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Steam in China, 4th - 12th January 2019


by Wolfgang Klein

A group of six German photographers went on a farewell-trip to "Koenig Dampf" at Sandaoling from Jan 4th to Jan 12th, guided by the formidable Jun.

Four of us flew via Astana/Urumqi and travelled by HST to Hami. They were heavily checked by security at the airport and at both stations in Urumqi and Hami in both directions. One member of the Urumqi group was literally taken apart and was separated from the rest of the group for more than two hours on the outward leg; his "firing squad" was equipped with every detail from all his journeys to China since 2003, and they knew about every step we made on this trip. They were even able to pronounce his German employer correctly, and he had to undress down to his boxers and a shirt. At the end he could convince them that he is just slightly mad but mostly harmless (to say it with Douglas Adams) - but never forget where you are going to!

One guy came by plane via Beijing and was checked as well at Hami and at the new checkpoint near Nanzhan, while I arrived with a delay of one day, also by plane from Beijing, and was never asked for my passport at the airport or at the northern checkpoint at the motorway end of Sandaoling.

Jun said that the regulations have been relaxed since New Year, so the treatment I received should be more or less standard. There was nothing unusual at Hami Airport while checking in for the return flight to Beijing (may be the Hami Airport is simply too small to receive as much police attention as the one of the province´s capital?)

Security at the San He Hotel is "Chinese" - a lot of stuff build up there, 24 hrs Police protection, but no one cares when you simply walk through. As stated by others before - the photo folk is obviously not the target, and no official is bothered about what we are doing. But it is scaring when you see the sheer amount of concrete, steel and personal which is used to "protect" everything and everybody. New fences go up in lighting speed, barbed wire everywhere, and even the cashier girl in the little shop next door to the San He Hotel wears her bulletproof vest. Hard to imagine how people feel there, especially the Ujgur. 

Steamwise everything about traffic in and out of the pit has been said by others - three locos were working the pit trains, they were at least each doing one trip before the lunch brake and one after that. Best schedule they reached were 45 minutes between trains. On the Saturday morning one loco broke down during shift change and went to the works. The spare/replacement loco did not appear until we had to leave for the airport at about 3pm. Jun expected it to come out late afternoon.

We did not visit Nanzhan itself, but from the coal loading point at the southernmost end and from Erjing/Yijing we noticed at least three locos working there - and a green DF4, which arrived, according to Jun, in December. We only saw her shunting in Nanzhan; whether she took trains to the deep mines as well is unknown.

Yijing is said to be closed as a mine, but the yard is used to transfer coal (brought in by lorries from the open pit) to CNR wagons. Loading operation is very slow, but that has been reported before as well. The lorries are using the dirt tracks only, and the whole area with all the ruins there is covered with a grey mix of coaldust and sand, the most desperate looking place I know. Six years ago, it was a desert. Now it is a mess.

It seemed to be quite easy for Jun to arrange small adaptions to the working routine, i.e. delaying the train moves to the water coloumns in Dongbolizhan for a few minutes to wait for the sunrise, or things like that. He also arranged a couple of "spark shots", which have not a lot to do with the regular working of a train, but were spectacular enough and absolutely worth every picture.

Dave Habraken said the actual shift change would have moved to Kengkouzhan, but we did not see that ever happening - crews changed at Dongbolizhan when we were there. And yes - there were gricers round the engines like flies, all crawling into the motion, and standing in everybody´s shot. One of my fellow travellers is gifted with a booming voice, which worked wonders one morning, whether it was polite or not.

Since January the works seem to be out of bound, after photters being found walking round the yard without permission and without a hard hat. 

Martin B0chnig arrived back from an inland trip on the Friday and had some difficulties to be accepted in Sandaoling as a solo traveller, but I am sure he will write about that personally.

I had been with Jun and my wife to a Yardang area about two hours west of Sandaoling four years ago, when we visited the silk road (and of course SDL for the last spoil trains)..

We repeated that excursion now, and my fellow travellers were as excited about it as I was (even though it is not as unspoiled as it was four years ago - it it an official 4A tourist area now, some brown signs have came up, and the first garbage heaps appeared ...). You need a 4WD for it. We left at about 6:30 and were there for sunrise, and back in time for the last two trips before sunset out of the pit. Your local guide will be able to organize it - but mind: you have to leave the motorway in the dark at a parking lot via a dirt track. I know of one group trying to do the trip and they failed to find the right exit (and never made it in time for the sunrise). So please make sure your driver knows what he is doing. Mr Huang, a local photographer (also steam), is one person who knows his way round (of course there may be others as well), and as a photographer he can guide you to the right place in the right light.

By the way - Air China is now able to check luggage through, even from an airport like Nuernberg. Astonishingly, on the return leg we had to collect the luggage in Beijing, and Hami Airport could not even provide us with boarding passes for the international flights (to Frankfurt resp. Singapore).

I think, JS 8197 brought the final curtain down for me - the last chapter in my personal story of "Chinese Steam" has been written after fourteen visits and 21 steam lines. And what a finish it was!

I can repeat what everybody else said - go, and do it now! It is not as spectacular as it was a few years ago, but it is still real steam in all its glory.

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