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Steam in China, February 2014

by Ameling Algra

Sandaoling, Shibanxi

After some consideration I decided to go gricing to China once more, as Sandaoling is still offering the real gricing experience. I decided to go mid-February. Cold enough for exhaust (I hoped) and two weeks after the travel horrors of Chinese New Year.
Preparing for the trip was not without difficulties. The civil unrest in Xinjiang caused visa problems, so I had to get a guide for Sandaoling and an invitation. Also, China Airlines (used to fly directly into Ürümqi from Taipei and back from Chengdu) changed its itinerary at a late moment so I changed to Aeroflot which offers business class at KLM's economy class prices. And last but not least there was the uncertainty of Rongshan.

My program had two goals:
One: see some real steam, at Sandaoling and hopefully Rongshan,
Two: don’t hurry but enjoy.

So on Feb 14 I had a comfortable flight from Amsterdam to Beijing via Moscow. Then on to the Beijing Sanyuan Novotel (easily reached by airport express) and then the next day on to Ürümqi. I heard about the Beijing-Hami flights when my plans were already fixed. And anyway, I liked the opportunity to look around Ürümqi again.
After a day in Ürümqi, I took the direct bus from there to Sandaoling – 7 hours for around RMB 120. The bus leaves at noon from the main bus station at Heilongjan Lu. I bought my ticket the day before but I am sure buying it on the same day would have resulted in getting a seat.
In Sandaoling I went to the big real hotel building on the main street (I think it is called the San He hotel but there seemed to be some confusion about hotel names). Friendly staff, and perfect room with internet access for RMB 150. Soon afterwards, Ms Guli (hired as a guide) showed up. She wanted me to go to another hotel which I declined as I personally like this hotel best (and I got internet, not sure about the other hotel). We arranged to meet next morning again to go to Xibolizhan first.
Five days were spent around the pit. Dongbolizhan in the morning is very nice; the passenger was chimney first on every day. The dump lines at Xibolizhan were working again and the double track main line with loaded coal trains was very busy, with up to four trains an hour. Sometimes tender first locos were used on the loaded trains. With a logical pattern of operation, a chimney first loco would pull a loaded train from the loader and then switch trains with the tender first loco that had just arrived with an empty train. On one day, this lead to almost all trains on the double track section being tender first. I didn't mind. Enough chimney first on the other days and the tender first locos seemed to have to work harder. Whether the JS are not suited for tender first working or the tender first locos were just not in good shape, I don't know.
The weather was surprisingly and pleasantly warm, up to 15 Deg Celsius in the afternoon killing the (visible) exhaust.

After five enjoyable days, I said goodbye to Ms GuLi who, though not really needed, did a good job in a pleasant way. Next day by bus again to Ürümqi. The Sandaoling bus turned out to be full on two consecutive days. I was offered a seat on the night bus, which I declined. Luckily, some Hami-Ürümqi buses stop at Sandaoling to pick up passengers if booked in advance. I was able to get a seat on one of these, leaving Sandaoling at 12.15 PM and (of course) also taking around seven hours – including some delay for frequent police controls and slowing down because of very strong winds. Several trucks were seen on their side next to the road and in the other direction there was a mass of burning cars with police and firemen around it. But nothing happened to my bus.

Next day on to Ürümqi. As often mentioned, Ürümqi airport is a bit tricky in bad weather. It was snowing (wish I had that in Sandaoling!) and my 10:15 flight to Chengdu was postponed till 18.55 . So I quickly changed my ticket into one for the 13.25 flight which left on time. Ürümqi seems to have some standard procedures in case the morning weather is poor. Postpone half of the morning flights till evening, and cancel the short distance flights in the morning which are repeated in the afternoon anyway.
So actually I arrived in Chengdu at a reasonable time and took the airport bus to the Minshan hotel which is excellently located near the end of the airport bus route and offers excellent accomodation as well.
In the meantime, I had checked news about Rongshan especially Bernd's Farrail site as I know he is reliable and I presumed he would do his best to know in time to cancel his March trip. So I found out what was published on this site: Rongshan not working, at least not till May.

I considered going to Baiyin (did that last year) but instead decided to go to Shibanxi for a farewell visit.

So, after a good night and an excellent breakfast at the Mingshan I took bus 78 to Shi Yang Zhan bus station, and five minutes after arrival, with RMB 75 less in my pocket, was in a bus leaving for Qianwei which took one hour and fifty minutes for the trip.
In Qianwei, I booked into the Tian Bo which offered excellent accommodation (in the annexe) for RMB 175.
I went to SanYin in the afternoon, to find out that the midday passenger runs about 45 minutes earlier now, and that it is yellow flower high season with trains at 9, 11, 14 and 16. The whole operation could be done by one loco but both days two locos were in use. How someone can think in the high season five locos may be needed is not clear to me.
There is a water tank and crane in SanYin now so the locos don't have to run to ShiXi anymore. The local passengers still do, though.
After my SanYin visit I investigated the small bus station near the hotel and found out there is a bus from there to Bagou at 06.40 (and two late afternoon). So next morning I paid RMB 10 and took the half empty bus in darkness to Bagou, arriving 07.40 with plenty time to go to the station and get arrival and departure of the morning passenger.
After that, the two scheduled tourist trains. The blue coaches are not nice but what is worse is that they pulled only one coach!
Then the midday passenger which I almost missed because a local tv crew from Leshan was interested in what I was doing there. I told them it would be nice if they would make the line double track so they could reinstate the coal trains. Also, a turntable at both ends and in Mifeng would be appreciated.
After the first afternoon tourist train (with two coaches this time) I was offered a lift back to Qianwei with the tv crew which I happily accepted because it started to rain heavily. I was told buses to Qianwei go at 17.30 and 18.30. If you want to go before, you can take the open tourist ''Mercedes'' cars for 20 Yuan and then take one of many buses from where they end (and start, at the river).
The tourist trains no longer run to the mine, instead there is a shuttle run by a battery electric mine loco and some open coaches.
The next day it was raining heavily again so I just made a short visit to SanYin in the middle of the day.
Then on day three, dry weather again so I went with the 06.10 bus to SanYin, took the morning passenger to Mifeng and spent (part of) the day there – walking back to SanYin. As you probably know, leaving Mifeng are the best spots to photograph trains amidst yellow flowers. A few years ago, I was helped on a slippery path by some local gricers and got excellent footage of a coal train in the curve between the yellow fields. Assistance of local gricers was no longer needed now. They built a huge viewing platform with standing place for at least a hundred tourists, with an easy staircase to reach it. The tourist trains make a photostop or runpast there, at least in the season. The place has a sign ''one of the 100 best photograhic spots in Sichuan''. I cannot say I disagree.
Of course, I did not video the tourist train run past there but the local train, on my own at the huge platform. None of the local trains had a tourist coach, by the way so they looked quite good apart from a wide yellow band on some coaches.

The next day it was raining again so I decided to leave for Chengdu (would have been my last day on the line anyway. My spare day I explored Chengdu's public transport – the success of the metro may kill it as it is constantly overloaded. There is an excellent circular bus route on the elevated ring line 2. For 2 yuan, you can ride as many rounds as you want. The line has a free busway all around. A round takes about an hour and a half and gives an excellent picture of China's growth.

And then, on to Beijing (dead on time as usual) and then on to Aeroflot for the flight to Moscow and onwards to Amsterdam.

Every time during the last years when I went I thought this may have been my last visit to China for steam. And then I go again. I love the country and love travelling around it. But without steam I still think I would not go there. If Rongshan restarts I will definitely go one more time. The option of doing Sandaoling again, with the new line to the new mine opening new opportunities, is tempting.

By the way, the best way to go to Guangyuan from Chengdu is by bus. Buses leave every 15 minutes or so from Zhaojuesi bus station, not far from the North Railway station, and take a little more than three hours for the trip. In Guangyuan, it is Nanhe bus station.

Ameling Algra

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© 2014 Ameling Algra