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Shibanxi, December 2005

by Roger H. Johnson (no relation)


We arrived at Emei Shan at 0445 on 23 December on board Train K114, which plies the scenic uplands of Yunnan and Sichouan between Kunming and Chengdu. It's a 16- hour trip from Kunming, and a seat in hard class is 120 yuan. The journey was enlivened by an unscheduled halt in the mountains when the train hit a seemingly deranged water buffalo. The creature eventually emerged from beneath the train , apparently unhurt, and was taken away by an angry old lady waving a stick. The train then continued as if nothing had happened.

At Emei Shan station in the early hours, I walked briskly past a shouting lady who i thought was offering accommodation, and we found a surly taxi driver who agreed to take us to Leshan bus station for 60 yuan. In the taxi, my wife then asked me why I'd ignored the lady, who had apparently been offering us a minibus ride for substantially less.

At Leshan we were dropped at what turned out to be the wrong bus station by Mr Surly, who drove rapidly away. After waiting a while by the closed and deserted bus station, a kerb crawling taxi appeared and took us to the correct bus station for 10 yuan, but this too was closed (as the taxi driver must have known)- so we haggled a trip to Qianwei with him for 120 yuan. At Qianwei, we hired yet another taxi and made a mad dash for Shibanxi, arriving just in time to catch the 0700 up train, which comprised seven coaches and was hauled by C2 no. 7. Electric no. 3 was busy at Sanjin. We enjoyed a superb early morning ride all the way up the line to Bagou, where the smiling patron was waiting outide the guest house, ushered us in and relieved me of 90 yuan for one night in a rather spartan but clean room.

Later that day, in conversation with some bamboo dealers at Mifung, it transpired that the people who cut and backpack the loads of bamboo to the station receive only 1 jiao for each load (that's less than one penny in English money). A rather attractive brick bungalow has recently been built overlooking Mifung station, and according to the bamboo spivs, the cost of construction was approximately 5000 yuan, which i believe is less than 400 GBP.

On Saturday 24 December, mine host at Bagou proffered a bowl of really tasteless noodles at the somewhat OTT price of 6 yuan for breakfast. We took the morning train down to Sanjin and checked out the guest house there- a rather basic room is available for 20 yuan per person, equipped with the usual wonky electrics and mysterious stains on the walls. But Sanjin is a buzzing village, far more attractive than Shibanxi and definitely not a 'grotty industrial town' as previously described in these pages. There's an excellent eatery just across the street from the guest house, a pedestrianised centre with a good market, and wonder of wonders, Sanjin has a cake shop! You can see the trains from the guest house windows and in a couple of minutes you can stroll up to the station and watch electric activity in between the rather meagre passenger service. We took the 3 pm up train all the way to the top of the line (Qi-Djan-Zhan), where the town is clearly being depopulated as the mining slows down. We watched the man-hauled coal tub operations for a while, then set out to explore further up the valley on foot. A friendly goat herd insisted on showing us a truly amazing prehistoric relic- a fallen monkey statue, similar in outline to the Easter Island statues but only about 6 metres tall. It would make an obvious attraction for tourists if it could be raised to its original standing position. We trekked futher up the forested valley, eventually startling a farmer in a foot-access only village called How-Jur-Por (Monkey Village). We walked back into Qi-Djan-Zhan station in the dusk, and waited for the 1845 down train , again hauled by no. 7, to our new home at Sanjin, where unlike Bagou, eating is no problem. We ate an excellent meal at the cafe for 12 yuan each . The cafe we used is the third shop on the right as you walk down from the station. (The first is the cake shop) In the evening, we huddled over the luxury of a 2-bar electric fire in our unusually decorated room.

On Sunday 25 December, I was up at 0700 to video the up train ( again no. 7) , then back to bed, until at 1030 we once again travelled to summit station by the no. 7- hauled all stations stopper. This was a lineside day, the intervals between trains being filled with side-hikes into the Sichouan countryside. The side paths are dotted with little animist shrines, and although these are not my wife's particular god, she was always careful to make the normal obeisance of O-Mei-To-Fu, just in case, and I decided to adopt the same policy, ( for the same reason). In the evening, we had five delicious dishes, including two dishes of local wild fungi, at our cafe in Sanjin for a grand total of 18 yuan. The price included a bottle of the excellent Blue Sword beer which is brewed in Emei Shan.

On 26 December it was sadly time to depart from Sanjin after 3 great days on what I believe to be the world's last genuine, public carrying, steam hauled narrow gauge line. I cannot believe it will survive much longer, despite the talk of it becoming a tourist line. We saw no tourists in the whole 3 days, with the exception of two other 'lauwei' and one small group of Chinese photographers. I don't think there are many cases of such lines surviving on 4 local passenger trains each day and , very occasionally , a little freight. (The brick train ran on only one occasion during our visit)

The locals were, as usual, uniformly friendly although we were charged wildly varying fares for our various journeys on the line, maybe because of staff confusion because I'm English and my wife is Chinese.

Weather in December was quite cold and dull, not ideal for photography, but that did not matter unduly to me, as i was there to experience the railway and its environment with my senses.

We took a taxi for 25 yuan from Sanjin to Qianwei bus station, from where the bus to Emei Shan CNR station was only 17 yuan each. Hence our return trip Sanjin - Emei Shan cost us only 59 yuan compared with 220 yuan on taxis for the outward trip.

Once again we bought hard seat tickets for the mountainous journey to Yunnan, this time on Train K113, and once again I battled through the packed train at 1800 and bought sleeper tickets from the onboard sleeper ticket vending lady, this time for only 60 yuan to sleep all the way to Kunming, where we arrived at 0700 in the rain. We had a couple of hours in Kunming before taking Train 366 on the Nanning line. For the first 45 minutes of this route, you can see quite a lot of the metre gauge Yunnan line - it appeared to be thriving- we saw 5 diesels in the 02X series, including one double headed freight winding along a very scenic valley side.

Roger H.Johnson

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2006 Roger H.Johnson