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Steam in China, October 2007

by Ameling Algra

Jalainur, Huanan

Two Chinese steam locations were still on my ‘’most wanted’’ list. Huanan, which I visited October 2005 and which desperately needed a second visit; and Zhalai Nur; considered to be very steamy and interesting but far out and difficult to photograph. The best time of the year seemed October again, so I started to plan my 24th China trip, of course, using all the reports on the sy-country website. Especially the reports of people travelling on their own are useful, as they tend to give a lot of practical info. In my case the most useful were the reports of Florian, of Jan Willem van Dorp, and Markus Mayer. I hope, everyone will continue writing a report after his or her trip and not restrict themselves to putting some remarks on the forum. As an archive, sy-country is much more useful even though the ‘’steam lines’’ system is no longer being followed.
KLM offered cheap tickets Amsterdam-Harbin via Shanghai. Seems a strange route, but was considerably cheaper than tickets Amsterdam-Beijing at the time. Had I known the problem with rescheduled China Southern flights, I might have reconsidered… But at the time of booking, it looked like a fine opportunity.

Thursday, October 11 2007 & Friday, October 12
So I set of from Schiphol Airport in a fully occupied Boeing 747 to Shanghai. Departure late (an hour or so), arrival on time, and the swift procedures in Shanghai & 4 hours between flights gave me ample time to take a look at the maglev trains and have a ride on them. For 80 Yuan, I bought a return ticket and was rushed back and forth at 430 km/h. Nice to have done this, a smooth ride, and 8 minutes for that distance is fantastic of course. The ride was not as smooth as I expected though – smoother than trains on Dutch tracks, as good as a ride trains on French or Chinese main lines. My advice to the people of Munich: don’t bother but build a traditional line instead (I even think you already have it in place!) 20 minutes instead of 8 is not a big deal, a traditional train is much more easily incorporated into the local and interlocal transport network, and you won’t be the first but will go into history as the city that copied the Chinese. Forget about it!

By the way. The Bank of China now charges a 50 Yuan commission on every transaction – at least they do in Shanghai. As their rates are better than those of other banks I saw, they are still the best if you want to change more than 300 euro or so. But definitely the best rate I got was with my debit card at the BoC ATM’s. The Euro rate was very good any way. The European Commission complained about it but I don’t see the problem…
Then on to Harbin with China Southern. Arrive in Harbin at 15:00, to find out that the flight to Hailaer advertised on Chinese sites did not exist. Luckily I had not bought a ticket in advance so would not have to bother about getting my money back. Went to Harbin by airport bus, walked to the railway station after it got stuck in a traffic jam and tried to obtain a sleeper ticket to Zhalai Nur for the same day. No way! Only seats available, which is a bit too much for a 14 hour ride, especially after a night on the plane. So booked N92 hard sleeper for the next day instead – 208 Yuan upper bed. And went out of the station to look for my old time favourite Tianzu Hotel. Instead, jet lagged I went into the Kunlun Hotel – Y359 for a single room, but very good quality. Went to bed at 17.30, and woke up the next morning at 10AM!

Saturday October 13, Harbin
Sightseeing in Harbin, offering less than the lonely planet guide suggests. It is certainly not comparable to Luoyang or Lijiang, for example. I found a tramcar on a piece of track in the road. Is it an original Harbin tram?? And made video of trains crossing the Songhua river.

After a good dinner, on the upper bed in a hard sleeper coach to Manzhouli. My experiences with hard sleepers are rare. I prefer daytime travel, but if overnight travel is unavoidable, try to get a soft sleeper. I find it difficult to get in and out of the bed in hard sleeper, and also once kept a whole coach awake snoring. But this time everything went smoothly. After Hailaer the coach was almost empty so I could easily move around, sit on the lower bed, drink coffee and watch the countryside with nice railway stations with wooden and cast iron overbridges.

Sunday, October 14, Zhalai Nur
Arrival in Zhalai Nur Xi was on time around noon. Following the directions in the report of Jan Willem van Dorp, I crossed the station square diagonally in a south west direction and then went 500 meter south on Renmin Lu only to find the Zhalainur Binguan mentioned by Jan Willem closed. But luckily there was another hotel just two buildings to the south. Good looking room for 100 Yuan – at least that is what they told me - , with hot water (only on arrival, though!).
From there I took a minibus (Y1) to the town centre (all minibuses going east from the hotel are fine) from where it is a 20 minutes walk east to the open pit. What a spectacle! Looks like a silly model railway with locos on trains everywhere. As previously stated, coal trains chimney first, spoil trains tender first – not a big problem with SY-tenders. Some of the track laying trains were seen with locos on both sides of the train. Sunny, though a little hazy.

At about 16:00 I decided to return to the hotel. Not seeing many restaurants nearby, I opted for the hotel restaurant. Not unusual for Chinese hotels, the restaurant is the big business and the hotel is merely some extra service that can be offered. I ordered a meal and was quoted the ridiculous price of 50 Yuan. So I went away, found a perfect restaurant nearby where the same meal (large portion) was 14 Yuan.

Monday, October 15
After breakfast, up to Daqiao station, again with the local minibus as far east as they go and then 20 minutes walk east, passing a nice wooden market on the way. Arrived in Daqiao at 8 AM. Lots of traffic, eight locos at the station, empties and fulls arriving and leaving, donkey and horse carts, a very nice place to spend a morning. No sign of the 8.20 passenger to 11th and 12th mine though, neither on the next two days. By the way, I did not see the passengers to the pit or Nanzhan either, but that may not mean they are not running any more: I could just not have been at the right place at the right time. Two heavy trains of empties to the northern mines ran up the slope between Dongfanhong and Daqiao between 9.00 and 9.30, one of them with the smoke deflector SY. These trains were also seen on the next two days so must be very regular. Light is difficult for photography though – video is just about possible.

After a midday break, back to the open pit again. Much clearer than the previous day so even better.

Tuesday, October 16
Repeated my succesful program of the previous day. Morning around Daqiao. Went mid day to Zhalai Nur station to try and get sleeper ticket to Harbin. Mei you; probably too close to Manzhuoli to have its own lot of sleeper tickets. Then in the afternoon to Daqiao again hoping to see empties up the slope from Dongfanghong in better light. But found the yard at Dongfanghong devoid of engines and empties and full of fulls – so back to the open pit again.

Wednesday, October 17
Clouded. Spent the morning again at Daqiao where when I was leaving I met Sandro Vigato with friend, guide and police officer, the latter making trouble over photographing. Sandro told me the good news about Huanan however, so I left Daqiao in a good mood. Went back to the hotel, checked out to find they had raised the room rate to Y180; their revenge for the restaurant incident. Of course I did not pay that but I lost my Y100 deposit, bringing the hotel cost per night to Y133 – not much but too much.
If I were to go to Zhalai Nur again, I might consider staying in Manzhouli. A probably much better choice of hotels and town buses 1 and 2 frequently run from Manzhouli centre to Zhalai Nur.
I took a minibus 2 to Manzhouli (Y3) hoping to get a sleeper ticket at the station there. After half an hour or so I arrived at the station, only to find long queues and a girl at the ticket window just tapping her fingers and doing nothing. Looked like the real communist world of the old days in Eastern Europe – but the cause was simpler: a power cut had shut off the computers. After some twenty minutes power came back on and the ticket line disappeared quickly. But an unpleasant surprise when it was my turn. Sleeper on N92? Njet!! (Nice change from Mei You though). But luckily, she did have a ticket on N58, the slower non AC train that goes the long way over Qiqihar – 145 Yuan. Had a good meal in a restaurant near the railway station, and then a long but reasonably comfortable journey – I find the non-AC sleepers no less comfortable than the AC ones, might be different in summer of course.

Thursday, October 18
Arrived Harbin on time 11.30. Could have booked the 13.40 train to Jiamusi, but I did not like to arrive there at 20.00, knowing no hotels in the station area. If I had known about the fast & comfortable buses to Huanan, I might have chosen that. But instead I booked the 7.30 train next day (Y67), and then checked into the Tianzu hotel at the station square, which was not even a shadow of its glorious past. Not only were the bed signs ‘’no smoring in the room’’ removed, but the Y188 room definitely was a dump.
Went to the internet café that is suitably located at the second floor of Harbin station (one hour Y3). Checked my mail with an interesting message from KLM: my morning flight from Harbin to Shanghai on October 25 had been changed into an afternoon one, giving a connecting time of minus three hours to my Amsterdam flight. As the Maglev does not have a built in time machine, I considered that to be a problem so phoned my wife to check with KLM how they viewed the connection. With interesting results & lots of miscommunication between KLM and me, and between KLM and partner China Southern. The easy solution (morning flight to Shanghai on China Eastern) was definitely out of the question.

Friday, October 19
A nice and comfortable ride on the diesel multiple unit to Jiamusi; sunny, no wind, giving great hopes for a good time in Huanan. When passing Nancha, a woman was crying in the coach. I found the moment rather emotional as well, thinking about the freights with double header and banker I saw there storming up the bank in 1995.
In Jiamusi, I could easily resist going to Hegang to see the beautiful orange diesels, but did not find the buses for Huanan where they were in 2005 (somewhere on the street going left from the railway station). Instead they left from the new and modern bus station just across from the railway station. Well, that made sense of course. A ticket to Huanan cost Y18.50 and within half an hour from arrival at the railway station I was on my way again – journey time to Huanan an hour & a half.
The bus station in Huanan turned out to be new and modern as well. Took a taxi to the Huanan Binguan and arranged for the driver to pick me up at 5.30 next morning and drop me off in Tuoyaozi. Staying in Tuoyaozi or Lixin is out of the question for me – even Daryl Bond’s report could not convince me otherwise!
The Huanan Binguan must be one of the best value-for-money hotels in China (or in the world). A spacious & clean double room goes for Y120. And that is including an excellent buffet breakfast. Hot water is not supplied all day but the timings (19-22.30 in the evening and 6.30-9.30 in the morning) are quite reasonable and clearly pointed out in the bathroom! The elevators and the staff work as well.
I had some problem getting food in Huanan. The hotel restaurant insisted on room service which is more decadent than I like. And most restaurants on the streets wanted me to cook my own food which is what I pay them for to do. Eventually there was one small restaurant willing to do the job, at the huge amount of Y9. Excellent meal!

Saturday, October 20 & the following days
At 5.30 no sign of my driver and at 6.00 he still had not shown up. And – it was snowing! I decided to go back to bed, had a short nap and then went to the buffet breakfast at 7:00. After that, asked the reception to phone Er Lin recommended in Markus’ report, who showed up almost immediately and became my taxi driver for the next five days. He was not only punctual, but knew what a gricer wants and did an excellent job chasing the trains on the section to Xiahua. I went to Tuoyaozi one day hoping to be able to walk along the line. The deep snow there made relaxed walking impossible though. So on the other days I concentrated on the section from Huanan to Xiahua. I quite like that part of the line, it reminds me of rural Poland with little villages, & the new crossing point where a line token has to be exchanged. Snow storm the first day, sun on the snow the next day. Not much traffic on most days. A departure of empties between 9 and 10 was regular (seen every day), with most of the days an arrival of fulls that crossed the empties in Xiahua or at the new crossing point; and return of the morning train just before dark. I think on Oct 20-23 there were only two locos in steam; Oct 24 I saw three locos in steam. The complicated schedule described by Rob Dickinson (with longer trains at the lower section than in the hills) seems to have been abandoned – trains are run from Huanan to the end of the line without combining or splitting. That decision may have brought up the need of the ‘’new’’ crossing point. There were lots of Japanese and Chinese gricers, but luckily never a problem for videoing.

And then back October 24/25
Part of the deal with KLM was that we would investigate better options shortly before the planned departure date (25th); and a flight on the 26th Harbin-Beijing-Amsterdam turned out to be possible and fit me well. So after a last successful session on the 24th, I said good bye to Er Lin, bought a bus ticket Huanan-Harbin for the next morning, and went for dinner. But got an alarming telephone call from home: it turned out KLM had fixed my return flight not on the 26th but on the 25th – and they did not seem willing to change that. So I saw no other solution than hurry to get a taxi to Harbin (about six hours at high speed), spent a very short night in the Kunlun Hotel and turned up at Harbin airport only to find out that China Southern was not willing to change my flight Harbin-Shanghai into Harbin-Beijing but wanted to put me on the China Eastern flight to Shanghai instead – the flight of which KLM had said ‘’not possible’’. As it seemed to be the only way, I accepted the China Eastern flight to Shanghai. And on the (late) arrival there heard that KLM had again changed my schedule – on my request but without letting me know - to the 26th! Which again meant that I could fly out from Shanghai the next day but took the risk of a total cancellation because of no show in the morning in Harbin. I decided to play dumb and show my original paper ticket (still dated for the 25th) at KLM check in counter. As the plane was about to leave, they had no time to check it and just gave me a boarding pass. Within 45 minutes from arriving in Shanghai, I was on a plane leaving for Amsterdam. And that of course included collecting the luggage, getting from domestic arrival to international departure, check in, passport control & customs. On arrival in Holland I phoned KLM to tell them that I would not use the intended (but unknown to me) flight Harbin-Shanghai-Amsterdam on the 26th. Their reaction: that is not possible, you can’t be in Holland already….

This might be my last visit to China, as finding good steam locations is getting more and more difficult. If I want to see beautiful diesels and electrics, France is nearby so why go to China? But on the other hand – it is tempting to go to Shibanxi again and maybe (if running) Yinghao and Xingyang as well. Might also decide to go to Huanan once more. So I don’t know yet. It was interesting to go far north again, with its charm (white steam) and its disadvantages like hotels that are overheated, where the windows are fixed and the heating cannot be shut down. Flying into and out of Harbin seemed very convenient & value for money but in the end turned out to be a disadvantage, giving the lack of communication between KLM and China Southern. But that was probably merely an incident.

Ameling Algra

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© 2007 Ameling Algra