The International Steam Pages
Steam in North China, February 2003
Roy Laverick's notes relate to a visit made between Sunday, 9 February and Tuesday 25 February 2003.
Our group was composed of five photographic enthusiasts, and for most of the trip we were accompanied by Zhao Yang an experienced guide from Harbin, whose organisational powers proved faultless, and who is highly recommended. The visit was timed with the intention that the weather would be cold and sunny, and that the warm days that we have occasionally encountered during March visits would be avoided.
Flights were with KLM, who were cheap, and proved up to the job, although we all agreed that food quality (and choice) seemed to have been sacrificed in the cause of cost containment.
The Beijing Museum
Our first visit on arrival was to the new Beijing Railway Museum. The museum is situated roughly half way between the airport and downtown Beijing (i.e. the other side of the city from Dahuichang, which is in the west). Parts of the museum (which are presumably destined to hold the small exhibits) are still under construction, but we were able to tour the loco collection, which has been described in detail in other reports. The collection is housed in a new, rather futuristic aircraft hanger of a building. Light conditions are good, and the exhibits are well spaced. The immense building has plenty of space for more items: will the Sujiatun collection eventually be moved to Beijing?
I was impressed with the museum, but found it rather lacking in atmosphere. Probably this will improve when building work is complete and the smaller exhibits are moved in.
The weather at Dahuichang was overcast, cold and windy, making it barely worth removing cameras from cases! This area is quite squalid anyway, and on a day like this it was reminiscent of a scene from hell. Nevertheless, numbers 3 and 4 were running up and down the line, and the system was as active as Ive ever seen it.
Later in the tour we met another group who had been told by their guide that the railway did not run on Sundays and was consequently not worth visiting. Although, a few years ago, I visited the line on a Sunday and found it closed, generally it does seem to operate on Sundays (after 1400) and I suggest it is always worth visiting in the hope of operation rather than simply not going.
We caught the crack overnight express to Harbin, and before leaving by bus for Weihe, took the opportunity to visit one of the ice sculpture exhibitions. This proved well worthwhile, with life-sized ice buildings etc., and is recommended to everyone except the most blinkered steam enthusiast!
Our visit to the north-east coincided with a very cold spell (below -30c at night, and still -20c at midday) with some snowfall. The Harbin to Weihe road journey was consequently undertaken cautiously, and we passed the wreckage of several serious recent accidents involving over-ambitious lorries!
The Weihe system proved as charming as all the reports imply, with traffic volumes at a high level. During our three-day visit the operational pattern that emerged was one of empty trains going out during the day, with full ones frustratingly returning at night, or very late in the day, when the sunlight had gone. We were told that on one night during our visit seven loaded trains had worked back to Weihe! This galling news, coupled with deep snow (which made chasing a virtual impossibility) made for a slightly unsatisfactory visit, but I still count myself lucky to have visited this super line before it closes for good.
The system is still expected to close permanently at the end of this season. Reputedly some of the track, together with the locos and carriages will be used to provide a tourist train at (and to?) a forest park seven kilometres outside Weihe.
We caught the convenient overnight train from Keyunzhan to Tieling. We found the Tiefa system well organised in almost every way, and were initially deposited in their slick visitor centre to view an introductory video. This was a fine idea, although the appalling quality of the video, with innumerable dropped frames, rendered it largely incomprehensible! The centre also sells some souvenirs (the usual builders plates etc.) together with postcards. This proved a good example, however, of the difficulty that the Chinese authorities have in naming a sensible selling price for railway memorabilia. Prices seem to be based on the assumption that everyone is a well-heeled Japanese tourist, and initial enthusiasm towards the postcards rapidly vanished when we were told that they cost the equivalent of a US $ each!
Before leaving the centre we were each issued with a photo permit, laminated in plastic and provided with cord so that we could wear it round our neck at all times. Oh! for those carefree days on Nancha bank in the 1980s!
We were all impressed with the Tiefa system, and I particularly recommend:
Our visit was enhanced by the Lantern Festival fireworks and tableaux marking the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations, but we did not appreciate effectively losing one of our three days to very overcast weather conditions.
The JiTong Line
Activity over the Jing Peng Pass was much as in previous years, with generally five or six trains in each direction during daylight hours, with the mornings being busier than the afternoons.
On our way back to Beijing via Chifeng we spent a half day at Yuanbaoshan. I guess that after Jing Peng anything would be an anti-climax, and this certainly proved to be the case. Movements seemed few and far between, and in five hours we saw only one moving coal train, although there were at least five JS in steam. The 15.00 mixed departure from Yuanbaoshan was duly chased, but for almost the entire journey it runs northwards, making good afternoon photography problematic. The tender-first return from Anqinggou at 17.40 was just a little too late to catch the sinking sun.
The line is relatively flat, and the scenery mediocre. We concluded that a half- or full-day visit was probably worthwhile if one was travelling through nearby Chifeng, but we would not allocate more time than this on a future visit.
Administratively our trip was a total success, with the itinerary completed faultlessly and steam turning up in all the expected places. The weather, however, was probably the worst Ive encountered in eight visits during February and March. To lose more than a third of the days to overcast weather is unprecedented in my experience. The fact that only at Weihe did we actually experience fresh snow, simply rubbed salt in the wound.
After innumerable winter visits, I have a hankering to see Reshui in Summer (although in warm weather those ugly piles of rubbish in the main street presumably smell, as well as looking unsightly!). If steam is still operating in Autumn 2004 I may well return to visit the circus for one last time.