The International Steam Pages

Steam in Northern China July/August 2001


Mike LaPlante reports:


After flying from the US to Beijing, I took an Air China flight to Baotou and met my traveling companion Ron Olsen.


It was raining in the morning, even though everyone knows it doesn't rain in that part of China in the summer. I suggested we try to find the mysterious steam locomotive museum. Our taxi driver did not know where it was and we drove around the south and west sides of the steel mill (on a progressively bad road) when the driver stopped a woman in a China Rail uniform and she gave him directions.

The directions led us back to the China Rail jiwudan (motive power depot). We got permission to enter and were directed to the office where we paid the 30 RMB entrance fee. It kept raining so we finally went out behind the office to see the museum, or rather, the depot dead line. In addition to two QJs and about 15 JSs, there was a Japanese JF518, a German DK114 and a Soviet FD1653. The condition of these three locomotives is even worse than the ones in the Sujiatun museum. The main rods and piston valves had been removed from many of the JSs, but 4 or 5 of the newer ones appeared still serviceable.

We took the bus to Dongsheng and checked into a hotel Ron was familiar with. After checking in, we took a taxi to the RR station to see what was going on. In the fading light we took some shots of a solitary QJ in the yard and some others at the jiwuduan.


We got up before dawn and took a taxi to the depot. It was overcast with some blue sky. Several engines were being moved around the depot and all the RR workers waved to us and smiled. We noticed ominous looking clouds with lots of lightning rapidly approaching from the west. The temperature plummeted and it began to rain. Ron, who was only wearing shorts and a tee shirt, was so cold we had to call it quits and retreat to the hotel. As the rain continued, we decided to check back in and try again tomorrow, since it was only 7 AM.

We napped and read for a few hours and by 10:30 AM it was bright and sunny. We got a taxi and set off south down the line for Aoubugau and a bridge over one of the tributaries to the Yellow River. Various Internet reports indicated that taxis can take you to the bridge, but only if they know where it is, as there are no nearby paved roads. All the roads south lead away from the RR. We finally gave up and had the taxi bring us back to town where we proceeded to walk south down the tracks the 4 or 5 miles to the bridge.

A crossing guard indicated that the next train would be along in about 45 minutes. We could see the smoke of the northbound train within 5 minutes. It was a thrilling sight, with 2 QJs on the front and a pusher behind about 60 60-tonne cars filled with coal. I remarked to Ron, on the first of many occasions, that this was all for us, as it was unlikely there were any other railfans within 500 miles. Any rumors about reduced activity along this line are wrong. We saw northbound coal trains about every 45 minutes along with empties and light engines going south. The only train that wasn't steam powered was the afternoon passenger train with a green DF4.

After the long walk down (and the seemingly longer walk back), we got back to the yard in time for another northbound freight to arrive and for a Diesel powered freight to head towards Baotou. We took a few more pictures of engines being serviced at the jiwuduan and headed back to the hotel after a great day. There are about 15 QJs assigned to Dongsheng (and a few DF4s).


We went to the RR station and bought tickets to Baotou for the 3 PM train and took some more pictures, including brand new (2001) DF4 9497. Several other new DF4s are expected soon. All the RR personnel we spoke with agreed that steam would be gone from Dongsheng within a year.

A single QJ pulled us north to Baotou Xi.where it was exchanged for a DF4. As we approached Baotou Dong, Ron asked the people sitting with us about trains for Hohhot. We were pleasantly surprised to discover that the train we were on was going there, and all we had to do was upgrade our tickets when the conductor came thru.

As we approached Hohhot, we saw what we thought was a derelict JS, but which I was later informed was an SL. If we had known that at the time, we would have made an effort to go back and see it. (David Jenkins adds that it is JS 5356 with part of the top casing removed. RD)

At Hohhot, the first thing we did was to buy tickets to Jinning Nan for tomorrow.


We went to the main office of the Jitong Railway where we were escorted to the office of the chief safety leader, whom Ron had met before. While he and Ron talked, I copied down information from their route map about station elevations, etc. After an hour we returned to check out of the hotel and take the train to Jinning Nan. It was a beautiful day and we had a pleasant ride. At Jinning Nan we bought tickets to Baiqi (Zhengxiangbaiqi) and then spent an hour at an Internet café so Ron could stay in touch with his wife. We found similar cafes everywhere. They only charge 2 RMB an hour so it is hard to see how they stay in business.

We took the train to Benhong, where we changed power for QJ 6304, a very well kept engine. We ate in the dining car and arrive at Baiqi around 9:30 PM. The head office had arranged for a RR worker to meet us at the station and he took us to a nearby RR hostel. We got a typical room with 3 beds and a Chinese toilet down the hall.


The alarm went off at 5:12 AM and we went out to photograph the morning westbound passenger train. Since Baiqi is a division point, all engines are changed. As we got to the tracks, we could see the relief engine, QJ 6304 from out trip yesterday, just moving down from the jiwuduan towards the station. A few minutes later the train arrived. The engines were exchanged and the train was off again. The arriving engine, QJ 7043, moved off to the depot and we returned to the hostel.

About 8:30 AM the RR worker who had met us the night before retuned and brought us to the jiwuduan where we spent several hours photographing. They have 15-20 QJs. There are also about 10 engines being stored for the opening of the new branch from Sanngendalai to Xilinhot. They even had 2 recently overhauled steam cranes (for a total of 5 at the depot). We also saw 3 new DF4D Diesels.

In the afternoon the first train we saw was the new Diesel passenger train. It looks like a cross between a 1930s streamliner and one of the French bullet trains. It has 7 cars, including a power car (which also accommodates passengers) on each end. It has a much faster schedule than the steam passenger train. According to Ron, it has American Diesel engines and was designed with French assistance.

We had dinner and then returned to the station where we got tickets to Sanngendalai. This next steam powered leg left at 9:30 PM for the 2 ½ hour ride.

Our guide in Baiqi had called Sanngendalai and made arrangements for RR people to meet us and take us to a nearby place to stay. We wound up renting what I think was a room in a private house that puts up the occasional RR worker. It was a room with 4 beds (to rent the whole room for the night and most of the next day was 60 RMB), no running water and no toilet. In spite of the surroundings, I slept pretty well.


I awoke to the sound of steam whistles. There seemed to be quite a lot of activity for such a tiny place. When we went to the station, there were 3 QJs there. We tried to arrange a taxi to take us to the construction site of the new branch. They are currently about 70 KM along on the 150 KM branch. It is scheduled to open at the end of the year.

Ron had hoped to get pictures of the new branch construction but we found out that there are no roads anywhere near it. We hung out at the station. The switcher crew was amusing themselves by catching large grasshoppers (which were everywhere) and stuffing them in bottles and cans. Surprisingly, we did photograph 5-6 trains, even though it was a Sunday.

The Diesel passenger train came in at 11 PM and the steamer at midnight. Guess which one we took. Once onboard, we upgraded our tickets to hard sleeper. They were the new YW25B models, a big improvement over the old ones. They are definitely cleaner and seem more spacious. We immediately went to sleep to the sounds of steam as we covered the 300 KM to Daban.


The hard sleeper attendant woke me up to exchange tickets and I got up and put my shoes on. A policeman came by, asked where I was from and asked to see my passport. He was not being threatening or unfriendly, just doing his job and checking on strangers.

We took a taxi from the station to the jiwudan. There we went to the office of He Li Wen, head of tourism, whom Ron had met before. He gave me a license to photograph (100 RMB per day) and we went off to the hostel (which is actually in the jiwudan) to rest for a while and to take a shower.

At the depot, I wandered around photographing things. I saw about 30 QJs, plus another 8 stored. However, once the workers noticed me, they began to swarm around. Everyone, it seemed, had some rare Chinese treasure to sell me, and they apparently all wanted 5 USD each for their items. I finally bought 4 badges as gifts/souvenirs (for 5 USD total, down from the asking price of 5 USD each).

He Li Wen later had me write out and sign a statement that I understood RR operations. He then signed my honorary engine driver's license, for which I paid 1000 RMB. He told us our train to Holoku was to leave at 5 PM and that we should meet the driver, Li Ye He, at 4:15. We would leave the depot at 4:30. I changed clothes and waited.

Ron and I walked out to the ready track and climbed on board the lead engine, QJ7040. We backed down to the yard and hooked up. The driver suggested Ron ride in the other engine, QJ6388, as it is very crowded in the cab of a QJ with more than 4 people. We would be hauling a train of about 1000 tones of empties west. I asked why we were double-headed, since a single QJ could easily handle the train. Apparently the length of the train (over 35-40 cars) has more to do with it than the tonnage.

Li Ye He took the train our out of the yard and we rode for about an hour to Linxi, the first water stop. The driver showed no indication of letting me drive. I spoke with Ron about this and he indicated that we could go back to Daban on the next train, or maybe the driver on the 2nd engine would let me drive. I agreed to try the second option and we went back to see the engineer. He looked at my license and agreed.

As we left Linxi, he let me run the engine. After the 1st engine got us going, I moved the Johnson bar into the corner, opened the cylinder cocks and opened the throttle. As we began to move, I eased the Johnson bar back to the "company notch", closed the cylinder cocks and opened the throttle to about the mid-point. I drove for about ½ hour, and then the engineer took over as we went through a station. After that, he let me drive again for another ½ hour. The driver also let me try my hand at firing, but I was so bad he took the shovel away after 4 tries.

We stopped at Shangdian for a meet with the Diesel passenger train. Just before we got there, I looked out the window and noticed our train was perfectly silhouetted in shadow on the ground, exhausts and all. I only wish I had been able to get a picture. Ron told me he had spoken with the first engineer and he had agreed to let me drive a little, so I changed engines again.

It was dark after the meet and the driver let me have the throttle while he stood right behind me. Things are much more difficult to see at night. I guess I did OK, because I recognized the sign to blow the whistle, which I did and got an "OK" from the engineer. I drove for about an hour. It was basically all straight and uphill. The driver took back over and we continued to bounce along towards Holoku. In spite of the bouncing, I was so tired I started to fall asleep in the cab.

At Holoku, we cut off the train and then watered, coaled and wyed the engine. We finally went off to the hostel (also inside the jiwuduan). Ron and I got a room and went to sleep.


I was awoken once again by a steam whistle. As I got up to get washed, it struck me again how young all the RR workers seem. I doubt any are over 30.

We photographed the engines in the depot. Rather than wait for the evening passenger train, we had decided to hop a ride in the caboose of an eastbound freight. Usually only the conductor is aboard, which is good, as there are only 4 seats and a small stove in the middle. We were the first ones there but then the engine crew from our trip yesterday arrived, along with what appeared to be the entire population of Holoku. When the train finally left the yard, there were 23 people in the caboose. At the 2nd water stop, many of the people got off and we finally had some room.

More people got on at the stop before Linxi. We now had 24 people in the caboose, but we were only 1 ½-2 hours away. The ride in the caboose (other than jerky front to back motions) is actually smoother than riding in the cab of a QJ.After dinner in Daban, we went out to try some night photography.

There were new (according to Ron) lights around the yard and we had a ¾ moon. To me, it was very reminiscent of many Jim Shaughnessy photos, clouds of steam against a clear sky. It could easily have been Canada in 1959. Satisfied, we went to bed.


After taking a few more pictures, we took the bus over the mountains to Chifeng. In Chifeng we walked the 300 M from the bus station to the RR station. When we went to buy tickets, we found out that the ticket office had been moved. Luckily it was only upstairs. It still took Ron about ½ hour to get tickets to Yebaishou.

We had 3 hours to kill, so we decided to leave our packs at the RR station. A bevy of very helpful female attendants assisted us. Ron wanted to eat and we were persuaded by the attendants to go down a narrow and winding staircase under the station. There we discovered a large restaurant composed of many small rooms under the station that served very good food.

Our train left at 9:15 PM for the 3-hour trip to Yebaishou. Since we were in a hard sleeper, I tried to get some rest. Around 11 PM we stopped for a meet. After a long wait I heard the unmistakable sound of double-headed QJs working hard. They passed us in the night, heading north, probably with empty coal cars for Pingzuan.

In Yebaishou we went two blocks down the street from the station to the China Rail hotel and went to sleep listening to the whine of a steam turbo generator.


We could see at least 2 working steamers in the yard, a JS and a QJ. This was the first JS we had seen in steam so far. It was raining (again) and we checked out of the hotel and headed for the station. There were two trains daily to Beijing, at 3 PM and 1 AM. Needless to say, we bought tickets for the 3 PM train.

There wasn't much going on in the yard when we arrived, but it soon picked up. A QJ powered freight came in and the engine cut off. Two other QJs got on either end and off it went in a cloud of steam. The rear QJ is probably just used to get it up the hill and will then return. The yard crew invited us into their building and we saw at least 4 QJ/DF4 double headers, with the DF4 always in the lead. Steam may not be well in Yebaishou, but it is definitely not dead. The yard crew told us that there are 16 steam locomotives assigned to Yebaishou and no Diesels (the Diesels are from Fuxin). They also told us, but we were unable to confirm, that there are 3 JFs in the jiwuduan being used as stationary boilers.

Our train was probably the slowest train I have ever been on in China. We saw an SY working at the steel works just before Lingyuan, making the third class of locomotive we had seen in steam on our trip.

Our train pulled into Chengde and we waited for the connection to Beijing. Since we were not able to buy hard sleeper seats ahead of time, we had to fight our way onto the train and upgrade our tickets. We did, and immediately went to sleep.

Just before we got on the train, Ron wished for one last look at steam. As if on cue, two SYs from the steel works came down to the yard to pick up their next cargo. It was a good ending for a dreary day.


We pulled into Beijing about 4 AM and took a taxi to the Jing Hua Hotel (2 stars). Later that morning we took a taxi to the China Rail Publishing House. We found 3 new books there, a history of the Imperial Peking-Kalgan Railway, "China's Railways-Heading for a New Century" and "A Picture Album of Steam Locomotives in China". The staff called a friend of Ron's who works there. We asked him about the Dahuichang narrow gauge railway and he offered to take us there. It took the taxi over ½ hour to get to Dahuichang. When Ron and I were there two years ago, we went right by it, as you can't see it from the street. Ron's friend knew where to stop and we walked about 100 feet from the street, just in time to see a load being moved down from the crusher. Numbers 3 and 4 were working and we got them coming and going. While we were taking pictures at the loading point, 5-6 empty cars split the switch and derailed. Like all red-blooded Americans, Ron and I put down our cameras and helped the crew re-rail the cars. This was really no big deal, as I am sure it happens 4 or 5 times a day. One of the cars was stuck and the engineer backed the locomotive away in a shower of cinders, most of which went down my shirt.


We did some shopping and flew back home. It had been a good trip. We saw about 75 locomotives in steam and about another 50 in storage and none being cut up.

We even saw narrow gauge steam in Beijing. Steam may be on the way out in China, but there are still some very active pockets.

Rob Dickinson