The International Steam Pages

QJ Country - Advance! - China 1996

Robert Hall went to China just once. As it happens, it was just after my own (RD) first visit, he seems to have coped rather better than I did then...

An account of my only visit to China: three weeks in one small corner of the country, in summer 1996. While holding no brief at all for the government of the People’s Republic and the system which it imposes; as only a visitor for a brief spell, I found the place (its being “steam heaven”, aside) a good deal more agreeable – and its inhabitants more congenial and get-along-able-with -- than I had previously feared. Plus, the part of northern China where the three weeks’ holiday spent, was – by the country’s lowish standards – a relatively idyllic and uncrowded one. My companion on the trip found a fair number of causes for irritation; but – and I feel he would agree in this – I’m overall a more easy-going character than he is.

Throughout the third quarter of the twentieth century, circumstances were such that “Mainland China” was for railway enthusiasts elsewhere, almost the equivalent of another planet. Increasingly frustratingly, as those 25-odd years went by, and steam’s decline accelerated exponentially in the accessible world – vague picture tantalisingly got, was that basically, steam ruled in that enormous country, with a huge and continually-expanding railway system; but only a very few outsiders might go there at all. There was basically no tourism for Westerners – or certainly not on so frivolous a theme as questing for working steam locomotives.

Nothing (whether positive or negative) lasts forever; and in 1976 the first railfan tourist groups from elsewhere in the world, with some “license to roam and phot” (albeit accompanied everywhere, by State “minders”) were allowed into the People’s Republic. These pioneers found it a matter of “the good news, and the bad news”. The former – China’s rail system was still mostly steam-worked, involving many thousands of locos. The latter – in a steam context, standardisation and modernisation had very much prevailed. “Romantics” who had hoped for China 1976, to equate, say, with much of Europe 1960 – a huge variety of steam classes running the gamut from ancient to ultra-modern – were out of luck. China in ’76 had in state-railways service about a dozen standard-gauge steam classes – some divided into assorted sub-classes, with the differences usually fairly minor: virtually all tender locos, all relatively modern, some already become rare. The most often met-with steam class was the QJ all-purpose 2-10-2, basically a development of the Soviet class LV – project originated before the USSR and China fell out with each other. As time went on, class QJ came greatly to dominate, numerically – with this class and a couple of other modern classes continuing to be built new, until a late date. Western visitors found it strange – though a thing for which to be thankful – that for designating their loco classes, the Chinese railways chose to use Roman letters (often, abbreviations for titles in Chinese: thus QJ is short for “Qian Jin” = “March / Advance Forward”).

It was another two decades before I got to China – I made it there in August 1996. By then, the country’s attraction where steam was concerned, had very much become about quantity / intensity: the limited amount of variety which had obtained earlier on in the time since China’s “rediscovery”, was no longer to be had. Country-wide, standard-gauge steam on the state railways was almost entirely down to three “last-generation” classes: QJ 2-10-2, JS 2-8-2, and SY 2-8-2 (the latter, some “state railways”, but overwhelmingly more in industrial service; though the “industrial / common-carrier” line is less firmly drawn in China, than in some places). Things were such, that my visit was focused totally on the standard gauge. By ’96, steam was well on the way out on China’s state railway system; still highly concentrated in a number of geographical “patches”, but those had to be sought out.

Class QJ 2-10-2, large locos, all with quite prominent smoke-deflectors, plus chimney-casings. Planned nonetheless with light axle-load, to undertake essentially all possible duties, from light industrial trackage to express-passenger haulage. The class gets the “thumbs-down”, I gather, from some steam-loco-design purists; such learned scholars, however, are nowadays approximately in the position of – and as meaningful as -- stage-coach-buffs in 1900 or so... 

Class JS 2-8-2, rather varied visually. Some, with full-dress smoke-deflectors, looked at first sight like smaller versions of the QJ – others lacked smoke-deflectors. Some of these others had chimney-cowls, others did not – overall, the most-interestingly-varied-looking class in last years of China Rail’s steam. SY 2-8-2, smaller Mikado type, no smoke deflectors, ladder-for-access on either side below the smokebox, end of tender tilted down sharply.

I spent three weeks in a limited stretch of northern China: the (beeline) 600 km-odd east-north-east from Beijing – featuring tracts of two adjoining provinces. My companion on this (independent, self-organised) tour was “B.”, with whom I had made a number of previous railwaying ventures abroad. B.’s strong preference where possible, was for “own-transport” road-borne bashes. Not practicable for this one; in 1996, formal car hire (self-drive or otherwise) for foreigners in China was unknown and non-existent – public transport, was our only way to go. B. had been able to spend longer in China, and get there earlier, than I -- we rendezvoused at Beijing airport. He had come up from the south; had spent some time on Hainan Island, where the older class JF 2-8-2s were in the process of being replaced by JS – he had managed, just, to see JF in action, which made his final all-China steam classes score 33% greater than mine !

Theoretically, our plans had targeted three steam venues, all potentially attractive scenically. These were Chengde, 200 km north-east of the capital; Yebaishou, some 150 km further north-eastwards; and the especially good-for-scenery mini-system “way further east”, basically Tonghua – Hunjiang – Baihe, in the hills close to the North Korean border, which was reported to be overwhelmingly steam, and all that steam, class JS – one of the very few steam scenes on any scale, where one could get away from the almost ubiquitous QJs. But, as tends to happen with railwaying outside of Europe: a project which thought cautious and conservative when mooted, turned out – when faced with conditions “on the ground” – to be too ambitious. We were not able in the end, to make it to “JS country” -- essentially did our stuff around two centres with steam depots, Chengde and Yebaishou; finishing in the city of Shenyang, more in order to see a little more of the country, than in quest of further great steam value.

Chengde – besides being in 1996, a good place for steam – is a significant conventional-tourism spot, having been in Imperial times, the summer capital: a sort of “hill station” vis-a-vis low-lying, oven-hot in summer, Beijing; various “antiquities” from those times, thus still to be seen. We thought it a good idea, for the first spell of our tour, to base ourselves in such a place – relatively geared to foreign (including English-speaking) visitors; as it were, easing ourselves into the Chinese scene (the country was new to both of us, and the language barrier, a cause for concern) before heading further east into – comparatively – the wilds.

With Chengde being a tourist-magnet, it was served (presumably still is, maybe nowadays more-and - better) by a once-each-way daily “luxury” train from / to Beijing. This train (predictably, diesel-hauled) ran non-stop, if I recall correctly; it guaranteed comfortable and not-overcrowded accommodation, with refreshments. And it contained “for-sure” non-smoking parts. This was a factor which came to have a certain amount of influence on how our “bash” went. I don’t smoke, but am not troubled by other folk doing so. B. was (I don’t think he’d mind my expressing things thus) an extreme anti-smoker. The smell of tobacco smoke nauseated him, and caused him to feel great anger and hostility towards all those he encountered, who “indulged”. Not an outlook liable to make easy, travels in China – a country where fifteen years ago anyway, seemingly most of the male, and a considerable proportion of the female, population, were heavy smokers; and where at that time, most trains on most lines were “utility / hard class” only – wooden seating, people could do mostly what they liked, smoking the least of anyone’s worries and no attempt to have sections of normal passenger accommodation where it was forbidden.

Any long-distance travel on normal everyday Chinese passenger trains – as were virtually all on the secondary-main-line routes through Chengde and Yebaishou -- was a potential or actual ordeal for B., because of the smoking issue; which I feel was one of a number of factors contributing to our originally-planned travels not getting as far as hoped. The strategy which in the end we worked out for long train journeys, was to spend as much of them as possible, in the train’s restaurant car – the one place thereon, where smoking did not happen. Being realistic, this situation probably obtained largely, because few travellers used the restaurant cars – the great majority of passengers, having to watch their yuans, brought their own food and ate it at the seats which they secured on-train. We were free to linger very lengthily over meals, and tea, and beer when that was to be had; the (almost always female, and good-humoured) restaurant-car staff, were happy to indulge the weird foreigners. This restaurant-car situation was a mercy to be grateful for – don’t like to imagine what might have happened otherwise...

“Back to the tale” -- one night spent in Beijing; off to Chengde the following morning on the tourist express -- in 1996 anyway, “express” in China, was a relative term – I recall that it took a long, long time to cover the 200 km to Chengde. Not a problem; fascinating to watch China roll by – including a modest mountain stretch -- as we sipped our beers in a smoke-free environment. Not immensely far out of the capital, QJ-hauled freights began to appear. On the matter of general ground-covering with Chinese rail travel, fifteen years ago at any rate; there seemed not to be much middle ground between crack expresses (themselves, if other than on trunk lines, not very speedy); and virtually-all-stations workings, often covering hundreds of kilometres. The lines over which we travelled were in the great majority, single-track; passing loops were numerous, but the essential situation cannot have helped as regards expeditious getting from A to B (substitute your preferred Chinese characters). 

We spent approximately a week based at Chengde; stayed in a hotel close by the main station. Our room overlooked the goods yard and the branch line to Longhua, running alongside the yard. Nights were accompanied by goods-yard shunting, mostly by JS class 2-8-2, sometimes by diesel loco. Many folk staying at the hotel would probably have complained about the shunting, especially with noisily puffing steam locomotives, disturbing their night’s rest – for us, it was “Cloud Nine and time-machine trip back to Britain half a century earlier”. Plus, morning branch-line trains could be observed out of the window; Longhua branch seemed chiefly JS-worked, with QJ on a minority of trains.

We made the return trip to Longhua one day; our first ride behind Chinese steam – the main lines serving Chengde were steam on freight, but virtually all-diesel on passenger. Were a bit unlucky, in that our out-and-back train happened to be QJ-hauled, not JS. Longhua was on a totally-diesel main line heading far to the north-east; by this date, Chinese steam was greatly in retreat, and you had to “pick your patch”. 

From the beginning of China’s “rediscovery”, it was found that the People’s Republic was in the main not beset by the European Communist bloc’s “gricer = spy” fixation; nonetheless, that phenomenon did occasionally surface in China. Our only confrontation with it, was in our couple of hours’ layover between branch train’s arrival and return departure, at Longhua. The station “guardians of order” noticed us, and thought us – two obvious European types puzzlingly at their non-touristy location – potentially suspicious persons, and hauled us in for a little questioning. Fairly low-level and non-frightening stuff, and rendered largely farcical by an almost 100% language barrier. To the best of my remembrance, it wasn’t anything to do with photography, re which we did the better-part-of-valour thing and refrained from, concerning our branch train at Longhua. At the time, there were considerable grey-area-and-uncertain issues, concerning what parts of the country tourists might visit without let or hindrance, and what parts for which special permission was necessary / advisable. In so far as anything could be gathered, it seemed that Longhua was supposedly in a “no-tourists-without-permit” area. It having been established that we were planning to go back to Chengde on the next train, our captors seemingly classed us as “mostly harmless”, and let us go.

We stayed in Chengde longer than was really wise, in the context of hopes to get to as many other places as possible. Partly from finding it a relative comfort zone, as the first-experienced place in the most “alien” country we had ever visited (in Chengde, many key people knew English, menus had English translations, etc.); partly because of a splendid industrial line located there (described below). As lately mentioned, passenger steam around Chengde, was restricted to the Longhua branch. Main-line freight was almost entirely QJ. Some kilometres south of Chengde is Shangbancheng junction, meeting-point of lines essentially west to Beijing, and east to Yebaishou and ultimately Shenyang – with a curve allowing avoiding of Chengde itself. We spent a day at Shangbancheng, revelling in and photographing (with no-one to object) plentiful QJ-hauled freights coming and going in three directions. The main line Beijing – Shangbancheng – [Chengde] runs through a reach of mountain scenery, some way south-west of Chengde. With this beckoning, we dedicated a day to it; travelling out and back some 40/50 km from Chengde on highly “wedged” diesel-hauled passenger locals, to / from the mountains. This venture was found a bit disappointing: there were for sure QJ-hauled freights, but somehow they were less frequent than we’d anticipated; close-up, the mountainous surroundings were a bit less thrilling than they had at first seemed when being travelled through by rail; and photographically, the sun was mostly in the wrong place at the wrong time (plus I seem to recall, also other screwing-up matters for the artistic photter) – not a very rewarding day.

Part of Chengde’s seduction involved the town’s “steelworks line”. Industrial, not State Railways, joining the state system near Chengde station, and running through the town, in between housing and business premises and via various level crossings; exiting the town westward, sharply uphill for some kilometres – after which the line reached a tunnel at its summit. One was given to understand that as at 1996, the actual product from the steelworks (which we never reached) left the premises westward – I forget whether diesel-hauled by rail, or by road. Steam-hauled rail Chengde to the works, handled just fuel for the works, and equipment needing to be sent in; essentially, “gear” uphill town-to-works, only empties downhill works-to-town. Restricted though such traffic might have been, it needed a fair number of trains daily; worked by a mixture of the two Mikado types, JS and SY – with hauling-and-banking permutations which more often than not, involved three locomotives. Exciting to watch, hear, and experience, even in its then presumably “downfallen” state. This splendid scene lasted for a few years longer; the line is thought to have gone diesel in the early 2000s. We spent some two and a half days on the steelworks line; points-of-interest attained, and got back from, variously on foot, and by Chengde city buses.

After basically a week out of our three, in Chengde: “time and more than time” to move on. We left Chengde on the diesel-hauled morning (“hard-class only”) passenger for Yebaishou and points east; getting seats at the end of a coach – end door open -- enabled / promoted good luck regarding the smoking menace working out as less than hellish, for the several hours’ – in parts, decidedly scenic -- journey to Yebaishou. For a few years previously, this town had come to have a reputation in the gricing journals, as a steam paradise. By 1996, however, things on the China Rail steam scene were coming apart; passenger between Chengde and Yebaishou had gone all-diesel, and Yebaishou m.p.d. , till recently solidly steam, had had allocated to it, its first few diesel locos. Latest picture got (confirmed “on the ground”), was that freight basically steam (QJ), passenger had become more diesel than steam. Our fault for having left China till this late – it was now “get what you can, and be glad of it”. 

Yebaishou in summer ’96 was still wonderful; nonetheless, we ended up spending longer there, than it really warranted. We turned out to have engineered for ourselves, a frustrating “rock-and-a-hard-place” situation. We found rail travel in China to be overall slow, arduous, and not altogether pleasant, especially with B.’s smoking problem being involved. Getting extensively around by rail – especially far eastward to the Tonghua / Baihe JS patch – would have involved allocating much time to the exercise. Had we been bent on “JS-land”, we should have spent a couple of days less in Chengde (damn that steelworks line and its charms !), giving a vital bit more time to play with, regarding getting to Tonghua-and-the-rest, having a worthwhile amount of time there, and getting back to Beijing. “With hindsight, all men are wise”, and assorted such unhelpful platitudes...

Ways out of this quandary were sought. B. suggested the then newly-opened, non-state-railways (operated with QJ acquired from the state system ) Jining – Tongliao line some way to the north-west. I wasn’t keen on that. Getting there would also have involved “the journey from hell” -- odd how people’s priorities change, depending on how keenly they desire the object thereof – the line not very far off per crow-flight; but attaining it, involving a long, long way by rail. Plus, different preferences. B.’s gricing was above all else, about artistic photography of steam performing, preferably amongst impressive scenery – re which, the through-the-high-mountains Jining – Tongliao line would have been for him, heaven on Earth. I couldn’t feel drawn to said line, which, then early in its life was, according to the journals, traversed by a very meagre number of workings per day. I, essentially not a photographer, felt no wish to travel (likely in the process suffering prolonged journeying miseries), to a line which was traffic-wise, in Chinese terms only a bit of an improvement on the Tralee & Dingle in its last years; and worked exclusively by QJs, which I felt were coming out of my ears already.

We decided, amicably enough, against the Jining – Tongliao line. B. went there some half-dozen years later, on an organised, smoking-strictly-controlled, tour, and greatly enjoyed it – by then, its traffic, still all-QJ, had greatly increased. I only wish that I could have accompanied him.

Ten days, thus, at “Yeb”. Essentially, a pleasant and highly steamy sojourn. Lines ran out of Yebaishou basically north-east to Chaoyang, Fuxin, and ultimately Shenyang; north-west to Chifeng; and south-west to Chengde. A route diverged from the Chengde line at Donggoumen, 70-odd km out, to run eastward to meet the “coastwise” Beijing – Shenyang main trunk. Presumably all this goes on today, with modern traction. Situation summer 1996: essentially all Yebaishou steam action was by QJ based at the town’s large locoshed. Yebaishou had a couple of JS pilots; but the 2-10-2s monopolised steam line work. Nearly all freight, in all directions, was steam. The picture passenger-wise, was less good. Whilst everything (pass. and freight also) on the Chifeng line appeared to be QJ; passenger north-eastward was largely, but not entirely, diesel-hauled. All passenger to and from Chengde was diesel. The one passenger working in each direction daily from / to Yebaishou over the abovementioned line swinging eastward at Donggoumen, was QJ throughout its long course. In hindsight, this train-pair might have provided a wonderful long day’s return trip behind steam (leaving Yebaishou 0600), through – per the railway journals, the map, and the evidence of our eyes re the view southward from “Yebsville” – some fine mountainous scenery; but various considerations meant that such a venture was not attempted.

We made a “base for the duration” at an adequate, if definitely short of delightful, hotel in Yebaishou. Our method came to be, day-trips by rail from Yebaishou; the three routes’ not hugely generous, but not desperately sparse, passenger services, sufficed for getting there and back. August offered, still, gratifyingly long daylight hours. By 1996, the folk of Yebaishou were cottoning on to the potential of their town’s having become, for the first and only time, a goal for Western visitors in considerable numbers. The sustenance problem was essentially solved for us, by the existence of a small restaurant, learned of from one of the railfan journals, in the town centre; which had bilingual menus in Chinese and German – clearly, German enthusiasts had discovered Yebaishou in a big way. (During our spell in the town, in fact throughout our time in China, we seemed to be the only gricers present at each venue.) B.’s and my German was good enough to make sense of the menu with little difficulty. Routine, overall developed in Chengde, was continued; subsisting during the day, on “iron rations” – some brought by me from home, some purchased locally; with a substantial restaurant meal in the evening. We found what the Yebaishou “Gricers’ Restaurant” offered, perfectly palatable and quite varied; comparable, we thought, with what might be had at a fairly downscale and unambitious Chinese restaurant in Britain – and the staff were pleasant, without being irritatingly obsequious. (They didn’t actually know German; but we could point on the card, to what we wanted.) The fare available seemed somewhat heavy on peanuts – a thing which I’d never particularly associated with China. This aspect rather annoyed B. – not that he especially disliked peanuts; he was just one of those people who, to be happy, need something about which to be unhappy.

A number of enterprising gentlemen in Yebaishou, owning or with access to cars, had set up as freelance guides / drivers for gricers. We were pegged as such, and in our comings and goings at the hotel, approached by these characters, touting their services. We contemplated taking up such a deal, at least for a day; could offer possibilities for photographic train-chasing, not available to the vehicle-less. In the end, for one reason and another, this was a thing on which we did not venture – in part, we felt that lack of a common language would likely throw a spanner into the works in a way which would make satisfaction delivered, not worth money expended. One is inclined to feel a little sad for the Yebaishou-ites, in respect of how short-lived – dying as steam died -- was the tourist boom-time for their on the whole, drab and attractions-poor provincial town. Hopefully, they made plenty of hay while the sun briefly shone...

The language problem was one which had, beforehand, worried us considerably. Actually “on the ground”, while things were not always easy, they proved less bad than anticipated. We had a very handy little phrasebook, which gave everything in Chinese characters; transliterated into “Mandarin in Roman letters”; and in English. It was always possible to point to the phrase in Chinese characters; when buying rail tickets, this was done, plus speaking name of destination and / or indicating its name in Chinese characters, gleaned from the departure / arrival board and copied down. On the whole, this ploy worked well. 

In Chengde, when in situations of great difficulty there was usually an English-speaker within hail. Not so, out in the sticks in Yebaishou; but largely thanks to the wondrous phrasebook, we found it possible to cope, if sometimes laboriously. One afternoon at Yebaishou station, we encountered an elderly gent who spoke fluent English (learned pre-1949), and eagerly engaged us in conversation; but in his town, he was very much an exception. During our last couple of days, spent in the big city of Shenyang, English-speakers were again fairly plentiful, and some keenly sought us out to converse; and gave us considerable help with the difficulties and dilemmas which we found re needing in some haste, to get back to Beijing for respective flights home. In the unlikely event of any of them ever reading this; our grateful thanks, expressed...

An aspect of the Chinese railway scene for which I felt disposed to “thank God fasting”, is that – as we discovered in situ (had had no inkling of it previously from the “learned journals” – perhaps it was in there, we just hadn’t picked up on it) – every station on the Chinese state railway system, down to the most rural and tiniest, displays on its station nameboards – as well as in Chinese characters – its name in Roman script. Planning our bash, this was the one thing that had worried us most – “when travelling by train, how the hell shall we know where we are?”. From photographs from the pre-World War II past which I’ve seen, this convention seems likely to have obtained ever since railways have existed in China. One for which to be mightily thankful.

One of our Yebaishou days was largely given to travelling rather than photting. I had expressed a keen wish to get at least one decent-length steam passenger journey, over and above our foray on the Chengde – Longhua branch. A good possibility for same, was afforded by the “train-pair” which ran between Chengde and Shenyang via Yebaishou, basically taking most of the hours of daylight to cover the 500-ish km between the two termini. In summer ’96, these workings in each direction were diesel-hauled at their two ends, but QJ over their median section between Yebaishou and Fuxin. It worked out handily, to travel on the eastbound working, the 80-odd km from Yebaishou to Chaoyang, disembark there, and after a bit of time-killing and steam-valuing at Chaoyang, get the corresponding Shenyang – Chengde train back to Yebaishou -- 80-some km behind a QJ, each way. This day’s trip, duly done. It was in this exploit, that we hit on the restaurant-car stratagem to minimise B’s “smoking hell”. An extremely agreeable return run behind steam, through pleasantly hilly scenery, with a multitude of steam freight encounters en route. 

Otherwise, we did the thing as described, of “out by rail to the good nearby phot areas, back ditto”. The whole region around Yebaishou was agreeably rural and hilly-going-on-mountainous. The Chifeng line appeared to be the area’s most obviously spectacular. We ended up doing I think three days on this line, never going further than the first two stations out – Shinao, and Shahai – this section involving exciting climbing uphill out of Yebaishou, and a summit tunnel. We toyed with the idea of travelling further up this – apparently all-steam – line; but didn’t in the event do so – the “smoking bogey” likely coming into play. Choices made one particular p.m. , involved our undertaking a several hours’ footslog for what must have been some 15 km. back along the line into Yebaishou; that night’s “doss and deknacker” (to borrow the words of a certain railfan who, in reporting his bashes, does highly creative things to the English language) felt extremely welcome. By the way, using a railway track as a footpath is perfectly acceptable in China; no “trespassing” issues whatever.

Yebaishou would seem to be, geographically, in a dip – all rail lines therefrom, climbing up as from shortly out of the town. The routes north-east, and south-west, had climbs out of “Yeb” less dramatic than that on the Chifeng line, but still affording some stimulating steam action, through photogenic scenery. We gave two photographic-type days to each of above lines – re all routes out of the town, maybe did a bit of overkill; but as recounted earlier, we had rather cooked our goose as regards going on beyond, to do justice to further venues. Overall picture; the great majority of the (splendidly plentiful, and long and heavy) freight trains to / from Yebaishou, were QJ- double-headed on the Chifeng, and Chaoyang-and-eastward, routes; a minority, single-headed or banked by another QJ. On the route toward Chengde, most freights hauled by one QJ, with infrequent instances of double-heading or banking. At the time of our visit, Yebaishou depot had allocated to it a small handful of diesel locos, class DFH3 if I have things rightly – conspicuously active on passenger, occasionally on freight: the latter with one diesel loco hauling, or a diesel piloting a QJ.

With only a very few days of the holiday left, we moved on to Shenyang, to finish the tour there; wishing to see a bit more of the country, and en route to observe ambient steam action, by, it was hoped, all three classes. With regret, we decided not to take the Chengde – Shenyang day train (steam over Yebaishou – Fuxin section, departing “Yeb” 1142) because of that working’s late arrival into Shenyang, and considerations of orientation and accomm.-finding, in mind. We opted instead for an early-morning departure from Yebaishou, diesel throughout, which would get us into Shenyang mid-to-late-afternoon. Tickets duly bought and train caught; we made use of the restaurant-car dodge, essentially ensconcing ourselves in there for the whole run to Shenyang – the staff, happily, not “saying us nay”.

A fascinating ride, of 400-odd km. and many, many hours, from Yebaishou to Shenyang. All behind diesel, alas, but with a huge amount of ambient steam to enjoy. East of Chaoyang, a coal-mining area including a state-railways branch from Jinlingsi junction to Beipiao, big colliery centre: then-recent reports had told of passenger service on the branch being JS (coal trains QJ). Investigating of this venue, had been considered; what could be considered cowardice, had inhibited – would there be anywhere for foreigners to overnight, in this obscure location? For sure, super-abundant steam activity noted in transit, around Jinlingsi.

Fuxin, another hyperactive steam centre, involved all three classes, working for a mixture of state railways and “other”. Passed through and marvelled-at. A couple of days based here (given somewhere to stay: probably achievable, in this fair-sized town) could have been very rewarding; but unless you’re Germany’s military General Staff of past eras, time to research all possible and imaginable plans of action and the million alternatives/variables thereto, simply is not there. In the event, a lightning decision would have been needed; and B. and I – to quote Bryan Morgan, “reasonably (and miserably) sat down again and... went on to [ Shenyang]”. For some 30 km east from Fuxin, the otherwise-single-line route was double track, eastbound and westbound lines sometimes widely separated – felt likely to be a recent development.

China Rail steam was in very low water around Shenyang, by the time that we were there. Our couple of days in the city were essentially given to a little “R & R”, and to wrestling with ways and means to get back to Beijing for our respective flights home (B. had to be back in Britain a couple of days before I did). We discovered from the journals, after getting back home, that the city had a non-state railways “local railway” system, running out to various parts of “greater Shenyang”, serving assorted collieries and power stations and also operating a public passenger service – all SY-worked. Our original plans had not conceived of any time being spent in and around Shenyang – hastily passing through, was all that had been envisaged – so we had not researched the city’s gricing possibilities. All the things that can be said about hindsight, and frequently are... 

A little mild panic occurred, concerning B.’s getting to Beijing in time – he had left things very late for getting this move organised, and possible rail / road coach / air options were considered; in the end, he flew. I had time to spare, to get back to the capital by rail; was torn between experiencing new scenes (including probably, a sight of the sea ) by taking the main trunk line to Beijing; but with modern traction for certain, although probably seeing marginally, a bit of steam en route – and going all the way back the same way we’d come, which would give a feast of ambient steam, and the opportunity of a good chunk of steam haulage. In the event, I went for the latter option – the true-and-tried maxim “the steam’s the thing – the other stuff will still be around in future decades”.

Got the Shenyang – Chengde day train (with B. having “taken the high road”, I had no need to worry about the tobacco factor); was able to bag a window seat. A wonderful day’s journey, allowing observation once more of en-route / ambient marvels enjoyed in opposite direction a couple of days before. Diesel Shenyang – Fuxin, QJ thence to Yebaishou, diesel again from there to Chengde, which end-point reached in the dark, considerably later than booked arrival time. I found Chinese people in the main, mercifully to have a “mind one’s own business, leave others alone to mind theirs” attitude – that held good on this journey; my neighbours in the coach gave me the occasional curious glance – a “foreign devil” busily scribbling in a notebook – but didn’t seek to engage me in conversation. The rail-borne gricer holds no ill-will toward his fellow-passengers; he just wants to concentrate on his grice, not to be obliged to converse, laboriously, with his seatmates on every subject under the sun. (My idea of utter misery on this scene, would be an attempted rail-travelling bash of Italy.) Fortune favoured me, in that it was only on the relatively steam-poor western end of the Yebaishou – Chengde leg of the run, and with night falling, that my neighbours (changed, via turnover of passengers per the many stops en route) started initiating conversation; which the wonderful phrasebook made sort-of possible. Still well in daylight, we had passed Lingyuan steelworks, shunted by several SY which were easily viewable from the main line.

On the following day, the “luxury tourist express” Chengde – Beijing, and the plane home. I feel privileged to have made it to China at what would seem to have been the last moment for the “steam big show”, save on the Jining – Tongliao line, which is now finished for steam too. In principle, the time-of-writing situation of an ever-diminishing few industrial or quasi-industrial lines in China – standard and narrow gauge – still using steam, on a “commercial not preservation” basis, gladdens my heart, and may that phenomenon continue longer than, by present indications, seems likely. Doubt though, rather, that I would actually go out there now to seek same out, even given the financial resources to do so.

Rob Dickinson