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Beijing - Tianjin - Yuxia & Xian - Lanzhou - Sandaoling
Finally a steam trip to China after seven long years! This time I was joined by my friend Steven from New South Wales. Planning the trip was a nightmare, as locations were being cancelled or closed from one week to the next. This unfortunately meant changing our airfares on two occasions to suit. Our original plan included the seemingly beautiful narrow gauge line at Rongshan, the SY at Hanwang, Baiyin and even Pingzhuang and Yuanbaoshan - the unfortunate series of events over the past few months is well documented on the sy-country website. Ultimately we would make two day trips - one to Tianjin, and one to Yuxia - and then spend six days at the main attraction, Sandaoling. Michael Reilly, John Athersuch, Bernd Seiller, Joeri Vanvaerenberg & Rick Wong were of invaluable assistance during this harrowing few months and Steve and I are very grateful for all your help.
We enjoyed very good weather for the most part, although overcast in Yuxia and hazy in Sandaoling, but not a drop of rain to be seen. Steve and I enjoyed the usual good hospitality, excellent food, and general shenanigans that are to be found all over China. We covered 6500kms by rail, a staggering amount in such a short period of time, maximising the use of overnight trains and while not the most chaotic of my trips to China, for me personally, it was the most exhausting.
|10 November 2013|
Our non-stop flight from Sydney departed on time to Beijing on flight CA0174, with one of Air China's A330-200's. Some of the passengers were greeted, namely ladies and Germans, however many of us were left feeling excluded. Dinner consisted of chicken or beef and any queries ended up in a very abrupt grunt of "Chicken or beef!" and a rolling of the eyes from one of the stewardess'. The aircraft was old, very dated and the entertainment system was truly on its last legs.
|11 November 2013|
After a restless night, we made it to Beijing airport a bit worse for wear. Our flight parked away from the terminal and buses were brought to take us to the terminal building for passport control, followed by a train to the end of the terminal. Before heading off for the first point of our itinerary, we proceeded upstairs to the departure terminal to pick up our China Rail tickets that had been pre-booked and prepaid a couple of weeks prior (Thank you Rick!), a 5 yuan fee per ticket, but well worth it after seeing some of the queues at the stations along the way.
We took the airport express train and two more subway trains to Beijing South (almost proving our undoing, only an hour into our China trip!), arriving just in time for the 0930 C2015 to Tianjin. Given the frequency of trains from Beijing to Tianjin, this was the only train we didn't reserve tickets for. The display board showed our maximum speed of 298kph and we arrived at Tianjin right on time, 33 minutes later. We left our baggage at a supermarket at the north side of the station and took a taxi for the Heavy machinery factory to the north of the city. The ride took about 20 minutes, and he dropped us off at the end of a gravel road which he said was Nancang road - a fair cry from the multilane express lane shown on Google Maps. The guards at a local factory said they hadn't seen a steam locomotive for years, but suggested we walked south down the siding to the yard where we may have more luck. As we did so we saw more sidings merged into one and it became apparent that the taxi driver had in fact dropped us off the street before, so we headed north on Chaoyang road, reaching a the real Nancang road followed by the level crossing a couple of minutes later.
As we walked down the line towards the locomotive facility, we were a little disheartened to see SY 1524 sitting outside the shed in steam, behind seemingly locked gates. This was the first Chinese steam locomotive I had seen in over 7 years and Steve's first ever. We asked one of the local residents how we could get inside the shed and he walked over to the gates, removed the padlock and ushered us inside. 1524 was freshly overhauled, although a little rough with large patches of rust simply painted over. Some paper stencils with "1524" were a few feet away from the locomotive. The shed leader told us she wasn't quite finished, but she would make a shunt in the early afternoon. 1007 now sits in the shed and will serve as a donor locomotive for 1007 until 1524 is due for a major overhaul where they will revert back to 1007. Steam serves only the sidings north of the shed - the southern sidings being handled by a pair of 1989 built blue DF7 diesels (# 0136 + one other not identified/seen). The level crossing guard wouldn't allow us further north of the crossing, but was happy for us to take photos anywhere from the crossing to the depot. Maybe others will have more luck gaining access into these parts. Either way, traffic is very limited and can happen with little or no notice.
We stayed for the shunting movement and after being invited onto the footplate for a while, headed back to Tianjin in one of the most brilliant taxi's I had seen after 15 years in China - A 4 wheeler with a backseat barely large for two people (let alone with camera gear). The motor was in the back covered with plastic bags with exhaust fumes pouring into the cabin. The driver was redlining the speedometer as well as the Tacho with all the warning lights displayed, but we made it back just before 4pm. After a quick lunch, we got tickets for train C2228 back to Beijing Nan.
From Beijing Nan, we took a taxi to Beijing West for train Z19 to Xian, taking the long way around to show Steve Tianenmen square by night. Given the recent events in Beijing, police presence was very high. We had about an hour wait before boarding our train, but were allowed on the platform earlier. Our train was headed by SS7E 0013. This was to be my first trip on board the deluxe soft sleeper car (RW19T #554395) with each compartment comprising of 2 bunks, a private bathroom and an plush armchair. The cabin attendant was very nice and appologised for the lack of dining car on the train, but had some dining options for us for breakfast. Orange juice and chocolate cake. A little puzzled, Steve and I ordered an orange juice each for 10 yuan a piece and we were both taken back the next morning when another cabin attendant presented us with two warm cups of powdered orange cordial!
|12 November 2013|
On arrival in Xian, we spent a few minutes on the platform to photograph the arriving and departing trains, witnessing a good array of classic diesel and electric motive power including DF4B, DF7, SS6, SS7C, D & E variants. Surprisingly the modern HXd series don't seem to have made an overly large impact on the rail scene around Xian, however there was one glaring omission in that not a single Mitsubishi 6K was seen.
We hailed a taxi driver, Mr Pan, with a minivan a few streets away from the train station and soon we were on our way to hunt down 1141 at Yuxia. We eventually found Yuxia after heading off in a rather round-about way. Just north of Huxian, We passed a military airfield with Harbin Z-9 attack helicopters performing circuits in minute intervals. About half a dozen Xian MA-60's were also visible on the apron.
After rolling through the backstreets of Yuxia, the driver admitted defeat, but he need not have done so - looking through the window was the elegant face of SY 1141, again behind gates, but in steam! We greeted the staff who were all to happy for us to get into the yard to take photos. They mentioned that there have been a couple of Chinese rail fans in the past few months and one Japanese visitor, but we were the first white people to visit. Apparently the locomotive gets used once or twice a week and the driver on duty, while obviously fond of her, mentioned that she will be scrapped before Chinese new year due to a lack of work. They keep her permanently fired which consumes some 2 tonnes of coal per day (approximately 1200 yuan).
Unfortunately we arrived on one of the days where no work was scheduled, however the driver obviously moved by our quest for steam brought her out of the compound and blew out the boiler for us. Steve experienced his first cabride (all 10 meters of it!) back into the compound shortly afterwards. The driver was very keen to acquire some photos to put straight on his computer, but unfortunately his PC with windows 98 was unable to read our 32gb memory cards and as he had no email address, we were unable to give him some of our photos.
The derelict SY (0806)is now in the shed and is looking very much worse for wear and will be scrapped with 1141. Having sat cold for so long, she serves as a wine cooler (see photo below) as well as donor engine for 1141. In the yard is a line of orange DF4B's all under tarpaulins, interestingly most with numbers not from any of the original orange series of locomotives. DF4B's there include 7251, 6440, 3359, 2462, 7788 & 1987. I found traces of green paint in places and I believe these are ex-maintenance locomotives. A couple of workers in the yard gave in a very broken translation that these are to be scrapped once the price of scrap metal increases. There are a number of maintenance vehicles also under tarps.
For those planning a day trip out here, Mr Pan (pronounced Pun) can be contacted on 152 4904 9006, however he speaks only Mandarin, so a translator will be needed to at least organise a trip with him. We negotiated a fare of 450yuan for the return trip plus 3 hours for the actual visit which turned out to be plenty considering there was no work for her.
Below is a map of the area I drew up. SY 1141 works south of the 2km mark, except for the two power plants which are now served by a diesel locomotive (A DF5 could be heard and seen from a distance).
We arrived back in Xian at about 5pm and so walked the tourist trail and through a superb night market south of the drum tower followed by dinner in a fantastic Muslim restaurant before heading back to the station and taking train K119 soft sleeper to Lanzhou. Normally I would try and get a direct train to Sandaoling, however due to train times either arriving too early or too late in Hami, by having a 9 hour break in Lanzhou would mean we would not lose any time in Hami. Again, our train was powered by another SS7E to Lanzhou.
|13 November 2013|
For our brief stopover in Lanzhou, we rented a room for a much needed shower and a change of clothes before attempting to reach an area to the east of the city where a series of railway bridges cross the yellow river. The hotel we picked out was the Kaibin Quick Hotel, complete with poorly translated signs all over the hotel. Our room came with "Independant Blowing Service" - still trying to figure that one out.
After leaving the hotel, we hailed down a series of taxi drivers to take us to the river, which proved to be incredibly difficult, despite having Chinese maps with a pretty clear path on how to reach the place. We eventually found one who was happy to take us, however he dropped us at the bottom of the bridge on the wrong side of the road. We had quite a job trying to reach our destination, being detained once by some curious railway policemen. They were happy to escort us to take photos in the area while waiting for the police chief to arrive. Eventually he arrived and after explaining ourselves that we had a hopeless taxi driver who dropped us off at the wrong spot, he saw us on our way.
Traffic in the area is extremely high. The majority of freights are hauled by (solid) blue HXd1 double units or a pair of HXD1C's, with a number of freights heading towards and from Zhongwei behind the aging SS3BG double units. A number of light engine movements were also noted. passenger trains were predominantly in the hands of SS7E's and SS3's.
Prior to heading back to the train station, we went to a hot pot restaurant for lunch with the young waitresses unable to contain their glee at our presence. We boarded T295 Lanzhou - Urumqi train for Hami, departing once again, right on time. As we were permitted on the train early, I was able to roam the platforms again to see our locomotive (SS7E 0069) attach to our train and photograph some mail cars being loaded up.
The journey in the remaining daylight hours was quite impressive, with karst mountain scenery for the most part. Just out of Lanzhou towards Hekou are massive rail and road projects Approximately hour north we hit a snow shower for a good 1/2 an hour. Just north of Tianzhu we entered a very long tunnel (9 minutes at speed) and when we emerged, there was not a single snow flake to be seen! Other rail traffic in the area was HXD1C's and SS3's with either DF5's or DF7's in use around yards on industry along the way, a depressing lack of variety from my previous trip in the area back in 2006.
|14 November 2013|
Our train arrived just before 7am and Mr. Zhang Fu Sheng from the mine was waiting for us as pre-arranged. We drove immediately to Sandaoling to check into our hotel. Unfortunately due to a government meeting in the area, the hotel was fully booked as was the next one we tried. We found one on our third attempt - the Jia He Xiang Wu Binguan - situated on the third floor of the building (no lifts saw this as our daily exercise requirements). Apart from the hotel being diabolically hot with the thermostat. The rooms were 128 yuan per night, and we received a 10 yuan discount per night for staying 5 nights - something that must be asked for to receive! My room had a peculiar entry, ascend and descend a 2 ft ramp, climb 2 steps to the front door, then two steps down for the room. The bathroom again required another couple of steps to get into. Asides from this curiosity, it was clean, comfortable, nice heated floors with tv and free internet. The heat was countered by requesting the remote control for the split system airconditioner and eventually a happy medium of hot and cold air was found for a night as comfortable as a mattress with the softness of steel I beams would allow for and really the only other problem was that the hot water took anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour to engage. We went for a quick Chinese style breakfast closeby and then headed for east pit.
We immediately saw a JS (loco first) in the distance, but it reversed the train away from us towards the blue coal loader. We didn't have to wait too long before JS 8081 reversed down the bank with a rake of self dump hoppers. The area here was relatively quiet and we waited another 30 minutes without success before heading out to the gradient before Xibolizhan. Working in and out of the pit were JS's 8167, 8173, 9194, 8077, 8368 & 6209. There were a couple of others but I couldn't make them out for the haze within the pit.
For the remainder of the day, Xibolizhan was next - if you like frequent trains, this is the place for you! Xibolizhan is essentially a holding yard for dump trains. For the southern dumps there are 5 tracks, however one is not used and has section. We saw no trains working the western dump, however the tracks were still shiny and we were told occasionally trains still run up that way. From Xibolizhan we saw over 30 movements in 3 hours! The front end-loader was kept busy refuelling the locomotives. 6224 was at the west end of the yard with Jordan spreader # 01. Locomotives seen at Xibolizhan were JS6209, 6224 (with spreader), 8027, 8076, 8077, 8078, 8080, 8167, 8173, 8194, 8197, 8225 & 8368.
|15 November 2013|
Still recovering from the huge day before, and now battling a flu, we set out for the engine depot. Mr Zhang will arrange visits here for 150 yuan per person which includes hard hat hire and all necessary "fees". We were given 2 hours to go nuts inside the depot with the only condition that we didn't photograph any workers. Apparently one took exception to being photographed in a dirty uniform recently and raised proverbial hell. Of course this is much easier said than done and given the longer shutter exposures and video that was taken, it was inevitable that some workers would appear in the frame.
In the main shed was 8078 and 8195. 8222 was in the second shed, but didn't remain there long before 8167 (on shed duties that day) pulled her out and put her in another shed. There were a further 3 JS in various states of repair, including one with a totally stripped down boiler.
All around the depot were piles of parts = wheels, cabs, brake pumps, air reservoirs, electric generators etc etc in more or less organised piles. no builders plates though - despite many locomotives missing them!
It was nice to see various other pieces of rolling stock, in particular cabooses and old box cars I've not seen for nearly a decade. A total of three operational steam cranes Z152 class #2, #3 and the big 6 axle crane #64 - at work by lifting up spreader #1 to perform undercarriage repairs.
After what seemed like 5 minutes, it was time to leave and we headed to Nanzhan to see if there were any trains heading to Erkuang (second mine). There were a few JS in steam, but no work scheduled for the rest of the day. Three DF8B diesels were shut down in the yard also, #'s 249, 248 & 250.
We headed back to Xibolizhan to walk one of the dump lines and then back to the yard for some afternoon and night photography. On arrival, we saw 6224 pushing spreader #04 to one of the dump lines, followed by the usual precession of dump trains.
Traffic was very busy on the lower dump lines through the afternoon. We saw 5 separate trains during this time (10 workings).
On our return to the Xibolizhan, 7 JS were on site, 4 of them having lined up very nicely for the shot below. Mr. Zhang begrudgingly stayed with us until 8pm so we could get some night photos out of the way.
|16 November 2013|
After breakfast, we again tried our luck at the east pit. Unfortunately we only saw one train, however on the walk back, noticed some evidence of a locomotive in trouble - melted metal shavings from steam locomotive tires and grooves in the rail. We noticed a few meters up track a huge 5 inch long pin which had obviously snapped off, probably leading to the 20 foot of carnage left behind on the rails. That would have made some brilliant footage! Cold clear skies gave me a chance to zoom in on some overflying jets with my nice new 100-400mm lens!
Again, taking pot luck we headed today for Erkuang, a place Mr. Zhang said was rather baron in terms of steam trains these days with the majority of traffic being worked by trucks. Fortunately for us, God was smiling today and as we arrived, we could see a 40 car train in the distance heading towards us with two locomotives (tender first) with one banking the train. When it arrived, the train stopped in the middle of the crossing to separate causing a rather large glut of trucks. Eventually the train was split and both locomotives went about shunting for the next couple of hours. We somehow managed to miss a third JS already in the mine with a train ready to depart! Locomotives seen were JS 8358, 6204 & 8366.
After a long exhausting day, we retreated back to the town of Sandaoling, and spent the last hour walking through the market which was closing as we arrived. Still a hive of activity was to be seen. We had dinner at a nice Muslim restaurant called "Maria's".
|17 November 2013|
Our persistence in nagging Mr. Zhang for another shot at some night photography paid off, meaning we had the morning away from the tracks. Keen not to spend the morning not holed up in the boiling hotel room, we hit the streets to see if the market was any better, and sure enough the streets were bustling with vendors, food stalls and services that go with a typical Chinese market. As usual, two foreigners walking around the market place generated lots of interest, but as usual it was smiles all round and most people didn't mind being photographed.
Mr. Zhang picked us up at midday and we headed straight away to the level crossing west of Xibolizhan to capture more of the action in the area. On our arrival, one of the steam cranes was out lifting fresh sleepers onto a flatcar and proceeded to head up to one fo the tip lines. It didn't return until dusk. Not much else to report for the rest of the day, night photography was once again a success.
|18 November 2013|
During breakfast Mr. Zhang's car was temporarily surrounded by sheep as we unsuccessfully stopped for breakfast at the usual vendor, but he soon found us another place to the east of the township - which was equally good - if not better.
We went to Nanzhan to see if we could get lucky with another train to Erkuang, which turned out to be the case. DF8B 0249 was also busy shunting a very long train in the yard. We never saw it depart as the JS headed out in spectacular fashion. We followed it as best we could in Mr. Zhang's car, and we eventually made it to Erkuang via a long disused road - at one stage, having to dig out a mound for him to go through. by the time we reached Erkuang, the train had already arrived and begun shunting cars around. Eventually a second JS arrived with another train and we spent most of the day here inhaling massive amounts of coal dust being kicked up by the trucks.
|19 November 2013|
The last day in Sandaoling was spent on the tip lines and Xibolizhen as well as the ascending bank to the east. Once again, plenty of action meant we rarely had the cameras pointing towards the ground. The steam crane was once again on the loose.
Taking the lower track of the tip, we headed up to see the huge electric digger in action, only to find it had broken down. Fortunately the repair crew was already on site and had the thing up and running again in about 20 minutes. It's really hard to explain how large the dump site is with photos - none of mine seem to capture the sheer size of it all. Suffice to say it is absolutely massive and still expanding. In the picture below, the second tip can be seen in the background. Those rocks at the bottom of the embankment would be a minimum of 6 feet wide. Such rocks have been known to pull over the hoppers that dump them - having seen footage from one of the drivers who recorded a rescue operation on his phone. The digger itself is powered electrically with power supplied by the biggest extension cord I have ever seen! The large rock in the photo below would be roughly the same size as the cabin of the digger.
Back at Xibolizhan, we were blessed with 8081 facing east! This is a seemingly rare visitor to this part of Sandaoling and after filling her coal bunker, she disappeared as quickly as she arrived. We also enjoyed a most unusual site of JS 8040 bringing up 8195's tender for replenishment, presumably ending her stint in the depot.
Our final hours were spent on the bank overlooking west pit to photograph the hard working locomotives pull out of the pit, and then charge the bank with spoil trains for the tip. The sound and site will always remain as being one of the great spectacles of Chinese steam in all my trips to China.
Around the dump and throughout much of the mine are many underground fires. Most of these appear as smouldering cracks in the ground, however some areas have substantial naked flame pockets. About a minute walk away from the line, large deposits of sulphur and glowing rocks were very common. The ground around the area is very soft and notably warm.. not recommended for a Sunday stroll!
The last train we saw out of the pit was 8080. You will always be remembered!
Mr. Zhang drove us back to Hami Nan for train T296 back to Lanzhou for connecting train T28 back to Beijing. Our train was headed by a pair of DF11 locomotives (361 & 362), which we lost for an SS7E (I believe) at Jiayuguan.
|20 November 2013|
A few minutes after I woke up at Wuwei, a huge military train pulled out of the station next to ours with a single SS3 at the helm. I was quite excited to see the rare TZ 'military sleeper' coach, but the 6 DF-21D ballistic missile launchers behind it was a much more impressive sight!! Other equipment on the train included tank trucks, jeeps and curiously - a very shiny Humvee. The general's personal toy, perhaps?
Snow capped mountains were visible in the distance as we approached Lanzhou. It was very interesting to see how far Hekou-nan had developed since my last trip there in September 2006 and still under development with massive road and rail projects. Since my visit, the line to Urumqi now runs around the south side of the yard at Hekou-nan rather than through it.
With only 2 hours to spare before taking our connecting train to Beijing, we had lunch near the station and walked through another fantastic street market, stocking up on the essentials for the journey ahead (read chocolate).
T28 departed on time, unfortunately being the first train where we were unable to get soft sleeper tickets. I didn't mind this too much, though - the scenery between Lanzhou and Zhongwei is absolutely amazing. It is only a single line with passing loops. All traffic seen was freight in the hands of SS3B's and paired HXD1C's. At Baiyin I was stunned to see a NZJ2 at the back of the depot as we passed! This would explain why I saw her coaches spliced with regular trains at Lanzhou station. I believe the NZJ2 has only recently been taken out of service. Sadly diesels are now rare around Lanzhou.
Unfortunately after the sun went down, there was nothing good left to say about the T28. The toilets had not been cleaned since Tibet in hard or soft sleeper. I am no stranger to toilets on Chinese trains, but what I witnessed was an unfathomable state of affairs with a foulness of what I presume hell would be like. The flush button was ignored, at one stage I had to demand a middle aged woman return and empty out what she left me. I was dismayed that there were plenty of staff to bellow at the top of their lungs from boarding until 11pm to sell trinkets that nobody wanted, yet no one with a bottle of bleach. The temperature again was set uncomfortably high at about 30 degrees centigrade, no wonder Steve was coming down with the flu now. To top it off, rude cabin attendants and no clean sheets from the previous passengers who we took over from Lanzhou. For a train that China prides itself on so much, they have to do much better than this.
|21 November 2013|
A new day - rant over! We arrived in Beijing after a harrowing sleepless night. With Steve now well and truly under the grip of illness and our limited time, we decided not to pursue the quick trip to Luopoling for some final scenic shots of mainline diesels and electrics. Instead, we thought it a better idea of getting to the Beijing Railway museum - a first for both of us. This had the added benefit for us being so close to the airport, and would mean Steve would see his first QJ (albeit static), his biggest regret about not visiting China earlier.
The museum houses some of my favourite steam locomotives - including a few that I never got to see in action - the RM and SL6 pacifics, GJ tank and a couple of others. Interestingly no standard QJ is in the collection (yet), nor is a single SY - one of China's most important classes of steam locomotive.
Asides from the impressive steam collection, the museum has some fantastic exhibits of rare diesel and electrics - including numerous classes I was never able to photograph in their natural habitat. The SS5, ND4, DF7D and Henschel NY5, 6 & 7's. My favourite by a long shot was however DF4C 4001 - I certainly wasn't expecting to see this one, although I always hoped that one day I might after buying Haidar's brass model of it! Sadly some 'modern' locomotives have arrived - namely ND5's and an 8K, which can only mean that these once very common locomotives are now on the endangered species list. There is a fair amount of construction going on around and inside the museum. Outside there are a few pieces of rolling stock, mainly reefers and heavy duty flat cars.
We reached the airport in good time and had an hour for me to indulge in some aircraft photography prior to taking the bus back to the apron for the long 12 hour flight back to Sydney. The cabin attendants pumped up the temperature once again to a balmy 28 degrees... oh China.
Tianjin - limited operations, but friendly crews and easy to find. The fact that steam exists in such a large city in 2013 is astonishing. Steam looks safe for the time being.
Yuxia - again, limited operations and a location that will soon be lost forever. Steam will allegedly cease before Chinese new year 2014.
Xian - Xian still has a good mix of classic diesels and electrics to keep one satisfied, however the modern HXd electrics are starting to make their mark.
Lanzhou - There are a few good spots around Lanzhou for modern railway photography. The bridges crossing the yellow river are very scenic with very frequent traffic. It is very possible to get more than one train in one photo.
Sandaoling - This place is epic in every way. if you want to experience hard working steam with numerous trains in a nice contained (yet vast) system, then this place should be on your highest list of priorities. Steam is expected to remain until 2015 at elast, but the sooner you get there, the better.
Beijing - My first visit to the Beijing Railway museum and definitely a good location to go if you're looking to burn half a day or a day in Beijing. I found just as much interest in the diesel and electrics as I did in the steam locomotives, and it was great to see DF4C 4001 in the flesh.
Will I go again? Perhaps... but there would have to be a very good reason for doing so, perhaps in the shape of Rongshan or the unlikely event that there lies a so far undiscovered steam system somewhere. There are a few modern traction areas I would also like to visit - but again, probably not enough to make me go. If I don't make it again, I will miss almost everything about this great country.
Except train T28.
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