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Steam in China - Nov 2003

by Mike LaPlante and Ronald Olsen



11/13-14 Thursday/Friday Home/Beijing

Other than a two-hour delay in Detroit, the flight was uneventful. We got off to a good start in Beijing, as our taxi driver knew where our hotel was and drove us directly there. This in spite of a fog/smog so thick you could hardly see 50 feet in front. This must have been what the London fogs of the 1950s were like.

11/15 Saturday Beijing

We had the hotel book hard sleeper tickets to Xian for us. There was a 55 RMB surcharge but the convenience was worth it. We then went to the new railway museum. It is very well done, with room for many more exhibits and the staff told us that additional locomotives would be added in 2004. Many men were working hard on the new building that will house the archives and other non-locomotive exhibits.

11/16 Sunday Xian/Meijiaping/Tongchuan

At Xian, the air was literally murky. It was like fog, but different and I immediately understood what other trip reports had meant about "local conditions". We were told that there were no buses to Meijiaping at the bus station but someone pointed us to a bus and off we went. When the bus dropped us on the side of the road I understood why we were told there were no buses to Meijiaping. We were several miles from town, but there was a taxi there to meet the bus and we were soon on our way to the local station.
There we found an SY switching the yard. The crew told us that the jiwuduan with 5 or 6 more engines was about a kilometer away so we headed in the direction they pointed. We soon found it, but since it was Sunday, everything was closed. Figuring we had nothing to loose, we knocked on the door. The gatekeeper came out and offered to call someone else. A minute or so later, the phone rang and the gatekeeper escorted us into the jiwuduan to meet another man. This man, called Xin Lu ("New Road"), had business cards from Rob Dickinson and other gricers. He escorted us past another SY, a number of cold QJs and a dumped JF to the repair shop. At least half the QJs seemed serviceable. We were told that they were and were used when demand required it. Inside, imagine our surprise to find a QJ completely disassembled, on jacks, being overhauled. Even more surprising was the reply to our question that it would be under steam in about ten working days! We asked him that twice as only four men were visible working on it, and got the same answer both times. We were also told that they overhaul the JFs at Tongchuan (our next stop). We completed our tour and headed for Tongchuan.
At the south railway station we found Colin Hussey (whom Ron had arranged to meet there), along with what are probably China's last operating fleet of JFs. We could see one dumped, two in steam as protection with banked fires, and one ready for operation. The last one being off at one of the mines.

11/17 Monday Tongchuan

About 8:30 we went down to the station as we had been informed that the JFs were going out then. We only found three of the four there. The fourth had apparently gone out around 7:30 (we had heard the whistle) to one of the mines. We saw total of six DF7s and it seemed to us that the addition of one more would result in the two protection JFs being dumped and the two JFs in use would then become the protection power. One more DF7 after that would end the use of steam.
We hung around and decided to have lunch around 1 pm at a tiny restaurant near the road crossing. While we ate, the fourth JF returned to the service area. Around 3 we were told that one of the JFs was going to go up to the mine. A China Rail DF4 brought in about 60 empty gondolas and three of the local DF7s split them up and took them up the grade out of the yard up to the mine.
A few minutes later the JF finally hooked up to a cut of cars and headed out the yard on its way to the mine. It put on a pretty good show as it left the yard. We got in a taxi and started to chase the train to the mine. We saw several good photo locations along the way and they would have been terrific if there had been more sun. Once we got out of town and ahead of the train we found a good spot for pictures across a small valley and waited. After the train went by we continued all the way to the mine at the top of the mountain but did not get the opportunity for more pictures.
When we returned to the Tongchuan Bingguan we headed for the bathhouse under the hotel for a shower/sauna and a massage. The water was hot and plentiful for Y10, and for an extra charge, our three young masseuses afterwards were a sight in their pink outfits. Since the three of us had opted for the foot massage, we were there after the bathhouse closed and found out the owner had forgotten about us and locked us in. He soon came back and let us out.

11/18 Tuesday Tongchuan/Xian

We heard the whistle of a JF returning to the yard around 8 am but we packed to leave. It took two taxis to get all of us and our gear to the bus station for the trip back to Xian.
Xian is one of the dirtiest places I have ever seen. The air is thick with all types of dust, dirt, soot, ash and god knows what else. We saw dirt on rooftops that appeared to be several inches thick and noted many people wearing breathing masks.
We checked our bags at the railway station. Since it was raining, we took a local bus out to see the terra cotta warriors, some 50 kilometers away. These 2200 year-old statues are very impressive, housed in three huge structures. Well worth a trip, but beware; the gauntlet of merchandise sellers that you have to fight through on your way in and out make those of Badaling and Daban look like amateurs. We took the night train to Pingdingshan.

11/19 Wednesday Pingdingshan

We got a very good room for the three of us at the Pingdingshan Fandian for 208 RMB per night. A taxi took us to the west end of the yard next to the jiwuduan and we were immediately rewarded with the sight of JS8122 working uphill with a load of empties for one of the mines. As we moved into the yard, the movements were continuous, as described in previous trip reports. We were quite content to just watch the locomotives parade by.
At noon we took a break for lunch and walked down to a restaurant at the main roadway intersection to see what we could find. As we walked back to the yard, Ron suggested we take the 2 pm passenger train to mine #13 to see what was going on.
While we waited for the train, the local track gang invited us up into their assembly room. We spent about fifteen minutes with them before the train arrived. There was nothing going on at the mine so we talked with the engine crew while waiting to return. We learned that they currently have two DF4s (which we never saw, they are apparently used at/in Baofeng) and are expecting four more in 2004. Ron told the SY driver that Colin was a retired driver himself, and he was able to ride back to Zhongxin in the cab.
The Pingdingshan Fandian has a fabulous bathhouse on the first floor, as you come out of the elevators take a right and walk down the hall about fifty meters. Colin and Ron became regulars here, visiting three times each. The young ladies have a trapeze overhead, which they use to walk on your back and massage with their toes. One of them gave Colin a real workout, leaving marks that looked as if he had done battle with a giant squid (and lost). I wonder what he told his wife about that?

11/20 Thursday Pingdingshan

We got to the jiwuduan at 8:15 am. Strangely, it was sunny, something that apparently does not happen often in Pingdingshan. All the previous China reports were true. Lined up in front of us were SYs, JSs and QJs, all in steam and all ready for another days work. Over the next few days we say all the engines previous travelers had reported. The engines were serviced and then exited to begin work and the show was completely over by 10 am. After this, we made a visit to visit a teacher who had invited us to visit her middle school at the coking plant. We had an excellent time teaching some English lessons in front of three different classrooms and the time went by quickly. It was a great experience. Ron sent them a postcard later, and received a letter from one of the students a week after he returned home.
We headed west to investigate mine #7. A security guard at the entrance made no attempt to stop us and we strolled in like we owned the place. We found a narrow gauge electric line as well as the standard gauge yard. A JS was switching in the yard and an SY on a passenger run to Baofeng soon made an appearance. We walked about a kilometer west and found a road-crossing shack that looked like a pretty good place for pictures.
Back at the hotel, Ron noted that if we left immediately, we could go back to the mine road crossing and try to get a night action shot of the evening passenger train. Even though we were basically in the middle of nowhere, we drew a crowd. We helped Ron set up his equipment and got the shot.

11/21 Friday Pingdingshan

The Pingdingshan Fandian has a travel office in the lobby, and they give great service. There is not frequent train service out of PDS, so we bought a bus ticket to Zhengzhou for Colin here. They even called us on the mobile phone to tell us when it was ready for pickup. By the way, PDS has two long-distance bus stations. The one in the center of town is the old one.
After Colin left us to go back to Beijing, Ron wanted to go back to mine #7 road crossing to shoot the passenger train in daylight. We made it with time to spare and even got a returning freight. We walked back through the mine and got a taxi back to town.
Ron wanted more night pictures so we loaded up and headed back to mine #7. We set up the lights at the mine and shot the passenger as it went through. We dropped most of the gear back at the hotel and headed back to the jiwuduan for the evening (8 pm) engine parade.

11/22 Saturday Pingdingshan

As usual, we got up and headed for the jiwuduan. This was our third sunny day, apparently unheard of for Pingdingshan. It was even warm (11C or 50F). We got some great shots in the depot, including some with a SY/JS/QJ lineup. This is apparently the only place left in all of China were you can see this combination.
I had missed photographing the movement of empty cars up the nearby branch line but thought there might be further movements so I went up there and waited. Ron came up but decided to go further up the track from where I was to try and find a better picture spot. As I was watching a double-headed JS freight pull out I heard him calling me. When I looked over I saw him frantically waving me over. As I went over I asked what was going on and he replied that he was stuck. When I got closer, I could see that he was up over his knees in muck. After I stopped laughing I pulled him out. We went back to the jiwuduan and an engine crew used their wash down hose to clean him off, but he was never able to get all the dirt out of his boots for the rest of the trip.
We wandered off to the repair shed and found JS8120 completely taken apart and in the middle of a rebuild. All the parts were line up like a model kit. The tender was off its trucks; the frame and cylinders were on blocks as was the boiler with all its flues and superheaters removed. Various other parts were scattered around the shop in organized piles. Workers told us that a complete overhaul took about two months and that this one was about half done. I wonder if this will be the last overhaul they do?
A taxi took us back to the hotel so Ron could change clothes. We left the hotel with just enough time to get to the jiwuduan and setup before the evening passenger train. After that, we moved into the jiwuduan for some shots of the service area. It was very active and the fairly well light for picture taking.
After the jiwuduan cleared out, I helped Ron set up his equipment on an abandoned bridge so he could get some more night action pictures. We got a few shots and went back to the hotel.

11/23 Sunday Pingdingshan/Zhengzhou/Xuzhou

We got a bus for Zhengzhou. As we rode out of town we say an SY passenger train paralleling the highway at about 9:20 am. The ride to Zhengzhou was three hours and we got to see some fascinating scenes of daily Chinese living as we drove through various small towns on a busy market day. We even found the narrow gauge tracks shown on the Quail map about halfway to Zhengzhou but did not see any of the diesel-hauled trains.
It was noon when we got to Zhengzhou. We had lunch and decided to go to Xuzhou, as it seemed to make for sense logistically.
It was after 7 pm when we got to Xuzhou. Since we were both tired and unfamiliar with the setup at Peitun, we decided to just get a hotel. Ron went out for a walk and came back to tell me that central Chinese people just love their dogs. He had found an outdoor market near the railway station where they were cooking them with the skulls laid out on carts. Funny, you don't see too many strays in China.

11/24 Monday Xuzhou/Peixian

We awoke to another murky Chinese day. We checked out and took a taxi down the street to the bus station. The trip to Peixian took about 1-¼ hours and we were stopped at a railway crossing about half way there when light QJ7075 cruised through.
We hired a taxi and went to the Peixian railway station we confirmed that there were only two round trips per day. Our driver took us to the jiwuduan but the security guards there would not let us in. One of the managers came by and let us in but told us not to take any pictures. We found three QJs there, two of them cold, along with the two new DF4s that were being fuelled from an oil truck.
We retraced out steps back to a major road crossing and did not have to wait very long for action. There were a number of QJ moves along with the China Rail DF4D 0516 for the passenger train and the local pair of DF4s. While I was taking pictures, the crew of the local switcher, SY2024 (the last SY built at Jinan), invited me up for a ride. We rode a mile or so to the local mine/mill to pick up a few cars and them back to the yard where they dropped me off. I enjoyed it, but six people (driver, assistant driver, fireman, me & two brakemen) in the cab of an SY are way too many. As previous reports had noted, the action stopped after 3 pm.
We had a leisurely lunch and returned to the yard for more picture taking. We photographed several QJs moving north. Next we went north of the yard and jiwuduan as our driver told us there were four more mines in that area. We were alongside a river and watched several river craft hauling sand cruise by. There was also a tileworks there and the spot would make a good place for more pictures. Unfortunately, there were no more trains by the time the light faded.
Ron wanted some night shots so we went back to the road crossing and setup the lights. As usual, we drew a crowd, including the gatekeepers. A policeman expressed interest and we thought that we were about to be shut down, but no, he was just curious. Ron got a great shot of a QJ leaving and we decided to head back.
We went back at Xuzhou we returned to the hotel we had stayed at the night before. The leader/manager told us we could not stay and was amazed when we told her we had stayed there the night before. Apparently the staff was not supposed to allow lao wei to stay and she let us stay again.

11/25 Tuesday Xuzhou/Zhengzhou

We got up early to catch our train to Zhengzhou. When we left the hotel, the murk was so thick that we literally could not see across the sidewalk to the street, less than fifty feet! It was frightening to try and cross the wide street, as we could only see about one lane across. This was far worse than what we had seen in Beijing.
This train left late but we got on with no problems and got to Zhengzhou in about five hours. We saw quite a few DF8Bs out on the line, perhaps a third of them light. After we checked in to a hotel near the station, we discovered that there was an Internet café on the second floor of the railway station and went to use it.

11/26 Wednesday Zhengzhou/Xinyang/Shengjie

Once again we got up early to catch a bus across the street from the railway station. After a little confusion about where we actually wanted to go, we got on a bus and in about an hour we were in Xinyang.
We got a taxi and told him to take us to the "xiao tielu" (little railway) but it quickly became obvious that, as usual, he had no idea where we wanted to go. We finally wound up at the local railway station (which apparently is no longer used for passenger trains). After some inquiry the taxi driver said that there was a problem with the narrow gauge and that it wasn't operating, but we wanted to have a look for ourselves and walked down the tracks looking for it.
A local track gang told us where to find the railway and we headed off in the direction they pointed. (Standing at the station facing the yard, walk left for about a kilometer. There will be a hole in the fence to the left. Walk 90 degrees away from the yard, you will go through a small village, and just on the other side of it is the railway's servicing area. It is less than a kilometer from the standard gauge tracks, and runs parallel to it.) In just a few minutes we heard a steamboat style hooter whistle and soon saw a pretty little narrow gauge train heading our way. The train went by us as we walked the few hundred meters to the line. We soon found ourselves at a little depot with old cars, a dumped engine, sheds, a water column and coal pile. As we took pictures the train came back and stopped under the water column. The driver told us they would be back after lunch.
We talked and took more pictures. When the engineer and fireman returned, they replaced the seal on the right hand piston valve and filled the tiny bunker with coal via a conveyor belt to the coal pile. They turned on the blower and in a few minutes they headed out. This little railway was so fascinating we were very glad that we came.
We headed out too, for Shengjie, the next town over. We got another taxi and quickly got to the railway station (also unused). We walked down the platform as numerous electric passenger and freight trains roared by. This would be a good place just to train watch if there had been any sun, as there seemed to be an express freight or passenger train every ten minutes.
After a short walk we heard another whistle and well-kept SY1693 loomed into view. We did not take many photos as the "murk" index started to get very high. A three-wheel taxi took us to the bus station and we got on the next bus for Zhengzhou.
On the way back we watched a Chinese slapstick/martial arts/vampire movie. Who would have thought there was such a thing? It was so bad it was entertaining. It certainly was better than the Chinese rap music videos that came on next.
We took the evening train to Beijing. As we found our hard sleeper bunks and stowed our gear I looked up and saw Mao Zedong walk down the car. Ron spoke with him and we learned that he was a professional impersonator. He gave us his card and we had our pictures taken with him. Who knows, maybe Elvis is here, too! After that, we settled in for the ride to Beijing.

11/27 Thursday Beijing

The train arrived at Beijing Nan and we had trouble getting a taxi. I could not understand this, as I had had no problem last year. We finally found a taxi to take us for 30 RMB and Ron called him a robber. I was confused, as the other taxi drivers had wanted 50. I still did not understand until we pulled up to our hotel only a mile or so away, probably a 5 RMB actual fare.
We regrouped at the hotel and Ron made arrangements to leave that evening on the train to Huhehaote to continue his trip to Zhungeer and the JiTong line.

11/28 Friday Beijing/Home

At the airport I found out that my flight had been cancelled and that I had already been rebooked on other airline. You just have to love Northwest (NOT). I wound up being one of the few non-Japanese passengers on an All Nippon Airways flight to Tokyo. The rest of the trip home was uneventful.

Mike LaPlante
Ronald Olsen


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© 2003, Mike LaPlante , email: MLapla3308@aol.com