The International Steam Pages
Shibanxi Heaven, 2007
A number of reports appeared on the SY Country web site after my visit in 2004 indicating that the narrow gauge railway at Shibanxi was 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. So Yuehong and I spent 3 weeks filming here in June 2006 and we returned a year later in June 2007 to complete the job. Thanks to Yuehong, we have developed good relations with the management of the operators, the Jiayang Power Company, last time they allowed us to tour the front end of the main mine at Yuejing and gave me a footplate ride, this time we were given the free run of the workshops and yard at Shixi as well as the previously unreported battery locomotive operated spoil workings behind the Yuejing mine. We even briefly went underground at Huangcun...
Click below for other parts of our June 2007 report:
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).
The result will be our Shibanxi Heaven DVD, more than 20 hours of raw video distilled down to give our own very special perspective of a unique operation - the world's last real steam narrow gauge passenger railway.
The picture above shows a fertility shrine above the track between Xianrenjiao and Jiaoba. On that subject, if anyone can provide me with an appropriate picture of the young lady with the yellow 'Sex Doggie Style' T-shirt at Jiaoba for the website I will be happy to provide them a free night's stay in our Great Wall house..... On the other hand, the leading lady from the Bagou Ladies Dancing Troupe was actually well matched with me for age:
I am very pleased to report that the company are acutely aware of the heritage value of their railway and are going to extraordinary steps to ensure its conservation. Officers have been sent to the UK to see at first hand how such a project should be managed and implemented. Restrictions have been placed on the sale of properties in Bagou and a 200 metre restricted development zone on either side of the line introduced. An attempt by Qianwei County to drive a road from Caiziba to Xianrenjiao and beyond was halted by the (more senior) authorities in Leshan District at the company's request, but not before the embryonic road had destroyed my favourite duck pond next to the railway.
As with any medium or large corporation, trying to get a realistic view of the economics of the steam railway is not easy. The electric operation between Shixi and Yuejing is essential and the cost of running extra trains on that section will be minimal. Similarly some kind of workshop has to be maintained for that operation, the difficulty will be in ascribing the marginal costs of supporting the steam services. Broadly, the cost of operating the (upper) railway beyond Yuejing has to be divided equitably between the coal trains (which will not last for ever) and the passenger trains (which are part public service obligation and part tourism). From what I have been told, the official view is that the passenger trains currently cover only about 40% of operating costs. On the other hand, it is quite clear that the coal trains are significantly profitable and probably cover most of that deficit, particularly as extra costs would have to be applied to that operation should passenger services cease. The trick to be performed is to close the passenger train gap before the coal traffic declines to a point where it is no longer economic.
Two tourist coaches are now in operation, for which premium prices are charged - CNY 30 normally and CNY 50 during national holidays - well heeled Chinese tourist are more than willing to pay up. And there are lots of them, reportedly 10,000 during the May 2007 national holiday week although since the coaches hold just 26 passengers many of them will have gone 'ordinary class' or just not got on the trains. But the figures suggest that a heritage railway operation should be at worst viable and at best very lucrative.
Currently, the tourist coaches are attached 'as required', this means the second and particularly third trains of the day at weekends. During the national holiday weeks, a special timetable operates with additional trains running after the normal second and third trains, these even offer two photographic stops on the outward journey. Note that for ease of attaching and removing the tourist coaches, the first will appear next to the locomotive when it runs smokebox first, with two we saw them 'top and tailed'. As such vehicles go, they are not unattractive, but they certainly are not what the purist would like to see in their pictures - they and their passengers won't appear on our DVD!
The mine at the top of the line will not last for ever, whether it even has a proper licence to operate is open to doubt, but in June 2007 it was churning out coal at a great rate, most days we saw two coal trains, loaded to 14 or 15 wagons, less when it rained and the rails were slippery. It seems that, allowing for days with less traffic owing to locomotive failures, inspections and the like, on average about 20 wagons a day at 5 tonnes each go out. The coal is of superior quality fetching a premium price and the operation must be good news for both the new owners and the Jiayang Power Company. Compared to 2006, the mixed gauge system parallel to the main railway was working as only 600mm gauge with the extra underground 300mm gauge line largely removed. Instead a further extra shaft had been driven between the 'new' and 'old' shafts and this was laid to 300mm gauge although traffic on it was at best a quarter of the main system.
Sadly, the 'normal traffic' on the railway is in terminal decline. The number of passengers in 2007 seemed to be no more than half that of 2006, hence normally one coach less was used, although certain trains, for example the first down on a Monday morning was still packed. The miscellaneous freight carried seemed well down too and we saw fewer pigs than before. In other words, the tourist traffic will have come just in time to save the railway. As reported elsewhere, some retiming has occurred with trains leaving Shixi at 06.00, 09.30, 14.00 and 17.30. The missing traffic is apparently largely carried by motor-cycle, not just along the railway but on the developing network of trails and dirt roads in the area.
It will come as no surprise to regular visitors to China to learn that the tourists have brought a mountain of litter with them and that very little ends up in the rubbish bins. I am sorry to report that some gricers who ought to know better are just as careless, this came all the way from Germany and got dropped in a prime photo spot. A further 'Balisto' wrapper was seen at another well known photo spot above Jiaoba. If you were the person concerned, you should be ashamed of yourself, would do this in your own country?
Similarly, we were given a showing of a DVD sent by a grateful British visitor of material taken over New Year 2007. Unfortunately, it contains clearly audible complaints from villagers above Mifeng about the group thoughtlessly destroying vegetable patches and a threat to destroy their cameras if they continued. We shall be contacting the guide shown in the video to voice my concerns.
All these 'improvements' have to be paid for by foreign visitors too, in 2006, broadly speaking they were asked for CNY 3 per station for a train journey, by June 2007 it had become CNY 5, hardly onerous, but unnecessarily irritating as the extra income so generated is tiny and other tourist attractions in China charge ALL visitors at the same rate. It is possible that indigenous tourists who want to travel in the 'service coach' to escape from the locals are asked the same, but foreigners have no choice, they pay the same rate in whatever part of the train they travel. It would not be difficult to devise a more equitable solution based on residence in Qianwei County given that every Chinese national by law must carry an identity card giving their registered address...
Finally, we were told that the company has bought some of the steam locomotives from the defunct Pengzhou system; these will be very welcome as during our visit we saw just 4 steam locomotives. One was under long term repair, another was clearly not in the best of shape and hardly used which left almost no cover for the occasional failure which is the hallmark of any steam operation.
For independent visitors to Shibanxi, these are an updated version of the 2006 notes. Note that at the time of writing (June 2007), China is going through a period of unprecedented inflation, many basic foodstuffs like pork and cooking oil have increased by 50% in just a just a couple of months and if this continues then visitors will find they have to pay significantly higher prices than they have become used to. Like the infamous Lonely Planet Guides, we are not paid to make our recommendations, the amount of money involved would be small and much better kept in those businesses who adhere to our standards. Now read on....
For your visit, if you can, avoid weekends, extended Chinese and Japanese holidays, not to mention advertised gricing tours.
Assuming an arrival in Chengdu, your first port of call will be the bus station at Shiyang on the southern edge of the city. From here, there are buses to Qianwei every hour or so for CNY 51 (up from CNY 45 in 2006), 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 (CNY 4 - allegedly every 15 minutes from 07.00) to enter 'old China'..... Alternatively, you can save at least half an hour by taking the frequent passenger ferry some way before Qianwei - the slipway to the vehicle ferry is obvious and the small ferry starts about 50 metres upstream.
Before that, there is a regular 303 bus from the airport (where there are plenty of free city maps available) to the city centre (for Y10 in 2006). 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 was Y2 in 2006). 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 and those in even the slightest of hurries should probably take a taxi which cost us CNY 26 (out) and CNY 44 (back, owing to one way system) in 2007!
If you choose to stay in Qianwei, then you will need a very early start which means either missing photographing the first train of the day or 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 in 2006 there was a beauty salon lavishly advertised on the lower floor. There are plenty of cheap restaurants here, but their quality is variable, also an internet cafe. In 2007, a new company hotel was under construction in Yuejing, but the opening date and likely cost was not yet known.
At Mifeng, the local paramedic/pharmacist has developed his premises to include an upper floor which serves as a hostel. The rooms are clean and well maintained, there is a warm shower and Asian toilet, for which a suitable 'throne attachment' is available. His wife cooks for visitors and a written English/Chinese menu has been provided by my good friend/guide, Mike Ma. Best of all, despite increasing numbers of visitors the prices remain reasonable (expect to pay about CNY 50 a night per person including dinner and a simple breakfast), we stayed here for several nights and are happy to recommend it to other visitors unlike a certain hostel in Bagou, see below.
Staying in Bagou is definitely the best option but as for accommodation there, be careful. In 2006, there was a (very) cheap hostel, in the centre of the town - go across the square below the station, 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 warm shower - there was no proper toilet then - and it is said that sometimes the guests play Mahjong all night. Now in 2007, a refurbished guest house (Tian Ya Lu Guan) with clean rooms has opened on the opposite side of the same lane, the prices are very sensible/competitive and it has an Asian toilet, warm shower and a free washing machine. It comes highly recommended by us. Don't be put off by the exterior, a warm and comfortable welcome awaits you....
Definitely not recommended is the guest house just below the station even though I have used it twice before; 'Granny' is one of the most obnoxious Chinese individuals I have had the misfortune to meet, an opinion widely shared by other visitors and most of the inhabitants of Bagou. I was not surprised to hear it said that one of her sons-in-law is involved with the local Mafia. In comparison, her accommodation is inferior and overpriced.
While there are few (but more each year) 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 in both 2006 and 2007. To help future independent travellers to order their meals here we sent the family a set of pictures of some of their specialty dishes. Be brave and take their recommendations on the first night of your stay as they don't carry a large stock of fresh food. Thereafter, order in the morning for your evening meal. We have told them and other establishments mentioned (with a smile) that if we get any reports of overcharging we will remove our recommendation from this site!
Next door to the restaurant, our friends in the Tian Ya run a small stall selling cooked chicken and duck at bargain prices. According to size, expect to pay between CNY 15 and 30 for a whole bird, a delicious lunch when cut up. There is plenty of fruit according to season and other snacks available in the market nearby and the local shops.
Finally here is the official company map with Pinyin names of the main stations:
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, despite the best attempts of the management, then it will most likely resemble the Disneyland that symbolises just about every major Chinese tourist attraction it has been our misfortune to visit.