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Hegang - Haolianghe - Huanan - Suifenhe - Mudanjiang - Muling - Baishan - Nanjing - Ma'anshan - Sandaoling

This is part three of my 2018 trip to China and covers Sandaoling.

The other three parts are as follows:

Part 1 covers Beijing, Hegang, Haolianghe and Huanan - click here

Part 2 covers Suifenehe, Mudanjiang, Muling & Baishan - click here

Part 3 covers Nanjing & Ma'anshan - click here

22 October 2018

After a completely inadequate sleep in one of the worst hotels I've ever stayed at, we made our flight to Hami on Tianjin Airlines flight GS7651. Steve and I had taken this flight a few years before and nothing has really changed, apart from the hostesses look much nicer in their new uniforms rather than the grey tracksuits they used to don. Tianjin Airlines takes the passengers out to the aircraft, an Embraer E190, by bus. Our flight was very full and we hardly had any space for our hand carry luggage, but eventually found a spot after rearranging some other passenger's belongings in a more efficient arrangement. The flight was fairly long lasting some three hours, but was quite pleasant especially flying over the mountain range leading into Hami. For those taking this flight, the view is much better by taking a window seat on the right hand side of the aircraft.

Mr. Zhang picked us up at the airport, but had to wait nearly an hour while the police filled out a bunch of paperwork specifically for us. We finally headed off to Sandaoling, but returned to the airport to pickup Mr. Zhang's alcohol that he had forgotten at the security checkpoint. Bottles of liquid are now no longer allowed to be taken inside the airport terminal building. At the toll booth half way along the freeway, a policeman saw us and asked Mr. Zhang to pull over for an inspection, and he complied... for a few seconds, then decided he'd had enough and just drove off. Not much was seen along the way, asides from the fantastic clear view of the Altai Shan mountains. We saw our first steam train in the distance heading to Erkuang as we approached the Sandaoling turn off.

We were quite surprised at what has happened to Sandaoling in the space of 12 months. The town looks like it is preparing for a full scale invasion. Armed checkpoints are in place on every road leading into the town and nearly every single building is fenced off with barbed wire on the perimeters and roofs. Petrol stations are very tightly controlled where bus passengers must alight outside the station before the driver and his vehicle is checked before being allowed inside. Armed guards with assault rifles are also positioned here. Much of the local population is now fenced off with two-metre high steel fencing with key card access to get inside. This is not the Sandaoling I remember. Various news stories can be found online regarding the situation in Xinjiang and I was not sure what to believe prior to visiting, but it is quite obvious what is going on here and it's just so sad.

We quickly checked into the hotel, the Jia He Xiang Wu Binguan, which used to be our favourite hotel in Sandaoling, but it really is getting run down now. We took two rooms, Steve had his own for a reprieve of our snoring. Like every other building in Sandaoling, a new security check is now at the base of the hotel with a full body metal detector and conveyor belt with an X-ray. The entrance is locked at all times except to let people in and out. Our security guard was a very friendly chap who could probably do with a bit more training on how to use his equipment!

We quickly set up our day packs and headed off to the mainline to make the most of the rest of the day, starting out at Kengkongzhan on the famous curve leading out of the pit. We quickly had a train depart the blue loader towards us, dad's first sighting of real steam since his British Rail days back in the late 1960's.

Steve parted ways from us and headed off towards the unloading area, while dad and I went off into the opposite direction to the blue loader. Despite being my fifth trip here, this was my first time to this part of the mine (asides from being on the footplate a few times of course). We enjoyed a number of trains along the way. The big electric excavators are now all out of service. One is parked up close to the blue loader and all the others which worked in the pit or on the spoil dumps are now lined up on the hill between the blue loader and Xibolizhan.

When we arrived, the first train was loaded slowly by a front end loader rather than the blue loader itself, creating huge clouds of coal dust. A bulldozer was also seen pushing a massive pile of coal closer to the train line and the huge conveyor system was also in operation, forming a new coal mountain next to the blue loader. This was generating massive amounts of coal dust, but we fortunately had a light breeze blowing this away from us.

The crew were happy for us to jump aboard for a while before they had their lunch break and dad got a chance to sit in the driver's seat for a few photos. We alighted towards the end of the loading where the train would sit for about half an hour for the crews' lunch break. While waiting for the departure we found a total of four locomotive tenders in the area, including an old JF type. Some paint remnants on the back were visible, but not enough to get a positive ID on it. We found other remnants of old KF60 hoppers with the floors and side walls creatively being used as retaining walls.

Rather than wait for a the chance at a cab ride, we began the slow walk back to Kengkongzhan where we would run into Steve again after his long walk. We noted on the way that the three small concrete huts which were always visible when taking photos in this area have been demolished.

Three JS steam locomotives were seen during our time here. One of the drivers we spoke to earlier indicated this had recently been reduced from four units, although unclear as to whether that was due to repairs or just low demand. Asides from lunch break, the trains were generally very busy right up until after we left. We had fantastic sunlight and the climate was perfect for walking at about 15 degrees.

We had some great news during the day, that our Uyghur friends who operate a restaurant has returned to Sandaoling and was open for business. As usual, we were treated as family and was great to see dad treated to some real hospitality! We of course had to explain to the road block that we were going to be eating there and they could try and stop us at their own peril! These guys make incredible food. Their restaurant is now completely renovated although they are of course being careful with a new state sponsored CCTV camera system installed inside.

During dinner we were approached by a pair of policeman, one who was brandishing a Norinco assault rifle. I was not particularly pleased with this with my face half full of lamb kebabs and explained I was having dinner and our passports were back at the hotel. They seemed satisfied with that answer and left. We were full very quickly, but still our hosts brought more food to the table. I asked Steve to translate on his phone app that if I ate anymore, I would explode - but quickly retracted that given we were where we were. At the hotel, there were of course problems with our hotel registration papers where the hotel staff tried to fill in details of our passports. It became more complicated by filling in details where we had been, more so because dad had not been with us for the rest of the journey and would be departing on a different flight to us at the conclusion of the tour. Eventually this was sorted out after a couple of hours and exhausted from the long walk and lack of sleep, fell asleep almost instantly.

Locomotives seen:

JS class : 8167, 8195, 8197

23 October 2018

We started the day at Dongbolizhan, arriving just in time for shift change before sunrise. JS8167 and 8195 were both here and spent around an hour or so preparing for the day's work ahead.

JS8197 ran light engine as the workers train for the level crossings inside the pit, before returning as we left. We walked to our usual position between the level crossing and Kengkongzhan where we were able to watch the trains working very hard to push their wagons up the deceptively steep bank before dropping down into the pit towards the loader. We were able to get some gorgeous morning photos from here, despite the Altai Shan ranges in the background already fading away because of the haze and waited until all three trains had departed Dongbolizhan. After the first loaded working, we moved off for the unloading point. A couple of trains were seen during the walk and again we came away with some very decent, although steam free, photos.

Once at the unloading point one of the crews allowed us on board during the unloading process, however they were quite nervous after seeing Mr. Zhang who had dropped us off at Dongbolizhan, who is one of the mine managers and didn't feel comfortable giving us a ride into the pit.

As a cab ride could potentially lead to someone's job loss, we alighted and moved on to the dump compound. This place is still filled with locomotives and other rolling stock and machinery. The biggest upset, especially for Steve, was to see his pet locomotive 8081 in terrible condition at the front of the gates. A number of components and panels have been stripped off and heavy rust has started to take over. One of the SY's has been positioned towards the front of the yard. Most of the other locomotives we documented in the last visit here were still present, with a couple of exceptions. We did not attempt to enter the yard as a police officer was inside and didn't appear to be interested in talking at all, although he kept a very close eye on us! As we walked away, a number of dogs at the front of the yard became very vocal, and not in their usual racist way (dog's in China seem to be able to sense foreigners and bark like crazy!), as we nearly stood in their meal. This happened to be a freshly killed dog and had about ten dogs ripping the carcass to pieces. It would seem food is exceptionally scarce here now.

From here we made off to the depot area. We found the two spreaders have now had their builders plates stripped off. I am unsure if a treasure hunter has been around, or if the workers have removed them to prevent them from being stolen. There are burn marks from an acetylene torch on all the corners. A number of KF60 hoppers have also been recently overhauled with fresh paint applied, even sporting new white-painted tyre edges.

We casually walked to the depot shed and a worker invited us inside to look at the locomotives under overhaul. We were quite surprised at how active the sheds are.

Most of the locomotives of the deep mine were inside. JS8366 was receiving an inspection. 8314 is about to return to service and has a brand new coat of paint, including fresh painted red stars on the chimney cowling. 8173 was also present, but no work was being done to her at the time. All these three locomotives were cold in the front shop.

Behind these three were another two locomotives. 8080 is about to receive a heavy overhaul and will return to service for winter. 8225 is currently stored in the back of the shops and work will begin her soon.

In the other workshop, JS8190 is currently undergoing a major overhaul. The entire locomotive is stripped right back, missing her wheels, smoke box, tubes - you name it. All of her components were neatly arranged on the floor for inspection and repairs where required, ready for reassembly. Her tender is also undergoing the same treatment and will return to service also in time for winter.

We left the depot building and a manager spotted us and told us we needed to pay extra to see inside the locomotive depot. Lucky for us he assumed we hadn't been inside yet. We pleaded ignorance and also told him we didn't bring money with us, but we would come back tomorrow for a visit instead. He was happy enough with this and we started our long walk back to Kengkongzhan.

We had arrived at the right time with trains constantly on the move from our vantage point between Kengkongzhan and the northern edge of the pit. The lack of steam was certainly being made up for with the crisp exhaust note ricocheting off the walls of the pit. For the first time we also noticed a lot more green around the mine with lots of fresh grass and trees. I suspect this will all be gone very soon with the impending winter weather conditions.

Mr. Zhang picked us up for the hotel as darkness fell and we headed back to prepare for dinner again. We were again very well fed and while the owner had to work, a group of men at another table insisted we join them for dinner. We had already eaten of course and soon it turned into shots of Chinese liquor with a 52% alcohol content. I can proudly say that all the alcohol I've ever consumed in my 38 years could fit into a single cup, however things were about to change. I downed two shots of this rocket fuel and only have a full stomach to thank, that I didn't end up severely pissed.

This did certainly improve the mood of the table greatly and soon our hosts had the guitar out. One of the guys was a very talented player and much to my delight began to serenade my dad about the 'lovely and precious Hami melons'. He then asked me to have a shot on the guitar, but he may as well have asked me to do a hand stand. Thankfully he relieved me of the guitar and started on another song, that became simply irresistible for one of the other men, who began to convulse before busting our some epic dance moves in the middle of the restaurant. As I was on camera duty, it was up to Steve to join them where he let his groove out as best he could. He did an admirable job, but needs more cowbell.

Sadly the time flew as it always does when you're having so much fun and we had to leave back to the hotel. Not because we wanted to, but because there is now a curfew in Sandaoling for our safety. Even though we are now considered family to the restaurant owners, we couldn't believe that they had also gave us gifts, including one for dad after only knowing him for two days. We were each given a pure jade pendant or necklace to take home, plus extras for members of our families. This level of hospitality and friendship was very unexpected. We have promised to return some day to see them again, but I do wonder if we will even be able to return here if China imposes restrictions to foreign visitors to Xinjiang in the near future.

Locomotives seen:

JS : 8080, 8167, 8173, 8190, 8195, 8197, 8225, 8314, 8366
JS (dumped) : 8081, 8384, +16 unidentified units
SY (dumped) : +2 dumped units
DF8B : 0248

24 October 2018

I had a rather unfortunate late start today. It would appear that I am simply not trained to consume alcohol and while I don't have the experience of being drunk or hung over, I presume something was triggered from the previous night's dinner and I woke up extremely nauseous. Steve and dad went off in the morning with Mr. Zhang and I arranged for Mr. Zhang to collect me a few hours later. Steve was finally able to get a crew to take dad for a lengthy cab ride from the unloading point to the blue loader and then back up to Kengkongzhan, where I would meet up with them later. This is an experience that is never to be forgotten and it was impossible to keep the smile of dad's face for the rest of the day.

When I was eventually able to get out of the hotel without the will to chunder, I was dropped off by Mr. Zhang at Kenkongzhan, which I figured would be a more central spot to find the other two. Unfortunately being in Xinjiang, my sim card no longer worked. I went off to the edge of the pit and waited for the first train, which just happened to have Steve and dad on board. Steve wanted to visit Xibolizhan again, for reasons I find hard to explain, so we summoned Mr. Zhang on Steve's still working phone. He was also a little puzzled as to why we wanted to see this place, but took us anyway.

Steve had wanted to check out what had changed in the pit from the Xibolizhan end. Dad has a great love for mountains and as we had a day where these were very clear, I decided it would be best for me to take him for a hike up the new diesel line instead, agreeing to meet back in a couple of hours. This was one of clearest days I can remember in my history here and the Altai Shan range was simply stunning. We walked quite a distance up the line here, noticing that there appears to have been a slight realignment of the track.

In Xibolizhan itself, little has changed since our last visit asides from the new security measures being installed at the old Xibolizhan station building. Why terrorists would want to get inside here is completely beyond me. The pit itself at the western end has changed significantly with more spoil being dumped in numerous spots, from the south on a much larger scale.

Steve discovered all track from within the pit had been removed, asides from a single line from Xibolizhan that was the upper most spoil extraction track back when spoil trains were running. He was able to get close up to all of the huge electric excavators. All but one of these huge machines are type WK-4A and he saw numbers 407, 414, 416, 417, 418, 419, 422, 424 and 425. The landscape in the pit has dramatically changed with massive piles of spoil making the shape of the old pit almost unrecognizable and he spent some time at the top edge of the pit taking it all in. That was until a colossal explosion detonated about 500 metres away from where he was standing a few levels below. The shockwave was enough to knock him on to his knees and he hightailed it back to Xibolizhan very quickly. One should not descend into this part of the pit as blasting is still been performed and there are no audible or visual warnings given of an impending detonation. I don't expect many visitors will visit this side of the pit anyway.

We didn't see any trains pass through in our time in Xibolizhan which was a real shame because a photo with the mountains in the background would have been stunning. Naturally, a DF8 hauled train would appear as soon as we drove off however!

Mr. Zhang took us to Nanzhan to see what we could find in the deep mines, dropping us off at the level crossing on the road that leads back towards Hami. We didn't bother looking for the disused SY steam locomotive in the factory here as it was reported to have been sent on a truck to Urumqi last year.

Erkuang off in the distance didn't appear to have any other working steam locomotives in the area so we didn't bother exploring further. Since our visit, I have noticed on Google Earth what appear to be a series of new railway lines under construction. I would be interested to see if anyone can confirm this. One line appears to be heading to a small coal mine north of Erkuang, and others extend east towards the mainline. I wonder if this is an effort to bypass the current operation into Nanzhan altogether.

Although we were hopeful of getting a steam train heading towards Erkuang to once again see how hard the locomotives work, as well as the liberal use of their proper steam whistle, we only saw a single light engine movement heading back to Nanzhan with JS 8089. I expect this locomotive is on loan to the deep mine railway while most of their fleet is in the workshops.

Our final location of the day was to the unloading point of the pit railway on the other side of Nanzhan where we saw a few trains before the sun set. It was getting quite cold and I declined to join Steve on the bank of Kengkongzhan for the night spark show. Steve saw only one train here, but was pretty underwhelming. Apparently this needs to be prearranged with the drivers of the locomotive to fire the engine during the run up the bank. He stayed for only one train before also succumbing to the cold and heading back to the hotel.

Locomotives seen:

JS : 8089, 8167, 8195, 8197
DF8B : 0247, 0248, 0249

25 October 2018

Our final day in Sandaoling, and China for that matter. We essentially only had half a day in Sandaoling as we needed to return to Hami for our afternoon flight to Beijing. We arrived at Dongbolizhan in the morning, but left immediately for the view point just past the level crossing, watching a few trains depart Dongbolizhan for the pit to load up. Steve and I headed to the unloading point to try for a cab ride, while dad stayed around the Kengkongzhan area and explored the apartment buildings overlooking the long curve into Nanzhan and the southern lip of the pit before meeting up with us again in Kengkongzhan.

Fortunately a cab ride was quite easy to obtain once we arrived at Nanzhan, apparently a lot easier to achieve with only one or two people. We departed for the loader as soon as unloading was complete, but had to wait in the passing loop just prior to the unloading point for another train to pass by. The engine worked very hard to get her wagons moving and lurched about all over the place as we descended into the pit. Being on the footplate on one of these beasts is almost indescribable. The heat, the smell of coal smoke & hot grease, the noises and the vibration through the floor creates an atmosphere like no other.

We got out of the locomotive at the bottom of the pit at the blue loader and on the long walk back, recorded a number of trains working the line.

Our final hours were spent on the bank of Kengkongzhan to savour a couple of final trains storm out of the pit and I once again realized that this may be my final time in Sandaoling. I will very much miss these times that we've had here when it is all over.

Speaking of being all over, Mr. Zhang did mention that steam will last until 2022 now. I am not sure how accurate this is, or if he indeed knows himself, however the amount of steam locomotives found in the workshops to be brought back into service may support his claim. That's pretty good going if it does, considering the railway has been under threat for a number of years already as they explore different ways to bring the coal out of the mines. However, for those planning a visit, the sooner the better as the situation can change very quickly. At the airport, we parted ways with dad who would stay in Hami overnight to take a flight back the next morning to Xi'an.

We checked in and experienced unprecedented levels of airport security. Items in my check-in luggage that had been cleared in all the other airports we had been through in the past week, now had to travel in my carry-on luggage instead. My bag was already rather heavy at this point with the camera equipment, and for those flying in, the staff are ruthless when it comes to measuring the size and weight of carry-on baggage at the security clearance area. Anyone seen with a small suitcase type pack was measured up and a number of passengers were forced to check in these bags. As our camera bags were backpack style, we very carefully turned our bodies to hide them as we passed through which did the trick. On the other side of the desk, every single component was stripped out of our bags, with individual cameras and lenses scanned through the X-ray machine once again. Steve had to be reminded to stop acting the goat as we were felt up by the security guards. While admittedly they were getting very liberal with their fingers, there is a time and a place to let out suggestive groans and giggles.

The flight was not so bad back to Beijing on Air China CA1230. There was only one final hurdle left.. Beijing airport. This remains in my experience the most appalling airport in the entire world. Maybe they were getting used to us by now, but the entire process of passing through check-in, immigration, security and a final Pizza Hut actually went quite smoothly before we boarded CA165 to Sydney. Unfortunately, this was back in peasant class, but at least it was an overnighter. Steve would head home from here and I would catch a domestic flight to Melbourne instead. Qantas were even nice enough to bump me up two flights early.

Locomotives seen:

JS : 8167, 8195, 8197


Beijing - We visited the Fengsha line to the west of Beijing. This was my third visit and we made it to 1st, 7th and 8th bridges along the line. The Fengsha line a stunning railway that should be visited at least once. There are plenty of good spots along the line as it weaves through the valleys and mountains on the way to Zhengjiakou. I had spent my time in Luopoling on both my previous visits and it was great to see some new parts on this line. The only negative, although slight, was the limited types of trains we saw. The walk to 7th bridges along the dirt road is also tough going, particularly for middle aged overweight men like myself. However, the rewards are great and I would happily visit here again.

Hegang - A great place for lovers of classic electric traction. The system remains fairly active as I remember it, however it is a vast network. Unless you have private transport, I would recommend at least a few days here to be able to visit all of the good spots. The use of taxis may help to an extent, however many of the good locations are right out in the country side where it may take some time for a return run.

Haolianghe - An absolute delight to visit here. Autumn seems to have been an extremely good time to visit for good photographic results. We experienced great weather, plenty of trains and friendly & helpful staff where ever we went. If I return to China, it will surely be on the list for a return visit.

Suifenhe - A great place to see Russian and Chinese trains cross the border. This can of course be done in Manzhouli as well, however the scenery makes this place the better out of the two. Traffic is moderate and there are some lengthy time gaps between trains, however it is certainly worth the effort.

Mudanjiang - What a great place to visit, if a little unorthodox. The public are generally forbidden from entering China Rail locomotive depots, less so foreigners. We would not have attempted entry into a place like this without someone like Baiyu and we really appreciate his efforts to help us get here.

Muling - Quite a beautiful little town which now serves as a storage area for retired locomotives until the decision is made to either scrap them or bring them back into service. I suspect the latter will be the ultimate decision made. Access into the yard is not possible, unless you were to have a very special contact within China Rail, but it is a very impressive sight to see. The old Muling railway station is gorgeous with old style architecture. The use of the rail car train makes access easy from the new Muling station and may be enough of an interest in itself for a visit.

Baishan - What a gorgeous part of the world! Baishan, or Hunjiang as it used to be called, was famous back in steam days for the Tonghua based high deflector JS steam locomotives. The main drawcard however is the narrow gauge. Due to its isolation from the rest of the country, it is seldom visited by rail enthusiasts these days which is a great shame. Official permission to visit the mine is suggested, especially for large groups and may be obtained after negotiations by management. We stayed under the radar as much as possible and were left alone, however this cannot be guaranteed. The railway itself is very picturesque in autumn and is busy enough. The train crews are fantastic and were very accommodating to us. It is now one of my favourite locations in China. Other things in the area of interest may be the industrial line (although few workings during the day) that crosses the river between China Rail and the power station and ore loader. Currently a GK1 diesel is used and there may be a TH class still around, although we couldn't confirm this.

Nanjing - This is a massive city with a lot going on, particularly in railway terms. It is now the last area to find the American ND5 diesel locomotives in service and their existence is still under threat. There are four narrow gauges in the area, one 100kms south which I visited in 2017 at Digang, another one north of Nanjing that operates more on a tourist based service nowadays, although it may possibly still see some service to the steelworks during the day. The two competing narrow gauge lines to the east are certainly the most appealing for a visit and I can now confirm both are operating. The 900mm gauge line uses diesel and electric traction and the reported closed 762mm gauge line operates a handful of JMY380 class diesel hydraulics. Both lines are well worth visiting, the 762mm gauge line is by far the most impressive, although has limited workings. Both lines are under threat of closure and if you want to see them, you should make plans as soon as possible.

Ma'anshan - Ma'anshan's iron mine railway will close shortly in 2019. They currently operate around thirty electric locomotives of two classes shifting spoil and iron ore. Being so close to a major city also makes it quite attractive in itself. The steelworks railway will remain, although this is largely off limits to foreigners due to the cut-throat nature of the steel industry.

The mainline here is also OK, although the views are now more limited. There may be other locations along the mainline in the Ma'anshan region that warrant exploring, particularly around Caishi just to the south.

Sandaoling - Not cold enough for steam effects, but we had seen this before on previous visits. Our visit was more to enjoy the experience rather than treat it as a hardcore photography quest.

We also had the added bonus of having the entire place to ourselves, which is a bonus in recent years from what we've experienced. I had the pleasure of getting my father to join us this time to experience his first taste of mainline steam since his youth in British rail days some 50 years ago and was great for him to experience. He was fortunate to experience everything Sandaoling has to offer, including a visit to the workshops and a ride on the footplate, all location points visited and the local hospitality from our friends.

I would highly recommend that people do not visit Sandaoling as a solo traveller unless they are part of a large group or have direct contact with one of the mine managers who can arrange things and make the journey in and out a bit smoother. I can provide contact details for Mr. Zhang (Chinese language only) on request for those interested.

General - China has always progressed fast, but alarmingly in the space of less than a year. While this has without question been one of the more successful trips I've made to China, the general mood is quite ugly, particularly in Nanjing but especially in Xinjiang. It is very obvious that foreigners are not wanted in Xinjiang province any longer and I certainly won't be attempting a revisit anytime soon.

All of our hotels, food, train tickets (13 trains including some soft sleeper overnighters), local travel expenses and domestic airfares (five flights) , cost us around 8000rmb for the three weeks making it exceptional value, especially as 2000 of that was the price for the permits in Sandaoling alone over the 4 days. However it should be noted that Steve and I also have a lot of experience travelling in China now and a first time visitor may feel a lot of secure in a group tour, where they can travel at a much more relaxed pace than we do and forego the very extensive planning and research phase associated. If anyone would like further information about the places we've visited or about travelling in China in general is welcome to make contact.

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