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Steam in China - December 2007, January 2008

by Dave Habraken

Yuanbaoshan, Hongmiao, Jingpeng, Pingzhuang, Jinzhou 701, Nanpiao, Huanan

For my tenth China trip, my original plan was to visit Yuanbaoshan, the Jingpeng steam festival, Pingzhuang, Jinzhou 701, Nanpiao, Huludao and Meihekou. As Huludao changed to diesel 2 weeks before I left (thanks Duncan for this sad but important info), I was planning to visit Beipiao instead. However, during the first week of my trip, Adrian Freeman, Charly, Don and Chinese railway guide Jun advised me to go to Huanan as this railway suddenly started running again during my trip so I skipped Meihekou and Beipiao and followed their advice. I cannot say it loud enough: thanks a lot guys for convincing me to visit Huanan. I had doubts to visit this place as I already had had a lot of bad luck during the first week of my tour and I had a bad feeling about making this long journey to hear that operations just ceased the moment I arrived. Oh boy, was I wrong here…
It definitely was the right decision to go to Huanan after all!

The report itself then:

On the 21st of December, I took flight CZ346 with China Southern from Amsterdam-Schiphol towards Beijing. Quiet flight, the only thing that annoyed me were the bad movies… My English is far from perfect, but I had quite a laugh when I received the new model of the arrival-departure card (for the first time, I had to fill out a card with both forms and keep the departure card until I left). On the backside, there are some basic rules about how to behave in China as a foreigner. They only made one small mistake: instead of using the word “foreigner”, they ask “aliens” to report within 24 hours when they stay at a private guesthouse :-) Also, Aliens can not be employed in China without official permission from the local government… Hehe, I hope those aliens can understand English, otherwise they might find themselves in trouble with the Chinese police directly after their arrival here on Earth…

After arrival at Beijing on the 22nd in the afternoon, I just went to Beijing Bei, where I took train 1456/1457 towards Chifeng. Incredible that the old station building here still survives…

Arriving the 23rd of December at Chifeng at the newly constructed station (not in use yet however), Tina (railway-guide as you know) was already waiting for me at the platform. We then went to her house to meet her husband and to chat along. Afterwards, we went to Yuanbaoshan together to see what was going on over there.

Yuanbaoshan 23/12/07

Well, there still is some steam action. Two JS were in service, according to the station staff, but we only saw one (JS6245) as the other one successfully played hide and seek with us. According to staff, steam is almost not used anymore on the branch from Majiawan towards the mines above the city (maybe once every 10 days, somebody at Jibei station said). We saw JS6245 with the incoming mixed from Fengshuigou at Yuanbaoshan. It shunted a little and got a break at the stabling point. We then headed for a place near Fengshuigou, where we visited a new mine with rail connection (at least, I think it is new as I didn’t remember it from previous visits). Apparently in this short period, we must have missed the second JS running light from Fegshuigou itself towards Yuanbaoshan. As we now had to wait for the afternoon mixed train from Yuanbaoshan to Fengshuigou, we visited the narrow gauge system from the big mine at Fenshuigou. It seemed, they upgraded this system recently: apart from the engines themselves, it looked quite new. This must be the biggest electric narrow gauge system, I’ve ever seen in a mine with about 5-6 tracks next to each other at the “main station”. Quite nice…
After this off topic-visit, we headed for the famous bridge near Gongye but this point is absolutely not worth trying anymore due to some trees which have grown too big. We then headed in the direction of Fengshuigou, where I found another reasonable point in the wooded area over there. This point was situated just before a station which was new to me and which isn’t mentioned on Duncan’s map either. According to Tina, the name of this station is Gongyizhan (however, it is situated at least 4 kms from the place called “Gongye” and it’s certainly not the station over there). This new station gives access to the supposed new built mine, I spoke about above.
According to staff, the last 2 JS will be taken out of service between March and June 2008. They used to send their engines to Mudanjiang for overhaul, but as CNR didn’t want to provide transport anymore and Mudanjiang closing down their facilities anyway, full overhauls became impossible. These days, big maintenance is carried out at Pingzhuang, but this doesn’t happen often. Usually, they can manage just fine in their own shed at Yuanbaoshan itself.

Hongmiao 23/12/07

After having photographed the Yuanbaoshan mixed again (times are unchanged), we headed for a short visit to Hongmiao where we could find SY1565 at the stabling point. Thanks Dave Fielding for reporting this one, it was a nice fill up for the day. As the sun had gone low, the loco was standing in the shadows from the mine. Luckily, the crew was kind enough to put the engine 50 metres further on this track, giving us the possibility to make some nice shots with red evening light. There is a very nice cutting here, in which the trains have to pass when picking up wagons at the CNR station. It looked, some interesting shots can be made here somewhere in the afternoon. As they only have 2-3 trains a day, you need a lot of luck of course, just to be there at the right time…
This mine plans to stop using steam in May 2008.

Jingpeng steam festival 24/12/07 – 27/12/07

The first day was mainly meant for the opening ceremony. As they didn't want to take the risk of returning late from Haoluku, they limited the train to JingPeng. Because of this, the QJ's were sent tender first (with 30 coal cars) to JingPeng, where they had to take water with the local fire department as all the facilities are now gone (...). The ceremony itself was certainly worthwhile seeing, with very good Mongolian musicians, but of course this was more for the atmosphere then for taking pictures of trains. It seems Jitong is planning to organise the same kind of events in the future, looking at the size of the ceremony and according to some guys over there who stated this to me. There were certainly a lot of officials and reporters.
When the train finally left, it was 4PM. As the sun already wasn't shining that hard, I could only make decent pictures at Biligou and Simingyi (silhouette shot with the sun, from the back of the bridge). At Shangdian, I could make a picture with 800ASA, but of course, this picture needed a lot of processing, back at home. From the second day on, the photographical possibilities were better, apart from the weather. The whole train with the coal cars ran from Daban, but of course, it was dark there so I started to chase the train near Yuzhoudi for 3 subsequent days (train passed here around 8AM). Bad luck: the sky became more grey every day so by the fourth day of the festival, it was nearly impossible to make a decent shot… The engines were turned nose first but the second engine still had some decoration (nearly invisible though) from the opening ceremony on it. While returning from Haoluku, this engine was in first position, but they managed to be too late on all three “normal” days I was there…
I've only seen Karsten from Germany concerning “laowei” visiting this festival. But: there were between 50 and 100 Chinese guys and girls chasing the train. Believe it or not: they were escorted by the police... This wasn’t a problem at all as 95 percent of them only made pictures from the road. The best positions all stayed tourist-free, with one (logic...) exception: Simingyi-bridge, where the Chinese people were trying to touch the bridge rather then making a nice picture...I'm still glad that I've visited this event. The only thing that really has frustrated me a lot was the weather, which became worse every day :-(

Pingzhuang 28/12/07

As I had to take a train from Chifeng to Jinzhou (Liaoning) in the evening anyway, I thought it would be interesting to visit Pingzhuang not to lose a whole day waiting for the train to Jinzhou. This system is worth a visit, but maybe more for the interesting electric engines (ex-DDR built Crocodiles) than for the steam trains. As somebody mentioned before, there are not that many steam trains to the deep mines and the steam engines around the open cast mine mostly run underneath the wire… This makes this location not my personal favourite for steam (=understatement). I tried my luck around the deep mines, but got frustrated because of the lack of trains and the typical Chinese poles and wires which screw up nearly all interesting locations I saw…At the washery, I thought I got lucky as they just formed a huge train for Pingzhuang Nan, to be pulled by one single SY. I thought, this was going to give a big spectacle but the driver started the train nearly without any smoke at all. Leaving the station at about 2,5km/h, they gained speed 500m further away where the track descends towards Pingzhuang Nan.
I really had had it now with the deep mine part of the system, so I went for the open cast mine. There, I saw some SY’s shunting with steam cranes. Near the depot, I could even make some pictures without wires. I then spent what was left of the afternoon on the electrical engines in the open cast mine, regretting that I hadn’t come here some hours earlier. Yes, the electric engines really are worthwhile a visit on their own if you are into this stuff but for steam, I’m not that crazy about this place. So for the first time in my life, I found an electrical train more interesting then the steam train a little bit further. Shame on me!
About the numbers: I’m very bad with this stuff, but I’ll give it a try :-) I saw SY0400, 1052, 0943, 0798 and SY1083 (high deflectors) in service. I didn’t try to get in to the workshop so I cannot give details about what was going on over there.

Jinzhou 701 29/12/07

After meeting Adrian, Don and Charly at Jinzhou station, we headed for Jinzhou 701 with Tina as guide-to-the-rescue, as the “usual” guide for this place was lying in hospital. When we arrived, it quickly became clear that we arrived 1-2 days too late… They had just stopped their activities between some overhauls and SY1096 from Lingyuan steelworks was waiting to be transported home again (it was standing outside coupled together with factory’s JS8162). I’ve never seen a SY so shiny before... Management told us, we could take pictures outside but not inside the tunnel as it was dark and empty. Otherwise, it seemed they would have agreed. Tina and I spoke to the vice-manager and he seemed like a guy who you can talk with. Anyhow, we should have come some days earlier to see this workshop in action. Well, that seemed to be the story of this trip so far: a lot of bad luck…
When we arrived at Nanpiao, we saw SY1708 (also from the steelworks at Lingyuan) waiting for transport to Jinzhou 701. It was soon followed by JS6307 (from the Chemical plant at Huludao), brought by a DF4B which took both steam engines to Jinzhou an hour later and picked up SY1096 on the way back to Jinzhou. But, as management said, they weren’t going to start these overhauls before the 2nd of January 2008 so this wasn’t very useful to us.

Nanpiao 29/12/07 – 31/12/07

Well, after 9 previous trips, I finally could visit this place. I wanted to visit it much earlier, but every time, it just did not fit in to the schedule. This time it did but it seems, also here, bad luck continued… They have obtained a fourth BJ diesel engine :-( It’s number is BJ3290. The good news was that they didn’t use the diesels a lot: most of the work was done by the 3 steam engines in service (SY 1092, 1299 and 1478). During my visit, most of the passenger trains were steam hauled. Their usual pattern with one train being steam hauled, the other one being diesel hauled was not maintained. If they could, they sent steam engines out with the passenger trains so that was some good news. Even the coal trains were mainly in the hands of the steam engines. But: there weren’t many coal trains… I cannot compare it to previous visits as it was my first time here, but comparing the activity to what was said in other reports, it seemed that there wasn’t much going on concerning freight…, I can understand why most are so enthusiastic about this place. The landscape is really great. But: due to the lack of freight trains, I couldn’t make a lot of pictures from it. And even then, a strong wind made decent photography rather difficult. No, so far, I hadn’t been really lucky this trip…
General information that might be useful: we were charged 150 Yuan for a double room at the hotel near Hongshila station. This was certainly overpriced as we didn’t have hot water and the locks of the doors were a complete joke with the key of one room fitting into the lock of another room… Especially the lack of hot water isn’t something you should have to expect for these prices, comparing Nanpiao with bigger cities where you have better services for less money…
About the buses: the latest bus towards Jizhou leaves Hongshila around 16:10 (in front of the hotel). It reaches Jinzhou after an hour or so, being much cheaper and almost as fast as a taxi, I would think. For the rest, I think everything has been well described by previous visitors.

Jinzhou Nan -> Huanan 01/01/08

When trying to buy train tickets for this date on the 29th of December, I met one of the most stubborn ticket ladies I’ve ever seen in China. She said “no” on my first question, and all the other questions lead to a “meiyo”-answer as well (oh, how I hate that word…). Tina then tried to talk her into looking at some other possibilities but she refused. I had really had it by this time, so I told Tina to go and search for the station manager to solve this situation, as it was clearly something else than “no tickets available”. The station manager then told the ticket lady that she could at least sell me a ticket without seat reservation but “suddenly” (miracle, miracle…) she found a hard sleeper ticket after all for one of my preferred trains. Talking about losing face… I was very happy that moment that Tina was accompanying me towards Jinzhou 701. I don’t know how I would have solved this situation without her… This said, the train ride itself was quite ok :-)
I hired a taxi for the long way from Mudanjiang to Huanan. I had to pay 500RMB, but like this, I could have a decent night rest. The funny part of this was that we took some Chinese people with us who had to go to Jixi. Arriving there, we had to stop at a crossroad to see an SY shunting. Hehe, talking about a nice coincidence :-) With the detour via Jixi, the ride took about 4 hours, being delayed by a real snowstorm (!!) near Huanan.

Huanan 02/01/08 – 05/01/08

Leaving the hotel around 6:00 on the second of January, I hired a taxi driver to go to the depot to see what was going on. C2 041 had just arrived so the railway was still working. I could almost not believe my eyes after my worst week ever in China: things finally were about to become positive again. I arranged with the driver to follow the next train leaving towards Tuyaozi, but it quickly became clear that the next departure wasn’t going to happen in the upcoming hour. In the meanwhile, I could have a look around in the depot. C2’s 041 and 044 were standing at the water facilities, but 041 pushed 044 into the shed after a while. Also in the shed was C2 “21043” which is in fact just engine 043. Anybody got an idea what the 21 stands for? Has this got something to do with the weight? (normally 28 tons, but that includes the tender I presume?). After two hours, an older workmen (definitely no manager…) made signs that I had to go. As I didn’t want to start a long discussion for nothing, also thinking about future visitors, I did as I was told. By that time (also in the depot), I had met 2 Chinese girls from about 20 years old who had come all the way from Guangdong (!!) to see the little steam train at Huanan. After having seen Chinese railway enthusiasts at Yanzhou and Pingdingshan, having met busses with Chinese tourists at Jingpeng a week earlier, it once again became clear that at least some of the Chinese are finally realising that steam soon will be gone. We had to wait now for an hour before C2 041 became active again. It went to the station with the small caboose. It then left the caboose behind at the station to search for a long (about 20 wagons, no lie!!) coal train a little bit further. This train was half full, half empty so they had to shunt a lot to get the full cars out of the train and half an hour later, it finally could leave towards Li Xin. Suddenly, C2 011 came in with a loaded train. I was concentrating on the shunting C2 041 so I missed that one. When it finally left, I invited the two Chinese girls to drive along with me to Tuyaozi. This way, they could at least make some “line shots” as they clearly hadn’t got it worked out how to make really nice pictures from steam engines :-)
We then overhauled the train several times of course, the only problem being a taxi driver who wanted to turn back to Huanan after each picture. I clearly said him that I wanted to go to Tuyaozi before we left and he agreed, so why was he acting so difficult? The answer is always the same of course: more money… He then ripped me off for 160 yuan, no escaping possible, as we were halfway and the sun was so tempting that it would have been the most stupid thing of this trip not to continue the steam hunt.
Anyway, when we finally arrived at Tuyaozi, the guesthouse of the railway worker was easily found (it’s the only house where a track leads to, dixit Adrian). As stated by Adrian, the price is now 100 yuan per night. Quite a lot of money for the very limited accommodation, but you get a great dinner, a warm breakfast, some basic lunch and loads of beer and baojie (we finished a bottle of 60° the first day hehe). All together, the owner still makes good money but he provides all the necessities which was worth the 100 yuan to me.
In the afternoon, I headed for the communications mast above the village to see a returning train (hauled by C2 004). Nice sight with the village in the back and the engine working for the little gradient over there. Tip for future visitors: if you want to climb this hill, don’t do it starting from the railway line. It’s possible, but this is a very heavy climb. It’s a lot easier to go to the nearby crossroad, walking right into the village at your right and climb the hill from that side.
One hour later, I could make a last picture for this day of C2 011 hauling a train of empties towards Li Xin.
Back at the guesthouse, it became clear that I wasn’t alone. There were also two Japanese guys staying there. Very friendly guys, we had a lot of fun with the owner of the place, during dinner.

The second day, I had to walk (…) to Li Xin. As a load of snow had fallen some days before, the owner of the guesthouse said that it was impossible to find somebody to drive me up there. Hehe, I suppose this gives an idea about the amount of snow, if you consider that even the Chinese said that it was too dangerous for driving… :-) So, I got up very early and left the guesthouse around 5:40. Around 7:45, I had reached the summit so I just had to wait for a train. Well, I waited a lot but nothing happened apart from my body getting frozen after being wet from a very long walk and now cooling down at a very high tempo. Around 10:00, C2 041 finally showed up with a rake of empties, directly being uncoupled at Li Xin station to bank C2 004 with a loaded train on the way to Huanan. I’ve made a picture very close to the summit. It seemed, between 10:00 and (let’s say) 13:00, this is the only place where the position of the sun is more or less decent.
After the splendid sight of a banked narrow gauge train, I started walking back to Tuyaozi, hoping for a second empty train to come near the big hills not too far from Tuyaozi. What a bugger:the only train I saw was C2 041 taking the caboose and two coal cars back from Li Xin towards Huanan. At this point, I feared that the operation was about to cease, looking at the very limited traffic this day, but a phone call from the owner of the guesthouse to some people at Huanan revealed that they just took a small break because of a derailment. And yes: some hours later (in complete dark of course), the operation started all over again. The driver of the passing C2 must have something like “crazy laowei” when he passed 2 Japanese and 1 Belgian gricers enjoying him passing by underneath the stars…

On the third day, I went for the long walk again, so I left Tuyaozi again around 5:30, to meet C2 011 with a loaded train heading for Huanan near the horseshoe curve around 7:25. Around this time, the sun was coming up so it was definitely a nice sight with an orange sky above the hills. For your information: the engines work for about 300m near the high dam at the beginning of the horseshoe curve. It’s not easy to find a good photo position here, but it’s one of the few places between the summit and Tuyaozi where the engines have to work on the way to Huanan.
This day, I wanted to have a look in the horseshoe curve itself. In fact, I found an interesting position near the end of this curve. A Japanese guy joined me after a while, but we had to wait about two hours before C2 044 showed up with a train of empties, going to Li Xin. The picture is a very nice one, but the video is a disaster as just where we stood, the train stopped to drop some railway workers… What are the odds…
As it isn’t such a long walk from the horseshoe curve towards the summit, I headed that way again to see the banked loaded train. As it was around 10:00, I faced the same problem with the sun, so I made some unorthodox shots… Quite a surprise was to see the train (hauled by 043, pushed by 044) getting stalled nearby my position, so I could just walk by to make some even more unorthodox shots directly against the sun of this banked train. Well, let’s say, the smoke looks nice :-)
After this excitement, I walked back to Tuyaozi hoping I could get an uphill train this day (which failed the day before). I found a very nice position in a massive field covered with loads of snow without any footprints in it, so this definitely was the place to wait for a train to show up. Seconds before long shadows would become a problem, C2 011 showed up with it’s train towards Li Xin. Pure pleasure to hear it work for about 45 minutes! I can understand now why some guys refer to this place as the second JingPeng-pass.

The fourth day was spent in the town of Tuyaozi, as this really is a nice town to use as backdrop for your pictures. Also, it’s very convenient if you stay at the railway guesthouse. Operation should be pretty predictable: when a train of empties has passed towards Li Xin, you have at least 2,5 hours before a train comes down. If a train coming down has passed, you have about an hour before a train heads up again. These are minimum waiting times: sometimes, the trains take a lot longer to pass by, especially the ones coming from Li Xin.
Anyway, this last day, I got 2 trains uphill and two downhill. This day, the engines in service were 004, 043, 044.

Huanan in general: this was definitely the highlight during this tour. The owner of the guesthouse asked me if I wanted to come back next winter. Definitely, at least if steam is still in service at that time. I saw C2’s 004, 011, 041, 043 & 044 in service on 4 days. Not bad, I think, but of course this might raise questions about the technical condition of these engines… The owner of the guesthouse was very short on this topic: the line won’t close in the nearby future. But then of course, he is not in charge at the railway, he only tells what he heard and of course, what is convenient for his business.

Jiamusi -> Beijing -> Amsterdam -> Belgium 06/01/08

Nice flights from Jiamusi to Beijing and from Beijing to Amsterdam so no complaining here :-) Something which might be useful: if you want to eat something at Beijing airport, there are some smaller and cheaper restaurants (yes, even KFC...) in the basement of the airport. This way, you can avoid the ridiculous prices in the restaurants on the first floor.

Conclusions after this tour:
Well, I don’t feel the same excitement anymore about steam in China as I used to. This has only one cause: the lack of nice landscapes to take pictures of steam trains these days as nearly all surviving steam locations are situated in industrial backgrounds. I was hoping to compensate this by going to the steam festival at JingPeng, although I didn’t expect too much from it. Yes, I could have taken some nice pictures there if only the weather would have been ok, which clearly wasn’t the case during my visit… I would consider revisiting this festival, as long as the conditions are ok (I’m not going to pay 500RMB a day to take pictures from museum trains which aren’t as good as the real stuff years ago anyway). After some disappointments at Pingzhuang (electric engines were great, but steam wasn’t), Jinzhou 701 (nothing to see) and Nanpiao (not a lot going on over there), things got a hundred times better at Huanan. This really is a place where I could easily stay for a week and that’s stuff to think about for next year (if this system is still active then). If Jixi (preferably Lishu), Zhalainuer, Huanan and some other places still can offer steam in action, then I think I will come back next year. If only some smaller mines offer steam action by that time, things become more doubtful to me. So, I’ve got a whole year in front of me to think about what to do and to follow the reports being sent by you guys to the Steam_in_China newsgroup or to the SY-Country website. Thanks a lot for this, this information always is useful in some way.

Some pictures from this trip will appear on my website (www.spoorwegnostalgie.be) but that will only happen in some weeks. At that moment, I'll post the URL to the pictures on the Steam_in_China newsgroup.

Dave Habraken

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© 2008 Dave Habraken