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Steam in China, December 2008

by Ameling Algra

Jixi, Huanan, Tiefa

December 18, 2008 I went on my 27th China trip. I did not intend to do anything spectacular, nor did I want to maximise photo opportunities at the cost of much needed overnight rest. Just relax, look around, watch things passing by & make some nice video at the same time. With some what my friend Hans calls "lost days", where I don’t see any steam train but just have a relaxing bus ride from one city to another. Not spectacular, not much news; still I hope my report will inspire others to go there – like I am always inspired by other reports. The pictures in this report are video stills.

Outward flight
December 18, 2008 first a train ride to Brussels & then by Fokker 50 to Amsterdam. Sounds silly and is silly, but KLM tickets from Belgium are more than 600 Euro cheaper than from Amsterdam – while the train ticket cost me only €20 (I enjoy free train travel in Holland). Anyway, flying turbo prop was a nice experience; last time for me, I think, was on an Antonov from Varadero to Holguin, 1992 in Cuba.
No problem getting the connection at Schiphol Airport, but then the plane did not leave because of fuel distribution problems. After a two hour delay involving refuelling we finally left, with an expected 1.5 hour delay on arrival in Beijing. Which meant I would probably miss my connection to Harbin (included in the ticket), so I informed the purser that I had a connecting flight. She said 45 minutes is OK for the baggage to be checked through. I told her I had to get my baggage myself, she did not know that although they always tell you before landing. Probably a tape recording the staff never listens to.
Arrival at the gate in Beijing was Dec 19 at 11.40. My connecting China Southern plane leaving 12.20. You won’t make it, the purser said. I’ll see, was my reply. After all, this is China. And sure enough I was on the plane at 12:00! KLM still does not know that – in their records I have been changed into a later flight for which I have a "no show".
After this speed record – only equalled by me getting a similar connection in Shanghai – it proved to be for nothing. Snow in Harbin, the flight was postponed. First we got a dinner, then we were brought to a hotel for some rest. And suddenly we were brought to the airport again, to arrive in Harbin around 7.30 PM. Airport bus to the railway centre where I checked into the Kunlun hotel – 4 star with western breakfast for RMB298. I went to the ticket office and bought a train ticket to Mudanjiang for the next morning. Surprise: got a soft seat ticket. Got some yuan from an ATM, to find out that the exchange rate was not bad at all - €251 for 2500 Yuan. And went to bed.

On to Jixi
December 20: after a filling breakfast to the 08.15 Mudanjiang train, which had comfortable double decker coaches making the journey quite pleasant. The snow in Harbin appeared to be rather local – less snow the nearer I got to Mudanjiang. On to a Jixi bus parked outside Mudanjiang railway station to arrive in Jixi after dark, about 4.30 PM. Went to the Jixi Fandian near the railway station which appeared to be full. On bus 3 to the national resources mansion, the hotel most gricers seem to prefer. Proved to be all right, RMB160 a night in a room that was OK apart from the impossibility of opening the windows or adjusting the heating. Also not the electric water jugs or kettles that are fairly standard these days, but the old fashioned thermoses.

Gricing in Jixi
December 21: Next morning, I first decided to try the Jixi Fandian again. They had a room for me now, for RMB100 (including breakfast) I got the suite. Which suited me as the two separate rooms made it possible to have a nice & warm "living room" and a "nice and cool" bedroom.

So after that was settled, the gricing could begin. I enjoy Jixi, because it is a hassle free location. Just jump onto one of the town buses and you get where you want to be. With the option of warming up for lunch in your hotel room, and lots of cheap and excellent restaurants serving filling meals for RMB10. There was a lady selling hot sausages, wrapped into a pancake with some vegetables, for RMB1 apiece!

From the railway station to Chengzihe take bus 3 (RMB1 per ride) – go left outside the Jixi Fandian. And to Didao a hefty RMB2.5 on bus 24. The road along the railway station is open for traffic again so just turn right outside the Jixi Fandian. From the "national resources hotel" it is equally easy – bus 3 stops in front, bus 24 starts there.
From Dec 20 to Dec 25 I divided my attention between the two easy destinations, Chengzihe and Didao. Both were working as reported before. Traffic levels in Chengzihe can be low in the afternoon but the morning line up was as good as ever.
One day, I received a text message from Dave Habraken, who while in Jalainur heard that Huanan had started running again; later confirmed by Bernd. I hesitated to go there - I considered walking along the line, as I did in October 2005, a bit cold. But after some consideration I decided it was too good to be missed, so went to the bus station and bought a bus ticket for the next day. Bus stations in China are well organised and Jixi is no exception. These days the big posters with bus timings are replaced by electronic displays which makes sense as timings probably change often. But are difficult to read as they are changing the screen quite frequently. The same goes for train stations, by the way. An added complication in Jixi was that they only showed buses leaving that day – so I had no idea about bus timings the next day in the early afternoon. But as usual, the staff were helpful and I got my ticket.

December 25 I left with the 13.00 bus to Huanan (there is another bus at 7.30); which arrived in Huanan two hours later. Went to my favourite Huanan Binguan where the 120 Yuan rooms were all full so I had to settle for a Y160 room instead. As I knew from previous visits, no haggling about the price here – you get the price they advertise. Still excellent value for money, excellent breakfast included.
I tried to reach Er Lin, used on my Oct 2007 visit & recommended in a report from Markus Mayer. He must have changed his mobile phone number though – no reply. So I found another driver, phone 13512610147 hoping he would know what to do; RMB 200 a day.

Dec 26: and of course he did, and the train was running! I must consider myself very lucky – out of four visits, on three I found the line running. The taxi driver drove me to the depot, inquired about timings and did an excellent job chasing the one train from Huanan that day. Next day we went earlier, without breakfast, to find two trains running.

To Tiefa
Dec 28: onto Harbin by bus. A comfortable four hour ride for RMB90. There are buses at 6.30, 7.30, 8.30 and 9.30 – strangely none after that. Buses from Jixi to Harbin run till 15.30. Checked into the Kunlun Hotel again and bought hard seat to Tieling on T184 to Tieling for the next morning, leaving 8.40.
Dec 29: after another big western breakfast, left on T184 which was quite full with people standing. It has been a long time since I last travelled a considerable distance in overcrowded hard seat & I did not find it very pleasant but I survived. And quickly found the bus to Diaobingshan outside the railway station. Went to the new Bapiao International Hotel across the road from the railway station, nice room for RMB135 with station view. So I noticed the 14.39 train to Daming behind a DFH5 diesel – not a good start. The 14.51 to Wangqian was steam though, so not all seemed to be lost.
After a good meal, I was back in the station to take night video of the arrivals and departures around 6PM. The DFH had disappeared and not only the Wangqian and Daming trains but also the longer 18.43 Daqing train were steam. No BJ diesels seen as mentioned in other reports.
December 30/31 proved equally good, with occasional appearance of an industrial diesel on the 18.20 to Daming but all other Wangqian and Daming trains and the not-Faku-connected Daqing trains steam. So still nice, and comfortable as well with a good hotel across from the railway station. The two or three coach trains are a sad sight though. No gripper seen, no money paid.

Finally bad luck - Xingyang
In the evening of Dec 31, went to the brand new bus station outside Tiefa (from the railway station, go to the left, follow the big road and after some 2 kms you’ll see it at your right hand side.) Nice building, with a smart supermarket and restaurant inside and preciously little traffic – not much more than the big buses to Shenyang which do not leave from the station square anymore. For RMB25, the bus rode me comfortably to Shenyang Bei railway station where I got a clean and comfortable room for RMB128 in the railway hotel. I intended to take the day train to Zhengzhou (T12 to Guangzhou), but first checked at the travel agent whether they might have cheap plane tickets to Zhengzhou – which they had, for a mere RMB450.
So on Jan 1 off to Shenyang airport, where China Southern found out that I had been promoted to Skyteam elite member, so I was escorted to the lounge, with food & internet, and later on a VIP bus to the plane – and on a VIP bus again in Zhengzhou to the arrivals hall where my luggage was already waiting for me. On the bus to city centre, bought a ticket on D134 to Beijing (RMB256 in first class) and got a room for RMB100 in the Tian Er Binguan above the bus station.
Jan 2: Next morning onto bus 1 to a small bus station where unlike previous years they refused to sell me a ticket to Xingyang. Instead, I was sent to the south bus station where I quickly got a ticket and a bus, only to find that there are more places with similar names & I got to the wrong one. So back to Zhengzhou, which did not prove to be easy as the whole population was going there for shopping. I ran out of time or lost the appetite to try again - and did not mind because the rest of the trip was excellent.

Return home
Jan 3: on D134 to Beijing. As mentioned before, these fast trains are very comfortable – seating is much better and more spacious than on TGV and Thalys, not to mention the ICE. Only Eurostar comes close. No such nonsense like carpets on the floor but good, comfortable and spacious seats.
On arrival in Beijing Xi walked to the nearest subway station and then on a very crowded subway to Sanyuan Bridge station where the IBIS hotel provided accommodation for Y288.
Jan 4: to the airport with the railway line which is the main reason for using the IBIS hotel. Noted again that they forgot to include luggage space – the train was full to overcrowding. On the airport, I got the vip treatment again including business class seating on the plane. Spent some time in economy though, to exchange Chinese hospital experiences with Dave Habraken.

General comments
Inflation? Difficult to tell. As far as I can see, hotel prices are the same as some years ago – or less if the hotel is starting to fall apart. The price for the railway hotel in Shenyang for example was RMB128 – exactly the same price as in 2002.
Train and bus travel is getting a little more expensive. In a year’s time, the bus ticket from Huanan to Harbin went from RMB88 to RMB90; train from Zhengzhou to Beijing from RMB245 to RMB256. Food is only a very small part of the cost of a China trip and I am not demanding. A filling meal was between RMB10 and RMB20; same as it used to be for years. A haircut was still RMB 5. Taxi prices vary from place to place and tend to go up where they installed meters (like Tiefa). And the exchange rates from euro to yuan are not as good as they used to be, but still not bad. Things are probably different for tour groups. I can show up at a hotel and make it quite clear that I will go elsewhere if/because they don’t have a suitable room. Worked for the Kunlun in Harbin where the price went from RMB1200 to RMB300 – and is impossible for larger groups.
What is definitely getting more expensive, are the intercontinental airline tickets. Back in 2000, I could fly for € 450 (or the guilders equivalent then); now such offers are rare. But still, my €760 ticket Brussels-Amsterdam-Beijing and Beijing-Amsterdam-Antwerp return was not really a bad deal.
My last trip? Certainly not – though time is running out. I still enjoy it, there is still enough to keep me busy & I don’t mind I have seen most of it before.

Ameling Algra

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© 2009 Ameling Algra