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My first trip to China was inspired by a Victorian steam preservation magazine, way back in mid 1999. The Jing Peng pass was easily one of the best steam railways lines in the world, ever. It offered a last chance of heavy steam powered mainline action, in one of the most beautiful places imaginable at any time of the year. Most people visited in the winter time, as I did, however this was due to available time off work rather than a planned visiting time. I had every intention of heading back for a spring visit, however life got in the way and that never eventuated.
This was my first trip overseas and due to the internet being very young and not having the wealth of information available as we do today, I organised a tour guide prior to going. The trip organiser was the famous Li Weishu, who specialised in tours on the Jing Peng pass. As I understand, he moved to Canada in the mid 2000's. Mr. Li had another tour group with him during my visit, and provided me with Chifeng based guide Tina and a driver (another Mr. Li) with a private minivan, both of which did a sterling effort in every regard. Tina comes highly recommended and she can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
I took the train from Beijing and returned via Hong Kong, spending much time in the city doing the usual tourist run. This report focuses solely on my time at Jing Peng, however I intend to expand it to include the train travel between Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai & back to Hong Kong when time permits.
17 January 2000
I met up with Mr. Wieshu's contact at Beijing Bei on the evening soft sleeper service to Chifeng (approximately 400 kilometers NNE of Beijing). My train was an orange DF4B with 22 class stock, quite a change from the plush 25K type travelled on from Hong Kong to Beijing! The train was very full although I missed the long queues and general chaotic scenes as I already had a soft sleeper ticket and was able to get straight onto the train. The journey lasted almost 10 hours, arriving in Chifeng at approximately 6am. I don't recall the train number, however it was a non-stop service, albeit - slow. Although I was tired, I couldn't sleep all night. There was a full moon and it lit up everything outside almost like day. Somewhere along the way we went through a passing loop with a QJ on a freighter. This was something I wasn't expecting to see on the CNR mainline.
18 January 2000
Arrived bright and early at Chifeng station just after 630am. Here we were greeted by Tina and Mr. Li and went straight away to a hotel for a buffet breakfast. Mr. Li was reputed to be one of the drivers in the area, although I didn't hold much hope when I saw the L100 Mitsubishi minivan with balding tires, however this changed within the first 10 kilometers of driving, discovering it is actually possible to drive at high speed on icy single lane roads while playing chicken with other drivers.
The drive to Jing Peng was fascinating to say the least. Spectacular mountains, wildlife, twisting roads and tiny villages. The area is pristine, a big contrast to many large cities in China. After a 4 hour drive, we made it to the intersection just before Linxi, just in time to see my first QJ's - 6638 and 6517 at the reins of a huge west bound mixed freight train. We chased this train as far as Reshui, stopping first at the passing loop at Yuzhoudi. Only a few minutes before another double header (6135 & 6998), east bound with a coal train, came rolling through the loop, getting four working QJ's in one photo! 6638 & 6517 put on an incredible show pulling out, with the temperature about minus 25°C. The last photos I took of this train were at the hill adjacent to the level crossing at Reshui overlooking Galadesitai and had just enough time to scramble up the top as it was departing.
We soon checked into the brand new railway hotel in Reshui which was only months old. The hotel seemed unnecessarily large for such a remote area, but there is apparently an influx of local tourists in the summer. During our visit, the hotel was almost empty. At about noon, we left the hotel and drove out towards Jing Peng, stopping first at San Di for a west bound train 7143 and 6388 then at the summit, Er Di and Simingyi, famous for its huge curved viaduct. We didn't have to wait long before another east bound coal train came through. Once again, another scene that went way beyond anything I could have hoped for.
After Simingyi, we went to Brickworks valley for another Eastbound train. I didn't get the numbers of the engines as it was so far away. Nevertheless, I got some of my best photos from this area, one of which took first prize in a photo competition some years later. After a short 2 minute noodle snack stop, we took off for Liudigou passing loop, where a double header with 6375 at the lead was waiting for a west bound train.
This was also the coldest time during, I believe, my entire life with my thermometer tipping minus 62°C. Ice had formed over most of the locomotive. I was invited into the cab of the lead engine by the fireman. This was the first time inside a steam locomotive. A truly incredible experience being inside the cab of one of these locomotives. Very dirty, but a rise in temperature by at least 70 degrees was very welcome also. I sat in the driver's seat to get some photos of Reshui in the distance and soon a small trail of steam could be seen at the bottom of the valley. Quickly descended the stairs and photographed QJ6687 with a train of empty coal gondolas heading towards Jing Peng, the only single header train I saw during my stay. Back to the hotel for an early start next morning.
19 January 2000
The first train the next morning was a double header, we caught it from the railway crossing at San Di up to Simingyi viaduct, stopping off in a few places along the way for photos. I got some of my best photos from this day as the wind was calm, the sun was out and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. The contrast between one of the clearest blue skies I've ever seen and pure white snow was truly breath taking. The next train we photographed was from Xiakengzi viaduct - the first viaduct out of Jing Peng.
This bridge is on a very slight curve. From my vantage point on the hill overlooking the viaduct, I could see the train depart and accelerate out of Jing Peng, with a steam plume that rose hundreds of feet into the air. This was a maximum tonnage freight with loco 6765 in charge. I quickly got back in the car after it passed and photographed it again over Simingyi viaduct and then again at Brickworks valley.
After another quick instant noodle break, we went off to Jing Peng city and were greeted by the presence of a double header freight waiting in the station for a west bound freight. QJ6639 was at the helm, a very handsome machine and after Tina had a chat to the driver, I was called up into the cab for a ride back to Reshui. This was the without question the pinnacle of all my trips since in China - my first cabride in the lead engine of a double header max tonnage freight train.
The journey lasted some two hours, passing two coal trains on the way. At Reshui, the driver stopped the train in the middle of the level crossing while the traffic backed up. The sun started to set by this stage and being half frozen, I returned to the hotel for a hot bath. This effort was thwarted by an over flow hole that some genius that thought to install two inches from the base. Not wishing to flop around like a Walrus, headed to the restaurant for a hot meal while enjoying the company of some other rail enthusiasts from Li Wieshu's group, while listening to the steam trains storm the bank in the distance.
20 January 2000
This was my last day on the pass and we revisited the summit to pick up the timetable of the trains from the despatch hut, quickly getting some photos of two trains from this location, one in each direction, then back to Back at Simingyi viaduct. We ran into Mr. Li Weishu again and walked up a hill overlooking Simingyi and a good part of Xiakengzi and didn't have to wait too long before another long double header mixed freight came through led by 6375 & 6250 heading east.
We followed this train back to Reshui and then it was time to check out from the hotel, have lunch at the restaurant once more and set off for Chifeng, much in the same manner as we arrived. After checkout we went to Jing Peng for our last photo position and captured another two trains on film. One was heading towards Daban with a long freight while another waited in the loop outside Reshui to pass. Heading out of Reshui, we saw an unexpected double header light engine movement heading towards Jing Peng, but I was unable to photograph it as the camera had run out of film!
When we got back to Back in Chifeng station, we said our goodbyes to Mr. Li for his good company and for not killing me with his driving. Tina waited with me at the station until the train arrived. Unbelievably, a single QJ raced through pulling a mixed freight through. I managed to get the camera out, but being dark the results were not good. I was shouted at by a platform attendant. back in the waiting room, the same woman burst in with a broom and started sweeping the floor, exclaiming in Chinese - "here is very clean, this is only mud!". I think she may have been worried I would report the state of the station, which of course wasn't the case. Overnight train back to Beijing... back to the world of dreams.
Although brief, this was an amazing three days. Being 19 years old at the time and crazy about railways, this trip converted me to Chinese railways for good and I have tried to get back as often as possible ever since. Jing Peng lasted in steam until 2005, right on the prediction that steam would remain for another 5 years from the date of my visit. My only regret was not seeing the locomotive depot at Daban, and while I was fortunate to visit other sheds in subsequent trips, the only one that came close was Pingdingshan's shops. Indeed, I could have returned to Jing Peng rather than a venture out into a new area, however things had already rapidly changed in Jing Peng by this stage with a mix of diesel/steam freights and I thought it best to remember it how it was. For those that visited the area, I have no doubt it will always be considered Mecca of steam in China. For those that didn't, I sympathise.