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Steam in China, December 2009 - January 2010

by Dave Habraken

Shankou, Sandaoling, Jixi, Huanan, Beitai

I'm just back from my 12th China trip so it's time for a new trip report.

The main goals of this trip were visiting the opencast mine of Sandaoling and the narrow gauge system of Huanan (for once, there seemed to be some kind of stable traffic for quite some time so it would have been stupid not to go there). To complete the program, I paid short visits to Jixi and Beitai.

As Aeroflot was the only flight company offering some reasonably priced tickets during the holidays, I chose to fly with them this year. Apart from some small delays, the flights from Brussels to Moscow and from Moscow to Beijing were really okay.

After my arrival at Beijing, I met 2 young Dutch guys who came to China for their first time. They thought they could change their euros to RMBs anywhere in China and assumed they could just go to the ticket office and buy tickets for a train leaving 10 minutes later. I hope I have given them the most basic info to make it all work… Anyway, I'm quite sure they reached their goal “to get a holiday with some adventure in it”.

I chose for a little less adventure by taking the afternoon flight to Wulumqi. It was delayed by some passengers who had to be removed from the plane by the police. Don't ask me why… At Wulumqi, I could take overnight train 1046 to Hami.

Shankou – Yamansu, 21st of December
Arriving at 4:30 at Hami, I immediately bought my return tickets for Wulumqi on the 25th of December and searched for a taxi to take me to Shankou – Yamansu. After negotiating with some taxi drivers, it was clear I wasn't going to find a taxi for the whole day for less then 400RMB, so I agreed on this price given the fact that it was going to be a reasonable distance, we had to drive. If only I had known in advance the way this guy drove… I think a dog could drive better after some practice… Anyway, around 8:30, we arrived at Shankou. Note for future visitors who want to go to Shankou station: DON’T take the road parallel with the tracks but continue for 500m where a slightly better road will appear (still no highway, but this second “road” is a 100 times better then the first one).
At the station, I was invited into the station manager's office. The manager turned out to be a very friendly guy, willing to help wherever possible. However, he had some bad news: Yamansu reached their quotas for 2009 so he didn't expect any traffic for the upcoming two weeks (well, it's another explanation than in Bernd's post some weeks ago but the result was the same…).
Anyhow, as I already made a deal with the driver to pay him 400RMB for the whole day, we could as well go to Yamansu to check out if the engines were locked in the shed or not. Given the state of the road and the lack of other traffic, not much could go wrong so it was worth the risk to make some more km with him.
When we arrived at Yamansu, we quickly found JS 8028 in steam at the stabling point, with three other engines (JS 8423, 8152, 6495) locked away cold in the shed. The tender of JS 6465 was parked outside the shed in a derelict shape. A lady responsible for the heating of the buildings told me that around 10:00, some workers would show up so I decided to wait and see if I could take some pictures inside the shed. A guy who appeared to be the manager from the shed came to search for me at the taxi and invited me in to take some pictures. We had the usual chat (where are you from? Can I see some European money? etc…) but he was really a nice guy. He also told me they have no plans for the moment to buy diesels. I suppose the big manager (who apparently doesn't like photographers, having read some other reports) was sleeping at the station. Anyway, around 11:00, JS 8423 had to push JS 6495 a little bit further in the shed. For this one and only (!) manoeuvre, there were certainly 13 people present:
- driver
- fireman
- shunter
- one guy for both (!) coaling the engine AND giving it water
- one lady in uniform to get the ashes out of the tracks
- 2 more guys doing nothing but staring at the engine and the laowei
- 6 workers in the shed who returned home immediately after the shunting took place.
Anyway, don't tell this to their bosses as they were really helpful and I might want to go back one day…
After this major event, it was time to head back for Hami. On the way to Shankou, I fully realised the photographic potential of this area (on the way to Yamansu, it was still dark) so we stopped for some pictures of diesel CNR-trains around Shankou. Wowww, this line is busy! I saw at least one train every five minutes during the time I was there.
On the highway back to Hami, we had 3 “nearly collisions” (understatement for at least 2 of them!) as the driver did some manoeuvres even James Bond would refuse.

Engine in service: JS 8028
Engines cold in the shed: JS 8423, 8152, 6495

Sandaoling, 22nd of December – 25th of December
Back at Hami, I took the first bus to Sandaoling where I booked a room at the LuXin binguan. I tried to bargain it down to 120RMB, but the woman at the desk held on to 130RMB. The same evening, Mr. Fu (accompanied by a girl speaking “some” English) came to visit me and I invited them for a drink together.

On the 22nd, a taxi driver suggested by Mr. Fu (Ms. Li Chun Bo, also mentioned by Hans Schaefer in a recent report) picked me up at the hotel at 8:30. Apparently, the girl capable of speaking “some English” had invited herself as well to join us. We started at Nanzhan where I could take some pictures while it was slowly getting light. Well, light… Let's say that I could see that the night had passed: it was very clouded and a little foggy. I was getting quite desperate because of the light, but we continued to Dongbolizhan to have a look anyway. We saw the passenger train arriving at the station but the light was so dim that any decent photography was impossible. So, after quickly looking at Xuanmeichang and Jichuangzhan it seemed a better idea to head for the workshop.
At least there, the bad light conditions wouldn't bother so much. This was the right choice: there were 3 engines inside (JS 8195, JS 8188 & JS 8189) and a fourth one being overhauled (JS 8366). A little later, it became clear that JS 8188 was also being prepared for a full overhaul. I stayed here until 13:00 when suddenly, the light conditions became better. I called for the taxi lady to show up again (I sent her away around 11:00 together with the “some English speaking lady” but she returned without) and we then went to have a look at Liushuquan to find the station almost empty (there were only about 15 cars). Well, I couldn't expect a long coal train soon, that much was clear. As the light became worse again, I didn't feel like hanging around here for a long time so I decided to head for Xibolizhan to have a look. There, I had more luck: on the background, the sky was very dark but behind me, the sun broke through the clouds now and then. I stayed here for the rest of the day enjoying the action, being driven back with the same taxi. We arrived back at the hotel around 19:00.
Unfortunately, the day ended with some taxi problems… Let's say that Ms. Li Chun Bo was not so “generous” to me as she was to Hans… I had to pay 400RMB and there was clearly no room for negotiations… Looking at the fact that I sent her away from 11:00 – 13:00 and we didn't actually drive a lot, I had a maximum price of 250RMB in mind (Hans mentioned this price as a maximum price he had to pay, including a trip to Hami on that day). You can imagine that the 400RMB she asked for was not really pleasing me. Not to make things worse (without any doubt, she would contact Mr. Fu anyway and I didn't want to get in trouble with him), I paid the money but told her she could forget about driving me around ever again. When Tina phoned Mr. Fu the day after to tell him what happened, Mr. Fu quoted the lady by saying that I only returned at 22:00 (she must have lived in another time zone I think) and she had to ask 400RMB because of this… How could I be so stupid not to arrange a price with her in the morning… Anyway, maybe it's best to share this experience with you as you might want to use her services after Hans’ recommendations. Hans, no hard feelings of course.

The second day around Sandaoling, again, the weather wasn't really helpful… Before noon, it was extremely clouded and around 11:00, it started snowing quite hard for an hour and a half. In the afternoon, except for the trains, virtually everything was bright white: snow had covered the ground, the sky and the background were rather foggy. No need to say that it was impossible to see the Tianshan Mountains again…
Anyway, I had to deal with it and so I did… I searched for a taxi driver myself this day and we headed for Nanzhan. There, I was informed that a long train of empties was on its way from Liushuquan so we immediately left to search for it. Some kilometers after the level crossing, I saw the train coming so I made a first shot of the train pulled by JS 8053 and pushed by JS 8358. It stopped at the level crossing and this looked like an interesting position to take a second shot, but the light really was sparse again… As I made a very long video sequence, I didn't try to get in front of the train again. I think it would have been difficult anyway to get an extra decent shot, as the first engine closed the throttle at the warning signal for Nanzhan.
Well, as the light conditions got even worse around 10:00, I went to the workshop again. I was not very motivated to go back there again, but it seemed it was the only reasonable option as it started snowing quite hard.
In the workshop, they were still preparing JS 8188 to get its overhaul. It was clear that they would lift the engine this day to remove the rods. When I asked how late this would happen, they said to me this would happen around 13:30. Mr. Fu then arrived with a Japanese guy and a guide and he asked the same question. An official told him the lifting would take place after 17:00… As Mr. Fu said a second heavy train would soon come from Liushuquan and it had stopped snowing in the meantime, it seemed like a good idea to follow his advice to head for that train. But of course, China wouldn't be China if things didn't change…
Arriving at Nanzhan, it became clear that no train was expected soon, so I stayed for some pictures of the shunting duties (Liushuquan-side of the station). 2 trains arrived from Beiquan and one train with SY 1729 on top (tender first of course) headed towards one of the mines over there a little later.
After quite some shunting, a very long train with full cars was formed and headed for Liushuquan around 14:00. It was pulled by JS 8358 and pushed by JS 6204, both engines running tender first of course.
I now expected both engines to come back with the promised train of empties. On the way to Liushuquan, we met Mr. Fu again (with a Japanese visitor) but he said, the train would only come back after 16:00, so we went for Dongbolizhan to see if anything was going on there to avoid a long wait along the line to Liushuquan. At Dongbolizhan, nothing was seen, so around 15:00, I headed for Liushuquan again to be sure not to miss the train. As I saw the train towards Liushuquan leaving around 14:00, the train with empties could come back around 15:00, even if Mr. Fu said it would come around 16:00. Well, we didn't have to go all the way to Liushuquan: about 2km after the level crossing, I already saw the train coming. Luckily, I could reach a decent spot just in time (well, the spot was ok, the weather wasn't). We then chased the train, but this train was not so heavy for 2 engines (37 empties) so it was no surprise that it didn't need to stop at the level crossing to gain pressure. Luckily, we were well in front of the train so we could cross the level crossing well before the train did. As the sun wasn't shining anyway, I headed for the northern end of the curve about 500m away from the level crossing. This is one of the only places on the line with some “scenery” (ahum…) and it turned out to be worthwhile trying. The second engine was 50% behind a small hill in the back, but this didn't disturb at all for this short train (for a longer train, it would have been another story). The land was covered with snow, so this made up for the lack of the sun.
Arriving at this second position, I saw the Japanese guy with his guide and Mr. Fu arriving as well. I never saw a Japanese guy running so fast…
After this action, I immediately headed for the workshop to see JS 8188 being lifted but “of course” (…) this had already happened. This was a shame for the video, but for pictures it wasn't interesting anyway as it is impossible in this workshop to get the whole scene in one shot, the engine being surrounded by walls, other engines, machinery,…
As the light was completely gone again, I felt forced to stay in the workshop (that made 2 days without even visiting the opencast mine itself!). Anyway, I could make some extra atmospheric pictures.
Returning to the hotel around 18:15, suddenly a very strong wind came out of nowhere. It was no hurricane, but it was certainly the strongest wind I've experienced in my life. Within 15 minutes, all the fog was blown away. Around 18:45, I looked out of the window of my hotel and I could see the stars! 3 hurrays for this sudden wind! The only “minor event” was that some minutes later, the power was cut off as far as I could see around me in the surrounding streets. After 20 minutes, it was switched on again, but regularly, some short interruptions still happened.

The third day at Sandaoling, I expected the sun finally to come through. Yes, it did, but not for the full 100% and sadly, the wind had stayed. So now, I had some sun, but there was also a lot of dust in the air. I had a look at Dongbolizhan, where things were rather quiet. However, one of the trains was waiting for shift change at the level crossing between Dongbolizhan and KingKong Station (heum, KengKong Zhan). Because of all the dust, the sky was almost pink, a very unusual variation to the “blue hour” between night and day.
At Kengkongzhan, JS 8193 was waiting, as was JS 8194 with a coal train. Nothing unusual, you would say but… This last JS was coupled with its tender to the train, so it was going to run chimney first! So, the idea was to wait for this train to leave, but in the meanwhile, apparently, electricity had dropped again, so the signal boxes were out of order as well. After an hour without train movements, I headed for Liushuquan as JS 8053 was about to leave with a long rake of empties and JS 8358 as a banker (at Nanzhan, power supply was no problem). As the wind became stronger again, there was so much dust in the air that normal photography became almost impossible. So yet again, I had to improvise (this was going to be the keyword during my whole visit to Sandaoling). But anyway, some interesting shots could be made.
In the afternoon, the wind calmed down but now, there were no more trains expected from Liushuquan (how predictable…) so I paid a visit to the opencast mine. I asked the taxi driver to drop me of at the south side of the mine at the opposite side of Xikeng. From here, I walked to Xibolizhan where the taxi driver would pick me up again. Well, my bad luck continued as the mine was very quiet; in 3 hours, I only saw 5 trains (3 of them not moving at all): JS 8193 with a loaded coal train from Liuduan to Xuanmeichang, JS 8190 with a steam crane and a dynamite car, 2 spoil trains and a coal train. The coal train was filled on the south side and then left via Xikeng at the northern side of the mine. This was a nice sight in the evening light but it couldn't make up for the lack of trains in general.
Arriving at Xibolizhan, there was a big parade of JSs waiting with their spoil trains to get to the mine again. JS 8195 was shunting as it had to remove a coal tippler from its train. JS 6261 was busy going up and down to all the spoil tips with its “levelling machine” (what's an official English name for this thing?).

My last day at Sandaoling, I started my day with a ride on the passenger train from Dongbolizhan to Xibolizhan where I got off the train for 10 minutes, the time for this “passenger train” to go into the mine and back. A point of interest was that this day, JS 6224 hauled this train. I saw some very scenic spots near Xibolizhan on this line but couldn't materialise them anymore as I wanted to concentrate on a very long train from Liushuquan to Nanzhan (headed by JS 8054 and banked by JS 6204). Waiting for it at Liushuquan, it didn't leave the station until 2 hours later for no obvious reason. Anyway, it was a very nice sight to see (and hear!) this train with 64 empties along the way to Nanzhan.
After this excitement (even without sun), I headed for the track from Xuanmeichang towards Kengkongzhan where some houses were being ripped down. This gave some interesting possibilities to take pictures of empty coal trains working hard on this branch.
When Mr. Fu appeared with the Japanese guys, I decided to follow him to the nearby workshop to say goodbye to him as I soon had to leave for Liushuquan to catch train 7552 towards Hami. Strange: normally, you have to buy your ticket on the train but nobody showed up to sell me the ticket… So by accident, I ripped off CNR for some RMBs…

About the price for the permit…
Well, after my previous mail about the price I was asked initially for a permit, things got a lot better. Tina could lower the first proposed price from 500RMB to a more acceptable 250RMB. When I actually wanted to pay Mr. Fu for the 4 days I was there, he made a very nice gesture as he lowered the price to the price I had to pay if I had gone there with CITS (=150RMB/day).
Looking at this whole situation afterwards, I think, the problem was that Mr. Fu didn't know me and neither did he know Tina who suddenly approached him with this question. Maybe he's not yet used to independent travellers?
I had some doubts if it is a good idea to write about the actual amount in my report, but I think it's best future visitors know about my experiences. Mr. Fu really is a nice guy but probably, he has to learn to know you a little bit.

Sandaoling in general:
Well, I have great difficulties to make up my mind about this place… Before my visit, I feared that the chances for bad weather and the fact that most trains are propelled or running tender first would really spoil a lot of picture possibilities. I was definitely confronted with both problems but I'm doubting about going back there next year anyway… There is a lot of photographic potential out there and I certainly couldn't materialise all of it this time.
I had bad luck when visiting the opencast mine but even it things would have been better, I don't think it would have been comparable with Zhalainuer where all the action took place in a more concentrated way due to the constant zigzagging of trains (at Sandaoling, the trains gain height with much longer tracks along the opencast mine). On the other hand, Sandaoling creates some very interesting possibilities for pictures that I would like to give a retry (trains with a banker, silhouette shots, the trains on the slag tips…). I asked Mr. Fu about the chances of banked trains from Liushuquan to Nanzhan at the end of 2010 and he was very clear: normally, they will still be running with steam on that section by then! I re-asked him twice to make sure there was no miscommunication but he said that at a previous visit of some gricers, he formally asked this info of the railway management and they confirmed this to him. Have they temporarily abandoned their plan to buy diesels because of the price? Let’s hope… The future will probably tell…

Number of the taxi driver I used: 13999686041 (300RMB/day)
Number of Nanzhan station: 6184833 (easy if you want to know about trains from Liushuquan but of course, they speak Chinese only and beware: they tend to give the arrival times at Nanzhan itself.)

Engines taken on pictures:
In service: JS 6204, 6208, 6224, 6261, 6265, 6436, 8040, 8053, 8081, 8173, 8190, 8193, 8194, 8195, 8222, 8314, 8358
SY 1304, 1593, 1720, 1729
Seen in repair: JS 8195, 8189
Full overhaul: JS 8188, 8366

Wulumqi, 26th of December 2009
No steam trains this day, but as I had to wait all day to catch flight HU7146 to Beijing, I paid a visit to this interesting city. I spent quite a lot of time taking pictures of the many shop with typical spices for this region. They really do great on a picture. When I made up my planning, I really looked up against the idea that I had to wait 11 hours at Wulumqi between the arrival of my train and the time my flight would leave, but looking at it afterwards, this was really a great way to spend some time at this interesting city.
Flight HU7146 was right on time, afterwards I spent the night at the Capital Airport hotel for 160RMB.

Jixi, 27th of December 2009
Jixi airport had opened recently and the daily flight JD5201 from “Deer Air” was scheduled to leave Beijing at 7:20, so I tried this flight as this way, Huanan could easily be reached and I had some hours to spend at Chengzihe as well. On the airplane, more then half of the seats were empty but this was of course no surprise as it was a relatively new connection.
On the plane, they stated the distance between the airport and Jixi was some 15km. I took a bus to the centre but it was certainly more: we crossed 3 railways (one of them double tracked and another one leading to something that looked quite hard like a small steel mill). I was getting a little worried as really nothing looked familiar to me. We also passed a weather station on a big hill, which I never saw before. Then suddenly, the strange “roundabout for pedestrians in the sky” near the station came in sight and I immediately knew where I was.
I dropped my luggage at the station (in the station hall, then to the right) and headed for Dongchang. Here, no engines were present, two rather short rakes of C62 coal cars were waiting in the station. One of them was filled with pieces of rock (!!), the other one with coal.
SY 1340 soon arrived from Dongchang (but actually from Beichang taking the other side of the triangle to turn the engine) with two loaded coal cars. It then took the short rake of cars filled with coal and left for Qiaonan. At Beichang, at least 2 engines were present but as the light conditions were terrible, I decided not even to go have a look and I started walking towards Qiaonan. SY 1340 passed me as a light engine coming back from Qiaonan and that was it… I waited for two hours at a small level crossing in the local “Hutongs” but no more trains were seen… Around 14:30, decent photography became impossible due to upcoming fog so I headed toward the station to pick up my luggage and went to the bus station to hear (as expected) that no more buses to Huanan would run this day. I found a taxi driver wanting to take me for 380RMB. Oooh, another adventure: while it started snowing quite hard and we saw about 5 road accidents, he found time to look at a Chinese comedy on his DVD-screen where once the mirror of the car was placed…
Some 15km before Huanan, I had to switch cars with a local driver at the last toll gate. That seems to be the tradition over there as this also happened last year.

Seen in service: SY 1340

Huanan, 28th of December – 31st of December 2009
The first night, I stayed at the Huanan Binguan. I arranged a room for 100RMB and went to have dinner at a (new?) local hotpot restaurant.
The next day, I arranged a taxi for the whole day for 300RMB. We went to the famous level crossing where they told us that an engine would leave “soon” from the depot. I had a “déjà vu” (just read my previous report from December 2008) sitting in the taxi while nothing happened but after an hour, suddenly C2 168 appeared with a loaded train from Lixin. A nice panic shot was made at the level crossing.
Then, it was business as usual: shunting, turning the engine via the triangle, taking water at the depot… Around 9:00 it came out again and was put in front of a train consisting of 5 cars plus the caboose at the end. Of course, I chased this train up to Xiahua. I made about 10 shots but only 3-4 of them are worthwhile showing… As C2 168 was leaking at several places, on most of the pictures, you can only see the front of the train! Anyway, it's all about quality and at least some nice shots were made, certainly the one leaving Xiahua with the first hills in the background.
As a train was crossed at Xiahua, we went back to Huanan to chase this engine with a train of empties to Lixin as well. At Huanan, they took a pretty long break but around 14:00, they decided it was time to leave again. This was going to be perfect with the sun quickly going down… But then, a typical Chinese driver decided otherwise… About 500m away from the level crossing, a 3-wheeler had engine troubles. A truck driver thought he could pass it anyway but then hit the 3-wheeler, blocking the whole road… You can guess my state of mind seeing this scene while the train was steaming away from us. I asked the taxi driver to go around via the centre of Huanan to intercept the train a lot further (I really didn't want to miss the shots at dusk) but he had another more interesting option in mind: he drove the car straight on the tracks to pass the collision so we could “play train” for some 500m. The police being there for the accident looked at us in a rather strange way but we were able to pass the place of the collision and were chasing the train again. After 2 shots, suddenly 2 buses and a minivan appeared and “of course” 3-4 trucks in the opposite direction had to be crossed. The buses were almost running at the same speed as the train so this caused quite some new stress… The taxi driver now certainly knows some very bad Flemish words… Anyway, it was worth the stress as I could make some very decent shots: silhouette-shots, glint-shots and finally a shot with the sun going down behind the train after Xiahua. What a ride!

The second day, I walked all the way from Tuoyaozi to Lixin where it became clear that two (!) steam engines had derailed… C2 004 derailed at Lazifang on the way to Huanan with a loaded train, C2 041 derailed on a switch in Lixin station. You can guess the influence on the traffic… The stupid thing was that C2 004 derailed in the horseshoe curve which I didn't follow as I took the shortcut to walk towards Lixin. So after having taken pictures of the derailed C2 041, I immediately walked back all the way from Lixin to Lanzifang. C2 168 had arrived on the scene as well with a flat car and the small caboose to get C2 004 back on track again. In the beginning, they had nothing against me taking pictures but as soon as I got the video camera out, I had to leave. So I made a walk back to Tuoyaozi to quickly see C2 168 push back the “assistance train”. It was soon followed by the re-railed C2 004 with its much delayed train towards Huanan. Being some 3km from Tuoyaozi, I heard a train approaching again and yep, there was C2 168 again with its train to get C2 041 back on track at Lixin station. Looking at the time between the passage of C2 004 towards Huanan and C2 168 towards Lixin, it was only possible the 2 trains crossed at Tuoyaozi.
Indeed: when I arrived at Tuoyaozi station, it was clear that C2 168 had used the siding there with its small train to let C2 004 pass with its delayed coal train.
Of course, I wasn't too happy with the 2 derailments on this day, but at least, I was at the right place to take some pictures of the derailed engines. Let's face it: I could as well have been waiting somewhere along the line for a train never to show up…

On my third day around Huanan, things got even worse! As the day before, I left Tuoyaozi around 5:40 and started walking towards Lixin. On the shortcut at the horseshoe curve, I heard a train approaching from Lixin so I quickly went back to the Tuoyaozi-side of the curve where it would be possible to make a shot at the outside of the curve with the engine and 1 wagon in the picture. When the train showed up, it became clear that 2 engines were in front of the train (C2 041 and 004). B*ll*cks: at the position I was at, the second engine almost couldn't be seen :-( The second shock followed seconds later when I realised there could only come bad news out of this… I suspected at least one of these engines was in trouble so that would mean less traffic. Now, I was facing a dilemma: returning to Tuoyaozi or nevertheless continuing to Lixin to see what would happen… I chose for the last option and this turned out to be the “less bad” option: they told me both C2 041 & 004 needed repair but C2 168 was at the mine of Hongguang with a train. Of course, I waited to see this train returning from the mine but that took quite a while. When it finally returned, I could make a picture with some horses with sledges on the other track of the station, nice!
I then asked when the next train would come from Huanan. They told me both C2s were ready for service again, but now they were faced with yet another problem: there were no drivers available to bring a train to Lixin as they were having a rest. Aaaaaargh, did the bad luck never end???
For a moment, they thought about sending C2 168 down with only 3 wagons but the loco staff refused to do so as they would then get less wage. Apparently, they get paid per load they take, a guide for some Japanese railfans told me. Or was this a bad translation for the fact that they then had to come back to Lixin to search the other wagons and they would then lose their bonus for coal consumption? We've known this system in Europe, so maybe they still know it in China?
Anyway, it was clear that no train was to be expected soon… So I walked back all the way to Tuoyaozi, for the second day without the possibility to take pictures of any “real action”. What a trip…

For my last day, I decided to walk to Lixin one more time to see what would happen this day. I had planned to get up around 5AM, but around 4:30, I heard a train passing the guesthouse. Considering this, it now seemed useless to leave around 5:30 as planned. This would mean, I was going to cross the return train on the downhill section near the summit in the forest and it was going to be a very long wait until the next train going up in the cold (temperatures dropped below -30°C that night). So, I chose for the more tempting option: staying in bed a little longer and give it a try around 6:15. I thought this way, I would meet the downhill train somewhere on the long straight section just after Tuoyaozi but even at the horseshoe curve, still nothing was seen… I then went relatively quickly to the other side of the summit as the train clearly still had to come. Having walked some 500m on the Lixin-side of the summit, I heard a train approaching. Luckily, I was quickly in a good position to get the rising sun behind the train, this was going to be nice! It then became even better as the train was yet another double header (C2’s 004 & 168)! It was a very spectacular sight to see both engines working very hard to the summit with sun's rays coming through the steam. The train stopped at the summit as usual, so I could easily pass the train to get a second shot. Of course this was much less spectacular but nevertheless, it was a nice sight and a very nice picture.
As it was going to be the same scenario as the day before, I decided to walk back to Tuoyaozi. I didn't feel like hanging out all day at -30°C without any trains to see… Also, I hoped that around 14:00, a train from Huanan was about to come but of course this didn't happen, so after two days of much patience, I had to be satisfied with one “action shot”, a huge one however…

Huanan in general:
To start with the good news: all engines were seen without the ugly banners on their tenders!
However, the state of the engines and the 2 derailments (more then probably because of the amount of snow) really were big problems to see some action… But even then, I regret that I didn't stay a little longer as the area really looked magnificent with the huge amounts of snow… WHEN trains were running, it was train photography on top level. The great atmosphere at the village of Tuoyaozi, the landscape, the amounts of snow… If only there had been some more trains… I ask myself if it was really a coincidence that on 2 consecutive days, they ran a double headed train from Lixin to Huanan. Maybe they're trying to find solutions for the fact that their engines are losing power? This was a very nice sight, but the price (no trains for the rest of the day) was very high…

I really can recommend the taxi driver I used the first day and for my ride back to Jixi (450RMB from Tuoyaozi to Jixi), his number is 15945897779. On 12 trips to China, I think this guy must have been one of the most comprehensive taxi drivers yet, even calling to the depot regularly spontaneously to know what would happen next.
At Tuoyaozi, the guy at the station has stopped keeping a guesthouse as he has some health problems (quoting Tina) but he made contacts for me with another guy (shop owner, near the “old” guesthouse). Also here, the price was 100RMB “all inclusive”. The room is a little bit cleaner but the food was definitely not as good as at the old guesthouse during my stay. The owner and his wife were friendly people however. Their phone number is 13069934173 (or at home 6739452, but I don't have the prefix of Tuoyaozi).

In service (now and then…): C2 004, 041, 168

Jixi, part two, 1st of January 2010

My bus to Mudanjiang left at 12:00, so the only reasonable option for this day was paying a short visit to the Chengzihe-system again. Of course, the day started at Dongchang to see the daily parade around shift change. This day, 7 engines were present (SY 1058, 1340, 1351, 1369, 1437, 1544, 1545). After shift change, I headed for the section between Zhengyang and Xinghua, where I expected (like during my previous visit) at least a spoil train and maybe even a train of empties. But, nothing came… After a while, SY1545 got off with a loaded coal train from Zhengyang towards Qiaonan. I went to Qiaonan to see it leave there, but the weighing took quite some time and it was time for me to head for the bus station before the train left.

In service: SY 1058, 1340, 1351, 1369, 1437, 1544, 1545

Beitai, 2nd of January 2010
I wanted to visit this place for quite some time, but like previous times, they didn't want to give me a permit. After some consideration, I decided to go there anyway but only to stay on the road which is described by David Thomas in a recent report. When I arrived at the small station of Beitai, I followed a sand trail following the tracks and leading in a western direction to some small houses (and crossed a closed police station after 100m). A little bit further, this sand trail continued through a hole in the CNR fence. As some pedestrians were using it, I decided to follow it as well. It lead to the bridges over the river, where I had to choose: one trail lead straight into the factory via a hole in a wall, the other continued over the bridge of the CNR-line. I chose for a “third option”: at the side of the bridge, it was possible to lower myself onto a wall of the factory and then to jump down 2m to the road David mentioned in his report. This seemed the smartest decision as I didn't want to get in trouble… I then followed this road to the west to see the gate in the neighbourhood of the slag tipping area. This gate was open and I was waved in by a worker speaking some English. He worked here as an engineer and after having explained to him that I wanted to see the steam engines, he told me I could take pictures in this area without problems as long as I didn't go any further to the mills themselves. Of course, I was very pleased with this offer, so I stayed here for a while. There were quite some steam movements here: trains passing with loads of iron, trains coming back from the slag tipping area but also diesel engines with loads of coal. After an hour, finally SY 0946 (acting as a shunter here during my stay) was ready to deliver a new train of molten slag. The procedure was more or less as described before: a huge ball was being dropped onto the top of the slag until this layer was broken. The train then continued to an area with 4 bassins.
Here, a first part of the slag was dropped out of the cars. Taking pictures here was impossible because of the amount of steam… SY 0946 then pulled the 3 cars for some 50m to a second zone, where the rest of the slag was tipped into the previously described depression. While I took pictures of this, suddenly, a small group of other people showed up at the wall near the now closed (…) gate to have a look. Only when I was about to leave did I realise that they were actually western people also taking pictures. If they were members of this group: sorry for being in your picture for 2 minutes, this was not on purpose of course.
I then went to the English speaking guy again and explained to him that the gate was now closed and that there were some other people taking pictures as well. I had the impression he now became a little nervous and he soon let me out at another gate a little bit more to the east.
As I really didn't want to get in trouble, I decided not to be tempted anymore by people waving me in, so I headed for the bridge some 500m further on to spend some hours there. While walking there, I saw a police car but they didn't seem interested. Also on the bridge, 2 police car passed me but they weren't interested at all.
While waiting on this bridge (with -27°C and a sometimes heavy wind, brrr) a lot of action was seen. Except for 2 minor breaks of about 15 minutes, I saw trains or engines passing at least every 5 minutes! Unfortunately, the wind wasn't really helpful, blowing the steam in the wrong direction for most of the time, so not many satisfying shots were made even with so much action.
Around 13:15, I decided it was slowly time to go back towards the city centre to catch a bus back to Benxi. I waved to a passing car if I could go with him and he immediately took me with him. He dropped me off at the roundabout at the entrance of the city.
Having passed the police check point in the car, I think David Thomas was very lucky he could pass this place without any difficulties: it really is an official entrance to the works…

Engines seen in service: SY 0448, 0825, 0946, 1005, 1054, 1075, 1514, 1577, 1684
and some diesels.

After the nice visit to Beitai, it was time to go home… I took a high speed train from Shenyang Bei to Beijing (special experience after having seen steam engines the same day) and stayed at a very small hotel in Beijing. The day after, I was stunned by the amount of snow which had fallen during the night. I was afraid my flight would be cancelled, but we could leave anyway. At Moscow, things went completely wrong: they decided it was a good idea to put all outgoing flights on 1 gate… You can guess the consequences… Big delays and complete chaos! Of course, they didn'’t even consider informing us… When we could board with a delay of more then 2 hours, they suddenly decided it was a nice idea to send us to another gate! Of course, it took quite some time before everybody understood this and more time was lost waiting for the last passengers to show up at this new gate. Couldn't they have made this decision a little earlier? Shame on you Sheremetyevo!!!
Anyway, we landed at Brussels around 00:45 instead of 22:30. 8 hours later, I had to teach my students again… For once, jetlag was a very convenient thing!

Conclusions in general after this tour:
Well, as you probably will have noticed reading this report, I was confronted with quite some bad luck. This has spoiled this tour rather hard… On the other hand, on some moments, the photographical potential was very big so even with all the bad luck, I could make some nice pictures.
Yamansu – Shankou surely would have been great if only a train had run… The potential of this line really seems great!
Sandaoling is a place on its own. People who haven't been there yet should at least consider it. Yes, there are a lot of pushed and tender first trains, but the trains that are actually pulled chimney first certainly make up for that.
Chengzihe (Jixi) was only visited for some hours. During my first stay, things seemed very quiet. During the second stay, it was nice to witness a “bonus shift change” at Dongchang after the delay with the electrification works in 2009.
My stay at Huanan was much disturbed by the continuing problems (derailments, technical problems), but even then, it was really a great visit. Tuoyaozi is a great place to stay for some days, you really get the feeling being in the real China there. Let's hope they can find a way to keep their engines running a little longer…
Beitai was nice to visit too. It's a shame it still is impossible for individuals to get an official permit for this place (I tried via 3 totally different channels). If it would be possible to get an official permit for this place, I would certainly try to go back to get the steam engines under the blast furnaces as well.

Last year, I was doubting if it was useful to go to China again but after having visited three locations for the first time on this trip (Yamansu, Sandaoling and Beitai), it's pretty clear that there are still some places to be visited. If the banked trains really will stay for another year at Sandaoling and Huanan finds a way to keep their engines running, chances are pretty great that I will revisit China again next winter. Even if this tour seemed to be doomed…

Dave Habraken

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