The International Steam Pages
Steam in China February/March 1999
The vast majority of gricers in China go either on a full package tour or in a small group and pay a local organisation. Our budget was U$25 a day each (U$1 = 8.26Y) so either of these is far too expensive (and, dare I say it, unrewarding if you enjoy travelling to strange places), so I go the 'third way', as well briefed on steam activity as possible beforehand and armed only with the Lonely Planet Guide, Nelles Maps and a copy of the China Rail timetable (this year without the English language version because it wasn't published). You have great fun, you learn how the Chinese live and, in my experience, get just as good or better photographs. If you read this report you will realise that you need time for the weather to clear and the trains to run which is something money cannot buy. Add just a little imagination and why not try it next time instead of taking the easy way out? Just in case you have half a mind to join one of my tours to Java, please understand that the only thing it has in common with this trip is narrow gauge steam locomotives. My thanks as ever to Peter 'Gourmet' Nash with whom I shared most of the experiences described (although fortunately not all of them!). We had originally planned to visit the northern forestry lines but with news of the JFs at Tongchuan coming through very late and Jiyuan requiring a second attempt, we were forced to change our plans. We shall cover the forestry lines next year (is anyone mad enough to join us???). Overall, the trip was great for steam experience and character building but light on good photographic results.
We landed at Guangzhou from Bangkok on February 23rd at 14.40 and, by 17.00, we had cleared immigration and customs, taken the airport bus to town, bought tickets for express 84 to Chenzhou, boarded the train and were enjoying our first beer as we headed out of town. China on your own gets easier every year..... (but some of the old frustrations still remain like tobacco smoke everywhere)
Robin Gibbons' excellent report (no longer available) and Leslie McAllister's update were a great help in getting us started. (There is my further report from December 2001 which updates this account.)
On February 24th, we took the daily mixed train (10Y single) out and back (Trains 101/2). I would certainly agree that the line is a total delight with smart operation and constantly varying scenery. In terms of photography, the line is challenging. The best section is potentially that between Chenzhou and Guiyang, but it is almost inaccessible by road and it would probably require a charter special to make the most of the opportunities. Today, it started cool and cloudy but gradually cleared until from 10.30 onwards we had almost unbroken sunshine. Even beyond Guiyang, the road crosses the line at the least interesting points and the 'Feng Shui Consultants' seem to have positioned the stations so that the sun angles are awful for the return journey.....
As far as the pattern of operation is concerned, we consulted the station log at the far end. Since January 1st 1999, the mixed train (101/2) had run every day (Sundays and Chinese New Year included). Until February 15th, there had also been one or two coal trains (201/202 and 203/204) a day. On days when there were two, inevitably one ran before and one after the mixed. Otherwise the coal train could run before or after the mixed. After Chinese New Year (February 16th) there had been no coal trains - presumably because the mine had been shut. During most of our visit there was a daily short working to short of Guiyang (303/304), where there must be another smaller mine, which ran after the mixed and returned before it, tender first out and smokebox first return.
Thus on February 24th, when we arrived C4s 20, 22 and 93 were in steam and 21 and 96 were dead. C2 115 was derelict and JS 5444 was in steam on the standard gauge, with JS 6425 locked in the shed with no sign of previously reported SY 0662. 20 worked 101/102 and 22 303/304 and 93 was out of steam on our return. February 25th dawned bright and we chartered a taxi for the day (300Y). 20 left on time with 101 at 08.00 and we then went to Guiyang to photograph it arriving. By 11.00 we had almost given up when 22 arrived tender first - clearly 20 had failed along the way. By now the weather had clouded over and we followed the train rather unenthusiastically. (Note that to reach the terminus at Xinglang, you turn right just outside Guiyang and then eventually right again down a fairly rough road signposted Hanglang.) Our main purpose was to photograph the return working (102) on the large bridge about 20 minutes walk down the track east of the level crossing in Hanglang. There was plenty of time to do this after lunch and a beer or two, but the weather was unkind to us so we resolved to try again. Of course, this meant we had to give up on other spots before Guiyang but we were able to photograph the departure from there before the light failed. We again took a taxi on February 26th, when the operation was that planned for the previous day and this time there was no hitch. Unfortunately, overnight someone had repainted the sky with patent 'South China Grey' and we didn't see the sun all day and by the evening it was raining. We called in at the 600mm electrified line reported by Leslie McAllister (where a train appeared within a couple of minutes) and a nearby 600mm push system. As the main coal mine was now up and running, we then headed for the terminus and had to walk in from the road (we failed to find the right track) just as 20 was preparing to take empties down. Boarding the loco, we were able to observe their delivery and watch as the fulls were collected. This section is very steep and the load proved too much, so the train returned to the bottom to climb again with a reduced load. We dropped off, and, suitably refreshed as ever, enjoyed a grandstand view of the ascent from the roof of the local beer shop. We walked back to our taxi, woke up the driver and wasted some film on the return journey before giving up in disgust at the abysmal light. For February 27th, we were promised 101/2 and 203/4, so things were effectively back to normal, although we had to head north for Changsa and our next system. We could have spent the first half of the day with the trains but the paint stripper had had no effect so I worked until checkout time and we had a leisurely and largely liquid lunch near the station until our train at 16.30.
(Want a 600mm gauge skip for your own personal coal mine? Try the Chenzhou bypass where they are available over the counter for an initial asking price of Y2600....)
Notes for individual travellers to Chenzhou:
As there always seems to be, there is a more than adequate hotel just outside the station in Chenzhou (although we didn't use it - we took the easy way out and followed the existing reports). To get to the railway from here, you will need a taxi. Go straight ahead - west - and at the first T-junction turn left. Turn right at the first main junction, go under the overpass (the JinYe Hotel is on your left) and you are on the main road to Guiyang. The narrow gauge station is on your right after about 1km (look for the small overbridge) - if you get to the aqueduct/level crossing you have gone too far.
We stayed initially at the Chenzhou International Hotel (4*) and then the JinYe Hotel (3*). The difference in price was significant (329Y - no discount vs. 195Y - 40% discount), the former had marginally better facilities and was better placed for local restaurants. However, the latter had the advantage of being close to the railway and turned up our superb taxi driver, Chen Wei - taxi number L-X0883 - not only did he quickly pick up what was required, he organised our train ticket on to Changsa from the town booking office when the railway station declined to book us a day in advance.
Yiyang Coal Railway (February 28th)
We decanted from our train at Changsa into the Chezhan Hotel which is the Railway Hotel as described in the Lonely Planet Guide. A more than adequate 'triple' room cost 220Y (although we could have done without the constant diesel locos' horns) and we were advised that we could catch train 618 to Yiyang at 07.30 in the morning. This is a new line (marked on the latest Quail Map) and en route we saw JS 5306 cold in a passing loop with some decrepit coaches and no other traffic before Yiyang where there was another DF4 diesel and some wagons. The station building was large and impressive, outside was what could best be described as a building site with no sign of the city. As my friend Ameling Algra observed in 1995, the answer is invariably a number 5 bus which took us over the river and showed us the hotel (the tower block just to the west of the north exit of the river bridge), which needed a good clean and was a little overpriced at 118Y but did the job.
Johannes Müller's report in Continental Railway Journal 100 is a model for others, but it was over 5 years old and we were naturally apprehensive. We had spotted a number 2 bus coming in and took it to the station. In brief, the system has been dieselised. The daily passenger train (11/12) still runs as before with a small 0-6-0 diesel (with dummy 4th axle) although it no longer goes down to the port - we saw it come back at 15.00. We found another similar but smaller loco in the shed together with a larger Bo-Bo numbered 18. There were six steam locomotives lying around, smaller 0-8-0s 101 and 125 as described in CRJ, together with similar 112. There were three larger 0-8-0s one of which was numbered 06. None appeared to have been used for a long time and there was no sign of any loco coal or recent clinker. What had happened to the locos present in 1993 is anyone's guess. Outside in the station yard were at least 3 sets of coal wagons with their cabooses and many wrecks. Judging from the rust on the wheels, none had run for some time, whether it was just an extended Chinese New Year break or more was difficult to say. We couldn't find out if there were more diesels and hadn't the enthusiasm to check whether there was a connection to the new standard gauge. Rather dispirited, we returned to base and left for Changsa the next morning by bus down the new expressway.
Changsa to Luoyang
We checked into the Chezhan Hotel (220Y), intending to travel on Train 84 at 02.00 overnight. It was Peter's turn to buy the tickets and despite the Lonely Planet Guide's suggestion, hotel staff weren't too helpful initially. After 30 minutes of being told "Meiyou" for just about every train in the timetable around the booking office, we approached the hotel staff again and they suggested train 558 at 16.32 the next day. We decided to take it the same day instead and they booked it for us, so we had wasted our money on a hotel room.... In fact, the hard sleeper was excellent, there were no kids with slits in their trousers pissing and shitting all over the floor of the coach. At Zhengzhou next morning, it was my turn for the tickets and I set a China 'all-comers record' of 30 seconds and within an hour of our arrival we were on our way to Luoyang on train 7. As for active steam, we saw one JS (6394) about two hours north of Changsa before sleeping and between Zhengzhou and Luoyang we saw active steam at four locations. There were five JS at three sites (6496 was the only one identified), but the most interesting loco was immaculate QJ 7179 at a power station on the south side of the line 20 minutes east of Luoyang, this is possibly the highest number QJ I have seen. At Luoyang itself, the shed (north of the line, east of the main station) had at least three locos in steam, QJ 2299 and what looked like another QJ and one JS. World Steam reported in 1996 that they worked the Yiyang branch (a different Yiyang!), there were huge number of diesels here too and electrics at another shed. We had a Henan noodle breakfast (which duly shot through my system in record time) and again took the slow bus over the Yellow River to Jiyuan.
Jiyuan Coal Railway (March 2nd/10th)
A year ago we arrived here on a cloudless day a week before Chinese New Year to find the railway on its annual holiday. Bruce Evans did at least find one loco at work in January 1999. This time, we were greeted with a near re-run. The sun was shining through the haze and once again the shed was locked and bolted and there was no-one from the railway in sight. The main difference was that this year the rails and the wagons wheels were shiny and had obviously seen use within the last few days. It was carnival week in the city (maybe something to do with Wesak Day on March 1st), so we sat out the rest of the day watching the parade go slowly past our hotel balcony. It started at 15.00 and was still going well after 22.00 as fireworks lit the night sky. When we went out for dinner we managed to locate some railway staff who indicated the railway would start up again on March 8th. Another glorious failure and we moved on, only to try again a week later... On March 10th, we set out again from Luoyang, someone had turned the lights out (Central China Grey is like South China Grey but with more black in it). We felt that we deserved some kind of medal for perseverance although as it turned out crass stupidity would have been more appropriate. At least we only dumped our luggage at the hotel and didn't check in. This time the shed gates were open so for the first time we got inside. March 8th had seen the workers return (they were vaguely working on one loco at the back) and they now suggested March 14th as the first day trains would run. We headed back to Luoyang and bought tickets out north to visit the Wangdu system..
Notes for individual travellers to Jiyuan:
Buses for Jiyuan leave from the bus station to the south-east of Luoyang station (turn left and go diagonally across the square). The 70km journey takes just over two hours (or more) and is not one of the great Chinese experiences, you have to dodge the vomit, the spit and the kids' shit. When you arrive at Jiyuan, get off at the T-junction in the middle of town. The (rather basic for 100Y) hotel is on the left here and the railway runs across the junction in front of you. Walk to the left for 1km to find the shed. If you find a decent restaurant here which serves something other than noodle (soup or fried), please let me know. On the other hand, 9Y for dinner for two including a beer each can't be wholly bad.
Luoyang to Tongchuan (March 3rd)
We went back on the bus to Luoyang where Peter failed in his attempt on the 'all comers rapid ticket buying record' because the booking office had no change. Unfortunately, our tickets came without seat numbers, so not surprisingly we had to take our beer, chicken and sausages standing up all the way to Xian. An hour west of Luoyang, we saw several locomotives (most out of use) at what we believe was Yima colliery, and an hour later we saw JS 6276 as a pilot. At the main intermediate station of Sanmenxia Xie, we saw JS 8272, 8273 and 8275 in steam (and coming back saw 8271). Later we saw JS 8277, then a single QJ and a steam crane in steam and a couple of QJs being cut up at further locations (on our return journey we saw QJ 3301 and another dumped, and active QJs 6595 at Weinan and 6591 at Huashan with another on shed, together with a pair of QJs nearer Luoyang ). So there is steam activity still in this area although I wouldn't suggest spending time chasing it. Arrival at Xian was on time and we shot over to the bus station with plenty of time to catch what must have been the last bus of the day to Tongchuan at 18.00. Not a bad trip apart from the inevitable puke and the 100% candidates for lung cancer. We walked to the Tongchuan Hotel, which no doubt deserved its two stars when it was built some years ago. The restaurant was a building site, the lift had holes round the sides, unlike the toilets which, however, did not flush. If you like seeing what your room-mate had to eat yesterday then this is the hotel for you! Well, to be fair it made a change from seeing what the Chinese had been eating every time you walk down the railway yard.... However, at 150Y, the price was quite agreeable as were the girls in the restaurants down the street and eventually they got the toilet sorted and kept the room tidy (always a challenge when I am in town).
Bruce Evans may not quite have been the first of recent visitors to the area but he has tipped the world off about the continued operation of the JFs here and our heartfelt thanks to him for his continued hard work in the obscure corners of China. The hotel register here may become a 'Who's Who' of international gricers and already there were four others as well as Bruce's in the last couple of months. You can read what one of them (Bernd Seiler) found and it adds significantly to what I have said below. So far seven JFs have been reported (2113/2182/2365/2368/2371/4022/4025), there may be more - 2369 has been suggested - (and other similar railways in the area may still have steam) although we have no evidence for this. However, DF7b diesel 3134 (and maybe 3135 although no-one has seen it) is already working the line and there are probably three more on the way, so get here soon! This summary should help visitors get started.
The Tongchuan Mining Administration operates the railway to a number of coal mines east of the town (I will put up a sketch map when I have time). The main line is at least 30km long with passing loops (and mines) every 4-5km and there are at least two branches. Most of the mines have 2'0" gauge (push) tramways and at least one of these operates electric locomotives. The line has some very steep gradients (up to 3%) and locos are worked hard through excellent scenery. The pattern of operation can be gauged from the station register at the first loop (guess who arrived on the evening of 3rd March?):
The JFs spend a lot of time at Tongchuan Nan station waiting for work (i.e. the arrival of empties), sometimes in the station area, sometimes to the south of the station where there is a servicing area to the west of the main line with a couple of steam cranes. Not all the locos are on the railway at any one time and (on Bruce's recommendation) we can confirm that the main shed/workshop is at Meijiaping on the line to Xian. Locos cannot be turned outside Tongchuan (but are turned on the triangle there from time to time) so 50% of the workings are tender first - during our visit the locos were facing 50:50 into and out of Tongchuan. The first (short) branch to the north leads to a coal mine (adjacent to which is a stabling point which appears to be where the diesels are kept) and on to a coal yard (which was not in use on our visit). The branch to the south after the first tunnel was not checked out. Average train length is 8-12 coal wagons, although we saw a diesel hauled train with 20 empties. There are usually three QJs at Tongchuan Nan for shunting (we saw 6531, 6550, 6718 and 6719). Unless you expect to be exceptionally lucky with the weather and the action here, then allow at least four days to get an acceptable photographic record.
Day by day action at Tongchuan:
We didn't know it initially but March 4th was a quiet day. After a (later to be revealed) disastrous noodle breakfast we walked up the line to the first passing loop some 5km east of Tongchuan. There are some excellent photographic positions on this steep climb which is in some ways reminiscent of Chengde. It was a disappointing start to see no trains but the station log (see above) was encouraging and some friendly Chinese gave us a lift back to the hotel. We took an early afternoon break and headed back to the station at 16.30 in the hope the sun had come round enough. In the event, it had not and we were hijacked by the crew of 2368 for what we thought was to be a spot of shunting. In fact, they were going all the way to Dong Po some 25km away and so we were treated to a ride along most of the line, not returning till nearly 21.00. As Bruce Evans suggested, the line is extremely steep in parts which requires alternately a great thrash followed by a cautious descent in both directions. We resolved immediately to extend our stay beyond our original two to three days. March 5th fell rather flat as did the light. Once again no trains climbed the bank before 14.00 and we were reduced to watching the peasants spread their nightsoil on their vegetable patches. Fortunately Peter had taken his Imodium or he would have been joining them.... We gave up and I spent the late afternoon and early evening working while a procession of trains stormed out of town in unphotographable light. March 6th was equally quiet and we explored the short north branch. The most interesting feature was the electrified narrow gauge system at the coal mine (where just to the north exists a shed which during our visit only contained diesel DF7 3134, but appeared to be capable of servicing steam locomotives) and its cable operated tramway. The light was diabolical although it improves marginally when 2368 left tender first in the middle of the afternoon. Later the wind picked up and blew away the smog which gave a hazily bright day on March 7th. 2365 had left (tender first) early in the morning so we walked up to the tunnel and over the top to await its return which was as spirited as expected although the wind made photography difficult. It crossed a diesel hauled train (the first we had seen) so we caught a bus back to Tongchuan in the hope of getting an afternoon train on the bank. We took up residence in an old cave, high on the hillside overlooking the line twisting up the valley below. The much-awaited train took a while and meantime 4025 had been out and took us by surprise as it returned tender first. Almost immediately 2182 came storming up the bank in reasonable light, fully justifying our long wait.
March 8th dawned, but hardly at all the light was so bad. There were no less than four arrivals (one with diesel 3134) before 08.30 all utterly useless for the photographer. All locos were sitting idle and there was not an empty coal wagon to be seen. Peter suggested visiting Meijiaping which was a better option than spending the morning working. We got a policeman on traffic duty to find us the bus to Yaoxian and he even told the bus crew to find us a taxi on to Meijiaping. First impressions were that we were the victims of 'duff gen' as all we could see was a small station in the middle of nowhere with a large marshalling yard. Somewhat disappointed, we checked out the train back to Tongchuan (which involved a one hour wait). Then just as one of the station staff who spoke English told us "There are no steam locomotives in my station any more", in rolled JF 2371, so we flagged it down and much to the anguish of the driver boarded it. 5 minutes later we were in the depot hidden round the corner, south of the station. Our first sight was a couple of rows of dumped locos (QJs 2239, 2473, 6252, 6851, 3326 and JFs 4027 and 215?). Moving to the operational side of things we found QJ6650 in steam. Inside the 'works' we found JF4022 being lit up and painted as the final stage of an overhaul. The staff waved us in and then directed us to the running shed where we found QJ6652 in light steam and QJ6449 under repair. By the time we had photographed 4022, the management had arrived and they promptly arranged for it to be dragged out for photography. In the end we had to decline a tea ceremony in order to get the train back to Tongchuan. When we got back we found all the locos still present and it was 16.00 before the first train went out, under leaden skies. By then we were in an extremely mellow mood planning the next stage of our trip.... We left by bus early next morning as a train load of empties rolled in and the sun was threatening to break through the mist. We very quickly got a ticket out of Xian for Luoyang, without seat reservation although this time we found plenty of space and the journey flew by. The Tiangxiang hotel in Luoyang was appropriately priced at 60Y for a double room (and the restaurant was just as good as the Lonely Planet Guide suggests), but not everyone would appreciate the (clean) shared facilities.
Notes for individual travellers to Tongchuan
Buses from Xian to Tongchuan leave regularly from the long distance bus station just south-west of the railway station - in the shadow of the old city walls. Journey time is about 2½ hours (quicker than the train) It is quicker still by minibus from south-east of the station. The Tongchuan Hotel is to the west of the railway/river between Tongchuan Nan and Tongchuan stations (there is another hotel with the same name somewhat south which we did not check out). To get to the steep climb out of Tongchuan take the #1 or 7 bus from outside the hotel northwards to where the railway crosses the river on your right. Walk up the track. Alternatively, take the #2 or 8 bus north from the east side of the river to where the railway overbridge crosses the road just after a small roundabout (from here there are minibuses up the road which parallels the railway to the first loop). To get a bus to the far end of the 'main line', continue on the #2 or 8 bus to the last but one stop (read the signs) by the clinic/hospital. Walk down the road to the right and there is a small bus station. The road joins the railway about 2km after the tunnel.
To get to the shed at Meijiaping, the simplest way is to go by train from Tongchuan. By road you have to take a local bus to Yaoxian and then a taxi to this isolated station (the shed is 1km south east of the station). To get back to Xian, we took a private minibus from the south end of town (the terminus of the #1 and 2 buses). Compared to the public bus it cost 15Y instead of 12.5Y but the journey time was much reduced at 1hr 30min.
Luoyang to Wangdu
The booking staff at Luoyang laughed when the Gourmet Gricer asked for a hard sleeper on express 118. Fortunately, friendly staff at one of the station shops suggested train 532 and this gave us reserved seats and a false sense of security. At 21.45 the reality was that the train was made up of old hard class seats and hideously overcrowded. We ignored our seats and camped out in the restaurant car to get an upgrade. I queued for an hour and a half at the train conductor's desk along with 20 Chinese, to no apparent effect and we all drifted off. Just after I got back to the restaurant car, the head poncho there offered us a hard sleeper and looking around most of the others got one too. So we had some kind of rest. We got off the train at Dingzhou (wrongly marked Dingxian on the Nelles Map) and where the standard gauge branch came in, there was a short section of narrow gauge with some wagons, suggesting it had been converted at some stage. We got a bus on to Wangdu (too small for the train to stop at) and walked to the station and on to the narrow gauge yard about 1km north and just to the west of the main line.
The railway is in two distinct sections, a flat uninteresting section from Wangdu to Tangxian (20km) and a hilly section on to Baihe (18km). The main servicing facilities are at Tangxian and fortunately we found a brand new hotel here with superb facilities (3* equivalent) for just 198Y, where everything worked including the staff. The restaurant too was first class with reasonable prices and I found Yanjing beer at 14Y for 10 bottles in town and they didn't last long. Within 24 hours Peter had lowered this record to just 13.5Y, a price I could only equal the next day.
The traffic on the line is mainly stone from a quarry at the top end although we did see what appeared to be sand taken up to a (cement?) factory at the top. The bottom section was being worked initially by a ZN150 0-6-0D of 1996 on our visit although there were signs of recent ash which suggested that steam did work into Wangdu sometimes and a steam loco worked there on the third day. All the passing loops were being lifted and rail being recovered from the spur to the China Rail station, these no longer being needed since the passenger service must have been withdrawn sometime ago.
The upper section appeared to be almost entirely steam worked. The line climbs all the way to Baihe and is paralleled by the road, albeit at some distance. Unfortunately, the road is currently being widened and upgraded which has left it in appalling condition so that chasing by taxi may not be practical. (The dozens of small tractors with their trailers full of stone do not help either.) There is an attractive low bridge as the line leaves Tangxian but for the next few kilometres the line climbs through plain countryside. It then starts to climb, initially past a small quarry (with a siding for loading) on through narrow cuttings until it runs up a narrow valley on a long embankment past another quarry (which also has a siding). There are excellent photo spots here - the line can be seen from the road. At the top of this climb there is a small station. We did not explore the next section but it appears to go through open countryside before a second steep climb (there must be at least one more loop on this section). At the top end the railway crosses the road and there is a large ten arch viaduct across the valley (although my view is that the train is totally lost on it). Of special interest are the short workings from the top station. Sand wagons are worked to a factory and empty stone wagons taken to the quarry 1km further on. The trip back from the quarry is extremely steep so that the load has to be broken up and even then more than one attempt may be needed. On our visit, after ten fulls had been fetched, these were taken in two batches of five to the first station and then combined.
Locos seen at Tangxian included two diesels being scrapped (fantastic!). Steam 2851 was derelict and 2826 was under repair. Giesel ejectored 11B1-001 was the main train loco, Giesel 1B1-009 was serviceable while confusingly another loco also with number 11B1-001 on its cabside was at the back of the shed, (009 had a Giesel like 001). There was also a tender off 2847. All workings are smokebox first as there are triangles at Wangdu and Tangxiang and a turntable at Baihe.
The station log here suggested that trains 201/202/203/204 are the stone trains. Anyway, the log showed that these had run just about everyday between March 3rd and March 11th which certainly contradicts the 'three times a week report' I have seen elsewhere. There were also trains numbered in the 60x and 70x series, the only one of which we could identify with certainty was 601 as a diesel hauled train on March 12th to rescue 001. It is possible that these are short workings to the quarries along the line to Baihe
Our visit to the Wangdu/Baihe Railway
We arrived at Wangdu at about 08.30 and by the time we had found the railway we were somewhat taken aback to find a diesel apparently working in on a stone train. Communication was as always a problem but staff were insistent that a steam loco was working at Tangxian although there was little evidence of recent steam activity at Wangdu, just a few ashes. They indicated that the diesel would go back at about 10.00 so we sat and watched it shunt the transfer yard and nearby factory. At 10.30 we (and our luggage) were aboard an empty stone wagon and heading west across the (boring) plains of Northern China. At 11.30 we rolled into Tangxian and saw steam rising from 001 at the end of the station. Ecstasy! We piled out and waited for the loco to shunt its wagons. When it came past us, it just kept on going and vanished into the distance, a totally mortifying experience when you consider it was the first narrow gauge steam loco we had seen in steam for nearly two weeks. Fortunately, the railwaymen pointed us to the hotel and the staff there fixed a taxi (150Y for half a day) to find the loco again. Unfortunately, 'North China Grey' differed only from the southern version in its colder temperature and while we were entranced by the loco's attempts to collect fulls from the quarry (failed with 4 wagons several times, hence three more trips with three, two and then two wagons), the photographic results may not bear close inspection! Return arrival at Tangxian was just before 17.00. But we were revelling in the comfort of our surroundings and were way beyond worrying about such trivia.
On March 12th, it took two visits (at 09.00 and 11.00) to work out that 001 had a problem with a derailed wagon - on the first we had seen the diesel leaving with a wagon full of staff and sleepers and a spare bogie attached to the back. We hitched a (paid) lift to the first climb and walked up the bank to find that rerailing had just been completed and 001 was about to return to Tangxian. We were able to photograph the train rolling through the station and departing before jumping aboard. The descent is so steep that the train regularly slows to a crawl to check the brakes and at one of these we were able to jump off and photograph it coming through a cutting. But it did mean we had to walk 4km back to town. 001 then went on shed for a spot of welding and by 14.00 it was ready to leave again up the line with two sand wagons. The light was dire and we watched it leave town before retiring for the day.
On March 13th, we heard a whistle at 06.00 and at 08.00 we found 001 being washed out and 009 missing. Station staff suggested it had gone to Wangdu and would be back later in the morning, it finally rolled in with a long train at 10.15. 009 then retired to the shed for attention to its air pump, which was declared a failure so we had to wait for 001 to be lit up. This took until 14.00, so we got a taxi up to the climb and found a photo position which would have been excellent if we had any kind of light. The loco took an eternity to arrive, spending 20 minutes around the corner brewing up. And so ended our visit to the railway, with yet another 4km walk home.
Notes for individual travellers to Wangdu
Most of the information you need is included above. To get to Wangdu from Beijing, there will be buses to Baoding from the south bus station or regular trains. There are buses on to Wangdu and from there to Tangxian (although we didn't use them). Wangdu is a small but sprawling town, we went past a building labelled 'Wangdu Hotel' but staying here makes no sense and Tangxian should be your base.
Wangdu to Chengde
We aimed to make the afternoon train from Beijing to Chengde so we splashed out on a taxi to Baoding (200Y!). Our plans nearly got screwed up when we had to wait an hour for a bus on to Beijing. However, we made excellent time to Beijing's south bus station and a taxi whisked to the railway station by 13.00. Unfortunately, the foreigner booking office could not produce us a seat, so we had to be content with train 573 at 16.32 from Beijing Nan. This gave us an excuse to revisit one of our favourite noodleries from 1998, but, alas, it was no more so we had a superb Islamic noodle from nearby instead before taking a taxi to the station which involved some handy driving down the wrong side of the street in the final approach - this station was clearly peasant class! As always the five hour train journey flashed by (the passengers loved my laptop) and we collapsed into the China Rail hotel outside the station which was a snip at 100Y a night, all facilities working except for the bath which seemed to made of cardboard with holes in it necessitating a shower.
Chengde (March 15th to 17th)
I haven't detailed much about Chengde as it has been well documented elsewhere. We walked the line up to the tunnel (about 6km) where all the best photo positions are to be found. The first train down was not until 09.20 and during the day trains came up at 10.50, 12.00, 15.10, 15.45 and 16.50. I bailed out after the first two to do some work because the light was dire. Locos seen during the day were JS 5720, 6216, 6218 and SY 0532, 1726 mostly as JS train loco + JS/SY banker although the last train was JS/SY + JS. The number 5 bus runs from the railway station to just near the tunnel. The following morning, the light was even worse and we both stayed home all day. Our final day in Chengde was just as dull. We dragged ourselves up to the tunnels for the second train of the day which was JS/JS + SY but it was difficult to appreciate the action in the gloom although the sounds were tremendous. We returned to Beijing on the afternoon tourist train, luxuriating in the soft seats - well if your total train travel bill for nearly four weeks is just U$80 you can afford a little indulgence. Roll on the next trip.....
Notes for individual travellers to Beijing
The airport bus to/from town continues to run as before - 16Y each way to the terminal opposite the Beijing International Hotel, a block and a bit north of Beijing (main) station. Leaving, allow at least 90 minutes before you are due to check in. Beijing station is being redeveloped. The previous International Passenger Ticket Office is in a slightly different position - on the right hand side of the waiting room as you go in (as opposed to the left). We found them very helpful (as long as you have some idea of what the possibilities are!) We stayed in Chong Wen Men Hotel some 500m west of the station (next to the Metro station, but it is easily walked). The card rate was 480Y + 10% but they were advertising rooms at 288Y ++ and we had no problem negotiating this (despite the desk staff's denial of availability) which came out at a net 328.80Y. No doubt other hotels in the capital are having to discount too, and you should never accept the full rate! In the area between here and the station are numerous excellent small restaurants - we would recommend trying one of the Chinese Islamic restaurants where the cuisine is distinctively different from the standard fare.
Visitors to China always smile at the 'Chinglish' signs. My favourite this year which so nearly got it right was seen in a hard sleeper toilet: 'Please do not throw any odds and ends into the ponds.' On the other hand, a free bottle of Chinese beer (see comments above) to anyone who can interpret the signs 'Battlements' coming into Tangxian and 'Workbos' going out....