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Steam in China - November 2004

by John Flynn

JiTong

24th November to 30th November 2004


We arrived in Beijing on Saturday morning from the UK, via Germany on Lufthansa. This is a much more convenient flight than any from Heathrow for us, as it flies from Birmingham and cost only £340 per person (including taxes). My wife Yvette and I are China "newbies" and we both wanted to see steam on the "pass" before it finished. We spent a couple of days in Beijing acclimatising to China and seeing the various sites before heading north. We booked a soft sleeper from Beijing South for 3.15pm to arrive in Tongliao on the morning of the November 24th at 5.00am (Train 2189). (We would have preferred, and would recommend, the later train from Beijing North for 7.15pm to arrive at 9.00am in Tongliao, but this was full. Train 1456/1457) The railway station at Beijing South was an experience in itself, but once on the train we settled down and had a superb meal in the restaurant car, freshly cooked (approx 50Y for both of us), before retiring to our compartment. We cheated and bought all four tickets so as we did not have to share (at approx 750Y total). The soft sleeper is a wonderful way to travel and thoroughly recommended. After leaving the train we used sign language, our limited phrase book and our China rail atlas to purchase "hard sleeper" tickets to Galadesitai. (We wanted soft seaters as we didn't need to sleep on this train, but they didn't have any. Cost was 90Y each). We then had a seven-hour wait until departure.

After tiring of being the object of curiousity for the majority of Chinese commuters on the station, for a small fee we were able to sit in the up-market lounge. At around 8.00am we went out in search of food and stumbled on the hotel next to the station, railway owned I believe. Here for 5Y each we were able to have a Chinese buffet breakfast, which was very welcome. At 12.20pm the train (K6052/6053) left Tongliao. We very quickly arrived at the next station Zhelimu after 11km where we saw our first QJ, simmering in the siding at the Tongliao end of the platform. A second QJ (7049) also facing eastbound was in steam behind a diesel powered freight heading west bound, waiting for us to clear the loop. We also saw a doubled headed QJ on a freight in the loop between Kaliu and Zhunshariwusu. On arrival at Chabuga our Diesel was changed for a QJ. At Chabuga shed there were 6 QJs on-shed and a doubled header facing east (6977 and 7037) and a second pair of QJs facing east, but reversing west towards the shed. Our train steamed on towards Galadesitai. During the trip, on the relatively empty train we had become the focus of attention for the chefs in the restaurant car and the rail staff who were very friendly especially when they realised that we were rail fans. Not being able to speak Chinese, apart from "Hello" and "Thank you" did not appear a handicap. We were taken into the cooking area where we chose our vegetables and meat, which was then cooked immediately. This food was infinitely better than you get from a UK Chinese restaurant at a fraction of the cost. (Again approx 50Y for both of us), The various rail staff tried to sell the obligatory hats and badges but we stood firm, in the end they gave Yvette a badge, as they could not defeat her! One of the Daban firemen was on the train and he offered me a cab ride from Lindong to Daban for 500Y, which I declined on grounds of price, and not wishing to leave Yvette to look after our luggage, as she wanted a cab ride too.

The train stopped at Daban station to change engines and we observed 2 westbound freights with both double and single QJs attached ready for their assault of the pass. Our train set off after about 20 mins later. This is where the action starts and it was a pleasure to hear a steam loco earning its keep. The moon was full, the sky was clear and the "music" was wonderful. We had prepared ourselves for cold weather, with layers of thermal underwear (now referred to as base- layers) and skiing gear, but nothing prepares you for the cold wind on Galadesitai station at 11pm on a winter's night. We were told later that it was–10C plus the wind chill factor. The first person we spoke to out of the three on the station was Doug from Belfast, with the same idea as ourselves, travelling independently to see the Jingpeng pass. The other two people were from the Anzac group who had ventured down to film the evening train. Doug had secured a lift back to their hotel and they kindly offered us the same. After we had watched our train leave Galadesitai station, they gave us a lift to the hotel in which they were staying. The hotel we arrived at was the Long Quan hotel, which we had been warned about, (we intended to stay at the Railway hotel). However at 11.30pm on a very cold evening we decided to take our chance, and ended up staying for 6 nights. After booking in and a beer with Doug we retired for a few hours sleep, disturbed only by the haunting sound of a chime whistle in the early hours.

We were up at 6am to get the freight times from the receptionist who called Daban depot on behalf of the guests each day to identify which trains were steam. It was just like a skiing trip with every one wrapped up against the cold deciding where they were going to go for the day and by which route. We had determined that there were to be 3 trains heading west that were steam powered and 2 heading east. The first was due at around 9.30am, so we were able to sample the delights of the hotel breakfast - the first time I've eaten a fried egg with chopsticks. We walked from the back of the hotel across the new road and the frozen river to a crossing keepers hut. The weather was windy and despite the walking we were all cold. Whilst waiting by the hut, the crossing keeper invited us in to keep warm. We traded mint imperials and cigarettes for a mug of hot green tea and the warmth of log-burner. The crossing keeper showed us his collection of railway cards and photographs, which had been given to him by other foreign steam fans. When the train was due we went outside to watch. Unfortunately this was a steam/diesel combination, but this was our first QJ seen working hard on a freight, so it was worth watching. We scrambled up to level 2 for a second viewing.

We returned to the Long Quan via the Railway hotel to wait for the next steam train. The intention was to move hotels as our room did not overlook the railway, and we had heard about the incident with the manager, both on the Steam_in_China news group and first hand from the Anzac group. The Railway hotel is set further back than the Long Quan and a new orange hotel has been built across from it that obscures the view of the line. After examining both the Railway hotel and the new orange hotel, we decided to stay at the Long Quan who changed our room to 401 (Cost 180Y + 20Y refundable deposit per night for the double room & breakfast). The room has an excellent view of the line from the Reshui viaduct across towards SanDi. (All odd numbered rooms face the line) The line is also seen going back across on level 2 to the tunnel mouth (tunnel 6), and again on level 3 towards Liudigou. During our room change and lunch we saw a doubled headed QJ rolling down grade from the summit and a singled headed QJ doing the same.

After lunch we walked back to the crossing hut and up to level 3, hoping to see more steam. We saw two Diesels, one east bound and one west bound, both single headers, which was a disappointment, but we waited, hoping to see a double header from Daban, which was due around 4.30pm. I can imagine that sitting up at level 3 with a panoramic view of the line is great in spring or summer, especially when the motive power was 100% steam, it would make for a very pleasant day. In winter however it was an endurance test, and by late afternoon, even after sheltering near the mouth of tunnel 5 in the remains of a temporary hut we were all very very cold. Finally we saw steam in the direction of Daban making its way slowly towards us. The race was now on between the sun setting and the train arriving. Eventually we made our reluctant way down to level 1 and watched as the pair of QJs stormed up the incline with a lengthy freight. If like me you have never before witnessed main-line standard gauge steam "in the wild" the wait was worth it. The site and the sound were fantastic! Despite the cold and the impending darkness we all ran back up to level 2 to see them blast pass again. We then gingerly made our way back in the fading light to the hotel. After a hot bath and a meal, we bid farewell to Doug who was returning to the UK. We then had a photography lecture from some of the more experienced group members who were there before we retired to bed.

The next day the procedure of the previous morning was repeated, up and dressed in the lobby for 6.30am to get the train times, consult the map to see where we needed to be at what time, and to arrange a taxi driver for the day. The hotel called us a taxi, which was driven by a nice young Chinese man who, despite his lack of English understood exactly what we wanted to see. His name was pronounced "You" and he had a Suzuki mini bus registration 35392. He was excellent and we subsequently used him for 4 days at a cost of 200Y per day. "You" waited for us to have breakfast, followed by a trip to Jingpeng station to await the arrival of the days steam. Friday was a busy day for steam, compared to Thursday. Shortly after arrival at Jingpeng station, we witnessed the arrival of a westbound freight that stopped at Jingpeng and then shunted in the small yard at the west end of the station. Whilst we watching the shunting operation an eastbound doubled headed freight arrived to be serviced before tackling the climb to Shangdian. We decided to chase this one, and so set off at speed in the mini bus to Biligou viaduct. There were several other buses with groups of photographers doing the same. I wanted to look at the train rather than down a viewfinder so we got ourselves into a good position to watch. The freight was shorter than average so was making good time. The site and sound of two locos working hard was wonderful in the bright morning light. As soon as the train had passed we raced up to SiMingYi to watch it cross the road and then double back on the famous curved viaduct. We took to the old road like a cat with a scalded tail scattering chickens and pigs as we went. I imagine that in the near future we will see the emergence of a Chinese world rally champion. We watched the train disappear round towards tunnel 1 and then charged up to Shangdian. The road to the little crossing hut before the summit loops defeated even our taxi driver so we continued on foot. After watching the train blast up to the summit we returned to Jingpeng but not before the obligatory attempt at souvenir selling by the crossing hut inhabitants. On our return to Jingpeng we saw a pair of QJs arrive to stand on the middle road. These were light engines, something I had been told we were very unlikely to see. It was interesting to watch the crews check and service their charges, only spoilt by a couple of our transatlantic cousins complaining that were in their way for photography. Whilst they were waiting to depart another pair of QJs arrived with a westbound freight, which we also watched being serviced. Unfortunately another group of photographers arrived, swarming over the engines, so we decided to chase the light engines up to Shangdian. They dropped into the loop at Xiakengzi to let a diesel powered westbound freight pass and were able to watch them make their way up to tunnel 1 from our perch near SiMingYi viaduct. We returned to the hotel for lunch and to use the toilet, Chinese toilets are bad, but the ladies at Jingpeng defy description! In the afternoon we returned to Jingpeng for another attempt at seeing a double-headed QJ powered freight. The QJs arrived on time, but again they were light engine. The crew beckoned us aboard and it was hard to refuse. We requested to be dropped of at Galadesitai station and with the help of our taxi driver we negotiated to pay 250Y each. The station was empty as we climbed aboard 7164 and waited for the signal. The lead engine 6998 was doing most of the work, giving the crew of 7164 ample time to try and hawk their wears. This was a well turned out loco, complete with number plates, one of only a handful of locos that we observed where they were still intact. To finally be travelling in the cab of a QJ over the pass was wonderful even if it was not pulling a heavy freight. We climbed down from the engine at Galedasitai to be met by our taxi driver who returned us to our hotel. In the evening we ventured on foot to a local restaurant called "The Golden Delicacies City." The entrance to the restaurant is at the back of a building up a flight of stairs. The food was wonderful. With our limited phrase book we were able to have a huge meal for 2 including beer for 56Y. This was less than the price of 2 beers in our Beijing hotel! In the evening we walked down to the level crossing at the end of the street to watch the express go through at 10.30pm. There are very few lights, which means that the night sky looks much more interesting than it does in many parts of the UK, but you definitely need a torch.

On Sunday we negotiated our taxi driver to take us to Daban loco. He charged us an extra 150Y (350Y) but got us into the depot by cutting literally across country. We paid 200Y each to get in, (the taxi driver was free) and we were then able to wander around as we wished. There were 14 QJs on shed at Daban, including one in the repair yard having some minor adjustments. Whilst we were in the yard, a double headed QJ powered freight arrived from the direction of Jingpeng and we saw two more set off for Chubuga. We had been warned about the depot staff and souvenirs before hand and very quickly we were offered replica number plates and old wagon builders plates at inflated prices. Once we had said no, we were left alone and had a very pleasant couple of hours watching the activities of a working steam depot. Locos coming and going, steam cranes loading coal, locos being checked and cleaned, with a back drop of a dozen or so QJs simmering in a line. A guide told us in our hotel, (who appeared dismayed that we were prepared to travel around without one), that no one would he knew had travelled from Daban on the footplate because it was too far and too dangerous. We set out prove him wrong. We had the departure times of all freights and hung around to see which loco was going to take the 12:10pm freight to Haoluku. The crew of 7030 quickly understood what we wanted, and negotiations began. Our taxi driver came over to ensure we were not being ripped off too much and for the same price as before, 250Y each, we had ourselves a trip from Daban to Shangdian, just over five and a half hours on the footplate. We rode the loco to the dispatch hut at the throat of the depot and waited before it was time to leave the shed. The staff in the cabin tried to sell us more wagon plates. They did however have one item we were interested in, a hat, the ones that cover the ears and appears a standard item of equipment on the Ji-Tong line. Yvette managed to get the price down from 200Y to 108Y, after about 10 minutes hard work. We then boarded the loco for the short trip onto the main line and into the sidings to collect the freight. The loco was on her own, with 1170 tonnes in tow (according to the driver). We set off from the sidings toward Linxi. Travelling on the footplate of a working steam loco was a long held ambition of mine. As we traversed curves I looked back to the end of our long train and the shadow of the locomotive on the trackside. We were able to watch the crew at work, this loco had three firemen because of the load and it was fascinating to watch their craft. One of them noticed my interest and I was invited to have a go. Having fired a loco before, though not one this large, I was able to get the rhythm after a couple of goes, pushing forward with the left foot to fill the shovel, then pivoting on the right, using the left to open the door whilst following through with the shovel in a single movement. During the trip I was able to have a couple of turns on the shovel with some more tuition from the crew, I now understand why there were no fat firemen! We were encouraged to drive and we both had a turn in the drivers seat. During the thirty minutes I was in control, I had to adjust the regulator and sound the whistle as well as brake, under the watchful eye of the driver. On arrival at Linxi, we engaged in some shunting which was quite involved, separating the train, dropping off a couple of empty wagons and collecting three full ones from two different sidings. We collected the train and then serviced the loco, emptying the ash pan, bringing the coal forward and filling up with water. The train then set off from Linxi on the long climb to Shangdian. From observation you could see the gradient increasing, and you could feel and hear 7030 struggling for adhesion as we continued our climb, now with a heavier load. The firemen were working non-stop filling the firebox, taking turns whilst the others drank tea from their own glass jar. The climb to Shangdian was spectacular, 7030 was reduced to 6Kmh on many of the curves, such as those at SanDi, accelerating her train to 18kmh on the straight stretches. As we approached tunnel 6, the crew ceased firing, closed all the cab windows and got down on the floor covering their nose and mouth with their clothes. As 7030 blasted through the tunnel, the cab quickly filled with smoke making our eyes stream, fresh air came as a short respite before we entered tunnel 5. The run to the summit through Liudigou must have looked good as 7030 roared on, each fireman taking his turn until just before the summit tunnel. Here we got another choaking before the train came to a stand in the loop at Shangdian. (We had also arranged to meet out faithful taxi driver there). We bid the crew farewell and took our taxi back to Rushui. Both of us were covered from head to foot in soot and coal dust and we relished the hot bath. After dinner I returned to the level crossing to watch the express around 10.30pm.

On Sunday there was less traffic in the morning, so we gave the taxi driver the day off and we had a later start, (although I had woken at 4.45am and 5.50am to the sounds of struggling westbound freights). We looked round Rushui in the morning and bought some food for lunch. Using sign language and the phrase book we managed to get most of what we wanted. We even managed milk on the third attempt. (Tea does not taste good with vanilla milkshake in it! – Well it looked like milk) In the afternoon we walked to SanDi to watch the trains. We saw a doubleheader come down grade through SanDi first, whilst we observed the children playing in he village and a Shepard with his flock cross the line. SanDi was like a time warp, I never imagined I would see this way of life, which died out in UK probably 100 years ago or more, it was fascinating to watch. Later on 7030 and a second engine came through SanDi crossing on a westbound freight. This must have been quite heavily loaded, as the locos appeared to be struggling. The crew of 7030 recognised us and waved as they passed, almost at walking pace. We began our walk back to Rushui as the sun began to set and the temperature began to plummet. During our walk we saw an eastbound single QJ headed freight slowly coming down the hill. We expected it to come past but it was held in the loop at SanDi station. We then heard the approach of another coming up the hill from Rushui. To get close to this involved a sprint across a couple of fields and a river to get line side. After the train had passed and I got back to were Yvette was waiting, she had managed to get a picture of both trains together, one on level 1 and one on level 3. Later that evening around 7.30 I walked down to the level crossing at Rushui to see a double headed QJ powered freight climbing westbound. The night was silent; there was no traffic and no wind. The freight could be heard for about 12 minutes before it came around the bend before the crossing, awesome.

On Monday and Tuesday we got our taxi driver to pick us up at 7.00am from the hotel. On Monday there was an early westbound freight due at 7.00am, we drove at speed to SanDi to watch it, arriving at the crossing with a few minutes to spare. We crossed the line and walked up past the crossing keepers hut to listen and watch as the two locomotives struggled past. The motion appeared frozen on both engines and they were shrouded in steam. On the second loco, one of the firemen was standing up in the tender shovelling coal forward for the onward climb. After the train had passed we waved at the guard before jumping into the taxi for another cross-country rally experience to Liudigou station. The station was deserted except for 2 rail staff and ourselves, who moved out onto the platform onto their painted platform markers ready for the train to pass. The engines roared through Liudigou station onwards to Shangdian, with the temperature low enough to prevent the digital camera from working I could only stand and watch the spectacle. We returned to the taxi, which took us to Jingpeng station to wait for an eastbound freight. The freight we had seen at Loudigou arrived to be serviced. This was fascinating to watch as the fireman climbed into each tender to move the coal forward and shovelling a couple of shovels full into the ground for the railway workers. These workers emptied the ash pan of the locomotive whilst the fireman cleaned the fire. Keeping a respectful distance were some locals who spent their time sieving the piles of ash from the locos for unburnt fuel to salvage for heating. On occasion they would try and get a piece of the coal that had fallen from the tender and a scuffle would break out between the railway workers and themselves. Whilst this scene was being acted out the eastbound freight that we had been awaiting arrived for servicing. We watched the westbound leave and then drove up to Billou viaduct to wait for the site and sound of 2 QJs lifting their train from Jingpeng station. This was a heavy freight and the train was moving slowly, the exhaust beat of each loco mingled with the other, sometimes in unison sometimes not, dependant on which loco was slipping. Yvette got a good photograph of the train as it stormed the viaduct, I simply watched. We chased this train up into "happy valley" the taxi bounced down tracks and over the frozen river enabling us plenty of time to climb up to near the entrance to tunnel 2. From this position you can clearly see and hear the train follow the line around the valley sides, and across the viaduct before tunnel 2. The site of the locos hugging the valley sides before disappearing and then blasting out of the tunnel into the clear morning air was worth waiting for. We returned to Jingpeng for the following doubled header. This we chased up to SiMingYi viaduct and then on to the summit at Shangdian. This train crossed with a diesel/steam combination at the summit. We returned to Long Quan for lunch before returning to Jingpeng to watch an afternoon double header. Yvette and I had hoped to ride this train up the pass to Rushui, but we were dismayed to find that it was running early and had already left the station, (spotted by our taxi driver). He quickly turned around and sped back to SiMingYi, which gave us enough time to run up the hill past the line to a good vantage point where we could watch the train coming up the valley below and then to walk back a few paces to see it around the viaduct at SiMingYi and continue around into tunnel 1. This is a good place to view trains and provided us with some good photographs. I believe the hill behind it is known as "idiots hill" as you cannot fail to get a good picture. We were disappointed not to have ridden on the locos, but there was always the next day. I watched the express come through the crossing at Rushui at 10.37pm.

On Tuesday we were up at 6.00am for the timings. We drove to Jingpeng to watch a doubled headed freight but this too was early, and we caught it at Shangdian summit. We returned to the hotel, and then drove on for a couple of miles towards Linixi to wait for a westbound freight. This was single headed and we managed to photograph it and then follow it to Rushui viaduct. Yvette scrambled across the river to get a photograph, (as this was where she most wanted a picture). The train passed over the viaduct in good light and there was then a frantic scramble across frozen waters to get back to the van for the sprint to SanDi. We managed to see it on both sides of SanDi village, before racing up to Shangdian tunnel mouth. The loco looked in fine fettle as she stormed the curve before the tunnel. I observed that the tender was half empty as she disappeared into the gloom. We returned to the hotel to pick up some batteries for the camera and saw a second single headed westbound freight, which we managed to see once again at the tunnel mouth of Shangdian, (despite going back to Rushui for the batteries). Our taxi driver then took us to Jingpeng where the first freight was being serviced. A double-headed eastbound train arrived, on time followed by the second westbound freight. 4 QJs and 3 trains filled all the roads, a wonderful site. Then came the climax of our trip. We ran to the front of the eastbound freight and quickly discussed the price of a trip to Rushui with the crew. They were eager to get away and were not that bothered, compared with other crews on taking our money. We agreed the usual 250Y each and climbed aboard. We shared out our remaining UK and foreign coins amongst the three crewmembers as well as cigarettes. They were genuinely thankful and throughout the whole trip did not try to sell us anything, a pleasant change. The pilot loco was 7007 the train engine was 7009. 7007 was in very good condition and the cab was exceptionally clean. The fireman hosed down the footplate before the start of the climb, and once when we over the summit. A trip from Jingpeng to the summit in the cab of a QJ on a freight was my ultimate goal for the trip and it was worth waiting for. The locos struggled to get the train moving from Jingpeng station onto Jingpeng bank, the music increased in volume as we slowly accelerated towards Biligou viaduct. Although the air temperature was low, the sun shone and the sky was clear, the locomotives forged on and it was a delight to watch the skill of the engine crew as they battled the climb. The view of the line from the loco cab showed clearly the feat of civil engineering that is the Jingpeng pass, I was happy to be there, but sad to think that it will end so soon. As we approached the first tunnel, the crew made sure all windows were shut and that we had clothing over our faces to mitigate the worst effects of the fumes. We went through at walking pace, the crew crouching on the cab floor, each searching for air. The only constellation was that we were on the pilot not the train engine. Once we had breasted the summit and travelled through the summit tunnel, the crew were able to relax, clean down the footplate and smoke. We pointed out our hotel from the train, something all crews asked us to do and enjoyed the vista as the train rattled down into Galadesitai station, where our faithful taxi driver was waiting. The end to a very enjoyable 6 days we spent in the company of many locomotive crews, railway personnel and local Chinese people. My final bash was to watch the passenger steam go through in the evening.

The following day we left Long Quon Hotel at 7am and travelled to Chifeng by taxi (cost 500Y). Then we caught the express train at 11.07am from Chifeng to arrive at Beijing North at 7.37pm. We travelled by "hard seater" to Beijing (approx 40Y each) as there were no soft seaters on the train and all the sleepers were taken. The journey back was very entertaining and we can thoroughly recommend travelling by train independently in China. For souvenirs of our trip, we used our remaining Chinese money to purchase a QJ builders plate from Daban which came straight off a loco and a model QJ for about 60% of UK retail price. The model shop was recommended by Hans Schafer on his website, but has since changed address (in the same area (NW of the city) but near the north fourth ring road). The company is called ECHO Train Model and the web site is www.yktdmx.com the telephone number is 010-82612909 or 82612930 or 82616577. I cannot give the actual address as the card I have is in Chinese. The shop is excellent and has a wide range of model railways both small and large and a selection of 3 types of QJ. Retail in UK is around £170.00, but we paid around £100 (1500Y). Please note that they only accept cash and don't take credit / debit cards.

My only regret is that I did not manage to visit the Jitong line a couple of years ago. Although we would not have seen much more than we did in the time we were there, it would have been nice to visit in spring or summer when you did not need 5 layers of clothing to venture out and we could have done more walking and watching trains than we did. However, being born in the year that steam finished in the UK and therefore not being able to see it in Western Europe or the USA, I am grateful for the chance to experience it once. Thank you Jitong.
John Flynn


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© 2004, John Flynn jflynn@cambereng.fsbusiness.co.uk