The International Steam Pages
Shibanxi in Transition, 2006
A number of reports have appeared on Florian Menius's QJ Country web site since my last visit in 2004, indicating that the narrow gauge railway at Shibanxi is on its way to becoming China's first 'preserved' steam railway, a fate far preferable to death, but which indicated the need for urgent action to document its many special qualities while it was still mainly real. Since the hordes of Chinese tourists now starting to descend on it will inflict far more damage on its unique character than a relatively few misguided foreign gricers (either independent or in groups), I am adding some notes from our extended June 2006 visit. Historically, I went to Shibanxi in November 2003, with the general feeling that the railway faced closure, indeed, when I took Yuehong here for the first time in March 2004, the mine at the top of the line had been abandoned and things looked pretty bleak... However, to misquote Mark Twain, reports of the imminent death of the railway have turned out to be exaggerated:
Shibanxi Heaven - The best steam narrow gauge railway in the world on DVD when it was totally real (2004-2007).
Shibanxi Gold - The best steam narrow gauge railway in the world on DVD as it evolves into a sustainable operation (2008-2011).
There has been a complete turnaround mainly as a result of the operators (the Jiayang Power Company) realising that rather than having a considerable liability on their hands - not to put it too strongly, a financial black hole - they were actually sitting on both a national treasure and a potential gold mine. As a result, the railway is now marketed as the Jiayang Steam Train Narrow Gauge Railway (with appropriate road signs in Chinese and English in the Qianwei area). Shixi station has been completely rebuilt, Yuejing station has a car park and the other stations have been tidied up and given name boards and prominently displayed timetables.
The staff have been given a 'make over' with natty new uniforms. They have even produced (with apologies to John Denver) an excellent poster with the theme 'Take Me Home, Steam Train'.
This commemorative plaque has been erected at Yuejing, the site of the principal coal mine (apparently Sichuan's largest) and the company's headquarters:
Leshan Ancient Monuments Protection Unit
For those with years of experience in China, despite the best of intentions in this case, the immediate results are predictable. At weekends the railway is host to a succession of brash, noisy, litter scattering, mobile phone touting local tourists who ride the train to Bagou and following their guide - who naturally takes his commission from the inflated bill - eat in a restaurant which is otherwise rightly shunned by the locals:
It doesn't pay to stand too close to the trackside with video cameras at the weekend as the tourists will lean out and photograph you... An afternoon walk up the line from Bagou as the children left school produced four separate, albeit polite and only half-serious, requests for 'money'.
So how long will it be before the local cathouse sees its first foreign customer?
That is the bad news, right now there is just a glimmer of hope that not only will the railway be saved, but it will be preserved in a manner that an industrial archaeologists such as we would approve of - note the mention of 'Industrial Heritage' on the poster. In a rare example of corporate philanthropy, the company plans to develop the railway in a way that will regenerate the run down Bagou area, without destroying its unique character. The company actually own not only the public buildings but also most of the flats in town and are re-establishing their position which they abandoned some years ago. Sometime soon, they plan to open a proper tourist hotel in the town, this is the most likely candidate for conversion:
In the short term, a start has been made on smartening up some public buildings and there has been much officially inspired tidying up, rubbish bins have appeared everywhere, even if unfortunately the contents sometimes appear in the middle of photo positions...
And for the foreseeable future, especially during the week and away from Shixi and Yuejing, life (and the railway) carries on in much the same way as it did when I first came back in 2001.
The original coal mine at the end of the line at Huangcun is exhausted, but a new shaft has been established above the station. Unusually, it has both 300mm and 600mm gauge kit for separate parts of the mine which means that, apart from the separate waste tipping areas, the surface lines are mixed gauge. During our visit, it was very busy, coal trains to it were running just about every day, usually in the path between the first two passenger trains. Although the money generated by it is very welcome in the local economy, one unpleasant side effect is a proliferation of motor bikes in the area. Which is fine when it empowers people to move their fruit and vegetables to market but less so when young men ride them thoughtlessly through town and along the railway line in ever increasing numbers. The presence of several large rocks strategically placed alongside the track indicates that we were not the only people to feel this way. Who will be the first selfish gricer to charter one to try to chase the trains and so wreck some fellow enthusiast's pictures? It has happened in Huanan and it will happen here too for sure....
There was also significant goods traffic in the form of wood, bricks, sand, stone and the like to the various intermediate stations. As always the weather limited photographic opportunities, it was six days (during which it rained every day at least in part) before we saw the sun. Maybe it was because we were forced to share this paradise with a poison dwarf that the weather was so unkind, the locals have always told us that May/June was the best time to visit. But when it did appear on the day after he left, it showed us the railway in an entirely different light. First the 07.00 passenger:
Followed by the coal train an hour or so later:
This is the well known large curve with the first passenger train going in the opposite direction to the normal shot:
For the next train up in the sunshine I was too far away to get a result with my ageing digital camera, this is a frame off the video:
And for the first time ever for me at Shibanxi, we had sun on the next day too, in time for the afternoon passenger train:
Thereafter, the weather was 'mixed', here are the passenger and coal trains crossing in Jiaoba:
And the coal train between the tunnels descending from Xianrenjiao:
Early morning coal train near our adoptive family above Bagou.
Finally another frame off the video:
For independent visitors to Shibanxi:
For your visit, if you can, avoid weekends, extended Chinese and Japanese holidays, not to mention advertised gricing tours. No doubt you will arrive in Chengdu.
From Shiyang bus station on the southern edge of the city, there are buses to Qianwei every hour or so for Y45, the 180km journey takes about 3 hours. Walk back north about 500m from your arrival point to the local bus station where you can board a bus to Shixi (Y4 - allegedly every 15 minutes from 07.00) to enter 'old China'..... (There is a ferry some way before Qianwei which offers a time saving short cut.)
There is a regular 303 bus from the airport (where there are plenty of free city maps available) to the city centre for Y10. You will then need to find the 28 bus (which also passes the main railway station at the north side of the city - right hand side coming out) which terminates at Shiyang (fare is Y2). Along the way it passes the central bus station from which small buses go to Leshan - but going directly is best as the Qianwei buses now bypass that tourist trap. But this is the long way around as both airport and bus station are on the same side of the city only maybe less than 10km apart....
One of the better kept secrets at the airport is that there is actually a bus 804 from nearby directly to Shiyang which is not that far away - from the old terminal (500 metres east, turn right leaving the new terminal, and now used for Sichuan internal flights) go straight ahead out of the airport, the bus comes from a side road on the right after about 500 metres. Going in the reverse direction, it's much easier, the bus leaves from the south-east corner of Shiyang bus station - but make sure you don't get on a 804B which follows a slightly different route! Or take the 303 part way to town and look for a stop which is used by the 804 or 61. First timers should probably take a taxi!
If you choose to stay in Qianwei, then you will either miss photographing the first train of the day which is the most likely to run in good light or you will have a long, long walk to above the reversal at Mifeng from where the loco will be smokebox first. There is a basic but adequate company guest house in Yuejing - almost unmarked - it is on the upper floors of the building marked "2" opposite the line of shop houses backing on to the railway line. When we visited there was a beauty salon lavishly advertised on the lower floor. There are plenty of cheap restaurants here, their quality is variable. Also an internet cafe.
Staying in Bagou is definitely the best option but as for accommodation there, it remains a ticklish issue. There is a (very) cheap hostel, in the centre of the town - go across the square, bear right along the shops and then sharp left and the entrance is almost unmarked on your left. It is friendly but basic although it does have a communal hot shower - there is no proper toilet - and it is said that sometimes the guests play Mahjong all night.
Initially we stayed in the guest house I had used twice before, but we found Granny's behaviour so offensive that we moved out and Yuehong found us a family with a spare empty flat up the valley to complete our stay. One recent visitor described her as "acutely aware of the laws of supply and demand", but we would prefer something along the lines of "avaricious and mercenary", in fact there just aren't enough words strong enough to describe her - an opinion confirmed by several Bagou residents. Most visitors may not be sensitive enough to care as her asking price is only ridiculous by local standards (we are living off my tiny pension and have to count every Yuan - and were staying more than two weeks). We didn't mind haggling it down to mere extortion, but having to start all over again when it actually came to paying for the first part of our stay was not very pleasant. When she played the same trick for the next part, we simply said "thank you and goodbye". Frankly, by the time we left we no longer felt our belongings were safe with such a greedy individual.
There is plenty of fruit according to season in the market and, while there aren't many eating places which could fairly be described as restaurants, this small place in the opposite corner of the public gardens approaching from the station consistently served us everything from a simple meal to a banquet at a fair price. To help future independent travellers to order their meals here we are sending the family a set of pictures of some of their specialty dishes. We have told them (with a smile) that if we get any reports of overcharging we will remove our recommendation from this site!
Finally here is the official company map with Pinyin names of the main stations - Caiziba is the new halt next to the big curve:
Steam will be here for the foreseeable future, but if you want to enjoy the world's last real narrow gauge steam passenger train then you had better come here in the next year or two, after that it will most likely resemble the Disneyland that symbolises just about every major Chinese tourist attraction it has been my misfortune to visit.