JP mafia appear to have started to operate with a little more subtlety. Independent visitors without guides are rarely if ever harrassed. For those with guides, the money is painlessly extracted from the guides in the evenings... If you travel with a guide, do not fool yourself that paymenst are not being made. If this is all new to you, read on.....

In late January 2002, there was a confrontation between several visiting groups, the 'men in leather jackets' and the local authority in the area. It now seems that the local authority at the very least are acquiescing  in the scam described below. Many well-respected, regular visitors returned home utterly disgusted. As a result, I have taken the decision not to report further on the line until this whole dirty business is cleaned up and currently I cannot recommend visiting the JingPeng section of the line. The Tiefa situation (see below and also (link broken 5th April 2019) for a January 2002 visit) seems to be heading that way too....

A lot of people (both individuals and groups) have suffered from the Y50 per person per day scam on the Jingpeng Pass section of the Jitong line. (This is in no way related to any payment made officially to the railway for visiting, say, Daban shed. The railway itself is naturally upset about the scam because it does its own name no good at all.) Hans Schaefer has researched this and the following attempts to summarise what he has has found out (January 2002). Please check his own web pages for updates (link broken 5th April 2019). Now (3rd March 2002), I hear that the police in Bentong at the west end of the line 'shook down' a visiting group from North America for several hundred U$. This is apparently because it is a closed area and you should not leave the platforms.....

The Men in Leather Coats - How the photo permission mafia operates

Along the area from Reshui to Jingpeng, some people will try to extract money for "photo permissions" from you.

There have been three kinds of similar operation, now believed to all have been the work of the same unofficial group.

  • In 1997 there were people at Reshui selling photo permits reading "Chifeng tourist bureau". No reports are known from after 1997.
  • Later, in 1999 to 2000, especially at the Reshui side of the pass, people sold photo permissions reading "Aodu Travel service". These photo permits were identical to the permits given to visitors at Daban depot.
  • In 2001, it has been reported that KeQi tourist bureau has started collecting money even on the west side of the pass.

It is now known who these money collectors are. It is not sure they are really tourist bureau or travel agency or railway officials. They may just as well be locals who just organize this rip-off for their own sake (they probably are, as in other places!) and let the police have part of the money.

They cooperate with the local police. They know who (foreigner) is staying in the area. But they do not chase everyone. Some people slip away and never pay a fee (after 1997, Hans has never met them), others are charged the usual fee of Y50 per day of stay.

They typically visit you at the hotel, at the popular restaurants at Reshui, or at photo positions which are near the road. Reports from 2001 indicate that they do not speak English, but have a sheet of paper in English explaining that you have to pay money.

Report from December 2001: "Unfortunately, the rip off continues. The KeQi Tourism Bureau must be the only such organization in the world that fines people for visiting their area. The grip is Y50 per person per day. The grippers have changed their tactics though. They now patrol the Jingpeng to Reshui road around 10:30 to 11:30 every morning in a maroon Volkswagen Santana, reg no D 20374 . We saw them on the main road and also the old road through Xiakengzi. It isnąt clear whether they just go as far as Shangdian or all the way to Reshui. We never saw them in the afternoon."

The two people who actually collect the money are:

1.Name: E Erdun
Office Tel: 0476-5220746
Office Fax::0476-5226914
Home Phone:0476-5226837

2.Name: Zhang Wenzhong
His beeper number is: 126-8350157

They are the same people who sold photo permits copied from "Aodu travel service" in 1999 to 2000.

The person who has organised these 'photo permits' since 1997 is called Liu Shu Shan - he is the boss of the new outfit. Rumours say he was in prison for stealing some of the money that was collected in 2000. He is not in prison now (December 2001), because he get a lot of money and corrupted the local police, so he has continued operating, especially with Japanese steam groups. He cannot speak any foreign language.

This is their card:

mafiosi.gif (12641 bytes)

The photo permit from December 2001, was on Hans Schaefer's site - (link broken 5th April 2019).

Independent travelers should be aware that even if they stay away from the roads, they wonąt necessarily escape. Hotels have to inform the police of anyone staying overnight and this information gets back to the KTB very quickly. One evening we decided to extend our stay at Reshui by one day. The following morning they knew we had changed our plans and were demanding more money.

Another report autumn 2001: "Annoying was a visit at my hotel by three officials from (as they said) the Keqi (Jingpeng) Tourist Bureau to extract Y50 per day for their photo-permit. Without the interference of anybody interpreting who could be made hostage I managed to send these Chinese only speakers off with Y50 for my whole stay and I strongly suggest that nobody pays more for this seam, or if anybody does pay, report it to the authorities in Beijing as corruption. After all issuing photo-permits is the business of the railway or the national authorities and not that of local government, nowhere in the world and certainly not in centralist China."

However, not everyone has paid the fee. A successful way of handling these people is just not understanding their language (most of us do not speak Chinese anyway). Another successful way is just being polite, walking farther along the railway line, into the landscape. Walk where the terrain is bad. They also have trouble if you are in groups, but if you have a guide, they tend to make your guides' life difficult.

If more and more foreigners report the mafia to the State Tourist Bureau, I think they will pay attention to it.

China State Tourist Bureau address.
Telephone: +86 10-65275315 or +86 10-65201521
Fax:+86 10-65201522 or +86 10-65122096

Please report any details of how they approach you, probably names and even photos of these people, to me. If they get any local police officers to pester you, even their names would be interesting.


In mid-December 2000, a good friend of mine travelling alone was attacked and seriously injured here . The motive was robbery and it happened on the lineside between the mining railway station and Changan. I also understand that the police simply returned to the same spot the following day and found the man responsible there again - it must be likely that it was either drug related or the man had some mental illness. I must stress that this was an extraordinary and isolated incident and should put no-one off  visiting China independently.

Michael Rhodes reports that a Japanese gricer was attacked here and his cameras stolen in January 2001.

Florian Menius found the atmosphere very unpleasant during his visit in March 2002. Take care, the people are generally friendly but the lines of jobless in the town shows that it is a very depressed area.


An individual gricer was held up at knife point just south of the log yard station in early March 2002. Please take care here.


One particular policeman/supervisor made my life unpleasant up the line here in March 2002. At the instigation of the same man, Florian Menius was temporarily detained a few days later by police when he attempted to travel up the northern branch.

Individuals have had trouble with drunken Chinese in Shanhetun itself, attempts being made to grab camera gear and other possessions.


Michael Rhodes reports too that the police confiscated films taken of simple street scenes.... (Strictly they forced it to be developed locally but it was effectively destroyed in the process). Other people have had similar experiences.


This is another place which requires considerable care. The police will take great exception to photography of the local people (mainy minority groups). An April 2002 independent traveller was again turned away by the police here.

For a rather depressing list of all the hassles even an experienced traveller can encounter, (including details of some above), read Florian Meius's February/March 2002 trip report (31st March 2002)....

Elsewhere, too, increasing numbers of reports of harrassment of railway enthusiast visitors at a time when China as a country is far more open than it used to be. Time was when waving a camera near a (steam) train carried a risk of detention although by 1995 outside 'closed' areas, such problems were almost history. As the number of visitors to China continues to increase, it is disappointing to note that there have been several reports since 1999 which show these problems have not gone away and new annoyances have arisen.

Visitors to Tongchuan (near Xian) to see the JFs at work have found that their attention is not always welcome, fortunately I got there quite early after they were 'rediscovered'. The attempts to extort money from visitors to JingPeng have become an all too familiar supplement to recent reports. Now (27th September 2000). I have had further reports of a visiting group facing unexpected difficulties.

At Chengde, I have been told "a new city law prohibits photography from 50m south of the (river) bridge to beyond the jail and Economic Police actively enforce this. Big blue signs everywhere show the ban, and also prohibit access to foreigners. On September 18th 2000 a (separate) Danish tourist group visiting the adjacent glass factory were ARRESTED for showing interest in the steam locomotives." This is absolutely astonishing given that enthusiasts have been visiting Chengde (which is a recognised tourist centre) for very many years! (I visited Chengde in January 2002 and there were no signs by the rver bridge or any problems for a group who were there too - the new tower block's shadow was the major irritant. However, the area around the banking station is definitely to be avoided and you should approach the servicing area beyond the tunnels with care. Entering it when management is around is NOT recommended. RD)

At Tiefa, the Railway Police are very active and a large "fee" (said to be Y300 in January 2002) may be payable at Daqing office HQ. Things have changed very rapidly here, in January 2000, I was joined on a passenger train by an English speaking public relations officer of the railway who enquired if there was anything he could do to help and gave me his telephone number if I faced any problems...

Old habits obviously die hard and nasty new habits are catching on. Central power in China is diminishing with the new economic freedoms and clearly visitors should be aware that both individuals and groups may be targetted in some areas. None of this should put anyone off visiting the country, as always in Asia, polite negotiation rather noisy argument is the key to resolving any problems.

Rob Dickinson