The International Steam Pages

Steam in North China February 2003

As a 'holiday' after my visit to North Korea, I spent 3 weeks in China. If you want to skip the innuendo, politics, character assassination, local culture etc and just ogle at the pictures then here are the links you need: 

Beitai Iron and Steelworks Photo Links

Weihe Photo Links 

Introduction and Diatribe 

The main purpose of the trip was to say 'goodbye' to Weihe, my favourite narrow gauge railway in China. As in 2002, I was joined by Dave McLeod who showed he had still not learned to talk continuously while juggling one video and two still cameras at the same time without all three ending up in the dirt. However, his blessings are manifold, most importantly he brews a wickedly good cup of real coffee but also, perhaps because he has (lots) more money than me, he has far greater patience when dealing with the excesses of some of the local Chinese. 

Before I start, I should explain that I have mixed feelings about China. Frankly, I dislike China collectively/culturally as a country but I really do like (most) individual Chinese people (in fact, as those who know me will vouch, very similar to my feelings towards the USA and its citizens). For a long time, I have spent around two months every year in Indonesia (mainly Java) and if I have a single bad experience/unpleasantness on a trip then I consider myself unlucky; not surprisingly I consider it my second home and in return the greatest compliment I am paid there is to be treated as an Indonesian gentleman. This year in China on my eighth extended visit, travelling was easier than it has ever been and at least as cheap (does anyone really need to spend U$3000 or more for a 2 week trip?), we were treated with great kindness by a large number of people - I lost count of the number of free meals we had, my favourite little restaurant in Weihe would still serve me all I could eat and a beer for Y13 and the train crews at Weihe never suggested we pay for a ride - yet, on an almost daily basis we were subjected to consistent attempted overcharging even in places where few tourists had ever been, the main villains as ever being some restaurants and small hotels - the most blatant case being the bath-house at Chonghe where we were asked for Y15 when the sign outside clearly showed Y2. Similarly, over the years as I travelled independently, I have had some excellent guides to places which are closed to casual visitors (of which I rate Mike Ma of Mudanjiang the best), but on other (much rarer) occasions I have been treated with poor, indifferent or even non-existent service and a mixture of down-right lies and half truths. This, taken with the cold, the crowds, the shear hedonism of the modern China and especially the filth, makes the Chinese experience rather wearing at times. Put rather crudely, I find it a country where the phrase 'quality of life' is largely equated with material possessions rather any genuine regard for the future (or the past). Apart from waiting on the lineside in the middle of the countryside, I never feel totally relaxed here, without the steam it holds few attractions for me. Contrast this with Burma, Indonesia, Eritrea (even India) and similar countries where I would unhesitatingly go on a 'normal' holiday without a steam locomotive in sight. 

Anyway, along the way we visited Beitai (see below), Yuanbaoshan, JingPeng and Weihe. For Yuanbaoshan, from our brief visit, we can add little except to say that the 07.00 passenger ran just at sunrise on 8th February - on a clearer day it might have made a good silhouette.  The crews here would appreciate gifts of foreign coins although the control tower clearly expected something of greater worth. Overall, I did not see enough to get me enthused about this system. JingPeng was, well, as expected, classic action on the lineside with grossly inflated prices (and poor food) in the standard gricer restaurant (the rest being closed owing to the extended Spring Festival holiday) and the mafia invisible to us but terrorising the other visitors' Chinese guides each evening. If you want to see my excellent pictures from here you will have to cross my palm with silver. For Chifeng, we strongly recommend the Wan Long Hotel on the edge of the pedestrianised area. Although some way from rail and bus stations, the reception we were treated to was memorable for all the right reasons.  Rumours of mass closures of internet cafes are just that, I was able to check my emails cheaply and reliably on an almost daily basis in Benxi (David Longman was one street out!), Chifeng, Reshui and Weihe. Note that at Reshui there is an Internet Cafe further up the road from the Railway Hotel, opposite the next hotel at the back of a large yard - no signs being apparent.

Beitai Iron and Steelworks (6th and 7th February 2003)

As previously done by David Longman (and separately Ameling Algra), we entrusted (very expensive) arrangements for a two day visit to Mrs. Sun and were given Mrs. Dung as guide. Mrs. Sun has a well-established reputation for charging 'top dollar' but nevertheless producing the goods. Unfortunately, we got the first but not the second.

On the sunnier of two bright days, we arrived about 10.30. As with the previous visitors we were taken not to some office to report as I would have expected, but straight to the slag dumping area (near A on the map from Louis Cerny). Mrs. Dung thereupon vanished (into the warmth of a nearby control room no doubt), but not before we had asked for and received an assurance that we could go anywhere in the plant as long as we were careful. Before starting photography in earnest, we decided to scout out the site, walking along the outside of the perimeter wall to the loco shed and then back into the works. The pouring of the molten iron and slag into the cars was spectacular, but before we had had a chance to enjoy any serious photography we were 'gripped' by security staff and taken to the main office. Here we were detained and politely questioned in the usual manner; it was abundantly clear that the management had absolutely no inkling of our visit. After an hour or two, the police melted away and the senior international manager arrived. Fortunately, he spoke perfect English and was sufficiently versed in the ways of the world to understand our purpose (he was a frequent visitor to the UK as part of the mill's export drive) and after an unsuccessful attempt to locate Mrs. Dung, we were escorted from the premises and advised strongly not to re-enter. We later made a rather frosty re-acquaintance with our guide at our hotel in Benxi. 

The following morning we again went to Beitai and twiddled our thumbs outside for over an hour while Mrs. Dung obtained a permit for a visit (just how, an experienced Asian hand can best only guess), which appeared to be hand-written on a page torn from a school exercise book. Thereafter, we finally had an uninterrupted free run of the place and obtained an excellent set of pictures. Once again we managed to lose our guide and again we had to make our own way back to Benxi when she left the appointed rendezvous five minutes before the agreed time. Mrs. Dung was totally unapologetic and even tried to hold our train tickets as hostage as we forcibly negotiated a reduction (50%) on the previously agreed price for the visit. At the time of uploading (more than three weeks later and despite an email of complaint) I have yet to receive an apology or any form of rational explanation of the events as they unfolded. I had been detained in China for 'steam activities' three times before but had never previously paid a guide for the privilege! In Europe, where a tour company is contractually responsible to deliver what has been promised, we would, quite simply, have taken Mrs. Sun to court. Quite what less experienced travellers would have made of the situation is best left to the imagination.

David Longman has posted his own photo-gallery for Beitai, unfortunately I did not check it out before I left home and his site is blocked from within China (where I prepared mine) and there may be some duplication. Let the pictures speak for themselves, this is a indeed a fascinating industrial operation, well worth visiting - but get a different organisation to take you inside! (The public part of the system while steamy is hardly worth a visit for its photographic potential.)

Weihe R.I.P. (18th to 26th February 2003)

This was to be a valedictory visit to the Weihe Forestry Railway, by common consent it will close at the end of the current season (if it lasts that long). To avoid neo-pornography you may wish to go straight to the three picture galleries, but suffice to say that although I had a very enjoyable nine days, the railway's operation was clearly in terminal decline. Compared to earlier years, there was no passenger train and according to the train register at Xiping there had been no trains at all between January 31st and February 5th, a very extended Chinese New Year's break. Overall while the railway was indeed busy, this was a pale imitation of what I saw on my first visit in January 2000 and the phrase 'systematic neglect' sums up the situation perfectly. The place was crawling with visitors, but fortunately very few ventured more than 200 metres from their taxis/minibuses. Despite having a motive power crisis caused by regular locomotive failures, the railway was happy to allocate a single coach passenger train for a few over-moneyed Japanese (reportedly for a 'bargain' Y6000) during one day of our visit. Otherwise, after three previous visits, it proved hard to come up with a set of 'new' pictures but I think I have just about succeeded.

I have been quoted a figure of 1000 employees on the railway who will lose their jobs when it closes. Economist friends tell me that this probably means there will be at least 5000 more who directly rely on it as suppliers etc. Add in the dependants of all these people, then start to include those people whose livelihood depends on the money they spend (not to mention the gricers' inputs) and remember that this is a very poor area of China and you are left with an awful lot of misery. I asked the Chinese gricers about what the local people (who always smile and look cheerful when I wave to them) really thought. It seems they are very critical of the government which they see as having no interest in them. They would love to get their hands on some of our money but are too shy, polite and unsophisticated for the most part to know how to do it. 

Farewell ride

My previous reports are still available:

I had three days on the cheap (buses Y8 a day) and earlier six days using my regular taxi driver Gao Daqiang who appeared out of the dark on the expressway outside of town in response to a call from the hostess on our bus from Harbin and continues to do the business well, albeit at top-of-the-market prices, with some illusions of grandeur and a less than complete understanding of western business practices. Here we relax in the ludian at Chonghe while he admires my exotic laptop wallpaper: Unfortunately, someone in Chonghe took exception to his car and smashed the back windscreen during one night. Overcharging is endemic there and it seems not to be a totally happy place (see my notes above). 

There is other good and bad news about staying in Chonghe. The good news is the art-work in the hot showers:

The bad news is the other facilities (don't look too closely):

More good news is that eating out here is standard Chinese - albeit at big nose prices until you complain - not to be confused with the standard gricing crap of bastardised Sichuan chicken, sweet and sour pork, egg and tomato, topped with french fries and guaranteed constipation/heart attack.

"All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small
All things wise and wonderful
The Chinese cook them all."

You should always judge a man by the company he keeps: 

Finally I must express my appreciation to the three tour guides (Mike Ma of Mudanjiang, Zhang of Jilin and Tina of Harbin) and the group of Chinese gricers who each separately invited me to dinner in Weihe and refused any form of payment - it is nice to know that all the hours put into these web pages are appreciated by some people. I had a dreadful cold/fever and such positive gestures greatly cheered me up - 'Yin and Yang' really does sum up the China experience.

Rob Dickinson