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Steam in China, February 2010

by Ameling Algra


As regular steam is coming to an end even in China, the alarming news about Sandaoling prompted me to pay a short visit to this open cast mine, my 32nd China trip. In the unlikely event that someone is counting and misses a trip: my 31st trip was a pleasant JiXi trip around Christmas with nothing new to report.
And flying through to Harbin on the same ticket (China Southern is member of Skyteam) has its advantages: the airline is responsible if I miss my connection. But I am not sure I would do that again either.
On Friday Feb 5 I set off with Hans Duyfjes, having booked KLM from Amsterdam to Ürümqi via Beijing. Booking the whole ticket through KLM is not cheaper than buying separate tickets, but has the advantage of not me but KLM being responsible for the connection in Beijing should Ürümqi airport be snowed in or fogged in. The journey was comfortable as KLM gave me a business class seat on the full plane.
After a long night in Ürümqi, on to Hami with China Southern (KLM would not book all the way to Hami), and a taxi from the airport to Sandaoling arriving in the evening of Feb 7. There the problems started. Two years ago, I walked around freely and happily without any permit, but the political circumstances and more importantly the probably high numbers of visitors these days made it seem wiser to opt for the Hans Schaefer/Dave Habraken solution: arrange our own transport and accommodation, and pay a hopefully reasonable fee to Mr. Fu. Well, it was not going to be that easy. We went to Lu Xin Binguan where we were refused and sent to San He Binguan. There they also refused to give us a room. After complicated discussions and several phone calls with people who spoke more or less English, it became clear that the police won’t allow any visitors who did not make arrangements with Hami CITS. Luckily, a guide from Hami CITS happened to be coming over the next morning anyway so she could arrange things with us. With CITS controlling the accommodation, we saw no other way than to agree. Then the police came, seemed to be only marginally interested and we got our rooms for four nights.
The next morning promptly at 7 AM the guide from Hami arrived so we could discuss program and prices. We were hardly in a position to negotiate but when I compare what she charged us to what Roger van Duijnhoven paid, she did not really take advantage of the situation. Anyway, we paid for guide, driver, comfortable car, hotel room (including for guide and driver) for three days. And guide and driver certainly worked hard to get the best from our short visit.

The weather these days was nice; around zero Celsius, good enough for steam effects and not too cold. Slightly overcast with sunny spells, no snow on the ground or in the sky. About the operation: the traffic intensity is amazing, never a dull moment. One change from my previous visit – and already reported by Dave Habraken - is that many coal trains are now hauled chimney first, from the new loading point at Xikeng to Nanzhan. Stone trains are still coupled chimney to train though.

Having a guide also meant that we were alerted when there was a train with steam due from CNR. On the first day false alarm, at the expected departure time it turned out the locos were still with a loaded train at Nanzhan. Eventually the train must have run after dark, without us seeing it. On the second day there was no train during daylight or maybe it was diesel. The third day saw a banked train from CNR at around 9.15, in excellent light. Nice change from the open cast workings, very spectacular even though the landscape is not very inspiring. It was not clear enough to get the Tianshan Mountains into the picture, too far away anyway.

After three days, the amount of traffic and limited positions meant that we were starting to repeat ourselves. So we decided to use the next day to go back to Ürümqi leisurely. And we happily sent away driver and guide, who had done an excellent job and even retrieved Hans’ tripod, which was lost on the first day and brought to head office by an honest worker.

But on the morning of February 11, we saw there was snow on the ground, making for different video! So we called Ms Liu from Hans Schaefer’s report. She turned out to be an excellent driver and we spent more than half a day around the pit without a permit. Part of the day it was sunny with snow on the ground, at other moments it was snowing. Both giving excellent video, different from what we shot the previous days. Ms Liu drove us to the airport in Hami and showed us Hans Schaefer’s business card. We agree that she can be recommended! At Hami airport we met with our second stress moment of an otherwise relaxing trip. The flight to Ürümqi was delayed or cancelled because of snow in the morning. We were advised to take a taxi to Hami town to relax and eat and go to the airport at 9 PM. Luckily we stayed at the airport instead, our plane eventually left at 8.55 PM! From then an eventless journey back home. Returning from a short and relatively expensive trip but with excellent ‘’last chance’’ video so no regrets!

Ameling Algra

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© 2010 Ameling Algra