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Steam in China, 28th October - 3rd November 2018

by Roger Croston


Following the second international two day Tibet Think Tank symposium at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Peking, it being a long way to China from England, I decided to nip over to Sinkiang for a bit of sightseeing for a couple of days in Turfan and then on to Sandaoling for seven days of steam, for my tenth successive annual visit, with the ever reliable railway guide and maestro of steam photography, known to many as Jun.

Security seems to be the name of the game in China at present. Not having been since January 2017, I was a little surprised on arrival into Peking airport, that you must put your hands into an automatic fingerprint recording machine and take a chit to passport and visa control to confirm that this had been done.

Arriving in Turfan airport, I was detained at the exit by a solitary SWAT official (Special Weapons And Tactics – an American idea now adopted widely in Sinkiang), who photographed my passport and visa, and who asked where I was going and why. “For tourism to Aiding Lake in the Turfan Depression at 505 feet below sea level; the Emin Minaret and mosque; Jiaohe and Kharakhoja ancient cities; the Astana Tombs; Bezeklik Buddhist Caves and Grape Gorge”. Being convinced by this that I was a genuine tourist and not a terrorist I was allowed on my way. There is a new “Convenient Police Station” in Turfan along the main roads every ¾ of a mile with a local police officer standing at the front, complete with body armour, a steel helmet, shield and armed with a modern six-foot steel, rubber clad spear.

Onwards to Hami by the high-speed train from Urumchi which arrived in Turfan 20 seconds late and which takes just over two hours to Hami. On leaving the station I expected that I might be stopped and questioned by police and the SWAT team as usual. They indeed stopped me just as I was going through the exit booth in the forecourt. I have encountered this on previous visits, but this time, again through interpretation, the questioning was very, very thorough, though not aggressive. “Who are you? Why are you coming from the direction of west – why from Turfan? Why are you visiting Hami? What are you doing here?” To which I answered, “just travelling. I like it here! I’m going to Sandaoling to see the steam trains.” My passport was very carefully inspected and the current visa validity checked along with the entry stamp from Peking; then all the old dozen visas were inspected. Following which a long telephone conversation was held with a superior officer who asked yet more questions but then decided that I really was a harmless tourist and I was finally bid on my way in a fairly friendly manner.

When you arrive at the road level crossing to Mine No.2 (Beiquan Erjing) in Sandaoling, you will find a nice new, very shiny blue and white police, SWAT and Fang Bao (security) booth which checks all road traffic in and out of town and stops quite a lot of vehicles. Upon seeing me, a foreigner, it was yet again another good session of questions and a call to two superior officers who drove down in a police car to see who I was and why I had arrived in Sandaoling. After which, the passport, visa and validations were all thoroughly checked, once again. By now I started to realise that all these security folk don’t really have much of interest happening all day long and that a foreign visitor is a nice distraction from humdrum routine. Again, after ten minutes, it was again apparent that I was harmless and had really come to see the steam trains. Soon the atmosphere became very friendly and much interest was shown in photographs of the locomotives taken in the past. All ended well with them taking many ‘selfies’ with ‘the tall, white-haired foreigner’ - but do not be tempted to return the compliment without asking and getting clear permission – or you could be in very deep trouble! I did not try to do so.

Sandaoling now swarms with police cars driving up and down the streets all day and night and numerous “Fang Bao” security are all over the place, often with shields, steel helmets, modern six foot spears, electric cattle prods and the like. Sometimes they can be seen two or three standing back to back’ even outside the park gates. It all gives the impression that ‘we are guarding the town’ rather than an act of aggression. All petrol stations are now behind fences and razor wire (no passengers may stay in the cars when filling up). The area of town around the mosque and market is now fenced off by a half square mile of razor wired topped six foot high galvanised fencing and you have to sign-in to go through the entrance gates. Most shops, hotels and restaurants are fitted with security detection gates and baggage detection machines. Don’t photograph any of this or you might end up explaining why you took pictures of them to the authorities. This happened to me when I photographed a turnstile gate in a fenced market containing three elderly ladies selling dried mushrooms and forest roots, up in the mountains one day when, after a fierce all-night gale in Sandaoling, from a far off mountain storm, it was too dull and cloudy to bother to photograph steam. Plus the fact that for years I have wondered what lies on the other side of the Barkol Mountains (take the S301 road from Hami through a magnificent rocky gorge – but beware of the maniacal wagon drivers hurtling around the blind bends). I ended up in the local police station – follow us in the car with the blue flashing lights - for half an hour for all the usual questions. Things were finally resolved with “well, you are using 35mm roll film and took only one picture. This is not a threat because you cannot post it on the Internet.” Again, all ended well with smiles and handshakes all round.

Access to the pit, the washery, Dong Boli Zhan (East Station), Deep Mine No.2 (Beiquan Erjing) and, by arrangement, the workshop was unrestricted and one could roam anywhere at anytime at will, with the mine and railway workers as friendly as ever. Other than a group of China Rail workers with a ‘Team Leader’ from Hami who turned up for half an hour one morning to photograph steam (and a good two dozen ‘selfies’ with me), we had the place to ourselves all week. This was just wonderful for video as nobody in visible-from-a-mile-away-‘dayglow’ clothing got in the way and it was also a sound recordist’s heaven, because there was no machinegun like clackety-clack of digital camera shutters going off within hundreds of yards, nor the clatter of tripods being slammed shut, nor loud chattering voices, footsteps crunching on gravel, the scrunching of sweetie wrappers, crisp packets, cigarette lighters, coughs, sneezes or car doors slamming shut. The only disturbance being the occasional high altitude jet aircraft. (If you record high definition sound, you notice these things!)

Access to South Station and yard was denied when attempting to go across from the washery where a new yellow and black barrier was being built. We were politely ushered away. Also, having been stood on the spur road between the level crossing to Beiquan Erjing and South Station Yard for half an hour watching shunting (and one train unexpectedly dashing off to the deep mine, unusually loco first), we were approached by three helmeted, body armoured, Fang Bao who were wielding brand new square section baseball bats who told us to clear off pronto! They had seen us from hundreds of yards away via security cameras. So this area might now be ‘Out of Bounds.’

Locos seen working in the pit were 8167, 8173 (in workshop 29th November for quick repair), 8195 (cold in workshop on 29th October, but out running 1st November), and 8197. Inside the workshop 8080 was being actively retubed, 8190 (heavy repair and off wheels), 8225 cold in the rear workshop presumably ready to be worked on. 
Before we got bounced out of the environs of South Yard 8089 and 8366 were seen shunting.

A new coal depot has been built next to the Blue Loader for road lorries and so very few trains now run along the 180 degrees loop via Dong Boli Zhan to the lorry coal depot just west of South Yard – only one train was seen going there in the week.

One day, a pick-up truck arrived in a cloud of dust at the signal boxes at Dong Kuang, the driver threw off four wooden sleepers and shot off again. So out of curiosity we went to see what was happening. A track gang set to work to exchange four old sleepers with the new. Within the hour, between the running of two loaded trains, the old sleepers had been dragged out, the new sleepers fitted, ballasted and fully nailed down in a superb display of manual labour whilst a safety lookout flagman kept watch. Very impressive! Imagine this in the UK! First of all a track inspector would come out, send for a second opinion and shut the line for three days; insurers would be summoned; three quotations for the work sought; decide who is going to pay for it; a contract taken out; risk assessment and method statements written; site inductions given to workmen by instructors who had never lifted a shovel in their entire lives to tell them exactly to the last hammer blow and turn of the spanner how to do their jobs that they have been doing every day for the last 30 years; the work area barriered off with red and white safety tape; a dozen EU red-tape useless regulations imposed; a public exclusion zone set up and then after the work was completed (taking all of 72 hours including night shifts), the track would need inspecting and gauge checking daily for the next week – or am I perhaps getting just a little bit sceptical working as I do in British industry? (I honestly wish I was joking).

All in all, a very worthwhile autumn trip and a nice change from mid-winter brass-monkey weather. Quite a pleasure to be able to comfortably fiddle with camera and recorder controls; not to have frozen hands and feet; frozen batteries; snapping film and being clothed in multiple layers looking like Michelin Man. The downside being the lack of towering exhausts. The upside being able to record uninterrupted sound and video without tripping over any other tourists.

I shall certainly go again. Don’t let the overdone level of security put you off. You will think that it is a job creation scheme. They have absolutely nothing to do day after day and must be bored out of their minds standing at their posts. An overseas tourist or two or even a whole group, is for them a welcome event that gives them something interesting to do as well as to justify to themselves and their superiors why they are there ‘doing a good job.’ Also, they get a chance to meet and chat to a foreigner - which happens once all your papers have been checked - and for them to take ‘selfies’ back home to show family, friends and neighbours. “How old are you? Where are you from?” How long do you stay? How many times have you visited China? Oh, you can speak a little Mandarin Chinese!” My advice is that smiles and handshakes from start to finish go a very long way when you are stopped – and you certainly will be. They are not intent on checking photographs, deleting pictures or removing roll film. But outside of the coal mine DO THINK before you press the shutter button. Just be careful not to take any pictures of any security folk without very clear permission or photograph anything that might be considered by them as a security measure – and that includes innocent turnstile market gates! 

Roger Croston 24-11-2018

Pictures are courtesy of Liu Xuejun

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