The International Steam Pages

Shibanxi 2003 - Narrow Gauge Finale?

This report covers my November 2003 trip, there are many more pictures in my March 2004 report, which is an intense personal statement...... Also the June 2006 update.

Autumn 2003 had given me a delightful week up the line at Huanan with Heinrich Hubbert. The only problem now seemed to be how to pass nearly 60 hours on Chinese trains to get us to Sichuan. Actually it wasn't that difficult as it turned out, we got the beer flow just right, we bumped into English language instructor John Delaney on the train south from Beijing, one thing led to another and not only did we get a free night's accommodation in Chengdu, we found our way to a Halloween disco night and consequential Chinese lessons (pictures on application if your name is Ray Gardiner). Next stop was the narrow gauge system at Shibanxi. With guaranteed almost impossible photographic conditions, it was the ideal spot to lay up for a few days and enjoy good old fashioned train watching, soaking up the atmosphere of the first place I have been to in China where I feel totally relaxed....  If you are only interested in activity reports and high quality photographs of steam trains in the snow, I suggest you look elsewhere. Other people's more serious efforts on Shibanxi are linked on my Chinese narrow gauge page - I spent most of the time in 'mellow mood'. If you are extremely narrow minded, then you may want to see pictures of the minimum gauge push system at the top of the line. If like me you believe that the average modern Chinese, if asked to choose between giving up sex or his/her mobile phone, would choose to keep the mobile phone then Shibanxi is a welcome reminder that all is not yet lost... 

We left our host appropriately horizontal and comatose and headed for Leshan and Qianwei where we stopped for a traditional Sichuan lunch. Both of us were feeling far too 'tired' to look beautiful.

However, we made it to Shibanxi in good time for the afternoon train. We found it packed and were duly shown into the notorious #13 coach and gripped for Y30 (but the return ride a few days later was not charged).  It was a pig of a day:

Much to everyone's amazement we bailed out with most of the passengers at Bagou where Heinrich had stayed previously.

We stayed in a family guest house which I no longer recommend - see my June 2006 report. And waited for the clouds to lift...

OK, I have to confess I did get out on the line a bit but unfortunately there were also two groups of Japanese schoolchildren here. The first had trouble keeping hold of their schoolbags (no, I didn't know where he left it), the other had decided they preferred toy trains to real trains which meant the regular morning coal train was replaced by a ridiculous abortion of a  'mixed'. I am delighted to report that Heinrich's light meter was off the scale for any kind of conventional photography. These two were 'real'.

Next day, I had a long lie in and wandered up to the end of the line. There was even a little brightness as the passenger train arrived.

and more still when it left five minutes later:

I was in the wrong place when the coal train arrived. Why? Well if minimum (300mm) gauge railways are your scene you might understand, but this is what this one produces being transferred to the 'big train'.

I spent the afternoon enjoying the local culture (no language lessons here!), by the time the passenger train arrived in Bagou, normal weather had been restored.

Our final full day on the line produced some soft sunshine, almost T-shirt weather. We had another group of Japanese but they only got upset when a Chinese walked into their picture..... They were nowhere near me as the passenger train left Bagou.

Or when the coal train came and went afterwards:

I passed on lunch, I love Chinese food but Heinrich's choice of chili bean curd (with unasked for lashings of MSG) was not quite my style. Afterwards, I had to fight to stay awake for the afternoon passenger train. However, it was worth it...

Next day the Japanese had all gone, but so had the sun, there were even two coal trains! Anyway it was time for us to leave as well, but before then I went off to discover more 300mm gauge coal mine railways for a couple of hours. Heinrich was strangely absent from the proceedings, 

I was so glad I had been here again and I can only hope the line lasts long enough for me to find the time to get back, it still looks to be OK for a while but who knows? As a famous music hall star once said of her customers 'leave them wanting more', a sentiment that applies 100% here. If, like me, you are totally besotted with Burma and Java then forget Qianwei and the stupid 04.30 taxi each day, you will love staying in Bagou. All you need to bring are a smile and a wave. Please think twice (or more) before coming to Shibanxi with a group tour which charters a 'toy' train, this is 'the real China' and the longer it stays that way the better. The people are, economically, disgustingly poor, but culturally rich. Paying loads of money will only bring short term gain to a few individuals who already well off by Chinese standards and will make life difficult for responsible tourists.

You can tell they are nice people by the large number of cats they keep...

What will I do to make the next trip better? Well, for a start, I think I shall have to remember to check the calendar for Japanese public holidays. 

Rob Dickinson