The International Steam Pages

Shibanxi Holiday 2010

This is a relatively brief report, highlighting the minor changes since our 25 day visit in June 2009 - click here for that report. The great thing about Shibanxi is that all the money in the world can't buy you the pictures... This page went 'public' on 12th March 2010, since when the weather has been kind and numerous extra pictures have been added and much video taken. It was last significantly updated on 22nd March 2010.

Shibanxi Heaven - The best steam narrow gauge railway in the world on DVD when it was totally real (2004-2007).

Shibanxi Gold - The best steam narrow gauge railway in the world on DVD as it evolves into a sustainable operation (2008-2011).

By now the trains at Shibanxi should need no introduction to the serious enthusiast. It is, in my book, quite simply the best remaining 'real' steam narrow gauge railway in the world. Darjeeling may have its devotees but even when I first went there in 1976 it was a 'toy train' and these days only the once a day passenger service from Darjeeling to Kurseong and back is remotely real (when there is coal to run it) and, as for freight, unlike the Shibanxi coal trains, that vanished long ago. Great fun, no doubt, but lacking 'bite' and when you add in the local politics and its susceptibility to the monsoon, well it's simply 'no contest'.

Shibanxi certainly isn't the place it once was, that's true. These days almost every passenger train sports at least one modern coach for the tourists although they look a lot better than the 'bus bodies on rails' used on the Darjeeling line. And, like Darjeeling, there are premium rate conditional and charter trains which help balance the books. 

We were back in March 2010 for 'more of the same' as it's a far better place to be than Beijing in the late winter. Being just after Chinese New Year, the coal trains were not running initially and the weather was hardly tropical, to the extent that at it was 10 days before we saw any blue sky. Still, the ambience was as good as ever and we spent much of our time roaming the hills - there is a lot of new material which covers this, see 'more hiking round Bagou'. And then the sun came out (through the haze) for almost the whole of the next 2 weeks.

Click on the links below for the main photo galleries, don't be misled by the nonsense below!

Real Trains
Not a red coach in sight!

Making the best of it
Today's regular trains with those red coaches.

Tender first
You just can't ignore them...

The good news from March 2010 compared to June 2009 is 'almost no change', although there are ever more tourists and they all seem to be touting large expensive cameras and apparel more appropriate for Disneyland than rural Sichuan. There are two major immediate consequences:

  • From the end of February 2010 to early April 2010, there were tourist trains scheduled every Saturday and Sunday at 10.30 from Shixi, stopping for a runpast on the big curve with an extended stay at Huangcun to visit the coal mine museum. Previously they were run 'as required'; I think it likely this will become a permanent arrangement in the very near future, in addition, ad-hoc tourist trains can be expected at any time.

  • We were told that 80,000 tourists rode the 'red coaches' last year. This includes both the regular and extra tourist trains. The true visitor number will be rather higher (I would guess 100,000) as they do not have figures for those who rode in the green coaches either by choice or because the red coaches were full. 

  • If you intend to stay in Bagou at the weekends, you will almost certainly need to pre-book. Expect prices to be 50-100% higher than those for normal weekdays, but still fair value. We still recommend the Tianya Guest House, if it is full, try the Baixin opposite.

In the light of all the above 

  • Chen's Guest House at Mifeng will be more likely to have beds available at weekends at short notice, but there and Caiziba (around the horseshoe) may be infested by hordes of local tourists. Unfortunately, they have no idea where to stand and, even worse, they are likely to change their position at the last minute... The average crazy Japanese is benign in comparison.

  • A smart new restaurant is about to appear in the 'main street' at Bagou. Otherwise 'eating out' remains as before.

  • Our gut feeling is that the Shibanxi we have come to know and love is strictly time limited, the Chinese tourist trade has it in 'its sights' and it is only a matter of time before it becomes 'another Lijiang'. We strongly recommend packing in as much time here as possible and as soon as possible.

Other operational notes - this is the current timetable, (Shixi, Yuejin, Mifeng, Caiziba, Xianrenjiao, Jiaoba, Bagou, Huangcun reading across the top):

  • For some reason, trains were initially using the opposite track at Jiaoba station - the north-west line. Later on in the holiday they reverted to the normal line.

  • During our visit, there were relatively few coal trains. Initially this seems to have been related to a labour dispute over wages following Chinese New Year. Later local holidays and electrical power outages were blamed. However, judging from the amount of stone and cement being shipped to the mine, it will continue working for some time to come. Weekend coal trains may now be history - it would be nice to be proved wrong.

  • We didn't visit Shixi Shed/Works. However, one of our contacts told us that no significant work has been done on either Pengzhou locomotive. We saw just 9, 10 and 14 working and at weekends and some weekdays they were all out at the same time. A visitor just after us also found 7 at work so there are currently four 'runners', not really enough for the current service given that one of them is bound to need a heavy overhaul soon. 

  • We found the weather significantly warmer and drier than our last two visits at this time of year. There are reports of droughts in south-west China and particularly parts of neighbouring Yunnan and this is no doubt related.

"The Times, they are A-changin'" as these pictures show:

Glamorous Bagou
Welcome to the Spring Bonfire Party
Sponsored by: Qianwei Guild of Writers - Bagou Communist Party - Jiayang Power Company

(Alas we were tucked up in bed by the time the party started in the main square at 21.00, late as a result of a prolonged all day power outage.)

Run pasts for the tourists:

Totty on the track... Later we saw another young 'lady' who found her fashion boots so uncomfortable that she had stopped to buy a pair of bedroom slippers to walk along the line!

Sign of the times, this has appeared opposite the platform at Bagou. I assume it means a tour company is bringing foreign tourist groups here rather than touting for gricing custom. After I took the picture, Mr. Yang asked me for 'money', but I am pleased to say he was not very serious.

On the other hand, some things don't seem to change very much, I was waiting for a train below Jiaoba when I got a different kind of run past...

Sensibly, everyone took their time:

Videoing pigs in tunnels is a new experience for me, but all made it safely through to Bagou:

Finally one of my favourites from our walks, a classic of the 'children and animals' genre:

Rob Dickinson