The International Steam Pages
Narrow Gauge Steam in Northern China 2002
2002 promised to see the virtual extinction of the narrow gauge steam-hauled log train in China. Drastic action was needed which involved throwing sensible sums of money at the three surviving systems I had yet to visit, Ganhe, Shanhetun and Zhanhe. Time alone would not solve the problems involved and while money could have bought me my own trains or railcars, that was way beyond my budget. So I relied instead on excellent reports and maps from other visitors (see my narrow gauge summary page) together with local guides organised by Mr. Zhang of Jilin CITS. Anticipated regular partner Peter Nash dropped out with leave problems, instead Dave McLeod jumped on board with his unrivalled Mr.Bean imitations, the highlight of which involved unsuccessfully juggling one video and two still camera simultaneously in front of a C2. This report covers Ganhe and Zhanhe. Click here for my other visits to Shanhetun and here for my visit to Weihe which I have been to on three other occasions - click here for reports from January 2000, January 2001 and February 2003.
With considerable apprehension in view of previous reports about the airline, I joined KLM at Cardiff (my regional airport) on 20th February and lost nothing worse than a miniature screwdriver to airport security, arriving half an hour EARLY in Beijing. By just after 10.00, I had a lift into town, my hard sleeper ticket on T17 to Harbin, my luggage left in the foreigners booking office and was on my way by Metro to Guchenglu. The 385 bus was 'occasional' as seems common in the middle of the day, but I was still at Dahuichang just after noon for a bowl of wanton soup and a beer which left me change from Y4. A quick check near the shed found 2 and 4 being prepared for the afternoon shift and left me enough time for another beer in the warm sunshine as a huge bus with half a dozen or so Steam and Safaris gricers thundered past. I photographed and then rode the first train up past the gallery, ambling back to photograph the succeeding trains running at approximately 30 minute intervals. The 385 bus nearly threw me by departing at 15.45 and then not again till 16.20, but with a couple of good connections I made my train comfortably for 18.20 and did my best to catch up on some sleep, largely failing. Dave had obviously not slept well either as he accosted me en route to our hotel rendezvous. The rest of the morning was spent having a shower, relaxing and, most of all, locating our tickets for K629 at 14.10 to Alihe. Lunch was overpriced near the hotel but the journey was unremarkable although I was desperate for some sleep by the time we alighted at 03.09.
Ganhe (February 23rd/24th)
There are just are a few pictures on this page - most are available separately.
We were met (unexpectedly but very pleasantly) off the train by local guide, Jenny and crashed out for a couple of hours. 06.00 saw us on the road to Ganhe and 07.00 saw us on the platform with the stock of the 08.00 passenger train, attracting the attention of the local constabulary. Aliens Travel Permits were not required, passport details were noted and photography agreed NOT to include local people and (probably) the station area. We had time for noodle soup for breakfast and boarded the passenger train where we were greeted with puzzled but friendly amazement and accompanied by a friendly policeman. Biggest surprise was the presence of a local gricer who had travelled up from Beijing to ride the train. 03 had left on empties while we were sorting the paperwork and we had 02 up front.
Photography was obviously limited to stations and the light was completely wrong - but the temperature was very pleasant around freezing point. We left the train at Yuanjiang for lunch - always a good idea when you have a guide to humour and the light is impossible. Of course, it is good for returning trains and at 15.00, 03 came through on log fulls which we photographed at each end of the station followed by 02 on the passenger forty minutes later. I was dragged on board the loco so as not to be left behind photographing the departure and this gave me a rough ride to Qilibin where the light failed and our transport back to Alihe was waiting. It had been a superb day, the passenger train is still a dream (although we were also told it would be cut back to Qilibin in April when the line beyond is closed - if so why are they working on repairing so many culverts at the same time as they are putting in a new road including an all-wood river bridge?), we had seen a logging train and we had achieved about as much photographically as we could given the limitations of the lack of gradients and accessibility without our own train. For once, I can safely say that it had been worth spending the money on a guide who was among the best in terms of enthusiasm and local knowledge I have yet had.
If I had known that the passenger train did not run on Thursday and Sunday when I fixed my trip, I might have changed my dates, but put that down to my incompetence. So we had to work the day around the logging trains. Bernd Seiler had suggested in his report that most logging trains ran at night and that was our experience too. On 23rd February the station log at Yuanjiang showed two night workings (1/2 out and 3/4 back) with day workings 5/6 which we saw along with 201/202 (the passenger). We got to Ganhe at 07.00 on 24th February some time after the first train back and we were told another would arrive just after 08.00. So we located the river bridge just outside town and set up to wait for it. Almost immediately we were joined by a husband and wife team from Harbin who had been gricing the Manchurian steam narrow gauge for three years and were here for 10 days (making 4 Chinese gricers I had seen in the last couple of months). At 08.30, 02 appeared on the bridge with a short train minus caboose after a well-heralded approach. Fifteen minutes later it was back light engine for the second half which did have the caboose. With so few reports available, it is impossible to know whether this happens regularly, as this section must be the only major up grade on the line. I certainly wasn't complaining about two sets of superb shots of a loaded log train in half an hour.... To cap the morning we then caught 03 on empties outbound about 09.15. This was an impossible act to follow although we did catch 03 at 12.30 on the river bridge north of Qilibin. We adjourned for what turned out to be an expensive hotpot in Qilibin in the hope that 03 would return before the light failed. When the station reported at 14.30 that it would not be back, we went to Ganhe and spent a very pleasant half an hour photographing 01, 02 and 04 in steam, in and around the shed. We could not see any more complete locomotives and this may now represent the complete roster (02 having a newly applied number) although there were three spare tenders present and we could not see properly into the locked shed (one road of which was definitely empty).
So finished an all-too-brief visit to Ganhe which far exceeded my expectations. Like so many other such lines in China, it seems fated to die almost unappreciated with relatively few visitors having sampled its joys and even fewer having photographed its log trains. I really wish that my priorities and my funds had allowed an earlier visit with a chance to come back and build on it. We left Ganhe on K630 for Harbin, my fourth night on the move out of five and I was certainly feeling my age by now.
There are more pictures available separately.
My two visits to Shanhetun are detailed separately, the first a few days with a guide (February 25th to March 1st), the second totally independently (March 12th to 19th).
Zhanhe (March 2nd/3rd)
We travelled back to Harbin from Shanhetun in the restaurant car of 2015 as the train was pretty full, mainly students going back after the holidays. They served us the worst meal of the tour so far. Third time lucky, Harbin CITS met us with the tickets, so we had time for a few domestic chores before boarding K487. Here we were 'found' by our guide for this section Mike Ma of CITS, Mudanjiang, something of a steam veteran. We decided to head straight up to Zhanhe instead of crashing out in Bei'an, a very good decision as it turned out. At the forestry hostel, we found out there was a North American group whom we met after dinner and before they left for Harbin. They told us that all steam bar one (used for shunting) had been stored and all line work was diesel. So three planned days here became a morning. 31179 was quite active with some empties and disposing of fulls but it was not quite what we had come all the way here to see. The local contact said steam would not be used again on the line this season and while it was said it would be used again next December, I for one will be checking very carefully before buying my ticket. The steam locomotives were very definitely (recently) stored as opposed to dumped and Mike confirmed they had all been in use right up to the Chinese New Year break.... So we caught 4032 back to Harbin to get to Weihe much earlier than planned. Dave was happy because he had not been to Weihe before and would have more time there. I was heartily pissed off because we had paid handsomely for this visit and would now have a guide (albeit an excellent one) for some of our time at Weihe when really it would not be necessary. Potential visitors should remember that this railway 'taxes' visitors for access to its operational areas.
My visit to Weihe is detailed separately (March 4th to 12th).
Weihe was, as on my previous trips, in a class of its own photographically with the people on and off the railway as friendly as ever. I was well satisfied with my guided trip to Ganhe with Zhanhe, as documented above, an unfortunate disaster. As you can read elsewhere, I really enjoyed my visits to Shanhetun and overall I thought it an excellent month's gricing. In terms of weather and lighting, it was not as good as January/February but this was well compensated by the longer hours of daylight.