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Steam in China, February 23rd - March 9th 2013

by Ameling Algra

Sandaoling, Baiyin

A September offer from KLM (round trips to China for under 600 euros) made me consider a last goodbye trip to China.

So I booked Amsterdam-Beijing-Urumqi for Feb 23 this year, and return from Chengdu to Amsterdam directly two weeks later. Initially I intended to go to Sandaoling first, and then on to Shixi for the remainder of the trip; hence the return from Chengdu. The changed timetable, colourful coaches and disappeared coal trains made me decide to give Shixi a miss – I am happy I went there in October 2011 for the last time, when everything was still normal and the yellow loco made its first appearance on the last day I was there. So I decided to go to Baiyin instead. Not the easiest destination for a solo traveller, but easily beats Shixi with its five daylight passenger departures.

For the visa, I booked hotels for the whole trip through ctrip, some of them cancelled afterwards, others not. When applying for the visa, the staff wondered why I went to Lanzhou and Baiyin. The reply "for the steam trains" was adequate.

So after a comfortable flight from Amsterdam (KLM put me in business class) and a long flight to Ürümqi (included in the ticket price), I arrived Ürümqi on Sunday, Feb 24. I found out that for some reason the Bank of China does not accept my debit card. Luckily, other banks did (China Construction Bank up to 5000 yuan a day in 1000 yuan portions), so I could get enough money to pay a guide in Sandaoling if necessary.

Next morning to the main bus station at Heilongjan Lu, which had buses to Sandaoling at 12.00 and at 19.30 (Beijing time). I easily got a ticket for the noon departure, RMB 113, a comfortable bus journey of about seven hours followed, with a nice Muslim lunch in the middle. In Sandaoling I went to the Sandaoling Binguan, a nicely restored building with a nice small room for 128 yuan a night. Clean, white sheets and everything worked, very good value for money. I asked the friendly staff to contact Mr Zhang Fu Sheng from the mine, who appeared half an hour later and offered to drive me around & get me a permit for 500 yuan a day for the next four days, an offer I happily accepted.

For the next four days, we crisscrossed the system. The passenger from Dong- to Xibolizhan ran in the morning, also going into the pit. On the first and last day chimney first, the other days tender first. Much activity on the "coal main line", at least a train every half hour (could also hear them at night), sometimes with no more than 10 minutes between them. On the first day, one rake was tender first, the other days all trains chimney first. Business in Xibolizhan as usual; with up to nine locos present in the morning. The weather was surprisingly and disappointingly warm.

On March 2 by bus to Ürümqi, bus leaves at 11.00, there is an overnight bus at 21.30. Mr Zhang Fu had reserved me a ticket, which turned out to be a good idea as the bus was completely full with students returning to Ürümqi after Chinese New Year. Pleasant ride again, with students sharing their cookies with me. On to Ürümqi airport hotel for an early flight to Lanzhou next morning. China Eastern sells 55+ senior tickets, which cost me 380 yuan for Ürümqi-Lanzhou and also for Lanzhou-Chengdu. After a nice flight I could easily have gone straight to Baiyin but I decided to look around Lanzhou for a while and go to Baiyin the next day. The bus station in Lanzhou was changed into a building site but after some walking and asking around I managed to find the frequent Baiyin buses. Went to the Wansheng hotel which is in the western part of town so not ideally situated for steam purposes. I chose the hotel because of the "required" hotel bookings and had not bothered to cancel it. It turned out to be one of the best hotels in China I've ever visited, fully worth the 310 yuan per night I paid for it.

Getting a permit for Baiyin seemed complicated so I did not bother. I missed the shots inside the factory area, of course and also the shots higher up the line, but having no permit turned out to be no problem at all. I enjoyed walking along the line. Only once a black sedan stopped and halted me. I was afraid of long negotiations about permits but they only offered me a ride uphill!

Baiyin is a nice city actually, with beautiful modern buildings, brick Mao "workers villas" and still some old hutongs as well. The weather was getting too warm (25 Celsius) so everyone was sitting outside, talking & playing cards and adding to the nice atmosphere. The town has an excellent bus service, just be sure you have enough one-yuan notes.

About the trains: the passengers were all steam as hoped for (in spite of the warm weather), the long working always chimney first uphill, the short working tender first one day, chimney first the others. Several steam freights were noted, especially during the afternoon, but no diesel seen venturing out.

After Baiyin, back to Lanzhou airport and on to Chengdu and then a long but reasonable flight home (in cattle class this time).

I enjoyed the trip immensely. Though it was supposed to be a goodbye trip after 40 years of gricing, on my return I told my wife that I see opportunities to go again, once. She was not surprised.

Ameling Algra

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© 2013 Ameling Algra