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Steam in China, July 2007

by Dave Habraken

Shibanxi, Ganshui, Hechi, Sancha, Yanzhou, Xingyang, Pingdingshan

For the 4th summer in a row, I headed for China during my summer holiday. I was accompanied by Frederik Neirynck, a young Belgian railway friend for who it was his first visit to China. You can find the full photographical report of this trip on my website:

http://www.spoorwegnostalgie.be/China/China9/China9.htm

Furthermore, you can find two extra reports about the life around Shibanxi and the full overhaul of JS8061:

http://www.spoorwegnostalgie.be/China/leven%20naast%20spoor/leven%20naast%20spoor.htm

http://www.spoorwegnostalgie.be/China/revisie%20stoomlocomotief/revisie%20stoomlocomotief.htm

As always, the comments are written in Dutch but the pictures should speak for themselves :-)

My report then:

We booked flights between Amsterdam and Chengdu as we planned to mainly concentrate on the southern steam lines. Leaving Schiphol on July 8th with a KLM 737 called "Darjeeling Railway", things almost couldn't go wrong, it seemed.

Shibanxi, 9/7 - 13/7

After our arrival at Chengdu, we hired a taxi towards Shixi. This was a very expensive option (600 Yuan) but like this, we could directly take the last train to Bagou the same day as we were in a Boeing 737! Only this given fact was worthwhile the 300 Yuan pro person!

About the accommodation:

Thanks to Rob Dickinson's report just before our departure, we could avoid nanny's guesthouse. We directly found the other guesthouse and were offered rooms for 20 Yuan a person a day. The service was okay indeed, including free clothes washing. Watch out with the key of your door you will receive: we got the wrong key but directly noticed it. A Japanese guy arriving after us got a wrong key as well but didn't notice this until the woman from the guesthouse had disappeared into the brushing big city life of Bagou. In the meanwhile he had locked himself out of his room and had to wait for quite some time before he could get in again! But: in general, this is a good guesthouse so don't bother and just go here, it's much more convenient as a base to make your pictures, and not to forget the pleasure of not hearing cars for several days.

The last night, we went to Mifengyan where we stayed at the guesthouse above the pharmacy (thanks to Rob once again). Also here, there were some problems with our lock: when we wanted to open the door the next morning, we had locked ourselves in the room, not able to open the door again. After several unsuccessful attempts of the friendly owner to open the door, I passed him a drawing of a screwdriver underneath the door which he gave us after truly acrobatical behaviour via the window. Maybe I should become a burglar after all as the door was then opened in few seconds! 2 hours later, an accident with two motors happened 100 from his house so he had to give first aid to the drivers. Afterwards, it was quite a heavy discussion when people from Shixi came over to repair the motorcycles and asked a too high price for one of the cyclists who persisted that the other one had to pay for all of the damage. It was quite a busy day for our pharmacist-hotel owner I think. But so far for the accommodation.

About the trains:

Business as usual with the coal train running between the first and the second passenger train. On one day, we had a second coal train between the third and the fourth passenger train. None of the passenger trains had the ugly tourist coaches included (but of course, we were there during the week). We only saw them once, on our last day, when a special train ran from Shixi towards Huangcunjin. We quickly changed our position to a position outside a curve and so, we could freely enjoy the extra steam engine without spoiling the picture by the tourist coaches. Passenger trains were hauled by no.14. Freight trains and the special train were hauled by no.10.

C2 14 above the rooftops of Bagou

C2 14 at Huangcunjin

In general:

The weather was very nice with reasonable temperatures and sun on 2 out of 4 days. We only had one hour of rain during an evening.

Would we go again? Definitely! It was my second visit here and for my third visit, I would consider even staying longer then 4 days. Like Ameling already stated in the past: the flight from Amsterdam to Chengdu is really perfect if you want to go to Shibanxi. It's worth considering for everybody living at a reasonable distance from Amsterdam (Schiphol) Airport.

As long as the tourist cars are not used too much, this railway doesn't give the impression of a tourist railway at all. Let's hope it will stay this way for a while, but be realistic and realise that a decision to put a tourist coach on every train could quickly be made!

Ganshui, 14/7 - 16/7

accommodation:

We stayed at the guesthouse between the tunnel and the railway bridge at Ganshui. Expect some disrupting of your night rest as the trains pass at 3 metres from the hotel window.

About the trains:

Although the action is less spectacular then in the days when trains to Qinqihai were steam hauled, a visit to this place is still worthwhile for the trains between Ganshui and Xiaoyutuo. First of all, there is the magnificent copper and coal mine at Xiaoyutuo, a true gem to make pictures at. Also, the line between Xiaoyutuo and Ganshui is in a fantastic gorge with great picture possibilities between Maliutan and Xiaoyutuo. The only thing is that uphill trains are tender first, but there are worse things in life! In service was SY0514.

SY 0514 at Xiaoyutuo

We also briefly visited Qinqihai as we heard that steam was still active there. SY1198 was shunting at the coal mine but this certainly is not the best place in China to take pictures of an SY shunting!

A small story about the do's and don't do's with trains!

When we arrived at the hotel at Ganshui on one evening, we saw two farmers passing the big railway bridge with a cow. We were stunned and said to each other that we could only hope no train was coming. Of course, it had to happen! When they were in the middle of the bridge, we heard a loud whistle: SY0514 was about to cross the bridge with a long freight train. The farmers then kept on hitting the cow and pulled it of the bridge, just in time not to have an SY-barbeque of the cow. We were so stunned by this sight right before our eyes that we forgot to make a picture from the event. While the farmers had a heavy discussion with the guard at the end of the bridge, the cow was heavily breathing with big fear in her eyes. The poor animal!

In general:

The copper mine at Xiaoyutuo is worth a visit on its own. Who will be the first to build this mine in 1:87? Apparently, between Wansheng and Nanchuang (rumours!), steam is still active as well, so considering a visit to this region might be an option for some more steam-lovers with some patience as there are only some trains a day.

Hechi, 17/7

A quick stop at the former stabling point proved that all steam is gone here, of course like we expected! We had a quick look here just in case, but the main purpose of this day was to get some nice pictures of DF7D's in action between Hechi and Guiyang. This was a big success, with trains every 30 minutes, during the whole day. The village of Beiya (30 minutes by car from Hechi) was a perfect location to make shots from DF7D's between karst mountains.

Sancha - Luocheng, 18/7 - 20/7

accommodation:

We stayed at a hotel aside of the station in Yizhou. Yizhou seems slightly better situated then Liuzhou if you're heading for this railway line. There is a hotpot-restaurant at the road parallel with the station, but its dishes were of a minor quality.

About the trains:

Business as usual for 95% (**) with one freight train a day leaving Luocheng around 7AM, returning somewhere in the afternoon. JS8374 was in service, the external condition of JS8284 (cold) was relatively poor although it might still be in a working order.

(**) on our last day, the JS was kept in Chayezhan on the way back to Luocheng to help with a workers train on the being built CNR-railway from Liuzhou to Hechi. Quite unpleasant if you're waiting at the other side of the line!

During our visit, there was clearly no traffic between Luocheng and Qiaoerzhan. When we asked local staff if there were going to be trains here, they waved "no" so clearly that it seemed this part of the line is now closed. Anyhow, we didn't check it out any further as it is in a restricted area anyway with no trains to chase and no needs to be chased at.

JS 8374 near Chayezhan

At the fertilizer factory near Chayezhan, SY0371 was the local shunter (not much work to do!). We could freely walk around in the factory, with very enthusiastic people everywhere. Surprise (?): at the hall where they load the coal in the engines, SY0980 stood cold but still serviceable (spare engine I presume). Both engines have metal characters with the name of the factory on their smokebox, quite a nice sight. The factory itself is nice as a backdrop when an engine is shunting. The sun here is at its best before noon.

In general:

This railway line is a true gem with karst mountains almost everywhere along the line. In my personal opinion, talking about the landscape, this is the most beautiful normal gauge steam operated railway line still in service in China. I know, its far away from other steam destinations, the weather is not that easy and you will only have one train a day, but it's charming landscapes do compensate a lot! I'm a huge fan of karst mountains, and then of course, this line is THE place to be.

If you leave Sanhe in the direction of Luocheng, you will soon encounter a railway bridge followed by a tunnel. At the other side of the tunnel, the track first turns left and then right again after some 200m. In front of you, there is a big hill now, which is climbable if you can stand some thorn bushes during the last metres. We made our picture without sun, which was not bad. With sun, you can make a true mastershot here with a single pinnacle above the train and very high mountains a little further away!

We had one very unfriendly station master at Xinyin on one occasion, but for the rest, everybody was very friendly. We had no encounters with the police and we didn't have the impression that Luocheng itself is a closed area. The area to the north of this city will be another story of course!

Beijing, 21/7

Hehe, National Holiday in Belgium with our future (?) prime minister singing the wrong national hymn when asked to do so for television (!) is a nice occasion to visit this overwhelming city. Eating Beijing Duck at Tienanmen square somehow seems a little extravagant, but we did it anyway. It surely was a nice occasion to hang around with steam-guide Tina who especially came all the way from Chifeng to say hello.

Yanzhou, 22/7 - 24/7

Accommodation:

As described in my previous report, there are some hotels in front of the station. We stayed at the Yanzhou Binguan, where we had a double room for 120RMB with broadband internet access in our room.

We used the same taxi-driver as last time. He seemed to drive a little slower then last winter, but we made it for each train and he knows the local roads better and better now. His phone number is: 13054950919. He asks 260RMB a day and is a calm and nice fellow to hang out with.

About the trains:

About the JiBei-railway, we can keep it short: after having waited for 3,5 hours, only to see QJ7130/7132 (we're not sure!) from a distance moving as light engine in the station every half hour or so, we headed for Dadongzhang, not to come back anymore.

Around Dadongzhang, they surely knew how to use their QJ's during our visit. Okay, the fourth QJ (spare) was virtually always hanging around at the stabling point, but the other three were kept busy between the shift changes from 8:30 - 16:00. Of course, the report like I describe it here, might not be valid anymore due to changes in the patterns they use their QJ's nowadays!

The biggest problem was getting correct info what they were going to do. For an example: when we asked a driver what he was going to do when leaving the stabling point, his answer was "we go to the station now". We didn't see that one coming of course! At the signal boxes, except from one guy at Nantun, everybody was very friendly. But: only at Baodian, we could gamble some useful information. After a three days visit, our recommendation is to stay near Dadongzhan after shift change in the morning. From here on, there are several possibilities which I will try to explain now:

A) there are only trains with C62's or similar wagons leaving the station. This is the easiest situation: try to get an idea where the train is going (look well which direction they're heading: Nantun or Baodian). These trains will be loaded at the mines. With shorter trains, the engine will probably stay waiting for them. Not always of course, that would be too easy!

B) Are there cars of the type K18DG at Dadongzhan? Is it a long train? Now you're in trouble! Try to find out if the wagons are loaded or not. If they are loaded, things are very easy: they will go to the power plant at Dianchang. If they are not loaded, things get more complicated! In this case, they will go to one of the mines and normally, the engine will be uncoupled there to search for a next job. During our visit ALL cars of the type K18DG went to the power plant at Dianchang, once they were loaded. The only tricky thing is that sometimes (especially near shift change!), they were sent to Dadongzhang first.

C) The ideal case (it may seem otherwise, but trust me) is that you see a light engine leaving Dadongzhan to one of the mines, preferably Baodian or Xinlongzhan. Bull's eye! In 80% of the cases, this engine will pick up a train of about 40-50 K18DG's and pull it towards Dianchang. If it's really not your day, they will go doing something else!

Of course, this is just the traffic like we saw it happen in July, but in January, I could witness the same situation. However, then it was too early to draw some conclusions. Now, after a total of 5 days around Dadongzhang, it seems like a better moment to try to make some conclusions about this at first sight complex system. Of course, in the meanwhile, the working pattern might have changed!

About the trains to Dianchang: in case you hadn't noticed it yet, these are THE trains you've got to get on picture. They consist of 40-50 cars, with one QJ in front of it. On our last day, we spent 5 hours at Mengsuo and we had 3 of these loaded trains plus 2 unloaded trains. During the 3 days, all trains except one going to or coming from Dianchang were QJ hauled. Not bad, I would say! My personal guess is that they mainly use the diesel engines for the "normal" coal trains to the CNR network as they don't have to change the engine at Dadongzhang this way. Of course, this leaves the very interesting "internal transport" from the mines towards Dianchang for the QJ's.

Trains from Baodian / Xinglongzhan towards Dianchang have to work leaving Baodian and at the exits of Nantun and Mengsuo. You can chase the train and make two pictures by starting at Baodian station and then drive straight towards Mengsuo where normally the train will follow in a few minutes. More tricky is to get the whole train on the picture as it is so long!

A last thing: like in January, we have had some internal coal trains from Jierjing and Jisanjing towards the power plant at Dianchang. So there are still QJ hauled trains on the most eastern branch as well. We also saw one steam train to Dongtan, in contradiction with another earlier report stating they only use diesels there. The only branch we didn't see steam trains on was the branch to Zoucheng, but that seems logic as this branch is used for the trains connecting to the CNR network.

Before you're getting too excited: remember that the engines can face both ways so even if you've got a train where you'd like it to have, you've got to be lucky to have the engine in the right way. The worst thing that can happen is that all the engines face towards the stabling point when leaving Dadongzhang in the morning, which we had on one occasion, as all the loaded trains will be tender first from that point (except when you're lucky and you have a loaded train of K18DG's from Dadongzhang towards Dianchang of course).

The depot at Dadongzhang

QJ 7126 near Nantun

About the landscape:

Brrrrr, here the fun ends! This area is only interesting if you really want to see QJ's once again (but don't we all?). The only decent positions we found were near the curve (with a sort of "lake"!) leaving Baodian in the direction of Nantun and near the station of Mengsuo. Near the triangle at Dadongzhan at the Nantun-side, you can make a picture of a "train on the moon" with the mine of Nantun on the background in the neighbourhood of the crossroad.

About our contacts with the police!

It was stated several times that it's unadvisable to visit this area without a guide. I disagree with this! In January, I was once asked to stop taking pictures by an older policeman but in this case, it was more due to the character itself then by me visiting a QJ operated railway, it seemed. During this stay, we had several contacts with the police (asking them for the right road, meeting them at stations) and everybody was friendly, with a healthy dose of interest why we were in the area of course. As I said before, the loaded trains are all guarded, mainly by policemen but we presume also by hired guardians (we even saw one with a Che Guevara T-shirt, quite bizarre for a Chinese policemen in service I think). They all waved at us, being very enthusiastic about us taking pictures of their train. So: let's just behave like guests in a foreign country without becoming too nervous about the presence of a lot of policemen trying to prevent coal thefts.

Xingyang, 25/7

Not much to report here! The line was active with engine 207 hauling 5 trains during our visit. Engine 07 was receiving some repair in the shed in the morning (friendly people, no problems to take pictures). This second engine was the quickly heated and made a test drive towards the big arc bridge in the early afternoon.

C2 07 under repair

Pingdingshan, 26/7 - 27/7

Accommodation:

the WuShi Binguan has raised it prices "rather a lot" from 120RMB for a room last time up to 350RMB this time. We then went to the JiXiu Binguan where we could obtain a double room for 120RMB. Breakfast was included, but we didn't have time for it.

About the trains:

Things were mainly as described before. So I will focus on some points of general interest.

Access to the stabling point and the shed depend on the gate keeper. It definitely helps if you've got some pictures to give them. Inside, everybody was friendly. They have some female welders repairing steam engines now, anybody interested?

When we arrived at the shed the first day, I was really surprised by the amount of steam engines being repaired: JS8057 received some maintenance, JS8062 got a full overhaul, QJ6650 AND (!) JS8031 were just receiving their numbers after a full overhaul. JS8031 was heated but was only moved to the stabling point. QJ6650 performed a test run towards mine 1, before heading for Yuzhou the same evening. What a sight: a freshly overhauled QJ in 2007!!!

QJ 6650 at Tianzhuang

Mine 2 has been modernised with blue metal plates covering the concrete structures so the photographical potential of this mine now depends on your personal taste. Mine 5 has had a "change of look" as well: all the buildings are covered up with concrete, which is a nicer view.

After several attempts during previous visits, I finally could make a picture from the hill with the pagoda next to the line towards mine 4. We were very lucky here: after hours and hours waiting, we were rewarded with a long train with JS8068 on top and JS6429 as a banker. Great sound of course! A nice extra about this already interesting point is that you can get the skyline of Pingdingshan in the back of the picture. Where else in the world can you make a picture of a steam train with a skyscraper in the back?

JS 8068 at Wukuang

Pingdingshan in general:

After my previous visit to Pingdingshan, I thought I never would come back to this place due to the diesels showing up everywhere I went. This time, I went there once again after all to give Frederik the opportunity to experience how it is to see so many steam engines on one location. The first day, I constantly thought I had to put this location back on my personal "A-list". We had a lot of luck with the steam engines, the diesels seemed to be locked up at the shed. The second day, the story changed: everywhere we went, the diesels seemed to follow us, quite frustrating! So, my feelings about Pingdingshan stay mixed after this visit: having known this location with only one diesel, once again I had the feeling that it was better in the past. On the other hand: the locations with this amount of steam engines are rare in China nowadays. Maybe it's just difficult to admit that the best days around Pingdingshan are over and that we have to be satisfied with the action we still can see!

General conclusions after this tour:

Slowly, I get the feeling that I don't experience a real challenge anymore by going to China to hunt for steam trains during the summer. I've visited all the interesting steam locations in the south. The locations in the north seem more interesting for a winter tour. This time, I've taken some time to take pictures of the impressive DF7D's, but then there is still the dim light due to high humidity. I doubt it that I will revisit Southern-China again next summer. Although I really adore the karst mountains and the other interesting landscapes in the south, I have to admit that I see reasons to choose for another holiday location next summer. Keeping in mind that the superb line towards Luocheng will probably be dieselised in 2008, the only reason to go back to the south would be Shibanxi. This line, I would certainly like to visit a third time, but on the other hand, there are so many other interesting railway systems in the world.

To conclude this report: I'm sorry that I couldn't finish it earlier, but sometimes, more important things in life have to come first! I'm going back to China in one month and I hope to post that report earlier then this one :-) Anyhow, it will/would be a nice thing if I can/could see some QJ's on The Pass during my 10th China-trip :-)

Dave Habraken

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2007 Dave Habraken