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Steam in China

by Roger Blundell

Hegang, Tiefa, Meihekou, JiTong, Fuxin, Nanpiao

Yes its time for the annual China trip, a very short one this year due to domestic commitments.

Having been told that British Airways had gone into the Chinese student travel market in a big way off I set for Gerrard St in Soho with a cunning plan of disguise to resemble one of the said students. Within minutes I had in my hand a piece of paper confirming that I had been issued with an E(lectronic) ticket at a very reasonable price of £359.

Sunday 06 June

1630 British Airways flight BA39 to Beijing. The Boeing 777 was just 50% full on this the first Sunday it had operated.

Monday 07 June

Beijing arrive right time at 0920.

Change up some sterling travellers cheques at a rate of 15.12 (note rate in London was 14.34) then book flight to Haerbin at 1150. 910 yuan (£64) including airport tax

After an incredibly slow descent with the plane seeming to hover almost motionless for 20 minutes we arrived 5 late. Bus connects for town and drops me off at the main station where town bus 6 runs to Haerbindong. There are actually 2 rows of route 6 buses outside the station on this route, the normal grotty bus and a smarter one with more comfortable seats.

Book soft sleeper to Hegang (139 yuan/£9.70) then rest in CNR doss house to the left of station for 10 yuan (£0.70) room. Since my last visit there has been an upgrade here with new toilets, which smell slightly less vile than the old ones.

Sleeper quite full, only upper berths available. A sign of the new China this with higher occupancy rates nowadays in soft sleepers.

Tuesday 08 June

Right time at Hegang 0607, crossing 0600 ex Jipei just south of the station. Walk across tracks at south end of platform to Mine Railway. Very displeased to find 0640 to Xingshan electric hauled but this was more than outweighed by the reinstatement of the service on the long line to Shanzhuang

0655 Jipei – Shanzhuang 0805 SY 0905

Note that the timings of these trains have been altered.

Load 5. A smart refurbished rake with two coaches converted to composite soft & hard seating and classified RYZ22.

On a dull cold morning enjoyed some good thrash on the branch up to the terminus, after clearing the semi industrial areas line passes by smallholdings and fields then at higher altitude through mixed deciduous/coniferous woodland interspersed with small lakes with people fishing. All very different to Hegang.

0835 Shanzhuang - Jipei 0936 SY 0905

A quiet downhill run on the branch, then back to Hegang and its pall of coal dust.

With the 1418 to Xingshan being electric powered another trip to Shanzhuang was the next best option.

1323 Jipei – Shanzhuang 1430 SY 0905

A nice sunny afternoon and some more good thrash on the branch.

Although there are buildings on one side of Shanzhuang station it is a very pleasant spot without even a paved road. Very quiet at this time with just a few passengers around, mostly courting couples returning from a day at the nearby lake.

Perhaps this type of traffic is what the Hegang Mine Railway wants to capture with its smart new refurbished train – a first venture into the tourism business by a mine railway.

1455 Shanzhuang - Nanshan 1551 SY 0905

Bail out at Nanshan 5 late – too tight for connection at Jipei into Junli train.

Ambulance at Nanshan carts away unfortunate character who I suspect was hit by a train.

1609 Nanshan – Junli 1650 SY 1498

Load 7 with traditional longitudinal seating. Train quite busy on a pleasant sunny evening.

Now that this train no longer runs via Junde there is a longer turn round at Junli with just enough time for a small meal in the station ‘restaurant’.

1726 Junli – Jipei 1815 SY 1498

Some good thrash up and over the main line with the heavier load of 300 tons.

Good atmosphere on this run at Xingan with an SY slipping furiously trying to move empty wagons and again near Dalu where gleaming SY 0635 overtook us on a coal train.

1835 Jipei – Junli 1920 SY 0905

Load 2.

1930 Junli – Jipei2015 SY 0905

Watch the sun set over smog covered Hegang.

An unidentified 2 coach passenger working with an SY was twice noted: -

At Dalu 0710 hrs facing Jipei and at Fuli 1900 hrs heading towards Jipei (SY 1370)

Forsake the usual cheap hotel across the road from Hegang station for the new Long Yun Hotel just slightly to the north. Room & breakfast 188 yuan, body & foot massage 50 yuan (girl comes to room) total £16.65.

Wednesday 09 June

0640 to Xingshan again electric.

0655 Jipei – Shanzhuang 0805 SY 0799

A dull grey and wet start to the day and very cold. Again cross SY 1370 with its 2 coach passenger at Dalu.

Good thrash through the front vestibule from the tender first loco.

By Shanzhuang the weather had brightened up and the sun appeared.

0835 Shanzhuang - Jipei 0936 SY 0799

The forest section was very attractive on a cold sunny morning with the spring vegetation and glistening lakes for the short while before the grime of the Hegang conurbation reappeared.

The sunny morning turned within minutes into a howling gale with heavy rain, a bit worrying on the 8th floor of the hotel where I was cleaning up. Then down to station to book Jiamusi – Tieling soft sleeper (266 yuan + 5 yuan fee) and hard seat to Jiamusi on N90 at 1255.

I think there is also a through Hegang – Tieling train at 0850 (6544/2122)

N89 (1233 arrival) and N90 are a through Qitaihe – Hegang – Qitaihe service, how convenient that would have been up to a year ago.

N89 arrives 1257. Loco runs round and away by 1306. Expensive excess into soft seat in sleeper to Jiamusi – 24 yuan, short wait in the very clean and smart soft class waiting room then 2096 Xiliu (where?) train to Tieling.

Thursday 10 June

Tieling arrive 0451, 15 late.

Taxi to Daqing, 30 yuan. Taken first by town taxi to big taxi station in town then transferred. Not a journey for anyone fainthearted, even on an empty road, with speeds up to 70 mph on the single carriageway.

0554 Daqing – Diaobingshan 0621 SY 0393

Load 8. Train forms 0640 to Dongguantan

A few commuters join at each station. A pleasant run on a cool sunny morning.

This train does not stop at Diaobingshannan.

0628 Diaobingshan –– Wangqian 0752 SY 0860

Runs via Xiaonan.

Another pleasant run with some good noise after the triangle.

0802 Wangqian - Diaobingshan 0845 SY 0860

Quite full. Weather starts to warm up.

0852 Diaobingshannan – Sanjiazi 0902 SY 1412

Catch this to get a new engine, one of only three such on the whole trip!

Noodle breakfast and tea in small shop cum house outside station run by old lady.

1003 Sanjiazi - Daming 1037 SY 0665

A bit livelier than usual on this line.

Daming was its usual quiet self and by now almost too hot to walk about. As usual though a pleasant break in steam activity.

1258 Daming - Diaobingshan 1344 SY 0665

The heat inside this train was reminiscent of bashing in India. Kindly gripper lady brings water from boiler for drink. Poor climb up into Diaobingshan.

1406 Diaobingshan – Dongguantan 1539 SY 0393

Some odd bursts of good noise. Very hot still. Note a diesel hauled freight. There are now at least 3 diesels on the system now (2003, 2005 & 2006 I think).

1617 Dongguantan - Diaobingshan 1756 SY 0393

Very crowded with mine workers. Some good thrash starts. By now very knackered by heat and lack of sleep.

Book in at the newly discovered Yu He Zi Ran Guang Cheng Bathhouse Hotel. Offered 150 yuan room, declined and a 100 yuan room taken instead. Note that these rooms in Bathhouse Centres do not have windows so they may not be to everyone’s taste.

1832 Diaobingshan –– Wangqian 1933 SY 0860

Runs via Xiaonan. Well loaded with commuters and students. Loco gets along well on an atmospheric run past villages and hills in the twilight.

1953 Wangqian - Diaobingshan 2025 SY 0860

Calls at all stations, as opposed to what the timetable says. Further delayed crossing a freight. 10 late. Gripper ladies setting up their beds on the train so assume this set works overnight to Dongguantan.

Note new pair of Daming trains shown on board H110 1920 Daming - Diaobingshan 1956

H109? 0500 Diaobingshan – Daming 0536

Return to ‘hotel’. Greeted in military style. A Sergeant Major type bawls at the two guards on the door who snap to attention then welcome me in similar ear splitting vein.

A sexy well-endowed and broad-minded young lady provided a memorable and most enjoyable 75-minute massage, one, which will not be easily forgotten.

Full marks to the blokes who discovered this place, I now understand the significance of the comments ’cheap at twice the price’ and ‘allow plenty of time here’.

Total cost of evening & night £13.30, room 100 + massage 90 yuan.

Thursday 10 June

Another very hot day in prospect as 1999 built SY 1772 rolls its 8 coach train into a crowded platform.

0640 Diaobingshan – Dongguantan 0819 SY 1772

Good run with bursts of thrash in the cool morning air. Train full of commuters to the mine.

0829 Dongguantan – Diaobingshan 1003 SY 1772

Slow droning run with no noise from loco. Becomes hot and stuffy on the train.

Seat in taxi to Tieling, 10 yuan (£0.70). Dropped off outside station after tour of the town. Hard seat with reservation to Siping at 1354 (N171 Shenyang – Jilin). 15 late Siping, a wedged train.

Siping station being rebuilt, an absolute mess. 1625 to Meihekou, again with a reserved seat. I last caught this train (Changchun – Tonghua) back in 1990 with an RM ex Changchun then a series of QJs. It’s gone downhill nowadays in more ways than one, rather scruffy and no longer conveys a soft class coach. Pleasant line nevertheless, scenery reminded me of the Dordogne area.

5 late Siping, R/T Meihekou.

Obtaining overnight accommodation to match Fuxin was a hard act to follow but the Xing Gan Han Shi Xi Yu Bathhouse Hotel came pretty close.

This place is located not far down the main road running on the right away from the station square. It’s on the left hand side set back very slightly from the previous shop fronts. The ground floor entrance is rather inconspicuous and modest, walk upstairs to the reception past the briquette fired hot water boiler ( ? SY hauled coal).

A price of 255 yuan (£17.80) produced a room with toilet, a dinner of sweet & sour pork, use of the bathhouse and a nice massage, which included the hot pad torture, from a slim sexy young thing. I could do with this lifestyle on a more regular basis.

Saturday 12 June

A young English-speaking bloke called ’David’ works at the hotel. He had helped with translations the previous night and understood my need to reach the Meihekou Mine Railway at Sijing. He woke me at 0430 and at 0510 instructed a taxi driver where I needed to be taken. Even without him I am sure one would be able to get the address through to any driver.

Journey to Sijing (No.4 mine) took less than 25 minutes and was via a dirt road cut off from the tarmac road.

As we arrived at 0540 an SY departed Sijing with some wagons and it was presumably this loco, which returned from Yijing at 0607 with the ECS.

0616 Sijing – Sanjing 0703 SY 0791

Load 5, four YZ22 plus a hard sleeper on the rear with middle & upper berths removed. All very scruffy. Fare 0.50 yuan.

A nice busy early morning train full of local colour, the loco providing some crisp sharp exhausts. The northern sections of the line are mostly roadside and the line here runs past paddy fields, a bit like southern India without the palm trees. Nearer to Sanjing the scenery becomes more undulating. The whole line is surprisingly rural with industry and urban sprawl confined to the areas around the coalmines.

0710 Sanjing - Sijing 0803 SY 0791

Another very busy train carrying school kids and commuters to Yijing, a very ‘real’ railway this.

Adjourn to café for excellent cheap breakfast, two big dumpling things with shredded pork inside plus water for tea (supply your own) for just 1 yuan (seven pence)

I have seen some meths places in China over the years but Sijing is one of the best, very poor, down at heel and dirty with coal dust everywhere. As soon as the wind blows or anything with wheels goes by clouds of coal dust envelop everything. Even the ducks and chickens are covered in it.

People on the trains and around the town very friendly and curious, in many ways you could say this is China at its best.

Loco disappears on a trip to Yijing, returning at 0930

0952 Sijing – Yijing 1001 SY 0791

Booked departure time is 0950.

Another very busy train with hundreds getting on at Yijing

Photograph train departing against sun. Two other SY at Yijing but no wagons in yard to be moved.

SY 1216, 1217 and 1564 were the other locos in use.

A very nice little line this with a different atmosphere to any of the other mine railways. Must come here again to travel and photograph.

Bus back to Meihe station, 35 minutes and 3 yuan.

1204 to Siping, arrive R/T at 1448. Not overcrowded.

1625 Siping – Tongliao. This is the daytime Dalian service which calls at Shenyang and Tieling. A 17 coach very smart train. Departs 45 late, arrival 62 late at 1954. Further delayed by doubling works just beyond Siping. In the event it would have been better to take the long and almost empty 1500 local, which gets in to Tongliao at 1928. The journey on 4227 was very comfortable though. Excessed into A/C soft seat coach for an extra 15 yuan (£1.05)

Small en suite room at CNR hotel just across from the now demolished station, 70 yuan (£4.90) then to foot massage clinic. Good body & foot massage for 70 yuan.

Sunday 13 June

While away the morning around the station area then on to 1220 Jitong train. Very hot on train, respite available in A/C dining car. Cook/manager a pain with argument about meal price. Train not busy in the 4 out of 8 coaches that actually carry passengers. No steam seen before Chabuga

1624 Chabuga – Zhengxiangbaiqi 0622 QJs 6911, 6992, 6900

Nice meet at Lindong of 3 QJs with a freight in both directions. No diesel locos seen on this section.

Good thrash climb out of Lindong. Miserable attendant locks windows at 1800 to keep dust out, still very hot & huge argument follows. Section into Daban not as valuable as usual with grey skies rather than the usual brilliant lighting effects on the mountains with the setting sun and clouds.

Double-headed QJs pull out towards Chabuga just as we arrive Daban.

Luckily locks do not work on a couple of windows so after Daban it was possible to enjoy some superb uphill flail in the still night air – this seems to be the best bit of line for thrash on the whole route. As usual difficult to hear the loco continuously going up the mountain. There was also some good noise beyond Jingpeng towards Haoluku.

Monday 14 June

Awake to more grey skies and a green landscape with water in the rivers and carpets of wild flowers.

Cross diesel passenger, assume this is the Hohhot – Xilinhot service.

Train goes forward from Baiqi with diesel.

Baiqi wet at first then wind gets up, blows cloud away and long periods of sunshine enjoyed for the remainder of the day.

Spend most of day just east of the station at the start of the wide sweeping curve. Cursed with low levels of departing (uphill) traffic but busy from Haoluku with 6 freights (all QJ) seen in a total of 8 hours spread over a morning and afternoon session. Uphill eastbound activity all day was limited to 0700 QJ light engine, 1025 QJ 6900 on freight, 1355 QJ 7138 on 3 wagon freight and at 1645 DF4 4070 + QJ on freight.

Even without the steam though it is very pleasant being out amongst the Mongolian hills and grasslands on such a lovely cool sunny day.

During evening wander round the settlement near the station, quite poor and squalid with few decent restaurants, indeed none were touting for custom. The only person who seemed to want my company, or more to the point my money was an absolutely stunning lady who asked me if I wanted a bed. Judging by her glamorous appearance she was involved in a rather naughty profession and it was with some regret that I that I told her I was leaving Baiqi that evening.

2028 Zhengxiangbaiqi – Chabuga 0920 QJs 6912, 6992, 7010

Although my runs to & from Baiqi featured 5 different QJs all were old so this was to be my first trip to China without a single new QJ for haulage – a real sign of the times.

Monday 14 June

A mediocre run to Haoluku but some good noise up to Shangdian and closer to Daban. The reason for all this thrash became apparent when I looked to the back of the train at Daban; our load to that point was 11, 505 tons gross. After the rear three were detached at Daban running was quieter but a pleasant morning nevertheless. Very busy with westbound freights on this section, all steam and I think all single QJ. No steam seen east of Chabuga.

Stay again at hotel across from station. Larger 120 yuan room with facilities bargained down to 100 yuan (£7.10).

Adjourn to Bathhouse Centre in the smart New Century Hotel in the centre of town.

108 yuan (£7.55) for use of Bathhouse + body and foot massage. Very good, I was so relaxed and this combined with little sleep on the previous two nights knocked me out. I was only some three hours later that I managed to find the strength to get myself off the bed!

Tuesday 15 June 2004

0640 Tongliao – Xinlitun. A 7 coach train conveying soft sleeper, hard sleeper and diner. Then 1108 to Ajin, a long wedged Shenyang – Chengde train with no soft coach and just one hard sleeper. Taxi back to Xinqiu (train did not stop there).

1339 Xinqiu – Wangying 1455 SY 0770

Load 8 still on this rake. No noise until the final section on the climb up from Minzu to the mine. Good continuous flog until almost in the platform.

SY 0391 arrive at the mine on a trip at 1600

1708 Wangying – Xinqiu 1828 SY 0770

Calls Wulong 1735 – 1738. A wedged commuter train. Good thrash starts with clag everywhere, especially when passing another loco.

1840 Xinqiu – Wulong 1930 SY 0770

Rear two coaches only in use as usual. Runs parallel to a passenger on the ’electric’ route near Taipeng, which was hauled by an electric loco.

Same hotel as last year across from station on the corner. Good value clean en suite room 80 yuan (£5.60). Being at the front and on the sixth floor was able to see SY shunting and tripping.

The cheap hotel just along the block had reopened.

Thursday 17 June

0605 Fuxin – Jinzhou local. A smart train, not that busy. The Shanghai – Fuxin express is held for it at the first station out. A very wet morning.

Taxi from Jinzhou to Nanpiao, 80 yuan (£5.60). The usual battered old heap and a real economy run was attempted. First driver tried to talk his way past the tollbooth with the result that the girl slammed the barrier down within inches of the windscreen as we attempted to drive through. Then to avoid the expressway toll we went on the old road and a series of muddy and waterlogged tracks through villages and across fields with the rain still pouring down. One paved section passed through a town with what appeared to a chemical plant where the pollution was absolutely appalling.

Rain even heavier at Nanpiao, no sign of any transport to Xiamiaozi so bottle out and settle for lunch then check into hotel. Two unusual things here, the bed linen was changed and I was given a room key. Usual price of 62 yuan (£4.35) although there are some more expensive rooms here.

By the time railway activity resumes rain has stopped and at 1435 very relieved to see a grey shape and a pall of clag rolling down the hill.

1446 Huangjia - Linghe 1534 SY 0366

Loads now reduced to 5. A quiet run in this direction. A passenger points out damage to houses and industrial buildings en route, huge top to bottom cracks and breaks in brickwork and sagging walls with many houses abandoned. It could have been mining subsidence but much more likely an earthquake.

Wander around terminus area – mines, dirt, slime, dereliction. Fascinating really, everything crammed together, small shops, blocks of flats, traditional houses, smallholdings, vegetable plots. Just to enhance the atmosphere all this was savoured on a dull, dark afternoon barely below the cloud level.

1640 Linghe – Huangjia 1728 SY 0366

Much slipping tender first on the banks. Good noise once we actually got going. A window in the front coach smashed en route, the glass was just brushed away and on we went. Back in Britain the set would have been taken out of service.

1733 Huangjia – Sanjiazi 1827 SY 0366

A quiet run, apart from the knocking and clanking of the loco. A wedged train, full of commuters and school kids. One passenger came over to tell me that he recognised me from last year.

1831 Sanjiazi – Huangjia 1928 SY 0366

With the rain starting again we were in terrible trouble slipping on the uphill sections covering long stretches at less than 10 mph. Once again noise was good once we got going. Cumulative lateness since 1640 with the slipping saw us back into Huangjia 18 late at 1946.

The departure of the 1933 to Xiamiaozi in the murky, misty twilight made a very fine sight, the headlight of the loco contrasting with the carriages in darkness as SY 0366 accelerated between the two roads past the rows of shops & shacks.

Very sad that this system with its distinctive character is going diesel so soon after its discovery. As mine railways go I would rate this system as second only to Shuangyashan, certainly the best of the SY operations. I am very pleased that I have managed to visit it twice. It will be a great loss once fully dieselised.

Steam activity around Nanpiao continued during the evening with 0366 working a trip at about 2100.

1459 Xiamiaozi – Sanjiazi, 1700 Sanjiazi – Huangjia, 1755 Huangjia – Linghe & 1843 Linghe – Xiamiaozi were all worked by a BJ diesel. Two other BJ diesels were active on freight, both were seen on the Linghe line in the afternoon and one on the Sanjiazi line in the evening.

Friday 18 June

Very pleased to hear a chime whistle at 0615 as I left the hotel with SY 0366 arriving on the 0521 from Linghe

0622 Huangjia – Sanjiazi 0731 SY 0366

A dry pleasant morning as we clattered round the hillsides along the weed grown track and through decayed cuttings. Loco plods & clanks up the grades with the coaches bouncing behind.

At Sanjiazi wander up past the mine to find dumpling breakfast in small house/café. Hot water available but bring your own tea. Stay for short while in village to watch preliminaries of traditional wedding with decorations and Chinese style band. Procession (? to bride’s house) then leaves in a convoy of large Japanese cars and bread vans plus a minibus conveying the band, still screeching away.

0845 Sanjiazi – Huangjia 0941 SY 0366

Another enjoyable run, good uphill and no slipping. Arrives Xiamiaozi R/T at 0932 just as the 0931 CNR train to Jinzhou is pulling out – never mind, there’s another train at 1705.

Wait awhile for passengers on the late running Linghe train then a high speed rattle down along the river and past the tenements to Huangjia.

Earlier in the morning the diesel was still on the other passenger turn, covering the 0535 from Sanjiazi then working back from Huangjia at 0642 & Xiamiaozi at 0657 towards Linghe. However somewhere along that line, probably at Linghe, power was then swapped with SY 0973 arriving Xiamiaozi 9 late at 0935 with the 0849 from Linghe.

(During my visit last year the loco on the passenger turn to Linghe was swapped over at that point)

Fot SY 0366 departing from Huangjia past the market on the 0945 to Xiamiaozi for what I am sure will be my final sight of steam on this fascinating railway.

Taxi back to Jinzhou. 80 yuan and again via the bodged roads. At least some of the previous days water had soaked away.

Soft seat in soft sleeper on 2590 1258 Jinzhou – Beijing, 196 yuan (£13.70). Very smart vehicle with western toilet, toilet paper, soap, hot water, toothbrush, and toothpaste. Also a restaurant car – can’t argue with the quality of onboard service although schedule very slow.

I had tried the previous day to get a reservation on the night train 2550 (Jinzhou 2010 – 2038, Beijing 0502) but the computer showed no berths of any class available, weird this because although it does not start at Jinzhou it’s the obvious train for overnight bookings.

Right time arrival Beijing.

Share triple room in cheap scruffy hotel just to south of Central Beijing with Heinrich and his friend who I had met at Nanpiao. 70 yuan (£4.90). Arranged by tout & taken there by minibus, several of which hover in the side streets near Beijingzhan waiting to ferry customers to cheap hotels.

Saturday 19 June

Walk to metro then to International Hotel for airport bus.

Change money at airport for next trip (15.01 for £ travellers cheques)

BA38 to Heathrow. Berthed close to Air Koryo Pyongyang bound IL62, whose passengers included smart suited North Korean diplomats, complete with little badges of their dear leader and Chinese electrical goods in scruffy sacking bags.

BA kept the steam theme going on the flight home with a showing of Brief Encounter, filmed in 1945 with good shots of streamlined Duchesses.

I seemed to be amongst the minority of western men returning home unaccompanied. Most were bringing home either a new (younger) Chinese wife or an adopted baby girl.

Flight about 65% full, touched down 1436, doors open 1522 (due 1520) then bus to Terminal 4.

So another enjoyable trip completed. At a total cost of £747 the cheapest yet. Roll on next time!

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© 2004, Roger Blundell , email: Roger.BLUNDELL@networkrail.co.uk