Winter Steam and Frozen Noses

Dec 30, 2007 to Jan 19, 2008 trip to China. 

Chairman Mao says: Welcome!

The first part of this trip covered Jingpeng, Xingyang and Pingdingshan in the company of Aaron Telfer and guide Mike Ma. Then we joined up with the Farrail Tours Ice Quickie to JalaiNur, Huanan, Jixi and Nanpiao in the company of 20-odd photographers from Europe and even two New Zealanders - Graeme Berry and the famed Dave Turner, a man whose work many of us Kiwis have quietly admired for decades, and who offered many insights to many people during the trip. In the third stretch, Aaron and I went out to the Baotou Steelworks. 

Letters home:

  1. Happy New Year
  2. Apologies in advance, but, once again your intrepid far-east correspondent is back on the front lines for another winter excursion to China. No Blackberry this time, so a lack of real-time spontaneity and interesting content is offset only by the partial availability of a spelling checker.

Dec 30: Prelude to a dream

A Beijing evening passes by my vantage point strategically situated in the back corner of a small bar that offers free wireless internet, cheap cocktails and a modicum of low-light atmosphere. In the opposite corner a tribe of noisy locals are playing cards. This is the trendy, or maybe once-trendy, Sanlitun bar zone, one of a number that exposed Beijing to the concept of 'nightlife' not that many years back. But Beijing is morphing into a new city and many of the establishments listed on the internet guides are now nowhere to be found : a whole street-block's worth of recommended cafes and bars seems to have collectively had enough, upped and left. Leaving only a shiny new office complex in their wake.

Even though the 25th of December is behind us, Christmas is still in the air, bars, and hotels of Beijing although the familiar sight of lit trees and signs wishing people, among other things, a "Merry Chris-tmas" (sic) seem out of place in a not-terribly-Christian country that has some railway crossings which, in a break from the more traditional "Ding-ding-ding" warnings, play Silent Night instead. Nothing can stop the most powerful religion of all: praise the almighty dollar, or yuan, to pick the stronger currency.

Four bohemian-looking 30-somethings have just sat down at a table below me and one of them is teaching the others how to play a dice game. Their lack of proficiency in executing vowel sounds other than 'u' indicates that they're from the same country that I am. I quietly observe with a smile on my face and wonder if I sound like that.

After another drink I slink past my fellow Aotearoans and out of the bar, being careful to sound Chinese when paying the bill. I'm not sure how convincing that was. Never fear, for tonight, its time to catch the overnight sleeper to icy Chifeng. And we all know what's near Chifeng, don't we?

QJs night shot

Jan 1 2008: A perfect day on God's model railway

The last mainline steam train in the world ran on December 8 2005, on that last bastion of big steam, the JiTong Railway in China's northeast, a mere four hour taxi ride from Chifeng.

The most spectacular section of the line was undoubtedly the 50 kilometers over the Jingpeng Pass, which I was lucky enough to visit in 2004. Although the diesels were already starting to infiltrate, we spent an amazing few days watching heavy freight trains behind twin QJ steam locos attacking the grades up both sides of the mountain range on tracks zigzaging around the hills and villages on massive curved concrete viaducts and through tunnels piercing the rugged Inner Mongolian landscape. So twisty is the route, if you saw the track's triple horseshoes on each side of the pass as a plan in a model railway magazine, you would immediately dismiss them as being completely contrived and unrealistic. I like to think of Jingpeng Pass as the model railway that some higher power built to play toy trains on. But for the hundreds of railfans who visited the line since it was discovered by a Belgian enthusiast in 1996, the steam dream was over by the end of 2005.

This week, a few were able to relive the dream, thanks to the railway management dusting off, or should that be 'rusting off', a pair of engines for a week-long steam festival. I had planned to be in China with Brit Aaron Telfer and guide Mike Ma from the 30th of December, and thus could catch the last day and a half of it, but when the news broke in late November, I did have visions of a Mickey Mouse polished passenger train with two ribbon-festooned engines running tender-to-tender in the back of my mind; and who knows what the weather would do. But then, who in their right mind could pass up the opportunity to see steam on Jingpeng again? Plans were changed.

And regret it we did not. The first sun of the new year rose into a perfectly clear, still, blue day, and QJs 7038 and 7119 looked other-worldly as they romped up and down the snow-dusted mountain pass trailing majestic plumes of white steam far behind them. It truly was a perfect day in paradise. Quite the perfect start to 2008.

A perfect day...

We were lucky to get the only full day of nice weather all week and saw some Chinese and a few Japanese enthusiasts, but no other westerners because very little notice was given. Yes, the steam festival could have been better. The trains ran lightly and too quickly to allow really good shots to be taken, they could have varied train times and consists and they could have eliminated the tender-side advertising. Still, they also have a commercial railway to run, so hats off to them for spending a reputed 4m yuan to do this.

Between train chases and reconnaissance missions, we spent quite a few hours in Mr Li's restaurant in Jingpeng which hosted us for five or six visits over our day and a half in the area. Some people, ourselves included, seemed to be dropping in just to fill in time away from the cold. Twice we just came in for coffee. And we bought our own coffee. The standout customer was a big-haired, black-leather-clad student from southern China who reminded me of the Little Britain character Daffyd Thomas ("I'm the only gay in the village"). He was also a Li (no relation we were reliably informed) and one of his first names was Dong. We speculated on the meaning of the other forename. He was sitting quietly having noodles, beer and a cup of tea when we left for the final train chase at 3pm and was still there when we returned for our new years day champagne dinner at about 7pm, although he had clearly strayed some distance from Sober during this time. After he had insisted on having a cuddly photograph taken with his two new laowai friends, guardian angel Mike was able to kick him into touch so that we could enjoy the pleasant company of our hosts and their talking calculator again.

Champagne Dinner at Mr Li's Restaurant

Rock the boat, don't rock the boat baby

After the thrill of big-train chasing on Jingpeng we moved to the other end of the scale, visiting the Xingyang brickworks railway south of Beijing, which is a cute wee 6km long narrow gauge line that transports clay. The scenic highlight of the line is a long arched viaduct across a river gorge which has been dammed to create a number of large fishing ponds, so not surprisingly, we spent most of our time in that area. As the ponds freeze over in winter, the pond keeper - who literally lives in a cave (with a door) in the gorge cliffs - must go out in his small longboat, stand up in it and rock from side to side to literally 'break the ice' so the fishies can come up for whatever fishies need from the surface. One of the days we were away up the line, he fell into the frozen lake, which must have been quite an unpleasant experience...

Rock the boat. Don't rock the boat, baby.

Four to six return workings in daylight, with the last few of the 20 cute wee side-tipper clay cars having people perched on the tops of them working the handbrakes gave us plenty to photograph. We were very lucky to catch an unexpected return train after dark for a night shot on the viaduct, which must have been an exception, as we set up for another pic the next night but no trains ran after sunset.

Most of the time we were well away from the eyes of the world, which was good thing as it would seem that Westerners are quite a novelty in Xingyang based on the attention we got during a one hour roadside wait for a train. Some people ride on by, some stop, but they all stare as if we are from another planet. People will still be staring for the 50 feet after they have loped past you on their bicycle. I would rather they watched where they were going. Sometimes a surprised stare, often an inquisitive stare, but usually just a blank peaceful stare, as if we have managed to freeze time. Sometimes we like to stare back and after about half a minute, the local will usually realize what they are doing, chuckle and move on. Some beat us, as our eyes are not well enough conditioned to deal with the air pollution and we blink first, but 95% of the time we come out on top in the staring contests.

Aaron and me on the aqueduct

At this time, I was away from the road with a few friendly locals who were helping me with my Chinese numbers by reading car license plates so I gave them some NZ coins and showed them photos from around the world on my wee computer. We were amusing ourselves something stupid for reasons that I don't recall, when I looked over to see that Aaron, who was set up beside the road, had attracted some police attention. I assumed he too had found some new buddies, but after the train had passed by, it seemed that all the stopping traffic was causing a hazard and someone had called the cops. Our guide was quite unsettled and it looked for a while that we would have to delete our pictures, which contained plenty of 'litter' and a 'steam train' both of which 'might make China seem backward' but after about half an hour, the commander had failed to arrive and everyone parted company with smiles all around.

Big Trouble in Little China

If China is serious about not allowing photos of litter to be taken, they'd better start banning cameras, because after people, litter is China's greatest natural resource. Attitudes are definitely changing though. We saw a massive wind farm being built, organic vegetables in a supermarket, trash cans with amusing Chinglish translations are more common, light-plastic bags are being banned and the prevalence of spitting and smoking-where-one-shouldn't seems to have dropped off markedly, especially in the cities.

The last stop on our pre-tour was to Pingdingshan, which is Chinese for 'smoggy air with worst particulate content in world' (approximately). There is so much coal dust in the air that I expect the locals sit around their open fireplaces in the evenings and just light the air in them.

What had started as a leisurely 4 hour trip down from Xingyang to Pingdingshan in a tiny van descended into a long, tedious slog when mechanical problems stopped us on the motorway about three hours in. It seems the accelerator cable had snapped somewhere between the pedal and the engine which is under the front seats. Within a few minutes, the ever-resourceful driver had removed a small floor panel to access the cable and we were able to resume at reasonable pace as he steered with his left hand and worked the accelerator on the manual transmission van via a pair of pliers held in his right. For two and a half hours. Ouch. I doubt he has been able to use a Rubik's cube since.

Jan 5: Another one bites the dust

Pingdingshan, home to one of the last great steam depots, is in the process of a rapid dieselization which began in earnest recently, but we managed to get a few shots of steam hauled trains and some shots in the atmospheric depot and workshops. That four steamers came in for servicing at shift change vs at least eight diesels indicates how quickly steam is vanishing, and Mike said it could all be over within two months.


Official mobile phone answering procedure in the People's Republic of China:

a) Preparation:

  1. select obnoxious polyphonic ring tone
  2. turn ringer volume to full
  3. these steps ensure people will be in awe of your importance, youth and trendiness

b) Upon receiving a call:

  1. allow phone to ring several times as you retrieve it
  2. stare at phone number feigning disinterest for another few rings as you try to figure out who is calling
  3. look away nonchalantly, allowing phone to continue ringing
  4. answer anyway
  5. inform caller that you were in the middle of something important, even though you were merely clipping your toenails
  6. continue clipping your toenails

After a quickish trip back to Beijing on one of the new bullet D-trains, a quick goodbye and thanks to Mike Ma - who was a fantastic guide - and then we were ready to meet up with the big Farrail Tours group. Let the real trip begin!

Mike Ma: Flash Test Dummy

Cheers, and happy new year!


Letís get this party started


The Ďbig organized tourí part of the steam train chasing trip began on the sixth of January in Beijing. After a meet and greet with the other 20-odd tour members over a Mongolian hotpot, I scampered across the road searching for spare AA batteries but ending up with a two dollar haircut instead. My trip goal of being able to speak all of the Chinese numbers except the hard ones helped me convey my wishes about clipper blade sizes, but a miscalculation of the exchange rate between a US 3 and the local equivalent 9 has me looking a bit like a cross between an escaped criminal and a kiwifruit at the moment.

Next morning we headed into the great white north to visit the JalaiNur open cast coal mine, flying to the Russian border town of Manzhouli in two uneventful hours, Last January we did the same trip in reverse by train and it took 30. 

Jalainur is an industrial spectacle that holds one in awe, but given the perfect snow and weather last time, I couldnít help but feel that I was taking the same pictures over again in less-perfect conditions. Although the big pit is the drawcard, and you canít fail to be in awe of it, it was the atmospheric workshops and a hastily set-up night shot that made it for me. The latter being a stealthy effort when a rumor went around that a photographer had been arrested earlier in the week for taking night shots.


A room for six at the Lixin Hilton, please

Ah, the cute wee Huanan mine railway, my reason for coming to China. Once again, we headed straight to the isolated outpost of Lixin ("lee sheen") which has no hotels, roads, cellphone service, toilets or hot water. Or cold water for that matter. As such, Lixin is where the cold hard reality of extreme steam railfanning hit some of the group for the first time. Hard, because of the multi-person raised concrete platform beds heated by fires under them, and cold, well you can figure that out for yourself, dear reader. 

Although January is early-winter, there was plenty of snow around, so this time there was no motorcycle bravado and we walked the 9.5km in from the end of the road at Tuoyuozi in the well below freezing cold. Some of the tour came in with our supplies on small, flat horse drawn sleds, which at first take might have seemed the easiest way in, but after seeing the amount of horse poop along the bits where they traveled beside or on the railway track and the number of times they reported falling off into the snow, Iím not so sure... The long walk in was reasonably comfortable even with camera gear and supplies on our backs.

With such a big group this trip, six of us stayed in the Lixin Hilton (the track maintainerís hut), and the rest went to local farmhouses. We had electricity (one bulb and a socket) and they had candles and nothing respectively, so it was only fair that we were on camera battery charging duty. Because huge China is one big time zone, it got dark at Lixin well before 4pm, yet despite an abundance of light from our bulb, we had some pretty early nights as nobody had brought a Scrabble set.

Elephant on a beachball

I somehow managed to pick the sleeping spot on the 6 person concrete kang that spanned a joint between bedrolls on both nights, a conspiracy to be sure, which left me waking up on hot concrete every five minutes while the top half of me enjoyed the 5 degree C room temperature. This, combined with a cold that had throttled-up my snot-manufacturing facilities to full-bore, ensured I didnít have a great nightís sleep despite the luxurious facilities on offer. The next morning, I was offered a place on the NZ Olympic Snoring Team, which indicates that my 5 bedmates didnít either.

Lixin is the banker station where a second tiny engine is added to the back of the wee 8 car coal trains for the 3km slog up to the summit, so early starts netted us some great pictures of the banked trains, despite one of our English fellows recording a low of MINUS 35 DEGREES Celsius on his thermometer. Woof, thatís cold. That would be -31F for any yankee capitalist dogs among us, or approximately quite chilly. We were all grateful that it wasnít windy on our first two days there, but even in still air, thatís still mighty hard on faces and hands when the gloves need to come off for a few seconds. Quite a few red and raw noses were on display as well, a dead giveaway of nose-too-close-to-frozen-camera-back syndrome.

Walking in the dry snow was easy with my fancy snow boots unless one happened to stumble upon a snowdrift disguising a hole. A couple of us watched one of the Germans setting off away from our trackside position in perhaps six inches of snow when he walked into a drainage ditch and went in to his waist. We laughed and laughed...

The line is fickle though, on our third day, there was basically nothing running as they wound down for the Chinese New Year break, which on this line can be as long as a few months. So we headed out in howling winds for Tuoyuozi and our waiting bus. Cripes it was cold. A shop at Tuoyuozi had loads of ice creams and iceblocks for sale ... all on a table outside in the sun. Frozen solid. 

The Huanan Railway was charming in autumn, but in winter it is nothing short of magical. The bare birch trees, the hills, the curves, the blue skies, the steam plumes dancing in the crisp air. The splendid isolation of it all. Itís the one place Iíd come back to see real steam in China. Jingpeng pass in miniature. Loved it. 

Lixin at minus 35 degrees

Fashions continue to startle and amuse. On one train we had Pirate Girl, an elegant young thing except for her black skull-and-crossbones cap with built-in fluffy white ear warmers; a guy who was wearing a very feminine Ďhappy valentineíl dayí (sic) t-shirt under a black ĎnEW yoRhí hoodie; a guy wearing a jacket covered in random English words; a guy in a denim jacket that had the words "Wear With Pride" on the back, and underneath that, "Remove Promptly", which I took to mean "This may make you feel cool, but youíre embarrassing us, so could you please take it off"; and about a million men who havenít noticed that black pants, black shoes and white socks havenít been hip since Michael Jackson released ĎBeat Ití in 1983.

There was also a cute little 7 year old guy on one train who had been a chipper wee fellow for the whole trip until some distressed crying and the immobile position of his head indicated that he had stuck his tongue to the ice on the inside of the window. After a couple of minutes of uncomfortable wailing he was decoupled as everyone on the coach looked on with empathy, while at the same time privately finding the whole situation awfully entertaining. 

More of the same

The rest of the tour, at Jixi and Nanpiao yielded some nice shots, but it was a bit of an anticlimax after Huanan for me. This was my third time to Jixi so I took a day off to sleep, hit the internet bar, walk around the town in a frigid wind, and watch an unusual looking Scottish woman presenting the weather on the English CCTV channel. "Veeearrry cooowld wit heaaa-vy arrrrrrain in Haaaarrrrrr-beeeen with snooor forling in looeewer lyin arrrre-gins". Another interesting CCTV show deemed appropriate for a foreign audience was a talent show that featured an eclectic collection spanning traditional Malaysian dance, Chinese folk songs, Russian heavy metal, Korean breakdancing and the Mongolian edition of Hooked on Classics.

Nanpiao bridge

By far, the most notable segment of the last few days was the bus trip between Nanpiao and the Jinzhou railway station. With such a big group, we had two medium sized busses, which can comfortably seat about a hundred locals, but uncomfortably seat only about a dozen western folks and their bags. We started off at such a leisurely pace that speculation of mechanical trouble was aired. At one stage we were overtaken on the expressway by a glacier. 

The pace was picked up after we made a number of strange directional maneuvers which involved exiting the motorway at an interchange, paying the toll and immediately throwing a u-ey to change direction, pick up a fresh toll ticket and re-enter the motorway heading in a different direction. This happened three or four times in twenty minutes as we danced back and forth around the cityís outskirts. Ok, so despite frantic mobile phone conversations between the drivers and guides, the lead bus was obviously lost. The farce reached new levels when at the final interchange incident, our driver missed the other bus doing its u-turn. We alerted him and he did a three point turn in traffic, but the other bus had gone, and we were soon at another junction with no idea which direction to head. He picked one of the ramps. Great, now both busses were not only lost, but lost in different places. Another,phone call. This time at even higher volume.

Our team was clearly getting agitated, but things came to a head when the bus driver - unexpectedly dismissing normal driving conventions - decided that rather than performing a standard merge from the on-ramp onto the six-lane divided highway, it would be more expeditious to turn hard left into the flow of traffic. As three columns of oncoming headlights swarmed toward us, the driver skillfully threaded-the-needle with aplomb in a display not seen since Moses did his thing in the Red Sea. After half a kilometer, he ducked through a space in the crash barrier onto the right side of the expressway, saving himself from being assaulted by a number of screamingly-angry tripod-wielding Englishmen.

I had no such fears. This is how people drive here, the other cars moved out of their lane that we were trespassing in with nary a toot of the horn and I doubt any of them thought anything was out of place as a bus ambled towards them in the fast lane at night. 

At least we had our lights on...

Hey, out of the fast lane

Alone again, naturally

Aaron and I said our farewells to the tour and headed off on a flight to the Bautou steelworks on our lonesome for one last stop on Jan 16. Tours are a great way to see the sights and I highly recommend them for their convenience, but I've never been on a tour as as large as the one we were part of for the last week or so and to make what is probably an unfair generalization, large tours stifle a photographer's creativity a bit at times, as you are often forced to do "what everyone else is doing". This is because at most locations, unless all 23 photographers stand in a line at about the same spot, youíll get Europeans in ski jackets in your pictures rather than the nice trains. This was illustrated vividly at one of the first stops on the Huanan railway when everyone rushed across the snow to form an orderly line except for one gent who just walked out in front of everyone about twenty feet ahead as the train came into shot. The language searing through the cold air would have made a sailor blush, but our man held his ground and got his shot until the train had passed, when he suddenly found half a dozen irate photographers sitting on him. This happened a few more times before he figured out what he was doing that was upsetting everyone. Towards the end of the tour, we took a group photo of the tour members, but the gent was last to arrive. Some wit piped up: "ironically, this is the one shot X hasnít been in".

The real plus of a tour is that someone else takes all the stress away by giving you all the information and taking you to all the good locations. At Baotou, our steelworks-supplied guide had a good mastery of basic English, but not much beyond that, so things were pretty hopeless with him answering all questions with "yes" or "no" whether he understood the question or not. At the end of a pointless few questions from us about locations, I asked him "Abracadabra snuffleupugus?" The answer is "no" if you ever wondered.

We did get plenty of decent shots though as we woke to 6 inches of snow, which died down to give clearish skies later in the day. The snow made the steelworks look more pretty (thatís entirely the wrong word) than its brown reality; we watched an SY loco struggling to get mobile on icy rails; explored the blast furnace; watched a metal pour; and saw a slag train spilling its guts down an embankment. All rather tasty. It was below freezing, but when the slag was poured we were suddenly quite warm even though we were several hundred feet away. 

Steelworks thrills


The guide said the workers told him that steam would be stopped in the July/August/September timeframe, so this is clearly another one on its way out. Then again, he also said that Chairman Mao was "A good man. Well respected. Is he respected internationally?"

To close: why the western world should be very afraid of this sensible nation.

One of the problems with the whole metric vs imperial measures debate is that to the layperson, all of the units in either system are based on some arbitrary thing with little obvious grounding in reality. With the possible exception of the foot. But whoever made that one up must have had big feet. 

China is tackling this problem head-on by introducing new units of measure. I quote from the China Peopleís Daily of 16 Jan in an article on global warming: "In the last 30 years, Shanghai has seen the sea level rise 115mm, or the length of half a chopstick, the report says. Tianjin, a major port about two hours drive from Beijing has seen the level rise as much as 196mm, about the length of a new pencil" (emphasis added). 

I believe the Peopleís Department of Weights and Measures will also be introducing marks for a freshly sharpened pencil and a well chewed pencil on new state-issued rulers. 


Darryl (on his way home)