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Steam in the Far West

Xinjiang & Qinghai Steam

by Louis T.Cerny

This trip, while quite successful from a professional Railway Civil Engineering standpoint and scenic exploration of far western China, was much less so from a steam "new discoveries" standpoint. I'll present the results in three additional parts, part 2 on the Urumqi area in Xinjiang province, part 3 on the Xining area and west in Qinghai province, and the forth on a previously unreported scenic 100% steam 16-km line that is part of the system north of Haishiwan. My guide was Wangjie ( jessiewong_bj@hotmail.com ) whose service was again excellent.

Urumqi area

Bagang Steel Mill, Wuxi

A thorough exploration of the branch lines, coal mines, and other industries of the Urumqi area April 18-20 revealed only one steam operation, at the Bagang Steel Mill about 8 km southwest of the Wuxi station, which is 20 km Northwest of the Urumqi station. This steam operation appears to be in its last months, with shiny new diesels on all of the most demanding assignments and at most 3 SY still in use on the least active duties.

Ewirgol Coal Mine

The large Ewirgol coal mine is about 90km directly south of Urumqi, with a branch leaving the Turpan Korla line at about km 90 shown on some maps. The Ewirgol mine is located at the bottom of a spectacular canyon perhaps 1000 meters deep with steep sides of multi-hued rocks in various configurations of erosion. Unfortunately none of the coal goes out by rail and the locals said what little rail use there was used diesels.

Kuerla Area

A road trip from Urumqi to Korla on highway 216 involves surmounting a 4481 meter pass on a single lane unpaved road. The southern approach to the pass looks from a distance like Z's scratched on the side of a vertical cliff. This road then parallels the Turpan - Korla line down a canyon which includes two spiral tunnels. The taxi driver at Korla seemed proud to say that industries in his city no longer used steam.

I traveled the 1999-built line to Kashgar in two daylight segments, and while I would like to be proved wrong, I think it is probable that Sandaoling is the westernmost outpost for steam in northwest China, with the single exception of the Bagang steelmill.

Xining Area (Qinghai province)

Xining Steelworks

The Xining steel mill is now all diesel, perhaps as recently as November 2004 (some locals claimed even more recently). A shame, becuase the mill uses a mountain canyon as a slag dump which is reached by a double switchback (zig-zag) located on publically accessible land. Much of the second and all of the third level of the zig-zag are in terraced agricultural surroundings.


The 51 kilometer branch heading north from the Xining-Golmud line at Haergai (Quail Chaider line 41D, page 8) to the Reshui Coal Mine is all diesel, including the 6 km reverse up a canyon to an elevation of about 4000 meters. Much coal is trucked, but the rails were shiny.


The Haiyan-Sanjiacheng line (Quail Qing-Zang line 41A page 8) is out of operation and partially dismantled with paved over road crossings.

There is no evidence that a line heading south along the eastern shore of Qinghai lake (from about km 290 on the Xining-Golmud line) ever existed. Such a line is shown on the Nelles "Northern China" map.

Datong Coal Mine

At Datong, about 40 km north of Xining, a coal mine located near the center of the city was said by locals to use steam as recently as two days earlier. On the day of my visit (April 26) all coal loading was into trucks which were waiting in long queues, and I was unable to locate the engine shed location in the congested complexity of this city.

Haishiwan-Yaojie-Nanlingcheng, April 28-29, 2005

Southbound train from Yaojie heads upgrade through canyon towards tunnels on the warm afternoon of April 29, 2005 before descent to Haishiwan

This SY-powered 40 km long line interchanges with the CNR at a yard located right at the Haishiwan station (see map 1 of 4), 110 km east of Xining at km post 62. The line then continues west along the CNR as the northerly track of a double track configuration, then turns north upgrade into a very rugged canyon (see map 2 of 4). This canyon can be reached in about 5 minutes from the city center of Haishiwan by a road which allows many excellent views of the railroad on the opposite side ofthe canyon. The railroad goes through a tunnel cutting through a bend in the canyon which includes a dam. Beyond this tunnel the line goes downgrade through the still very impressive canyon until the valley opens up into the heavily industrialized area of Yaojie from about km 10 to 14. Here spurs go to two locations east of the mainline.

A yard and engine terminal are at Yaojie (see map 3 of 4) and a street bridge north of the yard provides an excellent place for observing the operations. Trains starting north from the yard face a significant grade, and the sound is impressive. The line contiues through a congested urban environment until crossing the river about km 16. The line continues north through agricultural area until it crosses a high bridge with residential apartments to the west and enters the area of the aluminum smelter noted as Heqiaogi on the Rhodes map. Here a second yard is located between km 23 and 24. Sidings go into the aluminum smelter from this yard. Just north of the yard a branch to the right (east) goes downgrade to a power plant on a large bridge. The mainline goes upgrade over its own large bridge and continues north through rural scenery at the base of mountains (see map 4 of 4), including two tunnels and running on a ledge around the end of a side ridge. Nanlingcheng and its industrial facility are in a narrow gorge with rocky, sharply-peaked mountains on its west side. I made no attempt to investigate inside the factory, but it is switched with steam, SY1097 making a lot of loud accelerations and whistling while I was there.

While I understand that some have said this 40 km line (not including three spurs probably totaling another 8 km) is really two separate operations, its km posts appear to be continuous from one end of the line to the other. There may be another engine terminal on the line, and the spurs and details of the smelter area and Nanlingcheng industrial facility deserve further exploration.

Facilities for travelers in Haishiwan include the Lian Hai Hotel, which has nice rooms at 120 Yuan per night, and is located on the main east-west street (see map 1 of 4) and on the west side of the city's main plaza, which has some sculptures and a fountain plus a life-size concrete dinosaur surrounded by a lush lawn which is kept that way by a strong fence. On the east side of the plaza is the traditional architecture of the Baitiahe restaurant. Private dining room 101 has a view of the trains, including the west end of the interchange yard. Steam goes all the way to the east end of the interchange and retuns to the west end via CNR tracks through the passenger station. From the hotel to the west end of the interchange yard is a 3 minute walk (cut through the empty lot behind the dinosaur). The dramatic scenery of the canyon starts only about 5 minutes away from the hotel by taxi.

Louis Cerny

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© 2005, Louis Cerny ltcerny@erols.com