The International Steam Pages

Yabuli Forestry Railway

Individual travel photographing steam locomotives in China is rewarding but challenging. Yabuli is on the mainline between Harbin and Mudanjiang. Its hotel is large as the town is on the fringe of a winter sports area. Like most establishments of its kind it was overpriced, frequently overheated and underused. Unfortunately it provided little more than a dribble of cold water (let alone hot) during our stay and sometimes no electricity, a situation which caused the management no obvious concern. By contrast, the restaurant attached was well run. The enthusiastic staff found their best English speakers who volunteered to show us where the railway started. Apart from the fact that there was the inevitable log yard with an arched bridge and that at least part of it was next to the road north as suggested by the Nelles map, we knew little. On the first of 4 totally dull days, a 15 minute walk found the staff reserved but not unfriendly and clearly not yet used to visitors.

Almost immediately a log train arrived. After some desultory shunting, a small railcar left back north, and the steam loco headed for the fueling point where it was turned and the tender loaded with frozen lumps of coal hacked out of small wagons which had brought it from the standard gauge connection. It was obvious little was to happen so we persuaded our new friends to return to the warmth of the hotel. By 11.00 an empty train was ready to leave, but we were not allowed to join it. Instead, photographic possibilities were checked out while wedged in the aisle of a crowded bus next to cut down oil drums covered in sacking which I discovered contained a mixture of ice cold water and comatose fish which slurped over me every time the bus lurched as it hit a pot hole. From Yabuli, the line climbed for some way and this would be downhill for loaded trains. Eventually after about 10km we breasted a small hill and started to descend. Apart from the inevitable poles, the line was reasonably clear and my hopes were raised. After a few km the line leveled out into an area of scrubland. With no idea where the bus was heading or my prospects of returning, I abandoned it after some 20km and trudged through the snow to a passing loop where the empties I had seen earlier were halted. A railcar appeared and it was not a difficult decision to take it back to Yabuli. The following days saw long waits in the frozen gloom for occasional spectacular activity up the bank, standard formation being one loco back and front. A five minute chink of light encouraged us to hire an expensive taxi which in the end was used mainly to follow the line some 60km after which time we had still not seen a tree of any size although now the railway left the road and headed for the nearby hills. With no sign of a change in the weather we abandoned our attempts at the master shot.

Two weeks later I dragged my companion back (he was armed with a less demanding cine camera and more satisfied with our first efforts). The room rates had gone up in anticipation of the Asian Winter Games and the facilities if anything were worse. However, the next day dawned bright and clear and there was deep fresh snow all around, perfect conditions which remained the same for the rest of our stay. A solitary taxi was waiting at the station and we dragged the bad tempered driver away from his breakfast to reach the summit just as the sun cleared the hill tops. Within 10 minutes there was a puff of steam down the valley and slowly the perfect procession of logs wound its way up. Kodak shares leapt dramatically and we returned to the road to find the taxi abandoned and the train vanishing into the distance. There was no choice but the bus again and we managed just one more shot before Yabuli. Eventually we were reunited with the taxi driver and after much arm waving we headed northwards again. Beyond the summit, we found another train about to start the climb. An over rapid turn on a frozen road required a push out of the ditch but it was easy enough to get into position. Amazingly, a third train appeared completing an amazing transformation in our fortunes.

There was one last morning to fill before the train to Harbin, so we chartered a 3 wheeler to take us to the summit area. As usual the banker appeared and descended the hill. Departure time drew closer and still nothing moved. A further light engine came past and eventually an astonishing cavalcade came into sight, two locos on the front (one half failed, assisting as it could) and one on the back struggling up. The result was a spectacle rarely seen by enthusiasts and never to be forgotten.

Logging lines in China are closing or dieselising fast. By the time you read this it may already be too late. Certainly we later learned that 2 of the locos on the Xilin Mineral Railway had recently arrived from the newly dieselised system at Chaihe which had been our alternative better documented destination to Yabuli. Fortune had again favoured the brave!

Rob Dickinson