FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Steam ends at Baiyin

Posted in Baiyin, China by folkestonejack on November 22, 2015

The latest update from China on the SY country website has brought the news that steam has now officially ended at Baiyin following the recent purchase of four diesels.

Farewell to Baiyin

Farewell to Baiyin

It’s a sad, if unsurprising, loss to the much diminished list of steam locations in China. The beauty of the line at Baiyin was that its steep gradients still presented a decent challenge for SY class locomotives and this was packaged within the beautiful arid setting of the loess mountains.

I was lucky enough to get a little taste of this on two trips to Baiyin in 2009, though it’s frustrating to see how many opportunities I wasted as I look back through the photographs that I took at the time!

Gallery: Baiyin in 2009

Advertisements

Beijing to London

Posted in Beijing, China by folkestonejack on November 21, 2012

A short trip by metro to Dongzhimen and a smooth run on the airport-express train delivered me to the airport with minimal hassle. The view from the train had been a little worrying, with a dense fog hiding most of the landscape from sight, but thankfully things seemed a little better around the airport.

A glimpse of my ride home

A glimpse of my ride home

Once I had completed the usual formalities I found a quiet airside cafe and chilled out until it was time to board my flight home. Thankfully, there were no dramas this time and after a couple of good flights found myself back in at London City airport a little ahead of schedule. In fact, I was perfectly in time for the rush-hour – oh joy!

Looking back on the past ten days, I am relieved that a second trip to see Sandaoling was worthwhile and glad to have finally gotten around to spending sufficient time in Beijing to appreciate the city better (after all, this is the fourth time I have been to/through Beijing so it really was long overdue!). I don’t know whether I will be back, but if not this was a good note to end on.

Sunset in Tian’anmen Square

Posted in Beijing, China by folkestonejack on November 20, 2012

At the end of my last full day in Beijing I headed to Tian’anmen Square to see the sunset flag lowering ceremony, which is probably as clichéd a tourist experience as the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace or feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square. However, sometimes you just have to give in and do these things… after all, you would miss some incredible places if you only ever did stuff off the beaten track!

The Chinese flag flies in Tian'anmen Square

The Chinese flag flies in Tian’anmen Square

I arrived about an hour before sunset to find that the three sides of the flagpole accessible from Tian’anmen Square were almost completely lined with tourists (with hardly a westerner amongst them). There was a noticeable army and police presence, along with other men in tracksuits who looked like they shouldn’t be messed with. I guess with the recent increase in security for the party congress there was still a degree of lingering nervousness, though I don’t know what counts as normal to make any proper comparisons! The soldiers had fire extinguishers at the ready to deal with any self-immolations, particularly after a spate of such incidents at other locations in China.

The flag is taken down from Tian'anmen Square at sunset

The flag is taken down from Tian’anmen Square at sunset

A moment or two before sunset the traffic stopped and soldiers marched out from the tower on the square. The flag was lowered respectfully and then the traffic was stopped once again to allow the soldiers to return. Once this act had been completed the crowds were encouraged to leave the square. I headed back to my hotel to get myself ready for my journey homeward in the morning.

The Great Wall

Posted in Beijing, China by folkestonejack on November 20, 2012

The final day of my trip began with an early morning metro ride to the pick-up point for a tour to the Great Wall at Mutianyu, Huairou District, which is approximately 70km outside Beijing. I had opted to travel with Urban Adventures in the hope that their relatively early start (6.30am) from the city centre would give us a decent spell on the wall before the majority of visitors arrived.

The plan threatened to unravel fairly early on as we hit a massive traffic jam caused by some construction work at a roundabout in central Beijing. Thankfully the roads flowed pretty freely once we made our escape and we reached Mutianyu around 8.45am. A short cable car ride took us up to the Great Wall which was largely deserted, except for a small group of visiting soldiers.

The Great Wall at Mutianyu with dedication to Chairman Mao

The Great Wall at Mutianyu with a dedication to Chairman Mao on the hillside

I don’t suppose I had ever really contemplated the kind of terrain that the Great Wall crossed, nor how high it would be, so this came as something of a surprise. The view down to the village below certainly spoke volumes!

The view down from the Great Wall at at Mutianyu

The view down from the Great Wall at at Mutianyu

After climbing out of the cable car we turned left and headed up to the last tower at the western end of the public section of the wall. The public section of the wall has been restored and is generally easy to follow, but there is a real kick at the end with a steep climb to the final tower. Any desire to congratulate ourselves on such a feat was quickly dispelled by the sight of an old lady selling souvenirs and snacks at the top! The old lady insisted that we should climb much further, but the sign saying ‘No tourist section, please donot pass’ and the CCTV camera trained on the gateway persuaded us otherwise…

A quiet-ish day on the Great Wall

A quiet-ish day on the Great Wall

The way back down was much easier and we had soon made it back past our initial entry point. By now there were tourists across the whole length of the wall, however the numbers were still fairly modest. I guess this is the advantage of visiting in the off-season, along with the incredible colours of the vegetation.

Tower 11 sits at the end of a short spur off the main wall

Tower 11 sits at the end of a short spur off the main wall

The original plan been to walk back to tower 6 and choose between the three options available to get back to the village (walk down, slide down on a toboggan or take the chair-lift). However with a little time in hand I continued on to the three connected towers guarding the pass at Zhengguantai (a rare occurence on the Great Wall) before turning back and choosing the chair lift to get me down.

The Great Wall

The Great Wall

Although the wall has been restored it is still a terrific place to visit. The view from the wall was fascinating as we could see how unrestored and overgrown sections of the wall continued to snake around the mountains in the distance. This can all be seen in the photograph below which shows a distant unrestored wall (running down the centre of the image from top to bottom), further towers on the hilltops and another section of wall on the nearest hillside. It’s not hard to see how fascinating it can be and why so many visitors come back again and again, walking different stretches of the wall. I’d certainly love to go back and hike some of the unrestored sections.

Unrestored sections of Great Wall can be seen in the distance from the wall at Mutianyu

Unrestored sections of Great Wall can be seen in the distance from the wall at Mutianyu

Our small group gathered back in the village at midday and from here we headed to a local restaurant for some much needed sustenance. It was a great day trip and certainly the perfect way to round off this trip to China.

Great Wall Gallery

The Forbidden City

Posted in Beijing, China by folkestonejack on November 19, 2012

The Forbidden City is both a fascinating and frustrating place to visit. Inevitably, the place attracts vast numbers of tourists and even on a weekday, in low season, it can feel like you are sightseeing through a scrum just to get a view inside the fenced off palace buildings. However, once you move away from the main south-north axis the crowds thin out and the experience becomes much more pleasant.

Off the beaten track

Off the beaten track in the Forbidden City

I started my visit to the Forbidden City at 11am and spent about four hours wandering around. I was surprised by some aspects of the layout, such as the military barracks and basketball court located within the boundaries of the complex, just outside the Meridian Gate, and unprepared for just how much more beautiful some sights appear in person. The five marble bridges over the golden water were a particular delight.

The military maintain a presence on the approach to the Forbidden City

The military maintain a presence on the approach to the Forbidden City

I took a leisurely wander around the Forbidden City exploring any passages that caught my eye, often leading to small galleries tucked away in hidden courtyards. I began to realise how much the tour groups being whisked through on the main axis must be missing. Similarly, the Eastern Palaces (requiring a 10 Yuan ticket) were much quieter still which was a pity as some of the treasures tucked away there were really worth a look – as was the nine dragon screen that can be found here.

The view across the golden water

The view across the golden water

The absolute highlight of my day was, rather unexpectedly, a visit to the exhibition of clocks in the Hall of worshing ancestors. I was completely blown away by the utterly amazing timepieces on display – the most elaborate, inventive and beautiful clocks I have ever seen – and all utterly amazing in their own right. I had timed my visit for the second of the day’s displays of working clocks (at 2pm) with about five clocks wound up for people to watch their extraordinary movements (towers rising, pieces twirling etc).

Overall, I would say that the entrance fee is an incredible bargain for such a remarkable place. I paid 40 Yuan for the main ticket, plus two supplementary 10 Yuan tickets which works out at somewhere around £6 for a day’s entertainment. I am sure I could have spent longer in the Forbidden City too – I am sure I missed some of the Western Palaces and other exhibitions (there is only so much my brain could digest in one day!).

The end of the day

The end of the day

In the evening I returned to Tian’anmen Square for a view of the illuminated tower gateway to the Forbidden City which was as striking at night as in the daytime. The other monuments in the square are also lit up, but you cannot access the square itself after night has fallen.

Gallery

Beihai Park and the White Dagoba

Posted in Beijing, China by folkestonejack on November 19, 2012

I started my day with a morning walk around Beihai Park, an imperial garden for more than a thousand years and the one time home of Kubla Khan. Ever since it was opened to the public in 1925 it has been a popular place to exercise, wander and relax. Indeed, across the park I could see small groups undertaking the most carefully choreographed of movements in the morning light.

The White Dagoba, Beihai Park

The White Dagoba, Beihai Park

The Round City, one of the main sights at the southern extremity of the park, was sadly closed due to renovation work which limited my options. I crossed the Yong’an Bridge and settled for a walk around Qionghua Isle. The park really needed more time to be appreciated than I could give it, but I was keen to get a small taste of the place and climb up to the White Dagoba.

The White Dagoba from close quarters

The White Dagoba from close quarters

The White Dagoba is a striking Tibetan stupa (a mound like structure built to hold Buddhist relics) which is hard to ignore as you enter the park, especially on a day with such clear blue skies like today. It was originally constructed in the 16th century, although it has subsequently been re-built on two occasions after earthquakes took their toll. The walk up was steep but entirely worthwhile.

I paid a small extra charge to walk up and around a small temple sited next to the stupa, offering a view across the Forbidden City and the sprawling metropolis. It was certainly a good way to start the day although I did feel guilty about leaving without seeing the other sights that make this park special.

Gallery

Heaven on earth

Posted in Beijing, China by folkestonejack on November 18, 2012

After leaving the mist shrouded Summer Palace behind I took the subway south to Tian Tan and was amazed to emerge into bright sunlight and blue skies. I’m not sure quite what happened when I was underground but I couldn’t fail to be delighted by the change in conditions.

I headed into the park armed with a through ticket for the Temple of Heaven which would give me admission to the key sites of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the Imperial Vault of Heaven and the Circular Mound Altar. All around ordinary members of the public in the park went about their daily exercises completely unphased by the incredible buildings around them, but then again I walk past Tower Bridge on my commute every day and probably take it just as much for granted!

The Temple of Heaven

The Temple of Heaven

All the sights in the complex were visually stunning, although you can’t actually enter the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests itself – all you can do is work your way through the crowds and peer into the gloom. It’s strangely like sightseeing during rush hour! Anyway, I managed to make it through the complex and finally left the park as the sun began to set.

Gallery

A taste of summer

Posted in Beijing, China by folkestonejack on November 18, 2012

The Summer Palace was one of the sights that I most wanted to see in Beijing, having been drawn in by the rich illustrations of the Palace and its grounds in my guidebooks. It is also an attraction that has become much easier to reach since the opening of line 4 of the subway in September 2009. After picking up a Yikatong card (the Beijing equivalent of the Oyster card) I headed out on the metro to Xiyuan, a short walk away from the east gate of the Summer Palace.

The palace was a much loved retreat for the Qing Dynasty and one that we are lucky to see, given the destruction wrought upon it by Anglo-French forces in the nineteenth century (as information boards around the complex repeatedly drill home). Thankfully, the determination of the Empress Dowager Cixi to see the Palace rebuilt that effectively secured the future of the complex for today’s visitors, though whether she would be thrilled by the hordes trampling over the site is a moot point!

The Summer Palace in the morning mist

The Summer Palace in the morning mist

I had intended to spend the best part of a day exploring the extensive grounds of the Summer Palace but after emerging from the metro on a cold and foggy morning I realised that this may be a less than rewarding way to spend my time, particularly as many of the classic views would be obscured by mist. Re-writing my plans on the hoof, I decided to focus on the main buildings in and around Longevity Hill.

The complex was busy throughout my visit (even with it being a weekend during the low season) but not overwhelmingly so. The large groups seemed to stick to ground level, so once I started to make the steep climb up to the hilltop temples the crowds disappeared.

One of the rewards for making the trek up the hillside was the beautiful Hall of the Sea of Wisdom which was decorated with over one thousand glazed statues of Buddha. Although the building itself survived the fire of 1860 the small decorative statues fared less well, the soldiers having smashed their heads and hands. Although the damage has been repaired it doesn’t appear to have been of the highest quality – at least from the examples I looked at up close. Sadly, the temple’s interior holds a commercial enterprise which rather detracts from the experience – although, the same is true of many of the buildings throughout the complex.

Glazed Buddha statue from the exterior of the Hall of the Sea of Wisdom

Glazed Buddha statue from the exterior of the Hall of the Sea of Wisdom

Having reached the top, the way back down on the other side takes you down through an equally interesting series of classical Tibetan Buddhist buildings. The lack of sun today was evident from the layer of ice on the surface which made for trickier walking. After descending I took a wander around a recreation of a Suzhou market street around a part-frozen waterway, where the Emperorer Qianlong once play-acted being a commoner. It’s a fairly tacky tourist trap these days, but a harmless enough diversion.

A wander back to the frontage alongside Kunming Lake took me to some of the other highlights of the complex – such as the long corridor, the marble boat and the seventeen arch bridge – all of which deserve to be seen. The sun made a brief appearance through the clouds but apart from this it remained resolutely misty, which helped me decide to call it a day in the early afternoon. I was glad to have made the trek out to visit the Palace but it would be much better seen in a different season and in better weather!

Gallery

In and out of Lanzhou

Posted in China, Lanzhou by folkestonejack on November 17, 2012

A surprisingly good night’s sleep bode well for what would be an ever so slightly strange day in transit. I got up around 7am and settled back to enjoy the views of the countryside in the run into Lanzhou – a steady diet of farmland, small villages and the occasional hilltop temple (even a giant ‘hero’ type statue at the top of one hill). Eventually, as we reached the outskirts of the city, this gave way to a large number of really tall residential skyscrapers (if the city was located in the UK it would be larger in population than everywhere except London). In the final approach to the city centre we crossed the Yellow River.

The landscape around Lanzhou

The landscape around Lanzhou

Our train finally arrived at 9.49am, about thirty minutes late, and from here we transferred to a bus for the 70km drive to the airport. The drive was interesting in itself, giving a view of the cave dwellings that abound in the hillsides, and in one place it looked as though they were dismantling a hilltop and replacing it with new highrise blocks (Edit: this sounds less silly having read the Guardian article China to flatten 700 mountains for new metropolis in the desert after my return!).

Lanzhou - on the banks of the Yellow River

Lanzhou – on the banks of the Yellow River

After reaching the airport we headed to a local restaurant for a meal before checking in for our flight (CA1272) from Lanzhou to Beijing. The flight was scheduled to take two hours and thirty minutes but somehow managed to depart five minutes early and arrive fifty minutes early! We promptly lost some of that time as we were bussed to the terminal, but even still it was good going.

The majority of the group still had plenty of travelling ahead of them – a second flight and another bus ride – but for me the travelling ended after a taxi ride to the Park Plaza in central Beijing (very reasonably priced at 85 Yuan). Finally, time to kick off my hiking boots and relax!

Across the desert by bus

Posted in China by folkestonejack on November 16, 2012

Our 380km drive to Dunhuang began at 10.40am with little time to spare if we were to be sure of climbing on board the 6.58pm sleeper train (K9668) to Lanzhou. The crazy thing about this was that the station at Hami was just a couple of hours away but we were unable to secure any tickets from their limited allocation, forcing us into the long drive. After dropping off our local guide ‘Moonflower’ and saying our farewells we hit the road in earnest.

A brief stop at the boundary between Xinjiang and Gansu Province

A brief stop at the boundary between Xinjiang and Gansu Province

The drive through the Gobi desert was far from dull with an ever changing landscape around us. In places the desert was utterly barren but in other locations there were black sand dunes, swooping hills and even the occasional patch of vegetation. Amongst this were occasional signs of civilisation ranging from yurt-like structures through to newly constructed high apartment blocks (inevitably, in place of part demolished hutongs). After we headed off the motorway the scenery became more varied, the desert giving way to salt marshes and the occasional herd of camels.

As we approached Dunhuang on the Silk Road we passed some remnants of the Han Dynasty Great Wall which looked almost like natural rocks in the way that they had weathered away. Finally, countryside gave way to urban development and before too long we were driving through the centre of town. We arrived at 5.23pm so had sufficient time to stop at a local restaurant specialising in spicy food (sadly not the curiously named ‘Greedy cat halogen private pig restaurant’ that we saw from the bus!). Our dining room had a window onto the street which became something of a zoo cage with captive westerners on display…

The vast station at Dunhuang

The impresssive exterior of the station at Dunhuang…

The hangar like space of Dunhuang station

…and the vast hangar like space inside

Finally, time ran out and we got back in the bus for the drive out of town to the railway station. We didn’t have any time to sit around, making our way straight through the security screen and ticket check. The station looked vast on the outside but it was hard to imagine why such immense size was necessary – on the platform side the vast hanger like space contained just one train! Once on board we could finally relax in our compartment and settle down for the overnight journey to Lanzhou.

Farewell to Sandaoling

Posted in China, Sandaoling by folkestonejack on November 16, 2012

Our farewell to Sandaoling was destined to be a short-lived affair as we needed to start our 380km drive to Dunhuang at 10.30am if we were to be sure to make the 6.58pm departure to Lanzhou. It also meant that our breakfast of noodle soup had to be capable of sustaining us for the entire day, with no guarantee that we would get to eat again today if the sleeper train did not have a restaurant car!

We took the familiar road to Dongbolizhan and arrived in good time to watch the tender-first departure of the passenger train with JS 8089. The plan was to stick around until the return of the passenger train and then head to a spot in old Sandaoling but this soon unravelled as the passenger train was delayed at Xibolizhan, awaiting the final trains for the tender show. We couldn’t abandon the plan as some of the group had taken the opportunity to experience the commute Sandaoling style! The passenger train eventually returned around 30 minutes late.

Farewell at Nanzhan

Farewell at Nanzhan

After an obligatory group shot at a ruined gate in old Sandaoling we headed to a level crossing at Nanzhan where we got our last sighting of a JS class steam locomotive with one of the youngest of the fleet, JS 8314, shunting some wagons. It is incredible to think that a steam locomotive like this only rolled off the production line at Datong in 1988.

Although we had seen plenty of JS action in our week at Sandaoling it was still a pleasure to savour these final moments of working steam before we said farewell.

Bread and breakfast

Posted in China, Sandaoling by folkestonejack on November 16, 2012

Apart from the obvious attraction of the steam locomotives at the mine, two highlights of the trip to Sandaoling were the wonderful breakfasts and the incredibly delicious bread baked on the roadside.

Uyghur bread stall and stove

Uyghur bread stall and stove

Our early morning starts to reach the railway by sunrise invariably meant that we saw these places in darkness but that added to the appeal, watching baking by the light of a bulb or seeing our breakfast being prepared on streetside stoves before being brought inside to a hungry audience!

Early morning baking in Sandaoling

Early morning baking in Sandaoling

On a quiet afternoon we headed in to the town centre for around half hour, giving us a better opportunity to appreciate the talents of the hard-working bakers who seemed to stay at their stoves all day – the same bakers we saw before the dawn were still working in mid-afternoon!

The variety of breads on offer from the Uyghur bakers seemed to differ from day-to-day, with everything from small bagel-like breads through to thin circular flat bread. I opted for one of the incredibly thin, flaky circular flat breads which had been baked with a chive flavouring. Fresh from the oven, it was simply sensational – and all for just 3 Yuan (approximately 30 pence in sterling).

Uyghur flat bread with chives

Uyghur flat bread with chives

As for breakfast, we sampled dumplings and noodle soup at three establishments – all with their own character. One place had been decorated wonderfully with a chequerboard of sprite labels across the walls and ceiling. Another place, serving noodle soup, was decorated with a poster showing a breakfast of hard boiled eggs, bread, cheese, fruit juice and coffee that must have looked exotic to the regulars in this place. I am fairly sure it wasn’t on offer! In each place we were served up really tasty food that set us in good stead for the long days ahead of us.

Gallery

A final stop at Kengkongzhan

Posted in China, Sandaoling by folkestonejack on November 15, 2012

It seem appropriate that the end of our last full day in Sandaoling should be spent at Kengkongzhan, given that it was the prospect of chimney first coal trains that lured most of us here. Indeed, a coal train was already rounding the curve as we sauntered along the ledge – prompting a headlong dash down the bank to get to a decent position.

After JS 8225 had passed with its loaded coal wagons I crossed the track to explore the photographic opportunities from the other side, particularly enjoying the spectacular view of the curve with the dramatic ‘grand canyon’ backdrop and a clear view of the mountains in the distance.

JS 8089 heads back to the coal loader with some empties

JS 8089 heads back to the coal loader with some empties

The next coal train, hauled by JS 8089, caught us a little off guard by arriving tender first. The delight of chimney first trains out of the pit is in no sense guaranteed and when combined with the somewhat erratic schedule of the coal trains shows that such pleasures can come at a price measured in patience! Thankfully, for us, normal service service was resumed by the return of JS 8225 chimney first.

JS 8225 resumes chimney first service at Kengkongzhan

JS 8225 resumes chimney first service at Kengkongzhan

JS 8225 with a loaded coal train

JS 8225 with a loaded coal train

Although we stuck it out till the sun set there were to be no spectacular sunset shots today. In any case, even if the sun had co-operated the last train past us before the light faded was JS 8089 running tender first. I know when I am beaten!

Gallery

Spoilt for choice

Posted in China, Sandaoling by folkestonejack on November 15, 2012

A short distance from the yard at Xibolizhan the tracks diverge, six lines fanning out from west to east and each ending at a different spoil dump. It’s a fabulous spot to visit as you stand around trying to work out which line is going to be next to receive a spoil train.

JS 8078 passes through the level crossing where the lines to the spoil dumps split

JS 8078 passes through the level crossing where the lines to the spoil dumps split

The five lines to the west are crossed by a rather rough level crossing (with a rather cute hand-painted sign warning of steam locomotives) and near to here there are a series of small huts. On the way up trains stop at the huts to pick up a worker with the key used to release the spoil onto the dump. On the way back down they stop to drop him off. It seemed like a classic, if baffling, bit of job creation for its own sake!

JS 8368 pushes a spoil train past the remains of the lifted track

JS 8368 pushes a spoil train past the remains of the lifted track

Originally there were six lines here but one has been lifted since my last visit. The space left by the lifted track is still marked out by telltale pairs of wooden stumps and there are small sections of mangled track lying here and there. A neat pile of track and sleepers could be seen stacked to one side.

JS 8173 with spreader crosses a bridge on the farthest east of the spoil dump lines

JS 8173, with spreader, crosses a bridge on the farthest east of the spoil dump lines

In the hour that we spent here we saw spoil trains pushed/hauled back tender first by JS class locomotives 8076, 8077, 8078, 8167 and 8368. In addition to this, we saw JS 6224 coming back from a spoil dump with a crane and JS 8173 with a spreader on the separate line to the east (though a spoil train would have been a more impressive sight on this distinctive tip!).

Gallery from the spoil dumps

A morning at Xibolizhan

Posted in China, Sandaoling by folkestonejack on November 15, 2012

A morning exploring Xibolizhan gave me a good chance to see the area from a different perspective to my previous visits, with more time spent photographing the line from the pit entrance/exit to the gantry than I have managed before. A raised bank to one side of the line provided a great vantage point to see trains working against a backdrop of abandoned villages, industrial complexes and the mountains.

JS 8225 arrives at Xibolizhan shortly after sunrise

JS 8225 arrives at Xibolizhan shortly after sunrise

The arrival of JS 8225 with a train shortly after sunrise was particularly wonderful. There was something about the way the light caught the train as it passed a small patch of wild grasses in the barren landscape that worked perfectly.

JS 8167 with a spoil train in the pit

JS 8167 with a spoil train in the pit

Excavator 415 fills the wagons of the spoil train

Excavator 415 fills the wagons of the spoil train

After spending some time walking along the bank I returned to the track and followed it into the pit, where I watched one of the excavators at work on the upper levels – crunching rock from the side of the mine and filling wagons in a waiting train with spoil. It is always an impressive sight to see industrial steam in action like this – as far removed as it is possible to get from the polished image of steam that you get on any preserved line in the UK! I certainly couldn’t tire of the sight of a JS working hard with a spoil train.

JS 8081 pushes a spoil train out of the pit

JS 8081 pushes a spoil train out of the pit

JS 8638 pushes a spoil train out of the pit

JS 8638 pushes a spoil train out of the pit

It was always going to be a wrench to tear ourselves away from as incredible a scene as this, not least because there was always the promise of another spoil train round the corner (quite literally). On this occasion we stayed around this spot until midday, then headed over to the spoil dumps on the other side of Xibolizhan to see the end of the process.

Xibolizhan Gallery

Shift change at sunrise

Posted in China, Sandaoling by folkestonejack on November 15, 2012

After another early morning start, fuelled by a wonderful breakfast of dumplings cooked on a stove in the street, we headed out on the bumpy road to Xibolizhan. The twinkling of stars in the darkness suggested that the cloudy start from yesterday would not be repeated.

The morning shift change at Xibolizhan is a highlight of any visit to Sandaoling as it presents an opportunity to see around eight locomotives lined up, tenders facing towards the pit. It’s not often that I am tempted to photograph locomotives tender first but in Sandaoling it is a necessity – indeed, it has been the most authentic position to find a loco within the pit. I took a grab shot of the line up which gives the smallest impression of just how remarkable this is.

Xibolizhan tender show

Xibolizhan tender show

The photographic opportunities abound as the crews change over. The sunrise presented a great opportunity to get amongst the lines and get some interesting shots of the crew, but my favourite shot was the line up of passengers waiting on the platform with loco after loco in the background. Understandably the workers take this for granted but to anyone from an increasingly steamless world it is the most amazing sight to behold.

Shift change at Xibolizhan

Shift change at Xibolizhan

Amidst all of this, the morning passenger service from Dongbolizhan is scheduled to arrive. At this time of year the train’s arrival coincides with the sunrise, making for a wonderful start to the day. It was great to see thirty year old Datong loco JS 6224 arrive in good time, positively glowing as the sunrise enveloped the train.

The morning passenger train arrives at Xibolizhan

The morning passenger train arrives at Xibolizhan

After the passenger service departed the trains worked their way back into action one-by-one. As a spectacle it is hard to beat!

The workshop

Posted in China, Sandaoling by folkestonejack on November 14, 2012

The railway workshop is located amidst the demolished remains of old Sandaoling, a short walk away from the compound of stored locomotives and the line to the unloading point. It was reassuring to see locomotives were still undergoing overhauls and there was plenty of work going on around the place.

JS 8314 in the workshop

JS 8314 in the workshop

JS 8081 in the workshop

JS 8081 in the workshop

At the nearby compound of stored locomotives JS 8040 was in use with a rail mounted crane for the retrieval of several lengths of line which were being loaded onto the back of a lorry. It was a surprisingly interesting operation with the locomotive moving forward and back as required for each load.

Steam locomotive JS 8040, crane and lorry at the compound

Steam locomotive JS 8040, crane and lorry at the compound

JS 8040 moved the crane into and out of the compound

JS 8040 moved the crane into and out of the compound

Mid-lift

Mid-lift

The weather had improved a little by the time we came to leave the workshop but it still wasn’t worth going for a sunset shot. An early bath tonight!

The pit

Posted in China, Sandaoling by folkestonejack on November 14, 2012

Our day began at Xibolizhan where we watched the remarkable sight of nine trains lined up side by side at shift change before making our way along the track towards the pit entrance/exit.

The open cast mine at Sandaoling is an incredible sight, even in conditions as overcast as today, which surely cannot be rivalled in the steam world. The mixture of dust from the excavations, columns of steam and mist evoked a hellish vision with the sun only slowly breaking through the clouds. The eye of sauron wouldn’t have looked out of place here!

JS 8077 works some empties tender first from Xibolizhan towards the pit

JS 8077 works some empties tender first from Xibolizhan towards the pit

The poor light and the persistant wind left us with conditions that were not especially conducive to photography or video, but nevertheless we gave it a go. A particular highlight was the sight of JS 6209 struggling with a spoil train on one of the lower levels of the pit which resulted in JS 8190 being sent to assist – a spectacular double header.

JS 6209 and JS 8190 double head a spoil train from the lower levels of the pit

JS 6209 and JS 8190 double head a spoil train from the lower levels of the pit

In the afternoon we drove round to another clifftop viewpoint which gave a great vista across the fallen rocks to the lines up from the pit. The ledge we walked along contained some giant cracks and it didn’t take much imagination to realise that some caution was required. The unstable nature of the terrain had led to a series of landslides in the area and a nearby village had been abandoned. A beautiful but potentially deadly landscape.

The impressive scene from the clifftops at Sandaoling

The impressive scene from the clifftops at Sandaoling

Along the top of the cliffs a series of abandoned pairings of wooden stumps signalled that the the railway had once come this way in an earlier phase of the pit’s development but the track and much of the ground it was sited on had long gone.

The long abandoned track bed at the top of the cliffs

The long abandoned track bed at the top of the cliffs

As spectacular as the view was, the light really wasn’t with us today so it was agreed by all that we should head for the workshop and keep our fingers crossed for better weather tomorrow.

Gallery

Sunset at Kengkongzhan

Posted in China, Sandaoling by folkestonejack on November 13, 2012

We returned to the crumbling cliffs of Kengkongzhan for our sunset shot and hoped for that perfect combination of a coal train with the setting sun. The colours were rather incredible with the rails almost seeming to glow with a glint from the sun. I had a few attempts at the shot and didn’t really get it right, but it still captures the essence of a rather wonderful moment.

Sunset at Kengkongzhan

Sunset at Kengkongzhan

The deep mines

Posted in China, Sandaoling by folkestonejack on November 13, 2012

After leaving Dongbolizhan we headed to the deep mines at Beiquan where we hoped to see some trains to/from Nanzhan and shunting around the washery shunt. At this point the line crosses a barren and near featureless landscape which makes the soaring background of the Tianshan mountains all the more spectacular.

JS 8358 and the Tianshan mountains

JS 8358 and the Tianshan mountains

The control office assured us that a steam propelled train was due but we had a lengthy wait before anything appeared, then we all groaned as the hum of a DF8B drew closer to our positions in the middle of nowhere. We could easily have abandoned our positions but thankfully we persevered and were soon rewarded by a steam propelled train which we followed to the second mine at Beiquan.

Loading at Beiquan

At the mine the train was being loaded a few wagons at a time by a few diggers whilst an endless stream of lorries made the trip along the dusty road with full loads of coal to add to the mountain. After watching the shunting and false departures around here we moved on to the first mine and watched a JS make a slow crawl along the line as yet more lorries rumbled along the parallel road.

A slow crawl through the dusty landscape between Yijing and Erjing

The landscape here was quite incredible – there was something about the combination of the barren landscape, the power plant chimneys, thick clouds of coal dust and a demolished village that left you thinking that you were looking upon a vision of hell. It was all very well us spending a day there taking photographs, but it must be a harsh environment to live in.

By late afternoon, there were three JS class steam locomotives gathered at Beiquan – two locomotives from the Nanzhan pool (8358 and 8366) and, strangely, one of the locomotives usually seen working spoil trains (6209). JS 6209 is one of the oldest steam locomotives in use at Sandaoling having been built at Datong in 1981 and presumably was a temporary substitute for one of the out of action Nanzhan locomotives. After watching JS 8366 depart we took our leave from Beiquan and headed away to find a suitable spot for sunset.

Gallery from Beiquan

The morning passenger

Posted in China, Sandaoling by folkestonejack on November 13, 2012

The early morning passenger train runs from Dongbolizhan to Xibolizhan around 8.40am and then returns half an hour later. It’s not a luxurious commute by any standards, using two box cars, but it is an effective way to get between the two points quickly – especially as the roads in this area are particularly bumpy. The train can be chimney first or tender first, so what you see is down to luck on any visit!

Passengers leaving the train at Dongbolizhan

It was interesting to see just how many people could be squeezed into the two box cars and even more surprising to see a motorbike being driven out amongst the departing throng!

Gallery from Dongbolizhan

Sunset spoil

Posted in China, Sandaoling by folkestonejack on November 12, 2012

At the end of a long first day in Sandaoling we headed to Xibolizhan and the point at which the lines to the spoil dumps spread outwards. One of the lines here has been taken up, but you can still clearly trace the route of the vanished line and it’s associated trail of wooden stumps.

The wooden stumps were a little baffling at first sight. It was only later that we saw an exposed example with the stumps attached to rails underneath the track, perhaps indicating that these are a means of providing extra support in an otherwise unstable environment.

Sunset at the spoil dumps

The sunset today was a little muted but in any case there wasn’t much chance of a glint shot – these locos are far from the polished examples that we see in preservation in the UK. It is hardly surprising that they are in such a state given that the mine (and locomotives) are in operation 24 hours a day.

Gallery

Xuanmeichang

Posted in China, Sandaoling by folkestonejack on November 12, 2012

The coal trains that have climbed out of the eastern end of the pit, pass through Kengkongshan and along an embankment through the demolished remnants of old Sandaoling. The trains finish their journeys at the unloading point at Xuanmeichang where the coal is crushed and graded. Once the coal is processed it is transferred from the yard at Nanzhan to the state railway.

At one time this final transfer to the state railway was one of the main attractions at Sandaoling with impressively long trains hauled and banked by steam locomotives but this is now diesel territory! I was lucky enough to see this in December 2009, shortly before the end.

JS 808? departs from Xuanmeichang after unloading

JS 8225 waits at Xuanmeichang with a loaded coal train

After arriving at this exceptionally dusty spot we watched one coal train depart and another arrive. The bunkers were overflowing with coal and the train was clearly not going to be unloaded anytime soon, so we took this as our cue to move on.

The grand canyon of Sandaoling

Posted in China, Sandaoling by folkestonejack on November 12, 2012

The last time I was at Sandaoling, in December 2009, almost all trains out of the pit were pushed or ran tender first (as can be seen in my video of two coal trains passing at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lggGgd9mQE4). It didn’t deter enthusiasts travelling out there to see the incredible spectacle, but there was no doubting that it limited the photographic opportunities.

Since then, there have been a few changes and the coal trains are no longer loaded directly at the coal face. Instead, the coal is transported by conveyor to a loading tower and only from here by train. The new loader necessitated a switch to loco first operation which has delighted railway photographers as it offered the prospect to photograph coal trains climbing out of the pit chimney first.

At the same time, diesels have replaced steam on the connecting line between the mine and the state railway interchange at Liushuquan so our focus on this trip is more tightly focused on the open cast mine and the line to the two nearby deep mines. For most of the photographers on our trip the priority was to get some good shots of the chimney first coal trains and the best place to see this was at Kengkongshan, which our tour leader appropriately described as the grand canyon of Sandaoling.

A train of empties works its way backwards through the grand canyon of Sandaoling

The curve at Kengkongshan provides a great panorama from almost every angle. The most obvious viewpoint, next to the road, is a wide ledge running the length of the pit edge. From this point you can easily access a lower ledge or head to track level. The sight is as spectacular wherever you stand and gawp!

You can get a small flavour of the Kengkongshan experience in a couple of videos that I took – available on youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iJLtnIUmXDU and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E-98_7TmXdg.

Gallery from Kengkongshan

Sleepless in Sandaoling

Posted in China, Sandaoling by folkestonejack on November 12, 2012

After two days of travelling it was a huge relief to step off the bus at Sandaoling this morning. The journey out here has taken three flights (London-Amsterdam, Amsterdam-Beijing and Beijing-Ürümqi), a sleeper train (Ürümqi-Hami Nan) and a charter-bus (Hami Nan-Sandaoling) with the prospect of an even more laborious trek to get us back to Beijing at the end of the week!

On this trip I booked my flights KLM with the advantage of a through ticket from London to Ürümqi (using a combination of Cityjet, KLM and China Southern flights). In theory this should have put me in a better position if I experienced any problems with the chain of flights. As it was, all the connections were made without difficulty – even with an hour’s delay at Amsterdam whilst a technical fault was fixed on our 747-400 combi.

After arriving at Ürümqi we took a charter-bus to the cavernous main railway station which is a grim place at the best of times – but especially unappealing in cold, dark and misty conditions! Our onward travel from Ürümqi was on sleeper-train K9782 which departed at 23:53 with arrival at the new out-of-town station at Hami Nan scheduled for 7:18. The trains on this line are unusual in having double deck soft-sleeper carriages (i.e. compartments of 4 berths on the top deck and compartments of 4 berths on the lower deck). These are fine but inevitably more cramped than standard sleepers (for example, there is no upper luggage storage shelf). The train kept pretty much to time today, arriving at Hami Nan around 7.30.

The entire train seemed to have disembarked at Hami Nan and in the best traditions of Chinese station design now had to slowly thread their way through an obstacle course of three narrow gates at the entrance. Once we completed this test and disentangled ourselves from the throng we were at last able to board our charter-bus for the final two and a half hour drive to Sandaoling.

In spite of all the hassle, any doubts about whether it was worth the effort were instantly dispelled when we clambered out of the bus at Kengkongzhan and – after a bit of a wait – got our first sight of a JS class steam locomotive working a coal train chimney first around the curve.

JS8195 hauls a coal train for Xuanmeichang out of the eastern end of the pit

There is no doubt that Sandaoling is currently the steamiest place in the world, having taken on this mantle after the demise of the open cast mine at Zhalai Nuoer in Inner Mongolia. At the moment up to 20 JS class steam locomotives work in and around the mine – an absolutely amazing concentration of steam power so far into the 21st century. As a bonus, this all takes place in the most incredible desert landscape with the Tian Shan (heavenly) mountains as a backdrop. It really leaves you breathless and banishes any sleeplessness, at least until the sun sets…

The temptations of China

Posted in China by folkestonejack on November 10, 2012

The temptations of China have proved too much to resist. I am heading back to China’s far west with FarRail Tours to re-visit the open cast coal mine at Sandaoling in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. I may regret the decision when I start to relive the long trek, but for now I am raring to get out there and start snapping with my camera.

The original plan was to move on from Sandaoling to the steel mill at Beitai but this part of the trip had to be dropped after our permit was withdrawn – understandably many people are nervous at this time with the National Congress underway at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. The level of paranoia in Beijing itself seems to have reached almost absurd levels with the media reporting that taxi drivers have been instructed to remove window cranks and to keep an eye out for passengers carrying ping-pong balls which may contain reactionary messages. In some ways it may be good to be almost as far away from Beijing as it is possible to get in China!

As the great firewall of China currently blocks access to wordpress.com within the country my posts from the trip will appear here when I return to the UK.

Chifeng to London

Posted in China by folkestonejack on January 19, 2011

The night sleeper from Chifeng arrived on schedule (just before 6am) in the cavernous space that is Beijing Bei Zhan, a rather soulless modern station by any measure. The platform exit took us out onto a side street and back into the bustle of Beijing.

After a quick stop at an airport hotel for a shower and breakfast I took the 8am shuttle bus to the airport for my homeward flight. As ever the officials at Beijing Capital airport were very thorough in pulling my hand luggage apart. Although it was a bit stressful at the time I found it rather reassuring in this troubled age. Anyway, I found myself a comfy spot in the terminal and settled down with my book (‘Alone in Berlin’ by Hans Fallada).

I was reassured to see the KLM Boeing 747-400 Combi for my flight home pull up to the gate at 10.08am. My flight took off on time and with the benefit of favourable tailwinds we made it into Amsterdam at 2.15pm, almost an hour early. This made the connection for the next flight much more relaxed, so I had a little wander round the airside of Schipol once again. My connecting flight to London Heathrow departed at 16:55 and after two final legs via tube and train I finally made it back home around 8pm.

Farewell to China (for the last time?)

Posted in China, Pingzhuang by folkestonejack on January 18, 2011

The final shot of the day (and of the trip) came with a tender first working back to the stabling point as the light steadily disappeared. Once we had that in the bag we headed to a local restaurant and then on to Chifeng (a one and a half hour drive away) for the 9.06pm night sleeper to Beijing.

The final shot of the trip

The final shot of the trip

This is my third trip to China for steam and I suspect that it will be my last. I’ve said that once before and changed my mind but this time feels more certain. There are only a relatively limited number of industrial lines in operation still and I think it’s fair to say that I’ve seen a good chunk of what is left. Not that you couldn’t go back and find many new photographic opportunities in familiar places 😉

Anyway, I think it’s over for me. It would be different if there were lots of other industrial lines to see but its a bit late in the day for that (if only I had started just a few years earlier…). On the other hand, if the suggested new QJ destination materialises that might be a different matter…

Steamy afternoon in Pingzhuang

Posted in China, Pingzhuang by folkestonejack on January 18, 2011

Our afternoon in Pingzhuang began with a rather sad, but inevitable, vision of the future – an out of use JS class steam locomotive (JS 1001) sitting alone in a locked compound.

JS 1001 in a locked compound at Pingzhuang

JS 1001 in a locked compound at Pingzhuang

Things improved from here on in – we were lucky enough to be at Gushan Yijing when SY 1079 headed past with loaded coal wagons at 13:41 and moments later we were treated to a light engine movement from our fifth SY of the day – SY 1441.

SY 1079 passes Gushan Yijing with loaded coal wagons

SY 1079 passes Gushan Yijing with loaded coal wagons

Around 3.15pm we returned to the fields to see SY 1441 working tender first with some wagons. Shortly afterwards SY 1017 came through the level crossing light engine and later returned in the failing light with more wagons. It seems practice here to split long lines of wagons into two and bring them back with two separate workings.

More photos: Pingzhuang Gallery

An electric interlude!

Posted in China, Pingzhuang by folkestonejack on January 18, 2011

Around midday we headed up to the stabling point for the electric locomotives used in the open cast mine.

It was a pleasure to see two East German built LEW electric locomotives (7364 and 7324) on the tracks behind the industrial complex at Zhuangmei – with one train tipping out its load wagon by wagon for transfer to yet more wagons at a lower level. A third LEW electric passed by on its way into the open cast mine.

Three LEW electrics at Pingzhuang

Three LEW electrics at Pingzhuang

We took a wander to the edge of the open cast mine and had a look in. It seemed like a fascinating system (although clearly long past its glory days) and I would have loved to spend days exploring the place and photographing these incredible electric veterans in this environment but we definetly didn’t have that quantity of time to spare! I just felt lucky to have had this opportunity at all as this was, after all, a trip to see the last steam survivors.

Electric locomotives 7326 and 7328 on the upper level of the open cast coal mine at Pingzhuang

Electric locomotives 7326 and 7328 on the upper level of the open cast coal mine at Pingzhuang

Electric locomotive 7370 on one of the lower levels of the open cast mine at Pingzhuang

Electric locomotive 7370 on one of the lower levels of the open cast mine at Pingzhuang

The other LEW electrics seen in and around the pit were 6707, 7326, 7328 and 7370 but this was clearly just the tip of the iceberg (some reports have mentioned 37 electric locomotives). I’d love to find out more about the workings in the opencast mine and will be an eager reader of any future reports on the activity there.