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Trip Report 14

  • Luopoling, Beijing

  • Hegang, Heilongjiang

  • Haolianghe, Heilongjiang

  • Huanan, Heilongjiang

  • Suifenhe, Heilongjiang

  • Mudanjiang, Heilongjiang

  • Muling, Heilongjiang

  • Baishan, Jilin

  • Nanjing, Jiangsu

  • Ma'anshan, Anhui

  • Sandaoling, Xinjiang

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 Wong once again assisted with booking our train tickets, all flights were booked with Skyscanner and hotels with (formerly Ctrip).

08 & 09 October - Beijing

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. 


Remains of a Japanese fort overlooking the rail 8th rail bridges from the south

Typical scenery of the Yanshan range. The village of Xiangyangkou is dead center on the banks of the river

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. This first day was kept close to Beijing in case of flight cancellations or delays from Australia so anything we would we see would be a bonus. 


A HXD2 with a long empty coal train crosses the southbound 8th bridge over the Yong ding river. Rail traffic is now predominantly in the hands of the modern HXD series electric locomotives 

Rather than head to Luopoling, as is our usual go to place location in Beijing, 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, just south of of the village of Xiangyangkou. 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.


A loaded coal train behind a HXD2 double unit locomotive between tunnels

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.


HXD3D with a passenger train over the magnificent arched 7th bridge heading north towards Zhangjiakou

HXD3C leads a southbound passenger train hugs the Yongding river with rare double decker passenger cars

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.


A northbound freight train over the arched 7th bridge behind a SS4G double unit electric locomotive

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 northbound 8th bridge and a HXD2 leading empty gondolas framed by the old window of  a Japanese fort

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.


A southbound freighter passes tunnels behind a HXD2 double unit electric locomotive

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.


A southbound passenger train behind a HXD3C class locomotive with a train of fast disappearing red & white 25G cars 

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 had to backtrack when we went straight past our next stop. 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.


The 1st bridges of the Fengsha line

A HXD3D races north out of Beijing

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...


Only one service remains on the Fengsha line using double deck rolling stock, this now behind HXD3C locomotives

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.


A look over the apron of Jiamusi airport with a pair of Air China Boeing 737-800's

Locomotives seen:

SS4G : 7016
HXD2 : 1073, 1096, 1103, 1104, 1108, 1110, 1114, 1322, 1323, +2 unidentified unit
HXD3C : 0460, 0600, 0627, 0737, 0740, 0746
HXD3D : 0256, 0261

10 October - Hegang



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.