Winter Industrial Steam

January 14-27 2007 FarRail tour.

Empty limestone train on the Huludao Railway

The following is a series of sporadic email updates to friends back home sent via blackberry ...and now somewhat spell-checked.

China Dispatch - Baiyin

Weather a little dull so far and I'm clearly out of piccy practice. I reckon its only about a couple below freezing although it was supposed to be minus 15 degrees C this morn and we were away about 2hrs before sunrise. I have 6 layers on top and silks, fleece and jeans on the bottom, so I am more than toasty. Supposed to be -30 in northern China next week though so I may have to pick up some boots during the half-time in Beijing. 

Just got back to the van after some mountain climbing, took off my gloves and noticed my hands are steaming...!

Last night, we were served beer in little wine-tasting sized glasses with dinner. The two German beer drinkers were doing beer shots. I was far more subdued in my beer consumption, but did manage 2 "glasses".

Waiting for that perfect shot in the Loess mountains

(time passes) Sitting on a hill with patchy snow now, awaiting a potential shot of the day if the "sun" stays out - a train coming the right way with a nice view of some browny grey mountains with a mile or so of track in view and the only slight intrusion into paradise is the low whine of a lead smelter in the distance. Gotta love China.

China Dispatches, Pt 2


Since I have a dozen hours to kill, here is the latest on the winter steam train seeking expedition. .

Am currently on a train heading east towards a steelmill that employs 100,000 people in Baotou. Apparently we'll be able to get close to the blast furnaces etc. Quite rare here - not for safety reasons, but because everything is “secret”.

Yesterday provided two highlights- the first was sneaking into the lead smelter complex and getting the 2 women in the grottiest wee workers cafe ever to fire up the burners and cook some spectacular noodle soup for lunch. I just tried to use the less common 'soop' spelling there for some strange reason but caught myself and corrected it. Then realized that 'soop' made me laugh and had to share, thus betraying my 55% School Cert English mark.

Feeding time

Later in the day we just/almost caught a “slag train” tipping out orange molten metal with impurities down a bank. Amazing. We waited in the warmth of the van for the next one 2 hrs later and took some pics in the dark from a perpendicular angle on a military railway line that we had been prevented from exploring earlier. I guess the security is “daylight hours only”.

It was a spectacular sight watching the molten metal run down the bank in little riverulets. A word I just invented. We walked over old slag on the ground which is like walking on chips of metal - I guess it cracks as it cools - and putting down a metal tripod produces a satisfying “clink”. Hopefully we get to see this spectacle again at the big steelworks tomorrow. Metal being the superb conductor of heat that it is, they say you have to be careful standing on old slag when they're tipping the hot stuff on it. Melty shoes here I come. 

Night slag dump

One more thing: this morning I saw factories belching normal, jet-black, yellow, green and pink smoke as well as the normal white and light-brown varietals. Quite pretty. Not. I'm coming to the conclusion that the incredible pollution, the dusty soils (which are like talcum power if you break the crust) and the cold weather are the main ingredients contributing to the spectacular mucus clearing sessions that the Chinese are famous for.

Mmmmm... pollution

Today, after the morning ritual of getting up a few hours before sunrise and freezing our nuts off standing around in the sub zero temps taking train pictures up hills, we went to a place they were overhauling a couple of steam locos (they made 'big-ish' steam locos here until 1999 and about 300 are still in use but reducing daily. This trip was to go to a neat sand-dunes-desert-but-snowy line with the big steam engines (but dieselized in Dec) and the neat narrow gauge line with the rough accommodation (closed down last week (dammit) by the state because of safety problems...). China steam trains lesson over.

Oh and the workshops was very atmospheric - lots of neat pictures of guys with welders, gas cutters and other things that appeal to us elderly boys.

Workshops at JalaiNur

Trains are big roomy and smooth, but this one is fairly scungy. We're in 'hard sleeper' class, which is 6x6 foot compartments open to the corridor with 6 bunks in each. Bedding in china looks like it employs mattresses, but, except for high end hotels, is equivalent to a board with some foam and a sheet on it. At least in aptly named hard sleeper there are no pretensions. Soft sleeper class has the full 2 inches of foam. Hard seater is the worst - elbow to elbow in tiny seats with the smelly, smoking, hoiking masses.

Cripes , I've burbled enough. 2:30 pm now and we get into Baotou at 4am, so not much else to do.


Part2a of the chronicles, or How I Got RSI in Both Thumbs

Still on the unsleepful train. 

A couple of amusements I forgot to mention earlier, before I forget. Again.

Firstly the driving, which is as frightening you would expect as cars, buses, bicycles, animals and people all share the roads under a set of road rules that have yet to be distributed to the populace.

I expect the Chinese Practical Driving Test consists of a prospective driver being invited to enter their vehicle, start the engine, and display their proficiency at pounding the horn vigorously. Congratulations Mrs Lu, you passed, don't forget to turn off the engine.

Traffic lights are merely suggestions, driving on your side of the road is optional, and turn signals are not to be used in normal driving. You indicate your intention to turn left in China by turning left. The turn signal means “I'm turning left NOW” rather than the usual practice of waiting for a break in the oncoming lines of vehicles. We were fortunate enough to experience a textbook display of turn signal usage at noon today when our driver backed into the busy intersection of two multilane city streets and executed a reverse single point plus loop u-ey with double flip dismount to change direction 270 degrees within the confines of the junction. Top marks were awarded by all judges.

Now if you tried that in Port Washington, you would be lynched, but it works here because every other driver would have done the same thing and expects the unexpected, or in this case, the expected!

Sea of bicycles - shift change at Baotou

The second giggle: Included in a set of rather risqué products labeled “Not Free” in the bathroom this morning was a condom. Quite a surprise to see one of these puppies out in the open anywhere, but especially in China, where mating has been outlawed since the Cultural Revolution unless under the direct supervision of a central planning committee.

I hadn't noticed this stuff the day before and neither had my companions, so perhaps the Party Officials had noticed westerners in town and had condoms placed in each room to reduce the risk of us creating people that we may leave behind. People being something that China has plenty of already.

More amusing were one blue and one pink sachet of “999 Chinese Medicine Famous Company” (clearly a reputable brand) anti-bacterial creams for the private parts of men and women respectively. While the top half of the back of the packets appeared to be anatomically correct, the bottom half, containing use, warnings, storage etc, seemed to have fallen victim to copy/paste syndrome, as the sachet for males recommended liberal application to orificial apparatii not traditionally found on the male of the species.

If not, it seems an awfully complex process the woman needs to go through for a couple to prevent, and I quote, “peculiar smell of foreskin”

You women have it tough everywhere I'm afraid.

DB in hard to sleep class on China Rail

Tediously long and completely superfluous message from China, vol 3. Delete unless you think watching paint dry is fun.

There are more than a billion people in China, and I think I've seen all of them in the past four days. 

Our trip to the steelworks complex was interesting enough as I've never seen one before, let alone gone inside one many many times larger than my home town - a veritable steel city within a city. 

And Baotou is clearly proud of the sprawling industrial organism that gives one hundred thousand of its citizens jobs. In the railway station waiting room there are three fine 6x4 foot framed paintings - shepherds in the hills; a village scene; and a delightful sunny green valley covered in trees with a blue lake in the foreground and a ruddy great steelworks rising from the trees belching clean white steam into the crystal blue sky. 

Massive buildings, mills, cooling towers, furnaces, hoppers, tanks and chimneys all cloaked in smog and linked by a maze of overhead conveyors, pipes, wires, walkways… and railway tracks that are home to a small army of steam locos purposely shuffling things to and fro like ants. Well OK, not really like ants at all.

China is very binary (or black and white if we're still allowed to say that) in many ways. Most industrial sites are completely off limits to foreigners and railfans still get detained/arrested/have film confiscated from time to time. But normally, if you have the right permits, once you're in… it's all on. Not a liability lawyer in sight. Want to take a shot a few feet away from a few thousand tons of rapidly advancing, fire breathing train? Go for it. Want to play Spiderman and climb that fire escape, chimney, bridge or overhead crane? Barely a second glance. Fancy keeping warm by standing next to a crucible car filled with a hundred tons of molten metal? Nobody was there to give a second glance. Where else can you watch the fireworks as one of those cars is filled just 50 feet away, spitting gobs of liquid metal and showering the area with sparks? I believe a Japanese fan was killed here a year or two back, but as long as you don't do anything really stupid, you can still get close enough to experience the sheer power and scale of this raw industrial ballet to touch it. 

Filling a crucible car at the steelworks

If you do touch it, something not too surprising happens: your hands go brown, the same color as everything else at the works, and the color your clothes are slowly turning. This is air pollution on a scale not seen since Michael Richards did his last stand up gig. There's nothing like blowing your freezing nose and reeling in horror at seeing what has just arrived on your tissue.

Upwind from the works at the slag tip in the afternoon, we were treated to that rarest of events - a sunny blue sky, but alas not great angles on the trains we saw. Slag dumping, something I used to think was only associated with the singles scene, really is amazing to watch. They push a bunch of the insulated crucible cars (think of a bowl of soup with a pivot on each side of the rim) up an embankment and one by one, the crucibles are slowly spun, tipping bright orange molten metal down the embankment where it rapidly cools and goes gray. Now that is danger money well earned. 

Slag tipping

In a moment of boredom at the works (hard to believe on a trainspotting trip, I know), a rope running across a busy narrow road and up beside the friendly fire escape I was borrowing caught my eye (as a stationary piece of rope will sometimes do). As I watched, the rope caught fire. Just as I was trying out my new found powers for a second time on a neighboring rope, it became clear that the rope was a dodgy half-inch dia high current wire running to a welder above me. I climbed down (can you climb in a direction other than up? Declimbed? Declined?)... Anyway, I subscended to ground level and took a pic of a beaming bloke in the world's largest pair of thick-rimmed, state-sponsored, coke-bottle glasses stomping at the fire, pulling the wire apart in a shower of white sparks, cleaning the live ends and twisting them together with his gloved hands. When he saw me, he pulled it apart again and tried in vain to make better sparks with the clean ends for my pictures with a huge grin on his face. Once he was done, as if to justify the exorbitant charges of registered electricians, his impromptu repair promptly burst into flames. 

Electrical professionals The Two Ronnies

On the way back into town at sunset we passed a two-wheeled sea of humanity - two lanes seething with bicycles for probably 2 Kms - streaming back to town after the shift change and dodging all manner of cross traffic in a symphony of orchestrated chaos.  

The other place we see a lot of people is at railway stations and on the incredible number of passenger trains. I'm currently on yet another one that is about 20 cars long going to a place I've never even heard of. Every seat and alleyway is packed to the gills with locals and, now that the rest of our party has arrived, 10 taller, whiter, better groomed folks in fancy sub-zero jackets each packing a photographic arsenal worth more than the people in the places we visit will make in a lifetime. The nature and pricing of these trips tends to eliminate the smelly, drooling Union Pacific-waistcoated, badge-laden, stripy-conductors-cap-wearing people that give this hobby the bad name that it so richly deserves. 

I like the top bunk of the three levels in hard sleeper class. Even though when lying on my back Blackberrying I can have my knees touching the roof, it takes me back to my much younger days as king of the top-bunk and the night my mother woke me up with a shriek when she found me on the floor after hearing a thump. . 

I also like being able to stick my feet out and put them on the luggage rack across the walkway and letting people walk beneath me. 

Even in smaller towns, railway stations in China are grand memorials to communism and bad tiling. Big waiting halls, wide walkways, that particularly blocky style of architecture that is popular in public lavatories worldwide, the inevitable drip into a growing puddle of water on the floor that smells like old cabbage and signifies that the toilets are probably on the floor above.

Station waiting room

The station staff are dragon ladies in military uniforms carrying loud hailers. No. No. Queue here. That whole queue - move here. No you may not go to the platform yet. No you may not go to the platform yet. No you may not go to the platform yet. Now you may go to the platform. But only though that door. I think that's what they are saying. But I don't speak a lot of the language. 

Dragon Lady

As at airports, they x-ray all bags you put on the conveyor, but if you prefer, you can just walk past the x-ray machine wearing your backpack. As a further un-precaution, it appears to be your choice whether you elect to walk through the 'door frame' metal detector or not. I guess they are only worried about the really big bombs or guns. Terrorism alert level: browny-grey. Just like the rest of the country. 

Bored on a train. 

Yes, this is a day or so late –blackberry access almost non-existent…. 

Baotou steelworks painting at the station

Propaganda from the front. Vol 4

Your intrepid reporter is a little achy today after going for no less than three tumbles while subscending at speed yesterday (the hard beds, 40 pounds of camera gear in the backpack, and crashing about on rocky roads in minibuses with their rear axles bound to the subframe with rubber bands probably isn't helping either).

The most spectacular was a forward flop/chest slide combination (protect the camera at all costs!) down into a thorn bush, the messiest was slip-slidin-away within cooee of the bottom of a 20 foot limestone pile. Boy does that dust get everywhere. Well, I didn't check absolutely everywhere, but it certainly gets everywhere else. Damn ankles, must have them replaced.

While waiting for an hour for a steam train to leave a quarry and pass our aforementioned limestone dustpile we were treated to a fine display of school life in modern China.

Our attention was garnered at 10 am by a loudspeaker about 500 metres away that probably struggled to pump out exactly the same patriotic marching number in 1975. The big, blocky, tiled building that it was attached to then began emitting a steady stream of children into a gravelly and walled playground.

After a few minutes, several hundred of the brightly hued little tykes were assembled in neat rows like cake sprinkles (or Hundreds and Thousands for you foreigners) and the music - carefully selected to instill nationalistic pride into our young listeners - stopped. The assemblage was snappily bought to attention, and briefly addressed by the aforesaid loudspeaker.

For the next act, a woman in a black shiny leather catsuit mounted the steps and started the morning aerobics session. We were quite a long way away, so the catsuit may have only been in my imagination and she may well have been wearing a frumpy tracksuit, but nonetheless she began to take everyone through the most complicated set of moves I've ever seen. Forward, bend, arms out, arms in, and pivot, and turn, step right, jump back and arc arms to touch knees, feet together, left shin touch right earlobe etc etc.

Back in the pre-CA days when I used to have some spare time and occasionally went to a gym aerobics session, I had usually mustered enough coordination by the end of a set of 10 repeats to almost have it sorted. -lunge, back, turn, bend and repeat... ahhh, got it.. ...then they'd switch to a new set. Arrrrgh, now it looks like it's back spin, fake, stretch... no, was that fake, turn, stretch, bend, no... Damn.

Anyway, after watching our Junior Peoples Republic Army for 10 minutes... I don't know if they repeated anything. I couldn't make out any patterns at all to the moves, but the kids seemed to be moving like a well-oiled machine composed of hundreds of brightly colored cogs all under the control of the master program. Which I guess is the whole idea. I would have been standing down there flailing my limbs about in an incoherent manner with a frustrated look on my face against a backdrop of alternating upbeat national-anthem-style band music, aging Chinapop and static.

After 10 minutes, the music abruptly cut out mid-song, everyone was dismissed and started marching in rows back inside, lead by the catsuited woman who probably had a terribly disappointed look on her face...


I've got my happy feet...

Outside the big cities, people are without exception curious, friendly and smokers. The latter is most noticeable in places like the dining car on one of our early trains. Although the car was clearly marked non-smoking, there was something about the yellowed interior and row of burn marks in a neat line exactly elbow-to-finger distance above the table in the net curtains, that indicated that the non-smoking symbols date from less empowered times. Needless to say, by the time our food arrived, every person in the car was enjoying a nice relaxing cigarette while we struggled to eat in near whiteout conditions. Ssssssmokin.

We are quite the center of attention in the smaller towns. Ideally we'd spend all our time in nice scenic spots in the hills, but when we are not, everyone comes out to look and we attract children like flies. As we have 6 Germans and 2 French, its up to me to entertain the kids with my 4 words of Chinese and digital camera. I have a great self portrait of 3 kids taken yesterday taken by them (tautology) while I held the camera - you can see him clicking the remote cable release in the pic. Well you could if I could attach it using this silly blue emailing device.

Self portrait

An American guy who I reckon takes about the best O. Winston Linkish night train pictures ever, ever, ever has just joined our unworthy mob for a few days. His traveling companion is a native who owns the cafe at the loco depot in Daban, Inner Mongolia, a popular haunt for the hundreds of railfans that visited in the last few years until mainline steam ended there 14 months ago. I recognized him and said hello in Chinese, as he doesn't speak English. After a few seconds, his face lit up, and as if the expression needed any testing for authenticity, he pulled my business card out of his wallet! On the last day of my trip there in Nov 05, he helped me take some night pictures and I bought a loco number plate that weighs more than the population of Ethiopia. He insisted on me staying seated in his tiny car as he pushed the limits of a malnourished battery and frozen engine for two minutes before it caught, held and saved me a 5 minute walk to the road in the blowing snow and a 10 cent taxi ride to the hotel. I showed him some train pics from China, NZ and the US and he's clearly a serious train piccytaker now. Maybe he was then. Small world indeed.

Ron the American has already made a contribution by extinguishing a small lineside fire caused by loco sparks yesterday with natural on-board fire fighting equipment. When hunting steam in dry climates, drinking lots and lots of water is clearly very important.

Pissing time away

We're near the coast northeast of Beijing at the moment and today we will be about the first organized western railfan group tour to visit a secret steam loco repair facility, formerly run by the military, which is located within a bomb proof tunnel inside a hill. I kid you not.

I could tell you where it is, but then I'd have to kill you.

The never ending stoooory. Vol 5

At the head of a quiet, isolated valley, a railway line climbs up to two unassuming tunnels cut through a hill to the other side. A short benign chimney rises from a nearby hilltop. From above, the whole area must look like... nothing.

Little did the intelligence agencies of the free world realize that in 1970, those were no ordinary tunnels - they were in fact a small top secret underground factory run by the military, and under that little patch of nothing lay some frightening technology that China believed would allow it to deal the decisive blow to end the cold war. Weapons so vital that they needed to be stored and maintained inside a secret bomb-proof underground facility.

Yes folks, steam locomotives. “If the west finds out about these babies, we might as well float the Yuan and teach everyone how to play Monopoly”

The underground overhaul facility was a lot more interesting than I had expected. Mainly because I had expected it to be quite dull.

One tunnel widened out into a small hall with steam loco lifting facilities and perpendicular connecting tunnels containing lathes and wheel setting equipment in what looked like the set of a James Bond Grand Finale - but without the death ray and bad-guy army in matching uniforms and silly hats.

Inside the Death Star

Run commercially for the past few years, they are booked up with 27 steamer overhauls in 2007. The two QJs from Inner Mongolia that are now in the states were overhauled there before coming over, and the three others that the guy has an option to purchase are there as well. I have many pictures of them all from my three trips up that way a few years back, and to see the three sitting lifeless and gathering rust seems an inglorious final chapter. Maybe there will be an epilogue...

Equipment failure. There's a phrase that no man wants to bring up in polite company.

On my second day here, a knock on a rock (hey, that rhymes) snapped a plastic innard in the tripod head, somehow rendering the top floppy and useless. Insert your own humorous quip in here if you like.

On the third day of Christmas, I rigged the tripod head to stick, but lost a lens cap. Camera people lose these plastic doohickeys all the time, but this is the first one I've lost for 6 years. Of course a few months ago I took the spare I've been pointlessly carrying around for 6 years out of my bag. I also noticed a tripod foot had escaped, one of my three batteries refused to take a charge and a screw was missing from my 50mm lens.

On day 4, the other two feet left me and I lost the 50mm lens in the underground factory or thereabouts. On the bright side I don't need to worry about that missing screw anymore.

Almost a year ago I was here on a tour run by the same guy and fell into a hole during a night session at Daban, my fall being cushioned by my former 50mm lens which was indirectly attached to the tripod I was holding at the time. I'll bet it regrets that now from the bottom of an Inner Mongolian landfill somewhere. Moral of the story: if you ever consider going on a Farrail tour, bring lots of 50s with you.

Jean-Philippe makes a minor adjustment with his sledgehammer

The hotels we are using are fairly comfortable, being rated at 2-3 stars by the Chinese tourist board. I'm not sure what the exchange rate is to US stars.

The trendy decor ('stayne noir') consists of discolored and patched walls painted white-ish with dark wood trim, and dirty carpets with cigarette burns. Discoloured peeling wallpaper is also popular.

Each room has two small single beds, the mattresses of which are filled with stones and the pillows with sand. Or so it would seem. Electrical sockets are often attached firmly to the walls with no wires hanging out. The heating often works, but usually errs on the warm side and the toilets usually flush. Rolls of toilet paper, made from recycled sandpaper, are replaced when they run out, but not before, so arriving home to three sheets is a very real possibility and thus bringing roll of plush US bog roll with you is a must.

The bathroom is inevitably a 5x6 foot tiled room caulked with brown residue. A shower is taken by standing in one corner of the room and turning on the taps - it doesn't matter exactly where you stand, as everything in the bathroom gets wet. Because energy is a scarce commodity here, hot water is normally only available at certain hours of the day in most hotels and twice on this trip I have woken to a choice of briskly chilly or refreshingly icy water for a shower. Freshly boiled water is available in considerably smaller quantities for tea, noodles or drinking from a silver thermos urn in the room. Its not as bad as it sounds...!

And then ... Cripes ... I've run out of words.

Two days are being spent hanging out at a coal mining/commuter railway in Tiefa right now (with blackberry access!). Quite cold and not very scenic, but we venture into the great white northeast tonight on another long overnight train trip.

So that should be interesting. Or at least, cold.

Makeshift bar in the soft sleeper

It's a long way to Tipperary. Episode 6


We begin by meeting in the hotel lobby from 6-7am - quite late because the sun gets up pretty late here in winter. China has only one time zone, despite being such a big place.

Breakfast is taken at a restaurant or more frequently, on the move. Restaurant fare normally includes dumplings with meat/vegies, perhaps an egg, perhaps some side veggies. On the bus, it might be a small bag of dumplings or on less glamorous days, bread and water. Coffee made in paper cups from a Nestle sachet and hot water is mandatory to warm the cockles on cold mornings but is easily spilt over anything in range thanks to the usually bumpy roads.

The majority of our team are Germans who can be broken into two camps: about a third are quiet, never smile and have a steely, single-minded razor sharp focus about them. The other two thirds are wickedly funny, noisy and have a steely, single-minded razor sharp focus about them. All are well dressed, well prepared, have many cameras and lenses, suitcases of spare film and lapse into intolerant rudeness at times.

The two French on the other hand, are politely rude, quietly amusing, aghast at the food, and have packed half of their suitcases with biographies and pajamas. They carry a relaxed focus with a mild astigmatism.

Our Swiss man is neutral (of course). Our recently acquired American talks loudly (of course). And I'm just here to thumb it all into my blackberry with an amused look on my face.

Tickets please!


Noodle soup is a popular lunch available in two forms. The instant just-add-hot-water-to-the-plastic-pot variety is used for emergency meals on the bus or train. The proper kind has handmade noodles in broth with bits of things in it - meat, egg, vegetables etc. Sometimes this comes to the table as a kit which you can assemble yourself from noodles and liquid. Both are decent feeds.

Evening meals and some lunches are eaten at local restaurants around a big round table with a slightly less-big lazy susan in the middle. We normally have a private room/partitioned area and get served a dish per person that comes out in a staggered fashion over 15 minutes or more, and all of which goes in the middle for communal consumption. Plus white rice, which normally comes last, but being the philistines we are, we like it to come early for mixing purposes. Popular dishes - and they are all a lot tastier than they read, probably thanks to the magic of MSG - include: spicy diced chicken, peppers, carrots and peanuts (mmmm); egg and tomato (sometimes pepper and usually onion) in an omletteey or scrambled eggy style thing; broccoli with garlic bits; mildly spicy shredded beef/carrots/green things; shredded beef and very thinly sliced raw onion with cold tofu sheets (kitset wontons); tofu and peppers; potato chips - yes, french fries! but baked with a little oil on them - with spicy gravy or chili powder (or twice: sprinkles/hundreds and thousands!); beef and onions; tiny bits of meat or fish fried in a tough batter; a smoky tasting eggplant concoction and the only one of those you'll readily find - sweet and sour pork. Normally nice but once it tasted like deep fried pork with plum jam on it. And when I use "beef", "pork" or "chicken", that indeed is an assumption at times.

local restaurant

Two standout meals from this trip, and ranking in the Tastiest Ever, were both do-it-yourselfers - a Mongolian hotpot and a table bbq similar to the Korean style. The hotpot was a big bowl divided into two parts filled with spices and flavoury things like garlic, nuts, ginger etc in a bubbling broth into which you put meat and veggies to cook. Half the pot was mild, garlicky and meaty, the other half looked like something the devil himself would serve you - red, bubbling and laced with big crimson chilies.

 mmmmm, chilies!

This was a special treat after a lousy day's train hunting and was accompanied by MauTai, the somewhat frightening Chinese indigenous liquor rated at 50% alc/vol and tasting like a kerosene/paintstripper mix with a touch of cinnamon. It mixes ok with Pepsi, although I thought I was going to be deported for that.

Beer is a critical ingredient of railfan trips and all the big towns have their local brews. Even though I am no connoisseur, given that I never drink the stuff except on these trips, I understand we label the Chinese beers as either “OK” (Tsingtao, Harbin, Chifeng) or “Horrid, Watery and Warm” (everything else).

Disposable wooden chopsticks are an essential part of every epicurean experience and are easy enough for the beginner to master during their first meal. You are normally handed your Chopsticks License when you can pick up a lightly greased peanut, and a Masters may be awarded if you can pick up two at once. They soon become second nature, and at a breakfast early in the trip, we had to laugh when I pointed out that all five of us were taking bites from small biscuits/cookies that we were holding in our chopsticks.

Occasionally a stick can break during vigorous use or you could be handed less than spotless recycled ones, so the experienced traveler carries an emergency spare set or two for such times.

Yesterday we left Tiefa, with its bustling steam hauled commuter trains and weekend steam festival, which attracted some 70 folks from Japan and elsewhere to take pictures of special trains with preserved locos. I preferred the more honest and grubby SY hauled day-in, day-out passenger jobs than the mickey mouse staged trains with polished museum pieces.

Reality TV

On the way to the Jixi coal mining system in the northeast at the moment where it is -20 degrees C. Then up to Jalai Naur on the Russian border, where it is expected to get really cold...

Popsicle. Vol 7

It's cold here. It's cold in NY too, but not like the biting cold here. I put that down to two things. Firstly, it really IS cold and windy here, but secondly, our interaction with cold is different in the modern world where we run from heated houses to cars with heated seats, to climate controlled offices and back again.

We don't spend all day walking to town in the cold pushing a trolley of vegetables to sell, or driving our donkey carts in it, or farming, or pumping water, or sifting through steam loco droppings for half burnt coal, or using the village's outside long-drop loos when the mercury heads south for the winter. And we certainly don't spend hours standing on a hillside in the icy breeze waiting for trains to come by. That would just be silly.

We've had some good trains at Jixi (”Jeeshee”), a spiderweb of lines linking coal mines - often two engines working hard (maybe one at the back), a curve or two, open space that could almost pass as scenery, and a few bleams of sunlight. That's the blessing of wind - it blows the pollution away. As long as you're not downwind of someone else's smog.

Ooooooo.... i like this shot. Jixi

There are so many contradictions here. Even in small towns, rows of brand new apartment blocks displaying variations on straightness and squareness which are neither, and fancy shops, are sprouting up like things that sprout up really quickly. Donkey carts share the roads with Audis, and dirty overalls walk side by side with fancier attire. The look of choice - and its not a good one - for the smalltown man who has 'made it', or at least wants people to think he has, is the black turtleneck sweater, black slacks, black slip-on shoes and black leather jacket. The greasy pimp look. He drives a black VW Santana, owns a small restaurant where his wife does all the work, and chain smokes as if his life depends on it, which of course is darkly ironic.

Ideal shoes for snow and ice

Unfortunately, his women-about-town can't pass up “designer” clothes - think of the most hideous ensemble of flashy colors, patterns, logos and styles that can be knocked out by a basement full of child laborers in a few minutes, that you can imagine. But worse. All women wear knee length stiletto pseudo-leather boots. In white, red, purple or black, even if they sweep the streets.

For so many years under “real” communism everyone was the same - they had the same jobs, made the same money, they wore the same drab Mao suits. Now things have changed, people want to stand out from the masses. Now everyone stands out from the masses.

Collision of centuries

Steam loco built in 1999

So in the year 2007 I am photographing steam trains. A few days ago in Tiefa, we saw the lucky last SY built, number 1772, which was assembled in late 1999 and began its career early in the new millennium. That makes it a few months younger than my yellow car and almost twenty years more spritely than New Zealand's newest diesels...

Photographing trains well is harder than it looks for talentless folks like myself, and steam is much more challenging than diesel. On top of technical proficiencies, there is finding a good spot with good light, height and not too many obstructions that won't break your body getting to and from, hoping the sun doesn't go behind a cloud (or is it the clouds that move?), that people or vehicles don't get in the way, that the train will come from the right direction, that its not going backwards, that it has the right makeup of vehicles and so on. That you time your shot perfectly... Steam adds a dimension of character that encourages the creative use of light, but it blows in different directions obscuring subject and sun. It can be frustrating, but nailing that great shot is my home run, my six out of the park, my perfect catch.

Yes, its a train.

The most frustrating bit is the waiting and wondering where all the trains could be, which on this trip means waiting on top of a hill for a few hours in cold that makes your nose and fingers hurt and in smoke and dust that gets everywhere. At day's end, the only clean part of my exposed person is the area under my nose - kept scrubbed of dirt and nasal debris by the constant mopping of passing tissues. The body's ability to produce such an incredible volume of nose drippings if you are in the cold, or have a cold, or both, is a constant source of amazement to me, and indeed to most small boys.

Dealing with the never-ending outpouring of mucal juice requires the employment of one or more of the following procedures (note that I have yet to research the techniques behind the proper Chinese Hoik; and the Sniveley Wipe is a temporary measure at best).

Fresh air at Jixi

The Snort and Spit can be ruled out immediately because of the high noxious particulate content of the air. This of course is filtered by the nasal bits before entering the lungy parts for breathing purposes, or so I am told, and the further away from my innards this evil stuff stays the better as far as I'm concerned.

I've also lost what mastery I once had over the One Finger Open Nose Blow - a.k.a. the Snot Rocket. I used to be quite adept at this while on the move in my mountain biking days , but now the targeting and spread is so inconsistent that there is just too much risk of wearing it.

So it's on prudish colonial properness and a dwindling supply of tissues that I rely to prevent my face being entombed in the world's most disgusting frozen waterfall.

On that high note, I will go to radio silence for a while, as I expect to have no BB access at Zhalai Nuer, a town that I have decided to spell differently each time I use it.

ZN is only few kms south of the border, so I hope to be surrounded by warm vodka, potatoes and potential Russian brides for the next few days.


Big bang theory. Vol 8 in a concluding saga.

Manzhouli-Beijing Express

The scene: a sparsely populated dining car on a rattling Manzhouli to Beijing Express.

The players: Darryl sits on one side of an otherwise empty 4 person table, a toothpick dangling nonchalantly from his lower lip in the world's second worst James Dean impersonation ever. He periodically lifts his gaze away from the frozen landscape passing by to punch the impossibly small keys of his little blue email machine with stained, cracked and sore thumbs. A handful of brightly attired staff and bit-player locals sit at other tables talking or playing cards. One is doing the world's worst James Dean with a real cigarette and an unreal leather jacket.

The mood: bored

Lots of nothing

Glance for an hour or more out the window and you could be forgiven for thinking that this is the famous Trans Siberian Express. Crisp blue skies fade to a blue-tinted white at the horizon that extends right to your tracktop seat. A vast expanse of emptiness, emptier than George W. Bush's Book Of Big Words, is punctuated from time to time with the odd tree, hill, village or road. Or perhaps a powerline. New China loves planting these things everywhere - outside small towns you might count a dozen sets of lines nearby, most running approximately parallel and some with only one wire. Quite the symbol of power if you'll pardon the pun.

If I were to mention that I'm two hours into a thirty hour train ride, you might be also be forgiven for justifiably fearing that this might turn into a long email.

I can take or leave train travel. It's an interesting way to get a different perspective than the manicured front lawns you see from a car, if you look at all. Planes are quick, but less so when you factor in everything that surrounds the time actually spent between runways. I vote the Bus as the most horrid way to travel in any country. At least on the train you can get up and walk around.

Ok, so I got kicked out of the dining car as we approached Hailaer as the serving staff in their blue, red and gold sparkly dragon uniforms left their seats, cleared the car and stood at attention at assigned tables with military precision. Each car has attendants and larger stations have them on the platform as well; all standing to attention as the train approaches or leaves but just falling short of saluting the King of the Iron Road. Every one, from the baby-faced young lass in our car to the hardened dragonladies, look freshly minted, with every hair in place, every button and badge shining, and every crease in their spotless uniforms so sharp that it could be used to slice the Sunday roast. They sport an aura of Immaculacy that makes the Conception look untidy.

The dining car

Anyway, Hailaer, and back in the soft-sleeper car (one on this train, 8 hard sleepers, one dining, and the other 10 filled to the brim with people sitting in seats. For 30 hours. Crikey. Focus man, get to the point) with my German companion, we await the potential filling of the two empty bunks in our tiny compartment when suddenly the room is invaded by 8 people of all ages and sexes. We freeze, with panicked looks in our eyes. After the melee of bodies with suitcases clambering over each other subsides, the tribe evaporates off to other compartments or back to the outside world, leaving an older lady with a baby. We stare at each other with panicked looks in our eyes. After an extended period of kerfuffling, she relocates to a less alien room, being replaced much later in the evening by a Pickled Snoring Local.

A few hours later we're in hillier parts, and the blown dry snow has given way to an icier mix as the sun nears the end of its daily trek. Someone spots a coal mine. We all race over to the left side windows to take a pointless picture of a steaming survivor. Boy... this is living :) Train nerds.

The last day at Jixi was spent standing around on top of a hill in the -10 degree C cold for 4 hours for a train that decided to appear (luckily slowly) just after I'd packed up my camera. I wish I'd done that sooner now. 4 hours earlier we'd climbed up a steep, fascinating, cable hauled, narrow gauge line that hauls reject rock half a Km up from the coal mine in tiny skips where it is then shuffled into a level track, and eventually tippled into another bin on rails below, which is itself hauled a further few hundred metres up one of two man made pyramids of rock. Topped with lots of powerpoles of course.

As each new set of loaded skips makes its way up the mountain every few hours or so, a buzzer rings to warn people, and this is the signal for a swarm of local housewives to flock to the siding to claim a skip and board it pirate style, hammer in hand, in search of burnable coal that has been overlooked in the rubble. They chip away at dark stones the size of heads for coal or flammable 'almost coal' prizes. Flecks of the black stuff and rock dust fill the air as each skip is rotated in the tippler or each icy gust passes through. When a woman fills her sack with black gold, she dumps it on the ground, clambers out and chucks it over her shoulder for the steep descent down the path toward home. Presumably the husband is down in the mine. Or at home watching the footy on the telly.

Jixi Pirates

Sometimes a visit to the other side puts things in perspective, because regardless of the state of your life, this is tougher. 

I've always thought that growing up the way we did, with the values we had in our tiny town in our tiny country was the best thing that happened to me. I suppose its natural for each generation to use the old “we had it rougher in our day” line, and it may be a coincidence that I've grown older and more curmudgeonly in America: maybe this happens everywhere now, but I see so much disparity in NY... and then China is another world altogether. We buy “angel gifts” for poor kids at Christmas... but are sure to pick the ones that need warm clothes and coats ...rather than new Playstations. Meanwhile, on our side of the tracks, I see kids that get hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of dollars worth of Christmas gifts throwing tantrums because they didn't get what they wanted. Clueless 16 year old kids on the Audi forums get S4s as high school graduation presents. I'm no parent, and I'm sure I'm picking out the extreme cases, but I can't help thinking that some future Generation Z will feel they just need to hold out their hand, or throw a tantrum for all the riches and success that they see on TV, or their buddies have. That they “deserve” it, as if they have some God-given right to everything.

Surely that's not the prevailing mood at Waimate High School, where if “you're not moving forward you're sliding back”? Where at home and school we were taught that you could be anything you wanted to be, not by holding your hand out, but by working hard, doing the best you can, going the extra mile even if its not 'your job'. We were told to play by the rules, and if things aren't working out, stop complaining and go play another game. If you do good, good things will come your way.

I hate trade unions, but I hate the spoiled, brown-nosed and selfish more. Well maybe less. Let's call it a tie. Maybe that's the way its always been in smaller and less visible circles. Maybe I'm no less naïve than the day I left Waimate and my time in the big fast world has passed. Perhaps life is signaling an approaching junction. I'd rather live in my locomotive as a hermit than turn into a spoiled western brat. Maybe I didn't get any sleep last night.

Once these experiences are long forgotten, I will cherish the memory of the woman in the last cold coal skip at the mine at Jixi: under that grubby hat with the cherry sunflower print, her blackened face beams as she hunts her quarry. She throws me a big smile. She's giving it all she's got for what matters to her, and that means something to me.

The woman in the hat


Late evening on the train brings our drunken friend into the compartment. He immediately settles into an unsettling full-bore snoring competition with himself.

I think there is scope for introducing additional classes on trains. I'd like a ticket in quiet, non-smoking, non-snoring, social-drinking, light-sleeping, mildly-educated, not-too-smelly class please.

This is the first time I've really noticed snoring. My research indicates that excepting colds, wild nights on the town and slumber snuffles, that 0% or less of women snore. Maybe I just pick the the good ones. Based on my experiences on public transportation, I'm going to conclude that considerably more than 0% of men snore. Just one more thing that we're better at than women. Thus, snoring is a bigger problem for women than men. Other than gay men, which is probably why they always look so tired.

I never snored until I came to America. Now, as a reformed former snorer who just spent 8 hours dealing with one at full amplitude... I'd like to apologize...

As soon as our man's head hit the pillow, he was off. A tub of that green gooey 'Slime with Worms' product from 30 years ago was noisily making its way around his passages, exploring every nook and cranny, with noises alternating between 'wheezing steam pump' and full-on 'Jabba the Hutt, with a cold, spluttering through scuba gear, from the bottom of a swimming pool filled with mucus'. In the Snoring and Snorting Olympics, this was a Gold medal winning performance. A perfect 10.

From time to time, either the Laws of Wave Physics were suspended on our car, he temporarily died, or the Slime accidentally locked itself in a nasal closet for a few minutes as silence emptied the compartment of noise until we banged over a crossover or lurched into a station, waking the Snoremonster for another 15 rounds.


Its morning now, quieter, foggier and still snowy as we near Shenyang; and over the next few hours the skies will clear and the snow will recede to the ditches and shadows as we approach Huludao, the site of the limestone quarry visit earlier in the trip.

Way up north at Jalai Nur (as spelt in English on the train ticket), the final stop on the tour, the temp got to minus 28 degrees C (-18F), and I expect we got the best of that in the two mornings we were there. Minus 10 at Jixi was bad because of the breeze, but I knew that the still, dry air at Jalai Nur was colder because: 1) My camera turned white with a light frost covering. 2) I had to keep blinking to prevent iced-up tears fixing my eyelashes shut. 3). The gentleman next to me, who had previously sported a fine goatee was now brandishing icicles. 4) - and the number one reason you know it's cold - while holding the camera to your eye, the tip of your nose freezes to the camera back. Plink. Now that is cold in any language.

Fellow photographer growing icicles

We spent four hours down in a cold and windy open cast mine pit until after sundown. Now that is stupid in any language. But for us... another mesmerizing industrial artwork to be indulged. Now digging little mazes of underground tunnels to get to coal is less disturbing to the environment and far more romantic (although that's entirely the wrong word), but when it comes to safety, efficiency and pure manliness, there's nothing like whacking massive ugly great holes in the ground.

At JN you walk along in the snow and suddenly... you're standing on the rim of a big bathtub. Maybe a kilometre wide, 3-4 Km long, and 300 m deep with a series of ledges cut into the end and left side where the trains zigzag their way down to the bottom with empties, and back up with coal; or rock that has been cut away to get to the coal. There are maybe 6 or 10 levels of double/triple/quad track, with 10 to 15 steam locos with wagons visible at any time.

Ice waterfalls at JalaiNur

A fleet of massive orange 'steam shovels' of Russian origin, powered by electrical cables snaking down the levels under the tracks load the wagons. And chip into the ledges of coal and rock. Or so I thought.

About an hour in, things seemed to go quiet. The trains had moved out of the middle of the tub to the ends, new ones stopped arriving. Men with red flags appeared. One spotted me on the other side of the tub and exclaimed something loudly while waving his red flags. I don't know if there is a flag language, but he seemed to be saying “go back” and then I made out a motion - flags together below the waist, then suddenly apart up high - that stopped me in my tracks. The international symbol for boom. They must blast the coal out, and its high time I hightailed it outta here back up that icy slope to the safety of the tub-end where all the other workers are. Rapid vertical amble mode engaged. Warp factor 9 Mr Sulu, give me all she's got Scotty!

A few minutes later, I was safely in the shadow of a simmering SY on the ledge above me. The ground shook, and a ledge further toward the tub-middle relocated itself outward. Boom. Then again and again. Big lumps of rock heading skyward. First rule of open cast mine exploring is thus: go where the other people are.


It was very cold apart from an offered and accepted ride in one of the locos. Sitting in an enclosed cab at the end of a big burbling tea kettle beats shoveling rocks or waving flags outside in the freezing breeze by some margin. I bumped my head on an interesting fixture inside the roof of the cab - it looks like one of those big broad aussie shower heads... It is a shower head... Attached to an endless supply of hot water! The world's first self contained mobile shower. With steam option.

JalaiNur dusk

We stayed at Manzhouli, a few Ks from the Russian border and where all the shops and signs were in Chinese and Russian - of equal use to me, but a novelty nonetheless. I was the usual pain in the butt by mentioning I might leave the group that evening and try Russian food. The leader sighs, but within 2 seconds everyone joins in, so Russian it is, followed by a short visit to an appalling bar with worse karaoke. Drink of choice: Red Square Purple Ice vodka alcopops. Beer for the more manly. A few days earlier, I produced a bottle of 'Great Wall' red wine at dinner that I'd picked up at a shop earlier in the day to break the beer monotony. I figured the most expensive red would be safest, and at $2 a bottle, I wasn't going out on a fiscal limb to make the two French guys friends for life. Not 'bad' either.

Another few hours in the cold the next morning at JN and then before you know it, you're on a train; and what had not long ago seemed like a never ending two week trip is over - a blip in one's life - a few sights, friendships and experiences recorded in fading memories, photos and these notes.

It's now more than 24 hours since I started this email and I'm back sitting in the dining car with a new toothpick for old times sake, watching the built-up eastern seaboard slide by as Beijing approaches in hazy lowering sun. In a few days time I'll be back in Email and Meeting Hell, but sitting at a warm desk, in clean clothes, driving a fancy car, eating fancy food, enjoying hot showers, drinking nice wine, snoozing in a dreamy bed with my dreamy girl and a snoring cat in no danger of being eaten.

For a few months anyway. The Huanan railway's safety problems can't keep it closed forever.

Have fun, be good, see some of you soon!


DB not bored on a train for a change

Disclaimer: spelling of placenames and words provided as a guide only.