Friday, 11 April 2014

China Winter Steam- Sandaoling

It feels as it if has actually taken forever to reach Sandaoling. From Fuxin there was a 3-4 hour taxi ride to Shenyang- followed by a similar length ride on the China High Speed network to reach Beijing. We would, of course, have travelled straight from Fuxin by train- but due to the Chinese 'Spring Festival' no seats were available. Either way we saved quite a long ride in the minibus. Day two of travelling saw us wake from the hotel airport in Beijing for the short transfer to Beijing Capital for our four hour flight to Urumqi (which is not pronounced anything like that- much to my embarrassment). The Air China flight was undramatic and we arrived to a blanket of snow which sent us shivering to the bus for our 'transfer' to Sandaoling. The transfer turned out to be a mere 8 hour ride. Late in the evening we finally arrive and settle into our hotel which is best described as 'basic- but adequate'. This is is then. The mecca of real steam in 2014. 

The one good thing about this remote, dusty town is that it is SO far west that we get an extra hour or two of sleep- the sun not rising until around 9am. The tour tour participants are already slightly weary of the coming days- we had received bad news by e-mail shortly before leaving our home countries- the spoil trains- which make up a large amount of the activity at Sandaoling would not be running due to a fault with the watering facilities. The promise of over 20 JS class locos in traffic each day, and scenes of multiple locos in the pit was already in tatters (this trip should have been a 'last chance' for this operation- set to convert to trucks in mid 2014). 
We set off from the town before dawn and head to Dongbolizhan from where the twice daily workers 'passenger' train departs to Xibolizhan. The words 'passenger train' are applied very loosely since the provided accommodation is far from coaches- two box cars are provided for the service, one of which has two coal burning stoves for heat. It is really still too dark for photography as we watch this train departing behind our first JS class loco. We stay in our location to witness two freight trains passing- both heading to Xibolizhan for servicing. 

It is now time to get out of the cold and back into the bus to head over to the aptly nicknamed 'grand canyon'. The entertainment here is about the best that Sandaoling has to offer. JS locos hauling loaded coal trains chimney first up a steep gradient out of the pit! Fantastic. The downfall is that these are not known to be particularly frequent- and there is always a risk that the unloading plant will fail and halt the operation for hours at a time. 
Standing on the ridge of the 'canyon' (actually part of the huge opencast pit) we look down and await the action. Before long we see a short works train rolling downhill complete with steam crane and a few flat wagons. This is shortly followed by a set of empty coal wagons descending the steep grade gravity doing all the work.

There is no mistaking the first 'proper' activity- a ploom of steam is seen in the direction of the coal loader and before long we can hear the sound of JS 8173 pounding its way up the gradient- a long trail of steam being left in the cold air. It takes almost five enjoyable minutes for the train to reach ground level- snaking around the outskirts of the opencast mine until it eventually passes beneath us. That was worth waiting for.
Once the trains start coming up the grade they seem to just keep appearing! We were not really expecting to see much more than one loaded coal train each hour but the activity far exceeds that. By lunch time the group has a good collection of pictures of trains in the area and even the often shy mountains some 60km away put in an appearance. Members of the group who have been here before delight in the fact that this is the busiest they have ever seen this operation.

After lunch it is back to the 'Grand Canyon' again- this time descending down into the pit and following the line down as far as we allowed to the station outside the loading point. Several times we catch trains passing on the double track as the activity remains buoyant. Unlike Fuxin where the crew on the 'pushed' end of the trains simply ride on top of the wagon Sandaoling has special propelling cars with cabs and a semaphore signalling system built onto them. We regularly see the windows packed out with cardboard to keep the draughts out! As well as regular the 13 wagon long coal trains there are a number of works trains which are ferrying track panels up from the spoil roads to Dongbolizhan.
It has really been a great first day in the pit and everybody agrees that while it is a disappointment that we will not be seeing the spoil trains (which always run tender first) this chimney first action from the open cast mine really has been top class- the locos working very hard on their trains and putting up good smoke displays- even though it has warmed up a little bit.
While much of the day has been sunny it soon becomes clear that we will not see the setting sun as the sky turns hazy. I am still more than pleased with my final shot of the day- though the sunset filter on my camera may have helped!

It is still a fairly early start the following morning, and once again we head to Dongbolizhan. Having headed up the line the previous day to photograph the trains in action today we decide to stay at the station for some night photography. Many of the group elect to stay in the warmth of the bus- but I am glad to have made the effort to get out for some shots as the light begins to rise. In fact there are so many interesting angles here to try among the locomotives that I hardly notice the bitter cold biting around me. Several trains are serviced in the area at this time and the crew take time to prepare their locos for the days work ahead.

At 8:45 the workers train is ready to depart- today tender first behind JS 8167. We are allowed to ride this train so several of us westerners pile into the leading boxcar (the one with the coal stoves). We are as much a novelty for the locals as their train is to us. This is certainly the most rudimentary train I have ever travelled in- with makeshift benches along the car side for seats, and just the opening wagon doors for ventilation and lighting. One cannot help contemplating that this novelty part of our 'holiday' is the harsh reality of the trip to work down the mine for these tough Chinese workers.

We photograph a loaded coal train in the morning light from across the 'Grand Canyon'- the scene is stunning with the mountains in the distance even sporting a capping of snow in the far distance- apart from the steam of the train and the sky this is the only colour other than the endless ochre of the desert.

We could spend all day in the open cast pit again- but there is more to Sandaoling than just this operation. As well as the huge open cast pit there are also two deep mines which are served by another fleet of JS locos. We first head to Yijing mine where we are pleased to see that JS 8053 is waiting with a train of large coal wagons. Our long suffering guide Alan together with our local guide 'Mrs Moonflower' are dispatched to find out when the train might move. The deep mines produce just a handful of trains each day between them, less than we have suddenly become used to in the open cast pit. The news is not the best- we have a wait of around 4 hours for this train to move!
The loco heads off light engine and we elect to follow it to the slightly larger mine at Erjing. We are advised here that the crew are taking a lunch break and will then move a train from Erjing to the China Rail connection Nanzhan. We are slightly peeved therefore when the loco proceeds to depart back to Yijing! So much for that then! We chase it back and set up for the departure shot- but again it doesn't happen. While we are waiting we see a train in the distance heading into Erjing... why didn't we stay there?!?
Clearly it is going to be one of those afternoons. After over 3 hours of seeing nothing but light engines and trains disappearing the wrong way off into the distance we eventually get what we have been waiting for- a steam departure with a loaded train and in the right direction! Quite frankly I am pleased that I take still photos as I have some nice shots of the stationary engines- the videographers must be somewhat irritated with their hours of footage of light engines gently reversing out of shot!

We have a different schedule for our third morning- though it still involves an early start! Today it is the turn of Xibolizhan to welcome us for our night photography session. This would usually be the centre of activity for a trip to Sandaoling with up to 200 steam loco movements a day possible from the spoil trains. While they are not running we know that the dormant locomotives are still here, as well as a few active locos stabled awaiting duties on the coal circuit.

We saw the line of spoil train locos the previous day from the passenger train- in two lines at the far end of the yard and simmering in light steam. The plan appears to be to keep the engines in standby as the period they are not in use is only a matter of weeks (didn't we time the trip well!). Every few days the locomotives are moved around, serviced and watered and this provides for some activity during our time here.

A total of seven JS locomotives are parked up and while they are not working the spoil trains the opportunity is provided to photograph them all together. With the addition of the passenger train (which arrives for it's brief stop before heading back to Dongbolizhan) and the locos on coal trains it is possible at times to see up to ten locomotives in steam all at once. Now when was the last time you saw TEN working steam locomotives gathered together?

Some of the group (myself included) elect to go on a 'short' walk to watch the trains which seem to be running from Dongbolizhan to Xibolizhan for servicing shortly after the passenger train has completed its journey. The walk turns out to be a little longer than we anticipate and we are caught out by the train running long before we are ready for it! While in the area it is possible to see the work which is ongoing to re-align and double track this section of railway- this is part of a larger project to build a new 25km main line to a large new mine. It is due to open in late 2014- and will be worked by the same JS steam locos we have been watching. Steam is not dead in Sandaoling!

The remainder of the morning is spent exploring the higher level of the main coal line beyond the top of the open cast pit. The line runs onto an embankment and branches off to the unloader and the washery. These are both situated in 'Old Sandaoling'- the original area of the town in which most of the huntongs have now been demolished- the residents moving to 'New Sandaoling' with it's slightly more modern buildings of several stories.

There are several interesting photographic positions here- we are directed to the remains of a set of gates through which trains can be seen on the embankment. There is also the old disused hospital through which one may climb onto the roof for a panoramic view over Old Sandaoling and the surrounding area. The view from the top is just about worth the torture to ones senses from the stench of trawling through the building which the locals seem to have adopted as a communal toilet.

I elect to head to the area around the coal unloader while much of the group stay back in the old town. We are not entirely sure how far into the unloading facility we are permitted to wander with our cameras so we gingerly walk along the track to gauge what we can get away with. A friendly nod and exchange of 'Hello's' in our very limited Chinese seems to say that we can go where we want- so we wander into the unloading area ready to photograph a train doing its thing. Like at Fuxin the coal from the open cast pit is loaded into side tipping wagons. One at a time they are hydraulically released and the coal is poured through grates into the washing plant- mechanical scoops help to guide any misplaced coat to where it is supposed to be. As each wagon is tipped the shunter indicates to the crew to move the next wagon into position and the process is repeated. With the sun shining nicely and a wonderful industrial background it is fair to say that I am dead pleased with the shots!
As we leave the unloading are the wind starts to pick up and visability rapidly dereases as sand and dust (of which there is more than enough) is thrown into the air. We catch the passing of two trains outside the unloader before retreating back to the bus to get out of the dust which is now ingrained into our clothing and hands and almost certainly lungs.

On the way we pass the boundary wall of the main loco servicing depot. Our group has been advised that there are not any locos currently on overhaul (a temporary rather than permanent situation) so will not be visiting the works. We do however elect to take some cheeky photos over the high wall through the 'camera in self-timer mode on tripod launched up in the air' method which proves more successful than we had perhaps anticipated. The depot is a bit of a loco graveyard though many machines don't appear to be in too bad a condition externally. We achieve a reasonable picture of JS 6203 in which SY 1718 can clearly be seen in the background. The SY class has only recently finished service at Sandaoling leaving just the JS class of which this is the last stronghold in China. The differnce in styling of the two locomotives is quite clear- the most obvious difference being the cowling around the JS chimney and the distinctive 'cut down' look of the SY tender- complete with handrail. While it is great to be surrounded by the JS locos it is difficult to deny that the SY is blessed with the better looks!

Time for lunch and we head back into town to a Muslim restaurant which had found favour with us on our first day. The spicy rice, flatbread and skewers of meat fresh off the barbecue are a welcome return from our Chinese diet of late. Out here in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region there is a large Muslim population- many of whom would like Independence from China. While we see no evidence of tensions from the people it is clear that the Chinese authorities take the threat seriously- police vans with riot protection gear can be seen in the streets and we are advised by our guide that this is probably not the best town in which to seek a night out (he is incorrect here- the karaoke bar next to the hostel was most amicable!). This is one of the areas in China where tourists still require a special permit to travel and where there has been a conscious effort by Beijing in recent years to re-locate the native Han people in order to ground the area more firmly as China. Fortunately for the steam enthusiast it appears that travelling to Sandaoling to experience the 'Steamiest place on earth' is a good enough reason to be in the area and permits can be issued.

We have reached our final afternoon out in the wilderness of Sandaoling and a few of the group elect to return to the Grand Canyon as we feel there are still angles we would like to have another go at of this fantastic chimney first steam spectacular. Once again we are rewarded with a continuous stream of trains- around seven all together in the space of just around 2 hours. We bump into a group of Chinese rail photographers who seem to take more interest in us than they do in the trains. Like several groups we have come across it seems that this hobby for them is really just something to pass the time that the new Chinese middle class have suddenly found themselves with.

As sunset approaches we make our way back to the top of the pit and spend some time exploring the rock formations while waiting for the trains. An interesting shot is found by shooting through a hole which has been formed by water flowing down into the pit framing the trains perfectly. We also discover plenty of evidence of the poor practises which are ongoing in China with numerous underground coal seem fires drifting sulphurous gasses into the air. In some places one can even see the ground glowing in crevasses beneath you.

Finally sunset comes- and what a sunset it is. The sky turns golden and light glistens off the rails below us. All we need now of course is a train, and sure enough the distinctive smoke ploom is soon seen from the distance in the direction of the coal loader. As the train passes the sound of camera shutters almost blocks all noise from the locomotive. We retire to the bus happy with our haul.

Finally after a fantastic two weeks our last morning of Chinese steam has arrived. As has become the standard practise we head to Dongbolizhan for night shots followed by a breakfast of warm dumplings- which are still nice, but slightly predictable by now!

After a few more night shots I elect for another run on the passenger train which today is running with JS 8027- after all when, if ever, will I get the chance to travel behind a real working steam engine again? This is not withstanding the fact that it is cold- the coal stoves in the boxwagon providing at least a little relief. Once the train is moving the former freight wagon is so noisy that the locomotive can scarcely be heard despite being just in front of us. We try a bit of 'window hanging' from the large sliding doors  from time to time- but it doesn't do anything to relieve the cold. After a quick turn around at Xibolizhan we are back where we started.

The sun has begun to rise and around the corner something appears to be glinting in the morning light. Closer inspection reveals that it is JS 8089 we can see catching the sun. The locomotive has been receiving some attention over the previous few days which seems to amount to a new coat of paint. It has not moved for a while in any case as trails of water appear to have frozen it temporarily to the ground. This was to be the last steam locomotive of the trip. Maybe for some the last real working steam locomotive they would ever see. 

As for me- well, who knows- I have no intentions to return to Chinese steam any time soon but it is certainly not beyond my imagination that I may end up out here again- hopefully before it is even more 'too late'. I am unbelievably glad that I made the effort to come to China and experience working steam and I am thankful to all on the this tour who made the experience so much fun. Thanks must go to Bernd Seiler of FarRail Tours for his excellent organisation and unrivalled knowledge of the railways. Without him this trip would not have been possible and I could not possibly have captured the images you have viewed. 

If you have enjoyed reading these reports and wish you had made the effort to see real steam for yourself I have just one piece of advice- GO! There is still some excellent steam on offer and until it has died completely trips will be run to see it. FarRail will almost certainly be running another 'final' winter steam trip in 2015. Like every year- it could be your last chance.

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