The International Steam Pages
Steam South of Beijing, December 2001 Part 1
Owing to space limitations on my server, the images from this report have been removed (15th June 2004).
This trip saw me with a new travel partner, John Raby, (see his own separate trip report with stills from his new video) with whom I had previously journeyed in Java and briefly in Burma. After much Email debate between the UK and Japan, we decided to optimise the limited time John had available and accepted Li Nan's offer of paid assistance in Sichuan. Was it worth it? Good question, I would say no, others would say yes. As someone who doesn't find it a problem buying bus/train tickets, finding hotels and eating out even though I don't speak more than five words of Chinese, our guides did speed up transit times a bit (but they still got lost like I get lost), they allowed us to ask in depth questions and I think the Datong system may not have been half as easy without them and Li Nan's setting up of the visit. But they are undoubtedly a very expensive luxury for just two gricers and I for one will still only use them in future as a last resort, but if I was in a group of say, six, it might be a different proposition. Of course, I have a limited financial budget and an almost unlimited time budget. Many people reading this page will have the opposite circumstances (to which I would love to say 'get a life' but they probably wouldn't understand) and will continue to miss out on the fun of travelling independently in Asia. Speaking from our experience in Sichuan, it would help enormously if the guides BOTH showed a REAL interest in and enthusiasm for their job AND came properly briefed and prepared. Each of our two had one but not the other, so we still had to work hard and certainly needed the background information we had been given by others. If I ran my Java tours that way then I wouldn't get the kind of personal recommendations which bring me more than half my customers each year. However, Li Nan is a genuine enthusiast and if you are coming to Sichuan please contact him for up-to-date information on both operation and accessibility - the latter is a very real consideration in this area because it is only recently that gricers have started to come here and the vast majority of them have been with official guided tours. Some areas (particularly south of Ganshui on the Songzhao coal railway) may still be officially be 'closed'. If you are visiting independently please take care. We then went off on our own and transferred for a few days in Hunan (see Part 2 of this report), after which I returned to Beijing separately. Much of the trip was narrow gauge based and we are very grateful to the pioneering efforts of a number of people particularly Robin Gibbons and Bernd Seiler. Rather than add lots of links to old reports, I recommend you work via my China narrow gauge summary page.
I arrived in Beijing on Lufthansa on 13th December and immediately caught the airport bus into town, checked into the Chongwenmen Hotel (Y288 +10% + Y6 as before) and headed for Dahuichang on the Metro and the 385 bus as usual. Despite the flight being 1 hour late landing at 10.30, I arrived just in time to see the light engine working at 14.05 and was able to photograph all the main workings (5 up and 5 down) until 16.30. 2 and 4 were in use, 1 and 3 were cold in the shed, apparently serviceable. In other words, no change, a very pleasant thing to report in 2001. The next day I relaxed, waited for John to arrive and the following morning flew down to Chengdu in Sichuan.
Pengzhou - Baishuihe 15th -17th December
Again, a pleasure to report 'no change' compared to Robin Gibbons original report from March 1999. Pengzhou station is some way to the south-west of the town, NOT on the main road which follows the railway north. On December 15th, of the C2s, 71 was in use on the mixed, 72 was obviously serviceable (it was seen active in November) and 67 was in the shed with 70 dumped next to it. We saw one of the diesels (16) on the freight. Note that because the active steam loco spends little time at Pengzhou shed, being based at the top of the line, there is little in the way of ash and clinker to show it has passed by.
I believe tour groups have 'specially chartered' the steam loco (recently on 29th October and in November), I suspect they are paying for certainty, but a three day's visit is perhaps not a firm basis for this assessment. Like many gricers I find it hard to prepare myself for a first visit and I have to say that I found it a far more interesting line than I had expected, although on re-reading the early reports it was all in there if I had read them properly. Of course, a bit of sun (absent initially for us) would help, but after a boring initial 10km or so, the line passes a temple and has a some of interesting river bridges as well as closely following the river bank all the way up the valley to Baishuihe. The train was reasonably well patronised but the buses were carrying far more passengers overall. In December, we had clouds of visible steam most of the time, but otherwise you will not get the guaranteed exhaust effects of, say, Weihe. Having said that, the number of real narrow gauge steam passenger operations throughout the World in 2001 can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and if you haven't done this one yet you ought to.
On the first day we arrived in the early afternoon, watched 71 arrive and shunt on train 104 and then rode 103 to Tongji before returning to town by bus. The next day, we saw 71 arrive on train 102 and then caught a bus up to the river bridge north of Guankou station where we photographed 101. This is the major feature of the line but although buses run at about 10 minute intervals we just failed to get to Tongji ahead of the train. We rejoined the train at Xiaoyudong and rode it up to Baishuihe. We enjoyed the bean curd, spinach and rice lunch and watched the shunting and loading the phosphate mineral from the hoppers (don't miss the Taiwanese style suspension bridge across the river valley). The return working was tender-first to Xiaoyudong where the loco ran round the lightly used triangle. By now the light had failed completely as appears normal here, so we left the train at Meiziling and walked to Guankou, pausing to see the small coal mine and diesel 16 on twenty empties before 71 came back on 103. On our third and final day we had a lie in before catching a bus out to some 5km south of Tongji - we then tramped across country (and the river) to photograph 101 arriving with 71 in charge again at Hongxing. We had arranged with station staff for the train to be held for us but it didn't matter as it had to wait for 16 coming down on a freight. We rode up to Tongji, where we left the train to travel on to Leshan for the Shibanxi line. Today the weather was misty with hazy sunshine.
Well worth investigating if you haven't visited one like it before. There is no road access and you need to walk from Meiziling or the Guankou river bridge.
The mine is a tiny private operation with a lightweight 400mm gauge railway, with single blade points. A small tunnel leads to the mining area (best not investigated). Tubs are hauled up three at a time by an electric winch from some considerable depth (I would estimate the haul to be at least 200m). They are then ridden out over the edge of the river with one branch for the waste and one for the coal itself. The tubs are tipped by hand and then pushed back in. The coal lands in a shallow pool off the river and is then filtered. 'Primitive' does not do justice to it.
Pengzhou - Baishuihe - Minor mysteries....
Just north of Guankou, the railway turns sharp right over the river. Straight ahead on the natural alignment lies an abandoned trackbed with concrete sleepers which heads through a tunnel mouth dated 1982. Locals say it has not been used for at least 10 years and leads to a disused coal mine. However, further up the valley there are signs of a railway which follows the west bank of the river all the way to Xiaoyudong. The question arises, why were there apparently two different railway alignments?
Theory 1 - these were two unconnected branches which were never joined and later abandoned.
Theory 2 - the railway was originally built on the west bank to minimise river bridges and later built on the east bank with an easier alignment, but this fails on the 1982 tunnel date?
Theory 3 - the 1982 tunnel date suggests a later re-alignment which was possibly designed to serve the new power station near Tongji. But why was it never completed and the original alignment abandoned?
The closed branch from Hongxing which boasts a turntable pit may or may not be relevant.
Helmut Bribitzer comments:
"The main line of the railway was built on the east bank of the river in the sixties. First the railway was transporting coal, the passenger and stone transport came later, after most of the coal mines closed. The branch line, which starts before the first river bridge, was constructed in 1980, had a length of about 10 km and ended in a private coal mine. The locals are right, this line was only 10 years in service. But the private coal company sold so little coal, there was no money to be made and they had to close the mine at the start of the nineties. On this line there was no passenger transport and until 1996 the tracks and parts of bridges were put away. When you ride on a bus on the road to Baishuihe, you can see the rest of a bridge and the disused trackbed."
Pengzhou - Baishuihe - photographic potential
Weihe, this is not and the weather will be none too kind most likely. It runs broadly north south and uphill to the north - less than ideal for exhaust effects as trains wok with the sun behind them. Check the map for the place names.
The entire line rises away from Pengzhou, the return journey will not cause the loco to work except on departure from stations. Pengzhou to Guankhou is flat and almost dead straight through avenues of trees. Forget it.
The river bridge at Gankou is the photographic highlight of the line, ideal for 101. The line onward to Hongxing is attractive but hugs the river bank and is unphotographable. Just before Hongxing it turns sharp left and crosses a river bridge, again good for 101 but it needs a long tramp in from the main road plus a river crossing (no bridge!) - or take a 3-wheeler back from Tongji until road and rail separate and walk along the line. From here the light would be quite good for 101 all the way to Xiaoyudong if there were positions but there appeared to be be none of any merit except for the river bridge just before Xiaoyudong. Thereafter to Baishuihe the line is best viewed from the front end of a coach rather than the lineside. Shunting at Baishuihe is interesting with the phosphate mineral loading.
Sichuan is a long way west of Beijing, hence train 102 will be difficult to photograph except in Summer. 104 will face the right way for the light for most of its journey but is downhill all the way. 101 has daylight on its side but limited angles. 103 runs too late in the day for most of the year. Verdict, you will have to work hard for your shots here, especially given the south China grey factor!!!
Pengzhou - Baishuihe Map:
Jiayang Power Company 18th -20th December
Nowhere near the town of Jiayang of course! This isolated railway, based in Shibanxi south-east of Leshan, is arguably the most picturesque narrow gauge line in China but also the most difficult to record. We set out from Leshan (a 100% tourist town - the Lonely Planet Guide will explain) at 08.00 and the first part of our day is best expressed (with apologies to non-English readers) as 'there is a ferry at the bottom of our garden'. Suffice to say a breakdown in communication between Li Nan and our guide had us crossing the Min River more times than was strictly necessary.... Future visitors should note that a Qianwei bus from Leshan should drop them at the slipway after some 40 km (easily spotted from the main road) and a second bus (back north) from the other side will drop them at Shixi/Shibanxi just after the power station from where steps lead to the isolated narrow gauge railway. Further, after the visit, a bus will take them direct to Qianwei (15km) where the main (Yu Quan) hotel is 100m north of the (local) bus station. The long distance bus station is a little further south, past a number of good small restaurants and another small hotel which we did not check out. Currently, the only part of the railway accessible by road is Yuejin (known as Sanjin locally), by irregular bus, minibus or motor-bike from Shibanxi, this is the limit of the electrified line. The upper section needs to be accessed by train or by walking....
We found the railway broadly as described, an unphotographable delight. The powers that be required us to donate Y30 for our Y3 ticket (possibly avoidable for those without a guide). There appeared to be a coal train (electric) to Yuejin every hour or so. We saw steam locos 14 + 7 double head in on the 11.30 passenger arrival and 7 then vanished back up the line coupled to electric 03. We had an excellent lunch on the platform (although the price had to be negotiated downwards) before boarding the 14.00 passenger. Again this was one of life's great experiences in the home-made stock. Alas the light was awful (actually worse than awful) as we climbed steeply up the valley tender-first through Yuejin to Mifeng. 14 ran around very smartly and headed up to the summit at Xianrenjiao passing a number of potentially superb photo-spots showing Sichuan at its very best. Going down to the terminus at Huangcunjin where the mine just about survives, we passed 7 on a set of coal wagons at Jiaoba (site of a closed mine). The main station is Bagou. Operation was very slick and even station shots had to be grabbed quickly in the gloom. The next day we rode the 09.00 passenger (Y30 was again demanded, if I had been without a guide I would have told the train crew where to stuff their ticket) to Xianrenjiao. Rather than sit around for our target - the afternoon passenger - we found a coal mine about 1km west (and 200m down a cliff) which boasted three gauges all (hu)man powered (approximate values given). The 300 mm system was abandoned but seemed to have been used for tipping waste. The main mine operation used 500 mm gauge and at the base below the coal tipper was a 600 mm system which featured a double track with a common middle rail, no doubt there are thousands like it in China but still an amazing sight/site in 2001. Back at the station, there was no sign of 7 running on the freight as on the day before. The afternoon passenger train was duly observed (I will not say photographed as the meter said 1/60 at f2.8 on 200ASA) and we made our back to Qianwei for another great meal and a steady drizzle which became rain by midnight and lasted for 36 hours. So with an old-fashioned 35mm still camera I took a day off to earn some money working at the keyboard. John Raby found 14 on the passenger again with 7 on a coal train from Huangcunjin and a short working with stone from Yuejin. As a bonus 9 was in steam after its repairs.
For some reason (the railway has decided which way the locos will face), the amount of smokebox first climbing on this line is very limited (Mifeng to Xianrenjiao, just 15 minutes by train, maybe 5km) and with no easy road access it is extremely difficult to photograph. So much so I would readily describe it as the most difficult I have seen in Asia. However, the quality of operation demands an attempt to record it. If you believe a China bash can be successful without a clutch of 'master shots' then get there soon! The locals in Shixi believe all visitors have money to rain on them which somewhat detracts from total pleasure, but up the line all is delight.
Previous reports have indicated that there is no road access to the upper parts. Strictly this is untrue. The mine referred to above is served by trucks and what is probably the same dirt road passes 200m west of the horseshoe curve behind the former hospital between Mifeng to Xianrenjiao (already there are two buses a day there). How far on it runs I do not know, but since it reaches the summit area it would not be difficult to extend. So it is not impossible that soon it will be sealed and the train will lose its near monopoly. So when the mine at Huangcunjin closes that could be the end.... Of course right now there is road access to Yuejin, after which you can walk to your photo spot of choice if you want a bit of extra time in bed in the morning - it would require a special effort to get in place for the 09.00 train on the climb smokebox first at least in the winter.
Songzhao Coal Railway (Datong) 22nd - 24th December
Bernd Seiler's report first drew my attention to this railway. We arrived very late on 21st December having spent the day transferring from Qianwe. South of Chongqing we saw SY 1109 at a coal mine east of the line. Highlight of the trip was the minibus catching fire between Ganshui and Datong... After fair weather at Penzhou and mediocre weather at Shibanxi we were greeted with near-perfect conditions for what was photographically the least important of our Sichuan visits.
Bernd reported the following SYs
0037, 0514 - on the separate secondary system here
0329, 0656, 1148, 1197, 1198, 1199
Of these I believe 0656 should have been 1656 which we and the Intra-Express group saw and 0303 is also here. We also saw 0344 newly repaired at work on the branch to Xiaoyutuo (see map below). 0514 was in store at Xiaoyutuo and 0037 had vanished.
This is yet another line which does not offer classic photo opportunities because all locomotives face north and are tender first up the grade (to make the tunnels easier on the crews). The railway is in a deep valley for the most part which means the sun does not reach it until quite late in parts during December. We visited officially, were charged Y200 each for the privilege and found all the staff very friendly and co-operative - they were quite happy, for instance, to let us ride on the locomotive, a great thrash in the tunnels. How independent travellers would fare I do not know, but we did spot a simple hotel right next to the double bridge at Ganshui on the south-west side, it features right in the middle of one of Bernd Seiler's pictures and in the lobby they have pictures of their rooms and the bridges. They have the foreigner registration forms so it should be possible to stay there. To get to Ganshui from Chongqing there are several trains a day. There are a few through buses (I do not know where they start from) but the easiest way by road is probably to get to Nanping bus station across the river and take a frequent express bus to Qijiang. From here there there are more local buses onwards. At Datong there is a company Guest House which serves as a hotel. It badly needs a coat of paint but is quite adequate. Although the trains cannot be chased, there are minivans available for charter which will make it easier to move between locations. Expect to pay about Y150 a day.
Despite it being a short line, operation is quite complex. Much reforming of trains occurs at Maliutan, when we were there we saw a train of 45 empties broken up into 3 sections of 15 to be worked onward through the tunnels with their steep ascent. In the afternoon there were about 40 fulls waiting to be worked on to Ganshui here. The station's train register showed an average of 15-20 movements through it per day. These included the railcars (1006/1031) and 0344 on/off its own branch (see below). There is also some loading of coal and iron ore from the site of the old mine.
On the first day we saw two trains at Baiyan. There are two coal mines here on either side of the river with 600mm gauge systems connected by a small bridge. The one on the east bank uses a couple of 4 wheel battery electrics, the one on the west side winches and of course there is a fair amount of human pushing involved too. At the main mines at Qingqihai we saw 600mm gauge narrow gauge tubs in use, these appeared to be pushed around although there were signs of winch cable winders. Around Maliutan station the line runs east-north-east / west-south-west which means smokebox first trains are just about photographable for much of the day. This shows scenes on the narrow gauge at Baiyan:
On the second day we hired a minivan and spent the morning at Ganshui. The spectacular double bridge is tricky for downhill trains when the sun shines and when 0344 arrived at 09.30 we also had a combination of mist, haze and general pollution to cope with. 0344 went back light engine and 1148 which was in the yard shunting showed no sign of wanting to leave (I believe the steam locos may work a few km north-west of Ganshui where is a larger yard). Eventually 1656 arrived at 12.30 and 1148 went up at 13.00 by which time the light for the concrete viaduct was quite good. We watched 1148 shunt at Maliutan and head off for Qingqihai. 1656 arrived light engine and then 1199 came down. With a railcar going up the system was quite busy. We spent the rest of the afternoon at Xiaoyutuo with 0344 but we did see another downhill train and 1656 go up. Loading here appeared to use the old iron ore tippers and was quite labour intensive. Quite where the coal came from was not apparent because official policy is to discourage (dangerous) small mines. Even the tub manufacturer/repairer in the main street said his kit was 'export quality'.... Anyway, 0344 eventually shunted to and fro across the attractive river bridge performing manoeuvres which defied description and logic even on someone brought up on Javanese sugar cane railways - the final consist included ten empties being returned whence they had come.
For our last morning we returned to Qingqihai and walked through the east mine and on down through the vegetable plantations to the point at which the line exits from the first tunnel across an arched bridge and then runs along a ledge (largely hidden by bushes) before crossing another viaduct and entering the second tunnel. We saw two trains come up (and a light engine go down in between) from high on the east hillside opposite, a marvelous spectacle despite the slight haze. The first was slipping on the damp rails, the second stopped short of steam before restarting. The walk took about 40 minutes, about half way you have to descend to river level where the valley narrows before climbing again. Do not expect your guide to accompany you or know where to go and do NOT consider using the tunnel or west bank of the river. It is potentially by far the best spot on the line and is good from sunrise until about 11.00.
Jianghe Coal Railway 25th December 2001
We visited this fascinating 610mm gauge railway with its unusual diesels and John Raby has put up an account. Trains were running as normal in fleets of four or five. We were refused official permission to visit and had to content ourselves with linesiding and a very brief visit to the mine area and its workshops.