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Steam in China, 23rd - 29th December 2018


by Dave Habraken


After quite some doubts, I decided to continue my planned visits to Sandaoling between the 23rd and the 29th of December last year. Thanks once again Ameling, for your detailed mails prior to my visit! It turned out to be the right choice to continue the planned visit after all!

We (my Chinese wife, my mother-in-law and myself) flew from Beijing to Hami on the 23rd of December. We could share a rental car of a Chinese gricer between the airport and Sandaoling. Last year, my wife and I decided it was interesting to rent a car in Hami. It got some technical difficulties and this year’s car (rented by the Chinese gricer) had technical difficulties as well. So for the happy few who happen to be in a similar situation of being able to rent a car: don’t expect western quality rental cars in Hami…

As a “laowei”, my passport was checked 3 times after arrival: when leaving the airport, some 2km down the road towards the center of Hami and when entering Sandaoling. Especially when entering Sandaoling, the process was pretty time consuming. The police men excused themselves by saying they had to do everything following the book as the Hami police chief was paying them a visit during the day of our arrival. They escorted us to the San He binguan, where they asked us to make up a program for the following days. They agreed that I went to the pit while my wife had to go to 2 (!!) different police stations to hand over this written program. For this program, we based ourselves on a program which was typed out by Chinese guide Jun for 3 western visitors some days later. We didn’t give too much details (e.g. we didn’t speak about walking in the mine towards Ba’erzhan). We also pointed out that it would be possible that we would go to Erjing when we knew a train would be running over there.

Interesting detail for those looking for a free taxi towards Hami: a Chinese gricer told me some other Chinese enthusiasts were trapped while taking pictures in Nanzhan. They were interrogated about their purposes, followed by a one way ride to Hami with the advice not to come back…

Once taking pictures, I had no further contact with the local police. On the way back (our taxi driver used the old road via Liushuquan), we didn’t have to stop for police checks. At the entrance of the airport, there was a police check but the police officer clearly overlooked that I was a laowei and we could enter the airport premises immediately.

An interesting note on Hami airport: somebody was checking if the weight of the carry on luggage was lower then the tolerated 5kg… Mine was definitely not (I estimate some 10kg), but by letting my wife create a diversion and by placing my luggage on the floor a bit further in the line, he didn’t notice this. Probably useful information for future visitors not aware of this check…

We got cold weather with a rather chilly -21°C in the morning of the 24th of December. No need to say that this lead to impressive exhaust from the steam engines. A lot of de-icing with a small burner had to take place as well in Dongbolizhan every morning. No snow, but almost constant sunny weather (apart from 2 hours on one morning when the sun had troubles burning trough some high clouds) and except for one day no wind.

The San He binguan seems to become more and more in a sorry state: our first room was way too cold, in our second room, there was no warm water for the shower. We’re seriously considering to change to the other hotel next time as they raised prices for foreigners just prior to our arrival AND again just after our departure “as they have to do a lot of paperwork for those laowei”. The price is now up to 158 RMB, which should be the same as the other and newer hotel and is too high anyway for the given service.

A last footnote before I switch to steam action: I experimented with a drone for the first time. What a nice place Sandaoling is to make drone videoshots and pictures. All the open space, the spectacular sights from unusual camera positions… I’ll post some pictures and video sequences on my website (www.spoorwegnostalgie.be) in the following months, but if you’re doubting to buy one and you have plans to go to Sandaoling soon: just go for it! You have to register on a Chinese website when using your drone in China (essential reading and the link to the registration form: https://www.travelchinacheaper.com/flying-drone-china-regulations) but after that, you will experience much more freedom then e.g. in Europe while flying.

The mine operation: 

I arrived in the opencast mine in the late afternoon of the 23rd of December. Things seemed the same as described by previous visitors: the blue loader and a bulldozer were used to charge coal trains, but the big shovel was out of use. 2 coal trains were running between Xikeng and Xuanmeichang with JS8195 and JS8167.

On the 24th of December (first full day of my visit), they put a third coal train into operation, but against expectations, this didn’t raise the number of coal trains as they had big issues with the blue loader on the 24th and the 25th of December. JS8190 was fired up during the night, the crew had quite some troubles de-icing crucial parts (air pump, steam valves,…) of this engine. At several crucial places on and around this engine, small fires were burning to melt all the ice inside tubes and stuff. This engine eventually pushed an empty coal train towards Xikeng, but after hours and hours of waiting, the train was sent empty to Dongbolizhan again, after which only 2 trains kept on waiting/running. Somewhere during the day, JS8195 was sent to the workshop where the fire was dropped. At the end of the day, 6 trains were seen leaving the mine, except for the empty train with JS8195 all hauled by JS8167 and JS8190. In the morning, JS8173 was waiting cold at a dead end track at Dongbolizhan, it would be gone the day after. I suppose it was towed to the workshop by JS8195.

On the 25th of December, JS8167 pushed 2 flat cars with mining equipment towards Xikeng. Jun thought (he was not sure) this equipment was used to drill holes for dynamite in the opencast mine. Could be, but I’m not convinced when I look at the details of the machinery. Anyway, after unloading, performing it’s work and reloading, this train climbed out of the mine around 15:30. JS8190 and JS8197 hauled all the coal trains. Other interesting detail on this day: a connection of the big water pipe started leaking heavily due to the cold weather. This caused a massive shower after which the water froze immediately to the ground of course. This formed some very nice ice flowers, a perfect temporarily motive. Not sure how long these ice flowers will survive the Chinese tourists, but the flowers were still on place when I left on the 29th. Oh, this leak was of course quickly repaired (after some 2 hours or so). This day, apart from the “special train”, 6 coal trains were seen leaving the mine. Track work was going on in the curve. Always nice to see these people aligning the tracks with some very basic equipment and a lot of muscle power needed.

On the 26th and the 27th of December, the blue loader functioned again and 3 coal trains were running, hauled by JS8167, JS8190 and JS8197. But even then, things didn’t get much more active. These days, I counted 7 or 8 trains leaving the mine. Delays were now caused by trains also running to the coal yard, which implicated a longer route to run. Track work continued from the curve near the pipe towards Ba’erzhan during these days.

On the 28th of December, JS8195 re-entered service after a boiler wash out. JS8197 was no longer seen in Dongbolizhan, I suppose it went into the workshop but I didn’t search for it. This day, it was very windy. The rail workers made a small fire before starting their work. They were were quite happy by me searching wood to keep this fire alive, but it was only a small gesture as this fire kept me warm as well. As a way of thank you, they didn’t kill the fire at the end of their work but they let me feeding it with fresh wood for some hours to come. By the way: anyone who already witnessed what they do with their equipment when the shift is over? They just bury it aside of the tracks and unbury it the next day.

On the 29th of December, I just had a quick look at Kengkouzhan before heading to Hami. Business as usual…

General information about the opencast mine:

Engines seen in service on the opencast system:

8167, 8190 (entering service on the 24th of December), 8195 (only on the 23rd and the 24th), 8197

Deep mines:

As it seemed better to stay away from Nanzhan, this led to difficulties to know when trains to Erjing / Yijing would start. Because of this, almost no time was spent on this system. Well, I made two flyovers high above Nanzhan with my drone. This is legal as there is no no-fly zone installed. Probably nobody noticed anyway, so nothing to worry about. That way, I could see that 3 engines were stabled around shift change. One of these engines was JS8080 as I saw this engine visiting the workshop on the 26th of December for some minor repairs. By the way: for this reparation, the engine was temporarily turned via the triangle near the coal yard.


In the workshop, on the 26th of December, JS8195 (opencast operation) and JS8053 (deep mine operation) got a boiler washout and some minor repairs when we visited. Just after we left, JS8080 (deep mine operation) entered the premises. JS8225 (deep mine system) was standing cold in the shed waiting for a next service. No engine in full overhaul.


As we heard quite a lot of details of what’s going on in Xinjiang, this influenced the atmosphere during our visit. Traffic levels in the opencast mine were not very high. This could give me some of reasons to say goodbye to Sandaoling. However, there is this tiny detail: it’s the last big steam show on Earth… In 10 years, we will be very happy to see a fraction of what’s happening today at Sandaoling. So, my current mindset is that this was not my last visit to this place. We’ll see what happens next…

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