The International Steam Pages

The Shanhetun Forestry Railway 2002

2002 promised to see the virtual extinction of the narrow gauge steam-hauled log train in China. Drastic action was needed which involved throwing sensible sums of money at the three surviving systems I had yet to visit, Ganhe, Shanhetun and Zhanhe. Time alone would not solve the problems involved and while money could have bought me my own trains or railcars, that was way beyond my budget. So I relied instead on excellent reports and maps from other visitors (see my narrow gauge summary page) together with local guides organised by Mr. Zhang of Jilin CITS. This report covering Shanhetun is long and detailed - I fear more as a historical document rather than a guide to future visitors. Click here for my other visits to Ganhe and Zhanhe and here for my visit to Weihe. There are large numbers of other pictures of Shanhetun available separately:

Part 1 - Shanhetun to Sanchahe

Part 2 - Sanrenban area

Part 3 - Baoshan branch

Part 4 - Qianjin and Baishila area

First Visit (February 25th to March 1st)

On arrival back from Ganhe, Harbin CITS failed us for a second time in a row and rather than jump in a taxi to go to their office to complain, it was much easier to go to the booking office at the station and buy the tickets for Shanhetun myself, which took about 3 minutes. More critically, we were met off the train by our Jilin based guide as planned and whisked into a van to the more than satisfactory hotel (yes, we did use the Y260 a night rooms). On the way to dinner we noted the Email/Internet access next door which we used next morning (there is another on the opposite side of the road nearer to the railway). I had long planned to sleep up the line, but the very timely receipt of Mark Lanham's excellent report cemented our plans. 

February 26th was the Lantern Festival, 2 weeks after New Year/Spring Festival and we anticipated reduced traffic. However, an early morning visit showed four line locomotives in steam on shed (this must be quite normal unlike Weihe) with regular pilot 05 with its 6 wheel tender at the station. Being a holiday we were able to spend half an hour on shed without the attention of the management before the inevitable demand for thousands of Yuan and consequent hasty retreat which coincided with the arrival of a loaded train with B031009 to which the pilot attached for entry into the yard. That made a mere 6 C2s in steam. We were told empties would go out at 11.00 and spent too long talking to the world by email, so by the time we got to Xiangyang in our hired minivan the fact that the train with 506 had left at its regular time of 10.00 left us with few options. We then moved on to Shahezi (pronounced "Shaheze") where we had a long wait till it rolled in just before 13.00. It was now quite clear that temperatures here were too high for any exhaust effects except first thing in the morning. Originally we had planned to drop the van here and carry on with the afternoon railcar but the good road conditions encouraged us to continue. Of course, from here on the road got steadily worse particularly after the turn off with the warm southerly breeze causing the snow to melt and the dirt road to turn to mud. A jeep would have been far more appropriate. Eventually we made it through to Sanrenban (pronounced "Sanrenba") just before 15.00 and checked into the jiudian which was so palatial that it made my decision to bring a sleeping bag quite ludicrous. The station reported correctly that a loaded train (with 004) would shortly cross with 506 and this provided a very pleasant half an hour. Indeed they told us a second loaded train (with B031031) would soon appear and thus we had three narrow gauge steam hauled trains in quick succession. Sanrenban has the servicing facilities for the east end of the line with coal, water and a turning triangle which is used by locomotives on most (but not all) outbound empties which makes it a great place for train watching. And of course, you can slake your thirst with beer bought on the station platform. As my Australian friends would say it had been a 'ripper of a day' to get us started and a hard act to follow. Why had it taken me so long to make the effort to do this line properly??? And there were always the two loaded trains that went back between 19.00 and 20.30 for the masochists.... 


Next morning, there had been two empties out, one at midnight and one before dawn. 08 arrived at 08.30 and we talked our way into the caboose. At 09.30 we headed off up the line to Dongfanghong complete with crew car (ex-passenger coach) and log wagons, four of which had spars and winches. About six km out we turned left on another branch and headed for the hills. Almost immediately, the gradient began to bite and the train was split. Dave stayed to read a book and I continued up through the forest until the valley broadened. 08 ran round at a loop and propelled the wagons into a large log yard. Unlike most others I had visited at Weihe, there was no permanent loading gear and the spars had to be offloaded and set up and the diesel powered winches anchored in position. This was a very remote area and the locals had corralled half a dozen deer - common or endangered species, I was in no position to say. After an hour or so loading started and 08 returned to pick up the other half of the train (and Dave who had got so bored he had started walking). Highlight of the journey was taking water from a stream through a long hose using some kind of injector system mounted in the tender. By the time we got back to the log yard the first half of the train was loaded and we grabbed some excellent shots as the train returned to the loop. 08 quickly propelled the remaining empties into the yard and at this point things rapidly turned pear-shaped as the tender derailed at the top end of the loop. With no rerailing gear available, the crew's verdict was 'mintian'. So at 16.15 we were more than ten km from home in the middle of the forest.... There was no choice but to walk out. In just under an hour we were back in the main valley and we struck off on a track in the direction of Sanrenban which would cut a corner off following the railway. Another 15 minutes found the railway track again and as the sun went down we could just see the radio mast in the village far away. Of course, as in all the best films, the US cavalry (this time in the form of a speeder) came over the horizon and ten minutes later we were back in town. One locomotive on empties was in the station and a quick check of the log showed we had chosen a good day to go up the line as there had been no other trains at all. Needless to say the first beer of the day did not touch the sides at all as it went down and the second followed almost as quickly. It would have helped if the heating in the jiudian was better but the plumbing is upside down with hot water going in the top of the radiators. The jiudian by the station has better heating and even a bath but for beer drinkers the outdoor toilets are a killer....  

Loading at Baoshan

Next morning was a little chilly with stunning light, but the bad news was that no trains were expected till the afternoon. Even worse, station staff were beginning to talk about loads of money as we reviewed the train log (mercifully a one off event here). So we again retreated for a quiet morning. The idea was we should walk west in the afternoon to where the railway came close to the hills to photograph first the outbound empties and then the one log train scheduled. This was made easier when we got a lift on one of the speeders. However, the first potential spot was not very satisfactory and we suffered a disastrous attack of indecision. With an hour or more to spare, I wandered off to the village to get my usual beer and Dave started off for the next potential spot. As I came out of the shop I was horrified to see a log train with 506 just 100 metres away. All I managed was a grab shot and in an attempt to rectify the situation I jumped on the caboose as it went past. The look on the crew's face when I said 'hello' was a picture. We rolled past Dave standing next to the track and I continued to just past Sanchahe. However, again there was nothing 'on' and thoughts of coming back with the empties turned to concerns (correctly as it turned out) that it might not be running even though it was scheduled in the log at Sanrenban. So I jumped off, found Dave again and we got a lift with a speeder half way back and walked the rest to be greeted with the news that there was a log train approaching with 004. The light had almost failed as we shot it coming in and being serviced. We were then 'ambushed' by a family in a nearby shop whose son and daughter spoke some English. Very soon we had been christened 'Piju Shu Shu' and 'Mr. Whisky', dinner appeared on the table and the hours rattled by. I have no idea what our guide thought when we finally staggered home, Dave tells me he went drinking with him too (and regretted it), I just passed out.... It had not been a very good day.

Servicing at Sanrenban heading west

Next morning, we staggered blearily to the station and were told that a train of empties would arrive in an hour or two. So we headed west out of town again and this time we got our timing right. 506 appeared round the curve with volumes of exhaust - just about the first we had seen here. Almost immediately it stopped for a ten minute brew up so we got a second go at it, but the 'ball of steam' effect came into play. At least we didn't have to walk back this time... Whereupon the weather failed us for the first time on the trip and of course a loaded log train rolled out at 12.30. Two hours later the clouds had cleared and there was no prospect of a steam train before dark. Indeed at one stage it looked like we would not have a van out, but that all got sorted and we were back in Shanhetun by 18.00. Next day we headed north to Zhanhe, leaving on train 2015. Yes, I could (and did) do it again without a guide but getting started would have taken longer and I am sure we would have missed the first two trains on what turned out to be our busiest afternoon. Weihe, may have the scenery, more daylight activity and easier access but I had spent 3 weeks there before this year's week and at times it resembles a UK preserved line with the number of gricers on the lineside... This one was definitely for the 'total scene' enthusiast, the sight of 08 in the log yard in the middle of the forest will last for a long time in the memory.

Between Sanchahe and Sanrenban

Second visit (March 12th to March 19th)

My original plan had been to visit the Jiyuan and Wandu-Baihe lines south of Beijing at the end of the trip but the logging bug had bitten and I fancied another crack at the lines round Sanrenban in their final year. However much as I enjoy congenial company on my trips, staking out the trains at the top end of the Shanhetun system for a week is something which few gricers would enjoy. It was going to need a lot of patience, but it was never going to strain my budget and, with my lap top to work with, I would have no problem killing the hours (even days) between the trains I wanted to ride and photograph.

Fortunately, the back roads from Weihe (where I had been for a week) connect easily and it was not a difficult decision to splash out on a taxi to do the trip in style. It was a bit further from Qingshan (08.15) to the junction east of Xianyang (09.15) than I expected but by 10.15 I was in Sanrenban. I checked into the jiudian - albeit one of the family bedrooms as the place was full of engineers working on the reservoir project! By 11.00 I had treated driver Daqing to a farewell lunch and a quick visit to the station revealed a very thin log compared to Weihe. In recent days there had been an average of just 3 log trains every 24 hours.... By nightfall, all I had seen was 007 come in on the regularly reported daytime empties (41) at 16.40. It appeared to be going to Baishila. The train I had ridden before to what I believe is Baoshan seemed to be a regular working (21/22). Dinner tonight and every night was a stir fry of a variety of fresh vegetables with a little meat and rice including a couple of beers at a very reasonable Y12.

Returning to Sanrenban

So I set the alarm for 05.00 on March 13th and the sun had yet to rise when I got to the station after a quick breakfast. Sure enough, 06 was there with a short train of empties (the station log showed that even if it arrived in the dark, 21 did not go up the branch before 06.00). It was cold and clear and after some shunting we set off minus the caboose and propelling. We slowed to pick up the log yard workers and headed east. At the branch junction there were more empties which we added to the train. I could not resist jumping off at an open section to attempt a rather poor photograph. Walking on up I found that this time the train had barely gone 1km to a small clearing in the forest where loading was already under way. The crew coach and some empties with spare loading gear were also present - it seemed that this train was clearing the last logs from the branch. By 08.30 half the logs had been loaded so I walked back out to wait for the train. By 09.30 the cavalcade rolled out, extremely slowly owing to the gradient and state of the track and it was easy to get on board after the photograph. The station staff at Sanrenban indicated that it would continue west after servicing, so I walked about 3km west to get the elevated view from the hill next to the river. Eventually the entire train including the crew car and crew, spars, loading gear and a wagon of coal came past about 12.30 - indicating to me that I would have to look elsewhere for activity in the days to come. By now it was warm and hazy and winter was very much on the wane - there were butterflies fluttering and I had a small mouse for company. I hitched a lift on a passing motor bike back to town. It had been a very pleasant morning, even when one of the train crew addressed me as 'Piju Shu Shu' - Dave and I had obviously made some impression on our previous visit. I walked out for 41 in the afternoon, but it showed no sign of putting in an appearance and the light was dire so I retired to get some work done.

Between Sanrenban and Sanchahe

March 14th was a day of extreme highs and lows. One important feature of operations at Sanrenban is the availability every evening of the following day's anticipated schedule - subject to the usual caveats. On this occasion it showed train 1 at 05.00 which I was told would go to Baishila. So I had an early bed and set the alarm for 04.00, something I had not done since the glory days of Indonesian main line steam in the 1970s. I hardly saw the pot noodle or coffee through bleary eyes and trudged to the station through the invisible mud of the darkened main street. Sure enough a long train of empties was in the station. I barely had time to discover there was no caboose, before the loco whistled up and left me just enough time to jump aboard one of the wagons. After an hour or so we came to a halt and as daylight broke I could see that 004 was still smokebox first and the line ahead was blocked by the railway's diesel crane clearing the remains of a derailment. This seemed to have only affected the last log wagon and the caboose behind had presumably been replaced by our one as we grabbed it once the mess had been sorted out. The crew seemed a little surprised to find they had a stowaway but I was welcomed on to the loco for the next section but later asked to join the caboose. It was going to be one of those days when the sun never broke through the haze and clouds would come and go, although it was clear that there were no great action shots available. We left three wagons at Yongsheng and took the rest down the branch to the south. The train was much longer than the loop so we had to run round in two stages, we then propelled the wagons into the forest where it was clear from the complete absence of mechanisation that the logs would be loaded manually. Unfortunately the loco did not wait for this to happen but returned to the junction and headed its reduced train for Baishila. Here the loco ran round the triangle and collected three fulls. Gricers are not common here, someone who spoke no English pointed to me and drew the letters 'UFO' in the dirt. About now I made my first acquaintance with a belligerent drunk who appeared to be some kind of supervisor because the train crew were in total awe of him. Anyway, the loco, open wagon and caboose then headed just outside the station whereupon the entire crew vanished for an hour - unusually, but fortunately, I was not invited to join them because it seems they were drinking something a lot stronger than the water in my camera bag. 004 subsequently vanished for half an hour to find some water and then we all headed back to town where I was able at last to see the manual loading of some large logs - up to four pairs of men with yokes complete with work chants (the latter as I had seen in the Cepu Forest in Java). By now it seemed that the only people here who were not drunk were the loaders and the children, and I was invited into a lunch party where the spirits were being dispensed by the kettle full. Fortunately, it seemed the train was ready to leave so I escaped just in time. It stopped at the edge of town, whistling furiously for a missing person. This turned out to be the 'supervisor' who by now could barely stand. He started to demand vast sums of money for the privilege of my riding the train out and patient negotiation got me nowhere. So I had no choice but to get off and watch it leave without me... It was 16.00 and I was a mere 20km from 'home'. The first thing was to get clear of town and I walked out towards the branch to the west, a motor cyclist gave me a lift part way and I crossed the railway there just after 004 went out to get its fulls. I walked on for another hour or more, but there was no traffic at all. Eventually at 17.45 as the light was failing I heard the tut-tut-tut of a 3-wheeler behind me as both of us struggled up the hill. It was the Chinese equivalent of the Steptoe's rag and bone cart (father and son ran a very down market recycling business on BBC TV in the 1960s) - piled high with empty beer bottles and the like. Not only did the couple stop to give me a lift, they were clearly going somewhere near Sanrenban. 'Hercules' was not in the best of shape and frequently stalled on the hills, but on we went with me perched on top through the mud and the night and eventually just after 19.00, we came down a hill and I was put off the 'cart' and pointed onwards - all payment being completely refused. Much to my amazement another 15 minutes walk brought me home and rarely has evening refreshment seemed so welcome. In fact, I had beaten 004 back by more than an hour. Baishila is not high on my list of repeat visits even if the line survives another year, and my feelings on China had swung extraordinarily in the space of just three hours.

Mixed train at Sanrenban

I pencilled in March 15th as a recovery day. I had a lie-in till 06.30 and at 07.00 the station reported that train 1 due at 04.50 would actually arrive about 09.00. It was a beautiful day with just a slight bite in the air, so I walked out 1km to the bridge and waited and read Mr. Bean's leaving present - The Ultimate Journey - a story of a journey through Asia retracing the steps of a 7th century Buddhist monk by an American suffering a very similar mid-life crisis as your current scribe. Anyway 67 (anonymous but confirmed by the driver and carrying a Polish plate 3850/1959) rolled by within ten minutes of prediction - not only was the vegetation clear, but it seemed somebody had taken out most of the railings in the critical position. I jumped on the train as it passed and then walked down the track for the departure. However, this time 67 was turned and I reboarded, hoping this meant it would go down one of the branches I had yet to explore. However, this was not to be the case and at the second junction I alighted despite the offer to drive the locomotive. I had no wish to risk a repeat the previous day's experience and, besides, there was no photographic benefit either. So I walked back to Liangdianzi and sat in the sun and waited for railcar 202. It had a long layover here, the highlight of which was watching the locals persuade six horses to get into the freight area of the train. The fare back to Sanrenban was a mere Y1, somewhat embarrassed, I reflected that this was the first of many rides on this system I had actually paid for. Much to my surprise, 67 made it back to Sanrenban by 16.00, but here it waited to cross 41 (arriving 16.40) and a railcar (arriving 17.20), so the sun was down before it left. Florian Menius and Till Mosler arrived here today, showing you can travel quite comfortably round China for U$10 a day - not just for a week up the line at Shanhetun where daily outgoings were about U$5 only.

Arriving at Sanrenban

Next day, the three of us caught the 06.00 bus to Shahezi (at Y5 Florian pointed out we could have saved money by getting up an hour or more earlier and taking the railcar.....). The original plan had been to go to Shanhetun and charter a taxi, but the weather dictated this would have been a waste of money. In Sanrenban, there was a log train waiting to go, from the bus we saw a set of empties (bound for Shuguang as it turned out) and a further set of empties was also seen approaching Shahezi (late running train 1 again). So we went our separate ways. Til had to be in Shanhetun to catch the 19.30 to Jilin and Florian wanted to ride the railbus to Dongshen (in the end he missed it while photographing a log train). I jumped on board 007's train and headed for Shenjiaying and Sanchahe - I wanted to see this section as it looked prettier than most on this line. At Shenjiaying we crossed B031031 on the fulls and then headed up the valley past where the new dam is to be be built. Very attractive, but there would have been few, if any, photo spots even if I had been able to get there. I eased myself off the train as we charged through Sanchahe and then spent the next 4 hours walking back to Shahezi (18km), by which time I was feeling my age. As expected, not a single train of any kind was seen in either direction. In the afternoon, 41 arrived with 004 at 15.00 but the light by now was not at all good.

Shahezi bridge

On March 17th, we (Florian and I) had hoped to ride the Shuguang train, but it left in the middle of the night. At 05.00 all that was on offer was 41 (running much earlier than normal with 43 in its usual path). So we caught a railcar towards Shanhetun until we met it then transferred to ride all the way up to Qianjin which was another branch I had yet to see. It was a beautiful morning and the valley above Shenjiaying looked stunning. We arrived in Qianjin by 11.00, this appears to have been the original destination of the railway and is very much a 'company village' with the railway running down the main street.  B031031 ran round the train and propelled its empties into the large log yard, which seemed to be rather run down. Three electric hoists did most of the loading and a little was done (photogenically) by hand. There was very little, if any, sense of urgency and time just slipped away, the place was so small we couldn't find a restaurant. Eventually, 31 backed on to the train just after 16.00 and we hoped to photograph the departure, but one of the empties had been left in the wrong position so more shunting was needed before it could be loaded. So we left at 17.00 and it was 20.00 by the time we got back to Shahezi. It had been a fascinating day, the simple description above does not do justice to it. 


March 18th was to be last day on the line. We saw the early railcars come and go, Florian even receiving a proposal of marriage from what I judged to be a retired massage girl. It started off well, it was quite bright and 004 was running late on the Shuguang train (21). However, as it left Shahezi and I boarded the caboose, I found my 'friend' from Baishila on board. He may have been sober this time, but he was no more friendly than before, so I quickly alighted. He had already kicked Florian off at the station. Never mind, there was always train 921, going to a loading point at Fendou on the Dongshen line. B031009 came into Shahezi at 08.00, the only cloud in the sky masking its entry. It then went to run round the triangle, but on shunting a crew car and a couple of empties, it precipitated a huge derailment which also shattered the points leading off the triangle. So that was the end of plan B. Plan C was to photograph train 41 which also again scheduled for the morning, but that had been cancelled. So that left train 43 due at 13.20 and a whole morning with nothing to do. Florian went for his breakfast and I relaxed. An hour later he came back with the surprising news that the derailment had been fixed and departure was imminent. We rushed to the train only to be told firmly but politely that we could not travel on it. Obviously, our 'friend' had left his calling card with the crew. Eventually, 43 turned up more than an hour early but was held up outside Shahezi while a broken rail was fixed. Whereupon B031031 (by my estimate the best locomotive on the line) charged in, took water, and headed on up the line. Florian took the afternoon railbus to Sanrenban, while I took one in the opposite direction to Shanhetun. This was not a very good move as the train was more than three hours late and I should have taken a bus. But it did save me quite a bit of money as there was absolutely no point in taking one of the good rooms in the Forestry Hotel by the time I arrived just before 22.00. 

On March 19th, the light snow predicted by two days earlier had started and, it being March, Shanhetun rapidly became a slushy mess. So it was an easy decision to relax over a couple of cups of coffee before leaving on 2015 for Harbin, Beijing and home. I had allowed myself two days to do this, an internal flight being beyond my budget. In practice, I easily got a hard sleeper on T72 giving me a free day in Beijing. Here it was raining and later the city suffered a 'pea souper' from a sandstorm which suggests my decision to stay north was the right one. This winter, I will have had two (separate) months in China for a total of just over GBP 2500, significantly more than usual owing partly to extra long distance travel and especially to employing a few guides. Of course, it would be easy pay almost as much as this for a single 3 week package tour which would have included much I had done before and did not want to repeat. Obviously, I could have saved an air fare by doing a combined trip but I find by the end of a month I am ready to stop carrying my home on my back. Incidentally, assiduous readers will note that I did not see a single QJ let alone photograph one along my steamy way....


I saw the following locomotives at work on the line: 004, 06, 007, 08, 67, 506, 031009, 031031 plus 05 as pilot. 603 was reported working in February. The way the line operates with empties and fulls mainly crossing at night between Shanhetun and Shahezi means that nearly half the fleet will be on shed at Shanhetun during the daytime.

I was delighted to have had the opportunity to have a detailed look at this railway in what we are told is its last full season, but I have to say that there were long frustrating periods between the high points. Few railfans have gone beyond Shahezi and almost none have stayed up the line, certainly none at all for as long as I was able to. Visitors are consistently told that the southern lines will close shortly for the building of a large reservoir - the dam will fill the valley east of Shahezi, flooding some 120 sq km which sounds an ecological disaster waiting to happen. There is no doubt that the railway there is in an appalling state, in many places where the sleepers have sunk into the mud or started to break up, small blocks of wood have been inserted in an attempt to keep the rails level. Derailments are obviously very common and I counted nearly 200 abandoned logs next to the line between Shenjiaying and Sanchahe. I am sure overall there were enough to fill several train loads... The staff seemed somewhat dispirited and lethargic in comparison to Weihe. Local information was again that the Dongshen line will be open next season, note that although I have had one report that it was 'logged out', we found later there were still logging trains on it. One visiting group was told that the railway hopes to get the contract to carry stone for the new dam and that may offer it a temporary reprieve. As nearly always is the case on the narrow gauge in China, the local people were extremely friendly once they had got over the shock of a strange visitor and the railway staff (with one exception) extremely courteous, friendly and helpful. The sight of 101 people getting off a railbus at Shahezi one morning (still leaving virtually every seat occupied) shows that it still has an important role to play in the area. No doubt the reservoir represents 'progress' but as often happens in China (and to be fair elsewhere too) a lot of nice people are going to get trampled in the process. It was not ideal gricing for every reader of this page, but for me it was exactly what I wanted with just enough of a photographic record (to be posted later) to show others why I felt this way. If it turns out to be my last steam logging visit in China, I will retire from the scene well satisfied.

Sanrenban arrival

Rob Dickinson