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Hegang - Haolianghe - Huanan - Suifenhe - Mudanjiang - Muling - Baishan - Nanjing - Ma'anshan - Sandaoling
The latest expedition to China was completed in the month of October of 2018. This took some considerable planning and a number of locations were culled to accommodate travel arrangements or when we received news that certain railways had closed for the year.
The first week was spent in Beijing and the north east, revisiting Hegang after over a decade and a first time visit to the Haolianghe narrow gauge serving the large cement factory. A late addition to the itinerary was Huanan, one of the last steam narrow gauges to fall a few years ago with rumours to reopen for tourists. We also got to Suifenhe to see the last DF8 diesels and Russian cross border trains, plus a visit to the locomotive storage at Muling and topped it off with an unofficial visit to the Mudanjiang locomotive depot. The second week saw us in Baishan city in Jilin for the narrow gauge system and Nanjing and Ma'anshan - a repeat visit for myself and a first time for Steve. The last week was given to Sandaoling.
My best mate Steve from Sydney joined me for the entirety of the trip while we had a few guest visits during various parts of our tour. Baiyu Shang joined us for the day in Beijing on our arrival and again in Suifenhe and Mudanjiang. My other best mate from Hong Kong, Rickly Wong, joined us in Nanjing to further visit the area after our December 2017 trip here. Finally, my father would join us in Sandaoling to finally get a taste of Chinese steam.
We utilised the rail system quite extensively for the first half of our time, but unusually for me and at greater risk, we also had a five domestic flights in the second half to save time. I generally avoid airlines in China because of general late running and inefficient airport screening, particularly Beijing airport, however the times worked better for us in a number of instances and afforded us the opportunity to stay in hotels rather than in overnight trains.
Rick once again assisted with booking our train tickets, all flights were booked with Skyscanner and hotels with trip.com (formerly Ctrip).
Given the length of this report, I have split it into four sections. The first part contains Beijing, Hegang, Haolianghe and Huanan.
Part 2 covers Suifenehe, Mudanjiang, Muling & Baishan - click here
Part 3 covers Nanjing & Ma'anshan - click here
Part 4 covers Sandaoling - click here
|8 & 9 October 2018|
My first trip for 2018! Steve flew down from Sydney to Melbourne at the same time I did from Brisbane where we met up and headed back to my house. I had a quick repack and check of everything I would probably lose during the course of our journey, then we headed back to Melbourne airport to catch an evening flight direct to Beijing with Air China CA166. I was a little perturbed to be flying on yet another clapped out A330. While all my other friends are flying on the new A350's or 787's, the A330 is still the aircraft of choice for most Chinese carriers into Melbourne. On the plus side however, we had managed to get premium economy seats for the same price as regular economy which gave us a lot more leg room, a welcome aboard drink and a hot towel. Being just forward of the wing, or more specifically the engines, made for a quieter flight as well. The flight miraculously left on time and we arrived in Beijing airport the following morning just before 6am. In typical Beijing airport fashion however, the queue into immigration was horrendously long and the terminal was understaffed as usual. This saw us queue for almost two hours. Asides from finding great amusement in watching the futile efforts of some entitled Americans try to explain their way to the front of the queue to bemused Beijing airport staff, we had time to install our new Chinese SIM cards into the phones, always a head scratching activity. We were slightly late getting out of the airport, but soon met up with our new friend Baiyu Shang and our driver from Wild Great Wall adventures, and before we knew it we were off to the Fengsha line. Whatever we would find on this day was to be a bonus as it was just added to the itinerary on the off chance our flight would arrive on time!
Rather than head to Luopoling, as is our now Beijing standard practice, I suggested we head to the seventh bridges area instead. The drive was twice as long as usual, however having Baiyu inside the car to guide the driver certainly sped things along without me having to drag out maps. The seventh bridges can be found at coordinates 40°04'53.67"N 115°45'38.07"E. This part is really off the beaten track, although the drive out is pretty spectacular. Along the way we found countless spots where we could have quite easily jumped out, however with the long drive ahead and as we would soon discover, the long walk, it turned out to be a wise decision to carry on. Many years ago there was an option to catch a local morning and evening train which was popular with a number of fishermen, however it seems that these workings have been cut for some time.
When we arrived at eighth bridges, the turn off to seventh bridges became a dirt road and was too unsuitable for our car to attempt, so we all bailed out with our equipment for the walk ahead while the driver went off to find some lunch. The walk to seventh bridges took about 45 minutes. A word to the wise who travel out here, don't bother trying to take shortcuts! If the climbing back up deceptively steep and unstable mountains doesn't kill you, the wretched shrubs with spikes the size of hypodermic needles suitable for horses will do the job for you. Despite frequently running out of breath and wondering why we didn't pack enough fluids, the view was spectacular and we saw a handful of trains as the line crossed under the road in a couple of spots, but usually not in a suitable spot for photography.
The walk seemed to go on forever until we came across a tunnel. On the other side of this a view that is possibly one of the best rail spot locations I have ever seen with the huge single arch concrete bridge crossing over the Yongding river. Almost immediately the whine of an SS4G grew louder before blasting out of the tunnel and onto the bridge heading west with a mixed freight train.
The east bound line is mostly obstructed from any decent stand alone shots, but it is possible to get two trains in the one shot (we got close, but not quite). The sun was out for much of our time there, but occasionally it would cloud over just as a train was coming through and my camera was struggling with the constant lighting changes, but we still came away with some very good shots. The variety of motive power is becoming even more limited than my previous trip. Not a single diesel locomotive was seen and the only 'classic' motive power were the aging and vulnerable SS4G double unit electrics on the very occasional freight train. All other freight trains were in the hands of double unit HXD2 electric locomotives. Passenger traffic was all HXD3C and HXD3D. Sadly most of the passenger trains are now in the very standard green and gold livery, which I quite like, but does give even less variety of trains. Some notable exceptions were a train of double-decker passenger cars and a passenger train of 25G class carriages most in their original, although rapidly fading, light grey and red colour scheme later on in the day.
The walk back took a fraction longer because we were sticking to the roads this time. At one point a cloud passed in front of the sun, and despite being 15 degrees, started snowing for a few minutes! Rather than head immediately back to the van, we made to the old Japanese built fort which overlooks the 8th bridges. The fort was built during the Japanese occupation in preparations for a new railway line. Of course the war finished long before this was realised and the railway would not be completed for another decade and a further 20 years before the line was duplicated.
The view from the fort offers exceptional views of the east bound traffic, although being so exposed, winds are fierce and the ground is not particularly stable so one should take care when walking around here. A small number of trains were seen in the afternoon before we had to head back to the van.
We planned to head back to the first bridges for the final couple of hours available to us, but somehow all three of us fell asleep. Luckily the driver remained alert but went straight past our next drop off point. The first bridges are located just north of Mentogou and cross over the Yongding river. The Fengsha line has a double track viaduct and heads west where it splits to take advantage of the topography. The Mentogou branch line passes underneath on the western side. Nothing was seen on the branch line and I am wondering how much longer it will remain in operation. The curved viaduct that branches off north from the west is now out of active use but remains for emergency and military use. As it is an unused, it is unofficially accepted to walk on it, however one should be extra vigilant and keep off the tracks just in case a train appears. It does offer some fairly good views of the double track Fengsha viaduct, although strong sunlight is challenging in the afternoon.
Only a few trains were seen with types being the same as we had seen all day at the seventh bridges. We did enjoy a second double-decker train on the way back to the van to get us to the airport. Baiyu left us at Mentougou and would join us again a few days later at Mudanjiang. Despite leaving 3 hours for the flight we were caught in some very heavy traffic jams and only by God's grace we made our flight, using the priority check in gate and keeping arguments with Beijing airport security to a minimum when I would have two of my battery packs taken off me. A handy hint for travellers; ensure that your battery packs have the output value showing in volts as well as amps. Non-compliance will see them confiscated. I'm looking forward to seeing what they ban next year! In a pretty disturbing technological advance, before I even presented my passport or boarding pass to the security officer, my face appeared on the bench mounted computer screen and already identified me by my name and date of birth. Scary stuff...
Our flight CA1693 to Jiamusi was a little late getting out of Beijing and oddly, they sent us to a gate to catch a bus. Nothing too unusual in that other than the bus took us to a skywalk at the other end of the terminal and we all had to trudge up a few flights of stairs to board the plane. Usually I would question the strategy behind this, however the glow of "Beijing Airport" on the large red neon sign pretty much answered that question. We landed in Jiamusi and after our check in baggage was checked by staff not even looking at the bags, we headed out to the taxi rank. Of course we were immediately swarmed upon and the first taxi driver bundled us into his taxi and set off mumbling "yi bai" (100) and hoping I didn't understand any Chinese. Immediately, I hit the proverbial roof and demanded he stop the taxi and let us out. He complied but tried to reduce his price down to 80, then 50. I declined his 'generous' offer and walked back to the taxi rank. This infuriated him as it sent him back to the rear of the taxi rank. We eventually took an offer of 30rmb with a different driver, still over priced, to our hotel, the Jinjiang Inn, in the centre of Jiamusi.
|10 October 2018|
Our first train was K7165 from Jiamusi to Hegang in hard seat class (0807 - 0946). I had wanted to take 4071 which left about an hour earlier, however many trains had altered times or were simply cancelled due to the beginning of CRH services between Jiamusi and Harbin. Our train was hauled by DF4DK, which appear to be the sole type servicing passenger trains on the Hegang line. All freight trains seen were in the hands of HXN5 diesels, with the exception of one local working with an aging DF4C at the helm.
We arrived on time in Hegang and walked to Jipei via the road bridge to the north of the station. Annoying green mesh barriers have been installed which impedes photography of the mainline and locomotive depot, which can be improved slightly with a telephoto zoom lens. The China Rail depot seemed rather devoid of locomotives compared to my previous visit with a solitary HXN5 diesel idling inside. The CNR yard next to the train station was rather full, mostly with empty grain hoppers waiting to be put into service for the upcoming corn season.
Jipei yard, belonging to of the mine railway and opposite the CNR yard, was fairly quiet however. There is a great mix of hopper cars for coal service including self dump hoppers of ZF60 and KF60 classes, K13, M11 drop bottom gondolas and even some C62 and C63 hoppers, some of which have modified sloped floors to expedite the unloading of coal. The wagons are painted either yellow, orange or black and appear to be coloured according to wagon type (in most cases). Many of the special wagons including the small T class track testing wagon and a D class whale belly flat car were also found.
Jipei locomotive depot holds a number of dumped EL2 electric locomotives, interestingly some are now painted in yellow or orange. The orange ones appear to be used for works trains only. A small number of EL2's in standard dark green livery were also seen here. The old six-axle steam crane is dumped, but still present and has been replaced by a huge 100 tonne 6-axle orange behemoth. There is also a smaller 4 axle diesel crane in use. Asides from the electric locomotives, there are at least five GKD1A Dalian built diesels used on the non-electrified lines. Most are in orange livery, but there is at least one painted in an attractive dark green livery. They all have 2007 build dates which coincides with the end of steam from Hegang not long after they were delivered.
We walked to the east end of Jipei where EL2 2312 was seen at the helm of a long train of mixed hoppers and as it was shut down, continued on towards the washery. This place is a lot quieter than I remember. The winch system that was in operation has been removed and it seems that very little, if any work, is still carried out here. In the holding tracks amongst a number of old retired wagons, we found a very old and decaying passenger car type. It was devoid of markings. A Japanese website who specialises in passenger cars also is also unclear to its origins but has an identical car shown and estimates it to come from the 1930's era, possibly a similar type to the YZ81. Soon EL2 2303 presented itself although we were too slow to ask for a cab ride and it promptly departed towards Dalu and Fuli mine. After waiting around for 20 minutes or so, another EL2 2309 arrived. No time was wasted readying the translation for permission to climb aboard, which was granted, although he provided his own translation of "I can't keep you for too long as the train is under surveillance" and gestured to the camera on the cab ceiling.
We ran to a small mine to the north of the Nanshan yard and coupled onto a rake of KF60 cars loaded with rocks which we brought back into Nanshan. From here we decided to offer to alight to save the driver from any problems. The driver then took a rake of empty KF 60 cars to the same mine.
Our next location was the old storage yard and electric workshops just south of Nanshan yard. I had visited here in 2006 back in the glorious days of film which took some serious negotiating skills even with a few local rail fans from Shenyang! This time it was simply a question of saying hello and a rough translation of "can we photograph here". The guard at the entrance was very happy to oblige us and even happier to return to his soap opera.
Little had changed inside the yard, with some narrow gauge passenger cars in exactly the same position as they were so many years ago and the old Japanese ED85 black electric locomotive (#1009) still present in a serious state of decay. Even more nice to see was the communist slogans above the rail entrance doors on the main shop building were still in place, after we were told in 2006 that these would soon be removed.
Inside the workshops, we found a pair of EL2's undergoing a rebuild including the just overhauled 2318 with fresh paint and 2304 about to undergo the same treatment. On the third track was the beautiful sight of the larger and much rarer EL1 1516. There are signs that she hasn't run for some time and a number of parts are missing, however it is clear a lot of work has been recently completed and a return to work looks very promising.
Satisfied with our photographs, we were then greeted by a few of the workers returning from lunch break and after a few pleasant exchanges, were told it was time for them to get back to work so we should leave.
From here, we took a taxi to Dongshan mine, the still active large open cast pit. It appears to be no longer rail served with the tracks leading into the pit overgrown, although still present. All of the work seen was in the hands of trucks. This mine has now been in operation for 77 years and some seams of coal are visible towards the bottom of the pit.
The same taxi driver was happy to stick around for no extra charge and then took us back to Jipei were we would attempt to enter the depot which many visitors have been refused entry before, including myself back in 2006.
Almost immediately we were told that no entry was permitted however they had no problem with us setting up position at the entrance of the yard which turned out to be better anyway. Almost immediately the green GKD1A was powered up and three more orange GKD1A's appeared from the south, two with their respective crane trains. After a number of shunting moves, the larger 100 tonne crane was shunted into the eastern most track and lifted a large steel bunker out of the ground into a solitary KF60 hopper and replaced with another.
Asides from all the action from the diesels, a few EL2's were also returning into Jipei, some returning to the depot and others heading back out to the mines with new trains.
Clouds started to roll in, killing the superb weather and the temperature significantly dropped. With light fading we decided to wrap up for the day and head into the city for dinner before returning to Hegang railway station on train 4172 to Jiamusi. We had been running on fumes as dinner the previous night was slim pickings arriving so late and with no breakfast or lunch for the day, we found a local Dirty Bird (KFC) and Steve set to work demolishing a meal that would rival a Viking banquet. I was somewhat more restrained and limited myself to an 18 piece bucket with all the trimmings. I did learn a very valuable lesson the next day... avoid the corn at all costs.
Our train was hauled by DF4DK 3164 and was unusual in having only 6 carriages comprising of three YZ25B, one RW25B and two YW25B hard sleeper cars. And so ended my return visit to this fascinating area. Not enough to explore the whole network, but very satisfied with what we had seen and experienced. Back at Jiamusi we saw a pair of new CRH5G high speed sets. These are stabled over night at the platforms as there is currently no dedicated CRH yard available.
|11 October 2018|
Today was our visit to Haolianghe for narrow gauge cement line belonging to the Yichun North Cement Company. Our train K7064 was approximately ten minutes late out of Jiamusi, hauled behind DF4DK 3163. Once some quick photos were taken of our train departing Haolianghe, we exited the station building onto the main road. Haolianghe is very much under developed and decaying to an extent. As only one taxi was to be found as we walked towards the main road, we asked him to take us to the station of Liushu, a station half way up the line which we intended to walk back to the town for our evening train.
Before heading to Liushu, our driver took us close to the narrow gauge entrance into the cement factory itself, however we were not allowed inside by the security guard. We then drove on to Liushu passing a train of empty hoppers heading to the mine at the end of the line at Kuangshan. When our taxi arrived at a rail bridge crossing the road between Jiugong and Liushu, we asked to be let out there. A few quick snaps were taken of the train crossing the bridge and we were about to begin the long walk back, until a mine worker, presumably fairly high up in the mine, stopped and offered us a ride all the way to Kuangshan in his new Toyota FJ Cruiser. We thought this would be a great idea, despite having no idea how we would get back to town, but decided we would figure that out as we went along. We set off tearing up the dusty road at an incredible rate of knots. I'd often thought what a moronic vehicle the Toyota FJ Cruiser was, however after experiencing ploughing into multiple potholes the size of a large animals at 80 kph and not feeling a thing, I now completely understand. Our new friend was delivering supplies to a new area of the mine under construction but pointed the way to go to see the trains, offering us the station at Kuangshan by heading straight on a level dirt road, or clambering up a mountain to the dedicated mine line.
It took some time, but by hanging on to sapplings and tree branches where available, we finally scaled the incline and found a single ZL40-9 shut down at the crush plant converting basket ball sized rocks into tennis ball sized ones. These smaller rocks are then sent via conveyor to the loading silos which are then taken to the cement works 20 kilometres away by the railway. The quarry line appears to be exclusively operated by only this specific locomotive and runs engine first from to the loading point and pushes the wagons back to the quarry. The line does connect to the rest of the railway, however the section between the unloading point and the mainline is severely overgrown with trees now growing between the sleepers, dirt up to and above the rail head and very heavy rusting & corrosion. Presumably any maintenance for this locomotive would be carried out on site.
The last station of Kuangshan has a multi-track yard with a loading point at the far end capable of loading two trains simultaneously. The loader comprises of eight massive concrete silos, four for each track. The loading process takes approximately 10 minutes to load the 12 hoppers, making two passes. As we arrived here, the train we had photographed on the way to the quarry had also just made it up the hill and was running around it's train of empties to push into the silos. Towards the end of the loading process, we had strategically positioned ourselves to where the locomotive would end up and ask if we could... perhaps, comes for a ride!
The young driver was more than happy to have us on board and soon we were on our way. We didn't really know where we would alight the train, but ended up staying for most of the way back to the cement works. At the first station of Daqing, we were held to allow the passage of two trains. I would have liked to have gotten off at Jiugong station where there is a very beautiful bridge at one end of the very characteristic station and a seriously impressive tunnel entrance at the other, however we had a green light to pass straight through here. For visitors to the line, this should be one of the high priority spots for excellent photographs.
The cab ride lasted almost two hours all up and was a really amazing experience. The crew was outstanding and told us we were always welcome to come back in the future. They dropped us off at a level crossing next to a small river just prior to the cement works. This area is extremely photogenic, not only with the river bridge, but also has a number of curves leading back towards to quarry. Add to this the stunning backdrop of mountains in full autumn colours and the sun in the perfect position in the afternoon and one can come away with some very satisfying photos.
The railway is a well engineered mainline of 900mm gauge using concrete sleeper track. It is 22 kilometres in length and has 750 volt overhead wire installed for the electric locomotives. It is a single line operation with three intermediate stations which appear to serve no purpose other than to allow trains to cross each other in passing loops. A passenger train works twice daily for staff change, however we didn't see it in operation as we arrived a bit late for the morning run and left too early for the late afternoon train. It is usually hauled by a locomotive and a pair of very clapped out passenger cars.
The railway uses two types of locomotives, a handful of 40 tonne Qinhuangdao built ZL40-9's and another unnamed class, simply referred to as '60 tonne electric locomotive' on the builders plates, made in Jiangsu. These 60 tonne locomotives are mostly 2010 built and are substantially longer than the more compact, yet chunky, ZL 40's. Both types are similar in appearance with a centre cab arrangement, but one spotting difference is the pantograph design with the ZL40's having a single diamond style version and the 60 tonne machines have two separate pantographs which operate depending on direction of travel. During the day a total of five locomotives were seen ranging in number between 01 and 08. I assume the locomotives we missed were working in cement plant or stored in the locomotive depot, also inside the cement plant perimeter.
Wagons on mainline service are predominantly the fairly rare KF40 hydraulic self unloading hoppers to cart the stones to the cement works. These are modern wagons with build dates seen mostly in 2012. They are rated to carry a load of 40 tonnes and are quite large vehicles, almost the same in size and appearance of the standard gauge KF60. They are easily distinguishable from the smaller and more common KF20 type most of the narrow gauge lines I've visited use, having two large pneumatic pistons on each side as opposed to one. I don't recall having seen KF40's in operation anywhere else in China to date. The company also owns a number of the smaller KF20 wagons, however it appears these are now used for menial tasks such as storing various railway or mining equipment. All the KF20's found were painted yellow.
We stayed in this area for approximately two hours, seeing six more trains in this time. The gap between trains is approximately half an hour, and during the waiting periods we were entertained by screaming eagles fighting over territory in much the same way Steve and I do over photo positions! Unfortunately as the sun was dropping, it was time to leave and we departed on foot for the long walk back to the railway station. We had budgeted two hours for the walk back along the main road, which was not unpleasant in the least with the sun setting behind the mountains and the temperature just perfect. As we approached the more industrial area of town, we were offered a lift by a very nice man in his new car who dropped us off at the railway station.
The time saved here was enough gave us a last chance to capture some mainline action, seeing first a DF11G hauled train K1010. The DF5 diesel at the parcels siding that had been idling since we arrived in the morning also departed soon afterwards running light engine towards Nancha. Our train back to Jiamusi (K7063) behind DF4DK 3178 was running slightly behind schedule and arrived into Haolianghe long after the sun had set, but we still made it back with enough time for dinner.
Haolianghe is certainly a real gem and we arrived here in the morning armed with little knowledge and even unsure our visit would be tolerated. We were truly blessed with superb weather and conditions, helpful and very kind people where ever we went, moderately high traffic levels, a long cab ride and scenery to die for. This will remain as one of the real highlights of my China travels in recent years.
|12 October 2018|
After only two days in a whirlwind tour of the Jiamusi area, it was time to head south to Mudanjiang. We had thoroughly enjoyed our two days here, but all good things must come to an end. I had originally planned to make this day a pure travel day with the early morning by the Songhua river to get some photos of the huge viaduct, before taking the afternoon train 4174. However, towards our departure date from Australia I instead decided it would be best to take an early morning train to Huanan and spend a few hours here to visit the old steam workshops, before joining 4174 in the early afternoon. This gave us a window of over five hours to explore the old Huanan narrow gauge line.
Our train departed Jiamusi on time and behind a DF4D (number unseen). A very good amount of DF4DK's was seen at the Jiamusi roundhouse and all appear to be in very good condition. Some DF11's and DF11G's were also seen in the locomotive depot as well. Little else of interest was seen as we headed south. The trip took a little over an hour and after dumping our baggage at the station, took a taxi to the steam workshops.
Huanan had a narrow gauge system which I often regret not visiting during steam days. At the time, I always had other places to visit and towards the end it became a bit off putting with certain visitor reports in its later life. It is a very large network which outlasted most of the other forestry railways by transporting coal in its later life. Much to our surprise, we found the narrow gauge is being reactivated for tourists, much like Shibanxi. Just west of the depot adjacent to the main road, a huge new station has been built. As far as we can tell, it is named "Huanan", which is somewhat confusing as there are another two other Huanan stations in Huanan. Obviously the standard gauge China Rail is one of them, but the original Huanan narrow gauge station is about a mile away from the new one. Three C2 steam locomotives have been preserved with number 43 on the forecourt with a new headboard and a pair of timber flat cars.
A further two C2's have recently been preserved for display elsewhere. I am guessing these locomotives will be moved to a more prominent position, perhaps even further down the line, before too long.
The workshops themselves held all the real treasures, however. We were told by the manager that we weren't allowed in the area, that is unless of course a large number of Yuan's happened to morph from our pockets to his. I suspect he was used to foreigners years ago who were happy to shell out exorbitant amounts of cash to ride the railcar. Thankfully he left fairly soon after and once out of sight, a worker whispered for us to come in for a look and see. The railway have restored two C2 steam locomotives to working condition, #11 and 41. They are in absolutely stunning condition, almost like new (possibly donning new exterior). They railway is in the finishing stages of completing a brand new diesel also. This is a small 4-axle diesel hydraulic. I was unable to gather much information about this machine, presumably it will be used during summer or in the event of a steam failure. There are also a brand new pair of passenger cars. Both have hardwood interiors and one is a semi observation car with no walls and a number of deckchairs. Hiding in the back of the shops we found a newer railcar.
The railway has acquired a standard gauge maintenance vehicle which is on display opposite the workshops. With no relevance to the Huanan narrow gauge and so many other interesting pieces of equipment lying about the place, I'm not sure what prompted them to do this. The identification details have been sprayed over with black paint, but it looks like a standard crane version of the golden eagle rail car. Various pieces of rolling stock were found in the tracks leading to the workshops. An old passenger car and some freight wagons were seen in varying degrees of condition. Towards the mainline we found an old box car that has been converted to a storage shed and a pair of old rusty C2 tender shells which have been dumped next to the river.
The line was opened the weekend after our visit, confirmed by a number of photos our friend in the workshops sent us via WeChat later on. Initially the line will operate to the first station where a large open air museum showcasing life during China's cultural revolution (only the good bits of course!). However work has already begun on the next portion of track.
The museum is located immediately at the entrance of the original "Huanan" station building (sometimes referred to as "Huanan narrow gauge station") which has recently been restored. The museum appears to have used a number of existing old style brick houses. Exhibits demonstrate coal mining, farm life, military, Chairman Mao amongst others.
We walked the line from the depot and half way own the main straight, a black VW Passat pulled over with three men. They were very friendly and offered to give us a tour of the museum. It turns out these were the museum managers, who were obviously quite keen to get the word out to the world that it was opening and would be the best thing since ground corn. With seemingly little else to do, we accepted their offer. I have no idea how Steve and I were able to squeeze our fat arses into the cramped car, but we found a way and off we went. They've done a reasonable job, however I suspect most of the foreigners coming to Huanan will be solely visiting for the railway.
After we had seen everything, we were offered a ride back into the town however we still had a few hours to burn, so declined (I suspect Steve was a bit miffed at this as it turns out he's more allergic to walking than I am) and we continued on down the line towards the second station. About a kilometer down the line, we rounded a gentle right hand curve and found the new China Rail elevated mainline being built. We would later discover that this is not a CRH high speed line, but will simply replace the existing line between Jiamusi and Mudanjiang. This will be a great shame because the current line passes through some rather spectacular scenery south of Huanan, particularly at this time of the year.
Only a little further on a long straight section of track faded into the distance. I noticed some recent wheel wear on the tracks and before long we saw a small box on the track way off in the distance. With my telephoto lens attached and through the heat haze, I could make out the familiar shape of a railcar. This was fantastic to see and Steve's mood improved a great extent. We decided rather than walk down to see it (well over a kilometre away), we would save our legs for another day and wait for it to come to us. I could make out workers surrounding it through the 400mm lens and before long it started moving towards us. This old banger would be well known to many Huanan visitors, possibly in slightly rougher condition..possibly not. Finding a working train on the Huanan line, even though not steam, was a brilliant conclusion to our time on the narrow gauge and we followed on foot back towards Huanan town. Right outside the original Huanan narrow gauge station lies a bus depot which is the end of route number 3. The cost to travel is 2 yuan. There was a part of me that just wanted to enjoy the walk, however I'm quite confident if I mentioned to Steve that we should just enjoy the next 4 kilometres on foot back to the CNR station to save the equivalent of 40 cents, I would have been punched hard in the face. The bus doesn't quite get to the railway station, but comes close, passing over the main level crossing just south of the CNR station by a couple of blocks.
With a bit more time up our sleeve, we spent some time around the level crossing and soon had a HXN5 frieght train rolling through with a train of L17 grain hoppers. These wagons are heavily utilised at this time of the year as the corn crop is harvested. They are mostly running in the north eastern provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning and end up at Dalian port where it is exported all over the world. A little further south of the level crossing, the line splits and heads south east on a branch line that runs for some 30 kilometres to a cement plant. The rails had shiny heads indicating the line was still in use, however the look on Steve's face at this point in time meant certain death if I suggested we start off on a new hike. We found a small railcar in a shed close by and a team of workers preparing a section of track with new bolt holes. These guys were really nice and invited us to check out their railcar without us even having to ask. Just behind the shed we found a dumped YZ21 passenger car #22955 built in 1954 with a very decayed diesel railcar.
It was time to head back to the train station for our train to Mudanjiang. This time I had arranged to travel in soft sleeper class as the journey exceeded three hours, my maximum tolerance in hard seat class. In an amazing stroke of luck, a number of windows were left open which allowed for some beautiful GoPro footage as the train snaked slowly around the sharp corners of the valley. I had completed this journey 12 years ago during winter which was pretty enough, but to see it in its full autumn splendour was absolutely fantastic. Our train was a very smoky DF4DK #3092. Once at Linkou, Baiyu joined our train for the next hour into Mudanjiang after spending some time in the Jixi area. The new Mudanjiang station has almost completed construction, nearly two years since we saw the project in its infancy during our winter 2016 trip. The exits are now being used, however the temporary station (former bus station) is still being used for departures. Once outside the station building, I heard a familiar roar and looked up to see a Chengdu J-7 fighter jet scream over head at a low altitude away from the airport. Great to be back! We checked into the dazzlingly crap Mudanjiang hotel, with its only redeeming feature being close to the train station for our early morning train to Suifenhe and turned in for the night. But not before once again gorging ourselves at the closest Pizza Hut. Of course.
Continued in part two - Click here!
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