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Steam in China - March 2010

by Colin Martindale

Huanan, Jixi, Fuxin, Yuanbaoshan, Pingzhuang, Shijiazhuang, Sandaoling

Delayed by snow would be the sub-title for this trip, as will become apparent.

March 10/11. Calgary – Beijing via Toronto, when you travel on points you go by the route they chose! 15 minutes late out of Calgary waiting to be de-iced. Overnight at the Sino-Swiss in Beijing, which people at the information booth in T3 affected not to have heard of, and thus there was some difficulty in finding the free shuttle bus!

Huanan, March 12-13.

March 12. Taxi to T1 where the Deer Air flight to Jixi was three hours late leaving due to snow in Jixi. From the air I saw an SY, I think near Xinghua. On arrival I got a taxi directly from the airport to Huanan (¥400 for which there was no negotiation), paused at a level crossing on the Didao system for an SY and train. Arrived in Huanan and got the same room in the hotel on the corner of the square that I had four years ago, at the same price of ¥120. Mid-afternoon taxi to the depot; a few degrees below freezing and windy. The rails looked well polished which appeared to be a good sign but the only activity was C2-004 taking water. She then ran a few meters down the yard and back before going to sleep. The crossing keeper appeared to indicate no more trains before peddling of on his bike about 16:30. After about half an hour I decided he might be right.

March 13. 06:00 Taxi to Tuoyaozi after telling the hotel I would stay another night. -5C and blowing hard from the west. Walked out along the line and found half an inch on snow on the rails. After about a mile or so a shallow cutting was drifted with up to two feet of hard packed snow with more coming down. Clearly there would no trains for a while. Walking back into the wind was a painful experience with hypothermia, if not frostbite, a possibility. Taxi back to the hotel and checked-out. They refunded my payment for the next night without a murmur. About 11:00 I walked down to the bus station and found the next bus to Jixi was at 14:20 so I got a taxi for the same fare as before. In all it cost ¥1000 for some rather un-thrilling photos of a C2 and two minutes of video mostly wrecked by wind noise – you can’t win them all!

Jixi, March 13-15.

March 13. The taxi dropped me at the station and I crossed to the Jixi Fan Dian where I was met by the hopeless hand flapping which could have meant, hotel full, no longer licensed for foreigners or please don't bother us. A second taxi took me to the National Territory Resources Mansion which, from the title, I wouldn't have picked as a hotel! However their instant discount rate was better than the Fan Dian's posted rate for an adequate room. Possibly due to major re-building in the station square area the number three bus to Chengzihe stops right outside. Spend the afternoon in strong wind around Beichang before walking the main line west to the bridge. I saw several light engine movements on the main line but, with fading light, cold and strong wind, I didn't feel like waiting too long at the bridge. Heading back I climbed up to the road above the main-line and a couple of hundred meters east reached a bus which had just turned round for a run back to Jixi. They were quite apologetic that they had to charge me an extra 5 jiao for the extra distance.

March 14 dawned with no wind (at last) and after visiting the morning gathering at Dongchang (eight locos all dispersed by 09:00) I walked out to the east to get some good video of spoil, and other, trains and then came back to finish the day round the "golden triangle".

March 15. The plan was to visit the morning gathering and then go to Didao but the day dawned (an exaggeration for the slight increase in light) with blowing snow. Bus to the "golden triangle" which was miserably wet and cold and after an hour I decided to seek shelter in the lee of the signal cabin at Nanchang. Due to the wind this was a deposition area and even less pleasant than standing out in the open. However, the signalman invited me in and thus I spent the next few hours dry, warm and forewarned of the arrival of trains. His wife/girlfriend brought lunch which they insisted on sharing and all thoughts of heading to Didao were abandoned. By mid afternoon the wind had dropped and the snow tapered off so I wandered up to Beichang for a different view point and a chat with Dave Fielding who was occupying a mini van with another gricer and Mike Ma. Dinner in a you-pick-and-they-cook kebab place and onto K7076 to Harbin arriving on time at 05:58. Got at ticket on D28 to Shenyang North leaving at 09:02 and had a walk around Harbin for a couple of hours. At -10C and a stiff breeze I was happy to explore the underground markets part of the time. A visit to a dumpling shop got me breakfast and a “do-svidanija” as I left. Leaving Changchun I was casually videoing modern traction when, at the south end of the yard on the west side of the line, an SY in fairly good condition floated through the viewfinder. No details since the line-side wall was too high to see the number. On time arrival in Shenyang and on to K7358 to Fuxin. This train was grossly over heated and I ended up stripped to my tee-shirt; I could only have got more attention if I did back-flips along the aisle! The Chinese are not prone to removing layers for trifling matters like overheating.

Classic morning gathering shot at Dongchang.

SY 1369 under the coal loader at Beichang.

Fuxin, March 17-18.

March 16. Arrived at Fuxin at 18:20 and proceeded to an area identified on Google map as having several hotels; straight ahead from station and second left. The only place I could find was a scruffy flop-house with shared bath and toilet for ¥30/night (worth every penny?) Back at the station I found the station hotel just across the road to the right of the intersection. Dimly lit, which is why I missed it at first. Old China with wardens on each floor but ¥100/night got me a mini suite which was well lit and a bed which almost yielded when sat on. Tolerably warm water arrived in the shower after a wait and once the plug was removed from the floor drain the shower stopped flooding the bedroom area.

March 17. Over to the morning gathering with five light engines present plus an SY on a train of side dump cars, plus one diesel almost hidden at the back of the line up. A couple of Chinese gricers were also taking photos. By 09:00 both locos and gricers had dispersed and I walked to Taiping. The levels of activity previously reported appeared to be much reduced with periods with no locomotives in sight in the Wulong-Taiping corridor. The dumped locomotives previously reported at Taiping are still to be seen, very overgrown and with many parts missing. Also, a peep over the wall showed a long line of withdrawn electric locomotives falling into decay. Any thoughts of visiting this area were dismissed by the large number of guard dogs tied up in the yard and barking unpleasantly. An overview of the open pit showed a single line well polished. A steam hauled train on this line would be a treat to see and hear but sadly nothing materialized. The line which branches off on the south side of the depot leads over two crossings and through an area of, largely demolished, hutongs to one or more deep mines. This branch was quite busy throughout my visit and provided some good photographic opportunities in the afternoon. Recommended for dinner: on the left side of the road opposite the station is a red painted restaurant with white trim and the letters “KL”. It is bright, clean and the owners very friendly. Dishes are laid out on trays, you point and they cook; which beats the point and hope method of ordering from the menu!

March 18. Returned for the morning gathering. This time there were three diesels present but they were gathered separately from the steam locos; a form of apartheid I could approve of! The same number of steam locos were present as the day before. Invited onto the footplate of SY 1319 but soon found by the fat controller who strongly disapproved. He also didn't like gricers being between the running lines or close to loading gauge when at the side of the line. I caught three trains on the southern branch before heading for the station and 4208/4209 to Chifeng. Although this is a day train I got a hard sleeper since it is a more than eight hours and a chance to stretch out is most welcome, the sleeper was only one third full so plenty of room. Arrived on time at 21:08 and decided to stay at the first hotel on the left across from the station. A bit scruffy but only ¥120/night and the location was a godsend a couple of days later.

Freshly painted SY 1320 undergoing steam trails and adjustments to the motion outside the workshop.

Five SYs at the morning gathering in Fuxin.

Yuanbaoshan, March 19.

Out for the 07:33 K7384 to Yuanbaoshan and also a ticket for train 2622 on the 20th to Beijing. Arrived at Yuanbaoshan to find neither bus not taxi meeting the train but I was planning to walk the line anyway. No steam in the yard. At Majiawan the signalman indicated a train was expected at 10:30. If the train was to be steam hauled the loco would have to work down the line shortly, plus I wanted to see the returning passenger train as my best hope for steam that day. Two diesels were in the yard at Xizhan (DF12 0106/7) when I arrived and the passenger train returned, shortly after I set up the camera just north of the bridge, headed by JS 8242. A DF4 arrived light engine from the north shortly after while the JS took coal and water and went to sleep near the coaling stage. The DF4 took a rake of coal cars north followed by DF12 0106/7 topping and tailing a longer rake. A fellow hailed me from a upper window of the offices to indicate that there would be no afternoon passenger train so I walked up to the mines area for a look round. Although the rails were polished all the coal was moving by truck with much dust, noise and exhaust fumes through town. The only consolation was that the weather was much improved being sunny and almost warm most of the day. Rather tired I walked back to the bus station having been walking around for about five out of the six hours I spent here and nearly all of it going up hill! Back at the hotel my tired feet must have sent out an appeal and I was offered a foot massage – excellent! My feet felt happier for days afterwards!

Pingzhuang, March 20.

Snow and blowing snow with temperatures slightly below zero. Over to the station for the 07:33 and to drop my bag at the left luggage office. But no left luggage office! Chifeng must be the only large station in China with no such facilities. Short of time I made a dead run back to the hotel and left my bag there. The couple of young girls on the front desk are among the smartest of their ilk in China, understanding mime and pointing instantly, and being very friendly and helpful. So unlike most of the front desk staff who are obviously hired for looks not smarts. Back to the train, just in time. Arrived at Pingzhuang Nan with the snow tapering off and the wind rising. Headed up the line and looking back I saw an SY in the yard. Soon after, this loco passed me working hard up the gradient to the river bridge. Continuing up the line into the teeth of the wind I was rewarded with a second train down to Nan shortly before reaching the washing plant. With no activity in sight at the washer I checked out the electric side – better, but not much. SY 1764 ran over the crossing light engine and settled in for a lunchtime snooze. On the embankment a pair of electric locos were hooked up to trains of spoil cars. After a couple of still photos one of the trains moved from siding 2 to siding 4 – one of those moves which can only make sense to railway controllers! Back at the washer I was invited into a mess room on the second floor where left-over lunch was traded for Canadian pins and coins. After an extended break SY 1025 commenced sorting out spoil cars for loading and shortly after SY 1083 arrived from Nan with empties. After sorting the yard SY 1083 took empties to the deep mines and SY 1025 took the spoil cars to the dump. Another SY (number not recorded) moved empties under the loader and I took shelter with the loader crew in a rising gale which blew the tripod and camera bodily across the yard at one stage. With half a dozen guys, myself and a roaring coal fire things were pretty cozy in a hut the size of a couple of phone boxes; this is likely where the sleeve of my jacket got singed. Finally, about 15:00, the cloud blew over and the wind dropped somewhat. I headed for the bridge north of the yard for five excellent stills of a train from the deep mines headed by the returning SY 1083. It was still too windy for good video and the train was moving too slowly in any case. Crossed the bridge to the road and flagged down a taxi to the bus station. Not only was there no bus to Chifeng but the bus station was closed. At the railway station it was confirmed that the next train would be too late to catch my train to Beijing so I had to persuade the taxi driver to take me to Chifeng at a cost of ¥150. So the five stills cost about $4.50 each – excellent value since they are great pictures! Arrived in Chifeng in time for an excellent hotpot meal before retrieving my bag and getting the train to Beijing.

Blue skies after an overnight snow fall, SY 1083 brings loaded coal cars from the deep mines to Pingzhuang.

Shijiazhuang, March 21.

Train 2622 arrived at Beijing North on time at 07:21, taxi to West station, Checked into the Railway hotel and packed a day bag, bought a ticket on D2005 to Shijiazhuang and jumped on it minutes before it left at 08:40. In Shijiazhuang a taxi dropped me at the gate to the yard. There was nobody in the gate house but when I reached the rails I was accosted. By now I could see the front end of QJ 6391 behind the shed. By miming I got permission to take a look and found, in addition, QJ 6887 and an industrial diesel carrying the word Taihang on the short hood and numbered 001. Both QJs were in scabby condition with cab fittings missing and clearly not in working order. QJ 6391 was reported as having possibly been in use last summer but the rust on the tires said she hadn’t moved in months. DF12 0103 was in the shed along with an unidentified DF4. A second DF4 arrived off the line as I was wandering around. There was a pile of coal in the yard, enough to fill a QJ's tender? And maybe a firebox worth of ash in another pile. So it is possible there was a locomotive on the line but I think it pretty unlikely.

March 22-23. Picked up my ticket for T69 to Hami from the CITS Office at Worker's Stadium. The rest of the day was spent in playing tourist in Beijing. T69 left Beijing Xizhan on time at 18:36 and managed to lose more than two hours by the time we reached Lanzhou the next afternoon. The display in the train explained "TRACK NOW BE LATE", very helpful! About 15 minutes east of Lanzhou on the north side of the line there is a very large cement works which has an SY probably out of use and at least two industrial diesels. I don't think this locomotive has been previously reported so I'm sorry I wasn't paying more attention when it drifted past the window. Much of the lost time was won back overnight with arrival at Hami only 45 minutes late at 05:00 on March 24.

Sandaoling, March 24-26.

Through the Steam in China news group and e-mail I had arranged to meet David Thomas at Hami to share the costs of doing Sandaoling. I leave David to explain what happened in his report but his term "a right cock-up" provides a succinct summary. At the Hami Hotel the staff deigned all knowledge of David or the existence of a CITS Office (correctly on both counts as it turned out). They offered a room at ¥166/night so I decided to take that and commute from Hami rather than try to find the CITS Office and set up a tour through them. The only shortcoming with this plan is that the first bus from Hami leaves at 09:00 placing one at the mine about 11:00. If you have three days that still leaves enough daylight to see everything but it would be pretty tight on a two day visit.

March 24. The bus makes a circuit of Sandaoling and from the southwest corner of the route it is a 15 minute walk to the mine through a hutong district. This places one above the coal train line on a cliff some 50 feet high, not a bad vantage point. I walked west and found a trail down to the coal train level, then headed west to the loading point. West of here is a reversing station for the spoil trains coming from the deeper levels of the pit. Only the uppermost levels from the pit go directly to Xibolizhan which is not quite as shown on Bernd Seiler's map. This is a site of intense activity with empty and loaded trains arriving and departing every few minutes. My video log will give an idea of what went on – this is not a complete record because I didn't video many of the downhill trains, nor all of the up hill ones. The locomotives are JS unless stated.

13:42 empties
13:51 loaded
14:07 empties
14:23 empties
14:36 loaded
14:38 empties and loaded cross
14:41 loaded
14:49 SY with crane, etc.
14:52 loaded
14:53 empties
15:03 loaded
15:06 loaded
15:15 loaded
15:53 loaded
15:58 loaded
16:07 empties and loaded cross
16:12 loaded
16:17 empties cross loaded

I exited the pit via a road west of the reversing point and hitched a ride back to Sandaoling for the 18:30 bus back to Hami.

March 25. 09:00 bus arriving at the pit about 11:00, as the day before. This time I headed south along the east end of the big hole videoing a sequence of coal trains coming and going. Over the next few hours every combination of pushing and pulling, chimney and tender to train went past with 10 trains between 11:00 and 14:30. Dongbolizhan had appeared quite busy from across the pit but by the time I arrived in the area the only item of interest was a sleeping JS which never stirred in the couple of hours I was in the area. I stopped at the workshop and was unsurprised not to be admitted, the only disadvantage to not having an organised tour. I continued to Nan Zhan and wasn't surprised when I was asked to leave the track. However there was no objection to photography and I was even allowed to take a quick shot of a JS hiding behind a line of Cs before I left the area. DF8B 0248/9/50 where sitting at Nan Zhan waiting for work. I continued to the level crossing just east of Nan and DF8B 0247 arrived with 35 Cs from the CNR after about 15 minutes at 16:45. With little prospect for further traffic I called it a day and hitched into town and the bus back to Hami.

March 26. Dropped my bag at the hotel's reception desk and took the 09:00 bus to Sandaoling. This time I jumped off the bus at Xingfu Road to head for the power station and deep mines area. This was prompted by seeing an SY propelling a line of Cs westward as we arrived in town and the excellent visibility which made me hope for a shot with the mountains in the background. A short distance along the road I was accosted by a police officer and had to go with him to a store-front station. A second male officer and a woman were on hand. She could speak enough English to tell me to "wait a moment" but that was all. They examined my passport and an inspector came and went but the response to all my questions about what they wanted as "wait a moment". At last they produced an English speaker who had been dragged out of her classroom to act as interpreter. I had to write down my passport details (with the exception of the number) in the incident book and I was free to go. Total time wasted about 45 minutes. I followed the road east and south to the first mine where I found the SY loading coal. About 15 minutes after I found a good video location she pulled out with a nice view of the Tian Shan behind. From there I headed south across the desert, through an abandoned village (mining subsidence?) and as the junction at Nan Zhan came into sight the SY trundled across in the distance. One of the DF8Bs looked ready to take a rake of loaded Cs down to the CNR, not a sight I wanted to see. I dropped down to the coal unloading point northwest of Nan Zhan and completed my series of shots of the coal trains. A lot of walking but on a fine sunny day with a cooling breeze it was a pleasure to be out in the desert. Bus back to Hami, wash, change, diner and on to K9781 at 23:30 to Urumqi.

A pair of unidentified JS locomotives shuttle train loads of spoil out of the south side of the big hole.

JS 8190 spotting cars under the new coal loader at Sandaoling.

March 27 et.seq. This was the end of the steam trip but not the end of the snow delays. March 27 was spent souvenir shopping and watching the considerable police presence in Urumqi. On the 28th I was to fly to Beijing in the morning with onward connection to Canada in the afternoon. At 07:00 it was snowing and by the time I reached the airport there were 2-3 inches on the ground. Several flights were delayed/cancelled but mine loaded and pushed-back on time. We then sat for 3.5 hours waiting to be de-iced. As we taxied to the terminal in Beijing I saw my flight to Canada take off. The flights the next day were known to be oversold so it was March 30 before I managed to get home, and only then via San Francisco and Vancouver, which took eight hours longer than the more direct route. On my spare day in Beijing I took the train from North station to Badaling for a walk on the Wall. A very nice way to reach the Wall but the first class car was one third full and the rest of the train considerably more empty than that – how long can this service last?

Colin Martindale

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