FolkestoneJack's Tracks

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.

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.

Farewell to Zhalai Nuoer

Posted in China, Zhalai Nuoer by folkestonejack on February 22, 2009

Our final day in Zhalai Nuoer opened with a spectacular sunrise at the stabling point, with the silhouette of SY 1618 against the pink sky making quite a sight to remember.

Sunrise at the stabling point

Sunrise at the stabling point

After the sunrise we headed up to the far side of the pit to photograph a spoil train against the backdrop of the pit. Reaching this viewpoint was an eye opener in its own right with an interesting drive across bumpy dirt tracks that rarely would have seen anything other than heavy lorries and the occasional worker’s motorbike.

A crane in the strange moonscape of Zhalai Nuoer

A crane in the strange moonscape of Zhalai Nuoer

Finally, we made a last visit to the pit – just an hour and a half spent wandering around the upper levels and around the coal unloading plant. It was a little trickier to reach today as there was a channel of water to cross and some of the ice was breaking underfoot. A few workers were using picks to break through the ice and direct the water away through a narrow channel. I guess that this helps explain the amazing ice waterfalls you could see in the pit which just add to the alien feel of the whole place.

SY 0959

SY 0959

After our final view of Zhalai Nuoer we headed back by minibus to the airport at Manzhouli, catching a brief glimpse of the Russian border on the way. Farewell Zhalai Nuoer.

More photos from my three days at Zhalai Nuoer:
Gallery: Zhalai Nuoer

Staying alive

Posted in China, Zhalai Nuoer by folkestonejack on February 21, 2009

A second afternoon at the pit under much better light gave us every opportunity to improve on our efforts from yesterday. This time the buses parked up at the top of the pit on the same side that the locomotives were working, not too far from one of the routes taken by the workers to get down to the mine.

Finding the way down was sometimes harder than it seemed as some of the levels were completely iced over. On one occasion I happily followed some guys along one such level but it was just too slippery for me. I slipped over and found myself sliding towards the edge until I could use the weight of my rucksack to bring my glide to a stop. I decided to carefully retreat and stay alive!

Perfectly blue sky

Perfectly blue sky

I found another way down and explored the middle tier of levels. It seemed quieter than yesterday but then again there seemed to be more locomotives working at the lowest levels where we hadn’t seen any previously.

On one level there were alot of track workers who I initially assumed were fixing the track but a couple of the guys pointed out that they were actually laying small cylindrical charges of dynamite (worringly, I had missed this slightly crucial detail!). As none of us had heard any explosions yet it seemed prudent not to head back that way anytime soon…

Later, when a group of us were heading back, we found ourselves waved back by a worker holding a red flag. We could see then that the locomotives on each level had been halted by more men with red flags. Moments later there was an immense cracking sound as an explosion echoed around the mine. A cloud of grey dust climbed into the air and then the silence was broken by a sudden return to activity around the mine as locomotives started moving again and workers moved forward into the area recently dynamited.

Aftermath of an explosion

Aftermath of an explosion

I had a truly remarkable day in the pit and I’m fairly sure its one that will still raise a grin from me when I’m old and grey. It was a day of incredible highs punctuated by some rather scary moments without detracting from the whole experience. I managed to fall over about five times (including once on the final climb back up to the buses) so I ended the day with rather sore knees and ankles. The finest moment came at the end as we watched the sun set over the pit – a more glorious sight you couldn’t imagine.

Sunset at Zhalai Nuoer

Sunset at Zhalai Nuoer

After a long day I quickly dozed off on returning to the hotel, almost missing dinner. Having said that, I think the sight of sweet potato in toffee with hundreds and thousands sprinkled on top is one sight I could easily have missed without any regrets!

Dead or alive

Posted in China, Zhalai Nuoer by folkestonejack on February 21, 2009

After leaving the silence of the depot, we headed to the desolate landscape of the loco dump at Zhalai Nuoer. As if this wasn’t already melancholy enough, a biting wind added to the effect as we wandered amongst the lines of locomotives and carriages.

The loco dump at Zhalai Nuoer

The loco dump at Zhalai Nuoer

It was something of a relief to return to the realm of living SYs at Dongfanghong a little later and watch a SY hauled freight depart from across a frozen pond. Time might be running out, but there was life yet…

Across another frozen pond

Across another frozen pond

Signs of the end

Posted in China, Zhalai Nuoer by folkestonejack on February 21, 2009

Although we all knew that the end of steam could not be far away it was easy to believe for a moment that this was not the case, given the level of activity we could see in and around the open cast mine (if you could forget about a diesel or two). After all, yesterday I had seen more steam locomotives in action on one day, in one place, than at any other time in my life. However, today we saw more tangible signs of the end.

First, we visited the depot to see what was going on. Nothing. There is no longer a saturday shift here. We wandered round the empty buildings and admired the two lonely SYs inside. A boiler lay abandoned in the snow nearby. The silence was ominous in a place that had all the signs of being a hive of activity not so very long ago.

Better prepared…

Posted in China, Zhalai Nuoer by folkestonejack on February 21, 2009

The scout motto is ‘be prepared’ and it was something I repeated often enough as a kid. I guess it must have got lodged in my head as I am often ridiculously over-prepared (to the great amusement of my friends) but I got completely caught out yesterday.

On my first full day in Zhalai Nuoer I completely underestimated the environment I was heading into and the cumulative effect of the cold seeping in through my layers. Today I took no such chances and dressed for the cold – thermal socks, two pairs of trousers, t-shirt, sweatshirt, jumper, coat, scarf, thermal gloves and a balaclava.

Another sunrise, another frozen pond and yet another strange combination – a diesel hauled freight with a steam locomotive at the tail. A little consternation. However, luck was on our side today and before the glow of the sun diminished we got our steam propelled freight train.

Steam at sunrise

Steam at sunrise

Steam paradise: The open cast mine at Zhalai Nuoer

Posted in China, Zhalai Nuoer by folkestonejack on February 20, 2009

Now, it has to be said that my idea of paradise is slightly skewed. For some people it is a tropical beach in the Bahamas, whilst for others it is the cultural hub of Rome. For me, it is an open cast coal mine in Inner Mongolia with temperatures hovering around -31. And here I was, in paradise.

Our minibus driver took us to a viewpoint overlooking the pit, dropping us off around about 1.30pm. The view was simply stunning. The vast pit was cut with level after level with at least a dozen SY class steam locomotives working and on top of that the levels were punctuated by the most dramatic icy waterfalls. I spent a while trying to get some shots to capture the magnificence of this, before accepting that no photograph could ever do this justice.

SYs in paradise

SYs in paradise

I spent a while admiring the sights before me and then started my walk down from the viewpoint… taking the road past the huge excavators down to the bottom, dodging the occasional coal lorry along the way.

The bottom of the pit

The bottom of the pit

After reaching the bottom, the only way next was back up the other side – level by level – taking the narrow workers paths and handcut earth steps. All the while steam locomotives worked around us and you hardly knew which way to look next. Some tailmen (sitting on the end of the wagons) waved and drivers smiled at our somewhat strange enthusiasm for the spectacle that lay at the heart of their day to day existence. The warmth of the welcome was quite astonishing and humbling.

It was perhaps not the best afternoon for photography with the poor light and falling snow but that didn’t matter in the face of such an incredible experience. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Now all I needed was to regain full sensitivity in my fingers, but that was just a minor detail…

A morning in Zhalai Nuoer

Posted in China, Zhalai Nuoer by folkestonejack on February 20, 2009

The atmospheric stabling point at Zhalai Nuoer was the next sight on our itinerary. The icicles on one of the stationary locomotives here provided visible evidence of the cold – though, that was already all too apparent in other ways!

Frozen

After a spell at the stabling point we headed back out after the control office passed on a rather strange tip off of a diesel hauling four steam locomotives. This prompted the thought that the end of steam might have arrived sooner than anyone had imagined. We headed out to spot overlooking the line and instead saw two diesels hauling a coal train with a steam locomotive at the tail. It transpired that this strange sight was one of two tests today to see how the new diesels would cope with the normal load for a steam locomotive. Today the tests failed, but the writing was clearly on the wall for steam.

After the disconcerting sight of the test we headed back out to a farmstead on the line to Tiebei which provided an interesting contrast between agricultural and industrial China on the margins.

A steam hauled freight train passes a farmstead on the line to Tiebei

A steam hauled freight train passes a farmstead on the line to Tiebei

If the future was to be found in shiny orange diesels then the past was equally evident on the streets of Zhalai Nuoer, that is, if the number of horse drawn coal carts around was anything to go by. At one location on a street corner we came across a row of such carts which made an impression on two minibus loads of foreigners. I’m sure the locals thought us all quite bonkers as we descended en masse for a photoshoot…

Street scene in Zhalai Nuoer

Street scene in Zhalai Nuoer

A spot near the washery at Dongfanghong was the final glamorous location for the morning. The washery made an impressive backdrop and after a few shots of the SY at the heart of this industrial site we gathered on a frozen pond to capture the beast in full flight. However, the expected departure never materialised – the injector had frozen and no amount of steam could clear that.

SY at Dongfanghong

SY at Dongfanghong on 20th February 2009

I was a bit nervous about standing on a frozen pond until it was pointed out to me that the ice was at least a metre thick and unlikely to melt until May! It was a strange experience nevertheless and one that I never felt entirely comfortable with, like walking on thick glass with a polished surface ready to catch out the unwary.

As mornings go, it was remarkable – so many steam locomotives in such a short space of time and there was a gritty sense of reality to the experience that you just never see on a preserved line or railtour. Remarkable as this morning was, it was nothing compared to the afternoon’s pilgrimage to the open cast coal mine at Zhalai Nuoer (also known as Jalainur). After all, it was photographs of this steam paradise that had lured me here in the first place…

Steamy sunrise

Posted in China, Zhalai Nuoer by folkestonejack on February 20, 2009

Awoke to find all the curtains in my room stuck to the windows by a layer of ice. It was the sort of morning that would normally make you want to retreat even further under the covers, assuming they were warm enough in the first place… all of which was soon cured by platefuls of hot dumplings at breakfast.

Our early morning start held the hope of a steam filled sunrise and we were not to be dissapointed. A call to the control office on the mine railway by our guide brought the unexpected news that a steam locomotive was due to make its way to Tiebei (a line that we understood to have been dieselised) at 7.15am, just after sunrise. We hurtled off in our minibus to get to a spot that our tour leader, Bernd Seiler of FarRail Tours, had picked out.

On arrival we walked along the line to a frozen pond with a partly submerged house. It would have made an incredible scene at any time of day but at sunrise it was truly stunning.

Across frozen ponds...

Across frozen ponds...

...for a steamy sunrise

...for a steamy sunrise

Zhalai Nuoer

Posted in China, Zhalai Nuoer by folkestonejack on February 19, 2009

A brief and unexpected stop on the highway out of Manzhouli (courtesy of the local police in a pickup truck) was not enough to dampen the sense of excitement. After travelling across the world, we were almost there…

The minibus pulled up in what felt like a village in the middle of nowhere. We piled out, walking down an icy road to a chorus of barking dogs startled by the sudden arrival of a throng of westerners. Suddenly, an SY class steam locomotive thundered past on its way out of the nearby yard. Too quick for me to capture (though others did) but all the same it was an amazing first sight of Chinese steam for me. More to the point, this was the first time I had ever seen a steam locomotive in real everyday use. It was quite different to anything I had ever seen before.

After adjusting to the environment I scrambled up on the bank and marvelled at the sight of Dongfanghong and four SY class steam locomotives (plus one of two new diesels, heralding the impending demise of steam here). The crews were clearly proud of their new diesels and shunted up to us to showcase their new toy. I think I might be equally pleased, given the choice of the two to work with (no matter how much I love steam I think the practical comforts of the diesel locomotive would soon have won me over!). A little later we watched as one of the SYs hauled a string of wagons out of the yard – a perfect note on which to end the daylight hours!

It was now time to head to the comforts of our hotel in Zhalai Nuoer. It was only two years old but you would never have guessed that from the peeling wallpaper in the rooms (mine was carefully re-stuck to the walls with sticky tape!). Hot water was a limited luxury, available only at certain times and even then, only at a dribble! Still, the food served at the dinner table was incredibly tasty – once I had managed to adjust to chopsticks and the competition around the spinning table top!